Historical Figures® News

Visit the Gallery!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Versailles Model Part 2

Best Rooms of Europe

The entire process of building my Versailles model lasted less than ten years, during which time it was my main obsession. It started in my early teens and ended when I went off to college. My poor academic record (attributable to dyslexia, I realized years later) resulted in my being very much self-educated. The building of the palace model was a learning process of the most basic level. In the beginning I was ignorant of most everything historical, but at the same time, fascinated by everything historical. I pushed ahead, stimulated by my early exposure to the buildings of Europe. I was an immature youth inflamed by the beauty of the Old World, and historical consistency had little place in my model. Whereas the exterior was in conformity with the original, the interior became a playground for my passion for lush surroundings, and I used rooms from other palaces as my inspiration. In the 1930s and 40s there were no do-it-yourself kits to help you make miniature pieces. There were fine hobby stores full of raw materials, but you had to be your own draftsman and carpenter. I used pictures to replicate these furnishings and interiors. Remember that my first view of Versailles had been many years before, and I was now depending on the descriptions and photographs of others. I would never again actually see the actual buildings that so sparked my earliest interest.
My overall scale for the model continued to be one half-inch to the foot, which I scale of standard miniatures. One inch to the foot is now the standard, which would have meant that my model would have been twice the size. A larger scale would have been so much more gratifying, but only had so much space to work in, and was not aware of this standard.
Louis XV Bedroom, the first interior room of Stuart’s model of Versailles.
 The first room finished was Louis XIV’s bedchamber, in the very center of the building. Keep in mind that the Versailles I saw in the 1930s was rather different than it appears today. France was in a depression after World War I, and the palace I saw was rather shabby and the furnishings makeshift. Even so, everything looked splendid to me, and that was the image I sought to replicate. Today the French have spent fortunes bringing the rooms back to their original, stunning detail.
Making furniture with bits of balsa wood and tiny pieces of fabric was painstaking, and the results were very crude, but I forged ahead. So many rooms, so many chairs, tables, draperies and chandeliers!
Finding the appropriate glass drops for the chandeliers, or the door hinges, or mirrors, or some kind of clay to make the gilded wall decorations, was an endless adventure in research and experimentation. Through it all there was Dr. Kasten, guiding, making suggestions, searching out sources for me, and putting me in touch with people who could help move the process forward. As I’ve stated before, Dr. Kasten was my muse, and an absolute saint. None of this project could have taken place without her constant participation. In fact, I owe it to her for having reinforced whatever creative awakening and artistic applications I have employed throughout my life.
Music Room in  Sanssouci  Palace at Potsdam.
The exquisite rococo music room in Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam was a must for me to include. The wall decorations for this room were of special concern, and they were complicated raised stucco and wood carving, gilded with gold leaf. I labored over these moldings until I was as close as possible to the original. To my youthful eyes, the completed effect was marginally successful.
The paintings in the rooms were an eclectic assortment. I couldn’t remember or find images of each and every painting in all the rooms, but what I could see in photographs I copied in oils. I enjoyed painting in miniature, and by the end of my time with the model, I had developed a modest ability for it. This part of the project was great fun.
Red Room in Windsor Castle.
My efforts to reproduce the endless sculptures that populated Versailles inside and out were less successful. I ended up using a modeling clay developed by the Marblex company. I continued to use this product until they discontinued it in the 1950s.
When dried and varnished (to protect the water-based clay from damp), the little figures were dark brown or black, not the pale colors of the marbles I was
copying. Some of the interior sculptures I painted white to match the rest of the decorations. The flooring of the model was actually slabs of marble from a monument maker near by. They would cut the slices for me to fit the rooms. The famous “marble court” in the center of the palace was a single sheet of white marble, as can be seen in the photos.
Because the whole structure was built directly on the ground, the lower or ground floor was too low to actually see inside the windows, so we placed blinds inside those windows and only finished and furnished the second floor. One could kneel down and peer into the windows at that level.
Inspired by a room in the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
When we finished as much as we could, we lighted the rooms of both floors with Christmas tree bulbs, hidden in the ceilings. At night, it was quite impressive, as you can see in the photos. Only much later did I find tiny “rice grain” light bulbs. What an effect it would have been to use those and actually have the chandeliers lighted!
French Boudoir in Versailles.
 Looking back at the photos of this project now, as I have not done for many years, I see how crude, clumsy, and inaccurate it all was. At first glance it was rather impressive, and certainly it was unlike the pastimes of most American teenage boys. It was a demonstration of focus and energy that would have been remarkable had I devoted it to my academic education. My life would have been entirely different!
The Versailles project led to painting in oils, and eventually to the Historical Figures, with a strong period of time in the theatre. My firm will and my total lack of influence from society brought mixed results, not all of which were negative. I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering 
G. S. Stuart

