Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


 

Felix de Weldon

Oral History Interview with
Felix de Weldon

Nationally known sculptor whose works include a bust of Harry S. Truman, the Athens, Greece monument of Mr. Truman, and the Iwo Jima Monument in Washington, D.C. Also former member of the U.S. Fine Arts Commission.

Washington, D.C.
January 22, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


NOTICE
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened August, 1969
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]



Oral History Interview with
Felix de Weldon

Washington, D.C.
January 22, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

[1]

HESS: Mr. de Weldon, will you give me a little bit of your background, where were you born, where were you educated, and a little bit about your early life.

DE WELDON: I was born in Vienna, Austria, where I was brought up among the beautiful Gothic cathedrals, the baroque palaces, wonderful music, opera, museums. The early expression of my youth was filled with all the aspects of art. After getting my basic education at St. Egichins Grammar School and Marchetti College, which is a preparatory college, I went for further studies

[2]

to Rome and Florence, where I studied the early Italian masters, and I was deeply impressed by the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and the great masters of the Renaissance. From there I went to Spain where I studied at the Prado Museum in Madrid, and traveling all over Spain, I studied Spanish painting and Spanish architecture, Gothic, as well as the Moresque and baroque architecture. From there I went to Paris where I studied for three years, and then to England where I took a postgraduate course at Oxford in archeology. I got a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna, a B.A. and M.A., one Ph.D. in architecture and one in art. I finished my studies in England, I opened my studio in London, and the first one-man exhibit I had on Bond Street, which was opened by the Austrian ambassador. The first two commissions I received were, one, to do a bust of Field Marshal Lord [Edmund Henry Hynman]

[3]

Allenby, commander in chief of the British forces in World War I in the Near East, and former Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Queen Mary got very much interested in my work. Members of the royal family and Queen Mary came to the opening of my exhibit. Then I was commissioned to do a bas-relief of the Duke and Duchess of Kent to commemorate their wedding. And then the next thing, I was chosen to do the silver jubilee bust of King George V, which commemorated the twenty-fifth year of his reign. Every year one artist in England had the privilege of having the King pose for him, either a painter or a sculptor. And then in December, `35, the National Portrait Gallery decided to have one of these twenty-five likenesses of the King which were done during his lifetime, selected to be placed in the National Portrait Gallery. And to my great surprise, mine was selected. After that I was

[4]

commissioned to do the bust of Edward VIII to commemorate the coronation but under that one commission which said, "Felix de Weldon is commanded to do the official coronation bust of His Majesty, the King," I did two busts, because when Edward abdicated I did George VI.

I've done many other notables in England.

After that I was invited to come to Ottawa, Canada, by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, to do his likeness, and also to do two busts, one for the Senate, and one for the House, the Houses of Parliament. The Senate was Senator Cairine Wilson, and in the House was Agnes MacPhail. And then I did a fountain in the city of Ottawa. During the time Prime Minister Mackenzie King had to go to a meeting in Geneva, it was just before the war started, I traveled all over the United States, because he said, "Well, while I'm gone, you might as well see America." And

[5]

I traveled through 44 of the 48 states, and I was so impressed by the friendliness of the people, the vastness and the beauty of the country, the tremendous vitality of its industry and its schools and its science, that I felt " This is the country to live in." And after I finished Prime Minister Mackenzie King's bust, I went to New York to live there. Then the war broke out and I volunteered in the Navy, and I spent most of the war years in the Navy. During that time, I only got one commission to do at the suggestion of Winston Churchill, which was the bust of Arthur Hugh Clough. He's a poet from South Carolina. When the lend-lease bill was passed by Congress here, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech of thanks to the United States, and he ended his speech with a

[6]

quote from one of Arthur Hugh Clough's poems, "But westward look the land is bright." And somebody in Charleston wrote him a letter asking if Winston Churchill knew that Arthur Hugh Clough was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in the year 1819. Churchill wrote back that he was born in a small village in England, but was taken by his parents at the age of three to Charleston. But that he was so grateful to the city of Charleston to have produced such a great poet, that he would like to present to the city of Charleston a bust of Arthur Hugh Clough. A cousin of Winston Churchill's, Eric Underwood, contacted me, and he was here with the British Embassy, and I was commissioned to do that bust. I carved it in stone. Then when it was dedicated by Lord Halifax, that was in 1943, I was invited and at the time I was in the Navy, and I couldn't get leave for that occasion. My commanding officer

[7]

said, "Well, I'll let you go if you can obtain an invitation for me too, which I couldn't. So I couldn't go. But about twenty years later the city of Charleston reenacted the whole celebration for me, presented me with the key of the city.

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

[8]

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.

King George VI, I had already done his bust when he was Duke of York, and it was done

[9]

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.

