Read The Monuments Men Online

Authors: Robert M. Edsel

Tags: #Arts & Photography, #History & Criticism, #History, #Military, #World War II, #Politics & Social Sciences, #Politics & Government, #International & World Politics, #European, #Public Affairs & Policy, #Cultural Policy, #Social Sciences, #Museum Studies & Museology, #Art, #Art History, #Schools; Periods & Styles, #HIS027100

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BOOK: The Monuments Men
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He had become over the years, Stout thought, a man besotted by paper. He could be considered the archives and manuscripts expert of the group, the one among them more concerned with the safety of historical papers than the visual arts, and his greatest triumph—as Balfour himself had said on more than one occasion—was the accumulation of an eight-thousand volume library by the age of thirty-five. All quality books, too, as he was also quick to point out. But while he was a man of paper, Ronald Balfour was no paper man. He might not look like a soldier with his small frame and scholar’s wire-rimmed glasses, but he had a backbone of iron and a desire to fight. He had been raised by a military man in central England—Buckinghamshire, to be precise—and he knew and respected military culture. Besides, it had taken decades of careful collecting to accumulate his library, and he had no intention of letting it be destroyed by German bombs.

Then there was the American side. Marvin Ross, a Harvard graduate and expert on Byzantine art, was second in command to Webb. Ralph Hammett and Bancel LaFarge, both architects and experts on buildings.

Walker Hancock, early forties, was a renowned sculptor of monumental works.
Sacrifice
, his soldiers’ memorial in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, seemed particularly relevant now. Even more than other soldiers, Hancock was a man of sacrifice. He had sacrificed for his father in attending the Virginia Military Academy, briefly, during World War I. He would no doubt have sacrificed more, if asked. But the war had ended, and art, his true calling, had lured him back to his hometown to study at Washington University, then to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and finally, in the late 1920s, to the American Academy in Rome. He was the artist of the group, and perhaps, George Stout realized, its most decorated member. In 1925, Walker Hancock had won the prestigious Prix de Rome. In 1942, while in basic training, he received word that he had won a competition to design the Air Medal, one of the military’s highest honors. That award had unknowingly been his ticket out of a frontline infantry unit.

Happy-go-lucky. Easy to talk to. Relentlessly upbeat. And yet Walker Hancock’s personal sacrifice was clear. Only a few weeks before shipping for England, he had married his sweetheart, Saima, in a small chapel at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He was deeply in love with her, that much was obvious, because he seemed to think of nothing but her. And yet he had sacrificed his career and his marriage to come overseas. He had
volunteered
for it, in fact, when the army had wanted to keep him near home in the Pentagon, and he had done so gladly. He was almost too attentive, too gracious and kind. Stout couldn’t see him on the battlefield. He always pictured him instead curled up with Saima in their Massachusetts art studio and home—Hancock was conscientiously putting away part of his pay for its purchase—a fire in the hearth and a large bust of Atlas half completed in the background. Hancock would be laughing, of course. Nothing could get him down for long. He was such a positive, good-natured character that he even claimed to like the army’s food.

The recently arrived James Rorimer, only thirty-nine, was the polar opposite of the easygoing Hancock: a hard-charging, ambitious man carved out of the fire of the high-stakes museum world. Here was a man, short and powerfully broad, clearly suited for war. He had joined the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after graduating from Harvard, and while still in his twenties had been instrumental in planning a vast expansion of the museum’s medieval collection. By 1934, only seven years into his career, he had risen to the position of curator of medieval art. When the new home of the Met’s medieval collection, the Cloisters, opened in upper Manhattan in 1938, Rorimer had been one of its most prominent developers and curators. Only a man of singular talent and drive could climb through the ranks of the Met that quickly. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t surprise Stout that Rorimer had come from a blue-collar town like Cleveland, Ohio, and that his father had changed the spelling of the family name from the Jewish Rorheimer because of his concerns about anti-Semitism in American life.
4

Of course, Rorimer wasn’t even officially a Monuments Man. He was officially assigned to Civil Affairs, which ran the Shrivenham training complex. Rorimer had been given his board hearing on March 3, and Stout had it on good authority that he had expressed a keen interest in monuments work. And Stout knew MFAA commander Geoffrey Webb wanted him. Why wouldn’t he? Rorimer was an art scholar of the highest order, spoke French, had an extensive knowledge of Paris, and was even taking classes at Shrivenham six days a week to become fluent in German.

