In August 1942, Ginger Rogers received a neatly typed letter from a Japanese internment camp.
“Your head in marble was finally sent off to you,” the letter began. A few paragraphs later, the writer concluded, somewhat hastily: “May it go down thru the ages as a remembrance of a lovely lady of our times. The circumstances of its making was strange, I guess somewhat symbolical too.”
The letter was signed: “Your devoted fan, Isamu Noguchi.”
What the acclaimed sculptor had completed at the Hollywood star’s request was a bust in pink Georgia marble, complete with a modernist take on her upswept pompadour. Noguchi was a master of expressive simplicity. And true to form, his appraisal of the bust’s creation left quite a lot out.
“Strange” doesn’t begin to describe the story of how Noguchi, whose far-reaching experiments in sculpture made him one of the most important artists of the 20th century, created this elegant work. It is featured in a new display at the National Portrait Gallery, part of an ongoing exhibition devoted to Americans in the years 1930-1950. In a room dedicated to World War II, the bust stands in marked contrast to the sober, wall-size paintings of Generals George S. Patton Jr. and George C. Marshall.
The bust’s pale, peachy color captures Rogers’s glamour and softness, qualities that gave her such an appealing presence in her more than 70 films. The stone is flecked with gold, which lends her a freckled, sporty look, true to her nature. Rogers wasn’t only a queen of the dance floor in her 10 movies with Fred Astaire, among them “Swing Time” and “The Gay Divorcee.” She also was an accomplished athlete and known especially as a formidable tennis player.
The elongated shape of the head tells you something about Rogers’s physicality, her poised, upright bearing and her slenderness. That vertical lift, and the regal way the head is held, bring to mind the ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. Did Noguchi see Rogers as more than a celebrity — even, perhaps, as a modern-day goddess?
Alongside the bust are a photo of the Japanese American sculptor by George Platt Lynes and an earlier letter Noguchi wrote to Rogers, also from the Poston War Relocation Center, the camp in the Arizona desert where he was detained. Rogers’s bust has been on display since the gallery bought it in 1996, a year after Rogers’s death at age 83, but it is only now being shown with the Noguchi materials. And because they are light-sensitive, those works on paper will be on view only through next summer.
At the time Rogers commissioned the bust, Noguchi’s name was known in the dance world and in show business. By 1940 he had completed three set designs for the Martha Graham Dance Company; he’d eventually create more than 20. He also had sculpted Graham’s head, along with those of Japanese dancer Michio Ito and choreographers Michel Fokine and Doris Humphrey. Over the years, George Gershwin, Thornton Wilder and other prominent figures also had busts done by Noguchi. Those portrait sculptures were the artist’s first claim to fame; he made more than 100.
Was Rogers drawn to Noguchi because his star was rising among the Hollywood set? Or because of his fondness for dancers? At any rate, she had excellent taste. In late 1941, while Rogers was filming “Roxie Hart,” she sent word to Noguchi through a friend that she would like him to sculpt her.
According to her biography, it happened to be Dec. 7 — the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — when she heard that Noguchi was willing. The next day, as the nation was roiling with grief and hatred of the Japanese, Rogers invited Noguchi to her home.
“I was very impressed with this gentle, distinguished Japanese-American and was delighted when he agreed to sculpt me,” the actress wrote in “Ginger: My Story.” She created a studio for him, above her pool and tennis court. He worked there for a month, so quietly, she said, “that I hardly knew he was present.”
The hairdo, like a billowing crest of meringue, is a relic of the movie role she was working on: Roxie Hart was a gum-cracking flapper at the center of a murder trial.
But Noguchi’s work on the piece was interrupted. As the government began rounding up people of Japanese heritage to send them to internment camps, he volunteered to join them.
He didn’t have to. As a resident of New York, Noguchi wasn’t subject to the evacuation zone, which was limited to the West Coast. He volunteered, according to biographical accounts, as a gesture of solidarity. Appalled at the internments, Noguchi thought he could do some good by teaching art to the detainees.
