Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore

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Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, had an Ahab-like obsession with Colossalism-a scale that matched his ego and the era. He learned how to be a celebrity from Auguste Rodin, how to be a political bully from Teddy Roosevelt. He ran with the Ku Klux Klan and mingled with the rich and famous from Wall Street to Washington, many of whom became his clients and/or subjects. Mount Rushmore was to be his crowning achievement, the newest wonder of the world. But what began as a personal dream had to be bailed out by the federal government, a compromise that nearly drove Borglum mad. Nor could Borglum control how his masterpiece would be received. Or its controversial impact on the remote Black Hills of South Dakota. Great White Fathers proves that the best American stories are not simple; they are complex and contradictory, at times humorous, at other times tragic. This is the history of public monuments from ancient times to modern, and of the evolution of an icon. It is at once the biography of a man and the biography of a place, told through travelogue, interviews, and exhaustive investigation of the unusual records that one odd American visionary left behind.
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Editorial Reviews

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If ever there was a book that could make one long to visit an American landmark, this is it. John Taliaferro's insightful account of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore is both a telling piece of art history and an enthralling analysis of the cultural, technological, and political forces that helped shape this singular monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The story begins in the mid-19th century, when the promise of gold sent prospectors rushing to the Great Plains, fueling bloody battles between U.S. Army and the Sioux. The irony that this American shrine was built on land wrested from Native Americans (in violation of government treaties) is not lost on Taliaferro. But when the end of World War I brought an economic slump to the region, politicians began wondering if they could boost the flagging economy through tourism. And the budding interstate highway system convinced them that with the right attraction, they could appeal to vacationers traveling by car.

Gutzon Borglum, a talented but temperamental sculptor, was chosen to carve Mount Rushmore. Taliaferro tells how Borglum began the project in 1927, and his description of the efforts required to create the images of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt into the face of the mountain is breathtaking. The monument was still under construction at the time of Borglum's death in 1941. Today, Mount Rushmore is considered alternately a symbol of democracy, a desecration of nature, and a tourist trap. But as Taliaferro aptly reveals in this captivating history, it is truly "a mirror of our culture" worth further examination. (Winter 2002 Selection)

New York Times Book Review
Taliaferro...tells a wide-ranging story...Briskly written, never dull, and it never bogs down.
From The Critics
It takes a skilled writer and reporter to make an old, familiar story fresh, and in his book... Taliaferro excels.
Boston Globe
Taliaferro's description of how [Mount Rushmore] came to be makes for a surprisingly colorful and entertaining history lesson here and now.
Forbes FYI
Taliaferro tells that story [of Rushmore's construction] in clear, colorful terms...Taliaferro's narrative sparkles whenever [Borglum] is in it.
Publishers Weekly
On page one of this history of Mt. Rushmore, Taliaferro proposes to answer "the questions that any archaeologist would ask": Who are the men represented, how were they chosen, how were they carved, by whom, who visits this shrine? In the end, this overly modest mission statement is the only false note in an impressive work. Like the outsized sculptures blasted out of a granite mountainside, this history, by a former Newsweek editor, is massive, descriptive yet never blandly representational and filled with characters as fully realized as the Mt. Rushmore busts. The central figure is Rushmore's "father"-sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), a fascinating study in contradictions: a great talent, but a hopeless businessman; a patriot who was also a bigot; a family man who lied about his parentage and ditched his first, much older wife to marry a younger woman who could bear children. Taliaferro (Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs) also uses the story of a monument as a springboard from which to explore the tensions within the American dream: an empire built on slave labor and on land stolen from the Indians; reverence for the common man combined with an infatuation with larger-than-life heroes; a love of the landscape that often takes a backseat to the quest for profit. Like Borglum, Taliaferro set himself a Sisyphean task and has produced a work that is both inspiring and thought provoking. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Gutzon Borglum conceived and mostly executed one of the most monumental sculptures of the 20th century: the faces of four presidents carved into rock in South Dakota. These faces have kept the Black Hills alive in the minds of a generally accepting American public and served as a sometime provocation, sometime source of amused financial opportunity for the Lakota Sioux. Taliaferro (Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs) reconstructs the project's history and examines Lakota-white relations and larger questions of racial identities. This book is almost identical in subject and scope to Jesse Lancher's recent Mount Rushmore: An Icon Reconsidered, and it is as good but no better, which means that both are worth acquiring by public and academic libraries alike. Taliaferro's is the more conventional history, Lancher's the livelier travelog.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll., PA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586482053
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 1/8/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 472
  • Sales rank: 716,141
  • Product dimensions: 1.06 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John Taliaferro is a former senior editor at Newsweek and the author of two acclaimed biographies, Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artists and Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He lives in Austin, Texas and Pray, Montana.

