Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1969
Oral History Interview with
January 22, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. de Weldon, will you give me a little bit of your background, where were you born, where were you educated, and a little bit about your early life.
DE WELDON: I was born in Vienna, Austria, where I was brought up among the beautiful Gothic cathedrals, the baroque palaces, wonderful music, opera, museums. The early expression of my youth was filled with all the aspects of art. After getting my basic education at St. Egichins Grammar School and Marchetti College, which is a preparatory college, I went for further studies
to Rome and Florence, where I studied the early Italian masters, and I was deeply impressed by the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and the great masters of the Renaissance. From there I went to Spain where I studied at the Prado Museum in Madrid, and traveling all over Spain, I studied Spanish painting and Spanish architecture, Gothic, as well as the Moresque and baroque architecture. From there I went to Paris where I studied for three years, and then to England where I took a postgraduate course at Oxford in archeology. I got a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna, a B.A. and M.A., one Ph.D. in architecture and one in art. I finished my studies in England, I opened my studio in London, and the first one-man exhibit I had on Bond Street, which was opened by the Austrian ambassador. The first two commissions I received were, one, to do a bust of Field Marshal Lord [Edmund Henry Hynman]
Allenby, commander in chief of the British forces in World War I in the Near East, and former Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Queen Mary got very much interested in my work. Members of the royal family and Queen Mary came to the opening of my exhibit. Then I was commissioned to do a bas-relief of the Duke and Duchess of Kent to commemorate their wedding. And then the next thing, I was chosen to do the silver jubilee bust of King George V, which commemorated the twenty-fifth year of his reign. Every year one artist in England had the privilege of having the King pose for him, either a painter or a sculptor. And then in December, `35, the National Portrait Gallery decided to have one of these twenty-five likenesses of the King which were done during his lifetime, selected to be placed in the National Portrait Gallery. And to my great surprise, mine was selected. After that I was
commissioned to do the bust of Edward VIII to commemorate the coronation but under that one commission which said, "Felix de Weldon is commanded to do the official coronation bust of His Majesty, the King," I did two busts, because when Edward abdicated I did George VI.
I've done many other notables in England.
After that I was invited to come to Ottawa, Canada, by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, to do his likeness, and also to do two busts, one for the Senate, and one for the House, the Houses of Parliament. The Senate was Senator Cairine Wilson, and in the House was Agnes MacPhail. And then I did a fountain in the city of Ottawa. During the time Prime Minister Mackenzie King had to go to a meeting in Geneva, it was just before the war started, I traveled all over the United States, because he said, "Well, while I'm gone, you might as well see America." And
I traveled through 44 of the 48 states, and I was so impressed by the friendliness of the people, the vastness and the beauty of the country, the tremendous vitality of its industry and its schools and its science, that I felt " This is the country to live in." And after I finished Prime Minister Mackenzie King's bust, I went to New York to live there. Then the war broke out and I volunteered in the Navy, and I spent most of the war years in the Navy. During that time, I only got one commission to do at the suggestion of Winston Churchill, which was the bust of Arthur Hugh Clough. He's a poet from South Carolina. When the lend-lease bill was passed by Congress here, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech of thanks to the United States, and he ended his speech with a
quote from one of Arthur Hugh Clough's poems, "But westward look the land is bright." And somebody in Charleston wrote him a letter asking if Winston Churchill knew that Arthur Hugh Clough was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in the year 1819. Churchill wrote back that he was born in a small village in England, but was taken by his parents at the age of three to Charleston. But that he was so grateful to the city of Charleston to have produced such a great poet, that he would like to present to the city of Charleston a bust of Arthur Hugh Clough. A cousin of Winston Churchill's, Eric Underwood, contacted me, and he was here with the British Embassy, and I was commissioned to do that bust. I carved it in stone. Then when it was dedicated by Lord Halifax, that was in 1943, I was invited and at the time I was in the Navy, and I couldn't get leave for that occasion. My commanding officer
said, "Well, I'll let you go if you can obtain an invitation for me too, which I couldn't. So I couldn't go. But about twenty years later the city of Charleston reenacted the whole celebration for me, presented me with the key of the city.
HESS: One question about the English kings. What kind of men were they? At the time they were sitting for you, did you have conversations with them, and obtain some insight into their personalities?
DE WELDON: Well, with the king, you can't address the king, you can only answer him if he asks you anything. I mean, that's the protocol. The fact that King George V was nearly deaf, but nobody was really aware that he was deaf, because he kept talking all the time, and never gave you a chance to do anything except nod your head or make some gesture. You were never
aware that he was deaf, so I had not much opportunity to say anything. He mentioned how much he liked, when he was Duke of York, he was not Crown Prince, because his older brother was Crown Prince, and he visited Vienna as the guest of the Emperor Franz Josef, and how much he liked the waltzes, and the Viennese music. But with Edward, I had to work with him mostly at official functions, so I didn't have any opportunity to talk to him. He spoke about a person whom we mutually knew who was his ear, nose and throat specialist he consulted in Vienna, whose bust I had also done. But that was about all, because for the short time he was king, he was rather harassed by the implications of his future marriage, and there was not much opportunity for me to say anything.
