15 January 2019

Did Trump pervert "The American Dream"?

James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) was a wealthy Am­erican who decided to leave banking and go into writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his series on New England history 1921–26. And his Epic of America 1931 was an international best seller. He was also the editor of a scholarly multi-volume Dic­tionary of Am­erican History and co-editor of The Album of Amer­ican History 1944. It is to Adams that the term The American Dream must be credited.

In The Epic of America, Adams wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and full­er for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest st­at­­ure of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by ot­h­ers for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstan­ces of birth or position.”

Adams felt the American Dream had been in peril since WW1 ended. He complained that money making and material imp­rovements had become goals in themselves, mimicking moral virt­ues. But the original American Dream, that lured tens of millions of foreigners to the USA, had not been a dream of merely material plenty.

The Epic of America was Adam’s attempt save a priceless heritage, and sustain the distinctly American under­st­anding of progress in humane and moral terms. The true American Dream was of a genuine, individ­ual search and striving for the abiding values of life, and for the common man to rise to the top in the free realms of communal, spiritual and intellectual life.

Adams remembered that in the 1916 presid­ent­ial election, the rival candidates presented similar formulae to the voters: the Republican Charles Evans Hughes advocated "America First And America Efficient", while Democrat Woodrow Wilson promoted "America First". But beneath the banality of phrase, early C20th America was a country haunted by anxiety about the purity of its ethnic stock; a land of public lynchings where white families watched blacks hanged.

In May 1927 there were violent, racist fights at New York’s Mem­or­ial Day parades when protesters confronted Ku Klux Klan marchers. In Queens there were seven arrests: 5 avowed Klansmen and 1 person arrested by mistake and immediately released. The 7th man was arraigned and discharged, not notable except for his name: Fred Trump, President Donald Trump’s father.

By the 1930s there were local imitations of European Fascism eg the Crus­ader White Shirts and the German-American Bund, but in many res­p­ects American Fascism was the bitter fruit of the obsession with America First.

"Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream", 
by Sarah Churchwell.
A new understanding of The American Dream

Now a new book. Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream, written by Sarah Churchwell (2018) shows that the version of American values espoused by Fred Trump’s son Donald and the hate-filled racism of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottes­ville were not aberrant blips. Rather, racism, nativism and the neo-Fascistic call of America First were part of the changing modern American experience. Far from being an ephemeral spasm of protest against globalisation, Trump-style American nationalism has long been integ­ral to American political life, though usually marginalised by both parties’ leaders.

Donald Trump used both these phrases (America First; The American Dream) in his campaign and presid­ential inauguration. Church­well reminds the reader that neo-Fascism, white supremacy and economic and political exploit­at­ion have long supported the dark underbelly of American society. We can rel­at­e these Trumpian values to wider social, polit­ical and cultural developments.

So how did it happen that American Dream, an expression conceived in terms of social and economic equality, now refers to the opport­unities ONLY open to fortunate individuals who are born rich or rise from rags to riches? The Guardian said the original phrase functioned as a “corrective, not as an incentive”, trans­mitting “moral disquiet” about the dangers of runaway capitalist excess. Originally the rise of a plutocrat class founded on vast concentrations of wealth was deemed to be un-American, because it threatened the cherished American dream of equality and social justice. But in time, the notion was turned inside out, becoming instead the anaesthetising fantasy which doused equalitarian aspirations in the underclasses.

Despite the fact that he was born into immeasurable wealth, Trump positioned himself as a self-made man, the epitome of the American dream. In fact this “modest”, “self made” man now occupies the White House, meaning he is personally living out the American dream! The easy equation of white, mega wealthy and American seems lud­icrously outdated, but since Trump’s election and the Charlottes­ville disaster, it has become sinister and permanent.

So.. the expression American Dream was conceived as a warning against rampant capitalism, meant as a moral appeal for Americans to protect opportunity for all, rather than facilitate the ascendance of a few. That such a central notion to the American sense of self has since morphed so dramatically is frightening. In tracing the origins of these terms, and charting their evolving twists, Churchwell reflects modern American history itself.

As an Australian, I recognise that the American Dream was always specifically the dream of one part­icular land, the USA. Adams wanted a life that would be better and richer and fuller for every individual, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. But British and other liberal democracies would have said “accord­ing to the needs of each individual”, not according to the indiv­idual’s ability or achievements. Universal health care, for example, would not have been guaranteed in Adam’s American Dream.