HESS: I am not sure if you stated, but just what was your position or rank in the Navy?

DE WELDON: I was an enlisted man. At the time, I was not an American citizen, therefore I couldn't become an officer right off. But just about the time I was ready to leave the Navy in '45, at the time I was in Admiral [William D.] Leahy's office, my papers were put through to make me a lieutenant commander. The papers went through.

[10]

I could have taken the commission, but it would have meant that I would stay another two years in the Navy, because I had enough points as an enlisted man to get out of the Navy, but I did not have enough points as an officer.

HESS: What military duties did you have at this time?

DE WELDON: Originally, I was in naval aviation, at Patuxent Naval Air Station, and there I would take these flights along the Atlantic coast, and I also was the official naval artist for naval aviation, and I did the painting for the battle of the Coral Sea. Then from there I was transferred to Admiral [Louis] Denfeld's office and then Admiral Denfeld loaned me out to these different admirals' offices in order to do their likenesses. And my last assignment in the Navy was in the White House in Admiral Leahy's office.

[11]

HESS: Is the plaster cast that we have at the Truman Library the cast of the bust that you did of Leahy at this time?

DE WELDON: Yes. I also have pictures of Admiral Leahy sitting and then I can also supply these pictures.

HESS: We would appreciate that.

What kind of man was Admiral Leahy? I trust you could speak to him if you couldn't speak to the King.

DE WELDON: Yes, you could speak to Admiral Leahy, you could speak to President Truman. I mean, you could speak to the King if he asked you something, but you could not get involved in a conversation, and I think that was mainly because the King is not like our President who is actually our prime minister, and the king is not. The king is only a figurehead and you can't involve him in any conversation where he

[12]

couldn't give the proper answer. I think that's the main reason.

HESS: What kind of a man was Admiral Leahy?

DE WELDON: He was a very kind man, but a man of great wisdom and tremendous will power.

HESS: Was he an easy subject to do?

DE WELDON: Yes, he was easy because all the facets of his character showed on his face, and he had a marvelous face to do, and then also while I was in his office he wrote his memoirs which he was dictating, and that gave me a great deal of insight into the Admiral's character, and also his opinions about different conferences he attended, like Yalta, Teheran, and the Potsdam conferences, which was most interesting.

One thing which struck me concerning President Truman, President Truman when he went to the

[13]

Potsdam conference took a much firmer stand against Stalin than President Roosevelt did, and which Admiral Leahy pointed out in his memoirs, that Roosevelt thought "Good old Joe," which he wasn't, while President Truman really knew what the score was, and used his fairness and his wisdom.

HESS: At the time that you're working on a bust of an individual -- you mentioned Leahy's memoirs -- do you get their memoirs to read them and sort of study their personalities?

DE WELDOM: Well, they were not published at that time. Therefore, I could not read them, but I was there while he was dictating them and discussing certain historic aspects, which were of the utmost interest.

HESS: But do you use this as a way to gain insight into their personalities to use in your sculpture?

DE WELDON: Yes, it shows their personalities, because

[14]

the way he looks at things, the way he analyzes them, what his opinion is, and in these different things he brought Churchill's opinion out, and President Truman's opinion. And then Attlee's opinion afterwards, because the first part of the conference in Potsdam was conducted with Churchill, Truman and Stalin, and the second part with Attlee, and it was very, very interesting to see the differences in the characters of Churchill and Attlee. Of course, I think I should read Leahy's memoirs now.

HESS: What other works of art did you complete during this period of time?

DE WELDON: While I was in the Navy?

HESS: Yes.

DE WELDON: Well, probably the most important thing was the first model I made for the Iwo Jima monument.

[15]

In February '45, actually the 23rd of February, '45, which was twenty-four hours behind the 23rd of February on Iwo Jima, the wire photo which was sent from Hawaii to our naval air station, because we had an annex to the photo lab in Anacostia and whenever these battle pictures came in, our executive officer, Commander T.B. Clark, now Admiral T.B. Clark, called me to his office to look over these battle pictures to see if any were worthy of being permanently painted for the Naval Academy or for the Navy Archives. 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

[16]

relentless determination of these young men. Everything was embodied in that picture. 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.

HESS: A clay model?

DE WELDON: Wax. And then Commander Clark and the captain immediately sent me with it to Washington, and he said, "This is too important to have it here at the station.” And, incidentally, the plaster cast of this model is the one in the Truman Library. It was presented to President Truman in April '45. I have a picture of it here, of the presentation.

[17]

HESS: How many plaster casts were made of your wax model?

DE WELDON: There were three.

HESS: Do you know where the other two are?

