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Smithsonian American Art Museum


Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Exhibition Poster: Robert Indiana, Kunst Markt , Köln

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Art exhibition poster with entire image made up of German text in yellow, black and red. At top is "KUNST" (Art); at center, KÖLN (Cologne) is arranged with KÖ on top of LN (like the shape of Indiana's LOVE sculpture of 1966). "MARKT" is below. More text is at bottom.


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Circular gilt metal ring with “LO / VE” in thick sculptural block letters.


Smithsonian American Art Museum
In the 1960s, the word “love” became a touchstone for America’s hippie movement and Robert Indiana’s composition was widely accepted as a symbol of its progressive aspirations. Indiana originally made the work as a Christmas card in 1965 and later made prints, sculptures, and paintings based on the design. Commercial ventures soon co-opted the image for merchandise. Unfortunately, Indiana had not declared copyright on his famous work, so never profited from its prolific commercial reproduction.

Pop Art Prints, 2014

Robert Indiana greeting card to Dorothy C. Miller

Archives of American Art
Greeting Card : 1 folded sheet : ill. ; 21 x 21 cm. Front of card features a lithograph of Indiana's "Love" sculpture. Sheet folded twice.
Written inside card: Dorothy, My Best, Bob
Also inside is an embossed stamp which reads: Robert Indiana, 25 Coenties Slip, New York, New York, USA 1964.

Louise Nevelson and Robert Indiana at a party

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 26 x 21 cm. Item is inscribed (handwritten): For Louise with Love - Bob '71.

Nevleson and Indiana with another man at a house party.

The Eateria

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Beware-Danger American Dream #4

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Archives Reveal Touching Stories on the Life of Robert Indiana, the Man Who Invented “LOVE”

Smithsonian Magazine

“Robert Indiana was born in the state of the same name in 1928,” began a short biographical description handwritten by the artist for the catalog of his first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1962: “He studied in Chicago and Edinburgh and returned from a travelling fellowship to live (sic) paint on the New York waterfront. Here in his first one-man show he recapitulates salient events in one American life.”

While the artist would become inextricably linked to his LOVE design and the Pop art movement, Indiana’s broader body of work—infused with numbers, words and symbols—incorporates autobiographical, literary and historical references to make hard-edged elegies to the American dream.

Born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana in 1928, the painter, sculptor and poet who would adopt the name Indiana—what he called his “nom de brush”—died on May 19, 2018 at the age of 89. He would become, as author and scholar Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, first noted, “the man who invented Love.”

LOVE in all its iterations—translated by the artist into Spanish and Hebrew for sculptures; painted into an unprintable four-letter word after a falling out with Ellsworth Kelly; or repurposed in 2008 as HOPE in a print made as a fundraiser for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign—is often shorthand for Indiana’s artistic output. Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum notes that while Indiana was associated with Pop artists such as James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, he was different. “They were focusing our perceptions on the products of our consumer society. LOVE was not about consumer culture but the emotions through which we live our lives.”

That Indian never copyrighted his widely-imitated LOVE design was something of a scourge to the artist, who amassed a large collection of knock-offs. But the more personal revelations in the work are not as easily plagiarized as its graphic lines: In various interviews, Indiana points to LOVE as taking inspiration from spiritual rather than erotic origins, but, like much of his work, his LOVE painting of 1966 is saturated in color and autobiography.

Image by Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture records, 1946-2013. Archives of American Ar. Robert Indiana and a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1969 (original image)

Image by Mary Swift. Photograph of Robert Indiana with Decade Autoportrait 1969 (72 in.), not before 1972. (original image)

Image by Mary Swift, photographer. Mary Swift papers, circa 1970-2005. Archives of American Art. Portrait of Robert Indiana in his studio, c. 1980s (original image)

Image by Nancy Astor, photographer. Stable Gallery records, 1916-1999, bulk, 1953-1970. Archives of American Art. Alan Groh and Robert Indiana (right) installing a show at the Stable Gallery, 1964 (original image)

Robert Indiana’s LOVE design is represented in collections across the Smithsonian Institution along with other works of his art. These exemplify and offer insight into the full scope of the artist’s career.

Oral histories at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art’s include many interviews with artists who discuss their friendship with Indiana and his work, but among the most insightful is the 1963 interview with the artist himself conducted by Richard Brown Baker, a collector of contemporary art.

In it, Indiana speaks at length about his unsettled childhood and early education—aggravated by his mother’s tendency towards wanderlust that saw the family moving to 21 houses by the time he was 17— his interest in poetry and literature and his time living at Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan among a community of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney and Jack Youngerman.

A Christmas Card found in the papers Dorothy Miller, who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, provides a preview of LOVE in its early concept stage. As the Archives’ curator of manuscripts Mary Savig describes in her book Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists:

One of the first iterations of Robert Indiana’s most publicly adored subject, the LOVE motif, was a card sold by MoMA in 1965. For his holiday card of 1964, Indiana had made pencil rubbings of the word LOVE, complete with his signature slanted O; one recipient of his card was MoMA curator Dorothy Miller. The following year MoMA commissioned from Indiana a more-colorful take on the original design for its holiday-card line.

The greeting card Robert Indiana sent to Dorothy C. Miller, 1964 (. Dorothy C. Miller papers, 1853-2013, bulk 1920-1996. Archives of American Art)

In 1964, the same year Robert Indiana sent out his LOVE holiday card, he collaborated on a film, Eat, with Andy Warhol, in which, through the wizardry of film editing, Indiana eats a continually replenishing mushroom for 35 minutes. For the New York World’s Fair, he was one of ten artists commissioned by Phillip Johnson to create an artwork for the New York State Pavillion’s curved facade. Indiana’s creation, a 20-foot tall sign of five black circles arranged like the face of a five-sided die with letters that lit up to spell out EAT, was sandwiched between works by Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauchenberg. The words EAT, DIE, HUG and ERR would be conceits that Indiana returned to time and again—Mecklenburg calls them “iconic commands”—with EAT, the last word his mother said to him before she died, being one of the most profoundly autobiographical.

In a humorous take on the word, Philadelphia art curators Joan Kron and Audrey Sabol modified Indiana’s World’s Fair design into a brooch manufactured by Tiffany for their Genuine Electric Company—one of several business enterprises the women co-owned. After a write up on their projects in the New York Times, they received many inquiries about the pin, some of which are found in Kron’s papers in the Archives. Among them is a note from Mrs. Daniel D. Krakauer of Great Neck, Long Island, asking where she can get one of the EAT brooches to wear at her husband’s surprise 50th birthday party: “I can’t think of a better way of announcing that ‘Supper is Being Served’ than by ‘lighting up. . .’” The letter takes on a sly irony; officials at the World’s Fair had to order Indiana’s sign to be turned off after only one day, because crowds were flocking to the pavilion mistaking it for a food venue. As Indiana wrote, “Too many people had reacted, that first day, to the imperative.”

