New book seeks to credit chief carver of Mount Rushmore
MITCHELL, S.D. -- Every year, nearly 3 million people visit South Dakota's most iconic landmark, Mount Rushmore.
But the man who gave life to the Black Hills' most famous faces, Luigi Del Bianco, still hasn't received the credit he deserves, a new book contends.
"Del Bianco may not be a household name, but it should be," Douglas Gladstone wrote in an email interview.
Gladstone, an author from Albany, N.Y., recently released his second book, "Carving a Niche for Himself: The Untold Story of Luigi Del Bianco." The book, published by Bordighera Press, was released April 15. It tells the story of Italian American immigrant Del Bianco's journey to the United States, and eventually Keystone, S.D., and Mount Rushmore.
"There have been many omissions in the telling of the story of Italians in the United States and Canada. Not only through their enterprise and energies, but by bringing to North America the old world skills and artistry that is so typical of the Italian people," Gladstone wrote. "I just hope that I've been able to give this immigrant master carver the recognition he deserves."
Gladstone answered questions about his book via email to The Daily Republic. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Your book is about one of the carvers of Mount Rushmore, Luigi Del Bianco. What inspired your topic?
A: The theme of individuals who have been taken advantage of or hosed has always resonated with me. I am of the opinion that you shouldn't expect justice for yourself unless other people have justice as well. Since I personally believe that Luigi has not been recognized for his contributions to the monument, I hope that my work gets him the kudos and props that he is so richly deserving of.
Q: Del Bianco was an Italian-American immigrant, the book's foreword is by Italian American businessman Robert Benedetto and the book published by Bordighera Press, "the foremost publisher of Italian-American literature and poetry in North America." Are you also Italian-American?
A: No, I'm not Italian. I get asked that a lot. My late mother used to make spaghetti with ketchup. What chance did I have?
Q: How did Mount Rushmore get to be on your radar?
A: When I was growing up, my late parents purchased me one of those old fashioned View-Masters, the special stereoscope that allows its user to look at 3-D pairs of small color photographs. One of the first set of reels I received was of Mount Rushmore.
When I looked at those faces through the View-Master, I was completely blown away by the sheer size of those carvings that had been made from the granite of the Black Hills mountains. I was particularly mesmerized by the eyes of the four presidents; they always looked like they were staring at me and only me. And it'd be four decades later when I found out that Luigi Del Bianco was responsible for giving those four faces their refinement of expression.
Q: Will you be doing a book tour?
A: I have a lot of friends in South Dakota who I'd love to see if I go out there ... but, as of right now, I have no plans to go out there to visit. Because my book takes the Park Service to task for not practicing what it preaches, namely, being the proponents of multiculturalism and pluralism they say they are, I'm afraid I'd be hanged in effigy.
All kidding aside, I haven't gotten any invitations to speak. So I don't plan on coming out anytime soon.
Q: In what way does the Park Service not practice what it preaches?
A: Part of the reason you've never heard about Luigi is that the Park Service isn't interested in his narrative, in his compelling storyline. How do you tout pluralism and multiculturalism and not tell Luigi Del Bianco's story? ... Here's a stone carver from Meduno, an extremely talented and capable artisan from Pordenone Province who comes to America and works on what is widely believed to be the most iconic landmark in the United States, not to mention one of the world's most renowned sculptures, and you don't see the benefits of telling his story? You're dropping the ball in my opinion. Thanks to Luigi, Mount Rushmore stands as an everlasting imprint to the contributions of immigrants everywhere. It's just wrong.
Q: How has he been overlooked?
A: The ridiculous intransigence on the part of the United States Department of the Interior's National Park Service to not credit individuals other than Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum is the big problem. Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the Chief of Interpretive Services, doesn't even recognize Luigi as the chief carver. In spite of the overwhelming evidence in the Library of Congress from no less than Gutzon Borglum himself, she won't call him the chief carver. It is anathema to me why the Park Service won't call him the chief carver when Borglum himself calls him the chief carver in his private correspondence.
