Summary

Conflict Period:
World War II 1
Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Lieutenant 1
Birth:
05 Oct 1897 2
Death:
01 Jul 1978 2
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Personal Details

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Person:
George Stout 2
Gender: Male 2
Social Security Number: ***-**-1531 2
Birth:
05 Oct 1897 2
Death:
01 Jul 1978 2
Cause: Unknown 2
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World War II 1

Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Lieutenant 1
Service Start Date:
1943 1
Service End Date:
1945 1

Other Service 2

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Stories

Monuments man: Iowa native led the greatest treasure hunt in history

IOWA CITY, IA. — There is good reason why George Clooney decided to write, direct and star in a movie about a small band of Allied soldiers whose duty during World War II was to save and recover the world’s greatest European artwork: It’s a great story.

But here’s the part you might not know: Clooney’s character is based on George Leslie Stout, an art conservator and museum curator who was born in Winterset and grew up there, later graduating from the University of Iowa.

Imagine: An Iowa boy leading the greatest treasure hunt in history.

“The Monuments Men,” which opens in theaters Feb. 7, is based on the true story of eight Allied soldiers whose unwritten mission was to go into Germany and rescue masterpieces pilfered by the Nazis and secreted away in castles, churches and salt mines all over the country. Working behind enemy lines and under pressure, this group of art curators, museum directors and art historians — known as the Monuments Men — was in a race against the German army, which had been ordered by Hitler to destroy everything as the Third Reich fell. Stout led many of the operations that sought to avoid the destruction of 1,000 years of culture and save some of the world’s greatest treasures.

Lincoln Kirstein, a member of the Monuments Men and founding director of the New York City ballet, who died in 1996, said in his account of events, Stout “was the greatest war hero of all. He actually saved all the art that everybody else talked about.”

So, who was this champion for the world’s celebrated artwork?

Stout grew up in Winterset, which is best known for its covered bridges and as the birthplace of John Wayne.

Truth is, Wayne only lived in Winterset while he was a baby, which doesn’t make him much of a local hero. Stout’s roots, however, date back to 1867 when his grandfather — who was in poor health from injuries suffered in the Civil War — settled in the community that today numbers about 5,000 residents.

Thirty years later, Stout arrived, the oldest of six sons born to Lulu Mae and Abraham Lincoln Stout. At Winterset High School, Stout’s nickname was “Stouty,” and his interests included literature, acting and journalism, said Nancy Trask, director of the Winterset Public Library, and Stout’s biggest hometown fan.

Trask has been singing Stout’s praises since 2009, when she discovered Robert Edsel’s book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” It’s the same book that inspired Clooney.

“When the book came out, I realized right then that this was someone special and began plugging the book,” said Trask, who even tried inviting the author to town until she learned his fee was $20,000.

Still, Stout’s legacy didn’t gain traction until news spread that Clooney was making a movie and playing a character named Frank Stokes, who is based on Stout. Since then, Trask has been busy making presentations about this newly discovered hometown hero.

“Everybody is seeing this thing on TV and stuff in the newspapers,” she said. “We’re a little sore that they had to change the names of characters in the movie.”

After high school, Stout attended Grinnell College for two years before serving another two years in the medical corps in World War I. While a soldier, Stout performed with a theatrical troupe that entertained soldiers with a play called “The Khaki Carnival.”

When he returned from the war, Stout attended the University of Iowa and became interested in art after taking a drawing class. “His family was so proud of him when he was in Iowa City,” Trask said.

Stout graduated from the U of I in 1921 and three years later married Margaret Hayes, the daughter of Samuel Hayes, who taught law at the U of I. Shortly after their wedding, the couple took off for Europe to explore artwork. When they returned, Stout enrolled at Harvard University, where he graduated with a master’s degree in art in 1929. At Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, Stout began his career in art conservation, a field in which he would make an indelible mark.

“Stout was a no-nonsense Iowa guy who established art conservation,” said Sean O’Harrow, director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art. “He made art conservation into a science, and the three principles he established way back then are still the backbone of the practice.”

O’Harrow said he likes to think the required drawing course at the U of I set the stage for Stout’s invaluable contributions to the arts.

“Makes you wonder what he might have done had he not taken that drawing course, which fueled his interest in the arts,” he said. “If there is anyone to admire, it’s Stout. He accomplished so much.”

With the nation at war and the military needing men, Stout left the Fogg Museum and applied for active duty in 1943. He was in his mid-40s and the father of two young sons. His first job was testing camouflage paint for airplanes. But his credentials soon caught the attention of military officials who transferred him in 1944 to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, or MFAA.

The unit was made possible by the Roberts Commission — the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts — which had been formed at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt.

In his book, Edsel wrote, “There was no formal mission statement, or even set chain of command” for the Monuments Men. “A general guidebook to conservation procedures had been culled from Stout’s expertise and writings on the subject. But the Monuments Men had no formal training.”

They did, however, have Stout, whom Edsel described as a conscientious and unassuming leader.

