Rough Boy: Still rough after all these years. If many another male has been obliged to apprehend at least the basics of sensitive, modern sharing-and-caring guyness over these past several generations, Rough Boy isn’t having it. Here he is yet to this day, all 22 marble tons of him, heroically stationed outside Queens Borough Hall with weapon in hand, quite unmistakably beating up on a couple of women who are cringing at his feet. And still to this day he remains sourly unloved by assorted indignants who deem him rude at the very least and want him gone. Now Representative Anthony D. Weiner has become the latest in a long parade of public scolds calling on the city to toss Rough Boy out. “Ugly and offensive,” declaims the art-critic congressman. “It’s time for him to go.”
For nearly 90 years now this has been going on. Rough Boy has never much enjoyed welcome-wagon hospitality, not since the day he was first unveiled in 1922. But perhaps he has found his home at last, now that the keepers of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn — recognizing that he is, of course, the last masterwork of the American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies — are offering to salvage him from the pit and the abyss and give him shelter in their bosky glades.
MacMonnies had trouble winning universal admiration for his various artistic visions in the first place. Brooklyn-born, Paris-educated, MacMonnies specialized in grand public monuments: His Nathan Hale statue in City Hall Park and one of the groups at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn had been judged socially acceptable. On the other hand, Boston had refused his “Dancing Bacchante” on grounds that the bacchante was excessively bacchanal, and Denver had spurned his frontiersman group because the Indian was taller than the white men. Now, in 1922, seven years after the Parks Commission and the Municipal Arts Commission paid him $60,000 to create something epic to put atop a fountain in City Hall Park, here was what MacMonnies had wrought:
“Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness,” it was formally called, though the town wags nicknamed him Rough Boy on the spot. A mighty marble allegory. A near-naked youth, 20 feet in the air, built like an oak and astride two women, one of them already defeated, the other still merely cowering. Here was the Protector. Here was the Conqueror of Temptation, the Vanquisher of the Loreleis, he who would ruggedly resist the songs of the sirens, intended to represent corruption and vice. Here was what civic virtue would look like in the event such a thing ever struck the City of New York.
Allegory, MacMonnies kept patiently explaining. But shocked were the city’s ladies all the same. Never had they been so insulted. Complaints rained down on City Hall: Demeaning and degrading! Virtue is male? Unrighteousness is female? And for weeks there thundered in the city’s prints and town hall meetings nothing less than the Battle of the Sexes, practically warranting a great marble statue itself. Mayor John F. Hylan, an amiable ex-railroadman who did not stand accused even by his friends of being much more than dim, was nonetheless shrewd enough to sniff political difficulties. Well, women had the vote now. You couldn’t just tell them to sit down and be quiet any more. Indeed, bloc-wise, he probably owed them his own recent re-election.
And so there was scheduled a Board of Estimate hearing to discuss the appropriateness of installing in a public park a statue that had been officially approved and paid for years earlier, and on March 22 there appeared before the board great crowds of citizenesses determined to speak their aggrieved minds. Declared Elizabeth King Black of the National Women’s Party: “Men have their feet on women’s necks, and the sooner women realize it the better.” Declared Dr. Ella Boole of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union: “This type of man might have done for a statue in the Middle Ages, but it doesn’t represent any modern man, especially anybody engaged in civic affairs.” Agreed Hylan, to the deafening cheers of his audience: “I don’t claim to know much about art, but I know I don’t like the looks of this chap and I don’t think he’ll look well in City Hall Park.”
“He’s going there just the same,” mildly rebutted the deputy comptroller, Henry Smith, who in 1915 had been one of the art commissioners who had approved Rough Boy.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Hylan said. “I think I’ve got something to say about it.” Again the chamber cheered him long and loud, and at this point Hylan was enjoying the acclaim so much that he decided to schedule a second hearing two weeks later to enjoy still more of it.
Which was a tactical mistake, because two weeks later Rough Boy’s supporters had marshaled expert testimony. The president of the National Association of Women Sculptors and Painters pronounced “Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness” a brilliant MacMonnies. A scholar who maintained that the piece was not in harmony with City Hall’s colonial architecture was shot down by another scholar who said City Hall was Italian Renaissance, not colonial, and that in fact Rough Boy was Florentine and thus very harmonious indeed. A lady from the Long Island City Council of Women’s Clubs stood up to say she didn’t understand what all the silly fuss was about anyway.
And in the end, late in April, Rough Boy went up outside City Hall as planned, and there he stayed until the spring of 1941, when Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who was also no big fan, bounced him over to Queens. There he has continued to stolidly endure one assault after another: The onetime borough president, Claire Shulman, tried to banish him from her sight more than 20 years ago, and now it’s Mr. Weiner’s turn to boldly stand up for the dignity of womankind just in case he happens to be running for something someday. Green-Wood Cemetery’s offer may finally end this long-running ruckus, although the mechanics of Rough Boy’s proposed resettlement remain unclear for the moment. As he does, after all, weigh 22 tons.