Bangor artist jumped ship and into history books

Posted Oct. 30, 2010, at 5:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

“Bangor Man Deserted Cattle Boat for Mauretania,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 5, 1910. Then, all in capital letters, came the punch line: “HE JUMPED OVER BOARD.”

This Bangor “young man” is never identified by the newspaper. Readers could assume, however, he was someone from one of the city’s wealthy and powerful families that the news hounds did not wish to offend with a story about their impulsive son.

The Mauretania was a luxury liner. The young man, after he got back to the Boston waterfront, marched to a local bank, said the newspaper story, where his family’s business transactions were conducted. After a long-distance telephone call to Mom or Dad, he was able to dip into the family fortune to buy a ticket on the famous passenger ship.

By now, a Bangor newspaper reader with a fleeting familiarity with the doings of Bangor’s rich young people had probably figured out who this young man was.

“Hey, isn’t Waldo Peirce an expert swimmer, as the paper says here,” the newspaper-reader shouts to his or her spouse in the next room. “Didn’t I hear the other day that he was headed on a European tour with one of his Harvard buddies — on a cattle boat no less — when his father could afford to buy the Mauretania?”

When I found this story in the Commercial, I realized I had stumbled on an early, incomplete version of one of the most humorous tales ever told about a Bangorean. One of the country’s most famous artists by the middle of the 20th century, Waldo Peirce was the son of Mellen and Anna Hayford Peirce, heirs to a lumber for-tune. (It was Mellen’s brother, Luther, who donated the money for the famed Peirce Memorial to loggers next to the Bangor Public Library.)

Waldo Peirce’s work is in some of the nation’s great art museums as well as at the Bangor Public Library. But today he is remembered as much for his bigger-than-life personality — often described as Rabelaisian, lusty, bohemian and so on. A good friend of that other lusty fellow, Ernest Hemingway, they hung out together in Key West. Peirce once was called the Hemingway of artists or some such nonsense. His response was to the effect that he doubted anyone ever would call Hemingway the Waldo Peirce of literature. He knew his place in the world.

I have a special interest in Peirce. I grew up in Troy, N.Y., where he painted two dramatic murals in the U. S. Post Office. These colorful renderings located at either end of the large lobby portray scenes from two of my favorite stories by Washington Irving — “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Whenever my mother took me to the post office, I invariably stared awe-struck at Rip and the little men at one end of the lobby and then at the fear-crazed Ichabod Crane about to be clobbered by a pumpkin at the other. Waldo Peirce was my first and greatest art teacher.

The story of Peirce’s jump from the cattle boat and the unbelievable events that followed has been told many times in many versions since it occurred in July 1910, less than a month before the Commercial story “went over the wires.” I have relied on the version told by Granville Hicks in his biography of the adventurer John Reed, Peirce’s Harvard buddy and traveling companion. Reed became a radical journalist and activist most famous today for his book “Ten Days That Shook the World,” his eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution. But in 1910 Reed and Peirce still were just youngsters out to see the world.

On July 9, 1910, the SS Bostonian left Boston for Liverpool with 700 steers on board. A dozen students, including Reed and a reluctant Peirce, had signed “the ships articles” to work their passage. “It was an uncommonly hot day, and the stench of the cattle filled the forecastle and hung heavy on the deck,” wrote Hicks, basing his account on Reed’s journal, as well as Peirce’s account.

These would-be sailors were given a tin plate, tin cup and spoon and sent below to eat. The meal included “some sort of vegetable soup with white worms in it.” The Mauretania was looking better to Peirce every minute. The thought of jumping into the ocean far out from shore is not an inviting thought for most of us. But for Peirce, an outstanding athlete who lettered in football at Harvard, it looked like a swim in the park compared with 10 days on a cattle boat.

Leaving his wallet and watch on Reed’s bed, he leaped into the water. At first, he avoided the fishing boats that were within hearing distance, fearing they might take him back to the Bostonian to collect a reward. Later, he was picked up by lobstermen, who took him to an island. He borrowed a shirt and pants from a soldier and found his way to Boston.

The next morning, the captain of the Bostonian discovered Peirce was missing. Reed, producing the wallet and watch, regretted not having reported Peirce’s disappearance the day before. Some crewmembers believed Peirce had been murdered. Reed maintained Peirce would meet them at Liverpool. “God help you, if he doesn’t,” the captain growled.

When they arrived in Liverpool, the Mauretania had beaten them by two days, but Peirce, still fearful that he could be arrested for jumping ship, did not appear to exonerate his friend. Ever the practical joker, he had jettisoned one grand idea — to swim out to the ship and pretend he had followed it across the Atlantic. He went to a lawyer, who laughed at his fears. Meanwhile, the mate put Reed in leg irons and locked him in a cabin.

Flanked by two British bobbies, with the crew tagging along, Reed was marched to the Board of Trade for a hearing. While Reed was defending himself, Peirce finally appeared. The tenor of the hearing changed rapidly. The captain reminded him across the courtroom that he was liable for breaking his contract. But Peirce had another joke up his sleeve. He accused the captain of criminal negligence, claiming he had fallen overboard while he was seasick and the captain, who was on the bridge at the time, had ignored his cries for help. The hearing came to a quick ending when it was revealed the captain had actually been on the bridge.

Peirce and Reed went on to become legends in their time. Today, they and their works have been largely forgotten. This anecdote remains, however, perhaps a greater monument to them for average folks than what they ever produced with paintbrush or typewriter.

Essays by William Gallagher in Bangor Metro and other publications are an excellent source of background on Peirce’s life.

Comments about this column can be sent to Wayne E. Reilly at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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