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American Heritage MagazineOctober 2006    Volume 57, Issue 5
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History Now


 

Roman Mosaic Found In Midtown Manhattan

A Glimpse Into The Lost Civilization of A.D. 1957

The mosaic.
The mosaic.
(AJ Maxwell)

The realities of New York City’s dining world are cruel. The majority of restaurants fail. Luckily for diners, there are always more restaurants ready to take their place. The new owners of the space throw away the furniture and tear out the walls and the old fixtures. It’s a kind of archeology, peeling back the layers until you get to bare concrete and brick. And once in a while a great discovery is made.

When Tom Nolan and his partners leased a space in midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center for their new AJ Maxwell’s steakhouse, all they knew was that a succession of Indian restaurants had occupied the place before. Somebody told them there might be a mural behind one of the walls. Tom Nolan decided to punch a hole through it and find out.

“We opened it up and started to see something blue inside,” he said. “And we realized it was a mosaic. And I said, ‘Can we make the hole any bigger?’”

They tore away at the Sheetrock, and the mosaic just got larger and larger. Finally they realized that it covered an entire wall.

“It was like discovering a dinosaur!” Nolan said.

The mosaic showed four groups of ancient Romans around a fountain, a column bearing the she-wolf that is the symbol of Rome, and a background of archways and Roman buildings. Word of this discovery spread in New York culinary circles, and soon somebody stopped by to identify the mosaic. The Roman scene was a relic of one of the most over-the-top and expensive restaurants the city has ever seen, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars.

The Forum was the creation of Joseph Baum and Jerome Brody, two titans of the New York restaurant world (they would later open the Four Seasons, and Baum would go on to dream up Windows on the World). In the mid-1950s they decided that the city’s executives, flush with an economic boom, needed someplace big and splashy to deplete their expense accounts. They teamed up with William Pahlmann, an interior decorator known for his “eclectic” designs. He found 12 portraits of 12 Roman emperors, and the idea for a restaurant was born.

The mosaic.
The mosaic.
(Richard F. Snow Collection)

Up front, right beside the bar, was to be the mosaic. Pahlmann drew the original design, a 1950s stylized version of imperial Rome, and gave it to the Rambusch Decorating Company to execute. One of its artists turned the design into a full-size painted “cartoon,” which was then taken to a Bronx company specializing in mosaics.

The Forum of the Twelve Caesars opened at the end of 1957 and quickly became a magnet for corporate and media leaders. Charles Baum, Joseph’s son, remembers it as the city’s first sophisticated theme restaurant. The waiters wore Roman-style jerkins; the wine buckets were centurion helmets. The menu featured such specialties as “Belgic Paté with Wild Boar, Sauce of Damascus Plums,” goose “Germanicus,” and “Pheasant of the Golden House on a Silver Shield of Gilded Plumage Roasted with an Exquisite Sauce.” Everything was oversized: the menus, the cutlery, the plates, the drinks, and even the food.

“My first time there I was having lunch with my father and James Beard,” said Charles Baum. “I was maybe 10 years old. At some point they determined that I should try my first oyster. These were the only oysters in history that required a knife and fork. [Indeed, they appeared on the menu thus: “The Oysters of Hercules, $1.65, which you with sword shall carve.”] I hoped they’d forget, but they didn’t. They watched as the mammoth thing went into my mouth. The second I lost their attention, the oyster rested comfortably in the napkin on my lap.”

The Forum of the Twelve Caesars closed in 1975, the victim of an economic downturn. Its mural, however, can again be seen in Rockefeller Center, at AJ Maxwell’s, 57 West Forty-eighth Street.

Andrew Coe


 

Behind The White Suit

A Pair of Distinguished Contemporary Authors Weigh In On A Nineteenth-Century Genius

Every successful musician sooner or later makes an album of standards, the familiar pieces he or she has loved and learned from over the years. Writers, too, love paying homage to their forebears, as can be seen from a pair of recent books: Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.95), and Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006, by E. L. Doctorow (Random House, 192 pages, $24.95).

Johnson is a British journalist and critic, best known for sweeping historical works such as Modern Times and Intellectuals. Doctorow is an American novelist, the author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and, most recently, The March, about William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 march to the sea. In politics, Johnson generally sympathizes with the right, while Doctorow is a committed leftist. Unsurprisingly, they take disparate approaches in their books, with Johnson’s longish articles minutely examining the subjects’ craftsmanship and personal histories, while Doctorow’s briefer essays are more concerned with philosophy, psychology, politics, and morals.

