Woodrow Wilson

UNREMEMBERED SCREENING: Woodrow Wilson and the ‘Racist’ Movie That Came to the White House

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By Ken Zurski

On Feb 18 1915, the first screening of a major motion picture took place inside the walls of the White House. President Woodrow Wilson instructed it at the request of a friend Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, a radical novel published in 1905, which skewed the Reconstruction era by heroizing the Ku Klux Klan’s efforts against an illicit uprising by former slaves in the South.

Dixon’s book had just become a film version, retitled “The Birth of a Nation.” and directed by D.W. Griffith.

Wilson was familiar with the book and its subject matter.

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Thomas Dixon Jr.

For months, in letters, Dixon had set up the President’s role in promoting the film: “I have an abiding faith that you will write your name with Washington and Jefferson as one of the great creative forces in the development of our Republic,” he wrote. Wilson was flattered, responding: “I want you to know Tom, that I’m pleased to do this little thing for you.” Dixon and Wilson had been law students together at John Hopkins in the 1880’s.

In asking, Dixon was disingenuous at best: “What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” Dixon was hoping to spread the message of white southern attitudes in the North. This, he explained, was”the real purpose of the film.”  In securing a screening, however, Dixon stressed the importance of advancing the medium rather than the content. Wilson took the bait, or as one writer expressed, “fell into a trap.” An assessment, one can argue, was hardly befitting the President’s reputation at the time. In addition, the President had recently lost his beloved wife to illness. He was in no mood to go – or be seen – in a public theater.

So the film came to him.

Dixon set it all up. He along with a projection crew steamed by rail from California to Washington D.C. and lugged twelve reels of film from Union Station to Pennsylvania Avenue. On a chilly February evening the President, along with his family and several cabinet members, viewed the film in the East Room of the White House.

Historical facts get sketchy at this point, especially Wilson’s reaction.

A magazine writer claimed Wilson liked the film enough to contribute an ambiguous quote: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”

A Wilson biographer, however, disputes these claims, reporting some sixty years later, that the last living person to view the film that night told a vastly different story. Wilson left early before the movie was over, this person recalled, and didn’t utter a word.

In retrospect, what likely happened is this: It was late, the film was long, and Wilson stepped out to retire to bed.

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Scene from “The Birth of a Nation”

None of this mattered at the time. Just screening the controversial movie in the White House was awkward enough. And regardless of what Wilson did or did not do, having his presence in the flickering light of the projector prompted Dixon and Griffith to proclaim the film had a “presidential seal of approval.”

For Wilson it was another political embarrassment and solidified the views of many that the President had policies that  were designed to separate rather than mix the races.

When the sharp protests began, Wilson was stuck. He tried to remain indifferent, but that was impossible. The NAACP demanded an explanation. Wilson wrote a few letters, eventually disowned any words attributed to him, and left it at that. He had other matters to attend to.

In March of 1915, The Birth of a Nation opened to positive reviews and large crowds. The NAACP’s attempt to get the film banned, some professed, failed because the “mostly white” film board ignored their pleas.

Wilson was too busy to care.

Less than three months later, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania  was attacked by German U -boats, killing 124 Americans and ratcheting up calls for the President to act.

In April 1917, Wilson declared the U.S. entering the Great War.

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For A Long Time U.S. Presidents Wore Facial Hair. And Then They Didn’t

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By Ken Zurski

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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was the first commander-in-chief to wear facial hair. Surprised? Actually by being the first to sport a beard, Lincoln started a trend that lasted nearly 50 years. A trend that ended in 1912 with the election of Woodrow Wilson. There hasn’t been a stitch of hair on any U.S president’s face since. That’s 17 president’s in a span of  115 years! And the 2016 election of the 45th president doesn’t change that fact.

Even vice-president’s are included.

So why?

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Many claim the invention of Gillette’s safety razor in the early 1900’s had something to do with the change. Suddenly shaving was easier and facial hair in general went out of style. Plus, the military banned beards too. This was not the case during the Civil War or the Spanish -American War, led in part by a future president, Teddy Roosevelt, who sported a bushy mustache. But this doesn’t explain the recent trend in beards and the on again off again attitudes towards mustaches which reached it’s peak with the popularity of Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz in the 70’s and Tom Selleck in the 80’s.

Despite these cultural shifts, the president’s faces have remained unchanged.

Even Lincoln’s beard was an afterthought. Lincoln never had facial hair as an adult and only let his whiskers go after a receiving a letter from an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell who suggested the president-elect should grow one. “For your face is so thin,” she wrote. Lincoln reluctantly obliged.

After Lincoln, and in the eleven presidencies that followed, only Andrew Johnson and William McKinley chose to go clean shaven. The rest had either a beard, mustache or both. Chester Arthur was one. The 21st president, had a classic version of sidewhiskers, an extreme variation of the muttonchop, or side hair connected by a mustache.

The last president to have facial hair is William Howard Taft.

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Woodrow Wilson was next. He shaved everyday and was always impeccably coiffed.

Regardless of why the trend ended with the 28th President, something as trivial as a facial hair has controversy.

