FDR Four Freedoms Park: From the “Garden,” a View of the Bronze Head of FDR by Jo Davidson, and beyond, the granite “Room”

I remember the day I first glimpsed a work of Jo Davidson. It was a reduced bust of a serene Gertrude Stein, circa 1922, perched in a silent courtyard in Tours.

It was at the same time that I became enchanted with Chinon, the red wine of the Loire with a violet nose. I knew the aroma well: the woody violet sillage of Serge Lutens’ fabulous Bois de Violette that M wears with absolute poise.

In the first half of the 20th century, the sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952) perfected a classical style, one of ease and perfection. Recognition came early. It endured; it never waned.

“His was the prestige that gave prestige to everyone whose portrait he made,” said Dorothy Parker. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway placed Jo Davidson among great dreamers like Ford and Rockefeller.  

He is honored in a permanent exhibit “Biographer in Bronze” at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum, was a dear friend and generous patron.

Born on the lower east side to Russian immigrants, Davidson harbored a vast yearning for his works’ installation in New York City parks. Robert Moses, the “master builder” and NYC Parks Commissioner, would have none of them, and none of him. Till the end, an unavoidable void.

The affirmation arrived, after his passing, with Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in Little Flower Park (1957) on the Lower East Side, and Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park (1992).

Crafted in 1933, the bust of his friend President Roosevelt commands an Olympian view in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park (2012). At last, the glory.

A Supercilious Slight

“This is really a temple to freedom,” William vanden Heuvel, uttered to Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker, breathlessly in awe of the site of the Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City.

Louis I. Kahn was, in the words of Martin Filler, “the towering genius of architecture during the third quarter of the twentieth century.” Kahn’s design, evoking timelessness and spirituality, enshrines President Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms – speech and worship, and freedoms from want and fear –  exalted in his 1941 State of the Union address.

“I had this thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden, that’s all I had,” Kahn explained in 1973. He had completed the drawings of a geometric-designed park just before he died of a heart attack in Pennsylvania Station in March, 1974, at the age of seventy-three.

At the entry to the park, from the crest of a monumental staircase, the “garden” presents itself: a sloping triangular lawn, bracketed by littleleaf linden trees caressing allées on each side.

At the vertex of the park, enormous granite blocks, create a square “room” – open-topped and open-ended to the water’s edge with two plain benches – that Kahn called a “space for inspired use.” Engraved on one wall is a portion of FDR’s speech extolling the four freedoms.

The imposing focal point of the park is a granite block bearing a niche – a perch for the triumphant bronze head of FDR, sculpted by Jo Davidson. When you stand before it, the glory seems to be yours as well.

A gimlet eye reveals that Jo Davidson is singled out for a supercilious slight. The Four Freedoms Park Conservancy took the outré position to exclude the identity of the artist on the four-acre grounds, a state park no less.

As I discovered, all other luminaries, donors and benefactors have their names engraved in stone.

What gashes me is the savage irony that comes calling as Mr. vanden Heuvel, founder of the Conservancy, stands at a podium, aglow with florid words for the four freedoms, the bust by Jo Davidson as the backdrop.

I am summoning up this image for good reason. Mr. vanden Heuvel and the Conservancy are amazingly incurious and fantastically uninformed about the Davidson narrative, which is discommoding to received ideas.

Within five years after FDR’s speech in 1941, freedoms were being torched and lives destroyed. Amidst the treachery, and despite of it, Jo Davidson was a man for whom freedom was a miraculous quotidian.

In 1951, he made a trip to Israel: “My fingers ached to model some of the extraordinary faces…an ancient people, the youngest in spirit, no longer fearing persecution or discrimination, breathing the air of freedom.”

Menacing voices of Jo Davidson’s time reverberate today. Marchers in Charlottesville – chanting “Jews will not replace us” – get a pass from our great moral beacon in the White House.

The riveting Davidson narrative is one that I must tell. It’s recounting is more pressing since with my entanglements with the Conversancy – the utter intransigence, at which the heart sinks in anticipation.

“Face it,” an art world friend told me last summer over a bottle of Tavel rosé, “These people are impervious.” Voilà, the curtain rises.