EDITORS'S NOTE - Versailles Model Part 3 will present structural details, furnishings and the "people."

Friday, December 06, 2013

Stuart’s Versailles Palace
Part 1:  Overview of the Project

My love affair with great architecture did not begin with the Versailles Palace but rather in Bavaria southwest of Munich. There at about the age of ten, I vividly recall my first visit to Neuschwanstein. I was thunderstruck. It personified a boy’s mental image of a castle. Later Walt Disney made Neuschwanstein the prototype for his Disneyland castle.
Color image, full view of Neuschwanstein castle.
Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany
The setting of Neuschwanstein was perfect; everything about this building was pure heaven. I knew nothing of the history surrounding it and it didn't matter, it was love at first sight. For the next eight decades this castle has held a grip on my aesthetic spirit. However, my architectural spirit was won over by another, more historically famous royal site in France.
I believe it was in the early 1930s that I saw, for the first time, the Palace of Versailles, which stands about 12 miles west of Paris.  The palace had been the seat of Bourbon rule for hundreds of years, and essentially the crossroads of European royalty, politics, art, science and economics. 
Thanks to my early mentors, I had a budding appreciation of the power and grandeur of Versailles. I was hooked, fascinated by the buildings, their inhabitants and activities. 
I have always been singularly blessed with the support and encouragement of a number of remarkable people. My maternal grandmother was an intellectual, very political and widely read. She stimulated my interest in history and politics, and she encouraged my study of painting. During her lifetime, she had supported and promoted a handful of painters. She had no interest in architecture as far as I can recall, but she did introduce me to fine literature at a very early age.
A Village to Make a Castle
All my thoughts were on building Versailles in miniature. It will sound odd to contemporary young American men, with their obsession with cars, sports and girls, to hear of my ecstasies over architecture. But there it was.
My parents had no interest in my activities, other than to insist on my focusing on school work. Of course this was a completely lost cause and the source of much despair. For the next fifteen years, my school and social life meant virtually nothing to me. 
b/w image head-and-shoulders of Dr. Irma Kasten
Dr. Irma Kasten, muse, patron.
Luckily I had wonderful supporters, including my grandmother’s companion, Dr. Irma Kasten.  I refer to her as my “muse,” commonly understood to be someone who encourages and inspires creative activity.  Dr. Kasten  saw my fascination with building and sculp-ture, and encouraged these leanings by seeing to it that I had all the resources I needed to pursue my ambitions. She taught me the metric system so I could read the measurements and helped me choose a scale for the structure. I hadn't a clue about any of these processes, and was always an abysmal math student, so her guidance was crucial and has stood me in good stead ever since.
I should add, that during this period I also had an intense fling with oil painting, attending art school and working with a local “master.” I was also captivated by theater and was drawn to production and performance throughout the period of high school and college. All these artistic disciplines helped in the Versailles project.
Construction Begins
Although my family’s property was no park, I was given a comfortable space in the garden in which to express my boyish desires to build. As an untrained architect, I knew nothing about the construction of anything, but ignorance is bliss!
First, I needed to acquire the plans of the Versailles Palace. It was Dr. Kasten who discovered a French source for the architectural plans of the Palace of Versailles.
Early on I realized I had to trim my expectations considerably. The Palace of Versailles is an enormous structure with vast wings and multiple stories covering more than one-quarter square mile of land. We selected the scale of one-half inch to one foot as our standard, but even then the footprint would have been way beyond the garden area allotted to me. 
The actual Palace of Versailles went through many expansions, alterations and re-models between the 1660s and 1700. I selected the period of the 1670s for my model, for to me it was the most exquisite form the building had taken. The grander, more imposing additions came later, but they never completely eclipsed the beauty of the 1670s building.
Color painting of Versailles in the 1670s.
Painting of Palace in 1675
Architectural drawing, floor plan of Chateau Versailles circa 1670s.
Actual plan for early Chateau at Versailles circa 1676-80
Concrete Solution
No pasteboard and paperclip castle this time--we were serious!  “Our” model was to be constructed of concrete, wood, and some marble. Mixing and casting concrete was my first big challenge. My hands rapidly split and bled from working the caustic mixture. Once more, I was saved from immediate failure by a blessed old gentleman who lived on a tiny property next to our garden wall. His name was Mr. Cox (I never knew his first name in all the years we were acquainted). 
b/w image of Mr. Cox, concrete advisor  to George Stuart
Mr. Cox offered concrete suggestions.

