Spring 2016 Newsletter

Have you hugged a national park lately? You’ll feel the love in “See America,” a collection of 75 national park posters by contemporary artists inspired by the WPA. The handsome hardcover book can be all yours when you give to the Living New Deal! You’ll find national parks and a lot more to love in our newsletter. There’s George Grant, the official photographer of the national parks who chronicled the work of CCC; long lost  New Deal models of national park archeological sites; and a Yiddish slant on the Federal Theater—(So what’s not to like?) We’re especially proud to bring you an article by our esteemed Advisory Council member William Leuchtenburg, dean of all things New Deal. The professor provides a historical marker on the POTUS v SCOTUS standoff.

Thank you for sharing our newsletter, liking us on Facebook, and helping spread the word: We need a new New Deal! Thank you for your support.

In this Issue:


When FDR Clashed with the Supreme Court—and Lost

Chief Judge Charles Hughes administers the oath of office to FDR in 1933.

Roosevelt Inauguration 1933
Chief Justice Charles Hughes administers the oath of office to FDR in 1933.  Source

As the first election returns reached his family estate in Hyde Park, New York, on a November night in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaned back in his wheelchair, his signature cigarette holder at a cocky angle, blew a smoke ring and cried “Wow!” He had been swept into a second term with the largest popular vote in history at the time.

The outpouring of ballots for the Democratic ticket reflected the enormous admiration for what FDR had achieved in his first term. When he was inaugurated in March 1933 one-third of the workforce was jobless, industry all but paralyzed, farmers desperate, and most of the banks shut down. In his first 100 days he had put through a series of measures that lifted the nation’s spirits.

In 1933 workers and businessmen marched in spectacular parades to demonstrate their support for the National Recovery Administration (NRA) Roosevelt’s agency for industrial mobilization. Farmers were grateful for subsidies dispensed by the newly created Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Over the ensuing three years, the cavalcade of alphabet agencies had continued: SEC, REA, CCC, NYA, the WPA, and more. A second burst of legislation in 1935 brought the Social Security Act.

During the 1936 campaign the president’s motorcade was mobbed by well- wishers wherever he traveled. His landslide victory signified the people’s verdict on the New Deal. The jubilation was tempered, however, by an inescapable fear—that the U.S. Supreme Court might continue to undo Roosevelt’s accomplishments.

From the outset of his presidency, FDR had known that four of the justices—Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland and Willis Van Devanter—would vote to invalidate almost all of the New Deal. They were referred to in the press as “the Four Horsemen,” after the allegorical figures of the Apocalypse associated with death and destruction.

In the spring of 1935, a fifth justice, Hoover-appointee Owen Roberts—at 60 the youngest man on the Supreme Court—began casting his swing vote with them to create a conservative majority. During the next year, these five judges, occasionally in concert with others— especially Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes—struck down more significant acts of Congress than at any other time in the nation’s history, before or since.

010In May 1935 it shot down the NRA, the industrial recovery program. Seven months later, it annihilated FDR’s farm program by determining that the AAA was unconstitutional. In another case, the court construed the Interstate Commerce clause so narrowly that not even so vast an industry as coal mining fell within the government’s power to regulate.

These decisions drew biting criticism from inside and outside the court. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, a Republican who had been Calvin Coolidge’s attorney general, denounced Roberts’ opinion striking down the farm law. Many farmers were incensed. On the night following Roberts’ opinion, a passerby in Ames, Iowa, discovered life-size effigies of the six majority opinion justices hanged by the side of a road.

092Fury intensified when in June 1936 the court, by 5 to 4, struck down a New York state law providing a minimum wage for women and child workers. The ruling persuaded Roosevelt that he had to act to curb the court. It had already torpedoed the two principal recovery projects of his first term. It would soon rule on the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), regarded by the administration as a factory workers’ Magna Carta.

