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.”