Words that LingerFebruary 24, 2011

One of the many differences between highly successful men and most of the others is the way they put words together in a sentence, the way they can persuade and influence – and evoke. General Douglas MacArthur personified that talent at its extreme. He spoke slowly and deliberately as if each noun deserved its own pedestal. It was probably said that no one in his audience ever went to the bathroom while he was speaking. His final address to the cadets at West Point, where he had been both cadet and superintendant, amply illustrates the point. Try to picture him in your mind now, tall and straight, and commanding:

“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps. I bid you farewell.”

Academically, at West Point, cadet MacArthur earned 2424.12 grade merits out of a possible 2470, or 98.14%, the highest mark ever achieved at that institution. He served his country through the whole of two World Wars and much of the Korean Conflict, all toll encompassing fifty-two years of military service. He was staid and stoic. And he removed the metal ring in his garrison cap because he liked the rumpled look. He said it better suited his personality.

In 1945, as Supreme Allied Commander in the Southwest Pacific, MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri, officially ending WW-2. After all of the principals had signed their names MacArthur stood at the microphone and commanded “THESE PROCEEDINGS ARE CLOSED,” without shaking hands or accepting a salute from any of the many participants from the losing country. Then MacArthur supervised the reconstruction of Japan for three years while their new constitution was being drafted. He was a man for all reasons.

On August 11, 1951, President Truman relieved the general of his duties for making public statements that contradicted the official policies of the United States Government. He was ordered home. Many Americans were outraged, while others applauded, saying Macarthur had been insubordinate.

Fechin MacArther

Nicolai Fechin, the great Russian-American painter, was working on an oil portrait of MacArthur. From his upstairs window he watched the largest tickertape parade in history as the five-star General of the Army sat high in traffic, reverentially waiving to the adoring masses and accepting the praise that many thought he so abundantly deserved. The war had been over for five years, but it had been hard and the American people remembered. He personified the victory in Asia as General Eisenhower did in Europe. It was a natural time to celebrate.

The flying blizzard of paper rubble completely choked the deep canyon between tall buildings along the parade route. It was reported in the press that entire rolls of toilet tissue went streaming and careening out of windows and onto the street, thrown by some who were not so much addicted to the general’s aura, as to a desire to join the merriment of the moment.

Fechin was horrified. He was so distressed that he refused to finish the portrait in deference to the poor workers who had to clean up the massive confetti clutter. He was very Russian. It was explained to him that the debris provided jobs for a thousand men who had families to feed. His reaction is unknown but twenty-five years later I sold the historic MacArthur painting. It wasn’t very good and it certainly wasn’t finished.

After his retirement in 1951, the general and his wife moved into the penthouse apartment of the Waldorf Towers at 100 E 50th Street in New York, adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Conrad Hilton, the owner, so admired MacArthur that he offered him a suite of rooms that would normally rent for $133 a day, for only $450 a month. He lived there until 1964 when he died after an emergency operation for prostate cancer. He was eighty-four. Jean, his wife, stayed on in the apartment for another thirty-six years until her death at age 101, in 2000. She was eighteen years younger than her husband.

But wait, that’s not the end of the story.

In 1976, when our gallery had an apartment in the city, I went to the Waldorf Towers and asked the doorman to please ring Mrs. MacArthur’s suite, expecting a growl. Instead, he doffed his cap and smiled. When she said hello I introduced myself and explained that I was a retired military officer and that her husband had been one of my heroes. “I just wanted to say hello.” She asked if I would like to come up for a visit. I was thrilled and the wonderfully gracious lady seemed pleased to see an admiring face. The elevator operator said, “The madam rarely entertains callers.”

Mrs. MacArthur served dainty tea and sweets from Japanese red and white demitasse cups and saucers. In her unassuming manner she spoke fondly of baseball and especially of the Mets. It was an engaging conversation although I did most of the listening. She proudly showed me the fifty medals and ribbons her husband had been awarded, include his Medal of Honor and two Purple Hearts. It was a pleasant interlude.

The apartment was cozy-small and from the drawing room where we were sitting it was impossible not to notice that the carpet was heavily worn and somewhat threadbare in a straight line from a window by my chair, through a nearby door, to a window in the adjacent room that overlooked the street. Mrs. MacArthur noticed the puzzled look on my face and smiled. “The general paced,” she said.

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