12 January 2019

Russian Tea Room, New York

I loved the Russian Tea Room in New York. But knew nothing of its origins until I read Daytonian in Manhattan. Young John Pupke left his native Germany in 1845 and worked in a coffee firm in New York. Later he became a partner in the coffee and tea importing company, Pupke & Thurber. In 1873 Pupke purchased two adjoining lots on 57th St where the then weal­thy merchant erected two new buildings. Then John Pupke needed a two-storey brick extension to the house. This was next to Carnegie Hall which opened for live music presentations in 1891.

John Pupke became president of a tea and coffee importing firm. While his family kept ownership of 150 West 57th St, they hired an architect in 1913 to make extensive renovations, including a storefront and studios. This arts-soaked neighbourhood had living spaces and studios for visual and performing artists.

Russian Tea Room, c1929
photo from the Museum of the City of New York

A large wave of Russians emigrated from 1905 on, following the first Revolution; at least 30,000 of them immigrated to the USA, mostly to the NE corner. Coffee houses run by Russian immigrants had already starting appearing before WW1. Their owners were largely pro-revolutionary ex-pats who were living on NYC’s lower East Side. But after WWI and the 1917 Russian Revol­ut­ion, a very diff­erent wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, and explicitly Russian-themed restaurants opened for business.

Alas anxiety about foreigners peaked in the USA and the immigrants' loyalties were doubt­ed. The 1924 Immigration Act restricted im­mig­rants from South­ern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and Slavs.

Dining room (above) and bar (below)
The bar has all drinks, but I concentrated on the vodka cocktails.

So it was even more important for the newest Russian arrivals to gather in the White Russian restaurants for warmth, familiar food and social life. The restaurants offered blini with caviar, salmon and mushrooms wrapped in flaky pastry, beef stroganoff and nouveau-Russian specialties. For my parents in Australia, the most import­ant food item was borscht, the Uk­rainian beet soup that was brought by Russians who emigrated here (and everywhere?)

Russian eating places soon opened: The Russian Inn, The Eagle, The Russian Swan, Kavkaz, Casino Russe and The Maisonette Russe. On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the Russian Bear etc. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists, balalaika music and entertainment by Cossack performers added to the atmosphere.

The Russian Tea Room was opened in New York in 1927, by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, as a gathering place for Russian expats. Established on West 57th St, vocalists and musicians continued to rent studios in the upper floors, making it famous as a gathering place for those in the entertainment ind­ust­ry. Included on the top two floors were soprano Carmen Rueben, and her husband Paul Schumm. This solo vocalist was well-known both on the American and European concert stage and gave vocal training in her 57th Street studio.

In 1929, the business moved across the street, to its present locat­ion. As we saw above, it was an Italianate brownstone built in 1875 by German immigrant John Pupke, the tea and coffee merchant. By 1933, the Siberian émigré Alexander Sasha Maeef was running the Russian Tea Room. The design of the bar area was modern, re­placing the soda fountain after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

During WW2, its sleek, art moderne interiors reflected the up­scale patrons coming in from Carn­eg­ie Hall concerts. After running the Tea Room since 1933, Maeef sold it in 1946.

The next owner Sidney Kaye, son of Russian emigres, became a celebrity in his own right. In 1955, Kaye turned the tea room into a full blown restaurant, and gave the interiors a bolder person­al­ity. When Sidney Kaye died at 53, he left the restaurant to his widow, Faith Stewart-Gordon.

Next to the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall was threat­ened with demolition in 1955. The restaurant became the planning meeting place for the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall. Again in 1981 Harry B Macklowe, developer of the Metropolitan Tow­er, planned a large office tower that would have included his own site at the Metrop­olitan Tower AND also the restaurant's and the lot on which Carn­egie Hall Tower was erected. There was an agreement with Carnegie Hall about their lot, but during the planning of the Carnegie Hall Tow­er, on the other side of the Russian Tea Room, Stewart-Gordon dec­lined to sell its site or its air rights. The result is the nar­row 20’ gap, separating the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall towers.

