DALLAS – As part of an Allied mission tasked with saving works of art during World War II, a homesick James Rorimer told his wife in a December 1944 letter from liberated Paris that he was working hard but worried about how much he was achieving.
“But I’m here to save works of art and that is what really matters,” he wrote.
Rorimer, then 39 and a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, went on to carry out his mission successfully, helping to discover where works of art looted by the Nazis were tucked away across Europe, from a fairy tale-inspiring castle in the Bavarian Alps to a serene sculpture of Mary and Jesus by Michelangelo tucked away in a Belgian church.
He was a leading figure in a group of 350 men and women from Allied countries attached to the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. In the new movie “The Monuments Men,” Matt Damon portrays a character inspired by the real-life Rorimer, who died in 1966 at age 60.
“He was fighting for the art,” said daughter Anne Rorimer.
His contributions included helping discover works of art looted from German museums that were stored in Germany’s Heilbronn mines and helping to establish the Munich Collecting Point where works were received, processed and then restituted after the war.
Just like the group’s previously unsung accomplishments, many of the places and objects they saved have been “hidden in plain sight” for decades, said Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author of the book “The Monuments Men,” which inspired the movie.
Eventually, they returned more than 5 million cultural items stolen by the Nazis as part of a systematic looting operation.
The Monuments Men included architects, artists, curators and museum directors. The Harvard-educated Rorimer went on to become director of the Metropolitan Museum after the war.
Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author who wrote the book the movie is based on, said Rorimer was “always a whirlwind of activity.”
One of Rorimer’s major feats was gaining the trust of Rose Valland, the French art expert who had been allowed to stay behind at Paris’ Jeu de Paume after the Nazis made it the base for their looting operation. Valland, who unbeknown to the Nazis spoke German, managed to keep track of where the works — most stolen from Jewish families in France — were being sent.
But Valland, who inspired the character played by Cate Blanchett, was not going to easily give up her information. Living in Nazi-occupied Paris had made her wary, even of her fellow countrymen, and she wanted to know that she was giving the information to someone who would help return the works to their rightful owners.
“Valland’s watching everything that Rorimer’s doing,” said Edsel. “What evolves between the two of them is this dance . . . She’s testing him. She’s trying to find out where his loyalties lie.”
Rorimer was first introduced to Valland in fall 1944. Over the months, he earned her trust and by March 1945, when Rorimer was headed with the army into southern Germany, she told him that Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps was the Nazi hideaway for about 21,000 items stolen from mostly Jewish collectors in France.
“If you got to know him, you realized that he’s got to be appreciated. Saving culture was ingrained upon him and he was successful,” said Harry Ettlinger, who as a 19-year-old U.S. soldier volunteered his services to Rorimer after learning the Monuments Men needed someone who spoke German.
Ettlinger, one of only a handful of Monuments Men who are still alive, had fled Nazi Germany with his family the day after his bar mitzvah in 1938 and returned to Europe in 1945 with the U.S. Army. He inspired a character played by Dimitri Leonidas.
Ettlinger said he quickly realized that Rorimer was a man who got things done, a “wheeler and dealer,” as Ettlinger put it. Ettlinger recalled a time when Gen. George S. Patton’s men had their sights on moving into the building the Monuments Men planned to use for their Munich Collecting Point — a building that happened to be the former Nazi headquarters. Rorimer, Ettlinger said, quickly put a stop to that.
Anne Rorimer grew up in the postwar years and says most of her memories of her father are tied to his work at the Met. “I heard more about all the day-to-day workings of the Metropolitan Museum.”
Her father died when she was in college, but she became an art historian and eventually learned more about his work as a Monuments Man. As Edsel was writing his book, which came out in 2009, he asked her to track down wartime letters from her father to her mother. When she finally found the letters in storage and read through them, she was struck by her father’s longing for family life and by the hardships he described.
“This week has been a cold and difficult one,” he wrote in January 1945. “I left Paris a few days ago on a field trip. The cold winds, ice, rain and snow blew into the open jeep with which I went about from place to place.”
But by the end of that year, as successes mounted, the letters became more upbeat. In October 1945, he wrote, that they were getting results in the “long fight for cultural objects.”