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Yale 62

Seeking Asphaleia (ἀσφάλεια)

By Charles Valier

Tennis Court Hill

Tennis Court Hill

Taffy

Taffy

Taffy, my Golden Retriever puppy and I ascend “tennis court hill.” As a young boy, I strained to pedal my bike up that same hill. Now, after traversing the surrounding grounds, my immediate neighborhood and descending the hill created many thousands of years ago by a receding glacier, I have to climb again to return to my home firmly planted at the crest. I struggle under the weight of 82 years. The sound of my shuffling and banter with Taffy is drowned out by the hum of a riding lawn mower shaping and grooming the verdant green lawns that surround the 90 cottages that are my neighbors. Most are uninhabited now, but soon will be filled with the sounds of young children as families are arriving for the summer season – Hemingway’s “summer people,” of which he was one. The five “green” clay tennis courts to my left have not changed in those 80+ years nor the forest green, galvanized pipe, guard rail. Only the sign on the back fence that encloses the courts has been amended from “Whites Only” to “White tennis attire required.” A sensitivity to a change in our culture, not in the courts.

Taffy and I trudge up the hill. Actually, she sniffs her way alongside me. At the top, we cascade into the side yard of our cottage, #204, across the narrow road denominated “Dana,” after a long forgotten American poet, writer and transcendentalist (“The Dying Raven”), or his son (“Two years Before the Mast”), a writer and also a lawyer who represented fugitive slaves. No record exists to tell me. All our roads in the 125 acres enclosing what we call the Belvedere are named for 18th and 19th century American and English poets and writers, their works long forgotten and neglected. It was in the late 19th century that the streets on our grounds were platted, while our heritage was still nascent. We looked across the “Pond” for the validation of our roots. For me, my roots are firmly planted right here in this compound surrounded by towering sugar maple trees, clapboard, shingle and stick style wood frame cottages erected over a century ago on two successive terraces pushed up by the glacier above the West end of Lake Charlevoix and nestled in the Northeast corner of our village’s harbor, Round Lake. It is the hallowed ground that I stalked as a boy and now stumble over as a senior. A place seemingly lost in time.

Cottage 204

Taffy, just five months old is new to the sights and sounds of this sacred place, which is enshrined in my memory. To my eyes, nothing has changed, but I deceive myself. The horse-drawn wagons that serviced my grandparents’ cottage, #209, so many years ago when I was young, are gone. The potbelly stove that heated the water in our cottage, whose fire I had to lay in the early dawn has vanished. In fact, there are many subtle changes, but the shape and contour remains the same. In my early maturity, I forsook my inheritance and made the ruptured decision to purchase my own cottage, much to the dismay of my family. I was 29 at the time and too young to understand the implications of that act, and what fate lay before me. Now, I can see clearly the trajectory.

Life is a series of small steps, many miscues, some accidents and failures, yet a clear path can now be discerned. Like the gospel of Luke, the apostle Paul’s assistant, there is a straight line in the narrative that led Jesus to Jerusalem and me from enlisting in the Marine Corps, running for public office at age 25, shepherding legislation through a fractious and boisterous legislature, the whimsical plan to enlist schoolchildren to save the George Caleb Bingham drawings, the tough work of running a police department in a crime-ridden city, the arcane business of designing complicated bond financings, and many more daunting challenges to this very place. It is the stillness of the sunny days and the solitude at night that enchant me. Perhaps it is ἀσφάλεια (“asphaleia”),(“security, assurance, guaranty”), as Luke defined it, that I seek. It all came down to Vincent Scully’s class in 1961, “Greek Art and Architecture,” where I learned to see the world around me and how the Greek “polis” (πόλις) emboldened men several thousand years ago and now me, to try to shape the world they and I wanted. Scully’s stirring words launched me on this path.

4961 Laclede. That is the address that I voted from for six years while I wandered from New Haven, to Parris Island, Camp LeJeune, Brooklyn, Wall Street and the college town of Columbia, Missouri. I can attest that I never rested my head in that abode, a one-bedroom apartment in an older building on a street named for the founder of St. Louis. It was my father’s apartment, a convenience for me, as I was a nomad in those years. In 1966, toward the end of my first year in law school in Columbia, it took shape as I filed to run for the state legislature attesting to that address, squarely in the middle of a newly drawn legislative district. Thankfully, I met the residency requirement. Of course, I had grown up in that part of the central west end of the City of St. Louis, but I had studied, served my country and worked elsewhere. It all hung on the word “domicile,” my intent to return. In 1972, the Missouri Supreme Court (State ex rel. King v. Walsh, 484 SW 2d 641 (1972)) had addressed the issue when Christopher “Kit” Bond ran for governor. Like me, he had been a nomad since graduation from Princeton, but he continued to vote from his home in Mexico, Missouri. Jack Danforth, who had graduated from Yale Law and Divinity Schools with us, had failed to retain his Missouri residency and voted in New York when he first practiced law there. Thus was determined the political order in a revolution, an upheaval that was taking place in Missouri politics – Bond became governor and Danforth attorney general where there was no ten-year residency requirement. Beginning with my election in 1966, Danforth’s in 1968 and Bond’s election as State Auditor in 1970, the wheels that were set in motion all hinged on where we had voted years earlier. Fate or foresight?

