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."
And, through it all, there is Mother's Day, the time of year when we let our mothers know that we love them. We adorn homemade cards with crudely lettered poetry and deliver well-intentioned, if disastrous, breakfasts in bed. Ah, Mother's Day breakfast in bed. The smell of burnt toast is in the air. Dad is hanging back in the doorway. The look on his face says: "You see what life would be like without you? You see? Chaos."
THE WOMAN AT THE CENTER of Washington's great Mothers' Memorial blackmail scandal was born in Philadelphia in 1864 and christened Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Donovan O'Donovan.
Her friends called her "Daisy."
Daisy was born into wealth and society and brought up in New Orleans. In her youth, she was known for her smart aleck sense of humor and coquettish beauty: chestnut hair, hazel eyes and a round, pretty face. When she started attracting the attention of boys, her mother sent her off to the Georgetown Visitation convent school in Washington.
By the time Daisy marched through the forest to watch the flag be raised at the Mothers' Memorial site, she'd been married three times and widowed twice. Her first husband was a wealthy Charleston, S.C., banker named Andrew Simonds, whom she married in 1885 and who invited Daisy to design a house for them to live in, a mansion that still stands on the city's South Battery.
After Simonds's premature death in 1905, Daisy and their 5-year-old daughter, Margaret, were left in a precarious financial position. With a practical streak that belied her debutante upbringing, Daisy turned her Charleston home into a luxury hotel. She named it after herself: the Villa Margherita -- "margherita" being Italian for "daisy."
Daisy conjured up the hotel's motto out of fractured Latin: "Sic tibi pecunia non intrare non licet est." Daisy translated it this way: "If you ain't got no money you needn't come around."
Daisy's second husband was Barker Gummere Jr., a banker whose political influence earned him the nickname the "Kingmaker of New Jersey." They met when both happened to be aboard the same yacht during a congressional junket to the Panama Canal.
After their marriage in 1907, Daisy designed another house -- a mansion called Rosedale on 57 acres Gummere owned near Princeton. And when Gummere died of pneumonia in 1914, Daisy again showed her repurposing skills. She hired nine teachers and transformed Rosedale into a private academy for girls, enrolling her daughter as the first student.
She married her third husband in 1918. Capt. Clarence Crittenden Calhoun was a Kentucky lawyer and Spanish-American War veteran who had established a lucrative law practice in Washington.
In the summer of 1920, the Calhouns traveled to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention. There Daisy Calhoun noticed something interesting: Female conventiongoers were being treated with a surprising amount of deference. The 19th Amendment was about to give women the right to vote, and politicians were eagerly courting this new constituency. Recalled Calhoun in a later memoir: "While I had always believed in woman's political power behind the throne, I came away from the Convention a thorough convert to her new place in the world, not only for equal rights in politics and business, but as a public speaker."
She pondered this on the long ride back to Washington. By the time the train pulled into Union Station, Calhoun had decided to harness what her husband had dubbed "dynamic woman power" and turn it into a nonpartisan political force. She would focus this power, magnify it, be the prism through which it would be refracted.
The organization Calhoun founded was called the Woman's National Foundation, and chief among its bylaws was the promise to educate "women in their civil rights and duties as citizens, by giving and receiving instruction in history, civics and statescraft and all other branches helpful to good citizenship . . ."
She raised funds from wealthy donors, pooled them with her own money and in 1921 spent $80,000 on an option to buy 10 acres of prime land at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW. Known as the Dean estate, the property included a mansion that became the foundation's headquarters and was the setting for a hectic schedule of civics lessons, socials and inspirational pageants.
One of the foundation's members -- a certain Mrs. George Barnett -- proposed building a Hall of Remembrance "in memory of the achievements of American womanhood from pioneer days to the present time." There was as yet no suggestion in the proposal that being a woman was somehow synonymous with being a mother, but Calhoun's husband had an idea. Surely the most vital role that women played should be celebrated. That year, Clarence Calhoun pledged $1,000 for a marble pillar honoring his mother. A man named William Deane Ham said he would give $100 if his mother's name could be engraved second.