Front entrance of the Russian Tea Room
with the dancing Russian bear
Daytonian in Manhattan

The Russian Tea Room's maître d'hôtel for the first thirty years was the famous Moscovian Anatole E. Voinoff (1895-1965). To opera-goers, ballet and classical music fans, as well as the performers, he was very well known. The Russian character of the Tea Room faded somewhat as beloved Russian-speaking waiters and waitresses retired, as did the last Russian chef George Lohen, and Anatole Voinoff.

In Sept 1977 The Russian Tea Room closed for renovations, although some of the old decor survived. The renovations extended the re­staurant into half of the second floor, where a cafe was instal­led. Interestingly, the architect­ural details of the 1875 house still survived within the top floors eg the marble Victorian mantels and woodwork.

Patrons were stars of the dance world, like George Balan­ch­ine, Nat­alia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev; and Broadway and Hollywood person­al­ities. The business required a huge staff, and there was a separate bakery on the premises. Later Michael Douglas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbara Walters, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger went to the restaurant for their socialising.

Expressionist paintings covering the walls, leather banquettes and samovars

In 2006 the Russian Tea Room opened again, after a $19+ million makeover. The new owner was real estate developer Gerald Lieblich who, with investors, reopened the old downstairs room, adding imperial eagles on the walls, golden sam­ovars, lavish leath­er banquettes, crimson carpet and expressionist paintings. The facade was completely resurfaced, with a large bas relief of a dancing Russian bear.

08 January 2019

Historic Krakow

After my late father retired from engineering, he bought a travel agency and travelled the world. My late mother was still a practising journ­al­ist back then and she travelled with him. I have used the notes they left, des­crib­ing their favourite city in Eastern Europe: Poland's former Royal capital, Krakow.

Rynek Glowny/Main Market Square
is the 200-square meter medieval centre of the city. The square was designed in 1257, and remains one of Europe’s biggest medieval square. The very special archit­ecture includes museums, churches, synagogues and public gather­ings. And the Rynek Underground Museum, which lies below the square.

At its centre is Sukkennice Cloth Hall, one of Krakow’s best-known tourist attractions. Originating in the Renaissance period, this very early shopping mall has had UNESCO World Heritage protection since 1978. Krakow must have been hopping and jumping with international trade: here traders exported lead, salt, text­iles, imported silk, spices and leathers from the East.

Sukkennice Cloth Hall

Cloth Hall has the Krakow National Mus­eum that has been housed here since 1880s, displaying a special collection of C19th Polish art. The attractive Noworolski Cafe opened in 1910. The Krakow National Museum has a roof terrace overlooking the Old Town.

Next to the Old Town’s famous square, approach the Mariacki Church-St Mary’s Basilica - first built in the C13th and rebuilt in the C14th. Note the two very elegant Gothic towers and note the main entrance with its Baroque por­tal added in the C18th. Listen to the city’s famous hejnal mariacki bugle call that is played out from the taller tower every hour, symbol­ising the alarm that used to warn citizens of Mongol attacks.

Then enter the church and explore the beautiful interiors. There is a special altarpiece made of wood, built over 12 years by the Ger­man artist Veit Stoss. See the altar­piece that displays the Virgin Mary and the Apostles, coloured paintings around the altar­piece, superb C14th stained glass windows and Veit Stoss’ crucifixes. 

St Mary's Church
started in the 13th century

The Altarpiece of Veit Stoss is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. 
Built in the 15th century

Wawel Castle had been used as a fortified timber site, ever since Pol­and’s first ruler in the late C10th was established, and rebuilt more solidly later. The tradition of crowning the Polish king in Wawel Cathedral started with Władysław the Short (1306-1333) and continued for centuries. From then on, all the rulers used the Castle as a residence.

This royal castle only fell apart after the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596 and Poland went into decline. The Austrians occupied Krakow and destroyed buildings, as they chose. The worst damage happened when the Castle was used as the headquarters of the Nazis during the German occupation of WW2. As a result, Wawel Castle survived into the modern era with bits in the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. The royal apartments display royal treasures that stunned and amazed over the centuries eg C16th Flemish tapestries and very special Renaissance paintings.

Because Wawel was the seat of the Polish government back then, the castle inhabitants needed to spot intruders before they invaded. In order to offer strategic defensive benefits, therefore, the castle overlooked the Vistula river on a raised rock out­cropping. Luckily the rise of the hill provided amazing views into the distance. 