In 1974, after the Smithsonian received the art collection of financier and philanthropist Joseph Hirshhorn, and opened the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as a national museum of contemporary art, the Smithsonian Associates commissioned four posters for opening day, including one by Robert Indiana with an eye-popping blue star and a bold graphic design.

At the time of the museum’s opening there were only two early Indiana paintings—The Eateria, 1962 and Beware-Danger American Dream #4, 1963—in the Hirshhorn collection. Both, says Evelyn Hankins, the Hirshhorn’s senior curator, “are iconic examples of Robert Indiana’s way of using American vernacular, such as road signs, to create striking artworks at the core of Pop art.”

Indiana's opening-day poster, says the Hirshhorn's Evelyn Hankins, “is very representational as to why Robert Indiana is pivotal to the Pop art world—his use of hard-edge graphics, which are sometimes celebratory and sometimes ask tough questions about the darker side of the American dream.” (Hirshhorn)

Indiana’s opening-day poster, says Hankins “with its graphic bold star and limited color palette,” not only fit well into the collection and the artist’s oeuvre, but was “very representational as to why Robert Indiana is pivotal to the Pop art world—his use of hard-edge graphics, which are sometimes celebratory and sometimes ask tough questions about the darker side of the American dream.” In this case, especially, celebratory.

Art critic Lucy Lippard declared Indiana an “out-and-out romantic,” noting that the artist’s “contribution has been the marriage of poetry and geometric clarity via the inclusion of American literature and history in a non-objective art.”

His romantic tendencies are evident in his columnar sculptures made from found wood and objects, including those housed in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. According to the museum’s Virginia Mecklenburg, who curated the artist’s solo 1984 exhibition “Wood Works: Constructions by Robert Indiana,” these pieces are indicative of his intelligence and working process. “He wanted to make concepts totemic. He saw his sculptures as totems, like the stele that served as way finders along Roman roads in ancient times. Indiana’s sculptures represent presence, power, individuality, as well as words, signs, symbols, ways to mark emotion, places. There was intentionality—these things were on his mind.”

Robert Indiana's Five. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist)

At the time of the 1984 exhibition, Indiana gifted his painting The Figure Five and the museum purchased his sculpture Five. Both are riffs on Charles Demuth’s painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Goldmade as a response to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure,” written after an encounter with a fire truck whizzing by on a rainy Manhattan night—and are cornerstones of the museum’s Indiana holdings.

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving . . . .

“Bob liked the idea of the sculpture and painting being together,” Mecklenburg recounts. “Demuth was influenced by Williams’ experiential poem—speed, light, the sound of the clanging fire truck—Bob found another way to express this that was of the moment.”

Asked about what it was like working with Indiana on the exhibition, Mecklenburg says Indiana was shy but still allowed her access to his personal journals, pages of which are reproduced in the show’s catalog. “He was quite amazing . . . he was a friend,” she says. “He had a profound sense of American history, naming himself for the state where he grew up—he wasn’t Robert Massachusetts! It was an assertion of Middle America, and that says something about what he valued.”

As he told Diamonstein, “when I was a kid, my mother used to drive my father to work in Indianapolis, and I would see, practically every day of my young life, a huge Phillips 66 sign. So it is the red and green of that sign against the blue Hoosier sky. The blue in the Love is cerulean. Therefore my Love is an homage to my father.”

At the end of Robert Indiana’s oral history interview, Richard Brown Baker suggested that the artist had not been “entirely revealing,” but Mecklenburg argues that Indiana grants a great deal of access to the viewer willing to do a deep reading of his work. Indiana, she says, “was a man who made his mark on the world through his art.”

In fact, Indiana, who saw himself as a painter of signs, once asserted, “I paint the American scene.”

As he laid out plainly in the artists’ statement for the Stable Gallery: “My art is a disciplined high dive—high soar, simultaneous & polychromous, an exaltation of the verbal-visual . . . my dialogue.”

Oral history interview with Audrey Sabol, 1987 June 10

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 48 pages.

An interview of Audrey Sabol conducted 1987 June 10, by Marina Pacini, for the Archives of American Art.

Sabol speaks of her education; her assocation with the Arts Council of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association; how the council was organized and how it operated. She discusses some of the individual artists involved with the exhibits, including Richard Serra. She continues by discussing her tenure on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and Ti-Grace Atkinson, its first director; projects completed by the Beautiful Bag Co. such as Roy Lichtenstein dishes and a Robert Indiana love ring; and an unsuccessful attempt to do an exhibition on billboards for which a Roy Lichtenstein billboard was completed. She concludes by discussing her own collecting, and her observations on the Philadelphia art scene.

Oral history interview with Larry Aldrich, 1972 April 25-June 10

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 9 sound tape reels ; 5 in.

Transcript: 385 p.

Interview of Larry Aldrich conducted 1972 April 25-June 10, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art. Aldrich speaks of his acquisitions and his program for selling art at Christmas and praises William S. Lieberman as "the curator of collectors". He discusses funds given to museums by the Larry Aldrich Foundation; visits to artists' studios; exhibiting a portion of his collection for the first time at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, exhibitions at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art; Robert Indiana's "Love Series"; and modern movements including "Lyrical Abstraction" and "Cool Art." He recalls Stephen Antonakos, Richard Brown Baker, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Leo Castelli, Grace Hartigan, Budd Hopkins, Jasper Johns, John Myers, Dorothy Miller, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Robert Smithson, and others.

Dixieland joys [sound recording] / compiled and annotated by David A. Jasen

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes ([2] p.) inserted in container.

Link Love: 6/6/2014

Smithsonian Institution Archives

“Cleopatra” in Domain Cricket Ground, 1914, Auckland, by Robert Walrond. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (A.018196). Museum of New Zealand.

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Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series with Barbara Haskell

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Barbara Haskell is a long-time curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a well-known scholar on American modern art. Among the landmark exhibitions she has curated are The American Century: Art & Culture, 1900-1950 ; BLAM! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964; Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color; Georgi a O'Keeffe: Abstraction; and Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE, on view at the Whitney September 26, 2013-January 23, 2014. Haskell will discuss the works of Robert Indiana, creator of one of the iconic images of twentiethcentury pop art, LOVE. A popular culture hit, the design appeared, without Indiana's permission, on a wide range of commercial products. His attempt to reclaim the image from a cliché by remaking it in multiple editions of prints and sculptures alienated critics. Haskell examines the evolution of Indiana's themes within the context of the marketing of his work and offers insight into how we judge artistic reputations.

When Robert Kennedy Delivered the News of Martin Luther King's Assassination

Smithsonian Magazine

Martin Luther King Jr.—murdered.