What loving son could resist the opportunity to enshrine forever the name of the woman who gave him life? What newspaper hack could resist leaping on the bandwagon with two thudding feet? As The Washington Post wrote in an editorial lauding the proposed monument: "No man is ever good or great but that back of him stands a great mother. The mothers of America! God bless them, every one."
Daisy Calhoun was soon to decide, however, that along with their maternal instincts, women had a less praiseworthy trait: They could be jealous, sniping harpies. "Many women are so constituted that they cannot bear to see one of their sisters, who has been on a par with them, suddenly elevated to a position of authority over them," she wrote later in her memoir, The Autobiography of a Chameleon. Other members of the Woman's National Foundation had become resentful of Calhoun's figurehead status and had, she said, set about tearing her down. The organization was dissolved in a frenzy of whispered accusations. Calhoun didn't describe the precise nature of those accusations in her memoir, though she pointed out that all the foundation's funds "had been handled by a bonded officer and had been found at all points straight and correct." The italics are hers, suggesting this might have been a touchy subject.
Calhoun refused to be defeated. In February 1922, she founded a group with a more grandiose name -- the Woman's Universal Alliance-- and promised that it would build in Washington "an acropolis to the womanhood of all lands, as a tribute to the great women of the past and to the motherhood of the world." But who would design the Parthenon for this Acropolis?
That December, the Washington Star published a full-page article about the newest member of the city's art colony, a 65-year-old sculptor named William Clark Noble. Toward the end of the story were a few sentences that must have caught Calhoun's eye: "Some day, perchance, the millions of America may revere a great memorial to the American woman, which Clark Noble hopes some day to build. This has been his cherished dream of more than thirty years."
NOBLE ALWAYS TOLD PROFILERS that he had been orphaned when he was 10 months old after his sea captain father went down with all hands in a violent storm off the coast of New England. Clark, as he was called, went to live on his grandfather's farm in Gardiner, Maine, where as a young boy he spent hours playing with clay he dug from a hill at the back of the property.
At age 8, he found a biography of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen -- this apparently being standard issue in Maine farmhouses at the time -- and read it over and over. While his family wanted him to go to sea, he refused, vowing to become an artist.
Noble worked in a Maine lumber mill until he was 14, then moved to Boston.
He was rebuffed at the sculpture and architecture firms he applied to, until a partner at an architectural fabricator asked how much he hoped to earn. "I don't want to earn anything," the teenager replied. "I would like to learn something."
Hired on the spot, Noble was soon earning $12 a week. By 17, he'd become the plant's foreman and was overseeing 84 men. He learned the rudiments of design and how to shape clay, plaster, wood, marble and bronze.
Fired for punching a union organizer in the nose, and unable to find sculpting work, Noble was forced to join a barnstorming boxing show. He spent a year on the vaudeville circuit, fighting under the name "The Art Student." By the time he quit the ring, he had saved $28,000, enough to finance more study. He apprenticed with architectural sculptors in New York and Boston. In his spare time, he visited a dissecting room to learn about anatomy.
He eventually settled in Newport, R.I., where he opened an art school and set about earning commissions. He specialized in portrait medallions and busts of actors and actresses. He also won large public jobs, designing the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Monument that stands in Newport's Congdon Park. When he heard that the new Capitol building in his home state of Maine was going to be topped by a cheap zinc figure, he donated a copper repoussé statue of his own design: "Lady of Wisdom."
Noble never did something that was expected of every self-respecting artist at the time: make a grand tour of Europe. He was proud of the fact that he was an American sculptor, a "man's man" who eschewed the cliches of the tortured Continental creative. No long hair and effete manner for him. He was stocky, cigar-smoking and looked just like what he was, a former boxer. He preferred vigorous action over reflection, claiming that he could sculpt a likeness of any person in a matter of minutes.
As the author of a 1924 profile for the Dearborn (Mich.) Independent wrote: "His training is a direct violation of all the traditions which long have governed the American art world. He has never been the pupil of foreign masters. He is wholly an American-educated sculptor . . . The foreign masters of the day recognize Noble's greatness and genius."
Noble had a few other American traits: He was litigious. When he felt that clients were slow to pay him, he sued. Also, he spent more than he earned. In 1899, when he was living in New York, he declared bankruptcy, with liabilities of $28,744.
