Saturday, April 28, 2012

Painter James Whistler ... a West Point failure

James McNeill Whistler, the American-born but later European-based painter, is best known for the 1871 portrait that is commonly called “Whistler’s Mother.”  His art was recognized internationally with awards and honors during and after his lifetime. But before he focused on his art, his younger life took him down a much different path, including a stint as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Whistler’s father, a West Point graduate, was a successful engineer who agreed to help build a railroad in Russia. After his father died of cholera, Whistler and his mother returned to the U.S.  She hoped he would become a minister, but Whistler showed little aptitude or interest in that.  So then, based largely on family connections, Whistler sought and received an appointment to the military academy, which he entered only days before his 17th birthday.

“Whistler took a relaxed view of Academy life,” writes James S. Robbins in Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point, a 2006 book about the people who finished last in their class at (or as in Whistler’s case, were expelled from) West Point. Whistler’s roommate said that he was “one of the most indolent of mortals. But his was a most charming laziness, always doing that which was most agreeable to others and himself.”

Whistler was intelligent and educated enough to pass most subjects without much work, but his grades and class rank were never high. He preferred to spent time drawing sketches rather than studying. His refusal to take his academic life seriously, his efforts to bend the rules (for example, by keeping his hair longer than it should be), and penchant for smarting off to instructors brought many demerits.

For example, when unable to recall the date of a battle, Whistler was challenged by an instructor who asked him what he would have done, as a “West Point man,” if the question had been asked of him at a dinner party.  “Why, I should refuse to associate myself with people who could talk of such things at dinner,” Whistler responded.

Whistler was rather frail and tended to be sickly, factors which did not bode well for the more physical demands of West Point, such as horsemanship. One day he plunged over his horse’s head, bringing a retort from instructor: “Mr. Whistler, I am pleased to see you for once at the head of your class.”

Robbins wrote in his book that Whistler’s offenses “were for the most part not serious – inattentiveness, lateness, carelessness, the kind of thing one would expect.” But the last straw came in his third year, on his chemistry final exam, when asked to discuss “silicon,” a usually solid material that is a primary component of sand. Whistler began his discussion by calling silicon a gas, and his instructor promptly declared Whistler’s knowledge insufficient. After the West Point Academic Board voted to expel him, Whistler appealed. His appeal ultimately reached the West Point superintendent, who was Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate military leader.

A year earlier, Lee had reviewed Whistler’s record when the number of demerits he accumulated reached the point that called for his expulsion. At that time, Lee dismissed demerits for some of Whistler’s less serious offenses, leaving him under the limit and allowing him to continue as a West Point cadet. But now, Whistler had so many demerits that trimming a few made no difference, and Lee signed off on the future world-renown painter’s expulsion from the Academy.

Over the next few years, Whistler bounced around the East Coast before deciding to commit himself to art and moving to France in 1854. There, his career as an artist took off, and he never returned to the U.S. Whistler died in London in 1903.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Boston Tea Party ... a result of lower taxes

Taxes were a big issue that led to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, but not in the way many of us might believe. In fact, a reduction in taxes led to the incident, in which American colonists vaguely disguised as American Indians boarded ships laden with tea and tossed it overboard, into Boston harbor.

The tea was owned by England’s East India Company, which had developed a near-monopoly over England’s trade with other regions of the world by the mid to late 1700s. The British government depended heavily on import and export tariffs generated by trade, so a strong East India Company was vital for England’s well-being. When the company faced financial difficulties in the early 1770s, Britain passed its Tea Act of 1773. The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to ship tea to the American colonies directly from India, without first taking it to England to be sold to middlemen who would then send it to America. The Act also reduced the duty on the company’s tea as it was imported by American colonies.  And too, there’s ample evidence that by reducing the cost of tea legally imported by the Americans, the British also hoped that the colonists would overlook a smaller tax and pay it, thus acknowledging Britain’s right to tax them – which had become a major sticking point in recent years.