DE WELDON: Well, I have one, and the second one was presented to Admiral [Chester W.] Nimitz, and it's in the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas. And then I have one, and from the one that I made, a bronze cast was made which was presented to the museum of the Naval Academy, where it is the centerpiece of the museum. That was presented in 1946 by General [Alexander] Vandegrift.

HESS: What were the steps from the small model you made to the magnificent statue that is in Arlington?

DE WELDON: Well, when I went to Washington, I was

[18]

sent to Admiral Denfeld's office and Admiral Denfeld sent me with the model, escorted by four Navy captains, to the office of General Vandegrift, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and he told these four captains to "Make sure that this model comes back to the Navy." Marine Corps Headquarters is at one end of the Naval Annex, and the Bureau of Personnel at the other, and when they rolled down on a dolly that model, people came out of all of the offices, and it was like a parade. The first thing General Vandegrift said when it was moved into his office, "Of course, this model will stay right here." Well, the Captain said, "We have given our word to the Admiral to bring it back."

Then General [Robert Livingston] Denig was there, who was public information officer of the Marine Corps, and he told General Vandegrift that he had a call on behalf of the Secretary of

[19]

the Treasury [John] Snyder, that the Treasury wanted to use the Iwo Jima flag raising as their symbol for the victory bond drive, and if a larger model could be made for the launching of that. So they asked me if I could make a larger model. And being an enlisted man, all I could say was "Aye aye, sir," that's when I started to work on the next model, and I had the three survivors posing for me for their own likenesses. In that model the figures were one and a half times life sized, nine feet tall, and it was dedicated on November 10, 1945, in front of the Navy Department, where now the Pan American Union Annex is, and that launched the victory bond drive. It was a combined project of the Marines and the U.S. Treasury. It stood there until '48 when the Pan American Union started to build their annex. Of course, in the meantime, a joint resolution was passed by Congress to make

[20]

that symbolic flag raising the national monument for the United States Marine Corps, but the Marines didn't want any public funds, they only wanted permission to put the monument on public land, and they said they could raise the funds, and the Marine Corps Memorial Foundation was formed consisting of many outstanding citizens, and the money was raised. All together there were thirty-six different studies for the big monument. All these thirty-six different studies have been placed either in museums or military bases or public places. The big monument was dedicated in 1954, and in that monument the figures are four stories tall. I had those three survivors pose for me.

HESS: When was the model that we have at the Truman Library presented to Mr. Truman, do you recall?

DE WELDON: It was presented to the President in

[21]

April '45, shortly after Mr. Truman became President. I have the picture here.

You can see how young I was in this picture.

HESS: Yes. Did this stay in the White House from this time on?

DE WELDON: It stayed in the President's office until the President left the White House to go to Independence.

HESS: Who are the other gentlemen in the photograph? Do you recall?

DE WELDON: Yes. The President, I, then Joe Rosenthal, who took the famous picture, then Ted [Theodore Roosevelt] Gamble, who was the head of the war bond drive in the Treasury, and then Colonel Edward Hagenah, the assistant to General Denig, the Public Information Officer of the Marine

[22]

Corps.

HESS: Did Mr. Rosenthal ever comment to you about what he thought of your art work of his photograph?

DE WELDON: Yes, he did. He came to the studio when I worked on the big model. He was extremely pleased and he thought it was like a dream coming true, that his photograph was there for all times, done in eternal bronze.

HESS: Do you have any other recollections of your days in the Navy?

DE WELDON: I had many, many interesting experiences.

HESS: Anything connected with Mr. Truman at this time?

DE WELDON: My first connection with President Truman was the presentation of that model.

[23]

HESS: Was this the first time you met President Truman?

DE WELDON: The first time. Of course, when I was in Admiral Leahy's office, I saw the President occasionally, but not to talk to. Then later, after I got out of the Navy, my friend, Donald Dawson, who was the administrative assistant of President Truman, he and my wife and I, we went to visit the White House quite often and we had a very delightful conversation with the President. My wife also lived in Kansas City for many years. Then, of course, later on I was appointed to the Commission of Fine Arts by the President.

HESS: That was in 1950.

DE WELDON: 1950. We met with the President in the Cabinet Room. But even before that in 1948 I was commissioned by the national committee of the Democratic Party to do the bronze of President

[24]

Truman as the gift of the national committee on the occasion of his inauguration. The bust was dedicated in the Departmental Auditorium the day after the inauguration, I think. There were several thousand people present, and Attorney General Howard McGrath, who was then head of the Democratic Party, made the main speech. When he unveiled it the President looked at it and smiled and said, "I didn't know I was so good looking." And, of course, during the sittings, the sittings took place in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and we had very pleasant conversations because Mr. Truman is such a straight-forward, and friendly man.

HESS: Do you recall anything at this late date that he might have said at that time during those sittings? Anything in particular on his mind?