The Dedication: Connoisseurs of Power and Influence

Dedication of FDR Four Freedoms Park, October 17, 2012

2012. Under a waxy blue October sky marbled with white clouds, Tom Brokaw, the television journalist and all-round nice guy, presided over the dedication of the FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island.

The mise-en-scène was inspirational: the audience, assembled on the triangular tree-lined lawn, faced a podium behind which a gap in the foliage focused their gaze on the bronze head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jo Davidson.

Seated behind the podium were the connoisseurs of power and influence, the dark-suited political aristocracy with the requisite rhetoric: former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Joining them was William vanden Heuvel, the park’s driving force and dogged fundraiser.

The resounding theme of New York-scale togetherness sustained the air of sincere affection for FDR’s indefatigable leadership in a perilous era.

A practiced reader of scripts, Tom Brokaw stepped forward to express gratitude for those in attendance, including the children of Louis I. Kahn and the family of FDR. He made no such gesture to the heirs of Jo Davidson who had flown in from the west coast.

When Mr. vanden Heuvel rose to the podium, he voiced appreciation to construction workers, generals, admirals, the president of Cornell, and donors. Once again, the Davidson heirs did not make the list.

Flubbing the artist’s name “Jo Davison,” omitting the ”D,” Mr. vanden Heuvel spoke of the “colossal bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt behind me,” prompting the faces of the attendees to make a momentary tropism towards the granite niche, among them Bill Clinton.

At that instant, only if I had been in the audience to shout out a detail culled from the Clinton presidency: for eight years, a replica of the bust by Jo Davidson sat in the Oval Office, a witness to every scene (even the venery now revisited). Ça va sans dire that Clinton and vanden Heuvel were remarkably clueless.

In early 2013, I emailed Gina Pollara, the Executive Director of FDR Four Freedoms Park, to point out the anemic biographical sketch of Jo Davidson that the Conservancy posted on its website. I objected to the portrayal of  “Jo Davidson as a one-shot sculptor,” called down to the White House from New York.

I suggested embellishing the text by noting the two inaugural medals that Jo Davidson designed from FDR sitting for him in the White House in 1941 and 1945. No chance.

Nor does the sketch recognize Jo Davidson’s fervent support of FDR in the 1944 campaign. After obtaining signatories from distinguished artists and scientists, the “Independent Voters’ Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt” was formed in Jo Davidson’s studio. He agreed to assume its chairmanship.

Campaign Poster for 1944 Election Created by Committee Chaired by Jo Davidson

During the 1940’s, Jo Davidson was the vice-chairman of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (known as the Bergson Group). He signed his name to dozens of the Bergson Group’s full-page newspaper ads in support of rescuing Jews from Nazis.

In 1946, the Independent Voters’ Committee merged with the National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC) to become the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) with Jo Davidson as co-chairman.

Well, there you are. Un homme engagé – an artist who was not indifferent to the larger world of historical and political forces. You possess the courage to act despite the sacrifices and the risks to your own freedom, or you don’t, and Jo Davidson did.

Ambassador William vanden Heuvel: An Incessant Calling

A lawyer and author, William vanden Heuvel served as Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and as U.S. Permanent Representative to the European office of the UN.

A son of working class, impecunious immigrants, he never lost sight of his admiration for how FDR confronted economic turmoil at home and war abroad.  His youth foretold a life dedicated to advancing freedom and social justice.

His was an incessant calling: founder and the chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute; founder of the Roosevelt Study Center in the Netherlands, his father’s birthplace, and founder and chairman of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy.

Mr. vanden Heuvel cloaked himself in the mantle of devotion to the Roosevelts. History flowed through him. It was his main stream, not a tributary. A prodigious fundraiser, he had the power to make one believe in him. He has been carrying the flame forward for a good part of forty years.

There is something so winning in vanden Heuvel’s and Davidson’s shared absorption in the dominant themes that ruled FDR’s presidency.  The congruence of their devotion made me ever so curious about the Conservancy ‘s defiance in not recognizing an artist’s authorship at the park.

A Dubious Refusal:  Blaming the Architect

In the summer of 2015, I queried the Conservancy about the absence of any on-site attribution honoring Jo Davidson as the artist of the FDR bust.