The news of April 4, 1968, was like a body blow to Senator Robert Kennedy. He “seemed to shrink back,” said John J. Lindsay, a Newsweek reporter traveling with the Democratic presidential candidate. For Kennedy, King’s slaying served as an intersection between past and future. It kindled memories of one of the worst days of his life, November 22, 1963, when J. Edgar Hoover coldly told him that his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in Dallas. Furthermore, it shook Kennedy’s belief in what lay ahead. He sometimes received death threats and lived in anticipation of gunshots.

Half a century ago, when his campaign plane reached Indianapolis on that night, Kennedy learned of King’s death. The civil rights leader had been gunned down in Memphis, where he led a sanitation workers’ strike. Kennedy had planned to appear in a black Indianapolis neighborhood, an area the city’s mayor considered too dangerous for a rally. City police refused to escort Kennedy. Nevertheless, he proceeded as a messenger of peace in a time soon to become hot with rage. Reaching the neighborhood, Kennedy realized the boisterous crowd was unaware of King’s death.

Climbing onto a flatbed truck and wearing his slain brother’s overcoat, Kennedy looked at the crowd. Through the cold, smoky air, he saw faces upturned optimistically and knew they soon would be frozen in horror.

At first, he struggled to gain his rhetorical feet. Then, one of the most eloquent extemporaneous speeches of the 20th century tumbled from his lips. During the heartfelt speech, Kennedy shared feelings about his brother’s assassination—something he had avoided expressing, even to his staff. The pain was too great.

Clutching scribbled notes made in his car, RFK began simply: “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.” Gasps and shrieks met his words. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”

Kennedy knew King’s death would generate bitterness and calls for vengeance: “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

After the initial shock, the audience listened silently except for two moments when they cheered RFK’s peace-loving message.

“It’s a very un-speech speech,” says Harry Rubenstein, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “When you watch Kennedy giving the news of King’s assassination you see him carefully and hesitantly stringing his ideas together. Ultimately, what makes the speech so powerful is his ability to share the loss of his own brother to an assassin, as he pleas with his audience not to turn to violence and hate.” Rubenstein concludes.

“It’s the first time he talks publicly about his brother’s death and that he has suffered the angst and anguish of losing someone so important to him, and they were all suffering together . . . . everyone on the stage as well as in the crowd. And there was a real vulnerability in that,” adds curator Aaron Bryant from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It was such a risky thing for him to do as well because he was confronting a crowd that was ready to retaliate for the death of Martin Luther King, but he was ready to confront any retaliation or anger that people might have felt over King’s death. That took a certain amount of courage and spiritual power and groundedness,” says Bryant.

Two month before his own assassination, RFK spoke about his brother's death when comforting African-American's in Indianapolis about the assassination of Dr. King. A hand-held fan memorializes the three. (NMAH)

When Kennedy reached his hotel, he called King’s widow Coretta Scott King in Atlanta. She said she needed a plane to carry her husband’s body from Memphis to Atlanta, and he immediately promised to provide her one.

As the night proceeded, a restive Kennedy visited several campaign staffers. When he talked to speechwriters Adam Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield, he made a rare reference to Lee Harvey Oswald, saying JFK’s assassin had unleashed a flood of violence. He reportedly told “Kennedy for California” organizer Joan Braden, “it could have been me.”

The next day, he prepared for an appearance in Cleveland, while his staff worried about his safety. When a possible gunman was reported atop a nearby building, an aide closed the blinds, but Kennedy ordered them opened. “If they’re going to shoot, they’ll shoot,” he said. Speaking in Cleveland, he asked, “What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.”

Meanwhile, African-American anger erupted in rioting across more than 100 American cities, with deaths totaling 39 and injuries 2,500. After the senator finished his campaign swing, he returned to Washington. From the air, he could see smoke hovering over city neighborhoods. Ignoring his staff’s pleas, he visited riot-ravaged streets. At home, he watched riot footage on TV alongside his 8-year-old daughter, Kerry, and told her that he understood African-American frustration, but the rioters were “bad.”

Both Kennedy and his pregnant wife Ethel attended King’s Atlanta funeral, where they saw the slain leader lay in an open casket. They met privately with his widow. Mrs. King and Ethel Kennedy hugged upon meeting—by the end of the year both would be widows. Perhaps they recognized their shared burden of sorrow, even with RFK still standing among them.

A section of a mural from Resurrection City, inscribed: "John the Catholic/ Martin the King/ Robert the Samaritan/ They bled so we may live and LOVE," is on view at the Smithsonian. (NMAAHC, gift of Vincent DeForest)

On May 7, Kennedy won the Indiana primary. Three weeks later, he lost Oregon to U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and on June 4, he triumphed again in California and South Dakota. After RFK’s early-morning victory speech in Los Angeles, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Jordanian who opposed Kennedy’s support for Israel, shot the senator in the head. He lay mortally wounded on an Ambassador Hotel pantry floor while TV cameras rolled. His face wore an expression of resignation. Robert Kennedy died a day later.

His funeral ceremonies began with a Mass in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and his coffin was carried from New York to Washington on a slow-moving train. Mixed gatherings of citizens lined the railroad awaiting an opportunity to demonstrate their sense of loss and to own a piece of history. Members of the Kennedy family took turns standing on the back of the last car, which carried the coffin in full view of the public. When the train reached Washington, an automobile procession passed Resurrection City, an encampment of 3,000-5,000 protesters, on the way to Arlington National Cemetery.

Organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, the shantytown on the National Mall included poor Southerners who traveled from Mississippi in covered wagons. King had planned to lead the demonstration and hoped to build a coalition supporting the poor of all colors. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, developed an Economic and Social Bill of Rights and sought $30 billion in spending to end poverty. Loss of a charismatic leader like King created both emotional and organizational obstacles for the SCLC, says Bryant, who has organized a Smithsonian exhibition, entitled “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.”

Though in mourning, the SCLC went ahead with the demonstration because they “wanted to honor what would be King’s final and most ambitious dream,” according to Bryant. King was changing his movement through the Poor People’s Campaign, making a transition from civil rights to human rights. Economic rights were taking center stage. Bryant says that King believed “we should all have access to the American dream.”

Before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing the Poor People's Campaign. Smithsonian curator Aaron Bryant says King was making a transition from civil rights to human rights. (NMAAHC, gift of Linda and Artis Cason)

As Kennedy’s funeral procession passed, “people were really moved, of course, because he was a very important part of how the campaign happened,” explains Bryant. Some raised their fists in a “black power” salute; others sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Among the remains of Resurrection City after its temporary permit expired June 20 was a piece of plywood with a simple message of loss and hope:

John the Catholic

Martin the King

Robert the Samaritan

They bled so we may live and LOVE.

This piece of wood was one of 12 panels in the Hunger Wall, a mural rescued from Resurrection City. Two panels are on display in the Poor People’s Campaign exhibition, which is currently on view at the National Museum of American History. The show also includes a clip of Kennedy’s speech. Four more of the mural panels are on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

After a two-month manhunt, James Earl Ray, a white man, was arrested in London for King’s slaying. He confessed and although he later recanted, he served a life sentence until his death in 1998. Sirhan, now 73, remains in a California prison.

