By JAMIE STENGLE
DALLAS (AP) -- As part of an Allied mission tasked with saving works
of art during World War II, a homesick James Rorimer told his wife in a
December 1944 letter from liberated Paris that he was working hard but
worried about how much he was achieving.
"But I'm here to save works of art and that is what really matters," he wrote.
Rorimer, then 39 and a curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of
Art, went on to carry out his mission successfully, helping to discover
where works of art looted by the Nazis were tucked away across Europe.
He was a leading figure in a group of 350 men and women from Allied
countries attached to the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives
Section. In the new movie "The Monuments Men," Matt Damon portrays a
character inspired by the real-life Rorimer, who died in 1966 at age 60.
"He was fighting for the art," said daughter Anne Rorimer.
His contributions included helping discover works of art looted from
German museums that were stored in Germany's Heilbronn mines and helping
to establish the Munich Collecting Point where works were received,
processed and then restituted after the war.
The Monuments Men included architects, artists, curators and museum
directors. The Harvard-educated Rorimer went on to become director of
the Metropolitan Museum after the war.
Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author who wrote the book the movie is
based on, said Rorimer was "always a whirlwind of activity."
One of Rorimer's major feats was gaining the trust of Rose Valland,
the French art expert who had been allowed to stay behind at Paris' Jeu
de Paume after the Nazis made it the base for their looting operation.
Valland, who unbeknownst to the Nazis spoke German, managed to keep
track of where the works -- most stolen from Jewish families in France
-- were being sent.
But Valland, who inspired the character played by Cate Blanchett, was
not going to easily give up her information. Living in Nazi-occupied
Paris had made her wary, even of her fellow countrymen, and she wanted
to know that she was giving the information to someone who would help
return the works to their rightful owners.
"Valland's watching everything that Rorimer's doing," said Edsel.
"What evolves between the two of them is this dance ... She's testing
him. She's trying to find out where his loyalties lie."
Rorimer was first introduced to Valland in fall 1944. Over the months, he earned her trust and by March
1945, when Rorimer was headed with the Army into southern Germany, she
told him that Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps was the Nazi
hideaway for about 21,000 items stolen from mostly Jewish collectors in
"If you got to know him, you realized that he's got to be
appreciated. Saving culture was ingrained upon him and he was
successful," said Harry Ettlinger, who as a 19-year-old U.S. soldier
volunteered his services to Rorimer after learning the Monuments Men
needed someone who spoke German.
Ettlinger, one of only a handful of Monuments Men who are still
alive, had fled Nazi Germany with his family the day after his bar
mitzvah in 1938 and returned to Europe in 1945 with the U.S. Army. He
inspired a character played by Dimitri Leonidas.
Ettlinger said he quickly realized that Rorimer was a man who got
things done, a "wheeler and dealer," as Ettlinger put it. Ettlinger
recalled a time when Gen. George S. Patton's men had their sights on
moving into the building the Monuments Men planned to use for their
Munich Collecting Point -- a building that happened to be the former
Nazi headquarters. Rorimer, Ettlinger said, quickly put a stop to that.
Anne Rorimer grew up in the postwar years and says most of her
memories of her father are tied to his work at the Met. "I heard more
about all the day-to-day workings of the Metropolitan Museum."
Her father died when she was in college, but she became an art
historian and eventually learned more about his work as a Monuments Man.
As Edsel was writing his book, which came out in 2009, he asked her to
track down wartime letters from her father to her mother. When she
finally found the letters in storage and read through them, she was
struck by her father's longing for family life and by the hardships he
"This week has been a cold and difficult one," he wrote in January
1945. "I left Paris a few days ago on a field trip. The cold winds, ice,
rain and snow blew into the open jeep with which I went about from
place to place."
But by the end of that year, as successes mounted, the letters became
more upbeat. In October 1945, he wrote, that they were getting results
in the "long fight for cultural objects."