Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus as Roman senators. They were tribunes.
Cover Story

A Mom-umental Failure

By John Kelly
Sunday, May 11, 2008

ON A WARM SPRING DAY IN 1929, dozens of Washington dignitaries gathered in a forest near Chevy Chase to think about their mothers. It was, after all, Mother's Day, just the 15th since the holiday had been made official, and thus an appropriate time to break ground for what everyone assembled hoped would be Washington's newest, and biggest, monument.

A Girl Scout choir sang. A senator spoke. Five pastors gave their blessings. And at 3:30 p.m., as an American flag was raised atop a four-foot limestone pyramid, a quartet of Boy Scout buglers marched to the corners of the five-acre site and blew a fanfare. Then a thrice-married, globetrotting, poetry-penning 65-year-old socialite began to address the crowd.

"The world has memorialized fighters, thinkers, monarchs and prophets, sea kings and generals," said Mrs. Clarence Crittenden Calhoun. "But as yet no monument to the mother genius has been raised in imperishable stone, beautified by art and sculpture, to proclaim the debt each mortal owes to the woman who risked her own life to give life."

To put it more plainly, in a city full of monuments, mothers had been forgotten. But on that day -- May 12, Calhoun's birthday, as it happened -- hope was in the air: The first concrete steps were being taken toward building a monument to mothers everywhere.

"After all," Calhoun said, "mothers have been the real wonder workers of the world. Out of the plastic clay of humanity, they have wrought with tears and sacrifice, with unselfish labor and devotion, with prayer and inspiration, the progress and civilization of mankind."

Across town, in an apartment on 16th Street NW, sat a man who had once been called "America's greatest living sculptor." His name was William Clark Noble, and he was seething. That morning, The Washington Post had published a lengthy article about the so-called Mothers' Memorial, complete with a photo of its architect, Harry Hake of Cincinnati, and an artist's conception of Hake's proposed design. In the drawing, a huge swath of trees had been cleared, and in its place were two curving double colonnades that enclosed a spacious plaza like a pair of massive parentheses. Beyond that was an impressive domed building surrounded by arches, and beyond that was a sunken amphitheatre.

The Mothers' Memorial, The Post reported, would be topped by a light that would flash to the four points of the compass and would "typify the light of maternal solicitude always watching over the world." This light, the paper promised, would be visible "from every part of the National Capital and its approaches."

Perhaps it was that last detail -- the eternal light, an unblinking oculus as pitiless as a mother's all-seeing third eye -- that particularly rankled the brooding sculptor. Go where he might in Washington, there'd be no escaping the constant, throbbing reminder of his betrayal and his ruin. Years earlier, he had designed an edifice every bit as monumental as Hake's acres of limestone. It, too, was meant to honor the nurturing power of mothers. In 1924, Calhoun had announced that Noble's design had been selected. His photograph had graced fawning newspaper articles, and his scale model was reproduced in lavish fundraising booklets that were sent across the country.

But Noble's design had never been built. That was bad enough. Worse, that infernal Calhoun woman still owed him money: $500,000 in Noble's estimation.

In the end, Noble thought he could be satisfied with $30,000. But when he tried to get the money three months later, he was in for a nasty shock. U.S. marshals burst in on him in his lawyer's office and arrested him. The charge: blackmail. The so-called world's greatest sculptor, authorities said, had threatened to unleash "one of the greatest scandals in the country."

HOW CAN WE EVER HOPE TO REPAY OUR MOTHERS for all they did for us? Like sleeping with our fathers, for a start. Then growing us inside their wombs like alien parasites and expelling us from their bodies in a painful and theatrical fashion.

Then there's the raising of us, with all that alternating drudgery and terror. The pooping, the teething, the tantrums. The concussions, the late-night fevers, the mysterious rashes. Suddenly it's the teenage years, and if you're a girl you bombard your mother with powerful waves of Electra complex hatred, and if you're a boy all you can manage is embarrassed indifference, which at least is preferable to the unhealthy mama-centrism of the sort explored in the movie "Psycho."

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