“Mary’s Fate,” Rick Crane Noir Book 3, Coming Soon

Mary's Fate

“Mary’s Fate,” the third book in the Rick Crane Noir series, will be out in the next week or so.

Here are the opening lines of the new book, in which Rick has to battle a meth-dealing motorcycle gang, quit his job working for mob boss Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., and win back his high school sweetheart:

 

When I left my apartment tonight, I really hadn’t planned on killing anyone. But when the two Scorpions went for the handguns tucked into their waistbands, I had no choice.

Standing over them, watching the blood start to ooze out of their bodies and onto the hot blacktop, I began to realize that I wasn’t all that surprised at how this night had turned out.

 

In the meantime, get caught up on Upstate New York’s favorite private eye, with “Cooper’s Daughter” and “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the first two books in the widely acclaimed series from Stay Thirsty Publishing, where I’m the Featured Author this month.

Ciao!

 

Don’t Miss TCM’s Summer of Darkness and My Interview with Eddie Muller

Noir City

June and July have been a boon for noir fans. Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer of Darkness” has dedicated Friday nights to great film noir classics, hosted by Film Noir Czar Eddie Muller.

To learn more about Eddie, film noir, and the great work he’s doing to preserve these important films and genre at the Film Noir Foundation, read my interview in the Summer edition of Stay Thirsty Magazine.

Here’s one of the questions I asked and Eddie’s answer:

MARK YOST: What was the first noir film you saw, and how did it hook you?

EDDIE MULLER: I’m not actually sure, but since I get asked this a lot I’ve settled on Thieves’ Highway, a 1949 noir about the dangerous intrigues of the wholesale produce business, shot on location in San Francisco, my hometown. Seeing the city through a noir lens, and especially discovering aspects of the place that no longer existed, fueled both my imagination and my appreciation for historical context. Plus, the whole thing took place in the dead of night—I love stories about worlds that exist when the rest of the world is sleeping, and that describes a lot of noir. I got my initial dose of noir from watching Dialing for Dollars on afternoon TV, when I’d cut school and hide out to watch movies. All in all, that worked out pretty well for me.

Mark Yost: Stay Thirsty Featured Author

Mary's Fate

I don’t get many accolades (except from my mother), but I’m honored that my publisher, Stay Thirsty Press, has made me their Featured Author ahead of the upcoming publication of “Mary’s Fate,” the third book in the Rick Crane Noir Series.

The new book is due out in early August. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, “Cooper’s Daughter” and “Jimmy’s Nephew.”

 

 

Rick Crane, Book 3, Coming in August

“Mary’s Fate,” the third book in the Rick Crane Noir Series, is coming in August.

So now is the time to read the first two books in the detective series that follows hard-boiled private eye Rick Crane, the Upstate New York gumshoe who has a knack for getting into trouble on his way to solving the case.

The first book in the series is “Cooper’s Daughter.” Here’s the description from Amazon:

Cooper's Daughter Cover

When his daughter is found dead in a Binghamton rail yard and the police treat it like a cold case, Bill Cooper hires the one man who can figure out what happened – Rick Crane. But as the Upstate New York private eye digs into the case, everyone tells him to “let it go.” Crane doesn’t, and soon discovers that the death of COOPER’S DAUGHTER was about much more than the murder of one wild young woman.

The second book in the series is “Jimmy’s Nephew.”

Jimmy's Nephew

When mob boss Jimmy Ricchiati’s nephew, the up-and-coming middleweight boxer – Joey “Boom Boom” Bonadeo – winds up dead along with several local priests, Rick Crane is called into action. Set in Upstate New York, the second book in the Rick Crane Series is filled with the twists and turns that fans of author Mark Yost have come to expect as his private investigator hero looks under the hood of the Catholic Church and uncovers its decades of misdeeds and cover-ups as he searches to discover who killed Jimmy’s nephew in this non-stop noir thriller.

“Mary’s Fate” will be published by Stay Thirsty Press.

The Men Who Walk Into Fire

My latest book review in The Wall Street Journal, on the first book about the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30, 2013.