Before that, there was a curious episode from 1897. When Noble was 38, he was arrested and charged with bilking $2,000 from a woman named Julia Adelaide Price, his model for a statue of the Madonna. Noble had been so distracted by her beauty that he found it hard to work, Price told police. Desperately in love with her, Noble asked her to marry him. And, by the way, could he borrow some money?
He allegedly extracted her life savings over the next few months. Eventually his ardor cooled, and he admitted that something stood in the way of their marriage plans: his then-wife, Lillian. That's when Price had Noble arrested.
He protested his innocence. "This is simply a blackmailing case, and letters in the hands of my lawyers will prove that I am telling the truth," the sculptor told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The model's larceny charges against Noble were dismissed by a magistrate who said that it was a matter for a civil court.
ONE OF THE FIRST RECORDED MEMORIALS to a mother was the statue erected around 100 B.C. in Rome in the memory of Cornelia, the mother of reform-minded senators Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.
Cornelia was the Romans' idea of the perfect mom. She gave birth to 12 children, though only three survived to adulthood. When her husband died, she devoted herself to raising the kids, refusing an offer of marriage from King Ptolemy of Egypt. She was praised for her maternal skills, which to the Romans meant creating well-spoken, politically active citizens.
The story goes that a nouveau riche acquaintance once came to Cornelia's house and showed off her lavish jewelry. Cornelia kept the woman talking until her two boys came home from school, whereupon she said of them, " These are my jewels." History does not record whether Cornelia's guest then said, "Oh go suck a lemon, you sanctimonious prig."
Then there's Anna Jarvis, the West Virginia woman responsible for organizing the first U.S. Mother's Day. "When my own mother died," Jarvis once explained, "I felt I wanted to carry on in some way her 'mother spirit,' and I thought this could best be done by having a day set apart to honor all mothers, and through them all womanhood."
There's arguably a creepy, smothering, borderline-necrophilic tinge to Mother's Day as envisioned by Anna Jarvis. She suggested that the carnation be the symbol of the holiday, as "the carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying."
Woodrow Wilson signed Mother's Day into law in 1914, but whatever joy Jarvis felt at her accomplishment was soon overtaken by rage, as the holiday quickly became an excuse for merchants to peddle posies and greeting cards. Jarvis spent the rest of her life trying to undo the damage. She lashed out at sons and daughters who would rather buy a card than write a letter. She formed something called the Mother's Day International Corporation and sued retailers and festival organizers who she felt violated her copyright. Like all good wild-eyed visionaries, she died penniless in a sanitarium. Naturally, she was buried next to her mother.
As for children, she never had any.
SOMETIME EARLY IN 1924, William Clark Noble and Daisy Calhoun met. She'd been kicking around the idea for a mothers' memorial for close to four years but had been unable to get anything built. Now a famous sculptor had shown up in Washington, and not only did he want to build a mother's memorial, too, he had already designed one.
In June, the executive committee of the Woman's Universal Alliance announced that Noble's design had been chosen for the memorial. Having given up the Dean estate, Calhoun had bought an option on 40 acres near Massachusetts Avenue and W Street NW called Clifton, planning to sell bits of it to other investors while keeping the prime spot for the memorial. While the designs that had been halfheartedly contemplated over the previous four years had been fairly simple -- some pillars, some inscribed names, a statue or two -- Noble's creation was something else entirely. It looked as if someone had crammed a library's worth of architecture and sculpture books into a gigantic blender and pushed "puree."
Noble's centerpiece was a white marble arch 297 feet high -- that's three times the height of the Lincoln Memorial -- sitting atop a shallow ziggurat of marble steps as long as a football field. Crowning the arch was a group of figures, including a heroic mother holding the "Torch of Enlightenment" in one hand while offering a just-kindled torch to "Young Manhood" and "Young Womanhood." Bronze panels on either face of the arch featured complicated bas-reliefs. Four tall pedestals surrounded the arch, each topped by an allegorical statue. There were mothers sending sons off to battle, women ministering to injured soldiers, flocks of winged angels, packs of gargoyles spewing water into fountains. Within the arch were meeting and function rooms.
