RIP George Washington, and the Tradition of Life Masks

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The Houdon bust

Today, December 14, 2017 is the 218th anniversary of the death of America’s first president, George Washington. At the time, for the many people who loved and admired George Washington, it wouldn’t be the last time they saw his face. Not only had countless portraits been made of the man but he’d also had a life mask made by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. Houdon also created the (perhaps more well known) terracotta bust of Washington.

Washington was reportedly fascinated by the process. Houdon had been brought to Mount Vernon by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and spent two weeks there to observe Washington’s mannerisms and dress. Although the process was uncomfortable for Washington (it involved lying flat on his back, with two large quills up his nose so he could breathe–read more here) it probably traumatized his young granddaughter Nelly, who walked in on the creation of the mask.

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Perhaps this experience is why Jefferson looks so strained

He certainly had a better experience with it than Jefferson, who reportedly almost died while having his own life mask fitted by John H.I. Browere. Browere left the mask on for an hour, instead of the customary twenty minutes. Jefferson, unable to breathe, had to bang his fist against a nearby chair to draw attention to his plight. Afterwards he wrote his friend James Madison:

“I was taken in by Mr. Browere…He was obliged to use freely the mallet and chisel to break [the mask] into pieces and get a piece at a time…I was quite shaken, and there became real danger that the ears would leave from the head sooner than from the plaster.”

Jon Meacham writes (again from his Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) that it was Jefferson’s butler, Burwell Colbert, who heard the ruckus and alerted Browere. Jefferson, Meacham notes, was saved by a slave.

Interestingly, the life mask of John Adams (Jefferson’s frenemy) was also created by Browere.

The practice didn’t die out after the Founding Fathers’ generation. Abraham Lincoln also underwent the process–twice. The first was done in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected to the presidency, by Leonard Volk. The second was made five years later, in 1865, by Clark Mills. Five hard years–the weight of the presidency, the Civil War, the death of his son, Willie–are clearly etched on his face. Two months after the mask was made, Lincoln would be killed by an assassin’s bullet.

With the invention of the photograph, this style of remembrance has gone out fashion. Celebratory busts and portraits aside, life masks seem to reveal something much more human in these extraordinary men.

November 22, 1963

Tomorrow, November 22, 2017, is the 54th anniversary of the Jack Kennedy assassination. It’s a tragedy that grabbed the attention of the world and never let go. It’s only this year that hundreds of pages of government files concerning the assassination were released, and more were withheld for security reasons.

This photo was taken the day before, on November 21, 1963. Kennedy had had a foreboding feeling about the trip, telling a friend that he had, “a terrible feeling,” about visiting Dallas. Kennedy was no stranger to death–he’d lost his brother in WWII, had lost babies, had faced it himself during his bouts of illness. One of his favorite poems was Robert Seeger’s I Have a Rendezvous with Death

In the years after his assassination, many people have cried conspiracy, because how could a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald murder the president? Yet, in all cases of presidential assassination, the assassin has always been a nobody. James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were all killed by nobodies. Other presidents–Andrew Jackson, Gerald Ford, etc.–narrowly escaped the same fate.

Of course, some people thought that Zachary Taylor had been assassinated after he died unexpectedly, but this theory has been largely debunked.

With Oswald’s death, and Jack Ruby’s death, we may never have a definite answer for why JFK was killed on that sunny day in Dallas. He’ll remain a figure of fascination for many years to come. In the meantime the Warren Commission, the first official investigation of his death, makes for some good reading.

Happy 282nd Birthday John Adams!

Yesterday, October 30th, 2017, was John Adams’ 282nd birthday. Adams was born in Quincy, MA and was a key figure in the American Revolution and the aftermath–he played an important role in the Continental Congress, worked with allies abroad during the war, and served as the nation’s first vice president and second president.

Adams is the only Founding Father to have never owned slaves; he is also the only one without a monument in Washington D.C.

Adams was known for his intelligence and vanity. He had a quick wit and wasn’t afraid to lash out (unlike his counterparts–who were often more strategic and sly, penning anonymous op-eds or communicating their feelings through friends–Adams couldn’t resist letting his feelings be known).

