When the Hollywood film “The Monuments Men” hits the big screens today, the tale of the search for art treasures stolen by the Nazis will be brought to the world’s attention in a big way. But the film does not directly name the group’s original members — including one from Gloucester — who entered World War II to stop the largest art theft in mankind’s history.
Gloucester resident Walker Hancock (1901-1998), one of America’s great sculptors of the 20th century, was called upon to safeguard and recover Europe’s national treasures during the war when millions of items were stolen.
The film is directed and co-written by George Clooney, who also stars in the work, based on a book by Robert Edsel. Although Edsel’s book was not the first written on the subject, it was the work that captured the interest and imagination of the filmmaking superstar, who wanted to bring this piece of history to life.
Deanie Hancock French, daughter of the award-winning sculptor, attended a screening with the author and others in New York City on Tuesday evening.
“Clooney and Edsel have done an important service by getting the story out before the public, and for that I am grateful,” she said in a phone interview yesterday. “As citizens of the world, we rely on the threads of all the people who came before us. It’s a lively movie and gets to the story. It romanticizes some things but it delivers the message — we must not desecrate our human history.”
The star-studded cast also features Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville. The characters are more composites of the actual Monuments Men, than always based on fact.
Goodman plays the role of “the sculptor” who was given the name Walter Garfield. Those who knew Walker Hancock recalled how he disliked being called “Walter.” He was also a man of slender build at 136 pounds, unlike the more corpulent Goodman. Goodman’s character at one point says that he never shot a gun. But Hancock did, and received a marksmanship medal at one point.
“The real Walker Hancock was a different kind of guy, and anyone who knew him will certainly know that,” French said.
Growing up, she met several of the Monuments Men over the years when they visited her father, who made works ranging from monuments to medals over his nearly century-long career. He made his home and studio on a quarry in the village of Lanesville where he worked and taught until he died.
The Austrian-born Adolf Hitler, who rose to power in Germany, did have one thing in common with these Monuments Men — love of the fine arts.
Historians wonder how world history might have changed had Hilter been able to fulfill his aspiration to be a painter instead of failing the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts’ entrance exam.
At one point, likely in the 1920s, Hancock would find himself at a beer house in a close encounter with the man who would change the course of the world.
Daniel Altshuler, a sculptor who worked with Hancock for 13 years in his Gloucester studio, recounted the tale he heard many times from his mentor.
“He was in Germany with a friend and they were going into this bar. His friend told him there would be this guy talking and giving a speech. He was told not to speak any English and not to say anything,” he said. “So they go in and sit down at a table, and here was a fellow who was not even six feet away giving this crazy talk — and it was Hitler.”
The young Hitler was in a frenzy.
“Walker said he was just furiously speaking. His friend looked at him and noticed how people at the bar started to look at them, and it seemed something funny was going on. They got this uncomfortable feeling and the friend nodded to Walker and they got up and left,” related Altshuler. “They were several blocks away before his friend spoke, telling Walker they had to get out because he thought they were in danger.”
In 1925, Walker had won the Prix de Rome to study at the American Academy in Rome where he lived for three years, in addition to traveling extensively through Europe.
He returned to the United States where his career flourished as an artist and teacher. But his life would take an about-face as World War II raged overseas.
Instead of creating art, his mission would be the salvation of art that symbolized for many the achievements of Western civilization.
Although drafted into the Army in his early 40s, Hancock’s talents would soon be discovered and catapult him to a higher rank. As a private, he learned about an opening in military intelligence for an American-born, Italian-speaking officer “and I seemed to have the qualifications for such an assignment,” wrote Hancock in his memoir “A Sculptor’s Fortune.”
Hancock, who also spoke French, was not only knowledgeable about European culture and history, he was immersed in it as an artist when he lived there. He also spoke a little German and Finnish.
In his memoir, Hancock related how he learned about an “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.”
“I vigorously tried to get myself transferred to a service that would be central to the military’s relationship to the commission’s program,” he wrote.