He was a retired concrete builder. He had been involved in building some of the great dams in the west. He noticed my struggles with trying to mix cement, build forms and put things together. He saw my misery when I showed him my poor hands that were rapidly being destroyed by exposure to wet cement. Mr. Cox told me that I should always wear gloves and never handle the wet cement bare-handed. When I asked for a cure for my ragged hands, he said, “I know you’ll never do it, but it works right off, and will fix you fine.” I insisted on knowing, and he said, “Well, you have to do it thoroughly, and you won’t like it.” “Tell me, please,” I insisted. “What you do is piss on ‘em” he revealed. “I WHAT!” I sputtered. “I said you wouldn’t like it, but it’ll do the trick,” he said. As soon as I was alone, I did as he advised, and within a day or two my hands were healing over, and a week later, wearing gloves this time, I was back working the concrete. He knew the chemistry – acidic urine neutralizes the caustic lime in concrete. Indeed! So it always pay attention to those with experience! Mr. Cox explained the fundamentals of pouring concrete into forms and constructing the forms so they don’t collapse under the weight. It didn’t take me long to learn the basics, and pretty soon the walls of the palace began to rise.
b/w image of raw concrete walls of 1/48 scale of Versailles
Raw concrete walls of our model. Things were moving forward.
Raising the Roof, Moldings, Statuary . . .
Once the concrete shell of the model was complete, we constructed the mansard roof with pine bracing and a skin of thin mahogany plywood. My father, who was in the aircraft business, supplied the plywood. World War II was on, and the aircraft industry was moving rapidly away from wood-sheathed fuselages to aluminum-covered aircraft, so I had an unlimited supply of plywood.
b/w image of Versailles model with mansard roofs in place.
Basic"mansard" roofs are up and some of the exterior decorations have been put in place. Much more has to be done, however.
One of my greatest challenges with the model was how to produce and attach the many intricate exterior moldings, urns, and statuary. We settled on hard dental plaster, which we planned to paint white to allay water damage, or so we hoped. These architectural details had to be cast in this plaster, so Dr. Kasten found a mold maker. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a mold maker! Using the rubber molds he made for us, we cast all the door and window frames and roof decorations. This was a tedious and never-ending process, as you might imagine.
Functional Windows and Doors
In addition to all those details, we were faced with glazing all the doors and windows. I was insistent that we use real glass, and that all doors and windows open and close. Once again Dr. Kasten came to the rescue by finding an architectural firm that would make them for us. This was another project that took many weeks, and I struggled to install the finished products.
b/w image of Versailles 1/48 Palace Model with glazed windows, doors, roof decor, railings.
View of our progress with glazed windows and doors. Also, much of the fancy roof decorations, railings and so on, are appearing.
And a Million More Details
Anyone who has overseen the building of their home or other buildings can easily understand that there are a million and one things that go into construction besides what I’ve discussed here. Of course, our palace model was not to be plumbed, thank goodness, but it did have to be lighted from within. During the first years, while I was laboring over interiors, we would occasionally light small birthday candles inside the model, to see the effect. Later, when the interiors were finished, we wired it with Christmas tree lights. Miniature light bulbs were just being developed, too late for our palace, what a pity!
