Towns and cities across America are dotted with WPA-era murals—many of them tributes to the working classes of America. But not Kennebunkport. It had its WPA mural torn out of the local Post Office because of critics who didn’t think a beach scene was appropriate for the town.
Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program that was designed to lift the country from the Great Depression, millions of jobs were created for unemployed men and women, including 5,000 artists who were commissioned to create works art – many of them on the walls of post offices and other government buildings.
Exactly why the mural was despised depends on when and who was speaking about it. Two authors led the public crusade to have it removed – Booth Tarkington, an Indiana novelist and playwright who summered in Kennebunkport, and Kenneth Roberts, a Maine writer of historical novels and Florida land speculator.
Tarkington was an outspoken critic of FDR and his New Deal (Tarkington also hated automobiles.), and he was the point man on the public crusade against the mural. Roberts was brought in to give a local face to the fight.
Maine Senator Wallace White, who was Senate minority leader, brought the matter to the floor of the Senate when he moved to allow the mural to be replaced four years after it was installed.
“The mural is a picture, which, to speak frankly, depicts a number of fat women, scantily clad, disporting themselves on a beach.
“It has been an offense to the citizens of that community ever since it was placed in the post office. In fact, it has been so much of an offense that the people of the community raised something in excess of $1,000 to have painted a mural which depicts historically the seafaring and shipbuilding activities of the community.”
“Our only objection was that the murals depicted feminine forms absolutely foreign to the great state of Maine. Our Maine women do not bulge fore and aft in this unsightly manner. Our womenfolks bulge in only the most delightful ways,” said Senator Ralph Owen Brewster.
The fund, which was raised by New York architect Charles Ewing, would be used to fund the new mural if the government would OK the removal of the first.
Tarkington added more fuel to the fire. He insisted the figures in the picture were nude: “It includes several figures both male and female. The central figure is a bumpy looking male with an old automobile tire around his waist as a life preserver. The ladies are all bumpy, too, and very ugly. The beach in the picture looks like Coney Island. Why should Kennebunkport have to have a Coney Island mural in its post office? It isn’t a summer resort. There isn’t even a beach. The beach is across the river at Kennebunk.”
There were actually no nudes in the mural, which underscores one of the odder aspects of Tarkington taking on the role of art critic. He was, by this point in his life, blind.
Still others said that the people in the portrait looked to be inspired by images of Russian peasants and they hinted at potential Communist sympathies on the part of the artist.
The artist was Elizabeth Tracy Montminy. The Boston woman was a recent graduate of Radcliffe when she painted the mural in 1941. It was the fifth and final mural she would paint for the WPA, the others were in Saugus, Milton and Medford, Mass, and Downers Grove, Ill.
It was only “Bathers” in Maine that attracted any controversy. Tracy defended her work, describing the mural as showing “a Renaissance influence in which the arabesque predominates.”
She chalked up the controversy to “the squealing of some cachectic dowagers.”
Nevertheless, President Harry Truman in May of 1945 signed the budget bill allowing for the removal of the mural. “Eviction Order for those Fatties of Kennebunkport Post Office Wall Signed,” announced one headline and within a month the mural was removed.
The mural’s whereabouts today is unknown; it was taken to Washington. The painting of the ships that replaced it can still be found in Kennebunkport’s post office.