Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Still Waiting, the Eisenhower Memorial

Back at the end of March I saw an extraordinary hearing on C-SPAN 3 that alerted me to the controversy swirling around the Eisenhower Memorial proposed for the nation’s National Mall.  The hearing revealed a dispute between Eisenhower's descendants and the person many feel is America's greatest living architect.  It displayed the corrosive partisanship eating away at the country and how people who want to change the design also feel it necessary to destroy the designer's reputation.  It prompted me to write about how difficult it is to create a monument in this atmosphere, but it also drew me in to the amazing story of how the National Mall came to be and how everything is hard in that space. 

So, I gathered stories about the National Mall, its many changes and controversies and about the amazing return from the dead of Pierre L’Enfant whose design was largely discarded after he was fired by Washington himself, died and was buried uncelebrated in a friend’s pasture and 100 years later, brought back to the Capitol building, displayed in its rotunda and buried in Arlington Cemetery overlooking everything he had lost in life.  It had become politically expedient to create this reborn hero and no place but Washington, DC has the skills to make the dead come to life so convincingly. 

The proposed Eisenhower Memorial would sit on four acres just off the Mall in front of the Department of Education Building, not far from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  The original design’s story featured an inconspicuous “barefoot boy,” sitting on a bench watching the major accomplishments of his career unfold -- Boy, General and President.  The image comes from the lovely speech Eisenhower made in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas when he returned from Europe in 1947.

“…no man is really a man who has left out of himself all of the boy. I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy. Frequently they are to be a streetcar conductor; or he sees himself as the town policeman; above all he may reach the position of locomotive engineer, but always in his dreams is that day when finally he comes home, comes home to a welcome from his own home town … today that dream of forty-five years or more ago has been realized beyond the wildest stretches of my own imagination. I come here first to thank you, to say the proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”


The scenes in the first version of the monument are taken from famous photographs of Eisenhower.  One is Eisenhower animatedly talking with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of June 5, 1944, before they will parachute into France behind the German lines.  Another scene is from a Karsh photograph where Eisenhower stands next to a globe, his hand resting on it.  Behind these scenes and to the right and left of the property is a metal mesh on which you see the Kansas landscape of Eisenhower’s youth, the steel fabric forming an enclosure supported by large round columns.  

Karsh, Ottawa
Many things have happened since I watched that remarkable hearing last March.  First, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission tried to stick to its design, initially with the standard “full confidence” letter about architect Gehry, quickly followed by the conciliation letter offering a meeting with the Eisenhower family and Gehry and the release of a letter from Gehry in which he states his willingness to do what is necessary to make the Eisenhower family happy. 

Unfortunately, this is hard to do.  The family is led by Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, a body puncher whose firm opinions and willingness to use charged language – she compares the wire mesh to the fences of a Nazi concentration camp.  She also hits the design in terms of the cold war, claiming that tapestry depictions of Mao and Stalin were de rigueur when her Grandfather was staring down those commies.  She compares them to billboards.  “My grandfather hated billboards."  She has the Commission and the Congress on their heels and also Gehry.  Susan’s brother, David, seemed a go-along, get-along guy as a member of the Eisenhower Commission until December, 2011, when he resigned.  He was the last Eisenhower to fall into Susan’s line. 
Susan Eisenhower
Other of Susan’s allies include two non-profit organizations, The National Civic Art Society in Washington, DC, whose mission is to be “in the vanguard of a traditional artist counterculture emerging as the indispensable alternative to a post-modern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of 'art' to a dependence on rarified discourse incomprehensible to ordinary people." The second organization is the National Monuments Foundation in Atlanta, an organization for whom all public art stopped when they put a figure of Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square.  Like Susan, they appear intractable foes and are clearly aware that a good fight has a direct impact on the bottom of their 501 (c) (3) lines. 

Like all Washington today, this issue is completely polarized and politicized.  Defending the presentation of Eisenhower’s legacy is now the ground of the Republicans and the importance of free speech through artistic freedom has become the lot of the Democrats.  Neither side really likes what it has been handed, but that’s Washington.  An article in the Weekly Standard called “Do Right By Ike,” graces the websites of the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Foundation. “We’d like what Ike would have liked,” is the way the National Civic Art Society puts it. 

Justin Shubow
What is completely reprehensible and very visible to ordinary people is the attack on Gehry’s thinking and professional competence by The National Civic Art Society’s Chairman, Justin Shubow.  He portrays Gehry as a kind of architectural anarchist who has no respect for tradition or current day values and whose architecture is a disgrace. 

Gehry, like Susan Eisenhower, uses colorful and controversial language to make his point.  Shubow uses Gehry’s own words to savage him.  His NCAS website has a section called “Frank Gehry in His Own Words” in which he assembles pages of Gehry’s quotations and highlights parts of them.  “Get a load of this guy,” is what he seems to be saying.  You can’t trust an ego like his with the culture of this country nor with the property of the United States.” 

