The miniature egg rolls and open bar were as popular as FDR stories last night at the Hirshhorn Museum's reception to open the exhibition "Five Distinguished Alumni -- the WPA Federal Art Project," one of the features this week for the forthcoming Roosevelt centennial celebration.
Recent works from five artists who benefited from the project -- Ilya Bolotowsky, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw and Alice Neel -- were hung in three rooms, providing an paradoxical backdrop to nostalgia for the 1930s.
"This simply shows the versatility and dynamic character of Franklin Roosevelt and his wife," said Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.). "Before them, artists were supposed to be hungry. Then they came along and made artists productive."
Ibram Lassaw was one of those who emerged from the project.
"To those of us who benefited, it all seemed perfectly normal," Lassaw said last night, remembering when he and his colleagues were in their 20s. "It was the right thing for Roosevelt to do. It was the very development of culture."
It was not art criticism, but other splashes from the Roosevelt canvas, that Pepper launched into after shaking hands with Eleanor Seagraves, FDR's granddaughter.
"Once I had to read a letter from the president to a meeting of Young Democrats. I opened the letter and knew it hadn't been written by the president and didn't think it was what should be read. I called up and made an appointment to see him that night before going to the meeting. The aide said the president was usually tired then, but I could come on over to the White House at 6 p.m. if I wanted to. So I went on over. I gave the president the letter, he looked at, read it, and said, 'You're right. This isn't a proper letter.' Then he stood there and dictated another letter." Pepper said. "Now, not many presidents would have taken the time and trouble to do that. Especially for a young senator." Pepper served 15 years in the Senate before becoming a member of the House.
"Not many senators would have done that either," Seagraves said.
Another FDR relative at the reception -- his great-granddaughter -- didn't have as much to remember.
"I guess I know most of what I know from reading history," 22-year-old Laura Roosevelt said about FDR.
But the show-stealer, second only to the salty Pepper, was artist Alice Neel. A grande dame dressed in a long black gown and gold-speckled jacket, she leaned on her black cane, greeted her fellow New Deal artists and charmed the group.
"So we meet again," Ibram Lassaw said as he shook her hand for the first time in 50 years.
"We're survivors," Neel retorted with a big grin lighting up her face underneath her fur hat. "That's what we are."