The “City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is on view at the National Museum of American History.

The Poor People's Campaign, a shanty town of 3,000-5,000 protesters on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was a tribute to King, to honor his "most ambitious dream," says Bryant. (NMAAHC, gift of Vincent DeForest)

Oral history interview with Vija Celmins, 2009 February 11-October 15

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 45 pages

An interview of Vija Celmins conducted 2009 February 11-October 15, by Julia Brown, for the Archives of American Art, at the Celmins' home and studio, in New York, New York.

Celmins speaks of her family's Latvian roots; experiencing World War II as a child; surviving and overcoming the trauma of World War II; the difficulties of being a refugee and moving to the United States; the influence of books on her imagination and art; expressing herself through drawing after moving to Indiana; learning English; studying art at the John Herron School of Art; attending summer school at Yale University; moving to California to obtain her MFA at UCLA; using art to grapple with and understand both her past and her emotions; experimenting with various mediums; discovering the pencil as an art material; the difficulties of printmaking; experimenting with abstraction and Pop art; deciding to drop painting and collage work; finding her own artistic philosophy and practices; her love of nature and its impact on her work; not conforming to the male-dominated, L.A. art scene; her decision to leave L.A. for NYC. Celmins also speaks about Tony Berlant, Chas Garabedian, Ed Ruscha, David Stuart, Philip Guston, Chuck Close, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden, Joan Mitchell, Robert Irwin, and Jasper Johns.

New Met Logo Typifies the Eternal Struggle of Rebranding

Smithsonian Magazine

Logos are a tricky thing to get right. Designed to distill the values of a brand or institution down to a single image, they serve as a powerful marketing tool or a bullseye for critics. For venerable institutions like museums, it’s not uncommon for a change of brand to spark the latter, at least at first—just look at last week’s kerfuffle over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new logo.

For 45 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was represented by the iconic "M" logo, where the design of interlocking circles and lines centered around the letter "M" evoked Leonardo da Vinci’s "Vitruvian Man." As of March 1, however the museum will adopt a brand new logo to represent itself: a stack of red capital letters tightly kerned, that spells out "THE MET."

When the news first broke last week, the reaction was quick and heated, to say the least. New York Magazine's architecture critic Justin Davidson fired off a piece calling the Met’s new logo “a typographic bus crash,” and graphic designers across the Internet took it upon themselves to make their own improvements to the logo, Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News. At the same time, others welcomed the new logo, with Gothamist’s Jen Carlson comparing the stacked design to pop artist Robert Indiana’s iconic “Love” sculpture. Wherever you stand on this debate, one thing is for certain: the Met isn’t the first museum to face this kind of symbolic controversy, and it likely won’t be the last.

Whether a logo symbolizes a museum or a company, new logos tend to bring controversy. When Pepsi unveiled a new logo in 2008, many saw it as a blatant ripoff of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign logo. In 2013, another New York museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, drew sharp criticism for its own logo change from a block-y, all-caps "WHITNEY" to a minimalistic, movable "W." Only a year later, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled a redesigned logo that places heavy emphasis on the word “Art” but makes no reference to the stone stairs the museum is most iconic for, which Sylvester Stalone trained on in Rocky. But controversy fades over time, and all three logos are still around.

What makes the Met different from these, though, is the scale. The museum holds a juggernaut of art spanning time and continents, with its collections including 1.5 million individual artworks (including an ancient Egyptian temple) housed in 400 galleries. There are also satellite outposts: the Cloisters in upper Manhattan and a soon-to-be-opened museum on the Upper East Side in the building that housed the Whitney until it moved to Lower Manhattan’s Meatpacking District last year. The reason for the change in logo is that while the “Vitruvian M” may have been iconic, it was never used to unify the museum’s identity, Margaret Rhodes writes for Wired.

“The way we spoke to the public was very fractured,” Susan Sellers, the museum’s head of design, tells Rhodes. “There was no single way The Met represented itself. There were just a lot of legacy systems that were overlapping and oftentimes contradictory.”

So far, the Met has cast its new logo as a breath of fresh air, a rebranding that will revitalize and unify the museum’s various projects in the eyes of the public (and, of course, its promotional materials). Critics may grumble about it now, but it’s impossible to know how it will be received once it has been around for a few years. By then, chances are it will be absorbed into the background, a nearly invisible symbol people don’t even think twice about – the sign that a design has done its job.

Is Bob Dylan a Poet?

Smithsonian Magazine

The 20th century was about the breaking of forms, transgressing the norms, and creating the new out of the multiplicities of influences in which we live. Early in the century, the poet Ezra Pound charged artists to “make it new,” creating art that responded to the time while also being mindful of the traditions from which it came. The Nobel Prize committee breaks with precedent—and recognizes those who make it new—by awarding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.

The prize will surprise—and perhaps anger—some.  In the 1960s and 1970s, there was no easier routine for a mainstream comedian to parody Dylan but to mumble obscurely while wheezing into a harmonica. Contemporary critics, who draw a hard line between high culture and popular art, lauding the former while disparaging the latter, will doubtless clutch their pearls in dismay.

But the award will delight many. Dylan’s career has been a constant series of surprises, reversals and new directions, from his roots as a New York “folkie,” channeling Woody Guthrie and the voice of America’s dispossessed to his later life fascination with the Old Testament and the Gospels.

Most famously, in 1965 he turned everything upside down marrying his deeply rooted poetic lyrics to the sonic power of the electric guitar. The Prize Committee cited Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That song tradition itself originated deep in the past with the medieval troubadours who fused word and music in their encounter with their life and times—so honoring Dylan, America’s troubadour—takes us full circle to poetry’s origins.

As a young man and aspiring artist, Hibbing, Minnesota’s Robert Zimmerman came out of the Iron Range—prime Guthrie territory—and took his stage name from the Welsh romantic poet Dylan Thomas. It was a persona that served him well even if Dylan was never as romantic in the sentimental sense of the word. Instead he was the singular individual, going his own way according to his own dictates and desires.

Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser, 1966 (NPG, SI, © Milton Glaser)

When he went electric he was accused of betrayal and treason by the outraged folk “community” he left behind. That world was too confining to his ambition and reach. In a succession of great albums, Dylan redefined the role of the singer/songwriter/performer in a way that was wholly original, not least because he lacked obvious musical gifts.

The comics weren’t altogether wrong.

Dylan proved that you could be a great singer without being able to sing—and he was never more than a rudimentary guitar player. But what he recognized was the marriage of words and music could propel a song based on ideas as much as rhythms. His music responded to the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s and; it was always civically and cultural engaged music. His raw voice chanted the lyrics in a way that made them all the more immediately powerful.