The Conservancy makes no qualms about its indifference to Jo Davidson, and they really mean it, unironically. Their reply, in part:

“The Conservancy elected not to include a placard identifying Jo Davidson as the sculptor because such a marker was not specified in Louis Kahn’s original design of the memorial. We wanted to stay as true to Kahn’s original design plans as possible.”

Innumerable grotesqueries strike the eye as it glides over this epitome of boilerplate misdirection (keep in mind that the word “inscription” goes unmentioned).

In his original design of the park, Louis I. Kahn produced drawings of charcoal and pencil on tracing paper. These designs were displayed in 2005 at an exhibit “Coming to Light” at Cooper Union, and reproduced in a catalogue, supported by a grant from the Reed Foundation.

Michael Kimmelman commented on the original designs in the New York Times:

“Lighting was added to the widened tree-lined paths, the layout of trees slightly altered, a bust of Roosevelt by Jo Davidson inserted in a free-standing wall where Kahn had squiggled only some indefinite shape in his drawings.”

Design concepts, FDR Four Freedom Park from Sketchbook of Louis Kahn. Source: Coming to Light – The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cooper Union, NY, 10 Jan. – 5 Feb. 2005

In the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright portrayed the designs as:

“Some of these sketches, scribbled in pencil and charcoal with a scruffy energy, depict a box, from which extends a long, tapering, indistinct landscape. Others feature a strangely geometric comet leaving a misty trail of trees in its wake.”

“Squiggled, indefinite shapes, scribbled, scruffy energy, indistinct landscape.” At first sight of the sketches, one grasps the daftness of the Conservancy combing these gauzy images in search of a placard.

There is one sketch wherein Kahn denotes “Sculpture by Jo Davidson.” An inscription, n’est-ce pas?

Louis I. Kahn 1973 sketch, FDR Four Freedoms Park with notation ‘sculpture by Jo Davidson.’ Source: Coming to Light – The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cooper Union, NY, 10 Jan. – 5 Feb. 2005

To this fanciful absurdity, the Conservancy embraced a fatuity embedded in its encapsulation: it was the intent of the most brilliant architect during the third quarter of the twentieth century to deny recognition to one of the greatest sculptors during the second quarter of the twentieth century.

By placing the blame on Louis I. Kahn, the Conservancy succeeds in disrespecting eodem tempore the architect and the artist. “Quel culot!” (What nerve!)

Now, ponder this: In 2012, before the park opened, the Davidson heirs asked their representative in New York about plans to identify Jo Davidson as the bust’s creator. The response was glacially brief, something to the effect, and I paraphrase, “it’s not possible.”

There was no reference to Louis I. Kahn. No mention of his gossamer-like designs. 

The Conservancy is, I hardly need add, unrepentant.

Nathaniel Kahn: Aspects “Maybe Not Quite Up to Stuff”

In an engrossing documentary My Architect, A Son’s Journey, Nathaniel Kahn inhabits the poignant psychological territory – a sort of no man’s land – of a son attempting to fathom a father he experienced only in flashes.

Nathaniel Kahn was bereft of his father’s daily presence. Louis I. Kahn, uncommonly promiscuous, maintained three partners, each with children, each unaware of the other’s existence, and each living in proximity of the others, among other innamorte.

Nominated for a 2003 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, the film is also an exploration of a great architect’s work.

William vanden Heuvel lauded the film for revitalizing support for the park. The images alone created a heightened excitement to realize Kahn’s vision on Roosevelt Island, which represented new scenes of the Kahn legacy yearning to be shot.

Reviews on the park from the architecture community have been unanimous in praise of the design. One exception: Nathaniel Kahn luimême.

In February, 2013, at the opening of exhibition, louis kahn: ‘the power of architecture’ in Weil am Rhein, Germany, Nathaniel Kahn gave a video interview to designboom. He comments on the park’s design:

“Are there aspects of the monument that are phenomenally good? Absolutely. The room…..? Spectacular. Are there other aspects that I think that maybe aren’t quite up to stuff? Sure. Yeah. But that’s a longer discussion.”

What aspects of the park merit, in Nathaniel’s words, a longer discussion? The garden? The marble plinth? The entry?