“He was also meticulous, a trait that carried over to his personal appearance: carefully swept-back hair, trim worsted suits, and a fine pencil mustache,” Edsel wrote. “Stout was dapper, debonair, and resolutely unflappable. But beneath his placid exterior was a brilliant and restless mind, capable of great leaps of understanding and far-reaching vision. He also possessed another essential quality: extraordinary patience.”

Stout’s character was certainly tested in April 1945 when he arrived at the Merkers mine complex in Thuringia, Germany, an underground network of more than 35 miles of tunnels and dozens of openings. Stout had no inventory of the mine’s contents, only a list of the museums and collections from which they came.

To make matters worse, Stout had only a few days to assess the contents of the mine, pack it and remove it from the area before Gen. George Patton pulled up stakes and moved on.

The Third Reich used many mines to store its loot, sometimes booby-trapping them with explosives. Retrieving the artwork was not for the faint of heart. Two of the Monuments Men were killed in action.

According to Edsel’s account, Stout was unable to procure any of the supplies he requested to move the 40 tons of artwork found in the mine. No boxes, crates, files, tape or packing material. With only two days to go, Stout finished his plan for evacuating the mine, and work began. His solution for packing materials was using a thousand requisitioned sheepskin coats, the kind German officers used on the Russian front.

Edsel wrote that the evacuation started with 25 men and later grew to 50, 75 and then 80. Finally, 1,300 prisoners of war were brought in to assist the operation. By the time they finished, the art convoy consisted of 32 10-ton trucks, and Stout’s inventory read: “393 paintings (uncrated), 2,091 print boxes, 1,214 cases, and 140 textiles, representing most of the Prussian state art collection.”

A German art expert who had been staying with the treasure at Merkers told Stout it would take eight weeks to move the mine’s content. Stout did it in six days.

Fellow Monuments Men member Kirstein later wrote in his account of the Merkers mine operation: “The last time I saw them, Lieutenant Stout was gravely whirling a swing aerometer in all corners of their new home, determining the humidity.”

Stout later helped move 80 truckloads from the Altaussee mine, in the Austrian Alps, which contained some of the world’s greatest artwork.

In his book, Edsel reported that when Stout left Europe in August 1945 after little more than 13 months, he had put 50,000 miles on his old Volkswagen and visited nearly every area of action in the U.S. Twelfth Army group territory. During his entire tour of duty, he had taken exactly one and a half days off.

But when Stout left Europe, he didn’t go home. He requested a transfer to Japan where he served as the chief of the Arts and Monuments Division at Headquarters of the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers in Tokyo until mid-1946.

The military recognized Stout with a Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal.

O’Harrow said part of the reason few people know about the Monuments Men is because the participants themselves didn’t talk about it, typical of men of the Greatest Generation.

“It was a horrific time, and people didn’t want to talk about their experiences,” O’Harrow said. “Stout was from Iowa, and Iowans don’t brag about their accomplishments.”

George Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ character has a proud KC connection

“The Monuments Men” may tell the tale of art experts from the East Coast, but critical documents that made the story possible call Kansas City home.

Joanne Stout owns a lot of them, including the original handwritten journals of George Stout, the Boston museum director who inspired the character portrayed by writer/director/star George Clooney. The 73-year-old Prairie Village woman has another name for George Stout: father-in-law. She was married to his eldest son, Robert, for nearly 20 years.

She has been researching her famous relative since discovering he was a leading member of the Monuments Men, a group of more than 300 artists, art historians and museum directors who helped save millions of pieces of important art at the close of World War II.

They worked to recover European masterpieces that the Nazis had stolen and hidden away in private homes and old salt mines. They also had to persuade Allied forces to protect art treasures in Europe and Asia from bombing raids.

“In real life, he was a very scrappy guy,” Clooney said in a statement from Columbia Pictures. “He could do anything, like fix cars and radios.” Clooney said he changed Stout’s name to the made-up Frank Stokes so he could take a few liberties with the character.

Joanne Stout knew nothing of her father-in-law’s historic role during his life. She found out only after his 1978 death when she read the book the film is based on, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert Edsel.

Now she is on a quest to learn all she can.

“Here’s something,” she said, bending over a computer on her kitchen counter. “It’s from Harvard Magazine.”

She read aloud from the 2010 piece: “When George Stout left Europe in August 1945, after a little more than 13 months, he had discovered, analyzed and packed tens of thousands of pieces of artwork.

“And, oh, and this is great,” she said, skipping ahead. “One of his colleagues, Lincoln Kirstein, said that George Stout was the greatest war hero of all time — he actually saved all the art that everybody talked about.”

She choked back emotion as the power of that sentence sank in.

“The more you read this stuff, the more it gets to you,” she said.

Like his character in the movie, Stout was head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He went on to become the director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

His daughter-in-law has dozens of examples of ancient Asian art from her father-in-law’s personal collection, from Chinese fabric paintings to a priceless six-sided Japanese vase.

