Although the cast was populated with a few real-life characters – historical figures such as Nazi leader Hermann Goering, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and Adolf Hitler – Clooney and his movie-land Monuments Men were all make-believe.
But the character Clooney did play, Frank Stokes, was largely based on a real person, George Leslie Stout. It seems Clooney was well chosen for the part, because the real-life George Stout was a Hollywood handsome, charismatic, swashbuckling hero. (BTW, Ancestry.com reported this week it discovered Clooney and Stout are second c0usins, thrice removed; Clooney said he had been unaware of that.)
Stout deserves to be attached to this role, and remembered for his monumental contribution to the discovery, retrieval and preservation of tens of the thousands of objects of art.
Who were the real Monuments Men?
According to a website that exists to remember them, “The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for [military] service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. These men not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it.”
Stout came by his appreciation of art and beauty from birth. He was born in 1897 in picturesque Winterset, Madison County, Iowa – whose famous covered bridges inspired the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County“.
Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt’s third term vice president (1941-1945) and the actor John Wayne (who gets a shout-out in this movie) were also born in Winterset. Unlike Wayne, whose family moved from Winterset when he was four, Stout spent his youth there – until he enrolled in undergraduate studies at Grinnell College. He interrupted his studies to join the U.S. Army in 1917 to fight in World War I. Stout served in a hospital unit, before returning to Iowa to complete his degree at the University of Iowa.
After that, he traveled and studied in Europe for a time. He married (a union that would last more than 50 years) and started a family.
In 1926, he was accepted for a Carnegie Fellowship at Harvard University to work on a master’s degree, and it was there that he became passionate about art conservation and the science involved in restoring decaying works of art. Upon graduation, he took a position at Fogg Museum, the oldest of the major trio of Harvard Art Museums, and its research centers, where he became an authority on preserving and repairing art works.
The Fogg, established in 1896, is noted for its collections of thousands of pieces of Italian Renaissance, British Pre-Raphaelite and French art
of the 19th century; it contains works by Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, John Singer Sargent and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. (No, I won’t link to all of these!)
Around the time, in 1943, when the Fogg was bequeathed the important 4,000-piece Grenville L. Winthrop collection, Stout was called to active duty (he had been a Navy reservist in early World War II; he ultimately rose to the rank of Lt. Cmdr.) and was assigned to fix airplanes. Eventually his art expertise became known, and he was among those tasked with a special mission: Identifying, protecting and preserving art works that were endangered by the war.
Stout and other Monuments Men landed with Allied troops on D-Day in Normandy, and advanced through France and Germany, alerting troops to the artworks in their paths, so these treasures could be spared from bombs and bullets when possible.
Although more than 300 fellow artists, curators, and other art experts were also a part of the so-called Monuments Men section, Stout played a lead role in the effort. When Allied troops advanced and re-took previously occupied territories, Stout was generally found on the front lines spearheading the effort to find looted treasures that had been stashed away in castles like Neuschwanstein, in bunkers, caves and even salt mines like Altaussee in Austria and Merkers, Germany; that’s where one of the largest troves of art, currency and 250 tons of Nazi gold – one of the linchpins in the Monuments Men movie plot – was found. (A PFC, Richard Mootz, in George Patton’s Third Army has recently been credited with initially finding the location.) Some of the rescues of these treasures were as dramatic and timely as Hollywood depicts them. (Despite what the movie’s script says, not all of Hitler’s gold, cash or treasure was found in Merkers; most of it is still unaccounted for.)
After V-E Day, Stout’s work did not end; he was transferred to Japan to head an MFAA division that had been set up there, at his suggestion.
Two years later, Stout came home and accepted a position as director of the Worcester Art Museum (1947-1954) and then the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (1955-1970) in Massachusetts. He helped found the International Institute for Conservation and was honored by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Stout continued to be involved in art preservation almost until he died on July 1, 1978, in Santa Clara, California – a year after the movie’s poignant end.
Though well known in the art world, it seems Stout and his Monuments Men were not well known to the general public, nor were they properly acknowledged as the war heroes they were, until just recently.
Although the Monuments Men movie is a fictional account, it does focus much-deserved attention on men like Stout and how their real-life accomplishments averted an even greater cultural tragedy.
It is important to point out that not all of WWII’s looted art has been found or accounted for. So, the work of modern-day Monuments Men continues.
February 4, 2014