It’s hard to image what the world was like a hundred years ago. Why do I write about this now? My dad was born on March 4th 1921 and so we flew from Antigua to Brooklyn, NY to help celebrate his birthday. Due to the pandemic, we came in a few weeks before the day. A big one-day celebration was not in the cards, so the family agreed to “spread out” the celebration in multiple ways and days. It gave us all time to appreciate the milestone, and not for just one day.
On the way to the airport from Jolly Harbor, where Kalunamoo was docked, we passed through the little towns and villages, traveled the narrow roads and saw the small corner grocery, repair and “general stores” along the way. In some ways, the outer reaches of Brooklyn may have looked like that a 100 years ago. It is much different now and what we see after landing at Kennedy International Airport – the highways, large shopping malls, and the hustle and bustle of New York City, not to mention the snow, – is certainly different.
So, I turned the clock back 100 years. Maureen and I flew from Antigua to New York in 3 ½ hours. How would we have done that in 1921 and what would we have found?
Well, Gianni Capprioni, the Italian aviation pioneer test flew a 100 passenger flying boat in February and March 1921. Unfortunately on its second flight, March 4th, the aircraft crashed just after take-off. The airplane looked as gawky as one of today’s mega cruise ship.
But there was a U.S. “airline” in operation – “Pappy” Chalk commenced scheduled service between Miami and Bimini in the Bahamas in February 1919 as Chalk’s Flying Service. Chalk’s first base was a beach umbrella on the Miami shore of Biscayne Bay. It flew until 2007. In any case, no service from Antigua. Lindbergh wouldn’t cross the Atlantic for another six years. The current airport in Antigua was built for the U.S. Army Air Force only in 1941. JFK in New York was opened in 1948 (as Idlewild Airport). The only way to get to New York back then would be to sail.
Arriving in New York in 1921, we could listen to WJZ, one the first of a few stations that just started radio broadcasting. The World Series would be first broadcast that fall. News, however, had to be read in the newspapers. My dad was born on the day Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as President of the U.S., Calvin Coolidge was VP, March 4, 1921.
WWI was over, the pandemic of 1918 was over, but it was a restless time. There seemed to be skirmishes all around the world. The War to End All Wars seemed overly optimistic. The news of the day was that the world was fundamentally changing and moving forward. Russia was expanding its reach – Georgia was being invaded by the Red Army, communist political parties formed in Italy, Vienna, China, Spain, and Portugal among other places. Those early parties wouldn’t really take hold, other than in Russia, for another 20 years. The Irish guerrilla war of independence was in its heyday. By the end of the year, however, the Anglo-Irish Treaty establishing the Irish Free State, an independent nation incorporating 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, was signed in London.
In other places the roots of future conflicts seemed to be taking hold even while the roaring twenties started roaring. The London Schedule of Payments laid out World War I reparations. They had to be paid by the German Weimar Republic and other countries considered successors to the Central Powers – 132 billion gold marks ($33 trillion), in annual installments of 2.5 billion. Who thought that it might have been a bad move?
The Emergency Quota Act was passed by the United States Congress, establishing national quotas on immigration. Because this drastically limits immigration from Eastern Europe, Jews emigrating from there begin to prefer Palestine as a destination rather than the U.S. The roots of unrest head to the Middle East.
Mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses in Greenwood District, Tulsa, Oklahoma that year. The official death toll was 36, but later investigations suggest an actual figure between 100 and 300. 1,250 homes are destroyed and roughly 6,000 African Americans imprisoned in one of the worst incidents of mass racial violence in the United States.
Adolf Hitler becomes Führer of the Nazi Party in Germany. After a speech by Adolf Hitler in the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, members of the Sturmabteilung (“brownshirts”) physically assault his opposition.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralytic illness strikes while he is vacationing.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history and the country’s largest peacetime armed uprising, began in Logan County, West Virginia as part of the Coal Wars. They continued until September.
White Castle hamburger restaurant opened in Wichita, Kansas, the foundation of the world’s first fast food chain. During this year, the luxury goods brand Gucci was founded in Florence, Italy.
But the roaring twenties were born at this time also! This brought large-scale development and use of automobiles, telephones, films, radio, and electrical appliances. Aviation became a business. Modernity was born and the sky was the limit. Until it wasn’t.
A hundred years later, those historical events resonate in the news of today. Change some names and places and ask: has the world changed all that much?