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Read an Excerpt

Calvin Coolidge could be a very eloquent orator when he wished. Still, he was never accused of being long-winded. Someone with nothing better to do once calculated that Abraham Lincoln's sentences averaged 26.6 words, Woodrow Wilson's 31.8, and Theodore Roosevelt's 41. Coolidge managed a frugal 18. When a pushy hostess bet that she could coax him to say more than two words to her, he replied, "You lose." And though he was said to have a handsome smile, the cameras never seemed to catch it. He told frequent jokes, but never laughed at them. One observer claimed that on the occasions when Coolidge did open his mouth, only moths flew out. While his contemporaries blamed his taciturnity on his "imprisoned soul" and "bitter self-control," Alice Roosevelt Longworth, unbridled daughter of America's verbose Rough Rider, figured that "Silent Cal" had simply been "weaned on a pickle."

Given such profound, at times painful, reserve, politics seemed an unlikely calling. His own succinct explanation was that he wished to be "of some public service." There was nothing flamboyant, or even twentieth-century, about him. He refused to eat packaged breakfast cereal and never danced a step. Yet beneath his shyness and his old-fashioned fustiness ticked a precise, incremental ambition. In America, any man could be president. By most reckonings, Calvin Coolidge was pretty close to that.

He was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on the Fourth of July, 1872. His family was Yankee, although Coolidge allowed that there might have been an Indian in one of the early woodpiles. When he was not attending the local one-room schoolhouse, he did chores on the family farm, where the virtue of thrift applied to speech and emotions as readily as to field and orchard. For college, he chose Amherst in Massachusetts, after which he read the law in nearby Northampton. His first elected office was that of town councilman. Soon he was mayor, then state assemblyman, state senator, lieutenant governor, and at last governor-the party of Lincoln all the way. In breaking the Boston police strike of 1919, he stated to the American Federation of Labor's Samuel Gompers, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anytime, anywhere." With the nation in the midst of widespread upheaval-economic, social, spiritual-Coolidge's dispassion and deliberateness were received as comforting throwbacks.

In this respect, he was the ideal running mate for Warren G. Harding, the backslapping booster from Ohio. When Harding died on August 2, 1923, Coolidge was on the family farm in Vermont, riding a horse-drawn hay rake and pruning one of his cherished maple trees. His father, a notary, issued the presidential oath by the light of a kerosene lamp. If this was the Jazz Age, no one bothered to tell the new president. Harding had been America's soiled Babbitt-corrupt, besotted, adulterous. By the starkest of contrasts, Coolidge was perhaps the soberest, most moral president since Lincoln. William Allan White, the Midwest's Mencken, called him "a Puritan in Babylon."

Coolidge was even more laconic than Lincoln, although he too had little difficulty getting his message across. His most memorable statement, "The business of America is business," said all that needed to be said about his laissez-faire administration. Less talking also meant less governing. His work day rarely lasted longer than four hours. On afternoons, once his desk was clean, as it often was, he would take a long nap, or if the weather was nice, pull his rocking chair onto the White House porch and rock away in full view of Pennsylvania Avenue. Asked by Will Rogers how he kept so healthy, Coolidge replied, "By avoiding the big problems." With the stock market apparently robust and self-sustaining (the crash wasn't until October 1929, on Herbert Hoover's watch), Coolidge identified few matters deserving of his intervention, which gave him plenty of time to pick out his sons' clothes each morning and to count the apples in the White House kitchen.