“He loved Asian art,” she said. “That was the connection between he and Larry Sickman,” another Monuments Man who was director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The men played a key role in helping the museum amass one of the pre-eminent collections of Asian art in the world.

Stout recently met with museum director Julián Zugazagoitia and several other museum officials after reading about local Monuments Men in The Star last month.

“Having the daughter-in-law of George Stout bring the story closer to home with a connection to one of the main characters in the movie is a revelation,” Zugazagoitia said. “She brought documents and photography, but most important were the original notebooks on which Mr. Stout recounted his time with the Monuments Men.”

How important?

“One of the experts told me, ‘This is the original bible of provenance for the Monuments Men,’ ” Joanne Stout said. “ ‘You have something priceless.’ ”

The journals, which are available to researchers online, are technical but also enlightening.

“He talks about how they ran out of (protective coverings) to put over the paintings, but the Germans had stolen a bunch of furs, so they wrapped paintings in fur coats and took them out of the mines,” Joanne Stout said. “Isn’t that funny?”

Beyond wanting to study George Stout’s journals, museum officials also wanted to know what the man was like.

“He was very smart,” his daughter-in-law said. “But he was the kind of person who never said one word about himself unless you asked. Then he would give you a complete answer and follow it with a totally disarming smile.”

She described him as 5-feet 7 and slender, with a “nifty little mustache, pale blue eyes and dark brown hair. He wore a beret and always walked with a cane. He was well dressed, mentally disciplined and always a gentleman.”

The excitement over the movie has been both exhausting and helpful.

“It has brought members of the Stout family together who had not communicated in a long time,” she said.

While Robert Stout had three children with his first two wives, his third wife, Joanne, was his longest-lasting relationship. They lived in the Virgin Islands, where they ran a charter boat service. After her husband died in 1984, and Hurricane Hugo took away virtually everything else, she moved to be close to her mother, who lived in Leawood.

“Over that period of time I sort of lost track (and) lost George Stout’s granddaughters’ emails,” she said.

She found them later on Facebook. Now she has begun sending them boxes of their famous grandfather’s history.

Now many more people will know what her father-in-law did.

“George Stout spent the better part of his professional life protecting great works of art,” she said. “So people should go see great works of art. I think George Clooney is doing such a service to say, hey, folks, get yourself to a museum.”

•  Exhibit: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will open a small exhibition on Saturday featuring manuscripts, newspaper clippings, postcards and biographies of Monuments Men who were affiliated with the museum. For more information, go to nelson-atkins.org.

•  Q&A: After the 7 p.m. showings of “The Monuments Men” Friday and Saturday at The Legends in Kansas City, Kan., three experts from the Nelson will answer questions from the audience. On hand will be the museum’s chief curator, Antonia Bostrom; Nicole Myers, curator in the museum’s European painting department; and European painting researcher MacKenzie Mallon.

George Leslie Stout

A veteran of World War I and well-known expert on art conservation techniques at Harvard, George Stout played a lead role in working to protect European artworks and monuments during World War II. He learned from his professional contacts in Europe that museums and institutions were evacuating and safeguarding their holdings. Stout composed a pamphlet for American museum officials detailing proper safeguarding techniques for their collections. Along with colleagues at Harvard, Stout helped establish the American Defense Harvard Group, which was instrumental in the formation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, later known as the Roberts Commission.

Stout was one of first members appointed to the MFAA, which had been established by the Roberts Commission and charged with protecting art and monuments on the ground in Europe. He also wrote a manual with his Harvard colleague W.G. Constable, entitled Brief Manual of Safeguarding and Conservation in the Field. Along with New York architect Bancel La Farge, Stout was one of the first Monuments Men to go ashore at Normandy. As the Allies marched through France and Germany, he was on the front lines as Monuments Man for Twelfth Army Group, helping to rescue cultural treasures in places like Caen, Maastricht, Aachen, and in repositories in Siegen, Heilbronn, Cologne, Merkers, and Alt Aussee. The significance of George Stout to the MFAA and to the preservation of Europe’s cultural patrimony cannot be overstated. According to official military papers, he was “motivated by the urgency of his task, he spent almost all of his time alone in the field, disregarding comfort and personal convenience…his relationship with the many tactical units with whom he worked were managed with unfailing tact and skillful staff work.”

He departed Europe at the end of July, 1945, and in October was sent to Japan, where he had volunteered his services as a Monuments Officer. He became Chief of the Arts and Monuments Division at Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Tokyo, and remained there through mid-1946. For his work in Europe, Stout received the Bronze Star Medal, and also the Army Commendation Medal.

A native of Winterset, Iowa, Stout was a research fellow at Harvard before the war, where he earned his Master’s degree in 1928 and was head of the conservation department at the University’s Fogg Art Museum from 1933. He resumed that position after the war, until 1947 when he became director of the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA. Stout left Worcester in 1954 and in 1955 became director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where he remained until 1970.

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