Goya and Winslow Homer: War Reporters

Here are some excerpts from Twentieth Century Limited, to celebrate the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ recent major Goya exhibition.  It highlights Goya as war commentator, as Winslow Homer was for Harper’s Magazine a half-century later during our civil war.  Reporter and television newsman Paul Bernard narrates.  The first selection showcases rookie reporter Bernard and his veteran New York Gazette colleague, Alan Mauro, in Bernard’s first visit to the newspaper’s “trophy room” and Homer’s war sketches.  The Spike and Kells are midtown New York watering holes frequented by reporters.  The second selection, some years later, depicts Bernard going through a difficult period.  He and Lucie Devereaux, his very good friend and formerly a curator at the Louvre, make the same pilgrimage.  Here Goya makes his appearance.

FROM BOOK ONE – AGE OF HEROES – pages 493, 525-527

The Gazette was founded in 1861 by one Peter McNeeley, a well-traveled Irishman who hit it big in the Gold Rush then meandered east looking for opportunity. Newspapers were in McNeeley’s blood, his family publishing a Dublin broadside for many years. The Gazette distinguished itself during the Civil War, opposing slavery and backing Lincoln. It was one of the first to assign reporters to the front lines, and through an arrangement with Harper’s Magazine, twice a month the Gazette’s front page featured a Winslow Homer sketch of a battlefield scene. Circulation soared, but by the turn of the century McNeeley’s unsteady heirs caused the paper to falter. To this day stories of that painful period surface during the hard times that periodically revisit the paper. By 1900 the Gazette’s circulation was as low as its reputation. Forced to bring in a partner, the family sold out within the year.

* * * * * * *

A benefit of the job I hadn’t expected, reporters have a lot of power and respect, even those relatively new to the trade. At social gatherings people often responded with an “aha” or “oh, really” when I told them what I did. That it was the Gazette added cachet. Our competitors the next street down referred to themselves as Timesmen but we had no such affectation. What we did share was an almost physical bond I could feel deepen as the months went on and I became part of the club. One night I had just filed a complex story I had to babysit to the end, don’t even remember about what. The early edition was on the presses and I was preparing to leave when I ran into Alan at the elevator.

“Heading to the Spike?” he asked.

“If you invite me,” I laughed. “Kells is more my speed.”

“Let’s do it.” I was reaching for the DOWN button but he leaned across and pressed UP. “But first I gotta show you something.” We exited on the eighth floor, space hallowed by the Publisher and Executive Editor. “Ever been here?” I shook my head. “I’m gonna give you the tour.”

We walked through the dimly lit area. Friday night, it looked like everyone had fled for the weekend. Treading across the carpet, a couple of turns and we found ourselves in front of a pair of heavy unmarked doors. Alan turned the shiny brass knob but the door was locked. He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a huge key ring ? there must have been thirty keys on it, all shapes and sizes.

“In your spare time you must be the super.”

“Second job kind of thing. Helps in a high wind, too.” The key turned easily. “It’s always locked but we have our ways.” He pushed the door open and reached around for the light switch. “The inner inner inner sanctum,” he said, bowing and doffing an imaginary hat, “the Board Room of the mighty New York Gazette.”

The walls were a deep blue, lined with portraits and photographs, plush carpet blue but with a gold fleck. Rows of canisters with recessed spotlights were inset into the flocked white ceiling. Alan turned a knob and brought the lights to high. The largest conference table I’d ever seen, surrounded by upholstered swivel chairs, twenty by a quick count. At each place, a pad of paper and two black wooden pencils with a Gazette logo.

“The Board meets here first Monday of every month, but that’s not why this is interesting.” He walked down the table to the end with a larger, taller chair than the others and pointed at the wall. “Recognize this guy?”

Two large oil paintings, a rough-looking man with a handlebar moustache, a bag slung over his back, astride a small stream, hills behind him. Next to it the same man, older, in a business suit with high starched celluloid collar, holding up a Gazette in the original typeface. “The honorable Peter McNeeley, to whom we owe all this,” he said, sweeping his hand around the room. “That picture shows how he made his money, this one how he lost it.”

He sidled down the line of portraits, pointing to an even larger paintings of two ruddy-faced men, one with a full beard, the other with a moustache and mutton chops. “Sam and Marty, the Astell boys. The paper was going down for the count when they stepped in. If it wasn’t for them we’d be working for the Times.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said wryly.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to work for them either.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant.”

