The new action drama opening this week at the Princeton Garden Theatre holds special interest for a Princeton audience. The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney, alongside Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett, relates the story of a group of art historians and museum directors who were involved in finding and saving artworks looted by the Nazis during World War II.
The real life Monuments Men saved countless European art treasures from theft and destruction. Among their ranks, were two former directors of the Princeton University Art Museum, Ernest T. DeWald (1891-1968) and Patrick J. Kelleher (1917-1985).
On Sunday, February 9, the Garden’s noon screening will be followed by a special presentation by one who knew both men. Alfred Bush, 81, who retired a decade ago from the University’s Firestone library after a career spanning some 45 years, will be on hand to reminisce and respond to questions from the audience. The Art Museum’s current Executive Director James Steward will also discuss his predecessors.
“I believe Joe was drafted as a private at the start of World War II but when it was discovered that he was an art historian, he was promptly promoted to the rank of Major.” recalled Mr. Bush of his friend Patrick J. Kelleher, who was known as “Joe,” in an interview with Town Topics Friday.
“Princeton was small in those days and I came to know most of the faculty, especially those in art history and English,” recalled Mr. Bush, who, like Mr. Kelleher, also hails from Colorado. After studies at Harvard, Mr. Bush came to Princeton in 1958 and worked for five years editing the papers of Thomas Jefferson before becoming curator of Western Americana in the Rare Books Department at Firestone Library. “The University was a genuinely residential college in those days. I became good friends with Joe and his wife Marion Mackie.”
“Ernest DeWald was much older than Joe and had served as a private in World War I. When the Second World War broke out, he was made a Major and put in charge of efforts to save historical and cultural monuments in Italy. He helped in the effort to try to avoid bombing such treasures and then to find and and save items stolen by the Nazis,” said Mr. Bush, who recalls Mr. Kelleher’s stories of the discovery of the famed head of Nefertiti, now in the Berlin Museum.
Mr. Kelleher was appointed head of the Greater Hesse Division of the monuments, fine arts and archives section of the United States Army’s Office of Military Government for Germany. According to Mr. Bush, the discovery of Nefertiti was one of the two greatest moments of Mr. Kelleher’s life. It happened on Christmas Eve, when the men were gathered around a collection of boxes containing historical treasures looted by the Nazis and hidden in salt mines and in remote castles. They pried open one box and discovered the magnificent treasure.
The second memorable occasion concerns St. Stephen’s Crown, the 1,000-year-old symbol of Hungarian national sovereignty. “The Hungarians were worried about what might happen when troops from Soviet Russia got into Budapest and in order to prevent the symbol of their country falling into communist hands, they brought it to Joe for safe keeping. The crown was shipped to the United States and held in Fort Knox until it was returned to Hungary in 1978. Joe authored a monograph on the crown, The Holy Crown of Hungary, said Mr. Bush.
Although such stories were known in Princeton among the friends of the art historians, both of whom were medievalists, it is only now, because of the movie, that they are being widely recognized. “Joe was a modest man,” said Mr. Bush, who has not yet seen the film but is pleased to know that their work is being acknowledged and celebrated.
Billed as the “true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history,” The Monuments Men focuses on unlikely platoon comprised of seven museum directors, curators, and art historians, who go behind enemy lines to rescue artistic masterpieces under threat of destruction as Germany’s Third Reich implodes.
“It’s a fabulous film and it does a great job of the history,” commented Tom Rizzo of the Princeton Garden Theatre after attending an advance screening by Sony in New York City. Mr. Rizzo has run the Princeton Garden Theatre in the building he leases from the University for two decades. A resident of North Jersey’s Palisades area, he and his wife Peggy, a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are looking forward to Sunday’s special event.
Mr. Rizzo said that he was amazed to find out that people at the University had been involved. “I got a call from the assistant director of the art museum, Caroline Harris, who told me they wanted to do something to honor that involvement and I jumped at the opportunity to have someone come and talk about the real history behind the film’s story, the real Monuments Men,” he said.
Mr. Bush lives in Princeton and visits the art museum often. He also serves on the Visiting Committee of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His interest is in Pre-Columbian Art and art of the American Indian.
“Princeton’s Monuments Men: A Film Screening and Discussion” will take place at Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau Street, Sunday, February 9, 12 p.m. The film will screen again at 5 p.m. No special tickets are needed for the presentation, which follows the regular film show at noon. For tickets, call theater office: (609) 683-4656; movie recording line: (609) 683-7595; or online from www.ticketmakers.com.