There is no doubt about Gehry’s ego – nor Shubow’s – but there is something in the NCAS argument that is mean-spirited and destructive, an extension of our politics to the arts and architecture.  Some of the quotations on Shubow’s website show Gehry at his best, beautifully simplifying the idea of creativity.

Frank Gehry
“When I start my [architecture] class I ask the students to write their signatures on pieces of paper and put them on a table. I have them look at them, and I point out, “They’re all different, aren’t they? That’s you, that’s you, that’s you, that’s you.” I say, “That’s what you have to find in architecture. You have to find your signature. When you find it, you’re the only expert on it. People can say they like it or don’t like it. They can argue about it, but it’s yours.”

In June of this year, the Eisenhower Monument Commission made a request for $60,000,000 to apply to the Gehry design.  They were turned down, even though a Commission member, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, who had supported the Gehry design, was the chair of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee that drafted the bill.  That is a bad signal.  Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior and the cabinet member responsible for the Mall, entered the fray afterward, saying he wanted to “look at the design.”  Clearly, nothing is going to happen for a while.

My thinking on what to do has evolved.  No matter how I reject the hard edge of Susan Eisenhower or the condescending meanness of Shubow, I’m with them on starting over.  I came to that point of view from two starting places.  One was Bill Clinton’s nomination speech of President Obama and the other was an OpEd from the British Newspaper “The Guardian” by Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, who writes frequently about America in that newspaper. 

I thought there is nothing harder to do than make something simple and no better a practitioner than Bill Clinton.  While watching that night, I put my admiration for his ability to simplify into the context of the Eisenhower Memorial.  I asked where the simplicity was in the Gehry design.  And I didn’t find it.  I found a kind of basic narrative that touched the right bases and a number of technical solutions to the difficult problems of the site.   But not simplicity.  I didn’t find the weariness of Lincoln’s face nor the temple to the intellect of Thomas Jefferson.  I found a storyboard.  I found a basic narrative, a 'Keep It Simple Stupid' narrative I hated when I was working in television news.  There was no woman with a torch lighting a way, no statement of pure strength like the Washington Monument.

In his Guardian piece, Nicolaus Mills said it just right:

“A memorial is not a biography in stone. A memorial’s task is not to sum up a life, but to capture the essence of a life in a unified, powerful image.”

He makes the case that the essence of Eisenhower is somewhere in the image of the General talking with troops from the 101st Airborne on June 5, 1944 who will, in the dark of the next day, parachute into occupied France.  The essence of the scene is that he is there with his people, connecting to them as their leader and, at the same time, another human.  Sleepless, he will later read a western novel into the night as they fall through a chaotic dark sky.  The essence is somewhere in the confidence that all of this is all necessary, a job the culture and country made and somehow chose him to do. 

Mills also surfaces a good idea.  Forget about the complicated site now under consideration.  Place the Eisenhower Monument near the World War II site where Eisenhower will be in a larger context and with his troops once again, where a good monument to him could only improve that unfortunate, clunky design. 

National Civic Art Association

National Monuments Foundation

Eisenhower Memorial Commission

Nicolaus Mills on the Eisenhower Memorial

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Death of CBS Correspondent George Syvertsen, Wells Hangen and Cambodia's Most Dangerous Year For Journalists

Running an errand, I heard some national security expert talking on the car radio and he said something like “Unlike Vietnam, which had no strategic importance, Afghanistan is truly significant.” 

No strategic importance?  For someone who spent his youth with that war, and paid for all that blood and money, it was a brutal message to hear while looking for garbage bags and soap.  No matter that he may have been correct, just the thought was hard to take.  I pulled off the road for a minute or two, shouted a few things in the car and ended up fussy all week.  A couple of days later I took out my Vietnam file, a few letters, some photos, mostly just fragments, with one exception, a document called “REPORT ABOUT MISSING CBS NEWS CREW IN CAMBODIA.”  I had not seen it at least for a decade and, more likely, longer. 

The report and attached maps and transcripts of interviews was authored by CBS Cameraman Kurt Volkert working with James Sturdevant of NBC and is about the death in Cambodia of CBS Correspondent George Syvertsen and five of his CBS colleagues at the end of May, 1970.  Also murdered then was a news crew from NBC News led by correspondent Welles Hangen.  These tragic events happened on the main north/south highway in Cambodia, 53 KM south of Phnom Penh near Slakou Village. 

George Syvertsen in 1970
I have this document because, while in the US Army and stationed in Saigon, I moonlighted at the CBS News Bureau, got to know Syvertsen and his wife Gusta and they were nice to me.  I was a soldier who had not yet met his new born daughter and they kind of took me under their wings.  I liked them. They were nice to a stranger. 

During the day, I worked at the US Army television station in Saigon, the mothership for seven army television detachments in South Vietnam providing television programming to the 525,000 US troops then in country.  A friend who once worked for CBS in Hong Kong and Tokyo sent the report to me after we finally met in person and talked for a long time about all of these things 19 years after they happened, sitting in a New York bar.