DE WELDON: Well, I don't recall anything right now.

[25]

HESS: How many sittings were there?

DE WELDON: There were about twelve sittings. Mrs. Truman came in quite often and Margaret came in, and they were very pleased the way that I modeled the President, and the President was pleased. I think one curious incident was, you see it was a very short time when I had the final sitting, and I took the bust up to New York to be cast in bronze, and because the workmen were worked in three shifts, they worked around the clock because of their great admiration for President Truman to get that bust cast in bronze in one week. And then I went up again to bring it back and I took it on the train, and when I arrived in Washington, I asked the redcap to give me a hand with the bust, because it was quite heavy, having been on a marble pedestal too, and he said, "Is that glued to the floor? I can't lift it." He couldn't do it, so I

[26]

lifted it myself.

HESS: At what time did your sittings start?

DE WELDON: 1948. It was in December and January.

HESS: After the election.

DE WELDON: After the election.

HESS: And before the inauguration.

DE WELDON: You see, the committee at the last moment made the decision to have that as their inaugural gift to the President. I didn't have enough time to look all these dates up for you, but I can do that later on.

HESS: What aspect of Mr. Truman did you try to capture in this particular bust?

DE WELDON: Well, the feeling I had that he was one of the great statesmen, and one of the greatest

[27]

Presidents we ever had, by his courage and decision to help Greece and Turkey and Persia, and it was of the utmost importance. He was a man of tremendous courage. He will be greatly admired for it.

HESS: Did you deal with the Democratic National Committee in the commissioning of this bust?

DE WELDON: Yes.

HESS: J. Howard McGrath?

DE WELDON: No, it was Mrs. India Edwards who approached me, but of course, J. Howard McGrath was all for it. Then a duplicate I gave to Mrs. India Edwards for the National Democratic Women's Club, I think that's where it is.

HESS: Were those the only two castings made?

DE WELDON: Well, I have a plaster in my own studio.

[28]

But the bronze is in Independence.

HESS: There was just one bronze.

DE WELDON: One bronze, yes.

HESS: Did you have any other works of art underway, did you do any other commissions before the time that you joined the Fine Arts Commission in 1950?

DE WELDON: Yes, I did Admiral Nimitz for the Hall of State in Dallas, Texas, and I did a monument to George Bannerman Dealey for Dallas, Texas . I did Secretary Snyder, who posed for me in the Treasury. And I did Leslie Biffle, which was dedicated in Piggott, Arkansas on Les Biffle Day. I did John Steelman.

HESS: Those are the ones that we have the plaster casts of at the Library?

DE WELDON: Yes. And Admiral [Raymond Ames] Spruance

[29]

I did when he was president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

HESS: What kind of men were those? How easy were they to sit for you and for you to capture in bronze? Take John Snyder, what kind of a man was John Snyder?

DE WELDON: Well, he was extremely friendly and cheerful and most cooperative.

HESS: What about Les Biffle?

DE WELDON: He was a very charming person. Of course, Snyder and Biffle were great admirers of Truman, and staunchest friends who would support President Truman to the last drop of their own blood.

HESS: Also, I believe we have a plaster cast of one of your works of Sam Rayburn?

[30]

DE WELDON: I don't think you have that yet. I'm supposed to send it. I had to make a cast of Speaker Rayburn, also for the Johnson Library, and I could not send the Rayburn plaster model yet, because on the last day of President Johnson's time in the White House, this model was presented, so now I can send the model to the Truman Library.

HESS: On the list that Milton Perry has sent from the Library we have Sam Rayburn, Admiral Leahy, and Admiral Nimitz, and John Snyder and Les Biffle, John Steelman, and Admiral Spruance, was there one bronze of each of those completed?

DE WELDON: One bronze of each.

HESS: And then one or more plaster casts, is that correct?

DE WELDON: Just one plaster cast.

[31]

You probably would like to know about the Truman Monument in Athens, Greece.

HESS Yes, who commissioned that?

DE WELDON: In 1962 the Order of Ahepa, that is the Greek organization of Americans of Hellenic descent for the purpose of education. They had an international competition and my design was selected to do the monument for President Truman, and the monument was dedicated in May, 1963, and it's in one of the most beautiful and central places in the city of Athens, on the Avenue of King Constantine, and it is in a triangular park. They built two reflecting pools and a big marble plaza, and there are two big inscription stones which are in both English and Greek, and carry the message of President Truman to Congress, and the Truman Doctrine, which saved Greece during their ordeal and trial of fighting

[32]

communism.

HESS: Could you tell me about the steps in making that particular statue? Did you use photographs, or sketches, and just what were the steps?