The president recognized, however, that he must tread carefully, for despite widespread disgruntlement, most Americans believed the Supreme Court sacrosanct. He charged Attorney General Homer Cummings to come up with a plan to ensure a more favorable response to the New Deal from the court. These explorations proceeded stealthily; the president never mentioned the court during his campaign for reelection.

In the days following the 1936 election, FDR and Cummings put the final touches on an audacious plan to reconfigure the court, capitalizing on the public’s concern about the ages of the justices. At the time it was the most elderly court in the nation’s history, with six of the justices 70 or older. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court itself had any inkling of what was afoot.

On February 5, 1937, FDR unleashed a thunderbolt. He asked Congress to empower him to appoint an additional justice for any member of the court over age 70 who did not retire. He sought to name as many as six additional Supreme Court justices as well as up to 44 judges to the lower federal courts, contending that a shortage of judges had resulted in delays to litigants because federal court dockets had become overburdened. It touched off the greatest struggle in our history among the three branches of government.

The controversy dominated newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts, and newsreels, and spurred countless rallies in towns coast to coast. Members of Congress were so deluged by mail that they could not read most of it, let alone respond.

Although the country divided evenly on the issue, the opposition drew far more attention. Still, pundits expected the legislation to be enacted—a prospect that drove opponents to a fury of activity: protest meetings, bar association resolutions, and thousands of letters to editors. Roosevelt’s foes accused him of mimicking Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. His supporters responded that at a time when democracy was under fire, it was vital to show the world that representative government was not hobbled by judges.

Roosevelt’s adversaries advanced their case in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The most dramatic testimony came from an unexpected participant: the Chief Justice of the United States. In a letter read aloud at the hearing, Charles Evans Hughes blew gaping holes in the president’s claim that the court was behind in its schedule and that additional (and younger) justices would improve its performance.

Almost no legislator really liked FDR’s scheme, but most Democratic senators thought they could not justify to their constituents defying the immensely popular president even though there was every reason to suppose it would soon strike down cherished new laws, including the Social Security Act. Most observers expected Roosevelt’s proposal to be adopted. The court, however, would spring some surprises of its own.

On March 29, by 5 to 4, in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, it validated a minimum wage law from the state of Washington, a statute essentially no different from the New York state act it had struck down only months before. Two weeks later, the court sustained the National Labor Relations Act. On May 24, the same court that in 1935 had declared that Congress, in enacting a pension law had exceeded its powers, found the Social Security statute constitutional.

The Hughes Court, 1932–1937. Front row: Justices Brandeis and Van Devanter, Chief Justice Hughes, and Justices McReynolds and Sutherland. Back row: Justices Roberts, Butler, Stone, and Cardozo.

Supreme Court 1932
The Hughes Court, 1932–1937. Front row: Justices Brandeis and Van Devanter, Chief Justice Hughes, and Justices McReynolds and Sutherland. Back row: Justices Roberts, Butler, Stone, and Cardozo.

This set of decisions came about because one justice, Owen Roberts, had switched his vote. Scholars have speculated as to why, but the pressure exerted by a popular president’s court-packing bill may very likely have been influential. Never again would the court strike down a New Deal law.

Ultimately, the Senate buried FDR’s bill. Why continue the fight after the court was rendering the kinds of decisions the president had been hoping for? The nasty fight over court packing turned out better than might have been expected. The end of the bill meant that the institutional integrity of the Supreme Court had been preserved—its size had not been manipulated for political or ideological ends. On the other hand, Roosevelt claimed that though he had lost the battle, he had won the war. He had preserved his New Deal.

William Leuchtenburg is a member of the Living New Deal Advisory Board. He is widely regarded as the dean of New Deal historians. His books include The Perils of Prosperity, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and The FDR Years: Roosevelt and His Legacy. He taught history at Columbia University for thirty years. Today he is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina. He served as an advisor to Ken Burns on the PBS series “The Roosevelts.”