I never saw a job description for what I did at the CBS bureau, but let's just say I was a lackey. I’d show up at the Hotel Caravelle on Saigon’s main square at 5:00 o’clock in the evening, change out of my fatigues and into a ridiculous pair of stripped bell bottom jeans and sift through a stack of messages, scripts and instructions that needed to be sent over a telex machine to New York and other places for that evening’s CBS Evening News broadcast and other CBS programs.  Five o’clock in the evening Saigon time was 5 AM in New York and we were finishing our day when New York was waking up.

The telex was just off the small entryway to the office and reminds us how ancient the technology of news was then.  Today, we would describe the contraption as a telegraph line with a keyboard activated perforated paper tape interface. What happened was that you would type the words of the message and each keyboard stroke would be transferred as small perforations on a yellow paper tape about a half inch wide.  You would then place this tape into a perforated tape reader, snap shut a metal cover over the tape and activate the reader.  The machine would then start sending and, at the same time, typing each letter on paper with a thump, thump, thump.  The normal speed of that telex machine was 60 words a minute.  However, there was only one telex line out of the hotel and we had only one quarter of it, so our machine at top performance was doing 15 words per minute.  The New York Times had 50 percent of the line and some other organization the remainder.  Sometimes atmospherics or other disturbances would slow the line to a crawl, sometimes five words per minute – thump … thump … thump … thump. 

The telephones were mostly individual lines.  Some went through the hotel’s switchboard and others did not.  I don’t recall being able to transfer or hold a call.  The phones were all different colors.  Bob Lorentzen, when I started there the Deputy Bureau Chief, would frequently answer a call by saying the color of the phone as he picked up the line, barking “yellow telephone!!”

Many calls out of the office, both to military and civilian telephone numbers, went through switchboards where a person would physically plug in a connection.  Some of these switchboards were in remote locations.  If the operator heard nothing, he might pull out the plug, severing the connection.  So, while waiting for the object of your call to get to the phone, you would keep up a minimal patter, saying ‘working, working’ every five seconds or so.  Thump … thump … working, working … thump.

Hotel Caravelle
The CBS offce was behind the second or third bay window
from the bottom
The room seems today about 500 square feet, mostly open with a scattering of desks, a small bathroom and a bedroom used for equipment and equipment storage, a mini-refrigerator full of cold pop and beer, usually Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz, a brand the Vietnamese pronounced as ‘Shlick.’  On top of the fridge was a coffee can where you could toss in change to help replace the beer you were about to consume.  There was also a small, single cot where I slept at night.  The next morning I’d wake up, put on my fatigues and go back to my military job, a ten minute walk at dawn past the old Continental Palace Hotel -- a building that screams the 1930s -- the Notre Dame Cathedral, the US Embassy, and close by the Presidential Palace.  The American Forces Vietnam television station compound was located next to the South Vietnamese Television station, separated by a chain link fence.  When one military faction would take over the government and kick out the former military faction, the Vietnamese TV station compound would be full of troops. 
You could see through the city’s many abrasions -- too many people, too many two cycle motorbikes, the smog killing the lovely Kapok trees -- the colonial city of the 1950s with its big boulevards and French scale.  The heat hadn’t obliterated the day yet and the air was a soft, cool humidity that was as comfortable as a helicopter at 7,000 feet, above the range of the North Vietnamese Regular Army rockets and the heat.

The American Forces Vietnam Network received commercial television programming from the United States mostly in the form of kinescopes, 16 millimeter films of television broadcasts with commercial content removed.  We would package up a week’s worth of programs and deliver it by air to seven television detachments up country, dropping off one package and picking up the other for delivery to the next station.  We would also produce public service programming, daily news programs and shoot film for Army TV programs like “The Big Picture.”  There was also a radio side, the famous "Good Morning, Vietnam" program, among others.

When I’d leave my Army job for the Hotel Caravelle and CBS, the scene on the streets was chaotic.  Great clouds of smoke were coming off streets filled with motor scooters.  Sometimes the sheer volume of the scooters in the street would force riders onto the sidewalk.  One day, at the big traffic circle in front of the central market, I watched as a blind man, long cane in hand, stood listening to this end-of-the-day madness around him.  Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a referee’s whistle, put it in his mouth and began frantically blowing it as he set out for the other side of the street, the bikes and cars whizzing by him. 

Much of the CBS job was getting film from one place to the other.  While satellite communications were in place, the military had all the satellite circuits from South Vietnam tied up.  So the 16 MM film, the platform of news technology then in Vietnam, had to be shipped to destinations like Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Los Angeles and frequently with breathless urgency.  Each of those cities had different technical capabilities and logistical quirks.  I recall Bangkok able to transmit only in black and white, but it was close-by and sometimes a trade off had to be made, speed against color.

Often, the film would be shipped on the commercial charter flights that brought troops in and took them out or on regularly scheduled flights around the region or back home.  However, sometimes going through a shipping company was not fast enough, and someone from the bureau would go out to the airport to the waiting area for a particular flight and ask soldiers about to get on the flight to take the package with them for $50 bucks or so. 

I would then send the details over the telex – the soldier’s name, general description, color of shirt if out of uniform, etc.  Sometimes, we would have information for the soldier to make a connection.