b/w image Versailles 1/48 model basic exterior with vehicles and people.
This view shows that most of the basic exterior construction has been completed. It seemed appropriate to "populate" the building, so vehicles and people were added to make the palace appear alive.
b/w image of Versailles Palace forecourt with grills, gate and guard blocks.
Notice that the forecourt with grills and gate, also the "guard" blocks with massive sculpture were also in place.
b/w image of Builder G.S. Stuart accesses rooms through removable roof.
In this view you see the builder is accessing one of the upper rooms. 
Our only method to get at the interiors was to make the roof removable. Then we could lift out the ceilings and gain access to the rooms below. I was already frustrated by the one half inch to the foot scale and wishing we had gone at least  to one inch to the foot. Bigger would have been better . .  and only cost a few thousand more to construct!
My enthusiasm overtook my undeveloped sense of precision, accuracy, and historical correctness. Versailles of the 1670s did not yet have the famous Hall of Mirrors, but I included Louis XIV’s bedroom, and oeil de boeuf (the bull’s eye window room) and attempted the Hercules Salon.
color image Versailles room model replicated by G. S. Stuart
At 19, my youthful impression of this famous room. Since then the French government has spent millions restoring it to its original 17th century grandeur.
Some of the other interior rooms were modeled on rooms in other palaces that had caught my fancy over the years. One came from San Souci in Potsdam, another from Windsor Castle, one from a grand English manor house, and one from the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
A Door Closes, Another Opens
Leaving my home and my still-unfinished model of Versailles to go off to college was a difficult transition, to be sure. During my first year away at college I was still making statuary. 
b/w image of replica of Versailles gate block sculptures by G. S. Stuart
This is an attempt at the statuary that topped the "guard blocks" at either side of the
forecourt grill. This is our "best effort" at allegory from descriptions and poor photographs.
However, by the time of my sophomore year the palace was behind me. It had been covered to protect it from the elements, but work on it had stopped for good. By the 1950s, I had moved to the east coast to finish my studies, and I intended to enter the Foreign Service. Theater, portrait painting, and the palace model were apparently behind me forever.  
Reports from home indicated that the palace had not weathered well and was rapidly falling into decay. By the 1970s my parents had moved to another home. My father had tried to have the palace moved with them, but it crumpled into ruin instantly. He did manage to remove all the interior walls and furnishings and store them for me.
b/w image of Versailles model showing weathering and deterioration
The weather quickly took its toll on the palace and occupants. 
It was always a race to keep up with repairs. Water leakage and rodents made quick work of the interiors until they were removed to save them. The exterior walls suffered also. Ah well, dust to dust! 
Years later, after moving to Santa Barbara and then to Ojai, my wife and I opened a small gallery in our home for the Historical Figures. It was then that the remains of the palace were brought to Ojai and put in display cases in our gallery.
I have never lost my passionate love of Versailles, but the overwhelming obsession with my building architectural models has faded. Given enough funding, however, Versailles just might return, and result in a fabulous folly in my present garden.