Hotshots in Hot Spots

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal

Nearly two years ago—on June 30, 2013—the Yarnell Hill Fire in central Arizona claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, one of an elite cadre of firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way every summer when temperatures soar and the rugged terrain of the western United States grows dry and incendiary.

“On the Burning Edge” will not tell you precisely why the Yarnell fire turned so deadly, though it does piece together a narrative of events, insofar as we can know them. A sudden shift in the wind was surely the biggest culprit, but other variables may have come into play: failures of judgment, communication or fire-fighting strategy.

Edge

Kyle Dickman, a writer for Outside magazine, himself spent five summers fighting wildfires in California. He draws a vivid group portrait of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, only one of whom survived the fire. More broadly, he offers an insider’s view into the kind of men—and, increasingly, women—who battle wildfires every summer.

For decades, Mr. Dickman reminds us, the U.S. Forest Service and the logging industry worked together to keep most fires manageable. “Fires burned at low intensity, with flames not much taller than knee height,” he writes. “These blazes meandered across the landscape, clearing the forest of underbrush every ten to fifteen years.”

The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling. Though fires these days escape less frequently, Mr. Dickman says, “they now have exponentially more fuel to burn,” creating “infernos that are nearly impossible to control.”

The whole firefighting experience, Mr. Dickman makes clear, has a martial aspect: facing a deadly enemy, feeling unit pride, being pushed to the edge of physical endurance. His portrait of the Granite Mountain Hotshots begins with their training, as grueling as that of any military unit. On any given day, he says, between classes on clearing forest and taking weather measurements, the crew “might run six miles [and] hike three.” When they are eventually posted out in the field, they will haul around a 45-pound pack, including as much water as they can carry. Distributed among the crew will be hand tools, hoes, shovels, chain saws and drip torches for starting back fires to clear away the main fire’s fuel.

No firefighting job, Mr. Dickman says, requires “so much time on the edge of an active burn.” Hotshot crews, positioned at various points around the country, have higher entry requirements and tougher training because they are dropped into fire zones of particular potency. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, affiliated with the fire department in Prescott, Ariz., were being dispatched throughout the Southwest in the summer of 2013.

And who are the Hotshots themselves? Most are fairly young, though they are molded by older, veteran leaders. And whatever their varied backgrounds or reasons for joining up, they come to feel a strong bond. In “On the Burning Edge,” we meet Grant McKee, 21, who really wanted to be a full-time paramedic but took the Hotshot job for the $20,000 it would pay over the summer. “Put in a few years on a badass crew like Granite Mountain,” his cousin, a firefighter, tells him, “and down the road it’ll help you get a job on an ambulance or engine.” One rookie Hotshot had been rejected twice but was taken onboard with his third try. After long days on his first fire line—in New Mexico a few weeks before the Yarnell fire—he suffered convulsions and had to be evacuated. When his tough-guy partner saw the paramedics take him away, his eyes welled up. “He knew he wasn’t coming back,” Mr. Dickman writes.

The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before, was picking up pace and spreading across a two-mile front, fed by winds swooping up from the Salt River Valley and hitting the edge of a high plateau not far from Prescott. When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.

Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a Hotshot with four seasons under his belt, was the crew’s lookout on that fateful day. He now bears the burden of survivor’s guilt. A slight shift in the fire’s direction had chased him out of his vantage point on a hill near the town. When the wind fully shifted a short while later—turning 180 degrees in a few minutes and picking up speed—he was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.

Mr. Dickman devotes a good bit of space to Eric Marsh, the 43-year-old crew leader. He was about to turn over his job to someone younger, a former Marine showing strong leadership skill. Marsh was having trouble getting used to the idea of stepping down. Attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway. But he ended up on the fireground alongside his Granite Mountain crew. Mr. Dickman and investigators believe that he made the decision to take the group into an unburned canyon, where the fire would overtake them.

Just why they were there is a question that hovers over the whole episode. One tenet of wildland training, Mr. Dickman says, is to fight a fire from “the black,” or the ground that has already been burned. But the Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it. Was this move a miscalculation on Marsh’s part? It is hard to know. In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late. When the winds died down that night, so did the fire, though it wasn’t contained for an additional 10 days.

