History enthusiast Arthur Lefkowitz grew up in Brooklyn near Prospect Park, where commemorative statues and historic signposts recall the Battle of Long Island during the Revolutionary War, which occurred in part on the park grounds. Yet he wonders whether the real source of his interest in history was not just the geographical proximity of historical memory but rather the experience of being a first-generation American.
Lefkowitz’s father immigrated from Russia as a child and loved being an American, says Lefkowitz, and guesses that that love passed easily from his father to himself. “Sometimes I think my interest in American history was because this became my father’s adopted country,” he says. His father never looked back to Russia but was always curious about the country that gave him so much opportunity in the form of a free education and a small business — he owned an old-fashioned 5 & 10 in Brooklyn, where Lefkowitz worked every day after school. “He was a kind and generous person with a strong work ethic,” says Lefkowitz. “I can still draw the layout of the store and where everything was.” He says his father was a circus acrobat and strong man in his youth, sometimes working under the name “the Amazing Austin.” “My mother would only marry him if he agreed to give up his career in the circus and vaudeville.
From earliest memory Lefkowitz found history to be more interesting and fascinating than novels and visits both to historical venues and to museums made the stories he read come alive for him. “When I said let’s to go to Fort Ticonderoga, he was ready to go,” says Lefkowitz, who found, as the more learned of the two in things American, that he was teaching his father the details of American history.
An early historical passion was the Brooklyn Bridge, built between 1869 and 1882. As a child, Lefkowitz read about its history, its construction, and the engineers who built it, and he still likes to share the bridge’s story, which of course has a Trenton connection in engineer John A. Roebling, a Trenton great who invented the wire rope that made the modern suspension bridge possible.
Lefkowitz will be sharing another of his history passions during Patriots Week in Trenton in a talk titled “Eyewitness Images from the American Revolution,” Wednesday, December 26, 3 to 4 p.m., at the Masonic Temple Library at Front and Barrack streets. His color-slide presentation will focus on eyewitness paintings, illustration, sketches, and portraits.
Lefkowitz received a liberal arts degree from New York University and a master of business administration from Long Island University. Since college he has worked in the lock industry and now represents physical security companies that sell the sophisticated locks used in bank safes.
His work has given the Piscataway resident the opportunity to travel worldwide, where he continues to nurture his history passion. In the Philippines, where he always stays at the Hotel Manila — General McArthur’s headquarters prior to the Japanese invasion — he visited Legador, a huge fortress island where the American army held out for months against the Japanese but finally surrendered.
“The hotel is supposed to be haunted,” says Lefkowitz, explaining that the Americans didn’t want to bomb this historic landmark so they fought inside the building, room by room. When staying in the historic wing, his own imagination went wild. “Every time I would hear the floor creaking, I would think it was the ghost of one of the Japanese soldiers who were killed in the building,” he admits. His wife, Susan, formerly worked as the art director for several major book publishers and presently makes pottery, which she sells at juried craft shows. They have two grown children, Amy and Joshua.
About 30 years ago Lefkowitz narrowed his historical study to his favorite subject, the American Revolution, and set about developing the in-depth knowledge he craved. Not only did Lefkowitz read everything he could get his hands on and talk to experts in the field, but he also became a reenactor in the late 1960s, an experience he recommends to every historian. “Having been a reenactor allows me to write with an added dimension and knowledge,” says the author of “Bushnell’s Sumbarine,” “Benedict Arnold’s Army,” “George Washington’s Indispensable Men,” and “The Long Retreat.”
As a reenactor he also had to heft a musket weighing 16 pounds and other accoutrements. Pretending to be a Revolutionary War soldier is hard work, especially when it involves shooting that musket on a hot summer day, but it is also a serious undertaking for the reenactors. For the observing public, claims Lefkowitz, watching a reenactment is similar to any kind of entertainment. That’s why, one hot summer day, wearing his $1,000 reproduction uniform, sweating bullets and dripping with black musket power, he decided to quit when a man walked up and put a child down next to him. “He said, ‘I’m going to take my kid’s picture with you,’ then he walks off,” says Lefkowitz. “They think this is Disneyland or something. People are looking at this as some kind of amusement when the people doing it are very serious about it.”
The transition from focused reading and reenactment to actual research started when Lefkowitz noticed that no books existed on the period in late 1776 in New Jersey when, significantly, very little happened. Yet is was during this period in which Britain came closest to a military victory, he says. “It’s like a Seinfeld episode — nothing happens. The Americans had suffered a string of defeats, and the Brits were headed toward Philadelphia. They came so close to dealing America a blow that it might not have recovered from, but nothing happened. It’s mind boggling.”
This grabbed his curiosity but all he could find out about it was a paragraph here and there in histories and biographies. When he went to a lecture at the New York Historical Society by the great Revolutionary War historian and George Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner, Lefkowitz introduced himself to the speaker and confirmed that indeed no book existed about the American retreat. Then Flexner said to him, “Young man, you should write that book.”