color image of signature of G. S. Stuart.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Double Dowagers or The Emperor Has Two Mothers


portrait of Chinese Emperor Hsein-feng (Xianfeng)
Emperor Hsien-feng (Xianfeng)
In 1861 Imperial China was in chaos. Foreign armies were invading. The Manchu Emperor Hsien-Feng (Xianfeng) was dying. He and the court had fled north to refuge in Manchuria. His empress Tzu An had born him no sons. If the Emperor died without an heir, the Ch’ing (Qing)* dynasty would fly apart. In the winter of 1862 the Emperor died.

Concubine Yehenara portrait by George Stuart
Concubine Yehenara, later Tsu Hsi (Cixi) 

 Back in 1856 one of his second wives, or concubines, had born him a son! She is known to history as Yehenara. At the last moment, Yehenara, seeing the significance of her situation, forced the dying Emperor to recognize her son as the heir. He did so with his dying breath, and he announced Yehenara as regent for the boy. 

Portrait of Prince Kung by George Stuart
Prince Kung (Gong)
However, there was a group of reactionary warmongers, including the dead Emperor’s younger brother Prince Chun (Yixuan), who were preparing to seize the baby emperor so they could control the government. They also planned to do away with Yehenara!



Their plan was foiled when Prince Kung (Gong), the middle brother, and the smartest of all the line of imperial brothers, arranged to hurry the widow and little Tung Chih back to Beijing. The funeral procession bearing the body of the Emperor would shortly follow. Time was of the essence. Kung quickly gathered support for Tung Chih and his mother Yehenara.

Portrait of Empress Tzu An by George Stuart
Empress Tzu An (Ci'an )
The imperial council was pressured into declaring Yehenara and Tzu An Co-Dowager Empresses as well as co-mothers of five-year-old Tung Chih! They had gained control of the imperial seals before leaving Manchuria, so the coup d’état had an air of legality.  

When the reactionaries (referred to as the “Iron Hats”) arrived for the funeral, they were confronted by a fait accompli. At the direction of the wily Prince Kung, the Dowagers issued a decree condemning the Iron Hats for attempting treason by going against the will of the dead emperor. With exception of the weak-willed Prince Chun (Yixuan), the ringleaders were all executed within hours of the decree accusing them. Prince Chun was easily bullied into complete cooperation with the Dowagers and Prince Kung. The Dowagers, by the way, were also now joint regents of their “mutual” son Tung Chih. 

Portrait of Jung-Lu aka.Ronglu by GeorgeStuart
Baron Jung-Lu (Ronglu)
Prince Kung was to remain the principal manipulator of the central government for many years: he had the support of General Jung Lu (Ronglu), a close friend of Yehenara, now Tzu Hsi (Cixi). Furthermore, he had the assistance of the insidious Li Hung Chang (Li Hongzhang). Li was to become the major figure pulling the strings behind the scenes of the Manchu court for decades to come. The foreigners loved him, by the way!

Portrait of Li Hung-Chang aka.Li Hongzhang by George Stuart
Li Hung-Chang (Li Hongzhang)
The idea that the former concubine Tzu Hsi was controlling the affairs of state is, of course, a myth created by British and American journalists. She sold many more newspapers as a monster. We now know that she and her sister Dowager Tzu An were little more than pawns in the vast scheme of things.

While it is true that Tzu Hsi and Tzu An managed to get along most of the time, there is an understanding that there were many contentious moments over the young emperor Tung Chih. One rumor claims that Tzu Hsi played the disciplinarian and occasional punisher, and little Tung Chih would run to his “other” mother Tzu An, who would comfort him and spoil him with treats. Even this lacks credibility, because Prince Kung was the primary dictator of the Emperor’s education and upbringing, not the Dowagers.
Portrait of Tung Chih Emperior aka.Tongzhi Emperor by George Stuart
Tung Chih  (Tongzhi) Emperor

As Tung Chih grew to his teenage years, he became a willful degenerate just like his father. The Dowagers had to step aside when Tung Chih became sixteen. However, they did help select a wife for him. In 1875, his weakened physique succumbed to disease and he died – apparently childless.

Tzu Hsi was always the more assertive of the two Empress Dowagers. With the death of her emperor son, she now promoted the succession of her own nephew. Prince Kung and the council agreed to this, and the two dowagers were again Co-Dowagers, Co-Mothers, and Co-Regents. 

The nephew was just three years old. Tzu Hsi thus embarked on her second regency. Tzu An was likely bullied into cooperation, as she usually went along with Prince Kung and Tzu Hsi. 


Portrait of Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi aka. Cixi by George Stuart
Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (Cixi)
It should be pointed out that at the beginning of their joint rule, the Dowagers were given equally lavish apartments in all royal residences, equal servants, honors and incomes to go with it! Tzu An was never belittled or pushed aside. Regardless of how they felt about each other, they always manifested an air of mutual respect and courtesy. When Tzu An died in 1881, she was accorded all the honors due her – and Tzu Hsi wept, suitably.

