BY GENE TRIPLETT
LOS ANGELES – The question occurred to him one day as he was walking across the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy, where he was living at the time.
“How, in the face of the most destructive conflict in history, a war that claimed the lives of 65 million people, so many of the great cultural treasures and works of art of Western civilization survived, and who were the people that saved them?” Robert M. Edsel remembers wondering.
“And I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer, but I was hugely embarrassed that it never occurred to me to ask the question,” he told The Oklahoman during a press junket here, promoting George Clooney’s World War II action drama “The Monuments Men,” which is based on Edsel’s book of the same name.
Edsel, a former nationally-ranked tennis player and owner of a hugely successful oil drilling company, had moved to Florence in 1996, where he began studying art and architecture.
“I started asking friends of mine that I’d met, that were living there, that were from Florence, and other countries, and they all said, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing question, what’s the answer?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, you live here, you ought to know.’ And to the person, they didn’t. And the answer was the same as mine. I’d never thought about it.”
The Illinois native, 57, was born to stockbroker Alpha Ray Edsel and Norma Louise (nee Morse), an Oklahoma City native who still lives in the Sooner capital. By the time he was 40, Edsel had built and sold Gemini Exploration, which pioneered the horizontal method of drilling for oil and gas.
His new interest in art would lead him to a third fulltime career when he learned the true and little-known story of a group of middle-aged, combat-green museum directors, artists, art historians, curators and architects who went to the front lines in Europe in World War II to save the world’s artistic masterpieces from Nazi looters.
Edsel has since authored three books on the subject: “Rescuing Da Vinci,” “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” (with Bret Witter), and “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis.”
He has also produced a documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” and founded the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a non-profit organization that received the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor given in the United States for work in the humanities. Edsel is the foundation’s president.
“I can say I’m very, very proud of the film they’ve made,” Edsel said of coproducers Clooney and Grant Heslov. “I mean, it tells in a very, very moving way, the incredible undertaking. And I think it helps people think about that question that provoked me so much in the early days: What in the world were these guys thinking? A bunch of middle-aged guys that are really well-educated, well-travelled, had life made by any definition, great jobs, most with families, many of them have young kids, and they walk away from it to put on a military uniform and go into harm’s way. I mean that to me is a remarkable thing.”
The film, which stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Dean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Cate Blanchett, is a fictionalize account of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group, which was backed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The characters are based loosely on the real Monuments officers, and some artistic license has been taken with events and situations that the Monuments Men actually encountered, but the screenplay by Clooney and Heslov has Edsel’s blessing.
“I’m handcuffed because I have to observe what the historical record was,” Edsel said. “They as storytellers have the flexibility to pay as much or as little attention to the historical record as they want to, to find a way to tell the story in the most dramatic way possible. They’ve only got two hours to tell it in, and it goes by very quickly. So they have a different kind of problem than I do.”
Edsel said it was remarkable that only two of the Monuments Men were killed during their quest, considering their lack of thorough combat training, which brought him to consider whether the recovery and protection of art treasures is worth a human life.
“It’s a great questions and it’s a question that I asked all 17 of the Monuments officers that I’ve interviewed over the course of time, and many of their kids, kids my age,” Edsel said. “I think that the best answer to be given to this. Of course, it’s an individual answer, everybody feels differently about this … Dean Keller, who was a Monuments officer that worked in Italy, said that no work of art in his view is worth the life of a single boy, but risking your life to fight for a cause was absolutely worth the effort.
“And so I think we have to think of it in that context. I think that the Monuments Men felt largely across the board that the idea, as glamorous as it sounds, one person running into a burning building to save an important painting by Leonardo da Vinci or whatever, no, that’s not worth a single loss of life. But the idea of fighting for a cause that you believe in, democracy and capitalism in our country, certainly a way of life, including respect for cultural property, yes, that’s worth risking their lives and it was an endeavor that these Monuments officers were willing to undertake.”
Edsel noted efforts to recover and return looted art to its rightful owners continues nearly 70 years later, referring to a treasure trove of stolen art that was discovered in 2012 in a Munich apartment. Some 1,500 works worth $1.5 billion were found, including paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Dix, and other artists that were long thought to be lost or destroyed.
Another 60 paintings were found in recent weeks in Salzburg, Austria, in a home reportedly owned by the same man, and elderly German recluse named Hildebrand Gurlitt.
Edsel said the effort to protect art in modern-day conflicts must be ongoing as well.
“I was in Europe in 2003, following the American invasion of Iraq, and watched with great horror the ineptitude of my country’s leadership to not have thought and planned in advance to protect the cultural treasures of that great civilization from the looting that followed the invasion, and the horrible consequences we as a country suffered around the world in the court of public opinion,” Edsel said.
“It was particularly painful for me, knowing that during a world war, with no technology, we had this handful of men and women hitchhiking their way around the countryside in Europe, doing such a remarkable job.
“And so part of the work with the Monuments Men Foundation has been to re-establish that high bar for the protection of cultural treasures during future conflicts,” he said.