The Man of Myth and Legend: Lincoln Kirstein, Private First Class

This post was written by intern Jessica Zaccagnini.

It is an unusual occurrence when a movie can spark interest in an actual historical event. Often, people are content with the Hollywood version of a time or event in history and do not seek any further information about the factors that made the event Hollywood-worthy. Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, is a movie that triggers further curiosity into how such a story made it onto the silver screen. Monuments Men depicts a group of middle-aged art connoisseurs sent on a special mission during World War II to collect art from around Europe that was stolen by the Nazis. Though it is clearly stated that the movie was based on true events, it is surprising to learn just how true the movie is.

As it turns out, there truly was a branch of the military specifically dedicated to collecting the most historical and valuable art that was pilfered by the Nazis via orders from Hitler. The U.S Arts and Monuments Commission was established in 1943 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. The commission was largely founded by David Finley and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. About 345 men and women made up this branch of the military and over the years following the end of the war, they collected over five million pieces of artwork.

Borrowed from
Borrowed from

The John Bale Book Company has a collection of writing from one Monuments Man, Lincoln Kirstein, who also happens to be portrayed in the movie. In the Hollywood movie, Bob Balaban plays the character Preston Savitz who is largely based on Kirstein, an art-culture icon. As the movie suggests, all of the men that made up the branch in real life had a job or an intense personal investment in the art world and their credentials made them experts in the war effort to get the stolen art back to its proper place and Kirstein was no different.

Kirstein was mainly interested in ballet and in 1943 he and a colleague founded the American School of Ballet in New York. Kirstein believed that dance “is a clear if complex blending of human anatomy, solid geometry and acrobatics offered as a symbolic demonstration of manners—the morality of consideration for one human being moving in time with another”(“Reviews and Ramblings” 1). Kirstein dedicated much of his life to not only dance, but to all up-and-coming artists from every discipline. He was a patron to his wife’s brother who was a struggling painter. Kirsten often bought his brother-in-law’s work to give him a boost in his career.

Much like the character of Preston Savitz, Lincoln Kirsten was often described as dark and brooding. In one biography written by Jerry L. Thompson, a woman who met Kirstein in his early years described him as “towering and forbidding, a looming pillar of double-breasted black formality” (Thompson 2). This description of him matches the tone of the book of poems 20150505_095004-1Kirstein wrote on his experience as a Monuments Man in the war, Rhymes of a PFC, a book the John Bale Book Company also has. The book is a poetry collection that captures not only Kirstein’s experience in the war but also his observations of the effects war had on the soldiers he encountered. The Monuments Men did not fight on the front lines; they had trained soldiers protecting them as they carried out their mission to retrieve stolen art. Kirsten’s book of poetry captures the overwhelming sense of fear that haunted all of the men whether they fought or not. In the poem “P.O.E,” Kirstein writes, “Expect the Worst, discount the Best / Insurance as a form of fear / Tickles the terror in each chest” (Kirstein 52). It seems that Kirstein had one foot in the war and one foot out of it as he watched his fellow soldiers deal with the mental toll war took on their state of mind. In a 1987 New York Times review of the book, John Gross credits Kirstein for writing poems that made “a permanent contribution to the literature of World War II” (Gross 1) likely for its diverse change of tone, perspective, and voice.

Towards the end of the war, the Monuments Men managed to salvage a fifteenth century Dutch painting called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a large altar-piece depicting early Christian bible tales such as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The men found the artwork on account of their troop leader, Robert Posey having a toothache because in addition to finding artwork, Kirstein was also a driver for the men in the war and he went to go look for a dentist who could relieve the suffering

The finding of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
The finding of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

of his captain. The dentist they found asked the men what they were doing in Germany since they did not look like typical soldiers. Posey and Kirstein explained their mission and the dentist directed them to his son-in-law who was forced to help capture French artwork for the Germans. The son-in-law, Bunies, divulged critical information that led the Monuments Men to a salt mine where they found the altarpiece and several other works of art.

In the poem “Arts and Monuments,” Kirstein explains the scene with the dentist with a slight tone of lightheartedness: “Believe it or not, Captain’s toothache led to our pulling first prize…he turned over his records with the data copied plain…we tracked straight to a mine, 20150505_095039masses of art inside tons of salt, near the Austrian side” (182-86). The lighthearted tone in the beginning of the poem quickly becomes somber when Kirstein learns his German informant “shot his wife, child, and himself in a panic” (186) of fear that the Nazis would come for him and his family for having divulged such a secret to the Americans. Though Kirstein and his team may have felt like they won a prize in that salt mine, the cost of such a prize was unquantifiable.

Lincoln Kirstein left the military in 1945 and returned to his life in the art and dance world. He continued to work on Rhymes of a PFC which was published in 1964. For the remainder of his life, Kirstein focused his attention on art and dance. He published many articles, speeches, plays, lectures, and books related to dance. Kirstein believed that “the highest, best art was connected to what had been and to what would be” (Thompson 9) and he therefore spent his life studying what art was and how it affected what will be.

Works Cited and References

1 Flynn, Katherine. “The Man Behind ‘The Monuments Men’: David Finley and the Roberts Commission”. Huffington Post. March 2014. Web. March 2015.

2 Elisa. “Reviews and Ramblings: Fidelma Cadmus and Lincoln Kirstein”. Dreamwidth. Web.

3 Harris, Paul. “Robert Posey”. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University. September 2014. Web.

Elisa. “Reviews and Ramblings: Fidelma Cadmus and Lincoln Kirstein”. Dreamwidth. Web.

Flynn, Katherine. “The Man Behind ‘The Monuments Men’: David Finley and the Roberts Commission”. Huffington Post. March 2014. Web. March 2015.

Gross, John. “Books of the Times: The Poems of Lincoln Kirstein”. New York Times. Review. May 1987. Web. April 2015.

Harris, Paul. “Robert Posey”. Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University. September 2014. Web.

Kirstein, Lincoln. Rhymes of a PFC. New Directions. New York. 1964. Print.

Thompson, Jerry L. “Lincoln Kirstein at Eighty. The Yale Review. Vol.95, I.3. June 2007. Wiley Online Library. Web. March 2015.

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