In far-away Albuquerque, meteorologists had seen the wind shift coming and had tried to relay their concerns. But dispatchers were unsure where the Granite Mountain crewmen were—under the confusion of events, they were not answering their radios. Mr. Dickman quotes a weatherman saying at the time: “This is going to get interesting quick. When [the wind] hits the fire, it’ll turn back on itself and blow up.” Thus the sudden inferno.

The tragedy has caused a lot of soul-searching, of course, but it has also reinforced the importance of the fire zone’s imperatives: constant communication, prompt weather relays and tried-and-true tactics (fighting from the black). What is most clear from Mr. Dickman’s absorbing account is that the Granite Mountain Hotshots died doing what they loved and that risk, even deadly risk, was part of what they signed up for—that they wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Rising Cost of Spring Training

Here’s my latest for Stay Thirsty, the quarterly e-zine put out by the publisher of my Rick Crane Noir novels.

“I want all the spring training teams to be back here,” said Rick Scott.

He isn’t some rabid Cleveland Indians or Los Angeles Dodgers fan, sad that his team has left Florida for Arizona to hold their annual Spring Training workouts. He’s the newly elected Republican governor of Florida who has vowed to win a bidding war for these teams, and he’s going to use taxpayer money to do it.

Never mind that there’s hardly a better definition of economic insanity than stadium subsidies. This is especially true for Spring Training, where rich teams – Forbes recently estimated the net worth of an average Major League Baseball team at $1.2 billion – often pit small communities against one another to get the best stadium deals. Case in point: In 2010 the Boston Red Sox, estimated net worth $2.1 billion, struck a deal with Lee County, Florida, to sell $81 million in bonds to finance a new stadium. Making matters worse, Lee County still had $17 million in outstanding debt on the old $51.5 million stadium it had built for the Red Sox in 1993.

Lee County’s deal is not nearly as bad as the one struck by Winter Haven, Florida, and the Cleveland Indians, No. 25 on the Forbes list at $825 million. Baseball’s wandering Tribe trained there from 1993 to 2008, but Winter Haven built the team a stadium, didn’t charge them rent, and let the Indians keep the bulk of revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking and advertising. According to Michael Stavres, Winter Haven’s director of community services, annual upkeep of the stadium for one month of baseball and whatever tourism it brought in cost the city $800,000 a year.

When the Indians left Winter Haven for a new Spring Training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, the small Florida community only saw a drop in sales tax revenue of $133,000. Do the math and the revenue from the baseball team was about 16% of the annual subsidy.

And why did the Indians go to Goodyear? Because the small community on the western edge of Phoenix built them an 8,000-seat, $108 million stadium.

These sweetheart stadium deals aren’t an anomaly, they’re the norm. And by almost any measure, they’re a horrible use of taxpayer dollars.

USA Today did an analysis of the economics of Arizona’s Cactus League, which in the late 1990s hosted just a handful of Major League teams each spring but now is home to 15 of MLB’s 30 teams. In most instances, the subsidies far outweighed the returns.

For example, Maryvale Baseball Park, where the Milwaukee Brewers train, brings in an estimated $630,000 in revenue each March. The city’s subsidy? $1.2 million.

And as these teams hopscotch from city to city to get the best deal, they often leave their old hosts stuck with huge debt and no team. The best example of this is the Los Angeles Dodgers, valued at $2.4 billion, who now play in a brand new facility in Glendale, Arizona. In 2009, they left Vero Beach, Florida, where they’d trained since they were the Brooklyn Dodgers. The city was left with $15 million of debt on an empty stadium that won’t be paid off until 2031, according to a recent Florida Legislature report on sports subsidies. The same is true, according to the report, for the Toronto Blue Jays, net worth $870 million, whose lease expires on their Florida facility in 2016, but the debt – more than $41,000 a month – won’t be retired until 2023.

Even long-established Spring Training clubs are cashing in. The Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series in more than a century but have been in Arizona’s Cactus League since the 1950s, recently moved into a new stadium in Mesa, Arizona, thanks to $100 million in taxpayer subsidies.