Stout had to hand it to him, the kid was a bulldog. No one at Shrivenham had worked harder to get into the MFAA, and no one was working harder to hone his skills. If you put a job in front of James Rorimer, he would kill himself to get it done. Stout suspected he was looking at a future star of the American cultural establishment. If Rorimer survived the war.

Then there was Robert Posey, the outsider of the group. Stout didn’t know much about Posey. He mostly kept quiet, and kept to himself. He wasn’t a member of Paul Sachs’s Harvard circle, and as far as anyone could tell he wasn’t particularly well known in his field, which was architecture. He had grown up desperately poor in Alabama, that much Stout had gleaned, and had graduated from Auburn University, an honor paid for almost entirely by the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He was clearly a military man by training and by temperament, as well as an expert in his cultural field, which made him ideal for the unit. But nobody quite knew how he became assigned to the MFAA. He was rumored to have been posted to England straight from the Arctic Circle, which seemed too strange not to be true. He also claimed, in a lighter moment, to be the only person ever to destroy a tank in Pennsylvania. It turned out that, in his earlier military duties, he had designed an experimental bridge. It didn’t work, and the first tank to try to cross it had plunged straight into the river and sank. The other Monuments Men, Stout knew, didn’t know quite what to make of Robert Posey, but George Stout understood him. Posey was a quiet, blue collar, by-the-book farmboy from the hinterlands of America: much like Stout himself.

But with that, the portrait was complete. Balfour the British scholar. Hancock the good-natured artist. Rorimer the bulldog curator. Posey the Alabama farmboy. And, lurking somewhere in the back, dapper, pencil-mustached George Leslie Stout. Stout laughed at the thought as he rounded a bend in the road. Old impeccable George Stout. Not this time. The weight of the dirty laundry over his shoulder, one reason for this Sunday excursion from the barracks, reminded him that the grooming facilities at the army training school were rather substandard, and that he was already a bit more disheveled than he preferred.

Ah well. The operation might be his “brain child,” as Paul Sachs had written, but over here George Stout was just another grunt, with no authority over anyone. And that was the way he liked it. Even in the military, Stout had an inherent distrust of managers. He preferred to get his hands dirty with real work—and then to wash them meticulously soon after.

It was a good group, he had to admit. A group he himself might have chosen, if given the chance. Only eleven men, unfortunately, but eleven good men. Not trained conservators, but the next best thing: scholars, artists, museum curators, and architects, men who worked for a living, not ordered others to work. They were established professionals. Almost all had wives, and most had children. They were old enough to understand what was at stake, and perhaps young enough to survive the rigors of the battlefield.

Survive. It wasn’t a word George Stout wanted to think about. He was going to war with these men, and he knew that meant some of them probably wouldn’t survive. It was a crime to send them out, he thought again, without the proper equipment and staff.

He blamed Lord Woolley, that old archeologist at the War Office. A good bloke, as Ronald Balfour would say, but he was starving the group. Woolley took inordinate pride in the fact that only three people ran the command office for the whole conservation operation—and one of them was Lady Woolley, his wife. With that staff, how could the effort be taken seriously? “We protected the arts at the lowest possible cost.”
5
That was Woolley’s motto. Taken from Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Stout was sure the military brass appreciated the historical reference. That cleverness, no doubt, would come in handy in the field.

If it’s all set up properly, he had told his wife. That was the key. Was it really too much, in a million-man army, to ask for a spare one hundred men? Was it really too much to provide a few thousand dollars for cameras, radios, and other basic equipment?

“What say, George, there she is,” Ronald Balfour said in his clipped Midlands accent.