“A Mister Kim will meet you in the lobby of the Bangkok Intercontinental Hotel.  He will be wearing a green hat and holding a sign saying ‘CBS.’” Sometimes things would change on short notice.  Once, a couple of days after a difficult shipping deal that ended up not including Bangkok, I had a message on the telex.  “Deskman,” my telex handle, “Did anyone call off Mr. Kim in Bangkok?”  I hadn't.

As the day progressed in New York, producers there or in other bureaus would begin sending instructions and asking questions.  “How do you pronounce Buon My Thuot?”  “What exactly does the word 'retrograde' mean in the military sense?”  “Can you double check the spelling of Colonel Kozlofsky?”  “When does Threlkeld get back?”   Everybody had a telex handle -- the way you signed off.  Deskman was me.  Others used Cheers, Best, Yours, Me or, if you were a big producer in New York, you’d just use your last name.  “Little.”

As the news production process continued, some questions would require a conversation with the correspondent or the cameraman.  Since some of the questions were last minute and were asked at 2 or 3 AM Saigon time, I had to know who lived where and either call or physically find them.  Many of these questions would occur after I went to sleep and someone in New York would punch the key that rang the bell on the telex machine multiple times. 

In the evening, people would walk in the office and talk to me.  An older commercial pilot came in and, in the course of our conversation, told me that a Japanese officer had surrendered to him, then a young bomber pilot, when he landed at the Saigon airport in 1945.

Just a few days after I started, a beautiful Vietnamese woman came in, weeping.  She wanted to know whether I knew how to contact the former night deskman.  She said through her tears they were going to be married.  He had gone home without telling her.

Sometimes the Syvertsens would come in at night with some food they had brought back from a restaurant.  Syvertsen was a wire service guy with a knack for languages and fluent in Russian.  He was in Moscow and Warsaw for many years and met Gusta in Poland.  He told me once about covering a trip that Khruschev took to Yugoslavia when there was some question over how the Russians would welcome new freedoms then growing under Tito. 

It was a big story at the time and Syvertsen found himself separated from the other journalists and with Khruschev and Tito at a lodge, drinking and listening to folk music and watching folk dancers.  Khruschev and Tito started dancing as well with George the only reporter on the scene.  It was kind of a wild night!  After, the other reporters covering the trip asked him what happened at the lodge where Syvertsen had been. 

He said he told them “Oh, they just danced around,” and let go a big laugh, remembering how he had knocked their socks off when he filed his exclusive the next day.

The atmosphere in the office was highly competitive, internally and externally.  For those who wanted it, stardom and money could be just beyond the next tree line.  Also, getting beat in your own medium by your chief competitor, NBC, was not acceptable.  They didn't want to lose to the New York Times either.

The invasion of Cambodia on May 1, 1970 created conditions that, in tandem with this competitiveness, became extraordinarily dangerous for journalists accustomed to covering the war in Vietnam.  In 1970, 25 journalists from France, Japan, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Cambodia and the U.S. were killed in Cambodia.  In Vietnam, no matter how dangerous it was in the field, there were usually well-armed, well-trained troops you were travelling with or were nearby.  If the situation got difficult, they had the ability to call in artillery, fighter jets or helicopters that could suppress the enemy or pluck you up and out.  Cambodia was simpler, though more dangerous -- an empty road and a rented car and driver.
Also, many journalists in Cambodia were new to the war zone.  It was, at the beginning, the big, new story and additional personnel were brought in to help cover it.  Their judgments were not informed by the kind of experiences most of the veteran reporters had.  Finally, no one really knew what the story was beyond the obvious extension of the old war.  And because of the visual demands television makes, reporters went out looking for trouble and would shape whatever trouble they found into some kind of larger narrative.

Kurt Volkert
Volket's report begins at 10 AM on May 31, 1970. Syvertsen and a group of CBS employees in two cars were on one of those empty roads, looking at a destroyed wooden bridge and wondering what to do next.  They had earlier passed a Cambodian Army road block a few kilometers up the road and had decided to drive through the roadblock though they knew it was terribly dangerous.

The night before, Syvertsen and Volkert had argued about Syvertsen’s risk-taking and Volkert, who was Syvertsen’s cameraman, was not on this trip.  CBS Producer Gerry Miller decided it was better if he put a little space between the two and Volkert stayed in Phnom Penh.  Miller was in a jeep with Syvertsen.  In another car, a rented blue Mercedes, were Cambodian driver Sam Leng, an Indian cameraman Remnik Leckhi and two Japanese, cameraman Tomaharu Ishii and soundman Kojiro Sakai.  They worked out of the Tokyo Bureau and had just been brought in temporarily to beef up the CBS presence in the region while all this news was breaking.  Their decision was, in many ways, financial.  Combat pay added a big premium to their take home pay.

Standing in front of the busted bridge, Syvertsen made a decision.  They would find a way around the bridge and keep heading south off the road. Leng and Leckhi would get into the Jeep, Leng to translate and Leckhi to shoot film if something happened.  Miller would go too.  They drove off to the left of the bridge and up and over a swale, lost to the view of Ishii and Sakai who remained with the Mercedes Benz.