DE WELDON: I mainly used the face of President Truman of the bust I did in '48, because that was about the same time that the Truman Doctrine took place. It showed the President in his full vigor holding the Truman Doctrine in one hand and his other hand is a fist, showing his determination.

HESS: What were the steps?

DE WELDON: I made a clay model here in my studio, and the model is twice life sized. The figure is twelve feet tall. Friends of President Truman who came to visit my studio very, very often, General [Harry] Vaughan, Donald Dawson, and many others, and they gave me advice and they even

[33]

liked it better than the bust. When the monument was dedicated it was a tremendous success in Athens, Greece. They have eighteen different newspapers and sixteen of which are from the conservative right to the liberal left, and they were all in favor of the monument and wrote in the highest terms. Only the two extreme Socialist and Communist papers wrote against it. But what was unfortunate the American papers only quoted these two, and not the sixteen others, while all the European papers quoted only the other papers. The French headline was "MONUMENT ERECTED TO PRESIDENT TRUMAN IN ATHENS GREECE FOR SAVING GREECE FROM COMMUNISM." And the German and Spanish and all the other central European papers, wrote in the highest terms.

HESS: And then the bronze model is in the Truman Library.

[34]

DE WELDON: That's the scale model which I used to make the full sized statue and was cast in bronze and then a year later presented by the Order of Ahepa to President Truman, and also has two marble carvings with the exact same inscription as it is in Greece, only in the Truman Library you only have the English version, not the Greek version.

HESS: And one other item that we have in the Truman Library, is the White House News Photographers Association of 1949 Award.

DEWELDON: Yes, this was commissioned by the White House photographers or news association, especially to be given to President Truman, and this is the only existing model of it.

HESS: Who posed for this, anyone in particular?

DE WELDON: I wouldn't say anybody in particular,

[35]

but as I remember these news photographers doing the newsreels in the White House. Incidentally, there's a film of this too. I have a copy of it, and newsreel. Many newsreels were taken in the White House during my time in Admiral Leahy's office. So I just thought, well, you couldn't see who it was, because he's always hidden behind the camera.

HESS: He had his eye down behind the eyepiece on the camera.

DE WELDON: Yes.

HESS: And the National Guard bust of Mr. Truman.

DE WELDON: I haven't done that yet.

HESS: Who has commissioned that?

DE WELDON: Well, it is supposed to be commissioned by the members of the National Guard of the State

[36]

of Missouri.

HESS: And is this supposed to be a bust of Mr. Truman as he was in 1918?

DE WELDON: Yes, this is President Truman in 1918.

HESS: What are the difficulties of trying to do a bust of someone as they appeared so many years ago?

DE WELDON: Well, I would still use the model I made in 1948, only actually in 1948 President Truman looked extremely young. His face was probably a fraction heavier than it was in 1918, but I could use that as a model and then take, well, thirty years off and then put the steel helmet on. You see, the bone structure as such doesn't change. It's only the muscles in the face which change, and the skin becomes looser.

HESS: And in 1950 President Truman appointed you

[37]

to the Commission on Fine Arts?

DE WELDON: Yes.

HESS: What do you recall about that?

DE WELDON: Well, it was one of my most gratifying experiences because I could devote my knowledge and my talent for the good for the City of Washington, and all the Federal projects where the Fine Arts Commission had jurisdiction, and it was a tremendous experience. President Truman asked the Commission of Fine Arts to write a special report of the art activities in the Department of Defense. It was most interesting to compile all the data of combat art, which was done by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, and I got the utmost cooperation. Each director of public information was either a general or an admiral in these different departments, and we came up with

[38]

several volumes of a report to the President of the art activities in Government. It covered every department, Treasury, Agriculture, Justice Department, and my field was the military.

HESS: What were a few of your recommendations, do you recall?

DE WELDON: Recommendations in which field?

HESS: In the field of the beautification of the city?

DE WELDON: Well, there, one of our great achievements while I was on the Commission was to get the Georgetown Act passed, to preserve the Federal aspect and the Colonial aspect of the city of Georgetown. Since 1950, when the Georgetown Act was passed, there has been tremendous improvement in Georgetown which you see very visibly today. Then, of course, the parks, the

[39]

monuments, and the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts on the reconstruction of the White House during President Truman's time. We were very active in that.

HESS: What do you recall about that episode? Any little incidents that arose, any little areas of disagreement where one person might have wanted to do something one way and someone else wanted to do it another?