This contrast may be seen in their divergent treatments of the only person covered in both books, Mark Twain. Johnson spends much time comparing Twain’s writing with his lecture performances and praising his creative recycling of material and his astute management of the business side of literature. He goes wild over Huckleberry Finn, attributing to that one novel “such institutions as Disney, Time magazine, Reader’s Digest, [and] the New Yorker,” as well as “all of James Thurber’s work,” the Marx Brothers, Raymond Chandler, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Doctorow delves into the creative tension behind the writing of Tom Sawyer, teases out the novel’s moral subtexts, and places it in the context of myths from various cultures. He is theoretical where Johnson is practical, seeing the character of Huckleberry Finn not merely as a vehicle for Twain’s ample stock of anecdotes, dialect, and local color but as “a true outsider, the real unrepentant thing, a boy who would never conform.” Johnson calls Huckleberry Finn “the basic fact of American literature”; Doctorow admires its moral spirit but thinks that “something terrible happens … for American literature” when the action shifts away from the river and the antislavery theme is downplayed.

This same pattern recurs throughout the rest of both collections. Johnson presents a historical march of geniuses and master artisans and shows them at the writing desk or in the studio, creating things whose beauty and originality have become part of a great Western tradition. Doctorow gives us a series of rebels and reformers, mostly American (Poe, Melville, Hemingway, Harpo Marx), who dream of new and better worlds even as they struggle with disillusionment and self-doubt. It is a measure of Twain’s achievement that he can garner effusive praise even when considered from these two very different standpoints, showing that true greatness cannot be confined in a box—or, perhaps, that it can be made to fit in any box you want.


 

Last Seating

America’s best-known chair is on the brink of extinction

The few people whose names are today synonymous with furniture styles mostly worked for the rich, but one of them, Lambert Hitchcock, achieved fame by being the first to mass-produce furniture. By the late 1820s, when his factory was turning out 15,000 affordable, black-lacquered, brightly stenciled chairs a year, Hitchcocks could be found in countless homes. They still can, for the company has had two lives. But now its second incarnation has been put up for sale, and chairs with the famous name are again an endangered species.

In 1818, after a cabinetmaking apprenticeship, Lambert Hitchcock began producing chair parts at a sawmill on the Farmington River, in northwest Connecticut. Probably inspired by Eli Terry, who some 20 miles south had already begun using interchangeable wooden components to make inexpensive clocks, he soon began assembling completed chairs. Within a few years his village had been renamed for him, and the style and durability of his creations, which were marked L.Hitchcock.Hitchcocks-ville.Conn.Warranted., had made him America’s leading chair manufacturer. He went on to become a state senator before his death in 1852 at the age of 57. His factory shut down in 1864, and Hitchcocksville soon was renamed Riverton.

In 1946 a dissatisfied West Hartford shoe-store owner named John Kenney came to Riverton on a fishing trip. He happened to wade into a pool adjoining the derelict Hitchcock factory, which hadn’t produced a chair in more than 80 years. Seemingly possessed by Lambert Hitchcock’s spirit, he immediately began scouring antiques shops in search of items that would reveal more about the man and his career.

“By and large,” Kenney wrote, “the dealers understood my quest… . ‘Hitchcocks,’ they stated emphatically and without exception, ‘sell as fast as we find ’em. Everybody wants those chairs, especially the ones with the name still on the backs.’” In time the inspired Kenney managed to buy the old factory and in it proceeded to build a highly successful operation providing brand-new nineteenth-century chairs to twentiethcentury customers. He also continued his zealous search for historic Hitchcock memorabilia. That, too, was a success, and in 1972 he converted the Union Episcopal Church, a stone’s throw from the factory, to a company museum.

Besides thoroughly documenting Hitchcock’s life and career, Kenney’s 1971 book, The Hitchcock Chair, chronicles his own experiences in the furniture trade. One particularly hair-raising episode occurred during a devastating 1955 deluge. Kenney and a handful of employees who refused to leave spent the night on the factory’s second floor after an August hurricane and a burst dam caused the Farmington River to flood. The next day, with water swirling just a few feet below them, they were rescued. Kenney, like a ship’s captain, stayed put until all hands were on solid ground. Before climbing out a window, he stuffed his pockets with documents from the company safe, including an insurance policy that proved worthless because it didn’t cover floods, then slid down a sagging rope into the rushing current. He was immediately propelled downstream, but a second rope secured around his waist saved his life.

