Bob Genheimer climbs a stepladder in the atrium of the Geier Collections and Research Center, slides open an exhibit case just below the ceiling, and with latex-gloved hands reaches inside for a small wooden figure. It’s item A10053, an orange-painted male ancestry figure circa 1900–1930 carved by the Biwat or Anggoran people of Papua New Guinea, one of about 1.5 million items in the center’s massive warehouse at 760 W. Fifth Street. Genheimer gingerly places the 18-inch-tall carving on a white photographic screen, where the male figure squats naked like a miniaturized South Pacific version of Rodin’s Thinker. Face cupped in his hands, the imp stares ahead, a look of reflection, uneasiness, and a nasty dose of mischief under his curling unibrow.
“This is my favorite piece of all,” Genheimer says, referring to the doll’s stature among the myriad pieces in Treasures of Travel: Cincinnati Collects the World, a massive exhibit he and his fellow staff members are busily preparing for the opening at the Cincinnati Museum Center on February 19. “Everything about this carved figure suggests an out-of-this-world or alternate world expression. He has a devilish appearance, particularly the eyes. He is also very contemplative…. If he is an ancestor figure, then he represents a potentially unpleasant aspect of the deceased. In general, he is the most captivating piece in the exhibit. It is hard to look away from him.”
Several hundred exotic items—many of them from once uncharted regions of Africa, the Arctic, South America, and the South Pacific—have been carefully selected from the Geier Collection to showcase the art and handiwork of native peoples around the world, along with the adventures of a dozen world travellers who went to arduous lengths to collect them. Chief among the exhibit will be 72 ceremonial masks, dolls, drums, decorative cloths, household items, and carved house posts from the South Pacific that were bartered from islanders during a famed world cruise from 1931 to 1932 by Julius Fleischmann Jr. As the grandson of yeast baron Charles Fleischmann, son of former Cincinnati mayor Julius Fleischmann, and heir to a Gilded Age fortune, Julius Jr. was a patron of the arts, Broadway producer, land conservationist, philanthropist, yachtsman, amateur anthropologist, and for a good portion of his cruise, a spy for the United States Navy.
With his look of other-worldly alienation, the carved doll is perhaps reflecting on the long, strange trip that brought him thousands of miles from the tropical highlands of Melanesia aboard Fleischmann’s 225-foot yacht Camargo, said to be the largest and most expensive pleasure craft of its day. Other native goods from Fleischmann’s booty haul to find their way into the exhibit include a pair of life-sized wooden goat drums from a Balinese orchestra; a variety of decorative wooden masks from Melanesia; a beaded breast plate ribbed with boar tusks from the Yos Sudarso Bay; tapa bark cloth depicting scenes from several Indonesian islands; carvings of a charging crocodile and a crouching dog from Papua New Guinea; and a half-dozen house post figures (including one whose head is about to be devoured by a croc) from New Georgia Island. Two of the largest pieces are a bed decorated with carved reptile and human heads from the Admiralty Islands and a 21-foot-long ceremonial feasting trough from the Solomons that took a dozen people to move. A handwritten note by castaways who were found and rescued by the Camargo on Cocos Island is testament to one of the more sensational highlights of the cruise.
“Most of these treasures document a world that no longer exists, in a world that is changing faster and faster,” says Genheimer, the George Rieveschl curator of archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Choosing among the 10,000 items in the center’s anthropology storage room, many of which have never been displayed publicly, has been a daunting task. For the first time, Cincinnati audiences will have a chance to see the collection’s Amazonian feather work—headdresses, skirts, loincloths, and ornaments decorated with the bright and sometimes exquisitely subtle plumage of parrots, hawks, roseate spoonbills, and other birds of the tropics, collected by other world travellers. “We were trying to make selections,” says Genheimer, who has worked at the museum center for 25 years, “but every drawer you open, it’s been, ‘Oh God, how are we going to pick?’ ”
The Fleischmann journey itself, and those of 11 other individuals, will be just as much a part of Treasures of Travel as the artifacts on display. “The exhibit talks about why people travel, where they go, and why they collect things and bring them back,” Genheimer says. “People’s reasons for travel are very different. Sometimes it’s for pleasure, for education, sometimes for immigration. Several [of the exhibitors] were naval officers. Some were simply tourists. Whatever the reason, travel is one of those uniquely human things. Most of us like to travel somewhere—it’s how we learn about the world.”
The Fleischmann world cruise most certainly is in a travel class by itself. The 36,000-mile long trek took 11 months, weathered several violent storms, and docked in scores of countries and parts unknown. The vessel meandered from the northern hemisphere to the southern, starting at the New York Yacht Club and first visiting Bermuda and Jamaica, then sailing through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific into Japanese-controlled waters, as well as many of the island chains in the South Pacific rim, from the Galapagos to Dutch East Guinea and on through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean. Julius brought with him his wife Dorette; their two small children, Charles (“Skip”), age 4, and 3-month-0ld Dorette Louise (“Dielle”); three friends, including Dorette’s Smith College classmate Katie Rohan; a personal physician, and to document the journey, National Geographic photographer and explorer Amos Burg. In addition, Fleischmann produced a nearly three-hour film of the trip that now resides in the Smithsonian archive.