Coolidge won easy reelection in 1924, thanks to his primordial calm, not to mention the disarray of the Democrats. But despite Coolidge's two-to-one trouncing of John Davis, he and his wife Grace were in no mood to celebrate. In late June, just two weeks after the Republican Convention, their sixteen-year-old son Calvin Jr., had rubbed a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the South Lawn of the White House. The toe became infected, and on July 7, the boy died. (For decades afterward, parents would admonish their children against wearing sneakers without socks.) Coolidge, notoriously stoic, broke down. "When [Calvin Jr.] went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him," Coolidge confessed in his Autobiography. "I did not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House." Thenceforth, he could not look out at the White House grounds without imagining Calvin Jr. at play there.

Nor could the Coolidges bear to spend another summer at the White House. In 1925, Coolidge, his wife, and their other son, John, took a beach house on the Massachusetts shore. The following year, they tried the Adirondacks, which Coolidge loathed. In 1927, the Coolidges had an additional reason to get out of town. The White House was undergoing major renovation, obliging them to take up temporary residence at Dupont Circle. Knowing that the first family would be seeking yet another summer retreat, numerous states fell over one another, extending welcomes. The Coolidges hardly cut a glamorous figure, but to win the presence of the president was still an honor, not to mention a considerable public-relations coup.

South Dakota's Congressman William Williamson was delegated to make the case for his state, specifically the Black Hills. "The climate is all that could be desired," he touted, "and the scenery is unsurpassed. It is not so massive as to be overawing and oppressive, but it is sufficiently rugged to possess the charms of the best mountain landscape." Sensitive to the Wild West image of the hills fostered by movies and pulps-and mindful of the president's New England rectitude, the South Dakota legislature drafted a resolution informing Coolidge that "[t]he population in and about the mountains are intelligent and moral, with whom neighborly relations are most safe and pleasurable."

By March, the rumor reached Borglum that, miraculously, Coolidge was leaning toward the Black Hills. "It means everything to [the] monument," he telegraphed Doane Robinson. "Roads must be improved, work on monument must be rushed." Coolidge did not make his final decision until May 31, waiting until his advance man had checked out the accommodations thoroughly. For one thing, the president had never been so far from home. For another, he had an irrational fear of snakes, which he perceived to be coiled under every western rock. And he had one more reason to be nervous about his choice of South Dakota. Despite having grown up among farmers, as president he had not proven to be a steadfast friend of agriculture. The farm belt was still suffering in 1927 due to continuing overproduction and the rising cost of manufactured goods. Reminded that farmers across the country were struggling to make ends meet, Coolidge responded, "Well, farmers never have made money. I don't believe we can do much about it." Twice in the past year he had vetoed the McNary-Haugen bill, an immensely popular initiative of agricultural price supports. Washington pundits suggested that Coolidge's ulterior motive for selecting the Black Hills as his summer destination was to appease the disgruntled farm bloc, rattlers in their own right.

But finally the Coolidges did arrive in the Black Hills on June 13, establishing the summer White House in the folksy, twenty-room Game Lodge in Custer State Park. Rapid City High School, thirty miles away by freshly graveled road, became his executive office building. The Hills reminded the Coolidges a lot of Vermont: austere, cool, attractive, but not "overawing," as Representative Williamson had assured. South Dakota did its best to roll out the red carpet, honoring President and Mrs. Coolidge in every way imaginable. They were presented with horses, sheep, a buffalo robe, a peace pipe, moccasins, fishing gear, agate jewelry, a twenty-five pound tub of butter, and a ninety-pound watermelon. The president was given a ten-gallon hat, calf-high cowboy boots, spurs, and batwing chaps emblazoned with bucking horses and "Cal" in large letters. The Coolidges were feted at parades, fairs, rodeos, powwows, mines, the state fish hatchery, and an irrigation station. Mount Lookout was formally renamed Mount Coolidge, and in a precocious expression of political correctness, Squaw Creek, which ran past the Game Lodge, was renamed Grace Coolidge Creek.