All the monument lacked was a bowling alley and a zeppelin landing strip. Had the Mothers' Memorial been built -- and, no, you haven't missed anything; it wasn't -- it would have made the World War II Memorial look like a highway rest stop marker.
Noble spent the summer of 1924 in his studio at 15th and Euclid streets NW, tinkering with the design and shaping a scale model out of plaster and a similar substance known as compo. A likeness of his memorial was printed in a fundraising brochure. The pamphlet described the monument as: "A tribute to the mothers of the past. A service to the mothers of the present. An inspiration to the mothers of the future." Donors could support the Woman's Universal Alliance at levels ranging from $5 for a "link membership" to $1,000 for a "founder membership."
If money was being raised, however, Noble had yet to see any of it. Despite the announcement that he was the winning designer, he hadn't signed a contract stipulating how much he would be paid and on what sort of timetable. At first, he didn't think he needed to. "She seemed like such a lovely lady," he later said of Calhoun.
By December, Noble was starting to get anxious. Calhoun had advanced him money from her personal account -- she told him she'd hocked a ruby -- but she claimed to be having cash-flow problems of her own. Throughout the winter and spring of 1925, Noble's lawyer drew up contract after contract and tried to determine who at the WUA was actually empowered to sign it.
In April, Noble put aside his Mothers' Memorial work to earn a much needed $1,000 designing a coin for the Guatemalan government. But by June, he had fallen $2,000 behind on the rent for his studio. Still, there was no agreement.
DOES IT DETRACT FROM OUR STORY to suggest that Daisy Calhoun was maybe not the best mother in the world? Is it a case of: Those who can, do; those who can't then spend their lives trying to build a memorial to those who can?
Calhoun seemed to dote on her mother, Josephine Marr Breaux, and her memoir is filled with mentions of the European trips the two took together and the way Josephine comforted Daisy after the deaths of her first two husbands.
As for the brief chapter she titles "The Advent of a Daughter," Calhoun starts the story this way: "The only thing apparently [my husband] Andrew wanted most in his life had up to this time been denied him. We had been married for several years, and his longing for a child had become almost a painful obsession . . . I would willingly have done anything within human power to help bring about the ungratified desire of his life."
His life. Ouch.
Calhoun's daughter, Margaret, eloped when she was about 18. Her secret suitor was a wealthy young Washingtonian named Arthur Drury, whom Calhoun described as "feckless and not suited to business." The marriage didn't last long, and Margaret later married Charles Waring, a Charleston lawyer.
Margaret had children by both men, and the testimony as to what sort of mother her mother was depends on which branch of the family you talk to.
"We never speak poorly of her at all," Andrew Drury, Calhoun's grandson, told me. "My mother absolutely loved Daisy, thought she was an absolute blast, always very affectionate. I never heard of any problems there at all."
The widow of Andrew's half-brother, Charles Waring, has a different memory. "She was a horrible mother," Jane Waring said of Calhoun. "I mean, she was the antithesis of what you'd want for a mother."
Margaret, Jane Waring said, was raised by nannies. "Her mother was always gallivanting around, having her fine ideas. I find the whole [Mothers' Memorial] thing ironic."
Jane Waring summed up her mother-in-law's opinion of Calhoun with an anecdote about a phone call she received from Margaret: "She called me and said: 'Jane, tell your husband to come get the bitch. Daisy fell off the wall. That damn portrait came within inches of killing me.'"
Charles Waring collected the portrait of his grandmother that had almost brained his mother and brought it home.
And what of Noble's relationship with his mother? Well, what maternal attachment can an orphan form? Except he wasn't an orphan. Noble's father died aboard that ship, but his mother, Emma Noble, didn't. She moved to the Maine farm -- her father's farm -- along with Clark and his older brother. She just didn't seem to figure in the well-honed stories the artist told over the years.
Looking back, Calhoun and Noble may not have been the best two people to create that memorial.
IN THE FALL OF 1925, Calhoun announced the launch of a $15 million fund-raising campaign and unveiled yet another memorial design. This one wasn't by Noble but by Joseph Geddes, an architect who had been working with Noble to design the interior spaces of the monument.