The vessel was in a class by itself. The Camargo, the first of five yachts of that name to be owned by Julius Jr., was built at a cost of $625,000 (more than $8 million in today’s dollars) and was criticized by the press at the time for her extravagance. Along with a crew of 35 to 40, she could accommodate up to 80 guests in 14 staterooms with most of the comforts of home. The living room was warmed by a wood-burning fireplace, and in good weather, the dining room table could be pushed along tracks to the fantail deck above the stern for outdoor dining. Fleischmann also had a well-equipped gymnasium and game room installed, and apparently didn’t skimp on the crew quarters either.
“She had very, very nice crew quarters, and some of the yachts in those days didn’t have such nice ones,” says Tinker Crouch, president of the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society. Her source? Merle Greene, first mate on the Camargo and her grandfather. Crouch is a one-woman gale-force storm for preserving the history of Deer Isle, Maine, where seven generations of men have gone to sea. The island is where most of the crews for the America’s Cup racing teams and the “floating palaces” of the Gilded Age were recruited. Her great- great uncle, Charles Small, was captain of the Camargo. As first mate, her grandfather was always the first to land, often armed with a revolver, on islands where the stereotypes of the day created a fear of cannibals.
The Camargo is still revered on Deer Isle “as a beautiful lady with a wonderful life,” says Crouch. She was a seaworthy beauty, with a clipper bow and sleek hull, a 60,000-gallon fuel tank, and two 800-horsepower Krupp diesel engines that could produce a cruising speed of 12 knots. In remote parts of the world, the crew would arrange to rendezvous with fuel tankers for refilling. During World War II, she served as a transport ship in Pearl Harbor, and afterward as a passenger ferry between Malta and Sicily. She ran aground in 1955, capsized, and was refloated, but was finally sold for scrap in 1966.
Clearly, the high point of the Camargo’s time on the high seas was the Fleischmann family’s round-the-world excursion. Not only because of the waters it plied, the islands it visited, and the exotic cultures its passengers and crew encountered, but because of who they passed a good deal of that information on to. While in the South Pacific, Fleischmann and his crew created maps, sounding charts, and descriptions of the local peoples and topography that would later be used by the U.S. military to advance against many of the Japanese-held islands during World War II. The historical record shows that the Navy requested the Camargo turn over its navigational aids following the voyage, but a more likely scenario is that Fleischmann planned to survey those waters at the request of the Office of Naval Intelligence. By the early 1930s, the U.S. and Japan were already vying for influence and strategic intelligence in what would become the Pacific Theater a decade later.
Between the world wars, U.S. military and political leaders often relied on wealthy, patriotic travellers to spy for their country. FDR had cultivated a coterie of well-connected friends who acted as “gentleman amateur” snoops leading up to Pearl Harbor. They included the scions of some of America’s most prominent families, including Vincent Astor, Winthrop Aldrich, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy’s son), and publisher Nelson Doubleday. Although Fleischmann was not part of FDR’s inner circle, General MacArthur set up his wartime base in Indonesia’s Humboldt Bay, waters first charted by the Camargo, and advanced toward the Philippines through New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, all places visited by the Fleischmanns. After Pearl Harbor, Julius Jr. joined the Navy as an attaché to European governments in exile, a position that reeks of intelligence service, and during the Cold War served as a front man for the CIA. Like many of the nation’s spook class, Julius Jr. was a Yale man, class of 1920—nicknamed “Junkie” by his classmates, for reasons only they could explain.
Junkie no doubt had his personal reasons for visiting far-off exotic lands, not the least of which is that he could afford to. His grandfather, Charles Louis Fleischmann, had grown up in Eastern Europe and apprenticed to a distiller and yeast maker before emigrating to Cincinnati in the 1860s, where he was disappointed by the paltry quality of locally baked bread. Along with his brother Max and another business partner, Charles founded what became the Fleischmann Yeast Company in Riverside in 1868, manufacturing packaged yeast that was affordable and ready to use at a time when most bakers and housewives had to expose their dough long enough to capture airborne yeast. It was the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 that brought the tasty baked goods of Fleischmann’s Model Vienna Bakery to the attention of a national and international audience. Before the turn of the century, the company would sprout 14 manufacturing facilities and become the world’s leading producer of yeast, the second biggest producer of vinegar, and the distiller of Fleischmann’s gin.
Charles Fleischmann’s son, Julius, took over the family business at age 22 and invested in thoroughbred horses and baseball teams, including the Cincinnati Shamrocks, while also finding time to launch a political career. In 1900, he was elected Cincinnati’s youngest mayor at age 28 and served until 1905, upgrading its police force and parks system. He was the benefactor of numerous cultural and civic groups, including the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as an avid sportsman, sailor, and thrice-wedded bon vivant. When he died of a heart attack during a polo match in Miami in 1925, his son Julius Jr. inherited $30 million along with the family business, which he sold three years later for many millions more in a merger of four companies into Standard Brands, brokered by J.P. Morgan.
