Working six days a week for three years, seven men in Greenpoint constructed what was reportedly the world's largest bronze sculpture. And though it's difficult to determine what exactly qualifies a sculpture as being the largest of its kind -- is it how tall it is, how long, how wide, how heavy -- this sculpture was no doubt huge: 78 feet high and over 100 tons of huge. Or, in human terms, that's about as tall as 10 Shaquille O'Neals and about as heavy as 615 of those same Shaquille O'Neals.
But this was not a work of art dedicated to that basketball giant, it was, rather, a sculpture depicting the six U.S. soldiers who were caught by Joe Rosenthal's lens in his famous photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. And though it is that iconic image from Mount Suribachi that was recast in bronze, this statue was meant to serve as a memorial to all the Marines who died defending the United States from 1775 to today.
Based on Rosenthal's photo, and designed by artist Felix Weihs de Weldon, the Marine Corps Memorial was cast at the Bedi-Rassy Art Foundry of 227 India Street in Greenpoint. Though the casting itself took three years, the conception and execution of the project took a great deal longer, just about 9 years. Beginning in 1945, de Weldon made scores of plaster models based on the photo, enlisting the three surviving Marines to pose for him, while asking other Marines to fill in for those who had died during fighting on the island. Though he didn't deviate from Rosenthal's photograph, de Weldon was forced to alter the composition due to the scale of the sculpture. Helmets and hands were enlarged, arms elevated, and the Marines packed in tighter around the flag pole, all in an attempt to prevent distortion for the viewer on the ground. Once de Weldon's clay and plaster figures were completed, they were shipped in sections to Greenpoint to be cast.
Using 2,500 degree furnaces and giant sand molds, the clay and plaster pieces were painstakingly recreated section by section in bronze.
These photos of the foundry yard in our collection give a good idea of just how large this sculpture was: man-sized torsos and arms as big as sewer pipes.
In August of 1954 the 108 sections of the Marine Corps Memorial were loaded onto trucks, chained down, and shipped off to Arlington, Virginia for installation.
Crowds regularly gathered during the late summer and early autumn to watch workmen assemble the colossal structure. The welding and bolting of the sections were all done from inside, and a small door was built into the cartridge belt of one of the figures allowing workers to move in and out of the bronze soldiers. When they were finished, they welded it shut. And on November 10th President Eisenhower presided over the dedication ceremony for the new memorial. In the photo that ran in the paper the day afterwards, you can just make him out standing before the black Swedish granite base. He looks no bigger than a bug.
Nowadays you can enter a contest for practically anything--funniest comedian, best essay, most original song, and the ever popular eating competitions. The Nathans Annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, in which participants race to consume more hotdogs than their competitors in ten minutes, is nearing its centennial--though not without controversy.
In 2010, former Nathan's champion Takeru Kobayashi was arrested on a number of charges including trespassing, for storming the stage and engaging in a tussle with police officers.
However, Coney Island was home to funny business long before Kobayashi came along. One rather brassy contest of an early 1900's Coney Island included the particularly popular kissing marathon. While some contests are based on luck, this one required a lot of skill and determination. Contestants also had to abide by a set of rules:
1- Any participant who ate onions would be disqualified.
2- Biting was prohibited.
3- Men with moustaches had to trim to an appropriate length.
Nevertheless, these were not the only scandalous challenges held; one possibly more intriguing and popular was the long running "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest."
Beginning in 1932, Coney Island's Steeplechase Park held an annual beauty contest each July for grandmothers. Contestants paraded around the Park's pool in their modest swimsuits for a crowd of onlookers. Rules stated that the grandmothers would be judged based on their "beauty, form and figure, and ability to fill out a bathing suit." The grandmothers' measurements were taken, and like many women, some tried to get away with fibbing about their actual weight.
During the second annual contest in 1933, Mrs. Eugene Schmidt tried to lie about her weight, attempting to cover up 100 pounds. When asked her weight she exclaimed, "No use weighing me; I weigh 160 pounds." After every tape measure proved too small for Mrs. Schmidt's waist, she confessed her true weight, 260 pounds. The winner that year was not Mrs. Schmidt or even a grandmother. Mrs. Elizabeth Bailer was pronounced the winner of the contest, although she did not have grandchildren. When asked about why she didn't have any, Mrs. Schmidt said, "It isn't my fault I'm not a grandmother. My daughter, Mrs. Christine Graff, has been married 40 years.
The contest even saw its fair share of great-grandmothers. In 1939, Mrs. Julia Shavel, a great-grandmother, beat out thirty pulchritudinous women for the title wearing a neck high, ankle-low, three-quarter sleeved bathing suit. After Shavel won she said, "These jitterbugs have nothing on me. I can still cut up a mean waltz."
Eagle July 12, 1939
The lucky judges changed each year but typically consisted of a panel of grandfathers or volunteers, including a captain from the now defunct Eastern Airlines, President of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, C.J. Hilbert,; and Broadway showgirls.
George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park founder and owner, presented the lucky winners with a silver cup. "It is the only one of its kind and the only one that gives beautiful grandmothers a break." Tilyou said.
With the success of the Grandmother Beauty Contest, a similar one was devised for Grandfathers, but due to lack of participants, the idea was scrapped.
It appears the contest name changed from its inception to its later years or perhaps newspapers like the Eagle and New York Times took some poetic justice and altered the name. The contest went by the names of "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest," "Grandmothers' Bathing Beauty Contest" and a more appropriate, "Most Glamorous Grandmother Contest." Whatever name it went by, grandmothers and non-grandmothers alike were awarded the title of "Most Beautiful" for over forty years in Coney Island.
