May is National Museum Month, which brings to mind that one very special museum that holds a place deep in my heart. In 1942, right after the United States entered the war, the company where my father worked went bankrupt. In those days, people who were out of work could go to their local unemployment office to get a job lead. So, my father went and took his place in line with dozens of other people. While standing there, a man slipped in line just ahead of him. Normally, he might have protested, but he had a feeling that the man must be desperate.
When the man reached the counter, the unemployment associate handed him a lead for the hold of a ship, a job that my father realized would yield at least six months steady work. He could see the relief on the man’s face and was glad he hadn’t said anything about him jumping the line. The very next lead, the lead my father was handed, was for the position of guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That day would mark the beginning of a life-long connection between my family and the people, the art and the oddities that make up the most fabulous museum in the world. Over the years, after talk about school and other happenings of the day, the conversation at our dinner table inevitably turned to the Metropolitan, as my father always called it. There was no end of fascinating things that went on there.
In the very early days before my father was promoted to an office job, one of his patrols was in the subterranean depths of the museum. Most patrons never knew that the Metropolitan’s enormous underground area was actually water. The boulders on which the foundation of the museum rested were part of what was likely an underground cistern. It was eventually filled in with concrete, but before that my father patrolled with rowboat and flashlight.
A lot went on in the sub-basement of the Metropolitan. There was, and perhaps to this day there still is, more art, and in some cases more valuable art, than appears on the walls of the museum itself. Typically, this is not because of lack of space, but rather lack of funding. When an individual or an estate donates a masterpiece, however valuable, there must be money to support it—money literally to pay for its spot in the gallery. One might think that the museum would be thrilled to receive the gift of a precious master, and it is, but without funding you won’t find it anytime too soon on the gallery wall.
Priceless art was not the only thing you could find in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the early 1950s, in a spell of virtuous over-reach, the Ladies of the Legion of Decency, or some such, got it into their heads that the sight of all that male anatomy so boldly visible on those Greek and Roman statues was an offense to one’s moral sensibilities. Amazingly, the Museum went along with it, surgically removing the offending parts and storing them, meticulously catalogued of course, in what amounted to shoe boxes lined up shelf upon shelf and well out of sight. Several years later, in a reversal, curators had the interesting task of seeing to it that the missing parts were all glued back on.
Some things about the Museum were quite funny, some were not. One year, an ornate altar grill from a centuries-old Spanish church arrived at the Museum along with what some people claimed was a curse. Few believed it until a number of people, including a curator, an historian and a few technical assistants mysteriously died.
Some of the not-so-funny things had to do with mere labor demands. One morning as my father strolled the galleries, he came upon a room in which an enormous banquet table from a European castle was being set in place by about half a dozen moving men. Later that afternoon, as he happened to pass through the same gallery, he noticed that although the table was in place, the two dozen chairs were still scattered about the room, with the moving men just milling around. My father asked what was going on, and to his dismay and frustration, the men explained that they were union men. Their job was to move only the table. They had to wait, even if it took all day, for the men whose job it was to move only the chairs.
The Metropolitan’s galleries hold their share of odd history. For many years, late into the evening, after the museum was well closed for the day, the empty, darkened galleries came quietly alive with easels and paint. It was the reason that many of the men went to work there as guards–they were serious, aspiring artists, and what better training than to sit in the silence and copy the masters, after they’d done their rounds, of course.
My father was no artist, but working among the great masters day in and day out, he became a great fan of many, especially the Rembrandts. I remember his dinnertime updates on the day-to-day buzz when in 1961 the museum was in negotiations to purchase Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer for what was then the highest price ever paid in a public sale for a painting, 2.1 million dollars.
The galleries were rich not only in art, but in the peculiar behavior of some very famous people. Being in the presence of the masters often brought out the oddness one might otherwise conceal. This was especially true of certain movie stars who would roam among the paintings, muttering to themselves or as one famous star was observed, strolling the floors with the legs of his suit trousers rolled up to his knees. My father, a sharpshooter with a .38, was acutely aware of the potential for strange behavior, and every one of the four hundred guards dispatched by him daily was inconspicuously alert to the possibility that an axe, hammer, knife, gun, of even a bottle of acid could be drawn from an overcoat at any time. In the office, in a locked metal cabinet, was an arsenal of weapons, which in the thirty years my father worked there had never needed to be drawn.
In the winter of 1962, the Mona Lisa came to the United States for the very first time, amid the greatest of fanfare. It arrived by way of the liner France, and entered New York Harbor under the watchful eye of the U.S. Coast Guard. The White House had assured the art world as well as the general public that the level of security the famous lady was to receive would rival that of the president himself. Interestingly, when it arrived at the Museum and they opened the doors of the transport, they saw just the painting and my father with his .38 discreetly concealed inside the jacket of his navy blue suit. My father, a distinguished and humble man, made little of it and, in fact, never spoke of it again. Neither did he make very much of that night in 1965 when he accompanied Charlton Heston to the New York world premiere of the Michelangelo movie The Agony and the Ecstasy.
One day, when I was in my junior year of high school, my father came home with the news that he had been offered the directorship of a museum in Los Angeles. I know my mother would have been happy with whatever my father decided. I suppose I would have been too, although I couldn’t imagine what it would be like living all the way on the other side of the country, so far away from Brooklyn. I didn’t have to ponder it very long because after an exhilarating couple of days my father made the decision to stay right where he was.
Years later, my father retired from the Metropolitan with a gold watch, a bit of fanfare and three decades of amazing memories and friendships. I can’t imagine he would have chosen any other place to spend those last thirty years of his life. I’m glad he stayed.