A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

The Art of Violence

The Art of Violence, SJ Rozan

By SJ Rozan – Here’s the latest in SJ Rozan’s popular series featuring private investigators and romantic partners Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. Former client Sam Tabor has recently been released from the Green Haven Correctional Facility, where he was serving time for the stabbing death of a young woman during a party where someone put PCP in the punch. Mentally unstable in the best of times, the drug had a powerful effect on him, and the woman’s death devastated him.

The reclusive Sam has been an artist his whole life, but kept his work private until one of his Green Haven therapists made him into a cause célèbre. The cynical Manhattan art community latched onto him and his work, “full of blood and destruction.” It ginned up a successful campaign for Sam’s early release. Now he’s a reluctant art-world phenomenon.

As he says to Bill, ‘A jury might have bought the idea I was temporarily out of my mind, but the point, like you say, the point is, I really am out of my mind.’

Since Sam returned to Manhattan, two young women bearing a remarkable resemblance to the earlier victim have been murdered. Sam can’t remember a thing about either evening—the drinking and blackouts don’t help—and he’s afraid he killed them. To stop the murders, Sam wants Bill to prove he’s the killer, so he can be taken off the streets. He’s tried turning himself in to the police, but they aren’t interested. An NYPD detective, under pressure to arrest Sam, thinks he’s a “freaking lunatic,” but doesn’t fit the serial killer profile. Meanwhile, several people in Sam’s life have reasons to want him in the frame for these new murders.

An especially appealing aspect of this story is the sympathetic touch with which Rozan portrays Sam and his confusion. He’s the antithesis of the self-justifying (“she deserved it”), self-glorifying killers typical of this genre. In a way, he’s like the patient in the psychological thriller Primary Obsessions, whose violent thoughts are just that, thoughts, not deeds. In Sam’s case, the dark thoughts are manifested in his art. Even so, as evidence mounts, the NYPD spotlight turns inevitably toward him, and it would be easy for Sam to talk his way right back into prison. Bill and Lydia need to move fast to stop that.

Seeing a Play Twice: The In-Between

This fall I’m taking a five-week ZOOM course on “How to Watch a Play,” led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. Prior to the first class, everyone watched online a 2018 production of the Tony-award-winning play Red by John Logan. I’d seen it a few years ago and didn’t remember it all that well.

This London version had Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko (born in 1903; committed suicide in 1970) and Alfred Enoch as his assistant, Ken. In the script, Ken arrives to help Rothko with the task of creating nearly 40 enormous canvases to hang in Manhattan’s then-new Seagram Building. He stretches canvas, he mixes paint. Red paint. The paintings are undeniably red, in varying shades, and it’s a tribute to both artist and playwright that audience members can go from “my kid could do that” to “I get it” in about 90 minutes.

A filmed play has plusses and minuses. Closeups are an advantage. Actors and directors manage stage elements so that you’re looking in the right place at the right time; with the camera, the decision where to look is made for you. What’s lost is the sense of community a live audience provides. (Adam cited a 2017 study that found audience members’ hearts begin to beat in sync.)

Adam distinguishes between a play and a production. The play is the script. Everything that brings it to life (actors, sets, costumes, lighting, music) is the production. And, when it comes to production, he says, “Everything’s a choice.”

When you see different productions of the same play, those choices become apparent. One version may be immensely enjoyable, another a big disappointment. A few years ago, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre produced an intimate version of My Fair Lady with no orchestra, just two pianos. A delightful choice. We’ve seen six or seven productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—from Broadway to community theater—and enjoyed each one. Great choices.

Then, the disasters: Romeo and Juliet in a tiny theater where the set design included a traditional second-floor balcony and, when Juliet was up there, the audience could see her only from the knees down; a particularly awful Hamlet (referred to at our house as “the nude Hamlet”); and A Christmas Carol with Tiny Tim played by an adult. Cue eyeroll. Yet, whatever their choices, a production team doesn’t totally control your reactions. External factors intrude. Say you eat a bad dinner before the show, or an actor reminds you of someone you loathe (or love!), or the set calls to mind your terrifying Aunt Gertrude’s living room. Between my first and second viewing of Red, as it happens, I visited Houston and saw the Rothko Chapel, hung all around with his large, dark, ominous paintings. Because of that experience, when Rothko says, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. . . One day the black will swallow the red,” I took so much more from that line. To me, that’s exactly what happened with Rothko, both literally and metaphorically.

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

Small Museums, Big Pleasures: South Bend, Youngstown, Cincinnati

It’s easy to love The Met, the Smithsonian, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Getty, and the nation’s many other Major Museums. But really? Are you always up for eight or nine hours of that? You don’t have to visit one of these demanding (time, energy, and $$) enterprises to have a rewarding museum experience. Smaller, more manageable, typically less crowded museums throughout the country have impressive offerings. Here are east-of-the-Mississippi examples from recent travels.

Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana

OK, granted, you may have to have a thing about cars to fully appreciate the Studebaker National Museum. Old cars, that is (Studebaker stopped manufacturing its vehicles in the 1960s). But an appreciation of history can serve every bit as well. Before it manufactured automobiles, Studebaker produced prize-winning wagons and carriages. On display is the carriage that President and Mrs. Lincoln used for their ill-fated trip to Ford’s Theater. And the carriage used by Indiana native son, President Benjamin Harrison.

There are early “station wagons,” carriages designed especially for traveling to and from the train station (luggage outside). Among the farm wagons is a miniature version for children, with a sign reading “Propulsion provided by goat, large dog, or younger sibling.” Aww.

America’s Packard Museum, located in a restored Packard dealership in Dayton, Ohio, is equally impressive, carwise, BTW.

Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

I remembered that the Butler Institute has Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap the Whip,” but I hadn’t recalled that its collection, devoted to works by American artists, includes so many other notable works, as a recent visit revealed. Some of the paintings from the Hudson River School and other mid-19th century artists are truly spectacular. There are some fun contemporary works as well, including a large painting of a dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not.

Butler—one of the few museums of its caliber that does not charge an admission fee and relies solely on community contributions—has an “Adopt-a-Painting” program in which donors can contribute to the restoration of specific works of art. That’s an exciting possibility, which may intrigue some of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Maybe other museums have programs like this, but they have escaped my notice.

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

We visited the Taft Museum of Art in 2016 and liked it, but what caught my eye recently was the announcement of an upcoming exhibition (February 8-May 3, 2020) of the works of N.C. Wyeth. The passionate early 20th century works of the patriarch, N.C., appeal to me more than those of his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. I’m drawn to their swashbuckling energy and storytelling power. The exhibit will include his illustrations for Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans (Hawkeye, pictured), and The Boys’ King Arthur, as well as standalone works of equal vivacity.

Alas, I won’t be in Cincinnati during the run of this show, but I hope you will be and that you’ll see it and tell me what you liked best.

Two Tasty Movies

Ramen Shop

Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.

In Search of Beethoven

The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).

20 Miles, 200 Varieties, Millions of Blooms * A Visit to the Met

New Jersey Tulip Festival

Monday’s drizzle didn’t deter the tulip-lovers at Holland Ridge Farm, whose motto is “Don’t fly to Holland. Drive to Holland.” While I’ve studied the Facebook pix from friends who went to Keukenhof Gardens this spring with great envy, I realized, you know, we have tulips in New Jersey! This IS the Garden State.

On more than 150 acres in the community of Cream Ridge, Holland Ridge Farm devotes 50 acres to its colorful stripes of tulips, the largest tulip farm on the East Coast. The owners have brought their fields to the point that the farm now has an annual Tulip Festival, in full bloom this month. There must have been hundreds of people there, strolling the grounds, smiling, but the areas is so large, it never felt crowded (Easter Sunday was another story, I’ll bet).

Gift shop, café, U-pick opportunities, hayrides around the fields, and lots more, with more tulips every year! While a leisurely walk around the tulip beds may seem an old-fashioned, almost quaint pursuit, the farm’s FAQs offer a sign of the times: No, you cannot fly your drone over the tulip fields.

Only an hour from Philadelphia and New York, getting there entails a lovely drive through farmland and past horse farms. Buy tickets online.

Metropolitan Museum

Last weekend in Manhattan we saw the Met’s “The World Between Empires” exhibit, “art and identity in the Ancient Middle East,” on view through June 23. Some of those empires I’d never even heard of before, so I definitely learned something. The exhibit focuses on the Middle East conflict between the Roman and Parthian empires.

The art and objects of the period (c. 100 BCE – AD 250) came from the civilizations along the great trade routes and show the influences of Arabea, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Says The Wall Street Journal, “Nothing short of spectacular.”

Photos: Vicki Weisfeld

The Mustang * Woman at War * Beirut * Rembrandt

The Mustang (2019)

Mustang, horse

Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).

The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.

There’s a special prison program (in place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”

The parallels between the confinement and anger of this mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters. But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .

Woman at War (2019)

This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.

The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.

She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From this point, carrying out one last adventure before  flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.

Beirut (2018)

Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated into civil war (trailer). In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund Pike seems to have her head on straight.  He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%. 

Rembrandt (in theaters 2019)

This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of recent films on Caravaggio and Van Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was “An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you can find a screening near you.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet. 

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.