Yesterday in Glendale, Elizabeth Taylor, who altered America’s cultural landscape, became the latest luminary to make the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery her permanent home.
Housed in the same building a few corridors away, one of her new neighbors made his mark by altering America’s physical landscape.
Gutzon Borglum was born to Danish immigrants in Idaho on this date in 1867. He showed artistic promise early and as a young man studied sculpture in Paris, where he was influenced by the creator of The Thinker, French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Back in America in 1908, Borglum was commissioned to create the statue of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan for Sheridan Square in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt judged it “first rate,” which may have influenced Borglum’s later decision to include TR on the face of Mount Rushmore (proving yet again that “nice matters”).
Borglum was given an opportunity to create his first massive sculpture by carving the heroes of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. He was chosen for this commission partly based on his xenophobic and racist political beliefs, since the KKK was one of the major sponsors of the monument, and Borglum was a powerful member in the organization.
Borglum learned a great deal about creating large sculptures at Stone Mountain before leaving Georgia behind after clashing with the backers of the project.
His next assignment called for him to transform a mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills into an American cultural landmark.
For fourteen years until his death, just over 70 years ago in 1941, Borglum and his son Lincoln supervised the carving of the 60-foot likenesses of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain known as Six Grandfathers to the native Sioux in the area.
The carving, while unquestionably majestic, still evokes controversy generations after its completion.
Many Native American groups consider the monument to be a glorification of the government-endorsed policy of greed known as “Manifest Destiny.” Some see the decision to place the statue on Indian land acquired through broken treaties, as a celebration of conquest, rather than of liberty.
Some critics view the sculpture as a defacement of the mountain’s natural beauty, while others decry the choice of commissioning a racist to create a national icon.
The example of Elizabeth Taylor and Gutzon Borglum proves that neighbors in death, as in life, can have nothing in common.