Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Special Edition: The Doughboy

This is, obviously, a pretty new blog covering a complex subject: the history of Southern California's forgotten French community.

I originally intended to write about people/places/things more or less in order, and had planned to make Jean Louis Vignes the focus of today's entry.

Vignes is far and away one of Frenchtown's most important figures. But he can wait a little longer.

There are three reasons for this:

1. Today is Memorial Day.

2. Pershing Square is getting a major renovation in the near future (from a Paris-based firm, no less).

3. Pershing Square is home to a very important, and widely ignored, war memorial.

As my dear readers will discover in future entries, LA's French community has a history of strong support for both France and the United States in times of war (by the way, can we please retire that stereotype already?). This was especially apparent during World War I.

The 1918 Los Angeles City Directory (i.e. phone book) lists French organizations of support: the French Ambulance Service is listed at the same address as the Alliance Francaise (still active today in a different location), and the French Society for Relief of Wounded Soldiers was just three blocks away. Since phone books tend to be compiled in advance, these organizations were likely founded in or before 1917, when the US entered World War I.

France's busiest supporter in Los Angeles at the time was very likely Lucien Napoleon Brunswig (who will get his own entry later). Born in Montmedy, France, Brunswig moved to Los Angeles in 1903 and founded a very successful pharmaceutical company.  He then went on to become the busiest pharmacist in the city's 234 years of history.

Besides running LA's largest wholesale medicinal supplier, Brunswig served as president of the Alliance Francaise, founded the Cercle Catholique Francaise (which aided new immigrants from France), and was active in the California State Society. During the war, his efforts included the American Committee for Devastated France and the Maisons-Claires (which supported 64 war orphans in Trinity-sur-Mer, France).

Brunswig took his efforts a step further by returning to war-torn France in 1917, spending eight months in the country and writing about the experience, in spite of being 63 years old. (Another French Angeleno, Georges Le Mesnager, juggled four jobs - vineyard owner, court translator, notary, and editor of the Francophone newspaper Le Progr├ęs - and stepped away to fight for France in World War I. He was 64 at the time - too old to be an officer - so he re-enlisted as a private. Le Mesnager later acted as a French army liaison to Gen. Pershing himself.)

In 1923, the Soldier Monument Committee of the Association of the Army of the United States was founded, with the goal of raising funds to erect a memorial to Los Angeles residents who had died in World War I. Lucien Brunswig served as vice chair of the Committee.

The statue, known as "The Doughboy", was commissioned from sculptor Humberto Pedretti and dedicated July 4, 1924, in Pershing Square (renamed in 1918; originally Los Angeles Park).

In 1927, the French Veterans of the World War added to the statue, giving it a bronze relief of a French helmet and an olive branch. Photos of the Doughboy (and the relief) can be seen here.

For his considerable efforts, Brunswig was awarded the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest order for both civil and military merits. Sadly, Brunswig did not live to see the Allied victory in World War II; he passed away in 1943.

I am not now, nor will I ever be, in the military. But I am a firm believer in showing appreciation for those who put themselves in harm's way to keep the rest of us safe.

Pershing Square has been widely disliked for quite some time now - not enough shade, not inviting, etc. I have seen Agence Ter's concept artwork for redeveloping the park, and I think it's going to be stunning.

But I am worried about the fate of the Doughboy.

In 1924, the Doughboy was installed at the park's northwest corner, meant to be its gateway work of art. Currently, it stands in the Palm Court.

Few modern-day Angelenos have any idea the statue is even there. I suspect the number who have taken the time to appreciate it is even lower. My dad, who attended USC and worked downtown for well over a decade, didn't know the Doughboy existed until I told him about it. My grandfather, a French-American war veteran (specifically, a tank commander in France under Patton) and a vocal believer in supporting other veterans, probably only saw it on a onetime visit to Pershing Square (which, to a family living in then-suburban Santa Monica, was a pretty scary neighborhood at the time).

Throw in the fact that horrible people like to vandalize war memorials, throw in the fact that irreplaceable works of art are too often destroyed on purpose, and add the fact that too many Angelenos know nothing about the city's frequently-erased history and don't care enough to learn about it.

I am very worried that the Doughboy won't survive the redevelopment of Pershing Square. And if any work of art should be in a park renamed for Gen. John J. Pershing, it's the Doughboy - a 92-year-old monument to the Angelenos who lost their lives in a terrible war. (Agence Ter's plans include a "sculptural promenade", but I have yet to see anything specific about the Doughboy.)

I will be unable to pay the Doughboy a visit today, as I must go to work and won't have time to go downtown. But if you can make it, leave a red poppy at the statue's base for me.

Incidentally, Remi Nadeau - one of the most important Angelenos you've never heard of (he will get a VERY long entry later) - lived across the street from Pershing Square. The Biltmore Hotel was built on the site of his former home. And to make things even more interesting...the land was part of the Bellevue Terrace tract, developed by French-Canadian mayor/entrpreneur Prudent Beaudry in the 1860s.

P.S. The former Alliance Francaise/French Ambulance Service building was replaced by the United Artists Theater, built in 1927. The site is currently Ace Hotel's Los Angeles location.

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