Welles Hangen
Columbia University
After a few minutes, a car drove up behind the broken bridge and the CBS car. Welles Hangen got out of a gray Opel along with French soundman Roger Colne, a former French Legionnaire residing in Cambodia since 1947, and Japanese cameraman Yoshiniko Waku.  Their driver, a Cambodian named Chay You Leng stood by the car. 

The NBC crew had been behind the CBS cars and also passed the same South Vietnamese roadblock up the road.  NBC driver Leng said that the soldiers at the roadblock told them that they shouldn’t go further but also reported that two cars had recently driven past.  That was enough for Hangen.   “Go, Go,” Leng said that Hangen told him.  Hangen's daughter and son sent me a note not long ago thanking me for writing this.  They were too young to know him and, aside from their mother, did not have many second hand accounts about their father and his life.

Sakai and Ishii told the NBC crew that they had heard a sharp explosion just as the NBC Opel was coming up.  In a few minutes, Vietcong and Khmer Rouge soldiers came on the scene and opened fire on the group, and NBC driver Leng was slightly wounded.  The shooting stopped and the soldiers took the men into custody and marched them to a teacher’s house a couple of kilometers away where they were held in a room upstairs.

They learned there that a rocket-propelled grenade had hit Syvertsen’s jeep  killing all its occupants. 

Volkert's hand drawn map
In interviews with a Cambodian soldier who was imprisoned in the same house, Volkert learned that after being held overnight, Hangen, Sakai and Ishii were put in a car and driven south a few kilometers.  By an irrigation ditch and in a bamboo thicket, they are forced to their knees and beaten to death.  An hour or so later, Colne and Waku were driven to the same place and met the same fate.  

The only survivor, the NBC driver, Leng, was somehow able to escape, perhaps during a sharp firefight the next day between Vietcong soldiers and Cambodian troops.  When Volkert and Sturdevant interviewed him, they thought his escape story far-fetched and they had the feeling that he might have sold the others out, perhaps labeling them spies to an audience looking for just that label.

Volkert tried to find the bodies in 1971 but could get no closer than the burned out Jeep, still resting against the tree it crashed into, about 12 kilometers from the bamboo thicket and a Buddhist monastery called Wat Po. 

The area where the tragedy occurred is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and they were severely persecuted under the Lon Nol government which came into power a few weeks before Syvertsen’s death.  Then the Khmer Rouge took power and initiated the Cambodian Holocaust.  They were finally driven out by the Vietnamese in heavy fighting.  Only in 1992 was Volkert able to return to the site and, with his maps and notes and his tenacity, and with the assistance of the U.S. and Cambodian militaries, found a villager who had been ordered years ago to dig the graves.  They were able to find the remaining six bodies. 

Volkert wrote a book about the search with reporter Jeff Williams in 2001 called "A Cambodian Odyssey."  In 2010, a group of former journalists, including Volkert, returned to the site near the Wat Po Monastery to mark the 40th anniversary of the murders of the CBS and NBC crews. 

In his book, Volkert reflects on the strategic and historical value of these deaths, he an aging man, an artist living in Germany and Syvertsen forever 38, buried in Jacksonville, Florida.  The powerful cover art is Volkert's.

"Recounting the incident of 1970, I relearned how unimportant and temporal the products of my profession can be. No one remembers the story our people died for. Is it only the continuity of our reporting that counts, as if our daily stories were bricks in a huge wall? Would this wall, representing the total information of our lifetime, collapse if the Cambodian stones were missing?"

Nearly twenty years after Syvertsen’s death, I had an appointment with a man in New York on behalf of a client. We decided to meet at a bar on the ground floor of his office building. In the first few moments of conversation, it was clear to me that I was talking to a man I knew through the Saigon telex machine by his last name only. In those days he was a CBS producer and ran the Japan and Hong Kong Bureaus. In 1970, we talked all the time at 15 words a minute, or less, as we served the details of a television news production from faraway places. There would have been traffic about the tragedy between his fingers and mine. He had sent Sakai and Ishii to Phnom Penh and they were with Hangen and the others in that bamboo thicket. 

I interrupted him. “Wait a minute! You are Cheers Cross and I am Deskman.” And he knew right away what I meant.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tusko the elephant and other sadness

Recently, while writing about the architect and planner George Bartholick, I was looking for some background on the Woodland Park Zoo, for whom George had proposed an ambitious new plan that would result in more natural and humane spaces for the animals living there.

Looking for some specifics on how zoo animals were housed in the earlier days of the zoo, I stumbled on the story of Tusko, the elephant, reputed to be the largest of his kind in captivity and who was quite a sensation in the Northwest during the 20s and 30s. 
Tusko and his trainer, George 'Slim' Lewis
Buckles Blog
Tusko had been seized off the streets of Seattle by the mayor himself, John Dore, in 1932.  The elephant had been recently sold by a circus to one hapless promoter after another and they were exhibiting him at Mercer and Westlake Avenues where he was fed at city expense while his new owners pondered the elephant’s next gig and the considerable logistics of moving Tusko about.  They also were thinking about shooting the animal and stuffing him, reasoning that while it required a high initial cost, the long-term maintenance was quite reasonable.  They were also broke.

