My interview with Stars & Stripes News Est. 1861 on Felix de Weldon for Memorial Day
Updated: May 23, 2020
1. Tell me about your dad. What kind of man was he, personality wise?
My father's personality was one of a very gentle soul beneath high-octane creativity. I would describe him as the most powerful, sensitive man I have ever known – he was as emotionally vulnerable as he was physically strong. And it’s for this reason that I think he was able to create so much art over a span of several decades.
As my father, he wore his heart on his sleeve; never could he hide his emotions – whether challenged or overjoyed. An example that comes to mind is when he would reflect on the day he met the three survivors (flag raisers) from the flag raising at Iwo Jima. While he was developing the monument in his D.C. studio, they visited to see the sculpture as a work-in-progress. Upon seeing the faces of their three fallen comrades, they said to my father, “We didn't know you knew our buddies!" But he didn’t – it was his faithful depiction of their faces, their essence from the Joe Rosenthal photograph that prompted the servicemen to instantly recognize the fallen. This was definitive of my father's personality – passionate, sentimental, tender.
Finally, he was a man of tremendous perseverance – and humor. When asked how long it took to sculpt the Marine Corps Memorial, he would joke, "At 100 tons and 78 feet tall, it took 9 years – not nine months. It was a big baby."
2. Most people have seen his picture with his work, but what would people be most surprised to learn about him?
I think most people would be surprised to know that my father was an Austrian-Jew who moved from Europe to Canada as a war refugee. The Nazis deemed him an Enemy of the State as a Jewish artist. As an aside, in exchange for asylum, my father sculpted Agnes Macphail, the first female member of Canada’s Parliament.
Upon enlisting in the US Navy, my father was able to become a US citizen and changed his name from Felix Weiss to Felix de Weldon in an apparent move to avoid further persecution. Both his parents and most of his family were executed in concentration camps during World War II. While these life experiences were traumatizing, I believe it fueled his passion to create such revered monuments around the world, often depicting humanitarian themes and subjects that overcame great adversity, as he did himself.
On a side note, my father's first public monument was a commission that he won at age 18 to commemorate President Hoover’s Children’s Relief in Europe for those killed in World War I. The piece – titled “The Spirit of Youth” – depicted four children reaching for the stars.
It's also interesting to share that in 1933 he was commissioned to sculpt a bust of King George V to commemorate his reign as king for 25 years – the piece was finished in 1935 and can be found in the National Portrait Gallery. The following year, he created the coronation busts of Edward VIII and George VI. Queen Elizabeth knighted my father in 1959 for services to the crown.
Most people do not know that he was a virtuoso on the violin and played on a Stradivarius. Something that tickles people to learn is that my father spoke 5 languages fluently and 7 conversationally. And he absolutely loved Chinese food. Whenever we ate at French, Italian and even Chinese restaurants, he would surprise the servers by chatting with them in French, Italian, and Mandarin.
3. What type of artist was he? Was he just uniquely talented and it came easy or was he that obsessed type that really labored and lamented over perfection? Why did he get into sculpture?
My father was definitely an artist from a bygone era. As he was born in Vienna, he was exposed to Europe’s finest art, architecture, and music. And though he demonstrated gifted talents from a young age, he was quite educated and was accorded elite training as an artist. After receiving his primary education, he studied the early Italian masters in Rome and Florence. He would share how the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, and the great masters of the Renaissance made deep impressions on him. Next he studied at the Prado Museum in Madrid, immersed in Spanish painting, Gothic design, and Moorish architecture. And then he made his way northerly – first to Paris where he studied for three years, and then to England where he enrolled in postgraduate archeology courses at
Oxford University. He received his B.A., M.A., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Vienna in architecture and art.
He first took to sculpture at the age of six. At 96 years old, my father could sculpt a life-size clay bust in three hours. That year he stopped sculpting and died – it was 2003.
Whenever asked what his favorite piece was, he would reply with, "My next one."
4. He did so many iconic sculptures for government. Did he have any sense of his place in American history? Did he feel pigeon-holed at all by doing so many busts of politicians and things of that nature? He is really known as one of the preeminent experts in that sphere of the art form.
In his heart, my father was extremely proud to be an American. So it was with great pride and honor for him to create and be known for his artistic contributions to the US and its history. I also think that father since my father lived in Washington, D.C., he was revered as a government artist. As such, he served as a member of the US Commission of Fine Arts under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy.
Throughout his career, he sculpted many private commissions of figures, including Elvis Presley, Ty Cobb, and Mother Joseph Pariseau.
5. Tell me about the Marine Corps War Memorial. Did he ever talk about the process of creating that, why he went so big, challenges associated with dismantling and putting back together like a puzzle, or anything about the responsibility involved in bringing Rosenthal’s iconic photograph to life?
