Today in History: Dec. 11

The Mona Lisa (above) was found on this date 103 years ago. The painting, already one of the most famous in the world, had been stolen two years earlier from its spot on a wall in the Musée du Louvre in Paris by an Italian worker, Vincenzo Peruggia, who later claimed that he stole it to return one of Italy’s most famous works to its home country.

The real story was less patriotic than that and more banal: the Mona Lisa was the only painting that Peruggia could fit under his arm, as he was only 5’3″. Further, he did not know that Leonardo da Vinci himself had given the painting to his French patron, the King of France, Francis I, so it belonged in the Louvre and nowhere else. And, of course, he stole it for money: Peruggia tried to sell the painting, and he even called the Mona Lisa his “lottery ticket” in a letter home.

For two years, the Mona Lisa served as the thief’s coffee table in his apartment, where it was covered only by a thin blanket.

Because Peruggia had worked at the Louvre when the theft took place, detectives interviewed him one day at his home. He greeted them, they entered, and they placed their hats and gloves and the cups of tea that Peruggia graciously served them on his living room table, which was the Mona Lisa. They did not know how close they were to discovering—and even damaging!—the most famous painting in the world.

There is a good documentary about the theft and the story of Peruggia’s daughter, whom the filmmakers intrviewed: Mona Lisa Is Missing.

* * * *
King Edward VIII abdicated his throne 80 years ago today. He made a broadcast from Windsor Castle on the BBC. Because he had signed the Instrument of Abdication and was now the former king, he is introduced by Sir John Reith in the recording below as “His Royal Highness Prince Edward”:

Edward said: “You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the Throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the Empire which as Prince of Wales, and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve. But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

* * * *
Hank Williams made his recording debut with Sterling Records 70 years ago today. It came three months after he had been rejected as a performer by the Grand Ole Opry. He recorded “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul,” “Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door),” and “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels,” and “Calling You,” heard here:

* * * *
Joe DiMaggio announced his retirement from baseball 65 years ago today. An encounter I had with Joe DiMaggio:

Joe DiMaggio took a seat behind a card table on a stage in the school auditorium in Albany, NY; a line of autograph collectors assembled on the right side, at the three-step stairs that are on both sides of a school stage; they had paid some eight dollars or so a pop to bring a piece of paper (purchased there as well) up onto the stage, where they would have their few moments with the Yankee Clipper.

Those on the single-file line were to make their way across the stage and down the opposite side where the lucky purchasers of a shared moment with “The Great DiMaggio” would file back down onto the sales floor. A bizarre graduation of sorts: an encounter with Joe DiMaggio in person and then diploma’ed with an autograph for life. My friend and I, both of us too poor to afford the extra money for the autograph and shared moment, considered it luck enough to be in the same space as DiMaggio. So close to him. Or so we told ourselves.

From the open floor, where the vendors had set up their tables of team yearbooks and media guides from past seasons and complete sets of baseball cards, an old man yelled up at the stage (he was maybe ten feet from DiMaggio). He had not left his winter coat in his car, unlike most everyone else, so he looked like he had wandered in, rather than paid five dollars to get in—baseball card shows, where you pay money for the privilege to spend money. He looked like he had wandered in. “Hey Joe! Joe!”

Joe DiMaggio looked up. “Hi.” A little wary, but not worried-seeming. Quizzical. “Howareyou.” A statement, not a question, and he looked back down to his autographing duties.

“Do you remember” so-and-so? the old man inquired. “He used to work at” a street corner somewhere in the Bronx.

DiMaggio looked up again, said “Suresure,” one syllable, and nodded his head in a way that communicated to all nearby that he had no idea what the old man was asking but that we around him should not mind. He looked back down at his autographing duties. The old man continued, told Joe that the other party was doing well, even now in old age. Message delivered, he wandered off, and I hope he was very happy to have spent a couple moments with the “Great DiMaggio,” as Hemingway’s old man thought of him.

I am not an autograph collector, though I have owned a few over the years. I feel privileged that I have that memory of Joe DiMaggio rather than a signed piece of paper, which I probably would have lost in my many moves and life-mistakes, and thus might have no memory of the actual moment spent close to the Yankee great.

* * * *
Muhammad Ali fought and lost to Trevor Berbick in ten rounds 35 years ago today in the Bahamas. It was a unanimous decision for Berbick. The fight took place in Nassau because not one state fight commission in America would grant Ali a license to fight. It was Ali’s final professional fight.

* * * *
Sam Cooke was murdered on this date in 1964. Robert Q. Lewis died 25 years ago today.

* * * *
Manoel de Oliveira would be 108 today. When he died in April 2015, he was the oldest active film director in the world at age 106. He directed films from 1927 until the year of his death.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born on this date in 1918. Grace Paley was born on this date in 1922. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was born on this date in 1931. The late Jim Harrison was born on this date in 1937. (He died March 26.)

* * * *
Rita Moreno is 85 today. Thomas McGuane is 77. Ambassador Max Baucus is 75. Donna Mills is 76. Secretary of State John Kerry is 73. Teri Garr is 69. Bess Armstrong is 63. Darryl Jones is 55 today.

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  1. lifelessons · December 11, 2016

    Love these informative pieces that make us all a bit smarter as we leave them!!!


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