FDR Four Freedoms Park: The “Garden” Viewed from the Threshold of the “Room”

A Denial Corrosive to the World of Art and Philanthropy

For major donors in the art world, the entire entreprise involves the expectation that the recipient will acknowledge a donation in the fashion stipulated in a written contract.

Within the precious community of philanthropy, discretion is good taste. Should there be an unintended misunderstanding, it will be discharged with the first sip of Veuve Clicquot at a dîner en ville

Civility gave way to a simmering dispute with a judge calling the shots. On October 16, 2012, a day before the Park’s dedication, the New York Times reported that two donors had filed suit in State Supreme Court.

The donors’ grievances were that the Conversancy had not fulfilled its contractual obligation to engrave acknowledgements in the area of the granite room. The legal actions threatened to delay the dedication ceremony.

The Alphawood Foundation, which contributed more than $10 million of the $53 million raised, was informed in September, 2012, that the Conversancy was backing out of an agreement for an inscription on a step within the granite room.  The rationale: the inscription would impair the monument.

On October 2, 2012, the Reed Foundation, which had donated $2.5 million and funded the 2005 exhibition at Cooper Union, was notified that Conversancy would not complete an inscription on the granite block housing the sculpture.

The Conversancy put forward a justification: “[o]ur architects and consultants have told us” that (it) was not the “best aesthetic.” The Reed Foundation was offered the option of relocating the text, or having their grant reimbursed, with interest.

Referring to the park, William vanden Heuvel told the Times, “…we understood we had a work of art…”

The Times noted that the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy had the backing from relatives of President Roosevelt and Louis Kahn (those of Jo Davidson were not consulted), as well as architects and advisors.

The article quoted from affidavits from an architect and an artistic advisor to the park, both unflinching in their dutifulness, who delivered acerbic criticisms of the Reed Foundation. The Conversancy was playing hardball. “How fitting, a PR ambush,” I mused.

At the risk of sounding churlish, I took issue with the Times’ reporting. It’s common practice to amplify legal disputes by sourcing independent opinion.

A few calls to attorneys in the art world would have clarified the legal issues, exposing the brittle illusions of the Conservancy that theirs was a winnable case.

A denouement, the Times chronicled, came swiftly.

The Alphawood Foundation, which was assured of “favored nation status” in recognition of its largesse as the leading donor, agreed to four inscriptions at the entry to the park, of which one would have a unique presence on a slab.

The Reed Foundation, whose contract stipulated a specific inscription in an exact location, went to the mat for its cause, as well as for all those for whom philanthropy is vital to the arts.

An inscription for the Reed Foundation at FDR Four Freedoms Park

Quoting Shelly’s sonnet “Ozymandias” in his perspicacious decision, so highly-readable, Justice Charles E. Ramos ruled in favor of the Reed Foundation:

“Contract law – and philanthropic custom – require enforcement of an unambiguous undertaking to provide a donor, like the Foundation, the specific recognition it was promised.”

Despite the purported allegiance of the soi-disant architectural community to the Conservancy’s position, the eleventh hour denial of agreements, dearly paid for by donors, is corrosive to the world of art and philanthropy.

Engraved Tributes: Jo Davidson Forgotten

An August night from which there was no recovery: the steely citrus nose of Chablis, the délices of Jean-Georges, the honeyed floral sillage of 24 Faubourg. M is European, the eastern part. Her high cheekbones shone like constellations; her physical sensuality dizzied me. All this was indelible.

Morning. Humid and airless. I made my way to the aerial tramway to Roosevelt Island. On the platform, I ran into a French family. They were from Chablis. They knew the producer of the pale gold vintage that M and I had shared.  I have had this feeling before: even random meetings are somehow predestined.

At the entry of FDR Four Freedoms Park, I stood before a colossal staircase leading to the top of a granite plinth, and, on each side of the plinth, stone promenades stretching to an open square plaza at the park’s tip.

To the right, I viewed a stone wall with engravings of dozens and dozens of “Benefactors,” including contributors on a lesser scale than the donors. Alongside, on a slab was engraved a singular inscription, “In Appreciation of Alphawood Foundation Chicago and Fred Eychaner.”