Do Dylan’s lyrics stand alone as poetry? Certainly they do in terms of the tradition of free verse in the 20th-century, a criterion that will not satisfy many.

And interestingly, because he turned words into music, many of his lyrics are more traditional in the way that they rhyme and scan than critics might admit.

Dylan cannot be seen as a traditional poet (like Frost, say) because surrealism always appealed to him in creating imagery that collided and turned one thing into something else. The great bitter lines of a romance gone bad in “Like a Rolling Stone” suddenly shift into something else entirely “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat” before returning to the present “Ain’t it hard when you discover that/He really wasn’t where it’s at. . .” 

Granted the music carries the words, and like a lot of pop music sometimes the words can be conventional but where the hell did that image come from? And why does it work so well in the singer’s encounter with his spoiled and willful partner? These kinds of moments recur continually in Dylan’s songbook even when he is simply working in a familiar genre like country music or just rocking out with his greatest backup group, The Band.

“So,” Bob, quoting back at you the refrain from “Like a Rolling Stone,” how does it feel? Impressed by another honorific, a recognition of your singular role in the making and breaking of forms. Maybe, maybe not.

When asked once what his songs were about, Dylan responded, “About five and a half minutes.”  Or as the song says, “Don’t think twice it’s alright.”

There is a great moment at the end of Martin Scorsese’ film The Last Waltz (his documentary about The Band's last concert) when Dylan comes out to close the show, wearing a very strange pink hat.  He is received with rapturous, idolatrous applause, and looks full-faced into the camera and shrugs his shoulders in a gesture that says it’s all a bit much. And he and The Band then play the elegiac “Forever Young” (“May God bless and keep you always.”).

A nice way to end a show about ending, right? Except they don’t.

Finishing, they slam into “Baby Let Me Follow Down,” a Dylan song about the endless highway of sex, love, life and creativity: “I 'll do anything in this god almighty world/ If you’ll just let me follow you down.”

The Band is sadly gone now, most of its members dead; Dylan is still following himself. 

The National Portrait Gallery will display its iconic 1962 image of Bob Dylan by photographer John Cohen beginning Monday, October 17, 2016.

Woman/Verso: Untitled

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Ask an Expert: What Did Abraham Lincoln’s Voice Sound Like?

Smithsonian Magazine

I suspect that when people imagine Abraham Lincoln and the way he sounded, many imagine him as a bass, or at least a deep baritone. Perhaps this is because of his large stature and the resounding nature of his words. Certainly, the tradition of oratory in the 1850s would support the assumption. “Usually people with centurion, basso profundo voices dominated American politics,” says Harold Holzer, a leading Lincoln scholar. Then, of course, there are the casting choices of film and TV directors over the years. “It can’t get any deeper than Gregory Peck,” says Holzer. Peck played Lincoln in the 1980s TV miniseries The Blue and the Gray.

But, unfortunately, no recordings of Lincoln’s voice exist, since he died 12 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the first device to record and play back sound. If anyone had an educated guess as to how it sounded though, it would be Holzer, who has written 40 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. The author has pored over reports of Lincoln’s public appearances on speaking tours, eyewitness accounts told to Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and newspaper commentaries about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and, surprisingly, he says, one of the only things that can be said with certainty is that Lincoln was a tenor.

“Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Holzer. It would be a mistake to say that his voice was squeaky though. “People said that his voice carried into crowds beautifully. Just because the tone was high doesn’t mean it wasn’t far-reaching,” he says.

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer. “I am paraphrasing, but there is ten minutes of saying, what the heck is that, and then all of a sudden it’s the ideas that supersede whatever flaws there are.” Lincoln’s voice needed a little time to warm up, and Holzer refers to this ten-minute mark as the “magical moment when the voice fell into gear.”

Image by The Everett Collection, Inc.. Gregory Peck played Abraham Lincoln in the 1980s TV miniseries The Blue and the Gray. (original image)

Image by The Everett Collection, Inc.. Actor Sam Waterston has played Lincoln on screen, in Ken Burns' The Civil War and Gore Vidal's Lincoln, pictured here. (original image)

Image by Granger Collection, NYC. No recordings of Lincoln's voice exist since he died 12 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the first device to record and play back sound. Shown here is Lincoln delivering his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863. (original image)

He recalls a critic saying something to this effect about Katharine Hepburn’s similarly startling voice: “When she begins to talk, you wonder why anyone would talk like that. But by the time the second act begins, you wonder why everyone doesn’t talk like that.” Says Holzer: “It’s that combination of gesture, mannerism and unusual timbre of voice that really original people have. It takes a little bit to get used to.”

Actor Sam Waterston has played Lincoln on screen, in Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, and on Broadway, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. To prepare for the role in the 1980s, he went to the Library of Congress and listened to Works Progress Administration tapes of stories told by people from the regions where Lincoln lived. (Some of the older people on the tapes were born when Lincoln was alive.) Lincoln’s accent was a blend of Indiana and Kentucky. “It was hard to know whether it was more Hoosier or blue grass,” says Holzer. The way he spelled words, such as “inaugural” as “inaugerel,” gives some clue as to how he pronounced them.

Despite his twang, Lincoln was “no country bumpkin,” Holzer clarifies. “This was a man who committed to memory and recited Shakespearean soliloquies aloud. He knew how to move into King’s English. He could do Scottish accents because he loved Robert Burns. He was a voracious reader and a lover of poetry and cadence. When he writes something like the Second Inaugural, you see the use of alliteration and triplets. ‘Of the people, by the people and for the people’ is the most famous example,” he says. “This was a person who truly understood not only the art of writing but also the art of speaking. People should remember that, though we have no accurate memorial of his voice, this is a man who wrote to be heard. Only parenthetically did he write to be read.”

According to William Herndon, Lincoln didn’t saw wood or swat bees, meaning he did not gesture too much. Apparently, he didn’t roam the stage either. Herndon once wrote that you could put a silver dollar in between Lincoln’s feet at the start of a speech and it would be there, undisturbed, at the end. “He was very still,” says Holzer. “He let that voice that we question and his appearance and the words themselves provide the drama.”

Of the actors who have played Lincoln, “Waterston catches it for me,” says Holzer. “Although he is from Massachusetts, he gets that twang down, and he’s got a high voice that sometimes lapses into very high.”

It will be interesting to see what Daniel Day-Lewis, who is known to go to great lengths to get into character, does with the part. He is slated to play the president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a 2012 release based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Watch this video in the original article

Wright EX Vin Fiz

National Air and Space Museum
Wood and fabric biplane. Single 35-horsepower Wright vertical four-cylinder engine driving two pusher propellers via sprocket-and-chain transmission. Smaller, experimental version of the standard 1910-12 Wright Model B airplane.

