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Shedding Grace on Amerigo the Beautiful

August 02, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Strange . .. that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville . .. whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed to supplant Columbus and baptize half the world with his own dishonest name. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson didn't know beans. --Dr. Putnam C. Kennedy

Dr. Putnam (Put) Kennedy is the last man in America you'd expect to make waves. Retired radiologist, doting grandfather, faithful Kiwanian; about as controversial as a Fred Astaire film. Methodical, soft-spoken, self-effacing. Partial to a good read. Mostly history.

In 1984, Put Kennedy is sitting in his favorite chair in the family room of his comfortable La Canada home. He is reading Daniel Boorstin's "The Discoverers," in which Boorstin quotes the plaint of "an eminent Latin-American historian," to wit: "In this whole hemisphere, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, not one statue has been erected to (Amerigo Vespucci)."

Not the Leaping Kind

Kennedy does not leap from his chair. He is not the leaping kind. Rather, he lays aside his book and ponders the slight.

"Hundreds of millions of people call themselves 'Americans,' " he said later. "How many billions of times a day is the word America invoked?

"But ask your neighbor, your children, your teacher. Everybody's heard of Amerigo, of course, but how many people know why we're Americans, instead of Columbians ?" For that matter, Ericssonians, or even Brendanians ?

"I was intrigued," Kennedy said. Not disturbed. Not irate. Intrigued. "I thought maybe I might be able to do something about it . . . . "

Amerigo or bust.

By summer of 1987, thanks to Kennedy, there are not one but three busts of Amerigo Vespucci in the Western Hemisphere.

One, ironically, is in Colombia, a country named after You Know Who.

A second, more appropriately, looks out to sea from a park in Rio de Janeiro (discovered by Vespucci and named by him "River of January").

The third bust (actually it was the first) graces the foyer of the library of a small college located in that celebrated cauldron of geopolitical controversy: Glendale.

There will be no more. When they made Amerigo Vespucci, they threw away the mold.

Columbus--a man who hungered after gold and glory, not necessarily in that order--would have reveled in a similar honor, be it Glendale or Gallipoli. Vespucci couldn't have cared less.

By the early 1500s, the putative heydays of both old friends, Columbus--resentful, reviled, even brought back from Hispaniola in chains--was a bitter man, prematurely aged, broke, but still convinced (more likely, still convincing himself) that he had found the Indies.

Vespucci was still bopping along the East Coast of the Americas, darting down to Argentina, marveling at the stilted sea houses of Venezuela (which he named: "Little Venice"), even wintering in Florida, though he didn't know it.

As a matter of fact, Vespucci never knew where he was; only that, contrary to all accepted dogma, there was this humongous land mass between Europe and Asia. Not India, not China, not Cipango (Japan). Call it "the Fourth Continent," he said. Catchier yet, call it Mundus Novus --the New World.

Vespucci's first two voyages (his last two were under the Portuguese flag) were in the vague capacity of "adviser," reporting to King Ferdinand of Spain--vague because he'd been sent out to kind of keep tabs on old buddie Chris.

Columbus, while indisputably intrepid, was a rotten administrator. Native "Indians" were treated as slaves. (Vespucci: "Each one was lord of himself.") Contentious colonizers had noses and ears cut off. As for crew, sailors who refused to sign a deposition that Cuba was not an island were relieved of their tongues.

Meanwhile, in a tiny monastery in western France, half a dozen monks and poets huddled over a new world map they were printing, considering what to call the new territory this guy Vespucci had chanced upon . . . .

Back in La Canada, Put Kennedy glides into action with all due deliberation. In a second-hand-book store, he locates "Amerigo and the New World" by German Arciniegas, head of the Academy of History in Bogota, Colombia. "It's the definitive biography," Kennedy says. "Of course, it's the only biography."

The dirty deal done Vespucci-- one of history's truly forgotten men--continues to rankle in the breast of the good doctor.

Kennedy's mission begins in 1985 with an approach to his own Glendale Kiwanis Club. The club suggests a joint venture with other clubs, "local, national, even in South America."

One by one, the clubs reply with heartfelt apathy.

Kennedy writes his congressman (whose name the doctor won't give, but you know who you are). A D.C. memorial, he's told, involves a lot of red tape; i.e., forget it.

A mariners' museum turns him down. So does the Huntington.

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