DE WELDON: Well, we tried to do our best to reconstruct the White House as it was in its early days, and eliminate later changes which were more Victorian, except in the bedroom of Abraham Lincoln, which had to be Victorian, but otherwise, we tried to bring it back to its original beauty of the early Federal period, because it is one of the most beautiful buildings. Of course, there were tremendous difficulties, because the

[0]

foundations were not strong enough and the building had to be underpinned, and new foundations put in, and after the whole building was gutted, everything on the inside was taken out, of course all the moldings and everything was carefully preserved and all the paneling and all the fireplaces, the walls raised quite a considerable amount -- I don't want to quote how many inches or fractions of inches -- because I just don't remember exactly. We put steel markers there with a point, and when the weight was taken off the walls rose quite considerably, because it was mostly on compressed ground with an inefficient stone foundation. Now, of course, it has a reinforced concrete foundation. Then where these small wooden beams were, 10 x 12 and 12 or 14 x 2, and many parts of these beams were cut out when they put the gas pipes in and the electric line, and in many cases, there were

[41]

only 2 x 2's left, and it was through the whole ceiling in many cases. But when the piano leg of President Truman's piano suddenly went through the floor, it was very fortunate that it happened that way instead of at a big, diplomatic gathering Now there are steel I beams, three feet in dimension where these small, wooden beams were. Originally at the time of Jefferson the building was constructed as a family home and not to receive the heads of state and big receptions by the hundreds, sometimes a thousand people at one time. Of course, it was most interesting to select colors for the curtains, and the furnishings and it was a great challenge. It was very rewarding when it was realized and President Truman moved back into the White House from Blair House and how beautiful everything was. It was inspiring.

HESS: What would you say was the most important

[42]

project that came up during the time that you were on the Fine Arts Commission? The renovation of the White House, would that be the most important project?

DE WELDON: I think so, yes.

HESS: And then we've mentioned Georgetown. What were a few of the other projects?

DE WELDON: Well, all these different Government buildings which were constructed, State Department buildings, and all these different office buildings, and the acquisitions for the Freer collection. It was so diversified, the battle monuments abroad, the cemeteries abroad, the war cemeteries, and we had quite an influence on private construction, too, because under the Shipstead-Luce Act any building which is in a certain vicinity of a Government building or near a public park, the design always has to be

[43]

approved by the Commission of Fine Arts. There we have quite a good influence on the private construction. That was also reflected in other buildings, and if somebody has a very good one, the other one has to build a very good one too. Well, the Commission of Fine Arts decision was not final. We only gave advice and it can be taken or not taken, but as far as Government projects were concerned, by just writing a simple letter to the Bureau of the Budget, if we did not approve the project, the Bureau of the Budget would not issue the funds, so it was very final there. In private enterprise, except in the Georgetown Act, they could go along without it, but they did not know so, and therefore, out of a thousand decisions, nine hundred ninety-eight were carried through.

HESS: As you will recall, shortly before you joined the Commission on Fine Arts, Mr. Truman had a

[44]

little difficulty with that group concerning the balcony that we wanted to construct. What do you recall about that?

DE WELDON: Well, I think President Truman constructed this balcony in the intervening period, and then he appointed the new commission after the balcony was built . I think it fits very well, and it was beautifully designed by Mr. [William Adams] Delano. Actually, when I was appointed to the Commission of Fine Arts, the first thing the newspapers asked me, "What do you think about President Truman's balcony?"

I said, "Well, that's for the previous commission to worry about."

HESS: There were four men at the time that you were appointed who were not reappointed to the Commission on Fine Arts, and it was mentioned in the newspapers that one of the reasons that

[45]

they were not was because of their opposition to President Truman and to the balcony: Mr. William Aldrich, Gilmore Clark, Lee Lawrie and L. Andrew Reinhard . Did you ever speak to those gentlemen after this time about the balcony? Just informally?

DE WELDON: Well, we had contact in the transition period, and I don't think they were not reappointed because of their objection, because they just had been on the Commission for too long, and it's important to get new blood on the Commission, which I think the President realized. I don't think there was any special feeling there. The only man who was reappointed was David Finley, who then became the chairman of the Commission.

HESS: Anything else come to mind about your duties on the Commission?

[46]

DE WELDON: Well, they were so varied and so interesting, and one thing I must say, as long as I was on the Commission I did not take on any jobs where Government funds were used, but there was no rule against it, as such. The members of the Commission served without any pay. Many other members of the Commission took Government contracts, I did not.

HESS: What other works of art have you completed for people who are closely associated with Mr. Truman, the one I have in mind is Mr. John Snyder?

DE WELDON: I did his daughter, Drucie, in white marble for Mr. John Snyder, and then another project in which President Truman was greatly interested was the monument to Simon Bolivar. President Truman was a great admirer of Simon Bolivar, and I think it was through President

[47]

Truman's good offices that I was selected by the Venezuelan government to do this monument. You might remember that later on President Truman walked around Washington and criticized the different equestrian statues, but he admired the statue of Simon Bolivar. He said this was a horse, a stallion, that a general would ride.