What makes this all the worse is that while the municipalities are sticking it to the taxpayers, the teams are sticking it to the fans.

If you haven’t been to Spring Training lately, it has come a long way from the quaint affair it was just a few decades ago. The star players don’t sign autographs the way they used to; in fact, most of the starters, with the exception of pitchers, only play a few innings each game.

Fans hoping to see the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, estimated net worth $2 billion, this year had to pony up $100 for good seats at Scottsdale Stadium, which receives some $800,000 in annual subsidies, but only brings in an estimated $500,000 in tourism dollars.

The Giants are one of the teams who apply so-called dynamic pricing to Spring Training games, in which they charge more for games against key rivals. So bleacher seats for a March 26 game against the Oakland Athletics were $49; those same seats for a game against their inter-division rivals, the Dodgers, a few days later were $61.

Despite the dire economics of stadium subsidies and the high price of tickets, fans keep coming to watch games that mean absolutely nothing, played mostly by guys they’ll never hear from again unless they follow the AAA farm club. In the final weeks of Spring Training in Arizona, games against key regular-season rivals such as the Giants and Dodgers and what Chicagoans call their Crosstown Rivalry, the White Sox at the Cubs, were sold out.

Unfortunately, what the vast majority of tourists who are here for something other than baseball don’t realize is that regardless of whether or not they go to the game they’re paying for it in the form of higher sales taxes on hotels, rental cars and food. Money that politicians frequently tell taxpayers will cover the cost of a stadium, but rarely does.

Where’s the Next Generation of Volunteer Firefighters?

Here’s my latest for Stay Thirsty, the quarterly magazine from the publisher of my Rick Crane Noir novels.

By Mark Yost

If you want to see one of the most vexing problems facing America today, go to Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The small community about an hour west of Philadelphia is short of volunteer firefighters. And it’s not alone.

A lack of volunteers is a nagging issue for small fire departments in little towns, villages and rural hamlets from New York to California.

The reasons are many.

Coatesville Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dobson told the local paper that in the past, volunteers who worked in town were allowed to leave their jobs to respond to calls. Now, fewer employers are willing to do that.

Battalion Chief Craig Patton said increased training standards for volunteers – up to 200 hours depending on state standards before they can respond to a fire – have also cut down on volunteering. Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that today volunteer fire departments do more than just put out fires. Emergency medical calls account for some 90% of fire department calls today, at both volunteer and full-time career departments. Because of this, most fire departments require their members to be at least EMTs; some require volunteers to be paramedics, another certification that takes thousands of hours. Many residents not only don’t have the desire to volunteer, they don’t have the time.

“Hard schedules, people don’t have time, people get disconnected from the community – you know folks are gone during the day,” said Mark Riedl of the Albany, Wisconsin, fire department. “We’re always welcoming volunteers, we’re always welcoming people that can put in more time, or put in whatever time they have.”

Volunteer Firefighters
Volunteer Firefighters
(credit: Courtesy of Don Champley)

But at a recent drill, only about six firefighters showed up.

“We got guys who we haven’t seen in two years,” Riedl said.

“You just can’t find the young men and women you need to join,” said Albany Chief Danny Mueller.

Out in Smith Valley, Montana, Chief D.C. Haas has only eight volunteers; he could use 20. In places like Fonda, N.Y., near Syracuse, the volunteer fire department closed after more than 100 years of service to the tiny Upstate New York community. Fire service was taken over by a nearby paid department.

A recent FEMA study summed up the problem nicely, noting a “lack of time, apathy, and excessive requirements,” for the estimated 15% drop in volunteer firefighters nationwide.

“The emergency services are the most demanding of volunteer activities today. The physical and time demands associated with training; responding to incidents; maintaining facilities, apparatus, and equipment; fundraising; and administering a nonprofit corporation are grueling if not managed properly.”

But mostly, these small fire departments are plagued by a drop off in volunteers. People like the Kluchka family.