In a somewhat less progressive ceremony during the Days of '76 rodeo at Deadwood, a delegation of Lakota inducted Coolidge into the tribe, presenting him with a dashing headdress and the Indian name "Leading Eagle." "We have nothing to give but our national respect," tribal spokesman Henry Standing Bear told Coolidge. "Our fathers and chiefs, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail and Red Cloud, may have made mistakes; but their hearts were brave and strong, their purposes honest and noble. They have gone to their Happy Hunting Ground, and we call on you, as our new High Chief, to take up their leadership."

Even before the Coolidges had arrived in the Black Hills, Borglum had calculated how to lure the president into his web of granite. He had in mind a second dedication ceremony, this one marking the beginning of actual carving on Rushmore. "[T]he president should present to me the drills that I shall use," he elaborated to Doane Robinson, "and then I will go up on the mountain and start the work. We will have three drills and we will take them away that evening and have them properly inscribed; one of them given to the President, one to the Governor to be kept in the archives of the State, and one I shall keep myself. They should be silver plated. [T]hat is the kind of stuff that the morons of the world feed upon, and we must not overlook their human interest in these events."

One thing that Borglum hadn't figured on was Coolidge's crowded schedule. Between stints at the office in Rapid City and all the other touring about, Coolidge was, after all, supposed to be on vacation. Neither he nor his wife was a zealot for recreation, but the president did have a passing interest in fishing. Anticipating his every whim, his hosts had stocked Grace Coolidge Creek with sluggish trout fattened at the state hatchery in Spearfish. "[T]hey were so tame that they would swim right up to you and eat ground liver or ground horse meat out of your hand," recalled South Dakota Governor William Bulow with a chuckle. "Those trout would fight and battle one another to see which could grab the President's hook. He became the nation's foremost trout fisherman." Unfortunately for Bulow, who had approved the secret stocking, he was obliged to join the Coolidges for trout dinner. "The first bite I took," Bulow rued, "I could plainly taste the ground liver and the ground horse meat upon which that trout had lived for years. I never did like liver or horse meat either."


One other event intervened that summer. On August 2, Coolidge motored routinely to his office in Rapid City, handed a one-sentence message to his stenographer, and asked him to run it off several times on sheets of legal-sized paper. The president then cut the pages into two-inch strips, and at the stroke of noon, on the fourth anniversary of first taking the oath of office, he summoned the press corps and handed each reporter a slip on which was typed, "I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty eight." Coolidge offered no elaboration to his stunned audience, and instead put on his hat and drove home to lunch at the Game Lodge, where he had to be reminded to share the day's astonishing revelation with his wife.

Coolidge's terse announcement was not good news for Borglum-in neither the short run nor the long. As always, he had been counting on a friend in the White House to protect and promote his interests. Now Coolidge would be gone in a year and a half. More immediately, the press was totally absorbed with speculation over why Coolidge had made his decision and what it would mean for the country. The inauguration of work at Rushmore, scheduled for August 10, just eight days after the president's twelve-word bombshell, was suddenly a sidebar.

Coolidge of course knew Borglum, as had every president since Roosevelt had succeeded McKinley in 1901. The Stone Mountain coin and controversy were still fresh in Coolidge's mind, and he would have been fully briefed on Borglum's latest endeavor. Yet it was not automatic that the president would be party to the ceremony Borglum had planned. Coolidge had said that he would make no formal speeches while in South Dakota, and the brevity of his "I do not choose" announcement did not bode well for a sermon on the mount at Rushmore.

But Borglum was not to be denied. On May 27, a shy, gangly flyer from Minnesota, Charles Lindbergh, had stunned the world by completing the first-ever nonstop crossing of the Atlantic. Borglum called the flight "the act of a super man the apogee of courage in our Colossal Age," and took inspiration from Lucky Lindy's triumph. On June 23, Borglum, no stranger to planes himself-or to theatrics, for that matter-hired a local pilot with the splendid name of Clyde Ice to swoop low over the Game Lodge, where the Coolidges were entertaining another of Borglum's heroes, General Leonard Wood. Mount Coolidge had been dedicated the day before, prompting Borglum to airdrop a wreath of flowers, weighted by two moccasins, bearing the felicitations, "Greetings from Mt. Rushmore to Mt. Coolidge." Grace Coolidge, whose vivacity was the antidote to her husband's starch, jotted a prompt thank-you: "Your greeting from the air found glad welcome and we echo it back to you."