Noble had had enough. "Sculptor Wrathfully Quits Motherhood Memorial Drive" read the headline in the Washington Herald on January 27, 1926. Said Noble: "They have ruined my life's work, destroyed my dearest dream, and now I am through."
Noble spent the next three years trying to pry money out of Daisy Calhoun and the Woman's Universal Alliance. On August 7, 1929, it looked as if he was finally going to get paid. He agreed to meet with the Calhouns in his lawyer's office in the Munsey Building at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. A check for $30,000 was produced, and Noble was told it was his if he signed a document agreeing not to publish charges derogatory to the character of the Calhouns.
Noble thought that odd, but he signed. So did his third wife, Emilie, their lawyer, James Bird, and two people who had entered the Nobles' orbit in the previous two years: a businessman named Stephen A. Armstrong and a nurse named Anna Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand was the head of a women's group called the Alma Mater that was supposedly interested in building Noble's design. Washingtonians with a good memory might have recalled she'd once been accused of coercing an elderly woman she was caring for into changing her will, making Hillenbrand the beneficiary.
These, then, were the characters assembled in the conference room when, at a prearranged signal from an undercover officer the Calhouns had brought along ("Quick, get my glasses"), three deputy marshals burst in. Bird, the lawyer, started ripping up the agreement, but a deputy grabbed it from his hands. As Noble and his supporters were arrested for extortion, Daisy Calhoun jumped up and down, clapping her hands and shouting, "We caught you just like mice in a trap."
WHY DO WE LOVE OUR MOTHERS, ANYWAY? And why do our mothers love us? These are questions that science has been asking for years.
If you take an infant rhesus monkey from its mother and give it a choice between a fake mother made out of a bare wire cylinder and a fake mother made out of a cloth-covered wire cylinder, it will prefer the latter. It will cling to the cloth-covered wire model even when the model hits it with a blast of compressed air preceded by a honk from an air horn. "Although the infant monkeys soon learned what to expect, instead of taking evasive action they did just the opposite," wrote psychiatrist John Bowlby in his classic treatise "Attachment and Loss." "They clasped the model with increased vigour and so received on face and belly a blast of maximum intensity."
Evolutionarily speaking, we love our mother because, despite her faults and frailties, she is our best hope for security. We cling to her because she keeps us from being carried off in the night by a leopard. And our mother loves us because we are the future, the only way her genes can live on. She doesn't think in those terms, of course, but she reacts -- physically, chemically -- to the warm touch of our unblemished skin, the soft penumbra of our fuzzy newborn head.
But what about when we're no longer cute and cuddly and our mother's hormonal maternal frenzy has subsided? What about when we're old enough to fend off leopards on our own and we don't need our mother? There's no evolutionary mandate for us to stay in touch. But who knows us better than our mothers? And who has a bigger investment in how we turn out? What pair of humans are linked quite so inextricably, for better or worse?
THE TRIAL STARTED ON MAY 8, 1931, before Justice Jesse Adkins in the District's Criminal Court No. 3. In his opening statement, assistant U.S. attorney Irvin Goldstein said he would prove that Noble and his codefendants had concocted a plan to extort from the Calhouns sums ranging from $30,000 to $300,000. He called as his first witness Daisy Calhoun, who testified that in July 1929 Noble's associate Hillenbrand told her that the sculptor possessed information about Calhoun's private life and character that would "shake the capital" if made public.
Daisy Calhoun was an entertaining witness, frequently provoking eruptions of laughter in the courtroom. When asked by a defense attorney if she had in fact written a letter praising Noble's work, she responded, "Well, you know what a woman will do to encourage a man to work." At another point in her cross-examination, she turned to the judge and said, "Does a poor little woman like me have to submit to being picked to pieces by each of those great lawyers?"
Adkins said she did, though he hoped the attorneys would not "avail themselves of the opportunity."
Calhoun maintained that Noble's design had been for "illustrative purposes only" and that the Woman's Universal Alliance never made a legal commitment to build his memorial. She spent three days outlining the alleged plot against her and parrying defense attorneys' questions. When she finally left the witness stand, she crowed, "They've been trying to break me down for three days, and they've failed."