As intentioned, the Tea Act lowered the price of the East India Company’s tea in America. The company and the British government expected those lower prices to lead to increased demand, thereby helping to prop up the company and ensure its future contributions to British government coffers. The result was something else, as historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her 1984 book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

The price reduction in the cost of East India Company tea made it less expensive than Dutch tea that was illegally brought to America. That threatened the livelihood of American smugglers, whose illicit activities had reduced by  two-thirds the amount of English tea imported by the colonies.  American merchants who had worked as wholesalers for legally imported English tea were also hurt financially by the Tea Act, which eliminated their middleman role in the trade. Also, many American patriots saw through – with anger – the British ruse to entice colonists to overlook the relatively small tax on the tea and thereby accept it.

Many of the tea-bearing ships arriving at American ports after the Tea Act were turned back, but not in Boston. There, three ships were boarded by “Mohawks,” who tossed tea from 342 chests into the harbor in three hours.

The destruction of the tea enraged even American sympathizers in Britain. The British government responded by closing the port of Boston “to all commerce until indemnity had been paid to the East India Company and reparations to the customs commissioners for damages suffered, and until ‘peace and obedience to the Laws’ was assured sufficiently that trade might be safely carried on and customs duly collected,” writes Tuchman. This and additional strong measures, which in hindsight might be viewed as over-reactions, brought only more American opposition to British rule and tended to unify American colonists. And we know the rest of that story.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bobby Jones ... sportsmanship at its best

Bobby Jones was one of the best golfers of all time, although he was an amateur, played part-time, and left the game at 28. A lawyer by profession, but with academic degrees in engineering and English literature as well, Jones is best known for his Grand Slam victory in 1930. In that single year, he won all four of the major tournaments of the day and left the game as a player. Later, he co-founded the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and its annual Master’s Tournament, developed a set of instructional videos, and designed golfing equipment.

But perhaps Jones’ greatest legacy involves sportsmanship on a level that is almost unheard of – then or now. Competing in the 1925 U.S. Open, Jones’ golf club accidently brushed the ball as he prepared for a shot. He immediately reported the contact and movement – a violation of the rules – to the on-the-scene authorities. None of them had seen the ball move. So they questioned nearby spectators, and none of them had seen it move either. But Jones insisted that he had touched the ball and it had moved, so he assessed himself a one-stroke penalty. He later lost the tournament by one stroke.

After the incident, Jones was angered when people praised his sportsmanship in the matter, wrote author Mark Frost in his 2005 book The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf. Rules are rules, Jones believed. “You’d as well praise me for not breaking into banks,” he told a reporter.

Today, the Bob Jones Award is presented annually by the U.S. Golf Association in recognition of good sportsmanship in golf.   

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gangster Clyde Barrow, on Ford cars ...

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, notorious outlaws who terrorized the American Midwest in the early 1930s, reportedly shot nine law enforcement officers and several others as they robbed banks and small businesses during their crime spree.  That came to an end in May 1934, when both were killed in an ambush set up in Louisiana by lawmen from that state and Texas.

But only six weeks before his death, Barrow purportedly sent a letter to Henry Ford praising Ford automobiles, especially the V-8 model. The letter, now on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, is noted in Jeff Guinn's 2010 book Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Written on April 10, 1934 from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the letter says:

“Dear Sir: -

While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen't been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 -

Yours truly
Clyde Champion Barrow”

But is the letter authentic, or is it perhaps the invention of an imaginative public relations effort, or simply a hoax?  You can find historians on all sides of the issue.  Some point out that Barrow’s middle name was “Chestnut,” not “Champion,” but others point out that Barrow wrote Champion as his middle name when he entered prison for a while in 1930. Too, the data and place seem to fit Barrow's whereabouts at the time, and so does the writing style.

Comparisons of the handwriting in this letter with Barrow’s known handwriting are troublesome, though, and suggest that maybe he didn’t write it. In fact, the handwriting in the Barrow-to-Ford letter seems to be a better match for the handwriting of Bonnie Parker, Barrow’s major partner in crime. Could she have written if for him? That’s not a slam dunk either. Although her handwriting seems to suggest some strong similarities to the letter in question, inconsistencies are apparent as well.  See for yourself at Bonnie and Clyde’s Hideout website, which displays the questionable letter and handwriting samples from Barrow and Parker