Kenney was certain “gigantic rents would split the factory walls asunder,” and he watched from the opposite bank as the river crested. But to his joy, the building “remained upright and intact … [after] the giant foundation stones laid by Lambert Hitchcock a hundred and thirty years previously … played their most important part in all that time.”

The Hitchcock Chair Company experienced difficulties after Kenney’s death in 1983. The closing of its museum a few years ago, and the dispersal of its contents to several institutions, including the Connecticut Historical Society, was a clear distress signal, and the announcement that the brand name and the wholesale operation providing Hitchcock products to dealers nationwide were for sale, partly because of overseas competition, was quickly followed by news that the company’s four retail stores would be shuttered. Its flagship outlet in the old Riverton factory, now empty, had been a mecca for loyal Hitchcock customers, and Carol Sterpka, the manager and a longtime company employee, told me that some traveled long distances year after year to visit. A few who came for this year’s final clearance, she said, shed tears.

David Lander


 

Screenings

Now on DVD: A Brand-New Classic Western

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada DVD
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada DVD

“A tardy and subordinate genre,” sniffed Jorge Luis Borges about the American Western novel in a 1960s lecture. What Borges meant was that it took its lead from the Hollywood Western film, which had long since settled into the ponderous and predictable. Two films set in the contemporary or recent West, Brokeback Mountain and, now, Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—which has just become available on DVD—prove there is a universe of material beyond Hollywood. The articles just a few years ago about the death of the Western are now being buried in a blizzard of stories on its new possibilities.

It’s no secret that serious films on contemporary subjects don’t do very well at the box office in this country. Right now the trickiest possible subject for a filmmaker to deal with is immigration. Who knows how the American public is going to feel about our policies a year from now? Who knows how an accidental shooting of a Mexican illegal will affect opinion polls on both sides of the border? Clearly such questions are not on the minds of Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg.

It’s not a surprise that a film like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada didn’t become a hit; along with Brokeback Mountain and Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking, it’s one of a curious new subgenre that might best be described as “art house Western,” a film that by definition is only intended for a small audience. (Brokeback Mountain, for obvious reasons, broke out of the circuit and into the shopping-mall multiplexes.)

The Three Burials, Tommy Lee Jones’s second directorial effort (his 1995 television movie, an adaptation of Elmer Kelton’s The Good Old Boys, was a respectful tribute to the values of old Westerns), is, unexpectedly, a great film. The script by Guillermo Arriaga, like those he wrote for Amores Perros and 21 Grams, is fragmented and nonsequential, while Jones’s direction is taut and straightforward. The tension between the two disparate styles produces a story that builds surprising momentum without a standard plot. Three Burials also benefits from a fine performance by Jones, who doesn’t seem in the least distracted by his directorial duties. He plays Pete Perkins, a foreman on a ranch near the Texas-Mexico border who, perhaps to his own surprise, strikes up a friendship with an illegal immigrant worker, Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo). The relationship does not seem forced. A lonely man yearning for roots, Pete is touched by Melquiades’s own yearning for his small-town home in Mexico. Almost offhandedly, Melquiades tells Pete that if he were to die in the United States, he would want his body taken back.

When Melquiades is accidentally shot by a border guard named Mike (Barry Pepper), Pete attempts to get the local sheriff, Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), involved. But none of these characters acts quite the way you expect him to. Yoakam’s sheriff refuses to pursue the case, not through overt racism or even a strong desire to protect his fellow officer but mostly, it seems, from a weariness born of seeing too many hopeless cases. Pepper’s Mike is a casual bigot and something of a slob. At first the script seems slanted to make us root for Pete to exact some kind of vengeance, and if this were a conventional Western, or even a conventional contemporary cop film, that’s the direction the movie would take. Instead, Pete abducts Mike and brings him along on an odyssey to take Melquiades home. The characters work their way toward that rarest of movie rarities, a genuine valediction.

Because Three Burials packs such unanticipated emotional power, critics scrambled to name its influences. Those most often cited were John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sam Peckinpah’s films (particularly his 1974 contemporary Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Any film that begins, as this one does, with a coyote in the desert eating human flesh is probably going to draw comparisons to Peckinpah.