The first crossing of the United States by airplane was achieved by Calbraith Perry Rodgers in 1911. In 1910, famed publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst announced his offer of a $50,000-prize for a U.S. transcontinental flight in thirty days or less. Rodgers' Wright EX biplane was named the Vin Fiz after his sponsor's grape soda product. He left Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17, 1911. A "hangar" car, a rolling workshop filled with spare parts to repair and maintain the airplane, followed along. The flight was punctuated by numerous stops, delays, and accidents. When Hearst's 30-day time limit expired, Rodgers had only reached Kansas City, Missouri. Undaunted, he continued on, determined to make the first transcontinental airplane flight whether he received the money or not. He arrived in Pasadena, California, to a hero's welcome, 49 days after setting out. Although Pasadena was the official end of the coast-to-coast journey, Rodgers flew on to Long Beach to complete the flight at the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The total distance covered was 6,914 km (4,321 mi) in 82 hours, 4 minutes, total flying time at an average speed of 82.4 kph (51.5 mph).

The first crossing of the United States by airplane was achieved by Calbraith Perry Rodgers in 1911 in his Wright EX biplane, named the Vin Fiz. Rodgers had a rich personal heritage of exploration and adventure. He was a descendant of Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry, famous for opening Japan to U.S. trade in 1853, his brother Oliver Hazard Perry, and Commodore John Rodgers, all of whom had historic naval careers. Rodgers's interest in attending the U.S. Naval Academy was thwarted by his deafness, a condition resulting from a serious bout with scarlet fever as a young boy. Given his nautical lineage, he was an avid sailor and was elected to the prestigious New York Yacht Club in 1902. Rodgers had a love of speed, which he pursued through the recently introduced technologies of motorcycles and automobiles.

Rodgers, typically called Cal, was introduced to aviation in June 1911. His cousin, John, a Naval Academy graduate, had been selected to learn to fly the Navy's newly purchased Wright airplane, and was sent to the Wright factory and flying school in Dayton, Ohio, in March 1911. On a visit to his cousin during his training, Cal was immediately hooked on flying, and soon began flight instruction. Shortly thereafter, with his cousin, he ordered a new Wright Model B airplane. A quick study, Rodgers was already flying public exhibitions in Ohio and Indiana with his new aircraft in July. On August 7, 1911, he passed his flight tests for pilot's license number 49, issued by the Aero Club of America. On August 10, he arrived in Chicago to compete in the Chicago International Aviation Meet at Grant Park. He won the duration contest, and along with his performance in other events, earned total prize money of $11,285, and instant celebrity.

Ten months earlier, famed publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, had captured the attention of the aviation world when he announced a $50,000-prize for the first flight across the United States in thirty days or less. The offer was good for one year beginning on October 10, 1910. The bold challenge interested many of the leading names in aviation, including the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. But the technical and logistical demands of such a flight precluded any immediate attempts.

In September 1911, three competitors were finally in the race. Cal Rodgers was one of them, along with Robert Fowler and James Ward. Fowler took off from San Francisco on September 11, but after three failed attempts to cross the Sierras, aborted his transcontinental flight by the end of the month. Ward took off from the east coast on September 13, but withdrew little more than a week later, not even making it out of New York State.

Following the Grant Park competition in August, Rodgers decided to attempt the coast-to-coast flight. While still in Chicago, he secured financial backing from the Armour Company, a local firm which was then introducing a new grape-flavored soft drink called Vin Fiz. Armour provided a special train, emblazoned with the Vin Fiz logo, with cars for the accommodation of Rodgers's family and his support crew, and a "hangar" car, which was a rolling workshop, filled with spare parts to repair and maintain the airplane over the course of the flight. There was even an automobile on board to pick up Rodgers after forced landings away from the rail line. The pilot would receive five dollars for every mile he flew east of the Mississippi River and four dollars for every mile west of the river. Rodgers agreed to pay for the fuel, oil, spare parts, his mechanics, and the airplane itself, which the Wright Company agreed to build. Chief mechanic on the flight was Charles Taylor, who had worked for the Wright brothers since 1901 and had built the engine for the Wright Flyer, the world's first airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

The airplane was a Wright EX, a special design that was used for exhibition flying, which was a slightly smaller version of the Wright Company's standard Model B flyer. Like the support rail car, Rodgers's aircraft carried the Vin Fiz logo on its wings and tail, and was quickly dubbed the Wright EX Vin Fiz. It was powered by a 35-horsepower, Wright vertical four-cylinder engine, and it carried enough fuel for a maximum of 3½ hours flying time.

Rodgers began his epic journey from Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17, 1911. The flight was punctuated by numerous stops, delays, and accidents. When the 30-day time limit Hearst imposed for the $50,000 prize had expired, he had only reached Kansas City, Missouri. Undaunted, Rodgers continued on, determined to make the first transcontinental airplane flight whether he received the money or not. Upon leaving Kansas City, he flew due south to Texas, and then made his way across the southern U.S. border toward Pasadena, California, the official termination point of the flight. Rodgers continued to experience frequent mechanical failures, damage to the airplane in hard landings, and weather delays. Trouble arose again on November 3, shortly after passing over Imperial Junction, California, less than 320 km (200 mi) from the finish. At 1,200 m (4,000 ft), an engine cylinder exploded, damaging one of the wings and driving steel shards into Rodgers's right arm. He struggled to regain control of the Vin Fiz and, amazingly, managed to glide the 10 km (6 mi) back to Imperial Junction and land safely. The engine and airplane were repaired a day later, and despite his painful injury, Rodgers departed for Pasadena once again on November 4. Further engine problems forced him down in Banning, California, about half way to his final destination. On November 5 he was airborne again, and after brief stops in Beaumont and Pomona, he arrived in Pasadena to a hero's welcome, 49 days after setting out from Sheepshead Bay.

Although Pasadena was the official end of the coast-to-coast journey, Rodgers wanted to fly all the way to the Pacific shore to complete the flight. Several coastal towns bid for the honor, and Long Beach was the final selection. They agreed to pay Rodgers $1,000, plus part of the gate receipts of an exhibition of the Vin Fiz after arrival. Rodgers took off from Pasadena for the short 37 km (23 mi) trip to Long Beach on November 12. Minutes into the flight, engine failure forced him down near Covina Junction. Repairs to a broken fuel line had him back in the air that afternoon. But again, just a short time after takeoff, near Compton, California, Rodgers was down. This time it was a serious crash. The airplane was severely damaged and Rodgers was badly hurt. It took several weeks to make the Vin Fiz airworthy again and for Rodgers to recover from his injuries. On December 10, yet needing crutches to move about on his still healing ankle, Rodgers boarded his battered aircraft, determined to fly the Vin Fiz all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As at Pasadena, Rodgers's arrival was an organized public event and a large crowd gathered at Long Beach to welcome him. The remainder of the great adventure met without incident and Rodgers landed to cheering crowds. To create a photo opportunity for the press and the spectators the Vin Fiz was rolled into the surf, allowing the Pacific to lap over it wheels. The 6,914 km (4,321 mi) were covered in 82 hours, 4 minutes, total flying time at an average speed of 82.4 kph (51.5 mph). Cal Rodgers had secured his place in aviation history. (Robert Fowler began another west-to-east transcontinental flight on October 19, this time taking a southern route to avoid the mountains. He arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 8, 1912, completing the trip in more than twice as many days as Rodgers.)

