Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House continues to offer up examples of Philip Johnson’s dislikeability, many of which amount to reasons why people dislike modern architecture. The following passage comes after Lamster has described how Johnson struck out in his effort to join up with Huey Long, the governor and dictator of Louisiana. One of Long’s staffers urged Johnson (and his sidekick Alan Blackburn) to go back to Ohio and work for Long by organizing in Johnson’s home state. Johnson agreed, and moved to tiny New London, southwest of his hometown, Cleveland.
Upon arrival, Johnson’s first order of business was a renovation of his grandmother’s house, which sat in the center of town. The principle change entailed knocking out a large section of the front wall of the house and installing in its place a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window looking out on the street – “the largest piece of glass anyone had ever seen in Ohio. …
Johnson and Blackburn quickly drew the suspicion of the town’s respectable citizens. Who were these bachelor interlopers, men of means from the big city [New York, not Cleveland], living together in a house with an unusual design of their own making?
I could not find a photo of the house. Why did Johnson inflict it on his neighbors? Maybe he was still sore at failing to latch on with Huey Long’s team. Maybe he decided to take it out on the citizens of New London. That’s just my guess. Lamster makes no such suggestion. But he does look into why Johnson wanted to hook up with Long in the first place:
The idea that Long might serve as a model for Johnson and Blackburn was born of [fellow activist Lawrence] Dennis. “It will take a man like Long to lead the masses,” he said. “I think Long’s smarter than Hitler, but he needs a good brain trust. … He needs a Goebbels.”
Even more provocative are the recollections of Johnson’s former secretary:
Secretly, Johnson had grander ambitions. He was not interested in just being a member of Long’s “brain trust.” When interviewed in 1942, Johnson’s former secretary Ruth Merrill told the FBI that Johnson believed “the fate of the country” rested on his shoulders, and that “he wanted to be the ‘Hitler’ in the United States.” His desire to join Long as an adviser was a means to that end. “By joining with Huey Long he could eventually depose Huey Long from control of the country and gain control of it for himself,” Merrill told the FBI.” Whether that meant assassination or a bloodless coup was unstated.
And in 1935, Long, by then a U.S. senator, was assassinated in Louisiana.
These years when Johnson went into American politics to promote fascism are not as well known as the time he spent in Germany following the Nazis. Most of these efforts came after his role in curating the famous International Stye exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1932. His fascist period lasted at least a decade. Then he refocused on architecture, after which he covered up his fascist sympathies and went into deep denial – with the help of the U.S. architectural establishment, which continues – though Lamster’s book should put a dent in it.
On a personal note, I was intrigued to learn of where Johnson got his wish to meet Huey Long after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Johnson had been kept at arms length by Long’s staff during Johnson and Blackburn’s stay in Baton Rouge and then, after the election, on the train to Washington to set up the new senator’s office:
The two tourists [Johnson and Blackburn] finally got to meet the tousle-haired Kingfish [Long’s nickname] in Washington [D.C.]. The hallowed event took place at the Broadmoor, the Connecticut Avenue hotel that was Long’s base of operations in the capital. He received the two in pajamas, as was his wont (he preferred purple silk), and the conversation was brief.
When I was a young teen I delivered the Daily News, an afternoon paper absorbed in 1972 by the Washington Star (an afternoon daily I also delivered; the Post was a morning paper – not for me! – and, in those days, too fat for my skinny arms). A couple dozen of my customers lived in the Broadmoor, an over-the-top beautiful pile in a hybrid style that was an apartment building by the time I slid papers down its carpeted hallways.