During his testimony, Clarence Calhoun said that Noble's design had never really worked and that the sculptor was reluctant to make the radical changes necessary. He said it would have been "criminal" to pay Noble the money he was demanding. Clarence Calhoun admitted that the expenditures of the Woman's Universal Alliance far exceeded its receipts. It had spent $100,000, and the only thing erected so far was a 4-by-5-foot pyramid topped by an American flag.
The defense seemed fixated on the Calhouns' finances, and it became clear why when the substance of Noble's alleged blackmail threat was revealed: The Calhouns had allegedly diverted to their own use millions of dollars belonging to the Woman's Universal Alliance.
Emilie Noble testified that Daisy Calhoun told her she had never intended to build the Mothers' Memorial -- that it was all a scam. There was the hint that the Calhouns had used the donations to buy Braemar Forest, the 100-acre woodland they'd purchased in Chevy Chase. Daisy's plans for the Clifton estate had fallen through, and Clarence had donated five acres of Braemar Forest to Daisy's group for the memorial. But all that had been built was the Calhouns' 30-room mansion. Dubbed "Rossdhu" and patterned after a Scottish castle, it was the third house Daisy had designed.
Noble took the stand a few days after his wife did. He was 73, in ill health and had suffered through the previous two days with chest pains. But he elicited as many laughs as his accuser. He claimed that Calhoun wanted one of the memorial's sculptural groups replaced with a 50-foot statue of herself seated on a throne.
"I told her that was too much Calhoun," Noble testified.
Of another encounter with Calhoun, he noted: "Mrs. Calhoun said her husband is a Southerner and shoots to kill. She said if I tried to collect my debt from her, he would shoot me. I told her if he came to my house with a pistol, I'd punch it down his neck, and that, anyhow, he didn't look like he'd carry a very big gun."
He was still the fighting art student.
The trial lasted nearly a month. Finally on Friday, May 29, the defense rested. When the court gathered on the following Monday, the judge had a surprise: He announced there was insufficient evidence to prove the defendants' guilt. They were all free to go.
Noble took one step toward his attorney, spun on his heels, and collapsed from a heart attack.
WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING WITH YOUR MOTHER TODAY, it will not involve a trip to the Mothers' Memorial. The publicity from the blackmail trial and the financial woes of the Depression, along with a pronounced coolness from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, ensured that it would not join Washington's skyline.
Did Calhoun dupe her donors and pocket the Mothers' Memorial money? That's impossible to say. She was never charged with a crime. She may merely have been guilty of having grandiose plans but no ability to pull them off.
The Scottish-style castle the Calhouns built in Chevy Chase proved too expensive to maintain. A year after the trial, they converted it into a restaurant. It was torn down in the 1950s to make way for new houses. Only the turreted gatehouse on Woodbine Street remains, a fanciful structure that is now a private home.
Clarence Calhoun died in 1938. Daisy Calhoun promised to publish another memoir recounting how she had been "prey for many of the scoundrels and racketeers that infest Washington." She never did, though her cookbook, Favorite Recipes of a Famous Hostess, proved popular. She moved back to Charleston in 1948 and died there the following year at age 85. Her obituaries did not mention the Mothers' Memorial.
The dramatic heart attack in the courtroom didn't kill Noble. He lived another seven years, but his art career never recovered. His last major commission, a memorial to Pierre L'Enfant, was never built. He died in 1938 and was buried in an unmarked grave in South Gardiner, Maine. In 2000, Maine writer and historian Gay Grant raised money for a headstone. She says the statue atop the Maine Capitol building is Noble's greatest work. As for the Mothers' Memorial: "Thank God it was never built is all I can say."
For, really, did we ever need an avalanche of limestone and bronze to prove that we love our mothers? Shouldn't we just try to be the children they hoped we'd be all those years ago: courteous of manner and clean of underwear? And today, shouldn't we just call them up or take their hands and say those words they long to hear: "Thank you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day."
Metro section columnist John Kelly is spending the year at Oxford University. His blog is at www.voxford.blogspot.com.