I know that once he finished the sculpture in plaster, he sent it in pieces to Brooklyn to be cast in bronze. He chose to cast the work bronze because he regarded bronze as “eternal”. Following this process, it took 3 trucks to ship the bronze pieces to Arlington, Virginia. The distance from NYC to DC is typically 230 miles, but because of the enormous size of the bronze pieces, the trucks had to take a special route to avoid bridges and trees. The roundabout journey was no less than 600 miles. The total cost of the memorial – including the development of the site in Arlington – was $850,000 and, surprisingly, was not publicly funded by a single tax-payer dollar. In fact, the memorial was paid entirely through donations from active duty and former Marines, Marine Reservists, and members of the Naval Service.
At the dedication in 1954, he presented the memorial to President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. In his speech, he expressed the great responsibility he felt to memorialize this iconic moment in our nation’s history and honor all servicemen that fight for freedom.
6. Tell me about the Marine Corps War Memorial. Did he ever talk about the process of creating that, why he went so big, challenges associated with dismantling and putting back together like a puzzle, or anything about the responsibility involved in bringing Rosenthal’s iconic photograph to life?
My father was a rather confident man and artist. He never seemed to doubt himself as an artist; he only expressed having challenges in completing his full vision – finding the best engineers, the most experienced artisans, and the right foundry that could actually cast the final work of art in bronze.
7. How did he feel about the sculpture? Obviously it is one of the most popular in America’s parks and represents so much to our people and our history. Did his views on it change over the years? Was he happy that it became such a huge part of his legacy?
My father regarded the Marine Corps Memorial as his life’s greatest accomplishment – both for its depiction of American victory as well as its iconic symbolism of perseverance and fortitude.
8. Did he feel connected to the battle or Iwo or veterans in any way because of it?
Yes, my father deeply felt connected to the Battle of Iwo Jima and really to all veterans. As a person that lived through both World Wars and served in the US Navy, he held strong connections with all things wartime, service, heroism, and sacrifice.
I remember accompanying my father at military events held across the country. As an invited guest speaker, he always received standing ovations upon taking the stage. When he would recount his connection to the Marine Corps Memorial, rarely ever could he hold back his emotions and heartfelt appreciation to all veterans and active duty US military who ultimately inspired the work. And it’s really evident when you stand before the memorial in person – you can feel the sacrifice. Over the years, I have had the great privilege of meeting countless veterans who express their gratitude for my father’s work on the memorial.
9. What does that sculpture mean to you and to your father’s legacy? How would you like your father to be remembered?
For me, the Marine Corps Memorial exemplifies the high cost of freedom. Whenever I see it, I am reminded that half the men depicted raising the US flag were killed merely days later. So as an American citizen and a human being living in today’s world, I am acutely aware of what humanity was fighting for 75 years ago – and continues to presently. So, the piece represents a crucial element of our inalienable rights; and for that I am extremely proud of my father’s work and it being his greatest glory.
I would like my father to be remembered as pursuing the American dream, filled with great will and faith. My heart swells knowing that his journey began in Vienna, that he survived World Wars I and II, lost both parents and most of his family in Nazi concentrations camps, fled to Canada as a war refugee, became a US citizen after enlisting in the Navy, and thrived as an artist. To quote the Marine Corps, one must, “improvise, adapt, and overcome” – which is exactly how he lived and that is his legacy. By memorializing historical figures and events in sculpture, he believed in creating a lasting art that brings unity to humankind, transcending any border or boundary that separates us.
It’s worth noting that his final resting place is within the Arlington National Cemetery.
10. What does this 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima mean to you? Are you happy that people will be thinking of your father again? Especially with the refurbishment that just took place. People will be visiting the statue. It’s almost like they’re visiting him, especially since its close to Arlington.
I remember being with my father during the 50th anniversary in 1995 when President Clinton recited the memorial’s inscription, “Uncommon value was a common virtue.” Even after the passage of 50 years, he was still so earnest in receiving its commemoration and sincerely honored that this work remains one of our nation’s greatest monuments. Twenty-five years later on the 75th anniversary, I feel humbled and blessed to celebrate his legacy and to participate on my father’s behalf.
The recent refurbishment of the monument validates its cultural importance. The donation of $5.37 MM by the philanthropist David Rubenstein – son of a Marine Corps veteran – demonstrates a generous investment to preserve the monument through its next 75 years and beyond.
As we mark this milestone anniversary, it’s so wonderful that people will visiting the memorial and remembering my father as its sculptor and architect. I know that he would want the monument to serve as a reminder to never take our liberties for granted. At this time in history and our ongoing global challenges, our collective will to overcome is highlighted in the penetrating symbolism of The Marine Corps Memorial, invoking reminders of oneness, unity, and liberty.