All through the 1870s, 80s and 90s, the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi gradually became the more assertive of the two women. She was pushed forward by Prince Kung, and later by Li Hung Chang. The public came to see her as their ruler, even though she was acting as regent for the actual ruler, the Emperor. 


Portrait of Kuang Hsu aka. Guangxu Emperor bu George Stuart
Kuang Hsu aka. Guangxu Emperor
When her nephew came of age as the Kuang Hsu aka, Guangxu Emperor, Tzu Hsi continued to be the central figure at the Manchu court. 

The real controllers of China’s destiny in this era were the European Powers. Li Hung Chang was the negotiator-in-chief between Beijing and the foreigners. While he was telling the Empress Dowager of his undying loyalty to the Manchus, he was allowing the foreign press to believe the very worst of her. 

 PuYi aka. Xuantong Emperor
By the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Tzu Hsi was perceived an absolute monster by the western press. Although the perception was false, she indeed did loath the Europeans and Christians for understandable reason. The only exposure she had to westerners was of foreign armies raping, pillaging and destroying everything they could get their hands on in China. What else could she think?

By the time of her death in 1908, Tzu Hsi had named the child Puyi, son of Prince Chun as Xuantong Emperor, and the last emperor of imperial China.

At the end,  public opinion in the west had changed somewhat. The Chinese subjects of the Manchus were calling her “Old Buddha,” and looked upon her as their ruler. During the last decade of her life, Tzu Hsi  had done her utmost to change the miserable image she had been given by western reporters around 1900. 

Nevertheless, it is only in our time that the truth of her life and times has been told with any accuracy. The real story is every bit as thrilling and dramatic as the sordid tales of yesteryear. The Dowager Empress of China has become an icon for all time to come.

             - G. S. Stuart

For more information see the Chinese Group on our website - HISTORICAL FIGURES FOUNDATION




Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Song of the Open Road

If it were never again necessary for me to operate a motor vehicle, it would be too soon. Unlike the average American male, my masculinity is not dependent on sitting behind the wheel of an automobile.

Perhaps this is an odd observation for a child born to parents who were both lifelong car owners and devotees of vehicular freedom. My father, at the time he married my mother, was immersed in flying. Airplanes that came out of World War I were the latest toys for young thrill seekers. And like many others, he was also heavily into motor racing (those gigantic vehicles of the late ‘teens), and he also went about on motorcycles. I still recall my first ride with him on one of those monsters.

I also recall the spacious elegance of those pre-Depression motor carriages with plush seat coverings, polished nickel plating, window straps, and all. While my father’s exploits as a ‘pilot’ and race car driver soon vanished after my birth (my mother’s insistence that he remain alive for the good of his family), he never lost his interest in flight. He went on to become an aeronautical engineer with his teenage chum John Northrup. As for my mother, she continued to drive until she was bedridden in old age.

Both my parent encouraged me to drive and both attempted driving lessons; unfortunately, tempers easily flared with my efforts. They gave up and left me content to be driven around. Of course, this led to embarrassing moments as I entered my late teens; nevertheless, I was always able to find peers who had mastered the wheel at an early age There was no problem with double dating, for someone else always had a car.

The whole business of my driving was somewhat delayed. Living in New York City and Washington, D.C. did not depend on owning a vehicle. There were never any garages around and besides, there was no place to park. Of course, I had begun driving and had my own vehicle by the time I went away to college, but I was never wedded to any car and only had to keep one when I finally settled down in California. 

I have driven ever since, and I am to this moment a good driver. I am also convinced that the Department of Motor Vehicles and car insurance companies have given me all manner of little discounts for not running over people or crashing myself repeatedly. I believe I also receive a discount for being very, very old and not being a menace on the highways!
Driving companions.
My antipathy toward driving resulted from my so-called career choice. In 1959, I embarked upon a career as a monologist. A public speaker necessarily has to do some traveling. Along with all the stage equipment and four or five boxes of Historical Figures, I traveled from one side of the country to the other several times. Eventually, most of my gigs were in California, and I found the back roads of this great state fascinating ....perhaps not at the moment I was driving them, but later on.