We worked our way around the room, stopping to admire others in the line of Publishers, Editors and Executive Editors, Pulitzer Prize winners. At the far end of the room we came to a gallery of reporters, pamphleteers, cartoonists, photographers and broadcasters who had added luster to our profession. Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lippmann, Murrow, Shirer, Sevareid, Lowell Thomas, W. Eugene Smith, Bourke-White, Mauldin, Herblock. On the near wall a display of Gazette executives mingling with those they helped make famous or even more famous. Morgan, Rockefeller, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Hoover, FDR, MacArthur, George Marshall, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon. Queen Victoria, King George, Churchill, DeGaulle, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Fidel Castro on his 1960 visit to the U.N. Jimmy Walker, Robert Wagner, John Lindsay. John J. McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Rizzuto, Casey Stengel, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tom Seaver, Ted Williams (another foreign leader, I thought with a smile). Whirlaway, Man o’ War, Secretariat. Some early prints legended in white ink reminded me of my first photo album. Signed best wishes from all who could, florid hands and scrawls. One hoof print, Secretariat’s.

Circuit complete, we stood before three portraits. Tall, white-haired, crew-cut Tom O’Connor whom I encountered nearly every day. Executive Editor Walter Shoenweis of stern visage and low visibility. Franklin Astell III, Publisher and Chairman of the Board, the family resemblance obvious even when adjusted for his lack of facial hair. “Quite a show. It’s amazing.”

Alan ushered me toward the exit. I stopped to look at a display case next to the door. “The Homers, courtesy of Harper’s. You know the story?”

“I do,” I said, giving them a fast scan.

“You know, all of us, we get so wrapped up chasing this story or that story, we forget we’re part of something very special.”

“As the new kid on the block it’s good to be here.”

Alan pulled the door shut and turned to look at me. “What happens, you work here for a while, then one day you wake up and you realize there’s nothing else in the world you’d rather do. In fact, you’d do this job for nothing if it came to that – don’t tell Tom I said that. I come up here sometimes, to stay in touch, charge the batteries.”

“Thank you,” I said, pushing the DOWN button. “You’re right, I’m hooked.”

“I wasn’t at first.” Six… seven… eight. The light dinged on. “Something happened to kick me into gear, I’ll tell you about it sometime. Speaking of that we better get ours over to the Spike. We’re playing catchup tonight.”

* * * * * * *

FROM BOOK TWO – AGE OF RECKONING – pages 455 – 458

A couple of things helped get me back on track, and Lucie was in the middle of both of them. One Friday night she persuaded me to take a stroll over to the White Horse. In the bar area I recognized a couple of guys but they didn’t see me and I passed quickly into the middle room, taking a seat on a bench across from the window. Over drinks Lucie said there was something she wanted me to show her. When she told me what, I said it was impossible and anyway I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it.

“I’ve got it all set up. That Alan Mauro you fixed me up with…”

“I ran into him a couple of weeks ago. You didn’t like him, I remember.”

“Oh, he was all right.  It’s on for tomorrow night – he set it all up. All we have to do is show identification and they’ll let us in.”

“I’m not sure I want to do this.”

“Come on, you owe it to me, don’t be such un bébé.”

After resisting some more, I gave in. And so, at nine o’clock Saturday evening we found ourselves on the sidewalk outside the Gazette Building, my old building.

“Allons-y! It won’t kill you.”

Inside, the night security guard greeted me warmly and handed Lucie an envelope with her name. Inside was a key and Alan’s authorization. “Bring the key back or Mr. Latimer’ll have my ass. Sorry, miss…”

“Pas de quoi monsieur,” Lucie said, flashing a brilliant smile. He’ll have more than that of me if they catch me here, I thought. Lucie pressed the UP button on the elevator. When we stepped in I noticed my hand trembling as I hit eight. Thankfully nobody was in sight as we traced the familiar path. We came to the heavy mahogany doors and I took the key from the envelope, inserted it in the lock and we went in. From the console next to the door I selected a couple of switches and brought up the lights.

“Mon Dieu! C’est un musée!” Lucie’s eyes scanned the room, the huge table, the leather chairs, the deep blue walls, the portraits, the photographs. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

“The Board Room of the venerable New York Gazette.”

“Why have you not brought me here before?”