He took Flexner’s advice seriously. And he remembers his children joking, when he was ensconced in his study, “Where is Daddy? Oh, he’s writing his book.” But the outcome of his toils was a groundbreaking book, “The Long Retreat,” named by the Board of Governors of the American Revolution Round Table as the best book on the Revolution published in 1998 and by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities a 1999 honor book.
Lefkowitz has especially enjoyed getting to know the big-time historians. “Say you’re a New York Yankees fan,” he says. “What’s more exciting than sitting in the dugout with the team?”
During work on his first book, Lefkowitz encountered the names of many men who worked at Washington’s headquarters and discovered they were aides de camp, that is, personal secretaries to Washington. With a little more research he was soon one book farther into history scholarship with “George Washington’s Indispensable Men.”
“Bushnell’s Submarine: The Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution,” came to be after Scholastic asked him to write a book about the world’s first submarine, which was used during the Revolution.
His next book, scheduled to be published by Savas Beatie (started by historians who are focusing on Internet sales) in January, grew out of an experience long ago following the route Benedict Arnold took from Maine up to Quebec City, a story that has always fascinated him.
During his Patriot Week presentation, Lefkowitz will talk about several paintings of the Revolutionary War. The most well known is “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” “It gives us our image of what the American Revolution looks like,” says Lefkowitz. “It is one of most recognized pictures in the Western world.” Yet the picture, by Emanuel Leutze, a German who came to Philadelphia as a child and then returned to Germany to pursue art studies, was painted in Dusseldorf in 1851.
The original, which became a treasure of the Nazis, was destroyed in an allied bombing raid during World War II, but Leutze had painted a second original that went on tour in America. “People would pay to see these big paintings — huge, detailed, like an entire drama,” says Lefkowitz. “It was the highest form of art in the 19th century, to create what was called a historic painting.”
Yet despite its popularity, the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware is not at all accurate historically. “It’s a story of what Leutze thought Washington crossing the Delaware looked like,” he says, listing a series of historical inaccuracies: the flag didn’t exist at the time; the boat was not the type Washington used; the clothing was wrong; the man standing behind Washington is James Monroe, who participated in the Battle of Trenton but is not known to have been in the boat with Washington; the weather is wrong; and, finally, the river is the Rhine, not the Delaware.
“It’s a great image, an imaginative scene that somehow has become ingrained in our perception of what the American Revolution looked like,” says Lefkowitz.
Other interesting pictures from the American Revolution were created by British army engineers trained in England to rapidly depict terrain, draw maps, and illustrate features of the land for senior army officers. Trained in watercolor and sketching, mediums that enabled quick renderings of a scene, they created eyewitness pictures of landscapes and combat scenes in the war, primarily to sell to wealthy British officers who wanted souvenir pictures to take home.
Itinerant artists, the best of whom studied art in England, also portrayed the Revolutionary period. One of these, Charles Willson Peale, painted a full-length portrait of Washington at Princeton, with Nassau Hall way in the background. “It was the largest public building in America at the time,” says Lefkowitz. The British had barricaded themselves inside, and Alex Hamilton pelted the building with cannonballs, one of which is still in its outside wall. Peale cranked out 19 versions of this picture for sale, and his nephew Charles Peale Polk cranked out some 54 Washington portraits.
Lefkowitz also discusses a portrait of Walter Stewart, who was called “the Irish beauty,” which, he says, is interesting primarily for the detail of the uniform. A wealthy businessman, Stewart could have afforded an expensive and elaborate uniform, but in keeping with the spirit of the Revolution, his was simple, without the lace donned by Europeans, albeit with excellent tailoring and expensive fabric.
Lefkowitz will also be showing a picture of Aaron Burr that he commissioned for his book on the Arnold expedition. The artist was the late George Woodbridge, who worked for Mad magazine and illustrated books as a hobby. To create the Burr sketch, Woodbridge used information in a letter the teenage Burr had written to his sister from Maine describing exactly what he was wearing; he modeled the face after the earliest known portrait of Burr, at age 19.
For Lefkowitz history is alive and its evidence available to anyone with a little bit of curiosity. “I find it fun to know all these stories,” he says. “I think it is sad that people walk through a city like New York or Trenton and have no idea of the world around them — all the things there are to see and all the interesting stories.”
Eyewitness Images from the American Revolution, Wednesday, December 26, 3 to 4 p.m. Patriots’ Week, Masonic Temple, Front and Barrack streets, Trenton. Arthur Lefkowitz, author of “Bushnell’s Submarine,” “Benedict Arnold’s Army,” “George Washington’s Indispensable Men,” and “The Long Retreat,” discusses paintings, illustrations, sketches, and portraits executed during the conflict. www.patriotsweek.com or 877-PAT-WEEK.