Wawel Castle

The Czartoryski Palace Museum displays historical arte­facts from the recovered treasures of Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle. The other precious objects on display were donated by Polish noble families.

For 500 years, Kazimierz District was the bustling centre of Jewish life and culture. In 1938, Kraków's Jewish population numbered at least 60,000, 25% of the city's total population. The Jews mainly lived in hist­oric Kazimierz, until they were rounded up in 1941 and moved into Kraków’s Podgórze Ghetto. And then to the death camps.

When the Nazis created the Jewish ghetto in Podgórze in 1941, the Catholic-Polish owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz and his staff in the Pharmacy under the Eagle Museum were heroic. For two years this pharmacy became an important source of medical aid for Jews, fal­sifying documents for them and avoiding deportations. The staff risked their lives in many underground operations. Today the five rooms of the building, since restored as it had been during Nazi occupation, is a branch of the Krakow Historical Museum.

In 2005 the Emalia premises of WW2 hero Oskar Schindler  became the property of the City of Krakow and the space was placed under the control of the Krakow Historical Museum. The former administrative building became the heart of the museum.

My parents did not go to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, 70km southwest of the city.  Many of the extermination camp buildings had been left, when they were liberated by the brave Russian army in Jan 1945. They did however visit Terezín near Prague.

During the Soviet years, Kazimierz became a derelict part of the city. But since the fall of communism in the 1990s, the district again became a bohemian neighbourhood enjoying life in bars, cafes, historic sights and learning. Remuh Synagogue, still active and lovely, was built in the 1550s. Galicia Jewish Museum records and displays both the wonderful and the tragic eras of Polish Jewry. Plac Nowy is home to weekends markets with antiques, books and food stalls. Cheder, which was opened by the Jewish Culture Fest­ival Association in an old synagogue, is a site used for lectures, film screenings, concerts and Israeli coffee. 

Rumah Synagogue
built in the 1550s

The now unused Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO-listed monument where vast underground chambers fascinate tourists. The underground corridors open onto a complete chapel, carved out of the salt, and a very special working con­cert hall. If I wasn’t claustrophic, I might visit the Krakow Salt Works Museum that shows what life was like for the miners, but 135m below ground is too much for me ☹ The Wiel­iczka, one of the largest mining museums in Europe, was opened after WW2 ended. Today the exhibits include salt crystals, docum­ents, paintings and sculptures, mining equipment, lamps and tools, all illustrating the various stages of salt production in Poland over the centuries.

I updated mum’s old notes with 20 Must-Visit Attractions in Krakow.
For amazing city photos, see Two Wandering Soles.

05 January 2019

Did the Bayeux Tapestry prove the existence of a lost Aryan master race?

William Duke of Normandy defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold II at the battle of Hastings in Oct 1066, a triumph famously recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry. Duke William became the first Norman king of England and transformed the face of Anglo-Saxon England: he secured his hold on the lands he had invaded, replac­ing the English ruling class with Norman counterparts and building defensive fortresses at strategic points. The feudal system was introduced; the church was re­organised and England’s links to Europe were strengthened.

King William’s half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, became the Earl of Kent. Odo was amassing an immense fortune coming from Eng­land, and continued rebuilding the Bayeux cathedral at his own expense. Odo had greatly admir­ed the wall hangings which were used to adorn Kentish sanctuaries. And knowing the splendid celebrations that would accompany the consec­ration of his French church, he commissioned a hanging that glorified King William’s exploits in England. The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was complet­ed and dedicated in 1077, soon after the conquest of England.

Bayeux Tapestry, 70 ms long
Exhibition Centre in the French city of Bayeux

This stunning art work told the story of a historic and bloody war between the French and the English in 1066. The 70-metre long textile depicted the events leading to the Battle of Has­t­ings and after. So why would this ancient Norman relic be of great int­er­est to modern German scholars and to Nazi art collectors during World War Two?

In 1935 Gestapo boss Commander Heinrich Himmler established a re­search arm of the SS, the Ahnenerbe-Society for the Study of German Herit­age. Its role was to promote archaeological investigations of sites that might have been associated with early German settlement i.e. devoted to proving the existence of a lost Aryan master race and Germany’s descent from the Vikings. Ahnenerbe projects included experiments with high altitude and with freezing... on the inmates of Dachau, and Dr August Hirt’s collection of skulls from various races.