William Leuchtenburg is a member of the Living New Deal Advisory Board. He is widely regarded as the dean of New Deal historians. His books include The Perils of Prosperity, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and The FDR Years: Roosevelt and His Legacy. He taught history at Columbia University for thirty years. Today he is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina. He served as an advisor to Ken Burns on the PBS series “The Roosevelts.” Email

A version of Dr. Leuchtenburg’s article appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in May 2005.

So What’s the Deal? Yiddish at the Federal Theater Project

David Pinski’s 1937 satire about a shopkeeper extolled labor unions.

Yiddish Play Poster
David Pinski’s 1937 satire about a shopkeeper extolled labor unions.

When the Federal Theatre Project was created in 1936 as one of the New Deal’s programs to put unemployed Americans back to work, it became a virtual national theatre. Hallie Flanagan directed the Federal Theatre Project, but different cities had their own district directors so that creativity would be decentralized and local.

Theatre units in cities throughout the country staged classics—Shakespeare and the Greeks— as well as plays by new writers like Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw. But the Federal Theatre Project also endeavored to serve diverse cultures, enabling immigrant actors to perform for audiences that understood them. Its repertoire included performances in French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish—the language Eastern European Jews had brought with them to America and continued to speak in the 1930s.

The Yiddish Unit of the Federal Theatre created some new and adventurous stage productions that remain largely unknown to theatre historians because the plays were neither translated nor published.

David Pinski’s 1937 satire, The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper, for example, is the story of a sweatshop tailor who dreamed of owning a restaurant and grocery. Pinski’s Yiddish farce showed Sam, the tailor, struggling to keep his new premises open. Eventually, in a happy ending, Sam returns to his tailor shop and joins a union of tailors that gives him job security in a time of economic hardship.  New York Times critic William Schack found Pinski’s “genial parable” to be “playfully written and performed as an expressionist romp.”

While Pinski is regarded as one of Yiddish theatre’s most important playwrights, this work, which premiered under FTP auspices in Chicago on February 25, 1938, is rarely discussed in print or performed. In 2016, with union membership in decline, it might be worth reviving Pinski’s script for new audiences.

Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) productions were performed in several languages, including Yiddish. Odets’ “Awake and Sing” remains popular today.

Poster Awake and Sing
Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) productions were performed in several languages, including Yiddish. Odets’ “Awake and Sing” remains popular today.

Other Federal Theatre plays performed in Yiddish included a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, and Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing—both of which were also widely seen by English-language audiences. The plays had special appeal to Yiddish-speaking immigrants because they dealt with poverty and political repression as Jews had suffered in Eastern Europe before they moved to America.  Another of the Yiddish Unit’s innovative productions was a vaudeville revue titled We Live and Laugh, featuring a cast of one hundred Yiddish actors. Like Pinski’s, the work was never published, though it can be found in the National Archives.

The democratic and inclusive nature of the Federal Theater Project welcomed Americans to theater—many for the first time. There were children’s plays, puppet shows, and a touring circus. A Negro Unit served African–American actors and audiences at a time when it was particularly difficult for Black artists to find stage work.

Admission prices were kept low – or not charged – because the government had placed the actors and artists on its payroll.

Congress had reservations about the content of a few of the works, which were condemned at hearings in Washington. The Federal Theater Project ultimately was defunded. But the plays it produced were gratefully attended by millions of people across the country.

Joel Schechter teaches theatre history at San Francisco State University.  More details on the plays discussed here and other Yiddish drama can be found in his book Messiahs of 1933.  (Temple University Press, 2008). Email

George Grant, Photographer of National Parks

Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933

Lake McDonald barber
Haircut at CCC Camp, Glacier National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

More than eighty years after President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), it remains one of the most memorable of the New Deal programs. Endearingly called FDR’s “Tree Army,” the CCC was key to an unprecedented era of environmental restoration and parks development that took place in the 1930s. Photographs of CCC “boys” at work and enjoying camp life played an important role in promoting both the parks and the CCC’s achievements.