Jerry Kluchka, 59, and his three sons – Tim, 29, Matt, 24, and Russell, 22 – are volunteers at the Lake Bluff Fire Department, the last all-volunteer fire department on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. The Kluchkas are also symbolic of the multi-generational families that used to fill the ranks of volunteer fire departments across the country. Today, they’re a dying breed. What’s more, it’s a tradition that’s not being passed on to future generations like it once was.

“When I was growing up, we’d always have the radio test that would go out every night,” said Tim, the oldest brother. “That’s what first sparked my interest in the fire department.”

The Kluchkas grew up a block away from the Lake Bluff firehouse and they’d ride their bikes to the station and watch the fire trucks go out on a call. As soon as they were old enough – or were allowed – they started hanging out there.

“I was in sixth grade,” Tim said. “I’d go to the firehouse on drill nights and help wash the trucks or whatever they’d let me do.”

He’d also hang out after training and watch the guys play horseshoes out back.

“That’s where I learned about the camaraderie that’s unique to the fire service,” Tim said. “That special bond was what got me going.”

His first fire was a basement fire, one of the most dangerous kind because firefighters have to fight their way down to get to the seed of the fire to extinguish it.

“I’d been training with the department for awhile,” he said. “I packed up and just went in. And I got into a little bit of trouble because I was only 16.”

Most state laws don’t allow young firefighters to go into real fires until their 18.

For all its history and tradition – like the Fourth of July parade that’s been happening for more than 100 years, led by the fire department – Lake Bluff isn’t any different than other volunteer departments struggling to recruit volunteers.

“When I started on the department, we had an active staff of at least 20 guys out of a roster of 45. We still have a roster of 45, but at the same time the core group you can count on to go on calls is maybe seven to 10 guys. That’s about all there is.”

Part of the reason in the decline in volunteers is changing demographics, Kluchka said. Lake Bluff is a bucolic little town, nestled on Lake Michigan, and is often compared with a New England fishing village. That charm and small-town feel has attracted more city-dwellers over the years.

“Ours was the last house that sold for under $100,000 in Lake Bluff,” he said. “Now the average house in Lake Bluff is $500,000.”

That has brought in white-collar residents who are either too busy or don’t have the blue-collar skills needed to be a firefighter.

“Because of the economy, some guys are working so hard to keep what they have and spend time with their families that they can’t volunteer.”

But for many, Kluchka said, “people’s heart and soul just isn’t into it anymore.”

The lack of volunteers has caused many fire departments that used to be all volunteers to go to part-time paid staffs. That’s what happened at Knollwood, another longtime volunteer department that’s next to Lake Bluff. Today, Knollwood has paid staff on duty for at least part of every day. The same thing happened in Antioch, another nearby department where Don Champley started in 1987.

Like Tim Kluchka, Champley used to ride his bike to the firehouse as a kid and watch the volunteers go out on calls. When he became old enough, he joined the department.

“Back then, we had about 60 active members,” Champley said. “The majority either lived in the village and were business owners or worked for businesses that allowed them to go on calls during work. The rest were public works employees, who were also allowed to go on calls.”

Because of that attitude, “we always had ample people to respond to calls.”

Then some of the volunteers moved away, got jobs outside of town, and local employers stopped letting their workers leave in the middle of the day to respond to calls.

“As the number of calls went up, employers just basically stopped letting people go on calls. That was the downfall of a lot of volunteer departments.”

As a result, Antioch has had to go to a paid-on-call staff, mostly full-time firefighters who work there on their days off. Today, Antioch has at least 8 staffers on duty to respond to both fire and EMS calls, although volunteers – most of whom are paid a small stipend – come in for fires and other incidents that require more manpower.

Champley also notes another problem that is roiling departments across the country: volunteer fire departments have been a stepping-stone to full-time jobs. That’s what happened to Champley, who eventually got hired at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It’s also what happened to the Kluchkas.

While the Kluchka brothers still respond to calls in Lake Bluff, they sometimes can’t because they’re all full-time firefighters/paramedics on the North Shore: Tim in North Chicago, Matt in Lake Forest, and Russell in Highwood.

And even those departments that pay part-time wages to volunteers struggle with basic economics.

