After nearly seven decades, the men and women of the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, the “Monuments Men,” are having one heckuva of a moment. The international unit, chiefly Americans and Brits, who helped hunt down and rescue priceless cultural and artistic treasures — by da Vinci, Rodin, Michelangelo — looted by the Nazis during World War II, are getting a chorus of hosannas locally and nationally.
The National Gallery of Art, which played a central role in establishing the Monuments Men, the National Archives and the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art are hosting Monuments Men programming, as is the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. In New Orleans, the National World War II Museum announced Jan. 23 that the Monuments Men will have their own gallery in 2016.
And at the center of this moment is the Hollywood film “The Monuments Men,” opening Friday, with A-listers George Clooney and Matt Damon among its all-star cast. You might attribute all the attention to this relatively obscured chapter of World War II history to the anointing by Clooney, the fact that everything he touches — movies, causes, women — becomes inescapably au courant.
That’s until you meet Robert M. Edsel, co-author with Bret Witter of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” He’s the one straight out of Central Casting.
Rich, handsome — longish white hair and clear blue eyes — and restless, he’s a 59-year-old former tennis player and oil and gas entrepreneur turned Monuments Men apostle. He is kind of a Richard Branson type if, instead of crossing the ocean in a hot-air balloon, Branson had hired art-history professors to teach him about impressionism, architecture and the subtleties of sculptural movement. Edsel is the force that connected the history to Hollywood. Not the middleman exactly, but the essential man, without whom this moment probably doesn’t happen.
Posit this theory at the National Archives, which is displaying an Edsel-donated album cataloguing the Nazi plunder of 69 cultural treasures (one of three such albums Edsel has donated), and he flips the script. “It’s such an unbelievable story,” Edsel says. “If there’s an overarching message of the Monuments Men and Women, it is that shared sense of civilization, that these great creative achievements of mankind belong to everybody and should be preserved, even at the risk of their own lives.”
But persist in your theory, and Edsel smiles. Almost cinematically.
“I want to tell you a story, something I haven’t shared with any other media,” he says, and the reporter in you leans in.
In the “Monuments Men” book, Edsel writes about interviewing S. Lane Faison Jr., a 98-year-old Monuments Man turned art educator who trained renowned museum leaders including Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art. Faison’s son Gordon told Edsel his father could stay awake for only a half-hour at a time. But after the two spent hours going over historic photos in Edsel’s first book on Nazi art theft, “Rescuing Da Vinci,” Faison “pulled me close and said, ‘I’ve been waiting to meet you all my life.’ Ten days later, a week shy of his 99th birthday, he died,” Edsel wrote.
On this day, Edsel tells of a moment during that same interview when Faison asked him why he thought art was important. “Talk about the instructor asking the student,” Edsel says. “But I said, ‘The best way to describe it would be a phrase I saw on a stone entryway of the main art museum in Budapest: “Ars longa, vita brevis,” ’ Latin for ‘art is long, life is short.’ ” As Edsel recalls, Faison smiled, “and Lane said to Gordon, ‘Show Robert what’s going to be on my gravestone.’ And that was what was on the gravestone.”
It’s one of the many pieces of serendipity Edsel sees at work.
Edsel, who grew up “not wealthy” in Dallas, played tennis as a young man and thought he’d turn pro. He could have made a living, “but I wouldn’t have been great,” he says. He liked learning but not college, and he was “always rushing to get wherever I’m going to be.” He was offered a job by a guy in the oil and gas business in 1979. After two years, he quit and started his own company. After 16 years, his company had pioneered a new drilling technology. He was rich, but unfulfilled. “Thirty-nine can become 59 in the snap of a finger, and I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live,” he says now. In 1995, he sold his company and moved with his then-wife and 2-year-old son to Europe. They ended up in Florence, where he was surrounded by inspiration and dozens of universities with satellite campuses. He hired an art history professor to teach him how to look at art.
He toured museums. He marveled that great masterpieces — da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” Michelangelo’s “David” — survived the war. He became interested in the history of their salvation. “I was 39, the same age as [the Monuments Men] officers,” Edsel says. Yet they’d volunteered for service during war, and some had died. His curiosity became a passion to tell their story. He decided to write “Rescuing Da Vinci,” largely a book of photographs, that he ended up having to self-publish.
It was that book he showed Faison in 2006.
Edsel has spent years poring over archival documents from across the world and collecting artifacts. He has hired researchers, interviewed historians and academics and, in 2007, became founder and chairman of the nonprofit Monuments Men Foundation. He’s interviewed 17 Monuments Men and their families. Only five are alive. At a 2007 ceremony celebrating the passages of House and Senate resolutions recognizing the Monuments Men, Harry Ettlinger call Edsel “our champion.” In the movie, the character of Sam Epstein, played by actor Dimitri Leonidas, is based on Ettlinger.
Ettlinger and his family emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1938, the day after his bar mitzvah. He returned to Europe as an infantryman during World War II. He was pulled from combat on his 19th birthday, just before entering the Battle of the Bulge, became a translator and volunteered as a Monuments Man. The end of the movie features a photo of Ettlinger, staring at a hometown jewel that, as a young Jew in Nazi Germany, he’d never been allowed to see — “Self Portrait” by Rembrandt, taken from the Karlsruhe Museum.
Reached in Rockaway, N.J., on his 88th birthday, Ettlinger says he got to see a special showing of the movie at his local theater. “You bet your bottom dollar it has changed my life,” he says. “It helped me appreciate what a good job I did.”
He’s getting calls from across the world because there’s a movie “with George Clooney in it. . . . I will meet him. I will shake hands with him February 8 in Berlin, and I will protect my hand from then on. I will put a glove on so that women that I meet can touch my hand and get some Clooney magic.”
The National Gallery’s Powell calls Edsel’s book the catalyst for the new attention to Monuments Men history, “and, of course, the film will give it very, very wide public interest and awareness.”
Powell was a student of Faison’s at Williams College, and the National Gallery has strong connections to the story. Gallery officials helped establish the Roberts Commission, tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with protecting cultural treasures threatened by the war. The gallery provided offices and staff members for the commission, and, with then-gallery Director David E. Finley Jr. serving as de facto head, it identified the first Monuments Men and provided locations of artworks and monuments.
The gallery has three pieces — “Portrait of a Young Man” by Hans Holbein the Younger, “On the Jetty” by Eugene Boudin and “The Work Table” by Pierre Bonnard — which Monuments Men helped return to their rightful owners after the war and which later came into the gallery’s collection. Powell cites other artwork, the Ghent Altarpiece and sculptures by Rodin, that survived the war. “Just think of it the other way around,” Powell says. “What could have been lost that was saved.”
Maygene Daniels, chief of the gallery’s archives, calls it rare for archival history to get this kind of pop-culture love. The Monuments Men visited the White House after the war, and some wrote books. There was an award-winning 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas, “The Rape of Europa,” that was made into a documentary in 2006 (co-produced by Edsel). The art is compelling, but it’s been that way for more than half a millennium. With regard to the movie, “none of us have seen it, and we’re hoping for the best,” she says, “but to put it in context, this isn’t the first time there’s been interest in what has happened. Each generation is discovering this history for themselves.”
Edsel sees the serendipity of it all. “The goal was always to have a movie,” Edsel says at the National Archives, just before he heads to Capitol Hill, where last year a bill was introduced to award the Monuments Men a Congressional Gold Medal. “Nothing reaches an audience like a feature film.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.