Adams’ family is remarkable as well–his wife, Abigail Adams, was as quick with a quill if not quicker than her husband. Their son, John Quincy Adams, went on to be president himself. JQA is also debatably the most intelligent of the presidents

John Adams made plenty of enemies as president, including his vice president and former friend, Thomas Jefferson. The two men, however, later reconciled in their old age. They died on the same day, July 4th, 1826.

That Was Close: TR, Jackson, & Would-Be Assassins

A handful of American presidents have been assassinated while in office–Garfield, Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy. More, however, have survived attempts on their life–often in stunning ways.

Andrew Jackson, known today perhaps because of the controversy surrounding his place in history (and on the twenty dollar bill), was no less polarizing as president. He holds the dubious honor of being the first president to experience an attempt on his life. Jackson was leaving a funeral at the Capitol building when his would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, ran up to him and shot his gun–but the gun misfired. Jackson, never one to back down from a fight (it was Jackson who said, “I was born for the storm; calm does not suit me”) began to beat Lawrence with his walking cane. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol but–incredibly–this gun also misfired. Experts later claimed that the odds of both guns misfiring were 1 in 125,000.

Approximately 105 years ago, on October 14, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt also survived an assassin’s bullet. Roosevelt was campaigning for president, having decided to run for a non-consecutive third term against his former friend and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. Arriving at a campaign event, Roosevelt was making his way through the crowd when John Schrank fired. Roosevelt was knocked down, but he struggled back to his feet and asked that the man–apprehended by his stenographer–be brought over. Roosevelt looked his would-be killer in the eyes and asked, “What’d you do it for?” When he got no response, he said,”Oh what’s the use. Take him away.”

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TR’s speech

Although his staff wanted him to go immediately to the hospital, Roosevelt insisted on giving his planned speech, since he could breathe fine and he wasn’t coughing up any blood. To the audience, Roosevelt announced that he’d just survived an assassination attempt but that “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” He withdrew his speech–fifty pages of thick paper, folded in half, from his breast pocket. Although Roosevelt had escaped the incident (mostly) unscathed, the speech had not. It, and an eyeglass holder, had deflected the bullet from hitting Roosevelt in the heart.

Spiro, We Hardly Knew Ye

On this day in 1973, Spiro Agnew, VP to Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace. He was the first vice president to do so.

Vice presidents are rarely remembered, but Agnew’s resignation had consequences because of what happened next. Gerald Ford was nominated by Nixon to fill the post vacated by Agnew because he was seen as well-liked and honest (Agnew, on the other hand, had been caught taking bribes). Both men might have remained footnotes of history had Richard Nixon not resigned less than a year later. Thus Gerald Ford because the first unelected president in American history.

If our friend Spiro had never been caught (or if he’d done his taxes), he could have become president in 1974.

Truman & the Television

Last week marked the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate (September 26, 1960) between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. This is a moment that gets the most attention–it arguably altered American politics forever by bringing in a new level of stakes for candidates. Image became paramount. It’s an oft repeated anecdote that while radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon, television viewers awarded it to Kennedy. Any observers of the 2016 election would likely agree that the fever pitch around the debates (especially during the primaries) is indicative of the importance of image in today’s political culture.

But the real television trailblazer is Harry S Truman, who on this day (October 5th, 1947) gave the first televised address by a U.S. president. Pre-Marshall Plan, Truman was appealing to his fellow Americans to help support war-torn Europe by not eating meat on Tuesdays, not eating chicken on Thursdays, and to eat less bread.

Truman didn’t have a large audience–the television itself was still something of a commodity. But he seemed to have faith in the medium–the rest of his White House speeches were all televised.

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Truman’s televised inauguration in 1949

He also was the first president to have his inauguration televised. We can only speculate on what a Truman-Dewey debate might have been like!

(Thanks to “Truman” by my fave David McCullough)

 

 

Chester A. Arthur Becomes President

On this day: 

On this day in 1881 Chester A. Arthur became president after James Garfield succumbed to wounds from an assassin’s bullet. The shot itself didn’t kill Garfield–sloppy medical care resulted in the infection that ended his life.

The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, argued before the judge that he should not be hanged for murder, since it wasn’t his bullet that killed President Garfield. He declared: “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

We probably hear most about Chester A. Arthur through frequent NYT Crossword clues about his middle name (Alan!) but there is a new biography coming out that should shed some light on this largely forgotten (and accidental) president.