Sunday, April 12, 2015

*** Felix de Weldon, sculptor of the Iwo Jima flag raising

     Once upon a time Vienna, Austria, a young son of a wealthy textile saw a nude woman posing for a sculptor. The lad liked it so much, he began sculpting her. The New York Times would report nearly 90 years later, "His parents heartily disapproved, so he switched to sculptures of lions."
     However, nude women or lions, Felix de Weldon, became the 20th century's most prolific and best sculptor, with statues on all seven continents, including one of explorer Richard Byrd on McMurdo Sound, Antarctic. He sculpted 23 statues in Washington, D.C., alone, the most by any individual. Second place is just three. His statue of Elvis graces Graceland.
     But his best and favorite is the Marine Corps War Memorial, which depicts the raising of the flag at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima by Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Rene Gagnon, Private First Class Ira Hayes, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley of the Marines, and Pharmacist Mate Second Class John Bradley of the Navy. Japanese snipers targeted them but did not succeed.
     Felix de Weldon was born in Vienna on April 12, 1907. He began winning awards for his sculpting at age 17, but he refused to merely rest on his raw talent. He graduated from college, earned two master's degrees and in 1929 was awarded a doctorate from the University of Vienna's Academy of Creative Arts and School of Architecture.
     Commissions came early for him. His works include England’s Kings George V, Edward VIII and George VI, as well as World War I British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Queen Alexandria of Yugoslavia, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada; President Harry Truman, Marine General A.A. Vandegrift, and Admirals Chester Nimitz, William Leahy and Louis Denfeld. Truman was a big fan of De Weldon.
     The bust of King George VI came before he was king or even Crown Prince (next in line to the throne). De Weldon explained this in an interview with Jeffrey Hess of the Truman Library in 1969:
HESS: One question about the English kings. What kind of men were they? At the time they were sitting for you, did you have conversations with them, and obtain some insight into their personalities?
DE WELDON: Well, with the king, you can't address the king, you can only answer him if he asks you anything. I mean, that's the protocol. The fact that King George V was nearly deaf, but nobody was really aware that he was deaf, because he kept talking all the time, and never gave you a chance to do anything except nod your head or make some gesture. You were never aware that he was deaf, so I had not much opportunity to say anything. He mentioned how much he liked, when he was Duke of York, he was not Crown Prince, because his older brother was Crown Prince, and he visited Vienna as the guest of the Emperor Franz Josef, and how much he liked the waltzes, and the Viennese music. But with Edward, I had to work with him mostly at official functions, so I didn't have any opportunity to talk to him. He spoke about a person whom we mutually knew who was his ear, nose and throat specialist he consulted in Vienna, whose bust I had also done. But that was about all, because for the short time he was king, he was rather harassed by the implications of his future marriage, and there was not much opportunity for me to say anything.
DE WELDON: King George VI, I had already done his bust when he was Duke of York, and it was done not in the coronation robes, but in the uniform as Admiral of the Fleet. There was no time to make any changes, because the coronation was in May and about seven hundred replicas were sent all over the British commonwealth of nations to government residences, schools, universities, and other public places. So that bust was actually in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet.
     De Weldon came to America by way of Canada, where he sculpted Prime Minister McKenzie, who recommended de Weldon to travel to the United States. Impressed by the friendliness of the people after a six-week tour of the nation in his 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce convertible, De Weldon found his home. and extensive studies of early American art. He quickly lined up national and international commissions."
     He was a wealthy man, a world-class talent, and a citizen of Austria when the United States entered World War II. Nevertheless, despite being 35 years old, he enlisted in the Navy, which assigned him to paint battle scenes as a Painter Second Class.
     Seriously? One wonder what one would have to do to become first class.
     On February 23, 1945, photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the most famous photograph of World War II: The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Three of the six men raising it would not leave the island alive. Another flag raised earlier was being lowered at the same time under enemy fire. Rosenthal could not get the shot of the two flags, so he took the shot of the one flag.
     DeWeldon recalled the moment he saw the photo the first time.
     "At that time I was painting the battle of the Coral Sea. When I saw the picture of the Iwo Jima flag raising, actually, on the same deadline as the flag raising took place, I was so deeply impressed by its significance, its meaning, that I imagined that it would arouse the imagination of the American people to show the forward drive, the unison of action, the will to sacrifice, the relentless determination of these young men. Everything was embodied in that picture," he said.
     "At that time I asked Commander Clark if I could discontinue for a few days the work on the battle of the Coral Sea and make a model. And he said to go right ahead. That was a Friday. I worked all Friday night, all Saturday, part of Saturday night, all Sunday and by Monday morning the model was completed."
     De Weldon had a weekend pass to see his fiancee, Margo. He passed up that chance to see her in favor of sculpting Iwo Jima. He used wax and Johnson's floor wax to make the model. On Monday, as he wheeled the wax sculpture down the hall to the executive officer of his unit, Commander T.B. Clark, Admiral Leahy, the staff stood and cheered. The admiral was stunned. He said, "This is too important to have it here at the station.”
     A nine-foot bronze statue was made and toured the United States to raise money for the war effort. The reaction from Marine commandant General Alexander Vandegrift was interesting. His career stretched back to before World War I, when he fought in the "banana wars" as they referred to police actions in Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua. General Vandergrift received a Medal of Honor for his work in leading the first Marine division ever dispatched overseas in the Battle of Solomon Islands.
     Vandegrift looked at the statue and had de Weldon transferred to the Marines.
     The statue thrilled photographer Joe Rosenthal. De Weldon had truly captured the moment and the emotion, just as that photo had.
     In his lifetime, de Weldon would create more than 2,000 staues and bust. He often used assistants, but when asked how many sculptors he had working on his Iwo Jima statue, De Weldon would hold up his ten fingers and reply, "Ten." He became a U.S. citizen in 1945 and began work on the mammoth Marine Corps War Memorial with its 32-foot tall figures and 60-foot flagpole. The statue was paid for by donations from the Marines, not the government.
     He married Margo and they had several homes. He kept a collection of his best work. However, she contracted Alzheimer's. The bills for her care were enormous. She died in 1987, which bankrupted him.
     But he sold his works, and paid his bills. He married again and died in peace at age 96 on June 3, 2003. De Weldon's obituary in the Los Angeles Times drew an anonymous comment, "I had no idea that the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery was designed by an active-duty sailor, Felix de Weldon, or I might have felt better about the 'donations' I made as an enlisted Marine in the early 1950s (obituary, June 10). In those days we were paid our pittance in cash, and I still grit my teeth when I think of the gunnery sergeant -- who assigned work details -- standing near the pay table collecting donations for the memorial fund. But, half a century later, I rationalize that it was for a good cause."
    It was a smaller sacrifice than that paid by the flag raisers, Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Rene Gagnon, Private First Class Ira Hayes, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley of the Marines, and Pharmacist Mate Second Class John Bradley of the Navy. Only three of them left Iwo Jima alive.
     The value of the talents de Weldon brought to the United States and to the Marine are incalculable. Once more, an immigrant was given an opportunity and he came through with flying colors. He made a statue worthy of the every Marine.

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