The words broke into Stout’s thoughts, bringing him back to England, to spring, to 1944. He looked up. Before him was a neat cluster of stone houses roofed with thatch. Beyond them, he could see a church tower, one of the reasons they had come to this small village. Stout looked at the sun, high overhead now, and then at his watch. The service would have let out long ago.

“Quick stop for these,” Stout said, indicated his bag of laundry, “and then we’ll go up.”

“Right-oh,” Balfour replied, smiling at the pat British expression the Americans seemed so fond of. Balfour, Stout thought, was difficult not to like. But more importantly, he was a man you could trust. A good thing, since it was men like Balfour who would make the difference. Stout was a scientist, a modernizer, but he never put his faith in machines. The skilled observer, not the machine, was the essence of conservation. That was the secret, he believed, to success in any endeavor: to be a careful, knowledgeable, and efficient observer of the world, and to act in accordance with what you saw. To be successful in the field, a Monuments officer would need not just knowledge; he would need passion, smarts, flexibility, an understanding of military culture: the way of the gun, the chain of command. In Balfour, Stout saw that mix of keen intellect, practical instincts and respect for the uniform. And it gave him confidence.

Just get us over there
, he thought,
and we’ll do this job.

As a young man, Stout had spent a summer with his uncle in Corpus Christi, Texas. They had worked six days a week; on the seventh day, they fished. One day, they caught a Gulf flounder, a bottom-dweller with both eyes on the same side of its head. It was hard for an Iowa boy to believe that the world contained fish so unexpected and strange. That afternoon, on the way back to port, the motor died. Stout paddled for hours, but the boat was stranded, floating listlessly in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, until a schooner under sail came along and towed it to shore. Since then, Stout had seen too much of the world to put his faith in motors. He was always prepared to rely on the tide and row. And he was always confident he would make it back to shore.

He knew the Monuments Men weren’t going to France empty-handed. They had maps of important structures and museums, created under the direction of the museum directors and other advisors, then overlaid onto aerial reconnaissance photographs. The lists of protected monuments, compiled by civilians and vetted by Civil Affairs officers, were beyond reproach. And he couldn’t fault the handbooks on conservation techniques, which were based on his own work.

But still, he could see the Band-Aids holding the operation together. The museum directors didn’t understand the military; the military still wasn’t confident this was a good idea. The Monuments Men were only advisors; they couldn’t force any officer, of any rank, to act. They were allowed freedom of movement, but they would have no vehicles, no offices, no support staff, and no backup plan. The army had given them a boat, but not the motor. The men in the field, George Stout could already see, were going to have to row, and he had a strong suspicion they would be rowing against the tide. But once you’re on the water, he knew, if you keep paddling a schooner just might pass.

Just get us over there
, Stout thought, still not convinced the operation wasn’t about to collapse.
Just give us a chance
.

“Romanesque revival,” Ronald Balfour said over Stout’s shoulder. “Small but well-built, probably late 1800s. What do you think, George?”

George Stout looked up at the country church. It was simple, solid, and handsomely detailed. There wasn’t anything overtly beautiful, but there was nothing out of place, nothing extravagant or shabby, and that held a beauty all its own. It could well have been a Romanesque revival church, but the word that sprang to his mind was “romantic.” As in a romantic location, a place for lovers, where he and his wife, Margie, would have laughed in years gone by. Or was it romantic as in overly optimistic and well-intentioned, like his romantic notion that you could save buildings such as this on the battlefields of a modern war?

“We’ll be lucky to find one like it on the continent,” Stout said, peering up at the unspoiled church.

Balfour smiled. “Ah George, you old dog. Always a pessimist.”

Stout thought of the two life insurance policies he had taken out before sailing for England, his hedge against the hedgerows. Always be prepared.

“I’m an optimist, Mr. Balfour. A cautious optimist, but an optimist nonetheless.”

CHAPTER 9

The Task

Southern England
Late May 1944

O
n May 26, 1944, General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, issued the following order.
1
Unlike in Italy, where his order was issued almost six months after the start of the invasion of Sicily, this came eleven days before the invasion of northern Europe.

BOOK: The Monuments Men
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