Robert Edsel Clarifies Several Points From Our Profile of Him

In our March issue, Brendan McNally profiled Robert Edsel, who received the Texas Medal of Arts for Literature for two books he has written about the Monuments Men. The Monuments Men were GIs who retrieved paintings and other cultural artifacts stolen by Hitler during World War II. Edsel says that Brendan got a few things wrong in his story. In a letter dated March 4, 2011, he outlined the errors:

I just returned to Dallas from the Texas Medal of Arts ceremony in Austin and have now had a chance to read Brendan McNally’s article. While most of the article is correct, there are several material errors, including quotes that are misattributed, that I wish to bring to your attention. These errors reflect poorly on several people and, for that reason, I hope you will post my reply online alongside the article and print it in your next available issue.

As a preface to my comments, you should know that I was asked to fact check 24 specific items prior to publication, which I did in an email to Ms. Krista Nightengale dated January 17. None of the errors in question pertain to those items I was asked to fact check. I was not provided an advance copy of the article, in part or whole, to fact check.

My comments are as follows:

1. I received the Texas Medal of Arts for Literature, i.e., for my work as author of two on the Monuments Men and my other efforts, through the Monuments Men Foundation, to bring visibility to their legacy. It is incorrect to say that my work “led to … a documentary film” as that film is based on the eponymous work of scholar Lynn Nicholas.

2. I believe the following quote is incorrect, or at a minimum was taken out of context (which was an expression made in a “tongue in cheek” manner, certainly not disrespectfully): “Who is this guy Edsel that he thinks he’s found a story that Stephen Ambrose missed, that Tom Brokaw missed, that everyone who has written about history has missed?” In fact, my two books about the Monuments Men are somewhere in the vicinity of the 120th and 130th books respectively making mention of the subject, to widely varying degrees of detail. (Lynn Nicholas’ book ranks about 70th chronologically on the list.) Others, including Dr. Michael Kurtz, Cay Friemuth, and even several of the Monuments Men themselves have written about these heroes’ exploits.

In an effort to explain why the publishing community was so disinterested in publishing my first book, Rescuing Da Vinci, I noted that some scholars believe that only historians, or those they perceive as fellow scholars, should be writing about history. I did use the example about Ambrose/Brokaw to make the point that just because two incredibly accomplished authors of immensely popular books about World War II hadn’t written about the Monuments Men by no means meant that the subject wasn’t a hugely important story. In a truly world war lasting six years, it would of course make sense that no single book or group of books could cover all the subjects or stories.

Anyone who has read either of my two books would certainly be aware of the lengthy bibliographies that are a vital part of our ongoing research. They would also know that in both books I pay particular homage to Lynn Nicholas for her work in this important area. At the time I believed that my explanation as to why the topic of the Monuments Men hadn’t been covered by the these great author’s works made a somewhat difficult point simpler to understand. Clearly, I miscalculated.

As an aside, as a trustee of the National World War II Museum (which was cofounded by Stephen Ambrose), and a member of its executive committee, I know all too well the enormous contribution both Ambrose and Tom Brokaw have made (and in the case of Tom Brokaw, continues to make) towards the success of this remarkable institution. I hold the careers of these remarkable Americans in the highest regard, as historians, authors, and patriots.

3. I did not say, “What I want now is for the president of the United States to acknowledge their contributions, before they’re all gone.” As D Magazine’s records will indicate, in an unrelated piece published last month, a different writer innocently, but in error, attributed the awarding of the 2007 National Humanities Medal to me personally. In an email dated January 27, I wrote the editor to correct that statement stating that, in fact, the president of the United States (George W. Bush) bestowed that enormous honor on the Monuments Men Foundation.

There are photographs of that even in our office that show me and four of the Monuments Men standing on the dais receiving the medal from President Bush, who to his full credit, DID acknowledge the contribution of the Monuments Men in the most generous and dignified of ways. There are also photographs from the ceremony held several months earlier at the United States Senate in honor of the joint resolutions of Congress that were passed as a direct result of the efforts of me and my small team even before the creation of the Monuments Men Foundation. These resolutions were the first recognition of the accomplishments of the Monuments Men — ever — and had the endorsement of the nation’s most prominent political leaders including senators Ted Kennedy and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and congresswomen Kay Granger and Louise Slaughter.

It was and remains my hope, and a key objective of the Monuments Men Foundation, that some president — I hope President Obama — will publicly state that our nation holds dear the protection of the cultural property of all nations and that the president will restate the very policy put into place by President Roosevelt and activated through field orders issued by General Eisenhower. Since World War II, no American president has stated these words. Our nation’s disastrous response to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003 is proof positive of why the Foundation remains determined to see that change.

4. My art history professor in Florence was a woman, not a man; her name is Elaine Ruffalo, a distinguished professor of art history at Syracuse University.

5. Finally, the writer’s comments — not my quotes — concerning the events pertaining to the creation of the documentary film The Rape of Europa are a material error and should be corrected. The quotes attributed to me ARE accurate: “So I flew to Washington and knocked on the author’s door. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Robert Edsel. I really like your book, and I think a documentary should be made of it.” “Oh?” she said. “What do you know about making documentaries?” “Actually, I don’t know the first thing about making documentaries,” I told her. “But I do know about getting things done.”

However, the writer’s conclusion — not a quote from me — that “they were bogged down with all kinds of production problems” is imprecise at best, and the next statement, “Edsel stepped in and largely took over the film,” is flatly wrong. I did not say or infer that, nor did that occur.

Actual Films is the film company with whom Lynn Nicholas had already contracted to make a documentary of her book. It was Lynn Nicholas who urged me to contact the filmmakers and meet with them to move the project along as she told me at that time that “nothing seems to be happening.”

My initial efforts to reach an agreement with Actual Films failed in 2001, as did Actual Films’ effort to obtain a lead grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the film. In 2003 I was contacted by Actual Films and, to my surprise, invited to reconsider my involvement in the project. The significant event that had occurred in the interim was approval by the National Endowment for the Humanities of a second grant request, authorized by the very person who was most instrumental in recommending to the president that the Monuments Men Foundation receive the National Humanities Medal, Dr. Bruce Cole, widely considered one of the nation’s great scholars in addition to being an accomplished author himself. Dr. Cole was also the most longstanding chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in its history, serving almost eight years.

I accepted the invitation of Actual Films. An agreement was signed; I became one of the film’s financial contributors and coproducers; the film was made, and the rest is, as they say, history. While I assisted in various aspects of the production of the film, I certainly did not take over the film. The team at Actual Films made a wonderful documentary that deservingly received a great deal of critical acclaim.

D Magazine is a fine publication. I was honored that it was interested in profiling the story of the Monuments Men and the work of the Monuments Men Foundation. I regret that despite his best intentions, Brendan McNally’s article contained inaccuracies in the areas that I have described. Thank you for the great work your publication provides to the Dallas community and for your attention to these matters.


Robert M. Edsel


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