Soon after, Hancock would be an officer working at a desk at the Pentagon before he was sent to England to begin in earnest his work as a Monuments Man. He would become Capt. Hancock. His colleagues were archaeologists, curators, scholars, art historians and fellow artists.
When he arrived in London, he reported to Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, an architectural historian who was commanding officer of the division that would become known as “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives.”
This group of experts — many in their 30s and 40s with families, and older than their fellow soldiers — sought to safeguard treasures as well as recover what was stolen by the Third Reich, which organized a calculated theft of paintings, sculptures, sacred relics and much more. Works owned by Jews, and any enemy of Germany, were often targeted by the reich.
A National Geographic documentary televised Wednesday night about the Monuments Men included segments focused on Hancock’s role and talked about how he was deeply moved by the abject destruction he witnessed.
His daughter read an excerpt from one of her father’s many letters in which he recounted what he saw in Aachen, Germany, home to the ancient cathedral that is a now UNESCO world heritage site.
“For two weeks we had watched Aachen burning below the horizon, an unsteady glow in the sky at night. Behind these roofless brick fronts was only emptiness. The city was utterly abandoned ... Aachen was a skeleton,” penned Hancock, a lifelong letter writer.
French said her father was dedicated to preserving whatever piece of civilization he could.
The National Geographic documentary highlighted a huge find by Hancock, then attached to the U.S. First Army, which eventually led to the discovery of the whereabouts of Aachen’s treasures after he found a catalogue listing important artworks.
In April 1945, Hancock and Lt. Commander George Stout reached a copper mine about 85 miles away in Siegen, the location marked on the ledger Hancock had found in Aachen five months earlier, according to the National Geographic program.
There they would find countless treasures in huge chambers 700 feet below the surface. Shortly after, the Monuments Men would find more priceless artworks and treasure in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria.
French recalled that her father was among the first G.I.s in Aachen after the bombing of the cathedral, and on the anniversary 50 years later, her father was invited back for a ceremony.
Among the original group of Monuments Men who served during the war, two were killed in action.
“He spent his life to that point as a great sculptor and it’s hard to imagine that he’s thrown into these situations where he could die,” said Altshuler.
He recalled the story Hancock told him about the time he was ordered to take a solo wartime drive in a Jeep.
“He’s told he’s going to be a scout and to drive down this road in an area where there was fighting going on between the Germans and the Americans. He said it was the most frightening thing. He drove through the woods and he said it was the most eerie feeling he ever had,” said Altshuler.
“He also told me stories of a spy coming into the camp and being shot at, and being bombed.”
Toward the end of the war and in the postwar period, about 350 men and women from more than a dozen nations were in the ranks of the Monuments Men. They were working throughout Europe to repatriate the millions of pieces of stolen artwork.
Stout, the leader of this original group of Monuments Men, became a lifelong friend of Hancock.
Stories about the stolen artworks have been the subject of books, articles and many documentaries for decades. Altshuler recalled working in the studio with Hancock in the mid-1980s when a film crew arrived from the BBC, which was traveling around to interview the living Monuments Men.
When he returned to civilian life, Hancock’s career flourished throughout his long life. He maintained his ties with the American Academy in Rome. He was the recipient of a National Medal of Art and Medal of Freedom. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Yale University Divinity School.
His works included many public commissions, including statues, friezes and war memorials. One of his most prominent is the 39-foot bronze angel that is part of the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial in Philadelphia. He later created a war memorial at the Lorraine American Cemetery in France.
His portrait busts include those of Presidents George Bush, Abraham Lincoln and James Madison, as well as busts of Chief Justice Warren Burger, Robert Frost, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. His works stand in the Library of Congress, West Point, the Great Americans Hall of Fame, and the National Cathedral.
Long after the war was over, Altshuler recalled an unexpected moment when he and Hancock went to see a special exhibition on Monet at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when the sculptor was in his early 90s.
“We walked into the show and he points and says ‘that painting right there, I had that in my hands — that was in the mine in Aachen,” recalled Altshuler, who followed his mentor’s footsteps into a successful career as a sculptor. “I was just amazed at this scene. It was a most incredible moment with a most incredible man.”
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x2706 or email@example.com.