National Geographic : 1963 Jun
Escorting Mona Lisa to America BY EDWARD T. FOLLIARD When the world's most famous portraitvisited the United States, a 28-year dream came true for this veteran White House reporter of the Washington Post PARIS WAS in a ferment the day I ar rived, and I had had something to do with it. One of the most beautiful and best-loved ladies in the city was about to leave on a long ocean voyage-not a thing for Parisians to take lightly. The lady was Leonardo da Vinci's master piece, the Mona Lisa, most famous portrait ever painted. Though her beauty was un dimmed by age, it was undeniable that she was more than 450 years old and therefore fragile. The Paris newspaper Le Figaro pro tested that the trip might ruin her, and a radio commentator warned that "American gangsters might kidnap her." Lady of the Louvre Sails West But by midweek it became official. "The French Government," a communique an nounced, "is confiding the painting of Leo nardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa, to the Presi dent of the United States for several weeks." For me, the hope of half a lifetime was being realized. You may wonder what interest a Washing ton newspaper reporter who usually covers the White House could possibly have in the Mona Lisa coming to Washington. The story, and the interest, began 28 years ago, when Andrew W. Mellon, former Secretary of the Treasury and one of the world's richest men, told me of his plan to build a magnificent art gallery for the Nation. His vision came true in only seven years. It became the beautiful National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. Mine took longer: I yearned for the day when great art from foreign museums would be shown in our National Gallery-specifi cally and particularly the Mona Lisa. This became almost an obsession with me, and in 1948-after the famous German col lection of works by Rembrandt, Rubens, 838 Raphael, and Titian had been exhibited in Washington-I wrote to my friend Henri Bonnet, the French Ambassador, to ask if we could borrow the Mona Lisa. The ambassa dor could give me no encouragement. Fourteen years later I was still trying. On May 11, 1962, Andre Malraux, French Minis ter of Cultural Affairs, was guest of honor at an Overseas Writers luncheon in Washington, and I asked him the same question. He did give me encouragement, a lot of it. President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy had exhibited an almost unprecedented interest in the cultural life of the country. The great in fluence of the White House was on my side. And now at last, after eight months of negotiations between Washington and Paris, not only was Mona Lisa coming to America, but I was in Paris to be one of her escorts and to cover her trip as I usually cover the trav els of Presidents. Officials of the French Line arranged for the great lady to travel on the France,in first class cabin M-79. The adjoining cabins were assigned to around-the-clock guards and prin cipal officials sent with her-Jean Chatelain, Director of French Museums, and Maurice Serullaz, Curator of the Louvre. I had cabin M-120, not very far away. The first evening, after talks with M. Chatelain and M. Serullaz, I wirelessed a dispatch that the masterpiece was finally on the way. Then, looking ahead, I realized that I had a prob lem. My editors had asked me to wireless a Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa remains "the subtlest homage that genius has ever paid to a once living face," in the words of Andre Malraux. Wrote Walter Pater: "Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least." CAMERACLIX © N.G.S.