Some argue that John Quincy Adams, not Lincoln, should be considered the first president to keep hair on the face. If so, that would pull the history of president’s and facial hair back nearly four decades.

Not to be. Adams chops, which extended off his ears and sloped down to his chin was not considered a full beard.

And since he did not have a hair under his nose, the sideburns only look didn’t count.

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When The World Met Marie, The Saucy Queen of Romania

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By Ken Zurski

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Queen Marie of Romania

In the summer of 1919, and because of her stance against the Central Powers, King Ferdinand of Romania sent his British born wife Queen Marie to Paris to attend the Treaty of Versailles, a historic meeting of allied leaders designed to form a peace treaty and draw a new map of Europe at the end of the First World War.

“My God, I simply went wherever they called me,” the Queen said, stating the obvious.

The glamorous Marie did more than just attend. She hobnobbed with the press, flirted with world leaders, including the Big Four (Italy, England, France and the U.S.), and although she had an important job to do for her country, found time to go on lavish shopping sprees too.

By the time the historic Treaty was over, everyone knew a little bit more about the outlandish Queen Marie. And thanks in part to her unorthodox efforts, Romania, at least on paper, had doubled in size.

Born into royalty as Princess Marie of Edinburgh in 1875 in Kent, England, Marie was the eldest daughter of her mother also named Marie, the only surviving child of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Alexander, the second son of Queen Victoria and a naval officer who moved the family extensively throughout her childhood.  The Princess was a good catch, even as a youth, and gentleman came calling for her including a first cousin George (later George V of England) who professed his love for Marie, but was turned away.

In 1893, at the age of 18, Marie married Ferdinand, a third cousin, who by default, was the heir to the Romanian throne. King Carol I, Ferdinand’s uncle, and his wife had only one daughter so the succession fell to his brother Leopold, who renounced his rights in 1880. Leopold’s son did the same in 1886. So even before the turn of the 20th century, Ferdinand was the heir-presumptive.  In 1916, when Carol died, Ferdinand became the King and Marie the Queen of Romania.

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Marie was a different kind of Queen, less submissive and daringly independent. During the start of World War I, Marie spent time with the Red Cross in hospitals tending to the sick and wounded and risking her own life in the disease filled tents. Although she was British, she had great respect for the Romanian people and would venture into the countryside unaccompanied by guards to greet them. Many villagers crowded her in adulation; kissing her hands and falling down at her feet. “At first it was difficult unblushingly to accept such homage,” she wrote, “but little by little I got accustomed to these loyal manifestations; half humbled, half proud, I would advance amongst them, happy to be in their midst.”

In contrast to Marie’s adventurist spirit her husband, the King, was a dud; dull, shy and as one writer described “stupid” too. His most enduring feature was his ears which stuck out the sides of his head like a teddy bear. He said little and mattered even less.

Marie, however, was the complete opposite. Pretty and intelligent she spoke out when asked and seemed to have a good knowledge of foreign affairs. She also had little interest in being a committed wife. Blaming a loveless marriage, she was boldly unfaithful and found multiple lover’s in dashing figures like a Canadian millionaire miner from the Klondike.  (In her later years, rumors abounded that one of her longstanding paramours, the nephew of Romania’a Foreign Minister  Ion I. C. Brătianu, was the father of her children (six in all, three girls) except for the one that eventually became a bad King. That one was Ferdinand’s, went the biting accusation.)

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In November of 1918, when war activities ended, Marie was the outspoken one not her husband, who remained mostly silent during the war. Sending her to the Treaty in Paris was an obvious choice, if unprecedented.

So Marie went and brought her three daughters along with her. Together they shopped, dined and were generally the life of any party they attended. The Queen wore out those who tried to follow her. She charmed her way to negotiations and gained admirers along the way. “She really is an unusual woman and if she was not so simple you would think she was conceited,” chimed the British Ambassador to France. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, was just as forthright: “{Marie] is a very naughty, but a very clever woman.” he professed.  Edward House, an American diplomat and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European diplomacy and politics, was even more complimentary, calling her, “one of the most delightful personalities of all the royal women I have met in the West.”

Instead of being intimidated, which many had predicted, Marie intimidated others with her saucy looks, manners and speech. In one instance of sheer brashness, she invited herself to lunch with President Wilson, then showed up fashionably late with an entourage of ten in tow. “I could see from the cut of the President’s jaw,” one guest noted, “that a slice of Romania was being looped off.”

According to reports, Marie dominated the conversation.  “I have never heard a lady talk about such things.” remarked Wilson’s traveling doctor. ” I honestly do not know where to look I was so embarrassed.”

In the end, Romania grew in size and population. In fact, of all the contributors at the conference, Romania is widely considered to have picked up the greatest gains, including Transylvania which became – and still is – a part of “Greater Romania.” King Ferdinand could only wait for word back home. He sent letters of encouragement and advice to his wife, which she mostly ignored.

“I had given my country a living face,” she said about her visit.

Clearly an understatement.

(Sources: Paris 1919 by Margret MacMillian;  My Country by Queen Marie; various internet articles)