King George VI, I had already done his bust when he was Duke of York, and it was done
not in the coronation robes, but in the uniform as Admiral of the Fleet. There was no time to make any changes, because the coronation was in May and about seven hundred replicas were sent all over the British commonwealth of nations to government residences, schools, universities, and other public places. So that bust was actually in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet.
HESS: I am not sure if you stated, but just what was your position or rank in the Navy?
DE WELDON: I was an enlisted man. At the time, I was not an American citizen, therefore I couldn't become an officer right off. But just about the time I was ready to leave the Navy in '45, at the time I was in Admiral [William D.] Leahy's office, my papers were put through to make me a lieutenant commander. The papers went through.
I could have taken the commission, but it would have meant that I would stay another two years in the Navy, because I had enough points as an enlisted man to get out of the Navy, but I did not have enough points as an officer.
HESS: What military duties did you have at this time?
DE WELDON: Originally, I was in naval aviation, at Patuxent Naval Air Station, and there I would take these flights along the Atlantic coast, and I also was the official naval artist for naval aviation, and I did the painting for the battle of the Coral Sea. Then from there I was transferred to Admiral [Louis] Denfeld's office and then Admiral Denfeld loaned me out to these different admirals' offices in order to do their likenesses. And my last assignment in the Navy was in the White House in Admiral Leahy's office.
HESS: Is the plaster cast that we have at the Truman Library the cast of the bust that you did of Leahy at this time?
DE WELDON: Yes. I also have pictures of Admiral Leahy sitting and then I can also supply these pictures.
HESS: We would appreciate that.
What kind of man was Admiral Leahy? I trust you could speak to him if you couldn't speak to the King.
DE WELDON: Yes, you could speak to Admiral Leahy, you could speak to President Truman. I mean, you could speak to the King if he asked you something, but you could not get involved in a conversation, and I think that was mainly because the King is not like our President who is actually our prime minister, and the king is not. The king is only a figurehead and you can't involve him in any conversation where he
couldn't give the proper answer. I think that's the main reason.
HESS: What kind of a man was Admiral Leahy?
DE WELDON: He was a very kind man, but a man of great wisdom and tremendous will power.
HESS: Was he an easy subject to do?
DE WELDON: Yes, he was easy because all the facets of his character showed on his face, and he had a marvelous face to do, and then also while I was in his office he wrote his memoirs which he was dictating, and that gave me a great deal of insight into the Admiral's character, and also his opinions about different conferences he attended, like Yalta, Teheran, and the Potsdam conferences, which was most interesting.
One thing which struck me concerning President Truman, President Truman when he went to the
Potsdam conference took a much firmer stand against Stalin than President Roosevelt did, and which Admiral Leahy pointed out in his memoirs, that Roosevelt thought "Good old Joe," which he wasn't, while President Truman really knew what the score was, and used his fairness and his wisdom.
HESS: At the time that you're working on a bust of an individual -- you mentioned Leahy's memoirs -- do you get their memoirs to read them and sort of study their personalities?
DE WELDOM: Well, they were not published at that time. Therefore, I could not read them, but I was there while he was dictating them and discussing certain historic aspects, which were of the utmost interest.
HESS: But do you use this as a way to gain insight into their personalities to use in your sculpture?
DE WELDON: Yes, it shows their personalities, because
the way he looks at things, the way he analyzes them, what his opinion is, and in these different things he brought Churchill's opinion out, and President Truman's opinion. And then Attlee's opinion afterwards, because the first part of the conference in Potsdam was conducted with Churchill, Truman and Stalin, and the second part with Attlee, and it was very, very interesting to see the differences in the characters of Churchill and Attlee. Of course, I think I should read Leahy's memoirs now.
HESS: What other works of art did you complete during this period of time?
DE WELDON: While I was in the Navy?
DE WELDON: Well, probably the most important thing was the first model I made for the Iwo Jima monument.
In February '45, actually the 23rd of February, '45, which was twenty-four hours behind the 23rd of February on Iwo Jima, the wire photo which was sent from Hawaii to our naval air station, because we had an annex to the photo lab in Anacostia and whenever these battle pictures came in, our executive officer, Commander T.B. Clark, now Admiral T.B. Clark, called me to his office to look over these battle pictures to see if any were worthy of being permanently painted for the Naval Academy or for the Navy Archives. At that time I was painting the battle of the Coral Sea. When I saw the picture of the Iwo Jima flag raising, actually, on the same deadline as the flag raising took place, I was so deeply impressed by its significance, its meaning, that I imagined that it would arouse the imagination of the American people to show the forward drive, the unison of action, the will to sacrifice, the
relentless determination of these young men. Everything was embodied in that picture. At that time I asked Commander Clark if I could discontinue for a few days the work on the battle of the Coral Sea and make a model. And he said to go right ahead. That was a Friday. I worked all Friday night, all Saturday, part of Saturday night, all Sunday and by Monday morning the model was completed.
HESS: A clay model?
DE WELDON: Wax. And then Commander Clark and the captain immediately sent me with it to Washington, and he said, "This is too important to have it here at the station.” And, incidentally, the plaster cast of this model is the one in the Truman Library. It was presented to President Truman in April '45. I have a picture of it here, of the presentation.