The peak speaking season for the clubs I worked was late September to late May and, as a result, involved significant winter driving. My sole goal was to get to the next engagement on time and with all the gear intact. I had no time for stopping at national parks or other forms of diversion; I just needed to get to the next town as soon as possible.
Historical Figures traveled first class between gigs.
For several years, I drove a magnificent hearse that was purchased for its “load space.” It required special snow chains for the big wheels and always a protected garage at the destination. I’ll never forget the horrors of those winter drives. Gas shortages required carrying five extra five-gallon tanks of gas. (Try not to run into anything...think of the explosion...) I once had to cross the Columbia River far above The Dalles, with its great rapids. There was no bridge at that time, so my big car was hauled by cables on a tiny raft across the roaring February floods of that river. I can’t remember when I was so terrified.

Another time in late winter while I was driving from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the motor began to falter as I rounded the bottom of Lake Michigan. My fear of being marooned in the winter wilderness kept me in a state of panic until I limped into a Grand Rapids garage late that evening.

On another occasion I did run out of gas between Seattle and Spokane, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This was a huge dilemma. I feared to leave the Figures and hitch a ride to the nearest town. I tried to stop a truck for some extra gas, only to be reminded that the truck ran on diesel. Naturally, I had no phone to call the Auto Club, but finally I gave in, hitched a ride to the nearest settlement, filled my gas can, and hired someone to drive me back to the hearse.

These types of experiences happened all the time on long winter trips and were nerve wracking. Furthermore, I knew that all that sitting and the greasy meals at the end of the days would turn most men into lard buckets, but in my case, I was down to 178 pounds. Just a few seasons of this routine with worry about wrecks, worry about the Figures, worry about being late...all this and more put me off driving forever.

By the end of my thirty years as an itinerant speaker, I was hiring a driver and a rental van. I had several drivers in those final years, all pretty good men. They doubled as assistants in setting up for the show, so this was a big load off my mind and energies.
 
Larger cast required larger vehicles, drivers.
I always enjoyed the speaking and showing the Figures, but I hated the traveling. As it was, I never saw any of the wonderful sights that our country is so rightfully proud of. It was always eyes on the pavement or what glimpses I could get being driven to the next location. I was probably a backseat driver as well. I’d done so much of it, I knew better. Somehow it never came to blows, and we always got to our destinations in one piece.

Nowadays, I just turn the driving over to whoever is at the wheel. Of course, I do select the drivers with some care. If I never get behind the wheel again, it will be too soon. So far, so good!
                                 - G. S. Stuart

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Youthful Encounter with a Royal Palace  
George Stuart remembers his lifelong affinity 
for Versailles and the royal residents.
Palace of Versailles today.
When I was quite young, I had my first encounter with the Palace of Versailles and an introduction to its most famous occupants: Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. 
Years later in 1951, I constructed the first pair of what were to be called the Historical Figures: a depiction of Louis XVI in his robes of state followed later by a second figure that was to be his queen, Marie Antoinette. 
Archduchess Maria Antonia (c. 1765)
One of Empress Maria Theresa’s fifteen children and youngest daughter, she was raised in the imperial splendors of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. She had little formal education except some music and art. She was contracted in marriage to the heir to the French throne when she was fourteen but looked forward to a future at the famous French court. 
As the years passed, I became better educated about my subjects, especially Marie Antoinette, so her history evolved into an ideal “story.” I did realize that the average American audience knew little history, although with a secondary education, one probably heard of Lincoln, George Washington, and maybe King George III of England.  
Marie Antoinette at Trianon (c. 1780)
After a childless marriage of nearly eight years, she bore a daughter in 1778 followed by a son in 1781. Her husband, Louis XVI, gave her a private palace (Petit Trianon) and a farm. She and her friends withdrew to these getaways to escape both the duties of court and the public. The Queen was able to fulfill her idolized dream of living like a “simple peasant” especially at the farm, albeit a very expensive “simplicity.