The task of documenting the CCC, especially in western national parks, belonged to George Alexander Grant. A Pennsylvania native, Grant fell in love with the West’s rugged landscapes while stationed in Wyoming during World War I. Laboring in eastern factories after the war, Grant yearned to return to the West. He landed a seasonal job at Yellowstone in 1922. There he picked up a camera—perhaps for the first time—and produced images that impressed the park’s Superintendent Horace Albright. Grant reluctantly turned down a coveted ranger position at Yellowstone in hopes of working for the Park Service as a photographer. Six years of correspondence with Albright–and Albright’s appointment to Director of the National Park Service in 1929– led to Grant’s becoming the Park Service’s first staff photographer. Just months later, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression.

Death Valley, CCC Camp

Funeral Range
Death Valley, CCC Camp
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

By 1933 Grant was the chief photographer of the National Park Service and on the front lines of a golden age for national parks.  That year marked the creation of the CCC and FDR’s executive order nearly doubling the size of the parks system through the addition of national monuments, battlefields, and historic sites. Grant would spend the next seven years chronicling the CCC’s work in national parks. His finely detailed images depict men laboring on the shores of Jackson Lake in the Grand Tetons; pausing for lunch amid the grandeur of Glacier National Park; restoring historic fortifications at Vicksburg National Military Park; clearing snow from roadways in Rocky Mountain National Park; and tackling camp chores like laundry and getting a haircut.

CCC Clearing Snow in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933

CCC Clearing Snow
Rocky Mountain National Park, 1933
Photo Credit: George A. Grant

Like the photographs of his friend and contemporary, Ansel Adams, Grant’s vivid black-and-white photographs were seen by millions of Americans. Through these images, Americans could see the results of the CCC’s labors and the physical and emotional sustenance the work provided its enrollees.  Yet, Grant has remained virtually unknown because nearly all of his published photographs were simply credited “National Park Service.”

The Park Service’s 2016 centennial year is an ideal time to remember the contributions of this unknown elder in the field of outdoor and landscape photography.

CCC Crew lunchtime at Glacier National Park

CCC Crew
Lunchtime at Glacier National Park
Photo Credit: George Alexander Grant

Ren and Helen Davis are writers and photographers based in Atlanta, Georgia. Their newest book, Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service (University of Georgia Press, 2015, $39.95) complements the National Park Service Centennial commemorations. The Davises have co- authored six books, including Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks, published in 2011.

CWA Models Found in Museum Attic

Model of a Kiva

CWA Model
Model of a Kiva  Source
Photo Credit: Museum of the American Indian

Attics sometimes become unintended archives. At the Museum of the American Indian in Novato, California, director Colleen Hicks and archeologist Teresa Saltzman made a serendipitous discovery early this year. In January 2016, they found nine models of ancient Southwestern Puebloan structures in the museum’s attic—dusty and forgotten for more than 35 years.

Inscriptions on the back of the handmade models revealed that they were created in 1934 by seven different artists working for the Civil Works Administration— one of many New Deal programs to put unemployed people to work during the Great Depression. In this case, the artists were commissioned for educational and documentary purposes as part of a reconstruction project at Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico, an important preserve of Ancestral Puebloan structures.

CWA model of an ancient Puebloan dwelling

Pueblo Model
CWA model of an ancient Puebloan dwelling  Source
Photo Credit: Museum of the American Indian

The models, constructed of plaster of Paris, wood, and stone, weigh about five pounds are about 9-inches high and 8-inches deep. Intricately detailed, the models represent archeological sites in national parks, including Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Aztec Ruins.

Some of the models, like that of the Pueblo Bonito, perfectly mirror structures at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a place many Puebloans today consider their ancestral roots. Beginning around 850 AD, native people built a highly developed society at Chaco Canyon. Many Pueblo people today take annual pilgrimages to these sites to honor their ancestors.

Signature on the back of a CWA model.