Ahnenerbe art historians focused on establishing the Tap­estry’s credentials as an Aryan art work, on the grounds that the Normans were descended from the Vikings. But other interest groups wanted to keep the Ahnenerbe’s hands off the Tapestry, not just the French. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg was the body responsible for the regime’s collecting of art works from every country they conquered. This organisation, headed by Adolf Hitler’s leading ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, was one of the main Nazi agencies engaged in the plunder of cultural valuables in Nazi-occupied countries.

As Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, France went on alert re its national treasures. Following the occupation of Paris in June 1940, the Bayeux Tapestry was taken off display by French museum workers. It was wrapped in sheets, dusted with protective powder, packed into a zinc-lined crate and hidden in the Louvre’s cellars for safekeeping.

The Nazis admiring and planning to study the Bayeux Tapestry.
June 1941
Credit: The Bayeux tapestry : the life story of a masterpiece
In 1940 Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels discussed the propaganda value of Germany bringing home a work which showed an Aryan people conquering Britain. Goebbels ordered a team of art historians to analyse the Tapestry, to demonstrate that it was a purely Nordic and Aryan treasure that celebrated the Germanic virtues of warfare. How apt, then, that in Oct 1941 Lord Haw Haw gloated on German radio that the Tapestry would be toured around neutral nations to warn of yet another imminent invasion of England!

In Aug 1944, with Allied forces marching back into France, Heinrich Himmler urgently wanted the Bayeux master­piece. So he ordered SS men to grab it from the Louvre before Paris was totally pulverised by Hitler’s withdrawing forces. The stated goal was to open a National Socialist art museum in Germany, but apparently Himmler had reserved a space for the great Aryan artwork in his own, renovated medieval Wewelsburg castle in Westphalia. Himmler sent the head of the SS chiefs in Paris a coded order reading: “Do not forget to bring the Bayeux Tapestry to place of safety.” And take it back to the heart of the Reich: Berlin.

Himmler was so obsessed with the Arthurian legends and the Knights of the Round Table that he created Camelot in Wewelsburg Castle. The castle would be the home to the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, whenever it might be found by Himmler’s SS researchers who had been shipped to Tibet.

National Archives files revealed Bletchley Park in Bucks was intercept­ing messages to Nazi police stations and SS barracks, even before war broke out. It amassed thousands of intercepts from police units on the eastern front and police headquarters in Germany. And code breakers at Bletchley Park opened a dossier on the Nazi art looting operations, after receiving urgent messages sent by the Russians in the late 1942.  A Military Intelligence officer wrote: “The work of plundering is carried out by a special SS battalion. “Their task was to rob churches, museums and galleries and bring their booty to Germany. “These prizes were reserved for the use of the higher Nazi bosses in their villas. Lesser bosses had to be content with rare books and vases.” 

But it wasn’t until re­cently that wartime documents reveal­ed how the Allies uncov­ered the plan of Heinrich Himmler, decrypting the radio message at Bletchley Park. The British decod­ers warned the French Resistance who were able to occupy the Louvre before Himmler’s men turned up to steal the Tapestry. When the Nazis arr­ived at the Louvre 48 hours later, with two trucks and filled petrol drums to get back to Germany, they were met with bullets. When Paris was liberated just days later, the fragile embroidered linen was found safely in a crate in the Louvre cellars.

Wewelsburg Castle in Westphalia was rented/bought by Heinrich Himmler 
Used for the study of ancient history and archaeology, it was a training facility for the SS.

So thanks to the great work of the Russians and British, the precious textile was saved from becoming just another piece of the Nazis’ plundered artworks. A year later, in Nov 1945, the Tapestry return­ed to the Louvre for an exhibition coinciding with Churchill’s visit to Paris. Then it returned to Bayeux where it has been displayed and protected ever since... in the special Bayeux Exhibition Centre.

Decades later the Bayeux Tapestry will leave France for the first time in 950 years when it goes on display in the UK. The French president announced at an Anglo-French summit that the artefact depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 will be loaned to the UK in 2022.