Noguchi was sent to Poston, set on an Indian reservation in the vastness of the Arizona desert. He had his marble and tools for Rogers’s head shipped there, too.
No good deed goes unpunished, the saying goes. Noguchi’s well-intentioned act carried a heavy price.
Delphine Hirasuna has researched the story behind the Rogers bust, out of personal and professional interest. Her grandparents, uncles, parents and siblings were interned in an Arkansas camp before she was born. Hirasuna wrote a book about the artworks that many created in the camps from found materials, and she was a guest curator of a 2010 exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts From the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946.” (“Gaman” is Japanese for “bearing the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” and the expression became associated with the internment experience.) The Renwick exhibit included Noguchi’s bust of Rogers.
The artist, Hirasuna says, thought he would spend only a month at Poston, tops.
“He was promised if you don’t like it, you can leave any time you want to,” she says. “But he was basically held there.”
Noguchi was there for seven months. In the summer, the temperature in the camp soared to a brutal 125 degrees. Some died from the heat.
On top of it all, the artist had little in common with the Japanese evacuees he had hoped to befriend. Born in Los Angeles, the illegitimate son of a Japanese poet who soon left Noguchi’s American mother, he spent his early years in Japan, but then attended Columbia University, studied medicine and art, lived in Paris, hung around with Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky, and traveled the world. He couldn’t have been more different from the farmers and laborers who populated the camp. Coming in with his high-end art supplies, his urbane manners and air of distinction, Noguchi was more of an outsider than ever.
“I’ve met people who remember him from the camps,” Hirasuna says of the artist, who died in 1988 at age 84. “There are recollections of him roaming alone in the desert, collecting ironwood to make carvings. Nobody knows what happened to them.
“He was out of place there. He was working on a Hollywood star, not completely Japanese, he’s an East Coast person. And working in marble in the camp didn’t endear him.”
Yet if the bust he was carving was a source of isolation, it also sustained him in that desolate place. He wrote twice to Rogers about it.
“The chief misery here in Poston . . . is the heat and the monotony,” he wrote in his first letter, dated July 14, 1942, “which, if it were not for the tremendous work I have been doing, such as your head, I could not stand.”
Noguchi added: “The whole idea behind the place, as of everything wrong with the world, is of course the war . . . all very incongruous. I’d have to speak to you to describe it.”
Rogers didn’t say in her book whether they did speak further, though she wrote that “I was mightily impressed that he had the tenacity and courage to finish his work while living under such deplorable circumstances.”
She prized the bust, displaying it on a glass pedestal next to her fireplace, where it was the focal point of her living room, according to her former assistant, Roberta Olden, who lived with Rogers in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the last 18 years of the actress’s life.
Noguchi captured a more private side of Rogers, Olden says. Rather than the apple-cheeked girl-next-door who was a whirl of motion, it was her composure he portrayed.
“She wasn’t a frenetic person at all,” Olden says. “She usually had her wits about her, and concentrated specifically on her work at hand.” The bust, she adds, “has that calming presence.”
Amy Henderson, who recently retired as a cultural historian at the Portrait Gallery, first saw the bust when she visited Rogers in the 1990s to discuss donations for an exhibit on musicals. It was Henderson’s idea to display the bust with one of Noguchi’s letters.
Clearly, Rogers cherished not only the bust but also those letters, which she preserved all those years. They are threaded with half-thoughts and mysteries. What, for example, did Noguchi mean when he wrote that the circumstances of the bust’s making were not only strange, but “symbolical”?
Maybe this: At a combustible time, he was embraced by a bighearted woman. Recollections of her inspired him, provided some solace, a reason to keep making art. And out of the crucible of his desert confinement arose a cool, serene, gold-flecked beauty — a powerful statement in more ways than one.
Ginger Rogers bust On display indefinitely (Noguchi letter and photo on display until summer 2015) at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. Free. Call 202-633-8300 or visit www.npg.si.edu.