In 1970, when I was completing my second term in the Missouri House, I was interviewed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a feature article, “Careers Under 40: Early Start to Political Life,” I recalled Vincent Scully and his magnetic presence – “I learned in Scully’s course… the ability of people to shape the world they want…”

I read in the local Sunday newspaper one August in 1974 that the 112 preparatory drawings of George Caleb Bingham that had been since 1868 in the collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, the first library west of the Mississippi, were going to be de-accessioned to pay for air conditioning. At the time, I was counsel to the governor, Kit Bond. It seemed to me that disbursing that large a group of drawings prepared for his great genre paintings was a tragedy, since there were multiple groups of studies for specific paintings. The following Monday morning at our weekly conference in the governor’s office, I raised the idea that the governor should do something about it. The circle of advisors and department heads present unanimously decided that I was insane. Nevertheless, Governor Bond asked me to come up with a written plan, as he was intrigued with Bingham and his Missouri roots.

Several weeks later, I produced a plan for a public subscription campaign that defied convention. Professional fund raisers counseled attracting large, lead donations first. I proposed going to the “little guy” first. In this case, the smallest Missourians, schoolchildren! They say that no good deed goes unpunished. Thus was I entrusted with the endeavor. First, I had to negotiate a purchase agreement. I enlisted Bill Webster, a federal judge and soon to be director of the FBI and appraisers from two New York art dealers. One of my high school classmates had married a young woman, Mary Paulson Cordonnier from Dallas, whom he had met at Smith College; thereafter she became the president of the St. Louis Junior League and chairman of the docents for the Art Museum. She put together a teaching program for grade school children to learn about Missouri’s greatest artist, on our assumption that the children would educate their parents, and distributed it to over 300 schools throughout the state. I coaxed Missouri’s greatest living artist, Thomas Hart Benton, to become our honorary chairman. Bond threw himself into the effort and stumped the state, literally visiting almost all 114 counties. All I needed was two million dollars ($2,000,000.00). Once the schoolchildren were mobilized, nickels and quarters appeared in jars in classrooms across the state.

“… If we don’t raise enough money by a certain time, the drawings will be sold in New York. We are pitching in to help. We have got $43.00 and we’re still trying. We will never give up.” Vicky Perkins, Fifth Grade, Mallinkrodt School, St. Louis.

Corporations were enticed by Bond to individually match the children’s largess ($40,000.00) and a hostile legislature was cajoled to throw in another $500,000.00. Armed with a grant from the State Arts Council (and a match by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the assistance of Nancy Edelman [Work], the wife of our Budget Director, a former employee of Paul Mellon’s art staff, and author of a guidebook on the Thomas Hart Benton mural in the state capitol, I hastily organized a seven-city tour of Bingham’s art, mostly paintings held by Missouri institutions and the drawings which had not been publicly displayed since the 1930s. We produced in three months a catalogue scribed by George McCue, the same arts editor who had written the initial article that had captured my attention in August, 1974. In the end, over 100,000 Missourians donated to our quixotic venture. The concept of saving our heritage struck a responsive chord in Missouri and volunteers came out in abundance. By the deadline of July 1, 1976, we had exceeded our original contracted purchase price of $1,800,000.00. And that should have been the end of the story.

Cover detail, 1975-76 catalogue we produced and used to attract supporters. Depicted: Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

Complications arose and it took me three years to collect all the pledges. Governor Bond was voted out of office by a narrow margin of 13,000 votes in the fall of 1976, but I was stuck with the clean-up. Who would store the drawings? Who would take care of them? How would they be exhibited? A trust for the people of Missouri was created with five trustees. I ended up as a trustee with the directors of the Kansas City Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Saint Louis Art Museum, and was thrust into the job as chairman, a role I have kept for almost 40 years. My first task was to hire a paper conservator to examine and treat the drawings, a multi-year process. Preserving 150 year-old images on paper is a delicate task. I located an additional drawing plucked from a wastepaper basket by a maid, after Bingham had discarded it. Art historians John McDermott and Maurice Bloch documented how those drawings were used to create his iconic river and political paintings. I had to encourage a museum to exhibit them together. The first exhibition was organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum in conjunction with the National Gallery in Washington. Unfortunately, when it went to Washington a question was raised about the authenticity of the drawings, and the National Gallery refused to exhibit them, so we bifurcated the exhibition with the drawings going to the Smithsonian, an unsatisfactory solution that robbed the viewers of seeing the nexus of the drawings with the paintings for which they were produced.

