Been writing at a good clip lately so I haven’t been reading as much fiction, mostly non-fiction most notably I’m still reading The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin but this book was one dollar USD clearance when I was buying holiday books for my younger cousin, children of friends and extended family, etc., and so it has not been in my “to be read” pile very long.
I have seen the film, if you have as well and have not read this book then I would encourage you to read it. The film has its great charms with an excellent cast, and it was the last movie my dad saw in the theater before he passed away and I’m sad I did not get the book for him because he liked the movie so much. The film, as Hollywood often does takes some of the story lines and revamps them quite a bit taking a lot of liberties — but that is okay I think they can be enjoyed as separate but related entities. Spoilers follow.
The story follows mostly Americans of the small unit formed in WWII that became known as the “The Monuments Men,” they were composed of a small group of Americans set to work with the British to try to save and recover the great Art of Europe including paintings, tapestries, alter pieces, sculptures, as well as churches, cathedrals and museums — it’s all so vast and overwhelming bordering on the unbelievable for a group of a dozen or less people. Right up front the author notes that he is working about a separate book on Italy, I have not read it but I did read The Venus Fixers: Allied Soldiers Saved Italy’s Art during WWII by Ilaria Dagnini Barry, which was interesting but had a more academic tone and format.
Many of the Monuments Men came from various backgrounds some were from high museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museum, and one that later went to be the co-founder of a major New York City dance company. To note, many of these Monuments Men were not executives, many were working artisans that specialized in restoration and conservation — sort of at the dawn of the field. The youngest of the group was a refugee whose family fled Germany and arrived in the United States just before many of the Jews were locked in and being rounded up and exterminated. They were sort of a mixture of people from varied backgrounds thrown together for common universal cause.
This book does a nice job of explaining the backgrounds of the Monuments Men, a little insight to the families and their relationships with each other are glimpsed through excerpts of their correspondence. The book also notes how there were political issues dealing with commanders, not having enough staff or supplies, having to hitch rides because they did not have their own transportation, and the break when the U.S. Army locked out their British colleagues when advancing began and there was angling for claiming territory and all that they contained. There is also a nice insight into both Eisenhower and Patten and how they handled both the discovery of the death camps and the retaking of the art and other valuables including gold bars.
The author notes a lot of other interesting stories, other people who played key roles and saving many of the fine art masterpieces who were French and German.
The narrative moves along at a good clip and there is so much story here but it is very well done and I can see why the book was optioned as a film — there is a lot of story to tell, even though Hollywood tweaked it around a bit. Again, I would recommend that anyone who liked the film read the source material which is this wonderful, original book by Edsel and Witter.