Julius Jr. was a counterpoint to his father’s breezy flamboyance. When he took control of the family fortune at age 24, the Cincinnati Commercial-Tribune described him as a man “of a retiring nature [who] never seeks the limelight, dresses plainly and participates little in social affairs.” The article noted that Fleischmann “has spent most of his time in Cincinnati since graduating from Yale University” and that “he attends services every Sunday at the Unitarian Church in Avondale.”
Noah Fleischmann was 6 years old when his grandfather died in 1968, but says that he heard frequently from those who knew him that “he treated everyone with the same level of respect, whether a porter at a hotel or a CEO. He was very friendly. Everybody liked him.” During the Great Cincinnati Flood of 1937, Julius was helping to fill sandbags, laboring incognito among the other volunteers, when a fellow worker decided to toy with him. “The man told my grandfather this really off-color joke and then asked him, ‘Do you know who told me that joke? (Pause.) It was Julius Fleischmann.’ ”
Julius Jr. was part of a group of wealthy local investors who created Indian Hill, secretly buying up thousands of acres of farmland northeast of Cincinnati to be carved into sprawling estates. It was on 2 square miles of his own land, dubbed Winding Creek Farm, that Fleischman, while still single, built his limestone Normandy-style mansion, complete with moat, cobblestone courtyard, and fountain. In 1996, when the mansion’s furnishings were being auctioned, then-Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Laura Pulfer described the home as “quintessential old Cincinnati money. Solid underpinnings, tasteful, cultured, understated. Money was lavished on parts of the house visitors would never see: the furnace room, climate-controlled house for pipe organ chimes. Gutters and downspouts are solid cast lead, and the slates on the roof are an inch thick.”
Despite his disdain for social life, Fleischmann managed to meet and wed Dorette Kruse, daughter of a successful Cincinnati hardware distributor, a Smith student, and “a beautiful young woman,” Noah said. He has a photo of his grandmother christening the Camargo. “The bump you see there is my father [Charles],” he says. “She was pregnant with him at the time.” Perhaps mercifully, the children were too young to remember the cruise when it encountered bed-thumping seas near Bermuda, seemingly endless rains in the Cocos, and long stretches of seasickness from New Britain to New Guinea, from Saigon to Bangkok, and on the way to Ceylon. At one point, a rogue wave smashed through two windows in the Fleischmann’s stateroom and soaked the couple in their beds. But of course it wasn’t all nuisance and sacrifice. They were greeted and entertained in nearly every port of call, feted by rajahs, sultans, and European royalty, including the King of Romania.
Julius Jr. wrote a book in 1935 about the world cruise, Footsteps in the Sea, a detailed and observant travelogue of the more exotic locales and peoples they encountered, mostly in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific Islands. An entire chapter, however, is devoted to Cocos Island off the west coast of Costa Rica, which Fleischmann had previously visited and had been surprised to find had no land birds. In his own sort of ecological experiment, when he returned during the world cruise, he released domesticated chickens, ducks, and geese to see if they could survive there. The landing party soon encountered another surprise: the makeshift hut of three castaways who had been stranded on the island for half a year. A note left behind by the starving men said they had traveled to another part of the island in search of coconuts. The rescue made news around the world and was the subject of a newsreel.
Fleischmann bartered with native peoples for the items he collected; he started with trinkets but soon discovered that gasoline cans were far more prized for transporting the precious fuel from island to island. Often the Camargo’s landing party was entertained with ceremonial dances, most of which were carefully documented in still photographs and on film by Fleischmann, who was fascinated with dancing of all kinds. The name Camargo, in fact, was derived from Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo, an 18th-century French ballerina who dazzled audiences with her technique and was the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre, a leap with four scissoring movements of the feet. Among Fleischmann’s best-known contributions to the arts was the financing of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, an influential company that introduced American audiences to ballet in cities and towns across the country. Its principal dancers performed with other companies and founded dance schools and companies of their own throughout Europe and the U.S.; one was Frederic Franklin, who became a resident choreographer for the Cincinnati Ballet.
The only other donor in the exhibit to challenge Fleischmann in the range of his travels and collectibles is Lewis Cotlow, an explorer and filmmaker who visited nearly every corner of the planet from 1919 into the 1980s, mostly for RKO Pictures. Cotlow had an exploitative interest in headhunting tribes and wrote books and produced films about them. In December, Genheimer and his staff were still trying to decide whether to include one of the shrunken heads Cotlow acquired or if it would be objectionable to viewers.
Although Cotlow was a superb photographer and filmmaker, not even he documented his travels to the extent that Fleischmann did. “You not only have these amazing artifacts, but you have photos, movies, journals, and letters home,” says Genheimer of the Fleischmanns’ grand tour. “You’re able to put yourself in their position and you feel like you’ve been on the cruise with them.”
Without the seasickness, one would hope.
Treasures of Travel opens Feb. 19 and runs through the end of June in the South Gallery of the Cincinnati Museum Center.