One might also have read of  Marie Antoinette, as her name was the personification of the frivolous, besotted, self-indulgent queen famous, “Let them eat cake!” She lost her head when the people rose up against the cruel royal oppressors, so while these made good stories, the descriptions of the queen were false. 

Over the years, the monologs evolved, and I discovered that “real” and factual history made for the best story. A case in point is the accusation that she arranged the purchase of an exorbitantly priced diamond necklace --she did no such thing. 
Marie Antoinette in Ball Gown (c.1790)
The Historical Figure of Marie Antoinette went through some seven revisions and improvements over the years; so did the clarity of her life experience. These real stories turned her into a genuine human being with barely above average talents. In truth, either by luck or circumstance, she simply found herself caught in a critical moment of history.
Marie Antoinette with her children from painting by Vigee Le Brun.
It is easy to look back now and see what opportunities Marie Antoinette seemingly had at her disposal to change history. Regrettably, she was tried by those circumstances, found wanting, and finally she paid with a miserable death! Fortunately, it’s easy for listeners of her story to see themselves in her shoes and imagine what they might have done in a similar situation. Now that’s what makes for a good story!
If there was ever a character from modern history who is relevant today, it is Marie Antoinette. Her story parallels the attitudes and actions of so many Americans. First, she was born surrounded by excess and privilege. As a teenage princess, she was contracted in marriage to the heir to the French throne. Then in 1774, she and her husband became king and queen of France when they were only 18 years old. At this time, France was descending into financial disaster. To be more exact, the treasury was bankrupt, and the government was unable to raise revenues because the privileged classes refused to contribute funds to the national emergency.
Marie Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, was a well-meaning man who believed that his duty was to preserve his inherited regime. His inclinations were often progressive and generous, but he was surrounded by reactionaries who were threatened by any form of taxation. For more than half a century, the intellectuals and progressives of France discussed the possibility for a constitutional government, but nothing changed. Even though Marie and Louis had all the information and methods on hand to make constructive change, they did nothing. Instead, the queen chose to ignore these issues and did not encourage her husband to use his role as king to guide change.
On the other hand, King Louis did appoint excellent ministers who strove to solve the fiscal difficulties. Unfortunately, when they presented reforms, the reactionaries around the king urged him to reject them. This is precisely where the Queen could have stepped in to strengthen King Louis’ will, but she did nothing!
King Louis XVI failed to act in the face of change.
History reveals the disastrous results of inaction along with the horrors that followed the King and Queen. Like the reactionaries of the past, many Americans today choose to close their eyes to reform because of fear of change or of a diminished lifestyle.
Marie Antoinette - The Widow Capet (c.1793)
The revolution of 1789 overwhelmed the royal family, and they were imprisoned in 1790. Their titles were abolished, as was the monarchy, and the former king was tried for treason and beheaded. Marie Antoinette was separated from her children and also placed on trial. She had become the primary object of scorn, and her trial attempted to publicly humiliate her. Although this effort failed, she was still sentenced to death in October 1793.
Marie Antoinette at Guillotine (10/16/1793)
Following eight weeks of vicious treatment at the hands of her jailers, the former queen was made to dress in white (widow’s clothing might attract sympathy) and paraded through the streets of Paris in a hay cart to the place of execution. As further humiliation, her hands were tied behind her back and her hair hacked off to prevent the blade from “fouling.” She comported herself with great dignity that day and died with remarkable courage. She had become the symbol of all that was corrupt with the “ancient regime.”
Furthermore, they often refuse to vote, do not inform themselves on the issues, or they listen to demigods who pander to their worst inclinations. And unfortunately, like the people of France, this lack of action only hastens the possible ruin of the nation. Perhaps taking a lesson from the not-so-distant past and paying attention to the real issues is the key to staying informed and… keeping our heads!                                           - G.S. Stuart


PUBLISHER’S NOTE
We are pleased to welcome aboard Margaret de la M, who recently volunteered to edit Mr. Stuart’s articles for Figuratively Speaking Newsletter, our Blog and other media outlets.  Ms. De la M teaches college level English writing skills, so we will all benefit!  This article is their first collaboration, with many interesting works to follow.   —Leroy Becker