“Our pay is on the lower end of what some other part-time or paid-on-premise departments are paying,” Champley said. “We’ve lost some people to other departments because for some of the guys it’s all about the money. It’s not supposed to be that way, it’s supposed to be about community service.”

Indeed, Champley, the Kluchkas and others said that today, if people are going to give up their time, they want to be compensated for it.

“That wasn’t the attitude in the late 1980s,” said Champley. “If there was a fire, 30 people would show up. Now, we get maybe enough guys to staff a reserve engine.”

First World War in Visual Culture

Here is my latest from The Wall Street Journal, a great World War I art exhibit at the Wolfsonian in South Beach.

From the Somme to South BeachWolfsonian

By Mark Yost

South Beach

Most of the major exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of World War I have been martial, focusing on battles, weapons and strategies. But now comes a comprehensive exhibit at the Wolfsonian, a small museum at Florida International University that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. “Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture” featuring artists’, designers’ and filmmakers’ response to the war, from nationalistic propaganda pieces and recruiting posters to dark, retrospective postwar works looking back on a conflict that many thought would last a few months, but which dragged on for four years and cost millions of lives.

Keen visitors will notice the dazzle pattern—camouflage used by World War I ships to fool German U-boats—painted on the outside of the building near the entrance. The lobby features vinyl flooring with a poppy design created in-house (the flowers have long been worn to remember the Allied war dead) and a contemporary photo exhibit by Milan-born Luca Artioli of bunkers and trenchworks still visible in the Italian Alps. These are but preludes to the three galleries over two floors of the museum that have been well put together, mostly using artworks from the museum’s vast collection, by curator Jon Mogul.

“War Machines” opens with “Paris bombardé,” a 1919 series of etchings and woodcuts by artist-turned-aviator Maurice Busset depicting the 1918 air raids and dogfights over Paris. “La sirène de Notre-Dame” is his view of the famed cathedral from above, looking down on the air-raid sirens installed on its roof, with the Seine and searchlights in the distance. Its companion piece, “Sous les bombes,” is an aerial perspective of biplanes engaged in combat with the city below. In “Sous les voûtes du métro Odeon,” Parisians are seen huddling in a dark subway tunnel in the foreground, with more amorphous mobs on the well-illuminated station platforms in the distance.

Much of the artwork in this first gallery illustrates the industrial effort to win the war. While World War I officially fell between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, visitors will clearly see the connection between design and technology that was a central theme of both periods as well as the pieces on display here. Among them is a series, “Britain’s Efforts and Ideals,” commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau. It features works by C.R.W. Nevinson, who observed that soldiers had become “mere cogs in the mechanism.”

“Assembling Parts” is Nevinson’s 1917 etching of workers (including a woman) around an unskinned aircraft, the latticework of its bowed wings and fuselage foreshadowing the Art Deco period’s celebration of craftsmanship and technology. Another etching, “Making the Engine,” also from 1917, shows workers in a plant, with more detail given to the pulleys and crankshafts than the faces. An oil on canvas—one of the few works in color here—by British artist Anna Airy captures a Singer sewing-machine factory in Glasgow converted to make 15-inch artillery shells. Although the painting was commissioned, a plaque explains that “the factory…is hardly a model of efficiency. Instead, it is a cluttered, disorganized space, and some of the workers are standing around rather than making armaments.” Completed in 1918, its tone is reflective of how Britain had become weary of the mounting casualties from what seemed to be a never-ending war.

The objects in this gallery also reflect the early 20th century’s fascination with the airplane, which itself was symbolic of the mechanization of war. “Winged Vision of the War in Italy” is a series of reconnaissance photos issued by a Rome publisher in the 1920s to celebrate Italy’s campaigns against Austria-Hungary. An iPad nearby, one of several scattered throughout the museum, lets visitors examine the photos more closely.

“By mounting cameras to aircraft,” one panel reads, “militaries were able to record terrain behind enemy lines along with troop positions, trench networks, and artillery emplacements.”

