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George Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ character has a proud KC connection

Updated: 2014-02-07T01:26:49Z

By JAMES A. FUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

“The Monuments Men” may tell the tale of art experts from the East Coast, but critical documents that made the story possible call Kansas City home.

Joanne Stout owns a lot of them, including the original handwritten journals of George Stout, the Boston museum director who inspired the character portrayed by writer/director/star George Clooney. The 73-year-old Prairie Village woman has another name for George Stout: father-in-law. She was married to his eldest son, Robert, for nearly 20 years.

She has been researching her famous relative since discovering he was a leading member of the Monuments Men, a group of more than 300 artists, art historians and museum directors who helped save millions of pieces of important art at the close of World War II.

They worked to recover European masterpieces that the Nazis had stolen and hidden away in private homes and old salt mines. They also had to persuade Allied forces to protect art treasures in Europe and Asia from bombing raids.

“In real life, he was a very scrappy guy,” Clooney said in a statement from Columbia Pictures. “He could do anything, like fix cars and radios.” Clooney said he changed Stout’s name to the made-up Frank Stokes so he could take a few liberties with the character.

Joanne Stout knew nothing of her father-in-law’s historic role during his life. She found out only after his 1978 death when she read the book the film is based on, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert Edsel.

Now she is on a quest to learn all she can.

“Here’s something,” she said, bending over a computer on her kitchen counter. “It’s from Harvard Magazine.”

She read aloud from the 2010 piece: “When George Stout left Europe in August 1945, after a little more than 13 months, he had discovered, analyzed and packed tens of thousands of pieces of artwork.

“And, oh, and this is great,” she said, skipping ahead. “One of his colleagues, Lincoln Kirstein, said that George Stout was the greatest war hero of all time — he actually saved all the art that everybody talked about.”

She choked back emotion as the power of that sentence sank in.

“The more you read this stuff, the more it gets to you,” she said.

Like his character in the movie, Stout was head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He went on to become the director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

His daughter-in-law has dozens of examples of ancient Asian art from her father-in-law’s personal collection, from Chinese fabric paintings to a priceless six-sided Japanese vase.

“He loved Asian art,” she said. “That was the connection between he and Larry Sickman,” another Monuments Man who was director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The men played a key role in helping the museum amass one of the pre-eminent collections of Asian art in the world.

Stout recently met with museum director Julián Zugazagoitia and several other museum officials after reading about local Monuments Men in The Star last month.

“Having the daughter-in-law of George Stout bring the story closer to home with a connection to one of the main characters in the movie is a revelation,” Zugazagoitia said. “She brought documents and photography, but most important were the original notebooks on which Mr. Stout recounted his time with the Monuments Men.”

How important?

“One of the experts told me, ‘This is the original bible of provenance for the Monuments Men,’ ” Joanne Stout said. “ ‘You have something priceless.’ 

The journals, which are available to researchers online, are technical but also enlightening.

“He talks about how they ran out of (protective coverings) to put over the paintings, but the Germans had stolen a bunch of furs, so they wrapped paintings in fur coats and took them out of the mines,” Joanne Stout said. “Isn’t that funny?”

Beyond wanting to study George Stout’s journals, museum officials also wanted to know what the man was like.

“He was very smart,” his daughter-in-law said. “But he was the kind of person who never said one word about himself unless you asked. Then he would give you a complete answer and follow it with a totally disarming smile.”

She described him as 5-feet 7 and slender, with a “nifty little mustache, pale blue eyes and dark brown hair. He wore a beret and always walked with a cane. He was well dressed, mentally disciplined and always a gentleman.”

The excitement over the movie has been both exhausting and helpful.

“It has brought members of the Stout family together who had not communicated in a long time,” she said.

While Robert Stout had three children with his first two wives, his third wife, Joanne, was his longest-lasting relationship. They lived in the Virgin Islands, where they ran a charter boat service. After her husband died in 1984, and Hurricane Hugo took away virtually everything else, she moved to be close to her mother, who lived in Leawood.

“Over that period of time I sort of lost track (and) lost George Stout’s granddaughters’ emails,” she said.

She found them later on Facebook. Now she has begun sending them boxes of their famous grandfather’s history.

Now many more people will know what her father-in-law did.

“George Stout spent the better part of his professional life protecting great works of art,” she said. “So people should go see great works of art. I think George Clooney is doing such a service to say, hey, folks, get yourself to a museum.”

•  Exhibit: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will open a small exhibition on Saturday featuring manuscripts, newspaper clippings, postcards and biographies of Monuments Men who were affiliated with the museum. For more information, go to nelson-atkins.org.

•  Q&A: After the 7 p.m. showings of “The Monuments Men” Friday and Saturday at The Legends in Kansas City, Kan., three experts from the Nelson will answer questions from the audience. On hand will be the museum’s chief curator, Antonia Bostrom; Nicole Myers, curator in the museum’s European painting department; and European painting researcher MacKenzie Mallon.

To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send email to jfussell@kcstar.com.

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