Yet for a film with such a grisly opening, Three Burials isn’t especially violent. It’s more about the consequences of violence and about going through hell (or at least purgatory) before finding one’s way home. Jones’s real influences would appear to be literary, the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying or the Flannery O’Connor of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” placed in the backdrop of a Larry McMurtry story—Jones, after all, played a man who hauled a corpse a long way to a grave in McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

With a title that didn’t fit on a Cineplex marquee and a story whose richness and complexity can only be hinted at in movie trailers, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada may well be remembered by those who seek it out as the feature-film debut of the thinking man’s Clint Eastwood.

—Allen Barra


 

Crossing In Style


A 1930s Cunard Line Poster.
A 1930s Cunard Line Poster.
(Luxury Liners)

If there’s a cruise in your future, you probably should pack Luxury Liners: Life on Board, by Catherine Donzel (Vendome Press, 240 pages, $50.00). The coffeetable-size book, following a chronology of embarkation to arrival, is filled with striking photos and memorabilia of the great ships—the Queen Mary, the Ile de France, the France of 1962, and dozens more. The large format brings you close enough to stand at the De Grasse’s pool-side bar in 1940, settle back to enjoy teatime on the Liberté, and imagine the beads that formed on the chilled silver champagne bucket from the fabled Normandie. Many of the images are beautifully reproduced in sepia, the tint of memory.

Then, even if your ocean voyage doesn’t turn out to be quite like these— and it won’t—the pictures that have seeped into your brain will help shape a very pleasant reality.


 

Home Run History

Baseball’s Ultimate Act

The chill of autumn air carries a special charge for baseball fans, who know that pennant races and the World Series are at stake. And nothing makes the national pastime’s hopeful, anxious drama explode into excitement like the game’s signature act: hitting a home run.

Scan anybody’s list of the greatest moments in sports history, and you’ll find at least three October dingers—Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which won the New York Giants the National League pennant in 1951; Bill Mazeroski’s bottom-of-the-ninth shot in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series; and Bucky Dent’s fly ball over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in 1978… . All this is one reason my editors and I thought it was time to give the home run a proper biography (Dingers!: A Short History of the Long Ball, recently published by ESPN Books).

Baseball statistics have a unique ability to tell stories. Nelson Barrera, a longtime Mexican Leaguer, finished his career with 479 home runs, just 5 shy of the minor-league record. His numbers shout that there must be some reason why Barrera abruptly stopped playing, and there is: In the middle of the 2002 season he died touching a high-voltage cable.

Even when numerical claims turn out to be tall tales, they can still lead to significant discoveries. The trigonometry of measuring home-run distances makes it clear that Mickey Mantle never hit a ball 643 feet, as some of his adherents have claimed. But that means it’s even more impressive that Mantle did smash confirmed blasts of at least 450 feet to both left field and right field in every American League ballpark during his career (excepting a few where he played for only a year or two).

In collecting and verifying home-run lists and statistics and connecting them to stories about what baseball and its players were like in different eras, I learned two big lessons. First, we’re all still playing in Babe Ruth’s shadow. Ruth had a straightforward philosophy that jolted the game out of its nineteenth-century “small ball” focus on baserunning and fielding: “I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I like to live as big as I can.” Ruth understood reflexively that the home run’s injection of danger, of the idea that any at-bat might turn the world upside down, makes baseball a truly exciting game.

Incidentally, Ruth almost certainly did not “call” a home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, though he did make some sort of gesture. But he really did promise to hit a home run for a hospitalized boy named Johnny Sylvester and then proceeded to smack four dingers during the 1926 World Series.

The next spring, according to legend, a man approached the Babe and said, “Mr. Ruth, I’m Johnny Sylvester’s uncle. I just want to thank you again for what you did.”

“Glad to do it,” replied Ruth, who told the man to send Johnny his regards.

After the uncle left, Ruth asked, “Now, who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?”

Lesson No. 2: When it comes to evaluating the men who hit home runs, context really matters. Stadiums, rules, equipment, and baseball’s talent level all affect how players hit for power, and all have changed radically through the years. Hank Aaron’s numbers, for example, have an amazing consistency: He had a record eight 40-homer seasons but never hit 50. However, Aaron played the first part of his career in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, a terrible home-run park. Three times he smashed 25 or more homers on the road, meaning he would probably have netted 50 to 60 home runs a season in a typical stadium. As for Barry Bonds, the man who might catch Aaron, his first 15 seasons made him one of the three best left fielders in history. But the case for his being perhaps the best player ever rests on the home run numbers he put up over his next four seasons, from 2001 through 2004. Too bad that after revelations about his involvement with steroids, we can no longer take them seriously.