The second gallery, “Unknown Soldiers,” delves deeper into Nevinson’s widely held view that tanks, airplanes and machine guns had turned soldiers into faceless parts in the war machine. In the lithograph “1915,” a panel explains, Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz depicts rank upon rank of German soldiers “nearly identical in posture, physique and expression” marching toward the viewer. “Their massive bodies, blank faces, and extreme uniformity convey a threat.” Similar in tone and style is Italian artist Anselmo Bucci’s 1918 portfolio of 50 lithographs made from sketches of the naval infantry.

“Bucci’s aim,” the exhibit explains, “was to make visible what was invisible by capturing the texture of everyday life at the front.” He does exactly that with “In linea: difese e rifugi” (“At the Front: Defenses and Shelters”), which features two images; one of soldiers digging a trench, then another alongside showing them seeking refuge in it.

For all its carnage, World War I also produced its share of kitsch, including a series of German decorative plates, miniature statues of soldiers marching off to war, and album covers for the popular American songs “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land But Mine” and “Somewhere in France is Daddy.”

If the first two galleries mostly celebrate the war, “Loss and Redemption” puts the aftermath in perspective. The most somber objects are a series of 1921 etchings by Austrian artist Ludwig Hesshaimer, “The World War: A Dance of Death.”

“To tell this tale,” the wall panel explains, “Hesshaimer combines modern and Biblical imagery: biplanes join the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to lay waste to earth; German soldiers share a dugout with Death; demons riding a giant serpent threaten a group of children gathered around Jesus, after His second coming has vanquished Death.”

Equally unflinching is “Lens,” a 1920 offset lithograph by French artist Julien Lacaze that depicts the northern French city in utter ruin, but also as a curiosity to tourists who were encouraged by the state railroad, which commissioned the piece, to come see it for themselves.

After the war also came public artworks of remembrance, including a victory arch in New York’s Madison Square. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was studying sculpture in Paris at the outbreak of the war, was one of 20 artists invited to contribute. Instead of some grand symbolic piece, she created relief panels that show everyday soldiers in combat, digging trenches, and marching. There’s also a nurse, symbolic of the field hospital she helped set up in Juilly, France. On display here are the bronzes she had cast from the reliefs.

All in all, a worthwhile—and different—remembrance of the First World War.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

 

Nice Comment on My ‘Battle of New Orleans’ Review in WSJ

New OrleansI don’t usually post these, but I received a nice email today from a guy who had been through the new “Battle of New Orleans” exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in the Big Easy.

Your concise review of this exhibit provides a great overview. Spent about three hours in January during a visit to NOLA tying to digest this incredible offering at the LA State Museum; wish I had been able to read your review before my visit. All in all just a breathtaking and expansive look at the story and it’s impact then and now on New Orleans and its people. I hope your piece will bring the attention this exhibit deserves.

The whole piece, entitled “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers,” is here.

Enjoy.

From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers

My latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the new War of 1812 exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

It is only fitting that the Battle of New Orleans should be remembered at the conclusion of the three-year bicentennial of the War of 1812. Not only was it the last major engagement of the war, but it was the young country’s second defeat of the British Empire, which further cemented our independence. It also made a folk hero of Andrew Jackson, helping to propel him eventually to the White House, and spawned a pop culture fascination that continued well into the 20th century. The Louisiana State Museum has done a great job of explaining all this with its show “From ‘Dirty Shirts’ to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture,” which opened Jan. 11 in the historic Cabildo, a magnificent 1790s Spanish-era building just off Jackson Square.

A winding staircase leading to the two main exhibit galleries is lined with portraits of important historical figures from the battle—such as an 1840 oil on canvas by E.B. Savary of Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne, the first territorial and state governor of Louisiana—as well as the campaign banner (also oil on canvas, c. 1840) of Gen. J.B. Plauché, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1849 and reminded voters that he was a “companion of Jackson.”

New OrleansAt the top of the stairs is the sweeping “Battle of New Orleans,” a roughly 34-by-41 inch painting on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art that was done by Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte, a French draftsman and engineer who was at the battle. He sketched scenes while overlooking the decisive Chalmette battlefield and used them as the basis for his 1815 oil on canvas, which depicts the pitched battle between British regulars and the ragtag group of soldiers that Andrew Jackson assembled for his successful defense of the Crescent City.