Bingham: Six drawings related to Jolly Flatboatmen (1846). Click to enlarge

More than a decade later, Andrew Walker, director of the Amon-Carter Museum, proposed to curate an exhibition of Bingham’s river paintings with the relevant drawings, “Navigating the West, George Caleb Bingham and the River.” Previously, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, as chief curator he had organized a small exhibition around the painting “The County Election” and the 20 drawings prepared for that 1851 canvas. This time I threw myself into the work of representing the drawings, whose provenance I had carefully established. My paper conservator, Nancy Heugh and I put 48 drawings designated for the exhibition individually in a light box, to ascertain the Whatman/Turkey Mill watermarks. My work entailed writing the technical descriptions of the drawings for the catalogue, interacting with curators (referred to by administrators as “hothouse plants”) and mastering Bingham, the artist. It is noteworthy that in his last self-portrait, Bingham represented himself holding a pencil, not a brush, at his drawing board. His finished drawings – brush, black ink, and wash over pencil on cream wove paper – are masterpieces in their own right. “They deserve a place beside the work of Homer and Eakins, in the front rank of our nineteenth century masters” – Hilton Kramer, New York Times. This led to addresses at the three exhibitors: Amon-Carter, Saint Louis, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and an appearance in the Wall Street Journal’s “Notable and Quotable,” explaining how the drawings came to be “Lent by the People of Missouri.” Intruding into the private world of art curators requires a full suit of armor.

Charlie Valier with the Emmy for best documentary.

As the exhibition closed in 2015, I began extensive research into the intersection of Bingham’s life and art, for he was not only an artist, but an active Whig politician in Missouri in a very perilous time when the institution of slavery was being questioned, and he was anti-slavery in a slave state. In 2017, I published a scholarly article in the Missouri Historical Review, “George Caleb Bingham and the Disputed Missouri House Race of 1846; A New Interpretation of the Artist’s Election Paintings,” which led to more speaking engagements and a collaboration with Wide Awake Films in Kansas City, the firm that documents Civil War scenes for the History Channel, to produce a documentary film, George Caleb Bingham, The American Artist. I even made a cameo appearance in the film. A year later, I left my summer home in Charlevoix, Michigan, down the lake from Nick Adams’ earlier haunt, Horton Bay, and flew half-way across the country to a ceremony in a cavernous convention center not knowing what to expect, embarrassingly robed in a seersucker sports coat rather than the black tie that was de rigueur, and unexpectedly holding an Emmy.

Today, I am writing a sequel to my earlier Bingham article, but focusing now on the election of 1848 and the subsequent fight over the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories, the Mexican Cessation raised by Wilmot’s Proviso, and promoting an art/history exhibition of Bingham’s election paintings and the drawings used to create those images, coupled with the portraits of all the protagonists, as Bingham’s subsistence was portrait painting. Museums move at glacier speed and the Saint Louis Art Museum has a new director. Perhaps I should not have read the Sunday newspaper in 1974?

 
We welcome your comments below.

5 comments to Seeking Asphaleia

  • Jay Hatch

    Charlie, What a life! It is amazing how many of ’62 have had more than one career, but perhaps not as many have been “forced” as much as you to become self-educated in one of them. Congratualtions on a wonderful job well done; and I speak with some (tangental) perspective as the son of a museum director, collector of American Drawings, and curator. I am am glad you have found satisfaction in what you have mastered and brought about. Well done! Jay

  • Robert Breault

    I
    Bob Breault
    I agree with Jay. Many of us went to Yale with a “plan” of our future. Yale, and the classmates of ’69 shaped who we were willing to become. To become warm heatedly and extensively involved in the world we live in, in ways that never had crossed our minds in 1958. Our Class has so many classmates that became involved as citizens to shape the world we live in. Charlie, you have made a difference in so many ways. Some are not told in your essay but alluded to. I for one would like to sit over a meal some day and ask you about more of your experiences.

  • Charles Merlis

    Thank God for crazy individuals who become obsessed with the seeming impossible tasks of preserving the impending doom of the neglect of the past by the present. In the future, there shall be unforeseen humans who discover by chance or design the fruits of your conservation of history and they will be grateful to you. Chas

  • Bill Weber

    Charlie,

    Thanks for this great essay; it was a pleasure to work with you and Jean on this and I am still in awe of another one of my Calhoun buddies who has gone on to do things never thought of back in those days in New Haven.
    We have some similarities in our lives in political careers, lake side living, cars and varied careers beyond those of “wandering minstrels”!

  • Cory Christopher T.

    Where can ii find the original article. It’s not obvious to me on the website. Thanks. Chris

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