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A Filipino in the White House (2)

/ 05:15 AM February 19, 2021

Success is the sum of skill and opportunity. For Guillermo Tolentino, first National Artist for Sculpture, that confluence of skill and opportunity took all of five minutes in the White House on Aug. 18, 1919. Florence Blake, owner of Old Pierce Mill, a restaurant in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC, recognized that Tolentino had greater talents than waiting at tables and washing dishes. When Tolentino showed Blake a statue of Peace he had made, she remarked: “You should present that to the President of the United States.”

Blake arranged for Tolentino to meet Edith Benham, a regular customer who was secretary to First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson. An audience was secured for Tolentino, who related the events of that day to A.V.H. Hartendorp in 1927 and Antonio E. Sta. Elena in 1962 as follows:

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Florence Blake’s car brought him to the White House gate, while he carried the statue under his arm. Tolentino was directed to the office of John Randolph Bolling, the President’s brother-in-law and secretary, who ushered him into the Blue Room. Tolentino set the statue on a round table that he recognized as narra, a Philippine hardwood, and began thinking of what to say. Five minutes later, President Wilson appeared by the doorway smiling. Tolentino recalled that “his smile took all my fears away.” It also took his thoughts and words away, too. He was paralyzed.

President Wilson extended his hand, saying warmly: “Hello Guillermo, I know you have something for me.” He then walked toward the statue, saying: “Let’s see what you have there…” After admiring it, he remarked: “What do you know? It’s beautiful… It’s beautiful…” To get Tolentino to speak, the President inquired into his job, how much he was making, and whether he was happy in the US. He asked about Tolentino’s plans, what he wanted to study and where, telling Tolentino that if he found any difficulty entering art school, he should drop him a line and the President would do anything to assist him. Ending the five-minute call, Wilson shook Tolentino’s hand and said: “Good luck and success to you, Guillermo.”

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Two DC papers carried notices of Tolentino’s call. On Aug. 22, 1919, the Evening Star published a photograph of Tolentino and the statue of Peace, saying of the latter:

“The statue represents the goddess of peace, whose advent assures protection to the small and weak nations of the earth, represented in the statue group by a baby standing close to a matron… He conceived the inspiration for his work on the occasion of the recent coming to this country of a Philippine mission, representing all elements in the islands, to plead for Philippine independence.”

Tolentino recalled returning to the restaurant happy, telling himself: “Well, I have seen the President.” It was at this time that the Philippine Mission, headed by Mr. [Manuel] Quezon, had to return to the Philippines without having secured an interview with the President because of the pressure of work. After he recounted all this to the people in Old Pierce Mill restaurant, Mrs. Blake remarked: “Those are the most precious five minutes of your life.”

The story did not end with a mere social call on the White House. Tolentino moved to New York in the autumn and with $300 in savings enrolled at the Beaux Arts Institute. Tolentino found board and lodging as an assistant and errand boy to the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, whose most famous work, completed in 1941, are the giant profiles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved on the face of Mount Rushmore. Soon after his arrival in New York, Tolentino received a note to see the millionaire Bernard Baruch, who had been shown the statue of Peace by President Wilson. Baruch offered financial help of $100 a month to tide him over, but the modest Tolentino said $75 was enough. A check for $75 was handed to him then, and $75 arrived every month without fail for two years until Tolentino completed his studies in New York and moved to Rome.

Mrs. Wilson, who corresponded with Tolentino until 1957, said the President treasured the statue of Peace by Tolentino and brought it to his Washington, DC home after leaving the White House. Wilson House is now a museum, Tolentino’s work, displayed in the ex-president’s bedroom, is evidence of a chance meeting that changed a life that enriched Philippine art.

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TAGS: art, artist, Guillermo tolentino, History, sculptor, White House
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