If you are getting the sense that this exhibit features as many historic artworks as artifacts, you would be right. Both are displayed in two galleries. The first focuses on the military history of the conflict; the second, on the myths and legends of the battle in popular culture in the decades that followed.

The most affecting image in the military gallery is an 1839 oil on canvas from the French artist Eugène Louis Lami that combines an accurate picture of some of the battle and landscape with his own artistic license to highlight some of the more dramatic events. The battle was really a series of skirmishes that began on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, and concluded with the major engagement at Chalmette on Jan. 8, 1815. The painting is one of five Lami created for the Palace at Versailles. He ended up selling the New Orleans and Battle of Yorktown works to William Corcoran in 1878 for $1,500, a nearby panel tells visitors. The Washington, D.C., philanthropist and art collector then donated the artworks to the states of Louisiana and Virginia, respectively.

One of the most prominent features of the painting is Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the future U.S. president, leaning calmly on his sword amid the turmoil of battle. One example of artistic license is the depiction of the pirate Jean Laffite leading a band of his Baratarians against the British. While Laffite ran supplies to the American troops, the exhibit explains that there is no evidence he was at the culminating battle.

In the painting’s foreground a wounded soldier, lying on the ground, looks out at the chaos of battle. This is Lami’s way of symbolizing the ferocity of the fighting, which resulted in the death of 291 and wounding of 1,262 British soldiers, while the American casualty count stood at only 13 dead and 39 wounded.

For all the large works of art here, there are also some very interesting smaller ones. Among them, a Joseph Langlumé lithograph portrait (c. 1835) of Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg. Jackson had him celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on Jan. 8, 1815; it is repeated every year and includes a hymn of thanks to God for saving the city.

Frock coatAs for martial artifacts, there is much to see here, including Jackson’s battle coat, on loan from the Smithsonian, as well as the Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl painting of the future president begun at the Hermitage outside Nashville in January 1817. Considered one of the best portraits of Jackson, the oil on canvas, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, hangs next to the battle coat.

Weapons are plentiful, and the museum believes that all were used in the famous battle. Among them, a pair of flintlock pistols; a Baker rifle with bayonet from the Tower Armory in London, lost by a soldier of the 95th Rifle regiment on the plantation of Gen. Jacques Villeré, where the British set up a headquarters; Gen Villeré’s sword; and a 5-foot-long British drum major’s baton.

There is also a very brief but informative film that reminds visitors of the particulars of the battle, including Jackson’s decisive move to set up his defenses so the British, who greatly outnumbered his forces, had to come at the Americans through a narrow isthmus between the Mississippi River and a nearby swamp. It was critical to the Americans winning the battle.

The second gallery, “Remembering & Mythmaking” (which will be up for only a year, while a version of the martial gallery will become a permanent exhibition) begins with a display dedicated to the 1959 Johnny Horton hit “Battle of New Orleans,” which went to No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart. Also told here is the lesser-known story of Lonnie Donegan, the so-called King of Skiffle, whose own version of the song went to No. 2 on the U.K. charts that same year. Visitors can listen to both songs on headsets.

Much of this gallery is also dedicated to “The Buccaneer,” a film that Cecil B. DeMille made first in 1938 with Fredric March and again in 1958 with Yul Brynner, just a year after he won his Oscar for “The King and I.” A short video explains that the 1958 version was originally slated to be a musical; those plans were scrapped. And while Brynner may have gotten top billing, Charlton Heston stole the spotlight with his portrayal of Jackson.

There was also a “Last of the Buccaneers” film, released in 1950, that starred Paul Henreid, best known for “Casablanca.” The movie poster lists him as playing “Jean Lafitte.” I asked the curators whether “Laffite” or “Lafitte” is correct and was told that it has been spelled both ways throughout history, with “Lafitte” considered to be the Anglicized version.

The exhibit closes with a plaster cast of the head of Andrew Jackson. A nearby panel explains that on Feb. 23, 1934, vandals cut off the head of the Jackson statue that is in the center of nearby Jackson Square. It was replaced, but the museum keeps the cast around just in case.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.