After a well-reported walk from Virginia and Westlake, going over the Fremont Bridge and up the hill to Phinney Ridge, visitors streamed in to see the remarkable animal at the Woodland Park Zoo, the mayor loudly supervising many of the key details. The Park Board hired George “Slim” Lewis, a well-known elephant man, and paid him $3.50/day to care for Tusko.  Children began collecting pennies to enlarge the present elephant house and reimburse the last owner of the elephant.  Even as Tusko’s prospects were rising, he collapsed in 1933 of a massive stroke.  He was 43.

His death amped up the controversies surrounding Tusko.  There was a long struggle to figure out what to do with poor Tusko’s remains, which were the subject of claims from several past owners.  Meanwhile, University of Washington medical students removed the skin and bones which were finally taken by a former owner, M.M.  Bull, who lived in Eugene.  At the same time, Tusko’s 48 pound heart found its way to the Olympic Hotel’s lobby where it was exhibited at the state’s medical convention that year.  Years later, after failing to sell what remained of Tusko, Bull’s son gifted the skin and bones to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum.  They are still there.

After reading Tusko’s story, I resolved to spend some more time with this animal to see if I could organize my own thinking about the elephant history in the United States, their diaspora across the globe, the relentless attacks, the unspeakable cruelty some have been subjected to and their utility, if any, in captivity. 

It is a painful, instructive and sometimes beautiful journey, but mostly painful.

Poster, Tusko, then Ned, is in the middle
Circus History
Let’s start with Tusko’s arrival in America, where he came in 1902, from Thailand, at 12 years old.  Less than a year later, he was sold to a man named Lee Clark who owned the Lee Clark Wagon Show which performed across the south.  The cavalcade would travel mostly at night along the performance route, sometimes 50 miles, setting up the next day in a town big enough to handle the show.  Amazingly, another major wagon show sometimes would travel with them, setting up and competing head to head, tent to tent. 

It must have been quite a scene.  In 1908, the Clark Show alone was carrying 12 cages of animals, about 60 wagons and 200 horses and mules. They had two large horse tents – one for the trained horses and wagon horses and another for the mules that pulled the baggage wagons.   Advance men would hire out farms to provide water at stops along the way.  The Clark Wagon Show had four elephants, two of whom were called ‘pushers.’  Their role was getting behind a stuck wagon and pushing it along a muddy rural road.   

Tusko’s name then was Ned and he was still growing into what would become a very large animal standing 12’5” and weigh 17,000 pounds.

It is sad but true that our culture considers anything big, wild and different a killer and Ned was branded one.  He could cause trouble and had a few broken ribs on his ledger, but Ned was not a killer, though it didn’t hurt that the audience thought he was.  And, it is true that at certain times of the year the male animals would go into ‘musth,’ when the testosterone would flow.  During those times, Clark would send Ned to winter quarters in Texas to ride out the storm.  

That's Ned on the left, about a year before the show in
Chalmer Condon Collection
Clark tried to convert his operations from the mule wagons to the railroads and he nearly went broke, which forced him back to the wagons and made him think of other ways to make money off Ned.  When the show was in El Paso, Clark struck a deal with a Mexican promoter to match Ned with four fighting bulls in the Juarez bull ring for $2,500. 

There are many versions of this story, but the one I will offer comes from the El Paso Times archivist Trish Long, who worked with contemporary clippings of the time.  Ned plods across the border along streets filled with amazed people.  He’s led into the bull ring and it’s a full house.   The first bull charges, Ned is surprised but knocks the bull down.  Three others are let into the ring and Ned responds with the full athleticism elephants possess.  Soon he has the ring to himself, two bulls have been thrown into the crowd.  There are injuries to some of the patrons and the Mexican organizers place an attachment of $500 on Ned and lock the gates of the ring with the intention of holding Ned there so they can sort out what had just happened. 

That night, Clark’s young son approaches the arena and asks Ned to come out.  Ned follows the familiar voice, easily pushing open the locked gates.  He calmly follows the boy across the border to his circus home.

The circus evolved slowly and the display of animals in early America was a simple matter of having something exotic and charging admission to the barn or fenced in lot.  There are references to elephants in America as early as 1720. 

Somers, NY
Historical Society
A ship captain, Jacob Crowninshield, brought a two year old elephant from Thailand to New York in 1796, exhibited her around New York and sold her to a man named Owen for the enormous sum of $10,000.  Owen exhibited her throughout the eastern part of the United States.  Strangely, the animal was never given a name and, was last noted in 1816 in York, Pennsylvania. 

An animal named ‘Old Bet’ began touring about 1804 and was owned by Hachaliah Bailey who sold shares in his acquisition.  Bailey, yes that one, made Old Bet the star of the first real circus – four wagons, several pigs, a couple of dogs and Old Bet.  She inspired the Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York, that is today an historic landmark and the site of many weddings. 

