Monday, January 21, 2013

An Inaugural Story

A few months ago, Washington City Paper put out a call for fiction, published in an issue at the beginning of the year. My submission was not accepted for publication (and after a quick re-read, I can see why -- the accepted stories were better). And, it isn't entirely fiction: most of it happened. First the story, then the summary.

"I think we might miss the inauguration," Mark said to Franz, pulling shut the door behind him. Snow fell throughout the evening, and both men were making fresh impressions on the back patio.

Franz smiled. "I suppose we could walk there."

Mark scowled at the thought, and replied, "No." The two were staying in a home near the National Cathedral, and the day before they had walked down Massachusetts Avenue to the Phillips Collection, which worked a blister into the sole of Mark's foot.

Mark lit his pipe. Franz dragged on his cigarette and softly chuckled. As he sucked the flame into his pipe, Mark’s eyes shifted towards Franz. "The look on that guard's face!" Franz reminisced.

Mark smiled. Duncan Philips had acquired several of his paintings since the mid 1950s, and he wanted to go down to see the new room that housed them. Upon seeing how they were hung, he wasn’t happy. So, he decided to rehang them. A guard yelled at him to step away from the work, not to touch the Rothkos. In kind, Mark glared at them: an old man with sore feet. "I painted the goddamned things and I'll rehang them as I see fit." He then forced a smile in the direction of the guard and added, "It would be helpful if you could fetch me a hammer."

The guard didn't budge until a woman arrived, touching the guard on the arm and addressing him by name, “Oh! Hi, Frank. I’ve been looking for someone.” The woman managed a little cooperative gallery nearby, and frequented the Philips Collection often enough to know the staff by name. She was playing host to Mark and Franz for the week. "Can you help this gentleman rehang his work, please?"

The guard looked at the woman in disbelief. "You know these men?" He asked. "Oh! Of course,” she exclaimed. “This is Mark Rothko and Franz Kline," she said, gesturing to the two painters. The guard’s jaw fell slack. "They've been invited to town to attend the inauguration," the woman added. Many people come to see an inauguration. Not as many are actually invited. "I'll see if I can find a hammer for you," the guard responded before slinking away.

*   *   *

In December, Mark and Franz received their invitations. Both men were surprised by the gesture. To their knowledge, they had never heard of a painter attending any of Eisenhower’s inaugurations, let alone Truman’s or Roosevelt’s. They asked around, and after talking with their colleagues, they were equally surprised to learn who hadn’t been invited. De Kooning sulked in Kline’s studio when asked about it. “Why the hell wasn’t I invited?” His accent thickened from drink. “Gee, Bill. I don’t know,” Franz replied, shrugging his shoulders. “What do you say we grab some breakfast?” Why artists had been invited at all was still unanswered.

“I have a friend who is high-up in the Democratic Party. She’s a friend of Jack’s,” their hostess explained over dinner. “She has his ear from time-to-time.” As their hostess recounted, Jack asked the friend, who asked a collector, who suggested the woman hosting the painters. Shortly after the election, she had been invited to the president-elect’s office. “What can I do to help support the arts?” He inquired. The little gallery she managed was moderately successful, and out of sheer chutzpah she had managed to create tremendous connections to New York for her artists, and exhibited national and international artists in Washington. In a later era she might have suggested policies or museums. Instead, she focused on the same kind of exposure she sought to give her artists. “Why not invite some artists to the inauguration?” It was all she suggested. Kennedy agreed, and later asked her for a list of artists to invite.

*   *   *

Eight inches of snow were on the ground. Prospects of making the inauguration were grim. The army had been called in to clear the streets for the inaugural parade. The radio reported that the nation’s elder statesman, Herbert Hoover, was unable to make the flight to Washington because of the weather. And, there was still no word on whether a car would make it up the hill to pick up the two painters.

As they stood out back smoking, they appreciated the construction of the National Cathedral. “It’s incredible to think they’ve been working on that thing for fifty years,” Franz thought aloud. “At the rate they’re going it looks like it won’t get completed in our life time,” Mark replied. "How was the attic last night?" Franz inquired. "Okay. Better than having to stay out in the country," Mark replied. "Did you and Betsy sleep okay in the basement?" Franz nodded.

"I suppose if we don't show we won't be missed. Just faces in the crowd, I imagine," Franz thought aloud.

"Yeah." Mark replied before drawing more smoke into his mouth. "But we'll be seated in the crowd behind the president, Franny. Not the crowd in front of the president."

Franz smiled and looked at Mark. "I hate when you call me Franny." He dropped his extinguished cigarette into the snow.

The two men returned inside from their morning smoke, removing their shoes at the door. “Keep your coats on,” their hostess said. The home was alive with activity as her children played in a nearby room. While the men were outside smoking, their hostess learned that no car was being sent. “My husband will take you downtown in our car.” Franz took off his coat. “I suppose we should change first.”  He tossed the coat over a dining chair and poured himself a cup of coffee before returning to the basement to change. Mark looked at the hostess through heavy-set eyes. Her perky smile receded and she apologized for the inconvenience. A sly grin turned his mouth upward as he removed his coat and placed it over the back of a dining chair. “To think, we’ve been invited to the inauguration of the President of the United States. And we’re going to it in a station wagon.” He shook his head. “Who would believe it?” He turned to the stairs and walked up to the attic in his socked feet.

In 1960, John Kennedy invited a few artists to the inauguration. Two of them were Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. While in town, Rothko rehung his paintings at the Phillips Collection, and according to one first hand account (which conflicts with the Phillips website of "suggesting changes") he did not have permission to do it. (Also a note: Kline was not actually there to witness the rehanging, and Rothko didn't walk down Mass Ave to see the work - that's fiction.)

Because the two men were staying in a home near the National Cathedral, and because it snowed a bunch, they were driven to the inauguration in a station wagon, and dropped off.

No comments: