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Jack Smith

Norman Corwin, the sage of Los Angeles, carries a torch for the Statue of Liberty

May 19, 1986|Jack Smith

A few years ago I conducted a casual and personal search for someone who might be recognized as the sage of Los Angeles.

My choice, finally, was Will Durant, author of "The Story of Philosophy," which is still a best seller after 60 years, and (with his wife, Ariel) the 13-volume "Story of Civilization."

With sagacious modesty, Will declined the honor, observing that "wisdom is a repeatedly appearing and disappearing mirage on the road of learning. . . ."

Now Will and Ariel are gone, and the chair is empty.

A new sage now appears.

Again, my choice is casual and personal, but I'm sure that many people will agree that Norman Corwin is the man.

Corwin virtually invented radio drama in the early days of that medium, and his voice and genius in radio, television and print have done much to shape the American conscience.

Recently we have read some of Corwin's thoughts on turning 75:

The honor bestowed on him at that birthday, he said, "was the latest in a train of felicities that started when I was born into the English language and the American Constitution simultaneously. . . ."

Corwin has always been unabashedly patriotic; it is a vein that bled easily in his book "Trivializing America"--a penetrating analysis of the greed, mediocrity and complacency that have degenerated every aspect of American life.

Just the other day I heard a cassette of a "valentine" Corwin made for the Statue of Liberty on her 100th birthday, which is to be celebrated in New York Harbor over the Fourth of July weekend.

Just as it took public contributions from thousands of citizens, including schoolchildren, to get the statue finished in the first place, it was $233 million in donations that paid for its recent restoration.

Corwin's tape, "Our Lady of the Freedoms" (produced by George Garabedian, Mark 56 Records, P.O. Box 1, Anaheim 92805) should be played in every classroom.

He recalls how Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, a young French sculptor, got the idea for the statue at a dinner party in Paris, when the talk turned to amity between nations and someone remarked on the unique bond between France and the United States.

Inspired, Bartholdi sailed to New York, visited 17 states, talking with editors, scholars, poets and politicians, and eventually was received by President U.S. Grant.

"The black-bearded Mr. Grant listened carefully to what his black-bearded visitor had to offer, and was unimpressed. The prospect of a colossal Statue of Liberty just didn't seem to interest him. . . ."

Congress also brushed him off. But Bartholdi had made many friends, and he went home full of zeal. For years he worked on sketches and models. Despite the inevitable jokes about his monumental project, French interest mounted.

The statue grew in pieces. The right forearm and the hand holding the torch were shipped across the ocean in 21 crates, years before the rest followed. It went on public display in Philadelphia and New York. Eight years later it went back to France.

"Why such a long delay? Because there was no endowment in France for making the statue, and none in America for giving it a home. Neither government was behind it, nor were there any sponsors, angels, captains of commerce or industry, no big bucks or big francs flowing from anywhere or anybody. . . ."

The statue was a complicated undertaking; it had 300 parts, each of which required complex calculations for stress, gravity and wind resistance; 20 to 30 men worked on it 10 hours a day. Gustave Eiffel, who later built the Eiffel Tower, was structural engineer.

The response in America was poor. The New York Times dismissed her as a "bronze female," too expensive and useless. When other cities offered to take the statue, the Times reversed itself: "The statue is dear to us, and no third-rate town is going to step in and take it from us. . . ."

Then Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, an immigrant himself, came to the rescue and rallied the public. Pulitzer shamed New York's millionaires and offered to collect contributions of $1 and up.

"Contributions started coming in, slowly at first, then with gathering momentum . . . mostly less than a dollar--from workers, farmers, factory hands, country doctors, clerks, salesmen, widows, children. Donations that were touching in themselves were frequently accompanied by moving letters, like one from a small boy who wrote, 'Inclosed find 10 cents, my pocket piece.' "

The drive brought $102,000 from 120,000 people--an average of 85 cents.

On Oct. 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled. The celebration, for which President Grover Cleveland had authorized an expenditure of $50,000, was glorious, except that it rained.

Bartholdi himself, inside the crown, cut the string that held the Tricolor over the statue's face.

Bedlam! The harbor had never heard such cheering.

But no one knew quite what the statue stood for until one day, 17 years after that celebration, a plaque mysteriously appeared on the inside wall of the pedestal, without fanfare. It bore the now famous sonnet written years earlier by Emma Lazarus.

Corwin asks: "What other country had ever called out, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'?

"The new colossus stood for compassion, for humanity, for dignity. The poem was as good as its word, and its offer stood. The huddled masses came on--a blur of faces and a blear of names . . . self-exiled people who left blighted countries, cruel societies, vicious systems, and took with them only their dreams and hopes, uncertainties and apprehensions. . . ."

And they are still coming.

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