Elephant Hotel, Somers, NY
On tour, she was killed by a group of men who allegedly thought she was violating the blue laws by working on Sundays.  They ambushed the circus procession bringing her into town and shot her. 

‘Young Bet,’ was the first trained elephant in the United States.  She was able to do several tricks, such as opening a corked bottle and drinking the contents.  She was also shot to death.  Egged on by the promotional materials put together by Bailey that her skin was so tough a bullet could not penetrate it, a group of Rhode Island men shot her to death in 1825.  

Life-sized statue of Jumbo in St.  Thomas, Ontario
St.  Thomas, Ontario, Canada
In 1882, P. T.  Barnum bought the African elephant ‘Jumbo’ from the London Zoo.  Jumbo was the biggest elephant then known and, benefitting from Barnum’s promotional genius, became the best known elephant ever.  However, just three years later, while on tour in Ontario, Canada, ‘Jumbo’ was hit and killed by a Grand Trunk Railway switch train after getting out of his specially built rail car.

His stuffed remains went to the Barnum Museum of Natural History where he was adopted as a mascot for the athletic teams at Tufts University, for whom Barnum was a generous contributor.  Students would also put pennies in its stuffed trunk or pull the elephant’s tail on the way to an exam.  In 1975, Barnum Hall and all its exotic contents burned to the ground.  All that was left was Jumbo’s tail, now in the university archives.  After the fire, the assistant to the athletic director, Phyllis Byrne, sent a student over to collect some of Jumbo’s ashes which he scooped up in a Skippy’s Crunchy Peanut Butter jar.  Frequently, Tufts athletes will rub the jar for good luck before a game.  I am not making this up.  
According to the May 13, 1922 edition of the Bellingham Herald, a young farmer boy and highly skilled horse trainer was on hand in that Ontario rail yard when Jumbo was struck by the train. His name was Al G. Barnes. 

The Bellingham Herald wrote: “Gazing on the dead Barnum elephant, young Barnes declared, 'Some day I'll have a bigger circus than this one and I'll have a bigger elephant than Jumbo!’"

The Al G.  Barnes Circus comes to town
Tusko in the lead.
Circus History
That bigger elephant was Ned, purchased in 1921 and renamed Tusko, staring in the Al. G. Barnes circus production ‘Alice in Jungleland,’ a production employing 1,080 people, 550 horses and 1,200 wild animals.  

Three days later, the Olympia Record reported:

“SEDRO WOOLEY -- After being at large all night, TUSKO, said to be the largest elephant in the world, was captured about three miles west of here at about 10 o'clock this morning. The elephant escaped from a circus which showed here last night and caused considerable public damage. TUSKO ... upset two automobiles standing by the circus tent, stalked angrily down the main street, where he broke up a street dance, then strode to the outskirts of the city to a district known as the Garden of Eden where he wreaked vengeance on fences and a farmer's young orchard.”

The next night, reported by the Bellingham Herald as ‘chastened,’ and ‘heavily chained,’ Tusko went through his paces before record crowds. 

Tusko was with Barnes for ten years until sold to a Portland man named Al Painter, the first of several owners that led, ultimately, to Westlake and Virginia, an elephant with nowhere to go, a preening Mayor Dore and a few months of peace at the Seattle Zoo.  

“When he is first captured, he is a demon incarnate. But the elephant is a philosopher and when he learns it is useless to fight against his fate, he gives up the contest and straightway decides to make the best of the situation.”

W. Henry Sheak wrote that in the Natural History Magazine, exactly eighty years ago. However, the human/elephant interface is not as comfortable as Mr. Sheak told audiences then.  

A Swedish man, Dan Koehl, has tracked 12,760 elephants, 5,640 of them dead and 7,120 living of which 2,307 are wild elephants and nearly 5,000 living elephants in various categories of captivity in 114 countries. This completely remarkable Internet treasure gives us the ability to track elephants over time and is a repository of thousands of individual animal stories.  

Elephants die and/or are euthanized for many reasons – old age, severe arthritis, elephant tuberculosis, broken limbs, sepsis, miscarriage, elephant small pox. But for those elephants who don’t ‘make the best of the situation,’ as suggested in the Nature article, their ends were deadly and gruesome in the extreme.  

Nick, an aggressive P. T. Barnum elephant, was strangled to death in London in 1898. That same year, Prince, a Great Wallace Brothers elephant, was strangled by two canvassmen who placed a rope around his neck and pulled in opposite directions. 

Thomas Alva Edison executes Topsy
The Swedish database says that 150 people have been killed by captive elephants – trainers, spectators, bystanders. The elephant Topsy, residing at the Luna Park Amusement Center in Brooklyn, had killed three trainers in the early 1900s and her owners, the Forepaugh-Sells Show, decided that she had to be destroyed. But how to do it?

Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor, volunteered to electrocute Topsy and use his film company to document the event. Edison’s electricity company made and sold direct current electricity which was a competitor to Nicola Tesla’s alternating current product. Tesla’s electricity could be transmitted over great distances and produced outside the cities where most of the market existed at the beginning of the electricity era. Edison’s product required many plants dotted around the cities because its transmission was distance-limited.  Tesla's product clearly had the upper hand so Edison did what marketing people have done forever.  He changed the subject.

