Towns and cities across America are dotted with WPA-era murals. Many of them pay tribute to the working classes of America. But not Kennebunkport. It had its WPA mural torn out of the local post office because critics thought a beach scene inappropriate for the town.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed his Works Progress Administration program to lift the country from the Great Depression. It created millions of jobs for unemployed men and women. His jobs program included 5,000 artists commissioned to create works of art – many of them on the walls of post offices and other government buildings.
Kennebunkport Mural Fight
Exactly why people despised the Kennebunkport mural depends on when and who spoke about it. Two authors led the public crusade to have it removed. Booth Tarkington, an Indiana novelist and playwright, summered in Kennebunkport. Kenneth Roberts, a Maine writer of historical novels, speculated in Florida land.
Tarkington, an outspoken critic of FDR and his New Deal, acted as point man on the crusade against the mural. (Tarkington also hated automobiles). Roberts then got involved to give a local face to the fight.
Maine U.S. Sen. Wallace White, Senate minority leader, brought the matter to the floor of the Senate. He moved to allow the mural’s replacement four years after its installation.
“The mural is a picture, which, to speak frankly, depicts a number of fat women, scantily clad, disporting themselves on a beach,” White said.
“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.”
No Bulges Here
Maine’s other U.S. senator also weighed in. “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,” said Ralph Owen Brewster.
Then he added, “Our womenfolks bulge in only the most delightful ways.”
The $1,000 fund, raised by New York architect Charles Ewing, would pay for 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 had no clothes on. “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 the people in the mural looked to be inspired by images of Russian peasants. They hinted at potential Communist sympathies on the part of the artist.
The artist was Elizabeth Tracy Montminy. The Boston woman had recently graduated from Radcliffe when she painted the mural in 1941. It was the fifth and final mural she would paint for the WPA. She had painted four others in Saugus, Milton and Medford, Mass, and Downers Grove, Ill.
But only “Bathers” in Maine attracted any controversy. Montminy defended her work. She described 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. Within a month, the post office had the mural removed.
The mural’s whereabouts today is unknown. It ended up somewhere in Washington, D.C. The painting of the ships that replaced still resides in Kennebunkport’s post office.
This story about the Kennebunkport mural was updated in 2020.