Wednesday, July 10, 2013

American Experience: Mount Rushmore (PBS, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was a recent rerun of a PBS American Experience documentary on Mount Rushmore — and in particular on Gutzon Borglum, the main person behind the famous monumental sculpture of four American Presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — the last got in because he was a personal acquaintance of Borglum’s and a sort of political model; the first President Roosevelt had bought Borglum’s earlier bust of Lincoln and exhibited it in the White House) and one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction characters that often appear in PBS documentaries. His full name was John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum and it’s indicative of his grandiloquence and the consciousness with which he shaped his own legend that he abandoned “John” as a first name — too prosaic — and went with the more unusual (at least outside of his family’s ancestral homeland, Denmark) Gutzon. (Interestingly, though the narration for the program described him as an anti-Semite and a racist, he had enough admiration for Lincoln that he not only sculpted him at least twice, he also named his own son Lincoln Borglum.) The Web site contains a biography of Borglum that makes his life seem even weirder than it is in the film; he was born in Utah as the son of a polygamous Mormon convert who married two sisters. When they relocated, first to Nebraska and then (briefly) to Los Angeles, Borglum’s dad dumped his mom but stayed married to her sister because they were now living in states where polygamy was illegal. Borglum père didn’t stay long in L.A., but Borglum himself did, where he made the acquaintance of General John C. Frémont, who in 1856 had been the first Republican Party nominee for President and as Civil War governor of occupied Missouri (Missouri never formally left the Union but President Lincoln sent an expeditionary force to occupy it anyway to make sure it didn’t) signed the first emancipation proclamation, two years before Lincoln’s version. Borglum met Frémont in 1889, painted his portrait and learned from his experience that it was a good career move to cultivate wealthy and prestigious friends like Theodore Roosevelt and Leland Stanford. In the 1890’s Borglum and his wife traveled to Paris, and he switched from painting to sculpture under the influence of Auguste Rodin. His marriage broke up and he met another woman, Mary Montgomery, on the ship taking him back to the U.S. He began a career as a sculptor, specializing in heroic depictions of real-life people and selling his works to churches and galleries.

Then the United Daughters of the Confederacy invited him to create a giant sculpture of Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia, and in order to gain support for the project he did some politically convenient cozying up to the local Ku Klux Klan. But Borglum and the United Daughters of the Confederacy had a falling-out and Borglum quit the project and destroyed his models (provoking a lawsuit from the UDC, who claimed that they’d paid him for the models and therefore they had legal title to them and he had no right to destroy them), only a South Dakota historian named Doane Robinson had read about Stone Mountain and invited Borglum to his state to carve a giant mountain sculpture that would serve as a tourist attraction to lure visitors to the Black Hills region. Borglum planned his project to include Washington and Lincoln — Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were added to the plan later — and the film went into quite a lot of detail on just how you carve a mountain sculpture and make sure the finished project is faithful to the original design. Borglum went back to a technique first devised by the ancient Greeks: taking geometrical instruments and using them to measure your model, then applying them to the actual mountain so that if the nose, say, has to begin at an angle of 135 degrees, you can plot where that is on the mountain so the mountain sculpture matches the model. The show also detailed the several stages of carving, including the first rough work with jackhammers to mold the mountains into egg shapes that can then be reduced to detailed faces, then the design of the faces himself and the “honeycombing” technique used as the next-to-last step before the faces themselves are burnished to a simulacrum of human appearance. According to both the program and the PBS biographical page on Borglum (, he also had a ferocious temper; often he’d fire his best workmen (and then be forced to hire them back because he’d trained them in his techniques and it would have been prohibitively expensive to go back to square one with new hires) and his son Lincoln would have to smooth over the ruffled feathers his dad left.

The show also mentioned that Borglum’s original plan for Rushmore was to have the figures sculpted down to their waists, but he never got anywhere near that far; from 1935 to 1941 he had a cooperative federal government that mostly gave him the money he wanted to fund the project (that it was the Depression and the Franklin Roosevelt administration was looking for federally funded projects that would put people to work really helped), but in 1935 the South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck, Borglum’s principal backer for the project in Washington, D.C., got sick with cancer and the project finally expired in 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II (Borglum died in April 1941 but work continued for a few more months under his son Lincoln’s direction), so what you see when you go to Mount Rushmore today is four giant faces and a huge pile of rubble beneath them. Charles had actually been to Mount Rushmore at age 13 — his family was traveling cross-country and they decided to stop there — and he noted that the observation deck is so far away you can’t see the imperfections (the fissures in the rock faces and the other evidences of erosion) which PBS’s cameras caught. I’m always partial to stories about obsessive people and their creations of supposedly “impossible” works (how else to explain my admiration for Wagner in general and the Ring in particular?), and Mount Rushmore is one of the biggest, strangest and most bizarre of them; it’s been enough of a flash point that in 1959 Alfred Hitchcock (not your average boy-next-door either!) told his writer Ernest Lehman to write him a script that would incorporate a chase scene across the faces of Mount Rushmore. The result, of course, was the movie classic North by Northwest. More recently, the Right-wing maniacs who currently run the Republican Parth have called for the sandblasting of Theodore Roosevelt (as I’ve pointed out before, his booting from the Republican Party in 1912 was the beginning of the decades-long process of purging it of any progressive or liberal elements and its reorganization as the hard-Right party of today) off the mountain and his replacement with Ronald Reagan!