The agency's policy is to lump every one of the 400 workers who had anything to do with the monument, irrespective of title, job and responsibilities, into the same group. ... Listen, no one is a greater advocate of the "There is no I in TEAM" philosophy than myself. But Luigi was the chief carver. ... I think anyone could run an elevator lift, but not too many individuals had the creative talent to give those four faces their heart and soul.
Q: Why hasn't Del Blanco been acknowledged? Simply because he was Italian-American?
A: I've never accused anyone of outright discrimination. I can't prove that. But at the very least, Del Bianco was subjected to a certain kind of benign bigotry. There are enough clues in Borglum's own papers to suggest that the workers who Del Bianco supervised, in Keystone, weren't thrilled that he had been brought out from the East, from New York, to work at the monument.
Q: What are some of those clues?
A: One of Borglum's letters is particularly telling. In a June 1933 letter, Gutzon writes that Luigi complained about the rude treatment he was accorded when he first got to Keystone. It's my opinion that the miners who were working out there resented Luigi, who was being paid a higher salary than them. Remember, this was during the Depression. I'm sure there had to be some jealousy going on. ... Also, he drank wine, they drank whiskey. He didn't pal around with them, didn't play on the baseball team. You had all the makings of a tension convention.
Q: It's easier to understand how that could happen in the 1930s. Why would his immigrant status still matter, nearly 80 years later?
A: Look, this might be a hard thing for a lot of residents of South Dakota to swallow, to admit to, to own up to, but your state has had a checkered past when it comes to prejudice and racism. You don't celebrate Columbus Day, for starters. Why doesn't your state recognize the holiday? Only Alaska, Hawaii and South Dakota don't recognize it. That must make the 7,500 individuals who identify themselves as Italian Americans in South Dakota a bit frustrated.
And this is across the boards bigotry, not just against Italians. In 2003, a swastika and a Celtic cross was spray painted on the front door of a Jewish synagogue in Sioux Falls. Six years later, in March 2009, four white teenagers fired a BB gun and threw urine at Native Americans in Rapid City. There was the bigotry directed against African American airmen at Ellsworth Air Force based in the early 1960s. And most famously, or infamously, in 1979 in Vermillion, an Asian American family was shot at from passing cars and their pet dogs were gunned down on their own lawn.
I am not attempting to slam the good people of South Dakota. There are good people and bad apples everywhere. I'm from New York -- believe me, I know that better than most people. No one is perfect, but certainly there have been incidents in South Dakota's history that I think have been swept under the rug.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
A: Well, corroborating information was probably the biggest problem I had to contend with. For instance, Chelle Somsen, the State Archivist, from the State Historical Society, told me about an incident in Rapid City probably in the 1920s or 1930s where a restaurant owner was run out of business and his restaurant was destroyed. I couldn't ever find proof of that.
Q: What was the best part?
A: First, if you're Italian, you're going to feel a great deal of pride in your heritage. You might also feel anger. Ermelindo Ardolino is known for his work at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, and the Piccirilli brothers carved Daniel Chester French's mammoth statue of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial. Then there's all the men who were responsible for the stonework at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. But who knows of Luigi Del Bianco's work at Mount Rushmore?
... This might sound a bit corny, but I think this story truly shows that history isn't always set in stone. Also, I have only the greatest respect for Lou Del Bianco (grandson of Luigi) and his late uncle Caesar. Lou and Caesar were always trying to show people that there are all different sides of history, and you really need to have a more well-rounded sense of it, to appreciate things. Finally, their advocacy on behalf of their family member keeps family history alive for future generations. But their pride in their heritage, that's the thing I most admire.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?
A: Even though I paint the Park Service as the primary villain of this book, I just want it noted for the record that everyone was professional and courteous. There might have been one person from the agency who didn't reply to my questions. But Ballinger, Mike Reynolds, they were always responsive.