In the 1930’s. my bachelor Uncle Harry was a social realist painter who learned the bitter social realities that surrounded a gay man in early 20th century America.
Trained under artist John Sloan, the well known Social Realist at N.Y.C’s Arts Students League, Harry had been a successful commercial artist in the 1920s, working as an illustrator at a NY ad agency.
However in 1929 when everything came crashing down on Black Friday, he found himself among the legion of unemployed, wistfully watching their savings dwindle.
Because there were no jobs for young artists during the Depression, Harry decided to travel to Europe where he could live inexpensively and paint.
Hopping an oil freighter bound for France, the former sailor, who having served stateside in the Navy during WWI had never actually been afloat, finally got to test his sea legs.
Eventually settling in a Majorca fishing village, Harry serendipitously encountered two old pals from the Arts Students League, gay artist Paul Camus and Jared French.
A New Deal For Artists
By 1933, Harry’s younger brother wrote him with exciting news about a newly formed government sponsored Public Works of Art Project, the first Federal government program by the FDR Administration to support the arts. The project was a precursor to the WPA .
That fall with their passports about to expire and money dwindling, Camus convinced Harry to join the Public Works of Art Project with him and return to the states.
Begun in the depths of the Depression in December 1933, the PWAP did more than supply jobs to unemployed artists.
Like the other accepted artists in the project, Harry developed a sense of pride in serving his country.
Painting murals for Federal buildings, he was encouraged to depict everyday American scenes that would reinforce quintessential American values of hard work, freedom and optimism reminding a struggling public of the American Dream.
The Fleets In
Meanwhile his pal, Paul Cadmus had his first major piece commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project “The Fleets In” which was to become his most infamous work. Depicting a group of carousing, randy sailors on shore leave in N.Y.’s Riverside Drive it was filled with ogling scantily clad tootsies and equally ogling rouged men with marcelled hair.
Painted in 1934 it was to be shown in at an exhibition of government sponsored paintings at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.
Heave a Ho There! Sailor
Before it could be hung, Admiral Hugh Rodman saw a photo of it and exploded in his best quarterdeck style.
Suddenly Uncle Sam was an art critic.
In retelling the story in 1937, Life magazine reported that the Admiral wrote wrathfully to the Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson that the painting “was an unwarranted insult” to the navy which had “Originated in the depraved imagination of someone who had no conception of actual conditions in our service.”
Art And Politics
The Corcoran was the same gallery where 50 years later the controversy fueled by an outraged Jessie Helm over the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe resulted in the same fate censorship on the grounds of obscenity.
As 1934 newspapers front-paged the rowdy painting, Secretary Swanson ordered Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry L. Roosevelt to remove the painting from the show. Swanson decided it was “right artistic but not true to the navy” and had it hidden away.
Clearly the country seemed to be more at ease with Popeye the Sailors portrayal of a Navy man given the warm reception his true to the navy cartoon received when it appeared for the first time the year before.
Anchors Away My Boys, Anchors Aweigh
The brouhaha surrounding “The Fleets In” only confirmed what my confirmed bachelor uncle already knew- don’t show and don’t tell.
As a former sailor Uncle Harry had already witnessed the actions of a homophobic Navy.
During WWI, Uncle Harry had been stationed at the Naval Training Academy in Newport Rhode Island affording him a front row seat to a notorious 1919 scandal when the Navy launched an investigation in Newport to root out homosexuals in the Navy.
Several enlisted men were persuaded to entrap gays largely at the local YMCA.
The sting resulted in numerous arrests as sailors were court marshaled for sodomy and sentenced to prison for 5 or 6 years.
When a well respected Reverend got caught in the web, public outcry ensued.
The following year the Senate formed a subcommittee to investigate the sanctioned operation eventually condemning the whole sordid affair.
As author Randy Shilts reports in Conduct Unbecoming, the committee called upon the navy to offer better treatment of those accused of “perverted acts”.
“Perversion is not a crime in one sense but a disease that should be properly treated in a hospital” the senators concluded. As Shilts states: “The report marked the last time that the government would condemn a purge of homosexuals in the military for the next 70 years.”
Show and Tell
By the time the fuss over “The Fleets In” had subsided, it had made the 29 year old Cadmus famous overnight, prompting invitations to exhibit his works.
In 1937 the first one man show of the paintings of Paul Cadmus opened in the Midtown Galleries Manhattan. Notably missing was “The Fleets In.”
The PWAP cranked out more than 15,000 works of art in just 6 months, during one of the bleakest seasons of Great Depression.
Most of the works are long gone, destroyed or lost but the one homoerotic piece “The Fleets In” is now in the Navy Art Gallery at the Washington Navy Yard and is one of the most popular exhibits.
As one very famous sailor might say: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam!”