Although Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, the "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest" continued under the auspices of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. By 1970, participation in the contest dwindled from thirty contestants at the height of its popularity to a dismal six. The last Most Beautiful Grandmother was Mrs. Marion DeFeo.
Please join us on Wednesday, February 29th, for an evening with genealogist and author Wilhelmina Kelly, who will explore the early history of Black Brooklyn through its burial grounds, organizations, and neighborhoods. Kelly will also show participants how to research their own New York roots using resources found at the library.
The wine and cheese reception begins at 6:30. Seating is limited to 40 people, with tickets being given out at 6:30. The program will begin at 7:00 p.m.
Earlier this week I presented a Brooklyn Collection puzzler for our readers to solve. I presented four blurred-out high school yearbook photographs of now-prominent former Brooklynites, along with a clue to their identity. Hundreds, no, thousands, no, a small number of you responded with your guesses, and now is the moment of truth. Prepare to be amazed!
Clue: This petite, plucky actress was a singer at Lafayette High School, and after graduating in 1964 went on to gain fame not for singing sweet melodies, but for cracking wise on a popular TV sitcom.
Answer: Rhea Perlman
Perhaps best known for her character Carla Tortelli, the tough-talking waitress on the sitcom Cheers who was always ready with a pointed jibe, Perlman grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood. Although her yearbook entry declared that she was headed for Brooklyn College, Perlman actually ended up at Hunter College in Manhattan, where she studied acting, of course.
Clue: This graduate of Sheepshead Bay High School, class of 1965, may lack the long roster of achievements enjoyed by many of his classmates, but he more than made up for it in his professional life, as an Emmy-winning writer for one of TV's most popular sitcoms.
Answer: Larry David
Perhaps this one was too easy. Well-known and adored now for his hit show Curb Your Enthusiasm, David first left his indelible mark on American culture as a writer for Seinfeld, and as the inspiration for the character George Costanza. This quote from David pretty well sums up his comedic persona as well as his memories of his youth in Sheepshead Bay: "I had a wonderful childhood, which is tough because it's hard to adjust to a miserable adulthood."
Clue: This ambitious student served as both Class Treasurer and Class President during her time at James Madison High School, from which she graduated in 1960. Knowing the path her professional life would follow, it comes as no surprise that she readily took on the mantle of authority at so young an age.
Answer: Judith Blum, now known as Judith Sheindlin, best known as Judge Judy
Judge Judy was in good company at James Madison High School, which has graduated several other notables in its long history, including the actor Martin Landau, Senator Bernard Sanders, Senator Charles Schumer, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We happen to have, in our ephemera files, the program from Ruth Bader's graduation ceremony, in 1950.
Ms. Bader was listed throughout the program for her many achievements in high school, including a spot on the honor roll:
Clue: This graduate from Lafayette High School's class of 1951 had big dreams of becoming a radio announcer after finishing college, and would indeed become famous for his gift of gab.
Answer: Lawrence Zeiger, now known as Larry King
King's yearbook entry listed his future plans to be become a radio announcer, and according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, King did indeed set a world record in 1989 for logging more hours on national radio than any other announcer in history. His popular TV talk show, Larry King Live, debuted in 1985 and ran for 25 years.
Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I have to admit that before I even started researching this post and tracking down yearbook images, there were a few celebrities I hoped to find hiding on our shelves. Where is the Erasmus Hall High School senior class photo of silken-voice chanteuse Barbra Streisand? We don't have it. How about a pre-Hulk shot of Lou Ferrigno at Brooklyn Technical High School? We don't have it. Any yearbooks from Abraham Lincoln High School, which saw the likes of Arthur Miller, Mel Brooks, and Harvey Keitel pass through its hallowed halls? Nope.
If you have Brooklyn yearbooks from any year collecting dust on your shelf at home, please consider donating them to the Brooklyn Collection, where they will not only serve as fodder for fun puzzlers like this one, but will also do more valuable work as tools for genealogists trying to track their family history. Your embarrassing senior class photo could be another person's cherished link with the past!
As you mount the granite steps to enter the Central Library, your gaze may be drawn to two imposing columns sculpted by C. Paul Jennewein on each side of the doorway. Look up, and you will see above this entrance an enormous grille that rises some fifty feet, adorned with fifteen panels in black and gold, created by another sculptor, Thomas Hudson, depicting some of the great characters of American literature. The columns and gilded bas-relief panels announce to the visitor that the library is a special place of learning and imagination
Thomas Hudson was already well-known when he was commissioned to complete the grand front entranceway in 1938. He along with Brooklynite Lorimer Rich had already won a competition, and completed the design for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Virginia, which commemorated the triumph and courage of the Allies in World War I. As a member of The United States Army Institute of Heraldy he created various medals for the armed forces. A quiet unassumming man, Jones was born in the upstate city of Buffalo and graduated from Syracuse University. His work was produced in a studio in Greenwich Village where he lived with his wife.
Arranged on the magnificent grille that awaits each visitor to the Central Library are characters from adult and children's fiction, as well as two distinguished men of letters: Walt Whitman dressed nattily and robed all in gold, as well as journalist Charles Dana.
There is Jack London's "White Fang" howling under the moon.
Melville's "Moby Dick", still free, riding atop a harpoon.
Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer looking for mischief with his bucket of white paint.
And my favorite, Poe's "The Raven" biding its time before Lenore's ex goes completely mad.
Every day as I come into the library I see visitors from Brooklyn and around the world snapping pictures and pointing to the figures above the door--delighting in a warm artistic welcome to the place of stories.
a schoolgroup from 1953
Thomas Hudson Jones died in 1969 but his artistic legacy continues to stir the imagination and is an extraordinary example of public art.
Click here for an explanation of the Central Library symbols.