Edison’s said that alternating current was not safe and would kill many of those who purchased the product. So, Edison took to electrocuting all kinds of animals to prove his point, and Topsy was too good an opportunity for the competitive Edison. If Tesla’s alternating current could kill an elephant, then we ought to be truly afraid. Topsy was led out and 6,600 volts of alternating current went through her body with the clever Mr. Edison’s hand on the switch.  

The cultural norm was that a human death was a death sentence for the animal. Each of the big circuses were putting down one or two animals a year because of aggressive behavior at the turn of the last century. 

The hanging of Big Mary in Erwin, TN
Some of the deaths, however, carried the idea of retribution. More than 2,500 people attended the hanging in Erwin, Tennessee of Big Mary who had, a few days before, killed her groomer. Faced with threats of local mayors to not allow the Sparks Circus into town, the circus put a chain around Big Mary’s neck and, though the first chain broke, put a second, heavier chain around her neck to close out the job.

It is possible that retribution worked both ways. Black Diamond killed a trainer in 1926 but it was considered out of character and he was allowed to live. He was purchased by the Al. G. Barnes Circus in 1928, just before it sold Tusko. Black Diamond was very connected to his trainer, Curley Pritchett, whom he had known for 28 years and worked with for seven.

In Corsicana, Texas, Black Diamond witnessed a conversation between Curley and Eva Speed Donohoo, the former society editor at the Houston Post who offered Curley a job at Shoestring Ranch, where she kept exotic animals. Curley accepted and left the circus and Black Diamond. When Barnes returned to Corsicana a year and a half later, Pritchett and Mrs. Donohoo came to see Black Diamond. The elephant hurled Pritchett over a car and then attacked Donohoo, killing her by impaling her with his tusks. A mob formed and Black Diamond was chained between two trees until a volunteer firing squad was assembled and the animal could be shot.  

Even when aggressive elephants were not killed, subsequent events were tragic. Ziggy was named after his owner Florence Ziegfield, the producer, who had purchased a baby elephant for one of his children. When the animal became too big, Ziegfield sold it to a circus, Singer’s Midgets, who, in turn, donated it and three other aggressive elephants to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Ziggy attacking Slim Lewis
The Zoo was unable to do anything with Ziggy and soon brought in our friend Slim Lewis to figure out how to manage Ziggy, however gingerly. He was making real progress until April of 1941 when the elephant slapped Slim with its trunk and Lewis landed 50 feet away. Then Ziggy was on top, plunging his tusks repeatedly trying to impale Lewis. Lewis was able to stay in the space in between the tusks and, when the tusks stuck in the ground for a moment, Lewis darted away and jumped the moat surrounding the exhibit. After, Ziggy was tethered by a chain in a small enclosure where he spent the following 30 years. A newspaper reporter and the zoo director began an effort to find a better life for Ziggy and they did, though Ziggy died shortly after falling into the moat around his spacious enclosure. It seemed a tragic accident, but not to Slim Lewis. In his book, ‘I Love Rogues,’ Lewis says it was probably because he was trying to grab someone with his trunk.  

It is hard to be optimistic in the face of such heartbreak and slaughter, but wait, in the wild, it gets worse! Researchers at Oxford University who are studying human elephant conflicts in India point out that the 40,000 Indian elephants live alongside 20% of the world’s population. The great northern Indian reserves have seen a huge increase in human elephant conflicts. More than one person a day is killed by an elephant in India and, in return 100 elephants annually die as a consequence of human retribution.  

There are many reasons why – loss of habitat through deforestation and expanded farming, culling and poaching of animals and other human encroachments – but at the core, the psychological relationship between elephants and humans has changed. Gay Bradshaw, an Oregon State University researcher, in her essay “Elephant Breakdown,” notes that these conflicts have led to a breakdown of a gentle culture into one that is significantly more aggressive.

“Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed,” Bradshaw says. “What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence. Now, I use the term ‘violence’ because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behavior of elephants.”

Bradshaw says that there is a kind of Post Traumatic Stress affecting elephants that leads to aggression.  She says that elephant leadership from older, larger elephants is lost to poaching and culling and young elephants no longer have the benefit of the training and acculturation the older elephants provided.  

Not only is the violence directed at humans, but at other elephants. A South African researcher says that 90% of elephant deaths in South Africa are attributable to other elephants.

The elephant is also part of the crisis in Sudan. For some 20 years, the Janzaweed Arabs have killed thousands of elephants and sold their ivory to finance their terror against Darfur. 

The uneasy peace between elephants and people is getting more unstable.  Along with all our other wars, we are falling into one between the two smartest species inhabiting the plant. 

But don’t worry, there are just 500,000 or so of them and seven billion of us. 

Piece of cake.

Dan Koehl's Elephant Encyclopedia Website

Gay Bradshaw's Kerulos Center on interspecies psychology