Rodgers and his wife liked Pasadena and decided to stay. He kept the Vin Fiz and a second airplane, a two-seat Wright Model B, at nearby Dominguez Field. He made exhibition flights with the Vin Fiz and took up passengers and gave flight instruction with the Model B. He later moved the airplanes to Long Beach and operated from there. On April 3, 1912, Rodgers was airborne in the Model B, making a test flight after some tuning of the engine in preparation for another passenger ride. Witnesses observed a steep dive as Rodgers apparently attempted to avoid a flock of seagulls. In the next instant he was seen struggling with the controls just before the airplane crashed into the surf, only one hundred yards from his landing spot after the last leg of the transcontinental flight in December. Rodgers was killed instantly. Various causes for the accident were put forth, ranging from a seagull jamming the controls to Rodgers's recklessness or carelessness as a pilot. The precise cause remains undetermined. The wreckage of Rodgers's Model B was acquired by one of his mechanics, Frank Shaffer, and his partner Jesse Brabazon. They rebuilt it and flew for approximately one year until it was destroyed in a crash while being piloted by Brabazon's friend, Andrew Drew, who was killed.

The Vin Fiz was acquired after Cal's death by his cousin, Lt. John Rodgers, USN. He offered it to the Smithsonian Institution, but it was not accepted on the grounds that it was very similar to the recently acquired Wright Military Flyer. It then passed to Rodgers's wife, Mabel, who, not long after Cal's death, married Charles Wiggin. They exhibited and flew the Vin Fiz publicly for two years, until Rodgers's mother was awarded possession of the airplane in 1914 in a court ruling regarding Cal's estate. The history of the airplane becomes somewhat murky at this point. According to Charles Taylor, the Wright mechanic who assisted Rodgers on the transcontinental flight, Rodgers's mother shipped the Vin Fiz to the Wright factory in Dayton, Ohio, for refurbishment. Either unable or unwilling to pay for the work, she allowed the airplane to languish at the Wright factory and it was destroyed in 1916 after the company was sold. But this version of events is at odds with the fact that Rodgers's mother had the Vin Fiz restored and donated it to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1917. The airplane was later acquired by the Smithsonian from Carnegie in 1934.

The probable explanation for the conflicting information lies in the misconception that there was a single Vin Fiz airframe. On the transcontinental flight, several sets of wings and a large supply of other components and spare parts were brought along on the support train. Rodgers's airplane was repaired and rebuilt many times during the trip. By the time the wheels of the Vin Fiz were rolled into the Pacific at Long Beach, almost nothing of the airplane that took off from Sheepshead Bay remained. As a result, at the end of the journey, there were enough flown, genuine Vin Fiz parts to make up more than one airplane. Charles Taylor was probably accurate when he stated that the Vin Fiz sent to the Wright factory (i.e., the intact airplane that Mabel and Charles Wiggin flew in 1912-14) was destroyed. The airplane that ended up at the Carnegie Institute, and then the Smithsonian, was very likely reconstructed from the parts left over from the many repairs and rebuilds during the flight. Thus, the airplane in the NASM collection is genuine in that it is comprised of components that, at various points, were part of the Vin Fiz during the historic coast-to-coast flight.

When on display at the Carnegie Institute, the engine mounted on the Vin Fiz was a wooden mock-up. The whereabouts of the original engine are unknown. At the Smithsonian, an original Wright engine of the correct type, but not associated with the flight nor with Rodgers, was put on the airplane. In 1960, the Smithsonian fully restored the Vin Fiz. In 1996, when it was part of a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, a new wooden mock-up engine was made and placed on the airplane. This was done to reduce potential wear and tear on the artifact caused by repeated removal of the heavy, original engine during assembly and disassembly of the airplane on the many stops of the exhibition tour. The mock-up engine remains on the Vin Fiz.

10 Lucky Celebrities Who Escaped Disaster

Smithsonian Magazine

For almost every famous disaster you can name there’s an equally famous person who, though some lucky quirk of fate, happened to miss the ill-fated boat, doomed plane, mass murder, or other calamity. Here are 10 examples from recent American history.

1. Admiral Richard E. Byrd

In August 1921, Richard Byrd was scheduled to join the crew of a new, 695-foot-long Navy dirigible known as the ZR-2, departing from Howden, England, on a trial flight. But Byrd, later to gain fame as an aviator and the first explorer to fly over the South Pole, missed his train the day before and was late arriving at the airfield. As a result, he was crossed off the crew list.

Byrd did, however, have a chance to inspect the huge airship and watch it lift off the next morning. “How magnificent she looked, the rosy light of sunrise tinting her bright sides a series of soft violet and lavender tints,” he recalled in his 1928 memoir, Skyward. “Officers and observers aboard, lines cast off, she rose slowly and with dignity befitting so huge a craft, sailed away into the cloudless sky.”

A day later, back in London, he learned that the ZR-2 had broken in half, exploded in midair, and crashed into the Humber River near Hull. A total of 44 American and British crew members died.

Byrd would live on to have other adventures, including six pioneering expeditions to the Antarctic. He died in 1957 at age 68, at home in bed.

2. Kirk Douglas

In March of 1958, the actor known for his starring roles in movies such as Lust for Life (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) planned to join film producer Mike Todd on a trip to New York in Todd’s private plane, but his wife objected. As Douglas recalled in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he and his wife were listening to the car radio when an announcer interrupted with the news that Todd’s plane had crashed in New Mexico, killing everyone on board.

Douglas is still alive, at age 96.

Another A-list movie star who narrowly missed being aboard Todd’s plane was Elizabeth Taylor, then the producer’s wife (see below).  There may have been others, as well. Two weeks after the crash, gossip columnist Earl Wilson noted that so many people were claiming to have avoided the flight that he’d heard someone joke, “Those are the same people who barely missed the Lusitania."

3. J. Paul Getty

Anointed the “World’s Richest Man” by People magazine, Getty supposedly booked passage on the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria in July 1956, but canceled at the last minute. On the final night of its nine-day voyage to New York from Genoa, the ship would collide with a Swedish liner and sink off Nantucket, killing 46 passengers and crew, just 10 hours from its destination. Because the accident occurred so close to land, camera crews were able to reach the scene by plane and helicopter before the Andrea Doria sank, making it the first ocean liner disaster to be televised. 