I always knew how I wanted Dingers! to end. The book’s final box lists three players. The first is Ray Berres, who hit 3 home runs in an 11-year career that ended in 1945. The second is Billy Werber, third baseman for the pennant-winning Reds of 1939 and 1940, who had 78 career homers. Berres, who is now 99, and Werber, 98, are the oldest living players to have homered. And the third is Prince Fielder, born in 1984, the youngest major leaguer to go yard in 2005. These players remind us that the history of home runs, like all history, connects the glories of the past to the possibilities of the future.

Peter Keating


 

Why Do We Say...?

Bunk

“History is more or less bunk.” Most readers of this magazine, not to mention its editors, will disagree with Henry Ford’s famous assessment, but it is hard to argue with his choice of words, for bunk is a classic Americanism.

Stemming from a great nineteenth-century debate in the House of Representatives, bunk has gone on to enjoy a long and useful life. For instance, soon after Barney’s opened its doors in New York City in 1923, the clothing store plugged its wares with the slogan “No bunk. No junk. No imitations.” More recently Paul R. Charron, CEO of Liz Claiborne, Inc., told The Wall Street Journal: “There’s an element of art in this business. But this idea that 90% of what we do is art and 10% is science is bunk.”

Bunk as a synonym for nonsense or claptrap is one of those rare words whose origins can be traced to a particular person at a particular time. The person was Felix Walker (1753–1828), who represented western North Carolina in the House of Representatives from 1817 to 1823. The time was February 25, 1820, when the House was considering the most divisive issue of the day: whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state.

It was nearing five o’clock when Representative Walker rose to address the House. By this time most members were weary and didn’t want to hear yet another speech—and certainly not one from “old oil jug,” as Walker was sometimes called because of his garrulous orations. But Walker begged to be allowed to proceed, saying that his constituents expected him to speak. “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe,” he said, referring to the most important county in his district. Walker persisted, according to most accounts, in delivering a long, rambling, and completely irrelevant speech.

Buncombe entered the language almost immediately, popping up in such phrases as to talk (or speak) for buncombe (or bunkum). As early as 1828 “talking to Bunkum” was characterized in Niles’ Register as “an old and common saying at Washington, when a member of congress is making one of those hum-drum and unlistened to ‘long talks’ that have lately become so fashionable.” Thomas Chandler Haliburton devoted an entire chapter to “Bunkum” in the second volume of The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England (1844). In Haliburton’s telling, Sam Slick, an itinerant Yankee clockmaker, explained that “when a critter talks for talk sake, jist to have a speech in the paper to send home, and not for any other airthly puppus but electioneering, our folks call it Bunkum.”

Bunk, the modern, clipped form of the word, emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century. The earliest example in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from George Ade’s More Fables (1900): “He surmised that the Bunk was about to be Handed to him.” This was followed by debunk, debunker, and debunking (OED, 1923), which continue to see service.

Despite his reputation, Felix Walker should not be written off as just a windbag. A true pioneer, he was one of the axmen who helped Daniel Boone cut the Cumberland Trail to Kentucky in 1775. Wounded seriously in an Indian attack near Boonesborough, he recovered to fight in the Revolution and was a state legislator before being elected to the House of Representatives. As for Buncombe County—named for another Revolutionary soldier, Col. Edward Buncombe—its county seat is Asheville, forever memorialized by a native son, Thomas Wolfe, in one of America’s greatest novels, the largely autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel (1929).

So Buncombe escapes with considerable honor from the derivative bunk.

Hugh Rawson


 

The Man Who Was Louisiana


Kingfish Cover

In 1935, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Huey Long of Louisiana spoke against a New Deal measure for more than 15 hours straight, digressing along the way to give tips on frying oysters and brewing coffee. As Richard D. White, Jr., makes clear in Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long (Random House, 384 pages, $26.95), theatrical turns like this supported Long’s main occupation: putting virtually every office and bit of patronage in Louisiana under his personal control, which allowed him to treat the governor and legislature like extras on a film set. In a straightforward, detailed narrative, White shows how Long, after getting expelled from high school, rose from being a door-to-door salesman to establish the closest thing to a dictatorship this country has ever known—only to be assassinated at the height of his power.


 
 
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