The courtship worked, and the president consented to make a speech at Rushmore. On the morning of August 10, he was driven by limousine as far as Keystone, then, dressed in his new cowboy boots, hat, and fringed gloves, rode horseback up the hill to the reviewing stand at the foot of Mount Rushmore. His arrival was saluted not by bugle fanfare or rifle volley, but by the concussion of twenty-one stumps dynamited from the new Rushmore roadway. When the dust settled, Coolidge presented Borglum with six (not three) steel (not silver) drill bits. The crowd was then asked to wait while Borglum, wearing his mountaineer knickers and sneakers, lugged the ceremonial bits to the summit and was lowered over the side in a boatswain's chair. Wielding a cumbersome jackhammer, he drilled the first six holes in Mount Rushmore, one with each drill bit.

In his remarks before scaling the mountain, Borglum explained that he intended to add a grand entablature to the four faces-a Rosetta stone of sorts, on which would be recorded the high points of "the founding, preservation and expansion" of the United States. (Specifically, he jotted to Doane Robinson several days later: "the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase 1803-4, the Florida annexation 1821, the Texas admission 1846, the Oregon assumption 1846, the California accession 1850, the Alaska Session 1867, the Panama Republic 1904.") Ad-libbing, he invited Coolidge to be the inscription's author. He even hinted that he might add Coolidge's face to the mountain. Coolidge reciprocated by assuring Borglum that he would favor federal funding of Rushmore.

Coolidge was full of surprises that day. His speech, delivered under a bright sun to a crowd of more than a thousand, was longer and more florid than anyone had dared to expect. "We have come here to dedicate a corner stone that was laid by the hand of the Almighty," he began. More apple pie followed: "Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an almost unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism. If coming generations are to maintain a like spirit, it will be because they continue to study the lives and times of the great men who have been the leaders in our history, and continue to support the principles which those men represented. It is for that purpose that we erect memorials. This memorial will be another national shrine to which future generations will repair to declare their continuing allegiance to independence, to self government, to freedom and to economic justice."

Afterward, Coolidge mounted his horse, rode back down the mountain, returned to the Game Lodge-and that same day matter-of-factly denied clemency for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted (many said unfairly) of murder and robbery, but demonized as well for their pro-labor politics and Italian nativity. The president's decision triggered riots around the world that climaxed thirteen days later when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in Coolidge's adopted state of Massachusetts.

Coolidge remained in the West several more weeks, touring Yellowstone Park, dedicating a Boy Scout camp, and meeting with the local Temperance League. By far the biggest excitement of the final days came on September 2, when the Game Lodge was buzzed from the air again, this time by Lindbergh himself, who was on a victory tour across the continent. All in all, Coolidge seemed to have enjoyed the summer. Indeed, to the extent that the public remembers Silent Cal at all, it pictures him in war bonnet or cowboy hat, trying his level best to be jaunty.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Hiding in Plain Sight 1
1 American Horse 5
2 The Thieves Road 23
3 Garden of the Gods 47
4 Great Man 65
5 Art for America 87
6 Insurgent Among Insurgents 117
7 Size Matters 147
8 A Rock and a Hard Place 185
9 Cliff Notes 219
10 Worthy of Immortality 249
11 Sorry Old Warrior 293
12 Expedient Exaggeration 319
13 Doksa Black Hills 347
14 Presidents View 381
Acknowledgments and Bibliographical Notes 417
Index 441
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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    Know the full, true story about the creation of Mount Rushmore! And more!!!

    Our family had just been out to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore and the surrounding area. I started reading this book to pass travel time in the car. Upon returning home, I continued to read a little each night before bed. Not being an avid reader, I was surprised when I actually finished the book! The way it was written held my interest and I learned so much about the history during the time that this wonderful monument was built!

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    Posted December 12, 2010

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