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The Olympian ego behind Mount Rushmore

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Oct. 14, 2003 at 3:17 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- The four presidential faces on Mount Rushmore may be an inspiring patriotic symbol to many Americans and an anachronistic tribute to white supremacy to others including many American Indians, but the incredible story behind the colossal monument hewed from the Black Hills of South Dakota is well worth reading.

The story has been told before but never in such detail and depth as it is recounted in "Great White Fathers" (Public Affairs, 453 pages, $27.50) by John Taliaferro, the biographer of Western artist Charles Russell and "Tarzan" novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's a scholarly tome with 33 pages of valuable bibliographic notes but it is never dull.

How could it be with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who dreamed Mount Rushmore's dream and made it a reality against all odds, at the center of the story?

The career of this megalomaniac, as cantankerous as they come, makes for fascinating reading, and though you wouldn't want Borglum as a friend, he deserves admiration no matter how grudgingly given. Any reader will feel a sense of regret that the sculptor did not live to complete his beloved project, which was closed down unfinished by his son, Lincoln Borglum, after his father's death.

From the initiation of the project in 1924 until Congress declared it a fait accompli in 1941 and gave permission for Borglum to be buried there (his family turned down the offer), the government contributed $836,000 of the $989,000 cost of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a real bargain considering what it has contributed to the morale of the nation and the economy of South Dakota, the author points out.

Borglum received a total of $170,000 for the project, averaging a paltry $10,000 a year that could never make up for the time he might have had for other commissions. Perhaps the greatest disappointment in Borglum's career was his first venture in colossalism, Stone Mountain in Georgia, a Confederate memorial started in 1916 to honor Gen. Robert E. Lee and his officers and supported by the Ku Klux Klan, with which Borglum was briefly associated.

He was fired from the Georgia project, a 1,200-foot-long relief, in 1924 for "offensive egotism and delusions of grandeur," and the work was completed by others in 1970. Borglum claimed he hadn't been paid, a complaint he often made when things weren't going well. He was quick to sniff out a conspiracy against himself whenever his designs lost out in competitions for sculpture projects and then go public with his suspicions.

Borglum was always making headlines. Early in his career he tried his hand at designing airplanes and fancied himself an expert on aviation and even got a commission to design a monument to the Wright brothers. During World War I his unsolicited report to President Woodrow Wilson that "self interested groups" were leading the aircraft industry to disaster through "cheap, grandiose projects" resulted in a national scandal.

The sculptor was born in Idaho in 1867 to a Mormon immigrant from Denmark who had taken two sisters as wives. His mother was discarded by his father when he was quite young, leaving deep psychic scars on little Gutzon who always claimed his mother had died when he was five. His father moved to Los Angeles where Borglum grew up and began his career as a lithographer's apprentice.

He married a divorced woman, Lisa Putnam, who was twice his age, and took off for Europe, spending 11 years studying art in Paris where his brother, Solon Borglum, already had found fame with his cowboy sculptures. Gutzon fell under the influence of Auguste Rodin, and fell in love with a younger American woman, Mary Montgomery, who was to become his second wife.

The Borglums returned to America in 1893 in time for Gutzon to submit a small bronze to Chicago's Columbian Exposition. His first big success was a bust of Abraham Lincoln that was later installed in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, followed up by a seated Lincoln inspired by Rodin's "The Thinker," a civic commission from Newark, N.J. When he wasn't sculpting, he was criticizing other sculptors in print as "dull mediocrities."

The portion of Taliaferro's book on the South Dakota monument is a page-turner, including the selection of Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend of Borglum's, as subjects for Gutzom's pneumatic drills, and Borglum's loosing battle to raise enough funds for a Hall of Records to house sculptures of other great Americans.

Especially fascinating are the many suggestions for a fifth great American to go alongside the Big Four. Feminists wanted Susan B. Anthony and got a commemorative stamp instead. Most recently the name of Ronald Reagan has been touted for the honor by his admirers. Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- there is no more room on the mountainside for another bust.

Now that environmentalists view Mount Rushmore as a desecration of Mother Earth and a more enlightened generation of Americans tend to agree, there probably will never be another such monument in the United States.

Work also has been stopped on the Crazy Horse Memorial on South Dakota's Thunder Mountain, originally conceived to be 10 times the volume of Mount Rushmore, and no other such project has been proposed. The era of the modern colossus that began with the Statue of Liberty has ended as it did in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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