“For one thing you never asked. For another I’m persona non grata here these days.”

“Not long ago you were part of this.”

“That was then, this is now.”

She walked over to the portrait wall. “Tell me about these people.”

I took a deep breath. “These large ones are Peter McNeeley, the founder.”

“The mountain scene is well done. The use of diagonals, the shading, it’s quite good. The other one is rather banal. I wouldn’t give you much for it.” She turned to the next two oils. “Who are these men?”

“The Astells. They put the paper on its feet.”

“Interesting. And these?” She crossed to the wall of black and white photos.

“The reporter’s hall of fame. All the greats…Lippmann, Murrow…”

“I recognize him…” she said, nodding at Murrow. She sidled down the wall… “ah, le grand Charles, bien sûr. Churchill, your Roosevelt…”

Something caught my eye. “Let’s go back…” I steered her back to the Gazette executives. “Tom O’Connor. He was our Executive Editor. I’m surprised they left him up here. I’ll introduce you sometime, you’ll like him. Frank Astell, he was Publisher at the time, he’s still on the Board. Okay, here we go!” We stopped in front of a large oil.

“Let me guess,” Lucie said. “Rudolph Latimer.”

“You win the booby prize.”

“He looks like an awful person.”

“It’s an excellent likeness… captures the inner man.”

“I can see why you and he didn’t get along.”

“For a long time we did get along. We made do.”

“But you didn’t surrender your soul to him.”

I laughed. “Let’s say I loaned it out. Not quite sure where it’s at these days.”

We walked around a few more minutes. I was getting antsy somebody would come upon us. “Had enough?”

“I think so,” Lucie said.

We turned for the door. “What are these? Oh! Winslow Homer!”

The other side of the door from the light console was a glass case with some dozen magazine illustrations, Homer’s sketches for Harper’s Weekly.

“I forgot to mention them.”

“That’s my art appreciator talking. These are the best thing in the room.” She bent over the case, the battle scenes, the camp portraits, the women waiting at home. “They’re amazing. ‘Bayonet Charge,’ that’s the most famous one, oh and ‘The Sharpshooter,’ that also. I’m familiar with them from reproductions. The sketches were from life, later he elaborated on them in engravings and paintings though mostly watercolors. Some of them appear to be originals, others are reproductions, from the newspaper, I’d guess.”

“They really put the Gazette on the map, that and its war reporting. McNeeley had an arrangement with Harper’s to publish them.”

“Remind me when we get back, I have something to show you.”

I felt buoyed by the visit. On arriving home I broke out a bottle of wine, Lucie made croque monsieurs and we lit candles for the kitchen table. As we sat over the last of the wine she left the room and returned with a packet enclosed in cardboards and tied with a string.

“One of my most prized possessions,” she said.

“A woman of mystery. I’ve never seen it.”

“Lots of things you haven’t seen,” she said, inclining her head. She untied the packet and moving the glasses aside, carefully took out the top few papers and spread them on the table. Pictures of war scenes, they were. “Goya. His Desastres de la guerra etchings.”

I looked, then stopped and really looked. “They’re really something. Death, torture, rape, all the fun things. These aren’t originals… no, of course not.”

She laughed. “Don’t I wish. No, very good reproductions. Goya covers the same ground as Homer but with much more emotion – can you see that? The anguished faces, the corpses, the gore. He held nothing back. Even his symbolism is violent.”

“The Spaniard versus the Yankee.”

“There is truth to that.”

She took the next few from the packet and lay them out.

“Is this a complete set?”

“Oh, no, there are eighty-two in all, I have only twenty. But when you’re considering a birthday present…”

I laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“If you ever needed a reason not to romanticize la France, which you have a tendency to do, these are it. France has contributed more than its share of misery to the world. These portray the rebellion against Napoleon in Spain.”

“Let me ask you something. Was tonight your idea?”

She paused. “No, not at first. I didn’t even know about that room. If you promise not to tell…?” I nodded. “Alan Mauro called me last week and put me up to it.”

“He did! Why?”

“He thought it would be good for you to revisit your history. It is still yours, you know. The Homers were unexpected, and these Goyas, they give it another perspective.”

“Which is?”

“The futility of war, the horror. The responsibility of observers, artists, journalists to show war for what it is.”

“In other words don’t squander the chance I have.”

She put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a kiss.

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