HESS: Did you complete any other works of art for people associated with Mr. Truman, Cabinet members, people in the White House?

DE WELDON: Well, I mentioned Snyder and Steelman and Les Biffle. Of course, I did the inaugural medal of President Johnson, and the half-length statue of Speaker Rayburn for the Rayburn Library, and the full length statue of Rayburn for the Rayburn Building, and I did a close friend and admirer of President Truman's, Senator [Dennis] Chavez, which is in the rotunda of the Capitol.

[48]

Then I did President Kennedy.

HESS: Any other events of interest come to mind when you look back on the Truman days?

DE WELDON: Well, it was a very, very pleasant meeting with President Truman. The different trips the president of the Order of Ahepa and members of their supreme lodge and I took to visit President Truman at the Library in Independence; and how congenial he was, and how pleased he was. While he was reticent to have a monument done of himself because of modesty, I think Mr. Truman has nothing to be modest about. He's a great man. And the Greeks believe in honoring people while they are alive, so people can enjoy those who are honored, while alive.

HESS: How do you believe the President will be viewed by historians one hundred or one hundred and fifty years from now?

[49]

DE WELDON: I think he will be viewed by historians as one of the greatest Presidents America ever had, who became President suddenly, unprepared for the job, and really took hold of it with great courage, determination, and in spite of all the great difficulties he showed tremendous loyalty to his friends. His loyalty was beyond everything, and of course, his love for his country, and the tremendous, wise decisions he took. I think if the following Presidents had had the courage of President Truman I think we wouldn't be in these difficult times in which we are now.

HESS: Do you have anything else to add on Mr. Truman, the Truman administration, any duties that you may have had that we have missed, any important works of art that you created during this period of time?

[50]

DE WELDON: Well, I was quite active in the promotion of the war bond drive, and I created several things for that purpose, and I was awarded a special medal by the Treasury which incidentally carried the flag raising of Iwo Jima as its theme, so it meant a great deal for me. And of course I was very thrilled when the postage stamp of the flag raising was issued too.

HESS: I don't know whether this is a proper question or not to ask an artist, but what do you think is the crowning achievement of your career, what is the greatest work of art that you've ever created?

DE WELDON: Well, I hope it will be next one I'm going to do.

HESS: Is that the way it always is, you want the best one to be the best one?

[51]

DE WELDON: I want the next one to be better than the one that I did before.

HESS: Let's discuss the originals of the plaster casts of a few of the busts that you have sent out to the Truman Library, and just make it clear, for the record, as to where the originals are and if there is more than one bronze, where they are located. Now, some of these we have mentioned, but let's just take them down as Mr. Perry has them on his list: The first is of Sam Rayburn.

DE WELDON: The Sam Rayburn half-length statue is in Bonham, Texas in the Rayburn Library, and a full-length statue is in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.

HESS: And do you have a bust of him?

DE WELDON: It's the head of these two statues.

[52]

Sam Rayburn posed for me in my studio in 1955 for that work, and I can give you all the pictures of him while he was posing.

HESS: How was he when he was posing? Was he pretty informal?

DE WELDON: Very informal.

HESS: Do you recall anything he may have said while he was posing?

DE WELDON: Well, at the time I was on the Commission of Fine Arts and he discussed a great deal of the addition and reconstruction of the Capitol Building.

HESS: What did he have to say about that?

DEWELDON: Well, the necessity of getting more space, and that was the east front of the Capitol, which was built out, and I think through my influence

[53]

at the time, we were successful that the original design, which would have brought the whole center part of the Capitol out all the way, and made it one tremendous building block, Mr. Rayburn decided not to do it, only bring it partly out so that the two end wings will still be out to give it that beautiful architectural design it originally had. I think I'll probably take a little credit for that.

HESS: Did he mention at that time the restoration of the west front, which is very much in the news today?

DE WELDON: Well, at that time, they only wanted to get the east front through, and that was a tremendous battle. Of course, the Commission of Fine Arts has no influence on anything which he has done on the Capitol, because the lawgivers said, "You don't permit the son to tell the

[54]

father what to do," because the Commission of Fine Arts was created by Congress so all the Capitol Building construction and plans do not come under the Commission of Fine Arts. I had the opportunity during this sitting with Mr. Sam to tell him what the Commission of Fine Arts thought, but I didn't say it was the Commission of Fine Arts, I just gave an architectural opinion as to how it would look best. Fortunately, Mr. Rayburn who was very anxious to do the best thing he could do, and he followed that advice.

HESS: What is your opinion about the condition of the west front of the Capitol? Do you think it should be restored as is, do you think it should be changed as Architect George Stewart would like to change it?