Engravings on the staircase steps honor “Ambassador William I. vanden Heuvel,” and five donors. On the beginning of an incline to the right of the staircase is an inscription: “Louis I. Kahn Architect.”

Well, there you have it. Engraved tributes to a great man (Kahn), the indomitable leader (vanden Heuvel), the generous donors, and the benefactors. All who give the park glory, all except Jo Davidson, forgotten in full view.

A Refusal Redolent of Royal Hauteur

As anyone who grasps the equation of philanthropy, one can take the unremembering of Jo Davidson at Four Freedoms as another episode in the history of art as the history of money wherein the Conservancy’s disingenuity in mores is the mode de vie.

Or you can understand it like I do, as the abject volition to ignore an artist while honoring another. “Louis I. Kahn Architect” is set in stone at the entry;  Jo Davidson is uncelebrated.

When William vanden Heuvel set the lordly tone in telling the Times, “…we understood we had a work of art…,” he was referring to Kahn as the artist.

The curators of the sculptor’s legacy were bereft of affluence. Mr. vanden Heuvel and his counselors did not confront, tête-à-tête mind you, la froideur of attorneys representing the interests of the artist, not just the work of art.

What the Conservancy’s arrant defiance boils down to is this: a confection of royal hauteur, dubious assertions and whimsical sentiments.

James Salter said that the writer should make the reader envious of the life the writer appears to be leading. This sentiment resonates with all those who apprehend the vigorous existence of Jo Davidson. Even coming to know Jo’s life in an imperfect way evokes complicated emotions.

Once you enter the ambit of Jo Davidson’s years, and begin gathering and piling up all the arresting details – fragments shored against what the artist must have seen as a weary struggle –  the refusal of the Conversancy suddenly becomes provincial and small-minded.

The Loire Valley: Du côté de chez Davidson

During a decade, time after time, fleeing Paris from the Gare Montparnasse, I sat in a TGV as it swept through the green fields and wheat-colored patches to the Art Déco gare of Tours, an unprepossessing town.

South of Tours lies the small mirthless village of Saché, renown for serving as a serene retreat for Balzac from 1825-48. This is the France profonde, the hermetic provinces whose secret life one can not penetrate.

Below long rising pastures on the sweetly sleepy Indre River, Jo Davidson purchased, in 1925, Bécheron, a large manor house. The memories of Jo are heaped in Saché, where in January, 1952, alone and at work, he took his final breathe.

In the center of Tours on rue des Cerisiers, a large provincial style house was home to Jacques Davidson, Jo’s oldest son, and his wife.

I was magnificently unprepared to take in what I was to learn. Stories told not so much to recollect the dimming past but to reclaim it.

Visit upon visit in Tours, I accumulated details, hurriedly, carefully. My goal was similar to one of a French waiter scraping your table with a ramasse-miettes between services: collect every crumb.

In October of 1999, rather than return to Paris, I ventured south to Aix-en-Provence to attend the “Roth Explosion,” a book fest devoted to Philip Roth’s protean output. The critic Edward Rothstein, then with the Times, was on a panel.

The writer was present, thrilled by the palpable admiration. My fascination was how he came to create streams of interior dialogue. Roth spoke about his way of “borrowing consciousness.”

What resonated with the narrative of the Davidsons was Roth’s searing portrait of the McCarthy years in I Married a Communist (1998), which was the focus of one of his Master Classes at Aix.

From 1946 to 1953 in America, selling out others was an almost prurient pleasure. Philip Roth wrote that betrayal was “the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit.”

To those times, Roth composed an elegiac lament:

“…thousands and thousands of Americans destroyed in those years, political casualties, historical casualties…techniques…to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride.”

Storms battered lives during those days. There is a passage in Jo Davidson’s memoir Between Sittings that speaks to the approach of menacing dark clouds:

“Before the election I went with a group of our members to call on President Roosevelt.

He laughingly said to me, “Jo, have they called you a Communist yet?”

They had not at the time but I did not have long to wait.”

There is a story one must tell, a durable one, possessing a burnished brilliance. 

“Is there a film in it?” M wonders. “A script, at least,” I reply with feigned authority. 

Brace yourself for a higher register. In due course: Part II – The Betrayal.

##