According to Robert Lenzner’s 1985 biography, The Great Getty, the Minnesota-born oilman, then living in England, had supposedly been warned by a fortune-teller that he would die if he ever attempted to cross the Atlantic again. Apparently that did the trick. Though he sometimes went so far as to make reservations, he always ended up canceling them, Lenzner wrote.

Getty died in 1976 at his mansion outside London at age 83. A longtime art collector, he left much of his vast estate, reportedly over $1 billion, to a trust that now operates the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California, two of the most visited art museums in the U.S.

4. Cary Grant

Grant and fellow actor George Murphy were scheduled to be aboard the Pan Am Clipper “Yankee” in February 1943 but lucked out when their itinerary changed at the last minute. The flying boat crashed during an attempted landing in Lisbon, killing 24 passengers and crew. Murphy, who later became a U.S. senator from California, recalled the incident in his 1970 autobiography, Say… Didn’t You Used to Be George Murphy? Among the 15 survivors was the popular singer Jane Froman, who was badly injured in the crash. The incident figures prominently in the 1952 Froman biopic, With a Song in My Heart, starring Susan Hayward.

That would not be Grant’s last connection to a famous disaster, incidentally. His then-wife, the actress Betsy Drake, was aboard the Andrea Doria on its final voyage in 1956. Drake escaped the stricken ship, but reportedly lost nearly $250,000 worth of jewelry Grant had given her. According to Richard Goldstein’s 2003 account of the sinking and rescue, Desperate Hours, it was locked in a ship’s safe, where it apparently remains to this day.

Grant died in 1986 at age 82.

5. George “Papa Bear” Halas

In July, 1915, George Halas was a 20-year-old college student with a summer job at Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois, just south of Chicago. The company’s annual picnic was scheduled for July 24 in Michigan City, Indiana, and employees were to be ferried there from downtown Chicago by one of several excursion steamers that plied Lake Michigan. Halas had bought a ticket on the Eastland.

As Halas told the story in his 1979 autobiography, Halas by Halas, he was late leaving to catch the ship, much to his good fortune. “When I came to the river where the Eastland was docked, an appalling sight awaited. The Eastland had turned on its side. Only a few passengers had escaped.” 

The final death toll was more than 800 men, women, and children. Because his name was on a passenger list obtained by a newspaper reporter, Halas was briefly assumed to be among them.

Halas lived on to become the founder and owner of the Chicago Bears, which he built from a company football team called the Decatur Staleys. He coached the Bears for 40 seasons and died in 1983 at age 88.

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. On February 15, 1958, Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, producer Mike Todd, board his private plane named "The Liz," which crashed a month later killing Todd and two others. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Kirk Douglas narrowly escaped death when his wife objected to him riding on Mike Todd's plane. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. A last minute itinerary change saved Cary Grant's life. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. George Halas (right) with Pete Rozelle (left). (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Musician Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on a plane, which later crashed. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. Eleanor Roosevelt was just two years old when a ship carrying her on an Atlantic crossing almost sank. (original image)

Image by Wikipedia. The Flying Wallendas faced danger on a regular basis for generations, but never more so than on July 6, 1944. (original image)

6. Waylon Jennings

Jennings, who later gained fame as a country singer and songwriter and narrator of “The Dukes of Hazard” television show, was a little-known member of Buddy Holly’s backup band in 1959. When Holly decided to forsake their tour bus and charter a plane to fly to their next stop, Jennings gave up his seat to the singer J. P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper. The plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Holly, Richardson, and Ritchie Valens, as well as the pilot—a tragedy memorialized as “the day the music died” in the Don McLean song “American Pie.” 

Years later, Jennings described their last, jokey conversation after Holly learned he wouldn’t be joining them on the plane. “Well, I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” he remembered Holly saying.

Jennings’s reply: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

Waylon Jennings died in 2002 at age 64.

7. Steve McQueen

The actor was planning to drop by actress Sharon Tate’s rented home in Los Angeles on the night of August 8, 1969, but supposedly had a better offer from another female acquaintance and didn’t show. That proved to be a smart move. Tate, her unborn child, and four others were butchered shortly after midnight by members of the Manson Family cult.

McQueen later learned that he was on a list of celebrities that cult leader Charles Manson had marked for death, which he believed also included Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor. From that point on, he packed a handgun.

McQueen died in 1980 at age 50 from cancer.

Among others who were reportedly invited that evening but didn’t appear: Denny Doherty and John Phillips, the two “papas” of the Mamas and the Papas.

8. Eleanor Roosevelt

The future First Lady was just two years old in 1887 when she and her parents started on an Atlantic crossing aboard the White Star liner Britannic. A day into the voyage, their ship was rammed by another liner, the Celtic, resulting in as many as a dozen deaths and several horrific injuries. After helping his wife and other members of their party into a lifeboat, Eleanor’s father held out his arms so that a crewman she was desperately clinging to could pass her along to safety. As Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in her 1992 biography, “The crewman finally freed her fingers, and Eleanor always remembered that fall, the feel of plummeting from the deck high above into the pitching lifeboat below, surrounded by ‘cries of terror’ and shouts for help.”

The Roosevelts returned to New York aboard the Celtic, and when her parents attempted to resume their journey, young Eleanor refused to go with them and stayed behind with an aunt. She reportedly had a lifelong fear of both water and heights as a result of the experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78. 

As to the Britannic, despite being badly damaged, it made its way back to New York and soon returned to service. The White Star Line later used the name on another ill-fated liner, part of a trio of huge, near-identical ships that included the Titanic. That Britannic was sunk by a German mine in 1916.

9. Elizabeth Taylor

Like Kirk Douglas (see above), Elizabeth Taylor might easily have been aboard her husband Mike Todd’s plane during its fatal 1958 flight. Fortunately for her, Taylor had a cold and was running a 102-degree fever and Todd insisted she stay home, Life magazine reported. The two had been married for a year—Todd was her third husband—at the time of his death, and he had named the doomed twin-engine plane in her honor, with “The Liz” painted prominently on its sides.

Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011 at age 79. She supposedly said that Todd was one of the three great loves of her life, the other two being Richard Burton and jewelry.

10. The Flying Wallendas

The celebrated aerialist family known as the Flying Wallendas has faced danger on a regular basis for generations, but never more so than on July 6, 1944. On that day they were playing under the big top in Hartford, Connecticut, as one of the starring acts of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

The Wallendas were on their platforms high above the crowd when patriarch Karl, about to start across the high wire on a bicycle, spotted fire behind the bleachers below and signaled to the rest of the act, according to Stewart O’Nan’s 2000 account, The Circus Fire. The Wallendas scurried down to safety, but an estimated 168 others were not so lucky and died in the fire.

Also spared in the tragedy were Emmett Kelly, the most famous circus clown of his day, as well as the future actor and TV game show regular Charles Nelson Reilly, then a 13-year-old member of the audience. Though Reilly would appear on many stages throughout his career, he said he couldn’t bear to sit in an audience, the result of his traumatic experience in Hartford

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