Inscription
Signature on the back of a CWA model.  Source
Photo Credit: Museum of the American Indian

Each model is dated and signed by the artist: Elizabeth Seabrook, Arthur Moore, Ruth Flores, Dick Dalryup, Bert Frost, Glen Berger, and Asa Putnam. But little is known about the models or the artists whose signatures they bear. The National Park Service has contacted museums around the country for any information about the CWA models, some of which are yet to be accounted for. They hope is to display them at the Aztec Ruins National Monument in honor of the National Park Service centenary this year.

Established 48 years ago as a repository for archeological artifacts from the indigenous Miwok people, the museum has evolved into an educational and cultural center for the Bay Area. The CWA models are part of the current exhibition of photographs of ancient Puebloan sites by California photographer Tom Benoit, on display through July 2016. www.marinindian.com

Colleen Hicks, MA, Executive Director, has been the Director of the Museum of the American Indian for 10 years. Teresa Saltzman, MA, is an archeologist and rock art specialist at the museum. Joshua Horowitz, Ph.D is on the museum’s Board of Advisors, and teaches history at Dominican University and San Francisco State University. Email

Edith Hamlin and Me

Edith Hamlin painting WPA mural at Mission High School.

Edie on Ladder
Edith Hamlin painting WPA mural at Mission High School.  Source
Photo Credit: Thunderbird Foundation

After I organized Coit Tower’s 50th anniversary celebration in San Francisco in 1984, Edith Ann Hamlin and I became good friends. During the next six years, I often visited her at her studio in the Excelsior District of San Francisco.

Hamlin was 82 then and had been part art of the California and Southwest art and scene for more than half a century. Her studio had a huge Hopi clay pot and several large woven Native American baskets. One of her large landscape paintings of the Southwest rested on a tall easel.

Born in Oakland, California, Hamlin’s interest in art began early in life on sketching trips with her father. She won a two-year scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, formerly the California School of Fine Arts, and was one of four students chosen to paint a mural on the school’s walls. By age 22, she knew she wanted to be a muralist.

Painter of the Desert

Painter of the Desert
Edith Hamlin portrait of her husband, artist Maynard Dixon.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Hamlin moved to New York to attend Columbia’s Teachers College, but when she heard there might be work for artists in San Francisco, she learned to drive and headed west in a Model A Ford—a trip that would cement her career as an artist.

Edie arrived in San Francisco in time to get the job— one of 26 artists to paint murals at the city’s landmark Coit Tower, the first Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Launched in 1933, PWAP hired artists for their abilities not their need for “relief.” Hamlin learned fresco painting on site. Her mural, “Sports and Hunting in California,” is on the tower’s second floor.

“Civilization Through the Arts and Crafts as Taught to the Neophyte Indians”

Mission High Mural
“Civilization Through the Arts and Crafts as Taught to the Neophyte Indians”
Photo Credit: Sally Swope

Three years after her Coit Tower commission, Hamlin got hired by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to paint two 8 by 24 foot murals in the library at San Francisco’s Mission High School. It was a prestigious assignment. The huge murals took Hamlin and four assistants a year to complete. Artist Maynard Dixon, whose studio was a few doors from Hamlin’s on Montgomery Street in the city’s bohemian North Beach district, helped Hamlin paint the faces of the Spanish conquistadors, missionaries, and indigenous people depicted in the Mission High murals.

Dixon and Hamlin shared a fascination with the Southwest and Native Americans. Following Dixon’s divorce from Dorothea Lange, he and Edie married and moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1939. They kept a summer home and studio in Mount Carmel, Utah, near Zion National Park until Dixon died in 1946. Edie recalled those years as the happiest of her life.

She returned to San Francisco where she continued to paint until her death in 1992. I’ll always remember our lively discussions, her warmth, and encouragement.

Sally Swope is a travel writer and author of My Shangri-La, My Adventures in Asia. She is a contributor to the Castro Courier in San Francisco. Email

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.