DE WELDON: To tell you frankly, I haven't studied

[55]

it very carefully, or I haven't studied it at all, because not being on the Commission of Fine Arts now, I concentrate more on sculpture. I am also an architect, but I didn't study the plans of the west front.

HESS: As I understand he wants to move the west front well to the west also, and built it up, probably with marble, instead of replacing the sandstone that is there now.

DE WELDON: Well, that would be an improvement, because if you watch the dome of the Capitol, it's going beyond the building, and the force of the weight of the dome would eventually move that wall. Of course, on the other side, that problem has been solved, and that was the main reason.

HESS: It has been solved on the east side, and crumbling on the west side.

[56]

DE WELDON: They have had that very same problem at Santa Sophia Church in Constantinople. There the wall, because of the weight of the tremendous dome, has moved out sixteen feet. The top of the wall is sixteen feet off the plumb now, but it's still standing.

HESS: It's been pushed that far out by the weight of the dome?

DE WELDON: Yes.

HESS: They have their problems.

DE WELDON: Well, the problem has existed since I think the year 600 A.D. It hasn't changed since.

HESS: Then that's not so bad.

The next on Mr. Perry's list is Admiral Leahy. Where is that bronze?

DE WELDON: That's at Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy.

[57]

HESS: Then there's just the one?

DE WELDON: And then there is one plaster model at the Navy Department. And one is at the Naval War College.

HESS: And Admiral Nimitz?

DE WELDON: The bronze of Admiral Nimitz is at the Hall of State .in Dallas, Texas, and a replica plaster is at the Naval Academy, and one is at Mahon Hall at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. And then one is in the Nimitz Building of the Officers' Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.

HESS: And John Snyder.

DE WELDON: John Snyder, the original bronze is in his own possession, at the house of his daughter.

[58]

HESS: Are there any other plaster casts other than the ones that we have?

DE WELDON: It's the only one.

HESS: You mentioned that Leslie Biffle's was in his hometown.

DE WELDON: Piggott, Arkansas, at the entrance of the Post Office there.

HESS: Are there any other plaster casts other than ours?

DE WELDON: No, only the one.

HESS: And John Steelman?

DE WELDON: John Steelman, the bronze is at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville, Arkansas.

HESS: Admiral Spruance?

[59]

DE WELDON: Admiral Spruance is at the Naval War College, the Naval Academy, and the Truman Library.

HESS: That's fine.

DE WELDON: Thank you.

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


List of Subjects Discussed

    Aldrich, William, 45
    Allenby, Lord Edmund Henry, 2

    Biffle, Leslie, 29

      plaster bust of, 58

    Chavez, Senator Dennis, 47
    Churchill, Winston, 5-6
    Clark, Gilmore, 45
    Clark, Admiral To G., 15-16
    Clough, Arthur Hugh, 5-6
    Commission of Fine Arts, 42-43

      appointment of Felix De Weldon to, 37-38

    Dawson, Donald, 23, 32
    Delano, William Adams, 44
    Denfeld, Admiral Louis, 10
    Denig, General Robert Livingston, 18
    De Weldon, Felix, works of art, completed, 39-41

    Edwards, India, 27
    English Kings, busts of, 7-9

    Finley, David, 45

    Gamble, Theodore Roosevelt (Ted), 21

    Hagenah, Colonel Edward, 21

    Iwo Jima Monument, 14-15

    King, Prime Minister Mackenzie, 4

    Lawrie, Lee, 45
    Leahy Admiral William Do, 9, 11-12

      bronze bust of, 56

    McGrath, Howard, 24, 27

    Nimitz, Admiral Chester W., 17

      bronze bust of, 57

    Patuxent Naval Air Station, 10

    Rayburn, Sam, statue of, 51-52

      Capitol, reconstruction, discussion about, 52-54
    Reinhardt, L. Andrew, 45
    Rosenthal, Joseph, 21-22

    Santa Sophia Church, 56
    Snyder, John, 19

      bronze bust of, 57
      De Weldon's opinion of, 29
    Spruance, Admiral Raymond Ames, 28-29
      plaster cast of, 58
    Steelman, John, plaster cast of, 58

    Truman, Harry S., 12-13, 24

      bust of, by De Weldon, 23-27
      historians, future, rated by, 48-49
      Inaugural gift, from Democratic National Committee, 26
      Iwo Jima monument model, presented to, 20-21
      National Guard, Missouri, bust of, 35-36
      statue of, in Athens, Greece, 31-33
    Truman Monument (statue), Athens, Greece, 31-33
    Truman statue (model), in Truman Library, 33-34

    Vandegrift, General Alexander, 17-18
    Vaughan, General Harry, 32

    White House News Photographers Association, 1949, award, 34
    White House, renovation, recommendations on, 38-41

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]