One news item I read while doing some research (you gotta’ love Wikipedia and the internet; full credit is due to the writers of Wikipedia for much of this blog as it could not have been written on a boat while anchored, and under quarantine in Antigua without smartphones or the internet) was the following:
In 1921 U.S. President Warren G. Harding received Princess Fatima of Afghanistan who was escorted by one Stanley Clifford Weyman. I wondered if meeting the Princess could have altered the future of Afghanistan but that is another story. But who was Stanley Clifford Weyman and why was he mentioned? Here he is in uniform with the princess.
Turns out, Weyman was a first-class imposter and a world class con artist. In fact, his real name was Stephan Jacob Weinberg, born in Brooklyn NY in 1890. He liked the name Weinberg the best among his numerous nom-du plumes. According to The New Yorker magazine’s 1968 article, he “was a man who, unwilling or unable to remain an obscure citizen of Brooklyn.” In 1910, Weyman’s first imposture was as U.S. consul representative to Morocco. He dined in the finest restaurants in New York City, running up huge tabs but was eventually arrested for fraud. Next Weyman took on roles as a military attaché from Serbia and a U.S. Navy lieutenant, with each identity using the other as a reference. He was found out and arrested. He then became Lieutenant Commander Ethan Allen Weinberg, Consul General for Romania. He inspected the USS Wyoming and invited everyone to dinner at the Astor Hotel. The advance publicity alerted the Bureau of Investigation and federal agents arrested him at the party. Weyman was heard to complain that they should have waited until dessert. He got a year in jail.
In 1917, Weyman took on the mantle of Royal St. Cyr, a lieutenant in the British Army Air Corps. He was arrested when he was on an inspection tour of the Brooklyn Armory after a suspicious military tailor alerted the police. When Weyman was paroled in 1920, he forged credentials to become a company doctor in Lima, Peru. There he threw lavish parties until his credit ran out and he was arrested.
In 1921, he noticed Princess Fatima of Afghanistan, who was visiting the United States and was trying to get official recognition. He also saw the jewels that she wore. Weyman visited her as a State Department Naval Liaison Officer and promised to arrange an appointment with the President. He convinced the princess to give him 10,000 dollars for “presents” to State Department officials. He used the money for a private railway carriage to Washington, D.C., and an opulent hotel room in the Willard Hotel for the princess and her entourage. Weyman proceeded to visit the State Department, and succeeded in getting appointments for the princess, and with President Warren G. Harding. His mistake in protocol aroused some suspicion, but after the press published pictures showing him alongside dignitaries, he was indicted for impersonating a naval officer and sentenced to two years in jail.
In 1926, Weyman appeared at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral and attached himself to Valentino’s grieving lover Pola Negri as a personal physician. He issued regular press releases on her condition and established a faith-healing clinic in Valentino’s house.
During World War II, Clifford Weyman was sentenced to seven years in prison for offering advice to draft dodgers on how to feign various medical conditions. In 1948, he made up credentials to become a journalist at the United Nations. In 1954, he also tried to get a home improvement loan of 5,000 dollars for a house that did not exist. He failed to convince the judge that he was insane.
In August 1960, Weyman was fatally shot when he tried to stop a robbery at a hotel in New York City where he was working as a night porter. The investigating detective said: “I’ve known about the man’s past record for years. He did a lot of things in the course of his life, but what he did this time was brave.” He was in state or federal prisons at least 13 times. There is a difference between a con man and an impostor but not much. A con man may just be an impostor without class.
And Princess Fatima? She indeed was from Afghanistan, and a distant and unimportant relative of the ruling family but was also a bit of a con artist taken in by Weyman herself.
That was the world my dad was born into. He lived amid the blossoming of those events over the following 100 years. By the time he was 8 years old, the Great Depression following the roaring 20’s formed his formative years. The world went to war again, and he served his country in WWII, married his sweetheart, raised a family, succeeded in work and play, danced the Lindy with my mom, fished an awful lot, and populated the Greatest Generation. He now sends emails on his IPad.
We enter a world not of our making; a stage, if you will, with the scene and players already set. Do we not have many Weymans populating the world today, wishing to avoid obscurity at all cost? Dad is just the opposite of a Weyman. An obscure citizen of Brooklyn? Not to the family, friends and co-workers that know him.
So, I give thanks and a big Happy Birthday wish and love to my dad who could never be accused of being anyone other than himself. A lesson well taught and learned. The stage we are born on maybe set, but how we act today will determine how it is set tomorrow for those who follow. My dad and mom set a very good stage for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.