That, in a nutshell, is the story of Borglum’s life, as told by John Taliaferro in Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore. The “classic Borglum” behavior was to “demand control, ruffle feathers, allege conspiracy, exaggerate evil–and lastly, foul the nest.” Borglum was clearly a disagreeable sort, a deadbeat who was disloyal to his friends and consorted with the Ku Klux Klan. But there are plenty of bastards and difficult characters in the world, and not many of them have the perseverance, talent, and selling ability to make as big a mark as Borglum made.
Borglum initially promised he could finish Mount Rushmore in a year’s time. (It took 14.) The idea of carving a massive sculpture of historical figures in the Black Hills originated with a local historian named Doane Robinson, who knew that South Dakota wanted a major attraction to put it on the tourist map. Robinson originally had in mind western figures such as Lewis and Clark, John Fremont, and Red Cloud. Borglum wasn’t his first choice, but he improved on Robinson’s vision with the idea of honoring truly national figures, starting with Washington. He also charmed the pants off Robinson and the other local power brokers. “I count it one of the great experiences of my life to have spent two days with a man of his genius and high character,” Robinson wrote soon after.
Unfortunately for Taliaferro, the tales of Borglum’s charms mainly take that sort of generalized turn. Borglum’s shortcomings, on the other hand, have been passed down in technicolor detail. Much of the book is made up of Borglum’s constant fights with both patrons and subordinates. He was an anti-Semite but extended the reach of his vitriol in a letter to The New York Times about “the Jewish question” to conclude that “all immigrants are undesirable.” Harold Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary, said that when he had to deal with Borglum, “I always feel like equipping myself as a man does when he fusses with a beehive.”
Borglum’s charm, however, wasn’t the point. The evidence of what the man was capable of accomplishing is all around us, from southwestern South Dakota and Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C., to Borglum’s celebrated “Seated Lincoln” in Newark. Borglum, like so many artists of his generation, was critical of mechanical reproduction. Taliaferro does a fine job in depicting the “very human” aspects of Rushmore, from the trompe-l’oeil effects of Theodore Roosevelt’s glasses and softness of Jefferson’s mouth to the egotism, publicity-mongering, bluster, and safety concerns of Borglum.
Even away from the sculpture studio, Borglum thought big. He invited 200 Czech fighters to camp and train on his Connecticut property before heading to the front during World War I and organized winter rations for drought-stricken Sioux at Pine Ridge a few years later. During the war, Borglum poured $17,000 of his own money into an investigation of corruption and safety violations in the military’s Aircraft Production Board.
Perhaps because Borglum kept so many pots boiling, it takes Taliaferro more than 200 pages before he gets around to recounting the first drill bit entering the granite at Rushmore. But Taliaferro, a former Newsweek editor and biographer of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Charles M. Russell, is a discursive writer anyway. Many of the subjects he takes up along the way are worthwhile, including the rise of car-based tourism and the state of public sculpting at the dawn of the 20th century. Taliaferro also does a nice job of summarizing the battles–legal, cultural, and actual–that Native Americans have fought over their lost sacred ground in the Black Hills.
Like a tourist distracted by the many wares for sale on the road to Rushmore, though, Taliaferro can’t resist straying from the main line of his narrative to take up too many other subjects. When it comes to recounting Borglum’s career, Taliaferro is a strong and disciplined writer, but he goes all flabby tackling numerous ancillary matters, such as the site’s new parking garage and the day Regis and Kathy Lee came to film at Mount Rushmore. Dances With Wolves may have been filmed in South Dakota, but do we really need five pages about Kevin Costner at this stage in his career?
Borglum died just before his greatest achievement was completed, at a cost Taliaferro puts at under $1 million. His death has become part of Rushmore lore–Borglum falling, Moses-like, just short of his goal. Reading Taliaferro’s breezy, winning account, though, it’s hard not to feel that Borglum’s end was fitting. He was always moving on to the next thing; actually bringing projects to completion often became a mere afterthought. Nonetheless, reading about the many accomplishments of this restless, selfish, self-promoting, bigoted man, you can hardly help but wonder whether you’re making enough of your own short time on this earth.