The entrance to the Edison Park subdivision on McGregor Boulevard is a lovely anomaly. A 7.5-foot statue of a woman in flowing, Graeco-Roman-style drapery is centered upon a plinth in a concrete basin casually balancing a jar against her right hip. The jar is tipped to allow water to run in a steady stream into the pool from which the statue rises. She is framed by bougainvillea-laced wrought iron and Egyptian-style, buff and white, paired stanchions crowned with obelisks.
The sculptor who created this statue named it, “The Spirit of Fort Myers,” but in its quiet and graceful dignity, it is anomalous both to the character of the city it is supposed to represent and to the time in which it was created. Oddly enough, it is the product of the brash, smart-talking, jazz age.
Jim Newton, 192X
In 1927, Fort Myers was caught up in an ecstasy of expansion and prosperity. This sleepy, slow motion town had suddenly awakened into the drunken excesses of the decade, betting her future on a spinning roulette wheel of speculation. This was the era in which a 20-year-old kid named Jim Newton could finance the development along prestigious McGregor Boulevard of a swanky subdivision of Hollywood-style houses and commission a sculptor to build a magnificent entrance emblematic of its exclusivity.
The muddled history of this statue begins with the clumsy account, by a Fort Myers Press reporter, of its dedication ceremony. His description of the ceremonial posturing of the principal players is a comedy of errors, in which true motivations are as thinly veiled as the nakedness of the statue under its garment of powdered marble.
His story, in the April 7, 1926, afternoon edition of the Fort Myers Press, begins as follows:
“Five hundred people assembled at the entrance of Edison Park at 11:45 today to witness the unveiling of the statue of Thomas A. Edison erected by James D. Newton and dedicated to the city of Fort Myers.”
Wait. The statue of Thomas A. Edison?
Let us assume for the sake of our collective sanity that Thomas Edison did not model for the female, near-nude statue. Perhaps the writer’s brain was foggy with fumes of alcohol.
The writer continues:
“In the stand at the park entrance promptly at the hour announced, Mr. Edison accompanied by Mrs. Edison and Senator Chas. A. Stadler, of New York, took their places…as Mr. Edison and party entered the grounds and the stand, the noted inventor was greeted with enthusiastic applause.”
Typically, a Fort Myers Press account of any occasion for which Thomas Edison was present will be more about him than about the object of the occasion. True to form, the statue and its sculptor, mentioned only in the opening and closing paragraphs, are peripheral to this writer’s story. He fawns over the famous personalities present as the principal players in his story bow and pay fawning homage to one another.
“Mr. R. A. Henderson, Jr., …briefly complimented Mr. Newton for his contribution to the beauty and art in the city,” after which introduction, Mr. Newton spoke of his “ideal” to commemorate with this artwork of “unusual aesthetic value…the life and work of her [Fort Myers’] foremost citizen.”
The possibly last-minute decision to dedicate the statue to Mr. Edison was clever; our young and ambitious Mr. Newton thus adroitly managed to win favor with Fort Myers’ “foremost citizen” and at the same time to ensure the famous man’s presence at the dedication. There was no surer way to draw a crowd then to promise an appearance by the revered “electrical wizard.”
Obviously, Newton named his subdivision “Edison Park” to lend it prestige, perhaps even to suggest to potential buyers that it was an extension of the Edison estate itself. Were not sex more compelling than science, he may have put a statue of Edison at the entrance. (On some unconscious level, had our confused Press reporter intuited this?)
Our news writer next informs us that Newton “handed the cord attached to the veil to Mrs. Edison, who in behalf of Mr. Edison drew aside the curtain…”
In his book, Uncommon Friends, published in 1989, Jim Newton says that while the construction of this statue was in progress, he was summoned by Mrs. Edison and admonished to have the sculptor properly clothe the statue. “How do you know the statue doesn’t have clothes?” Newton purportedly asked. He quoted her as saying, “Because the ladies went with a flashlight one night and looked underneath the canvas.”
We may take this story, written over 60 years after the event, with a grain of salt, although it is likely that Mrs. Edison would object to the statue of a naked woman at the entrance to a park bearing her name.
The truest portrait we are given of Mina Edison in this Press story is the writer’s statement that she had expressed to him personally her dissatisfaction with the city’s plans to build a hotel upon the site of a city park. Mina Edison was relentless in her advocacy of culture and city beautification. Her opinion in this matter of the hotel, given voice by this Press reporter, would carry weight. And she knew it.
The reporter concludes his story with a brief nod to the creator of this celebrated artwork, which he confidently calls a “statute.”
“The statute was modeled and constructed by two Fort Myers artists, A. H. McNab and Helmuth L. von Zengen.”
Von Zengen, courtesy his great-nephew, Kevin Rooney
We know that Von Zengen, a well-born German artist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1910, built this statue by a process he patented in 1922, but who in the name of holy history is A. H. McNab?
Could it be the same A. H. McNab who was nabbed in a raid on a “Negro Dice Game,” on Anderson Avenue on October 25, 1925? Could it be the same A. H. McNab that Von Zengen referred to when he placed a notice in the Press a year later stating that he would no longer be responsible for any debt unless contracted by himself and that since July 25 he had had no business connection whatsoever with Archibald McNab? Must be, for A. H. McNab, formerly of Louisville, KY, is mentioned during this period in connection with the new Universal Art Association in east Fort Myers, of which Von Zengen is the art director and McNab the secretary treasurer.
Confusion over who created this statue continued for decades. In 1985, a News-Press writer informed us that the statue was sculpted by Larry Lesh of North Fort Myers. An investigation as to the identity of Mr. Lesh unearthed a 1939 News-Press story about his scheme to manufacture powder-puff-like fur pelts out of cattails. Many other tales of Mr. Lesh’s adventures abound, but as he did not move to Fort Myers until 1938, it is unlikely that he sculpted the statue unveiled in 1927.
The confusion over who created the statue is nothing compared to the 91-year befuddlement over what the statue represents. The writer of the remarkable statement that she was a statue of Thomas Edison informs us later in his story that the statue is of Aphrodite, “the Goddess of Water.” Aphrodite, though born of the sea foam, was not the goddess of water, but of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation—in other words—sex—an observation with which every teenage boy who has ever painted the statue with lewd insinuation would enthusiastically agree.
However, possibly the same ladies who peeped under a tarp and shone a trembling light upon her nakedness decided that she should be associated with a Biblical character, as opposed to any of the pantheon of wanton and voluptuous Greek goddesses. The water jar called to mind the Old Testament story of Rachel at the well, and thus Von Zengen’s “Spirit of Fort Myers” came to be known, to everyone’s satisfaction, as “Rachel at the Well.”
Identifying the statue as the Biblical Hebrew, Rachel, however, has in no way prevented continuing and simultaneous references to it as a “Greek maiden.” Incongruous also to the fact that both Greek mythology and the Old Testament date to many millennia B.C., Rachel is invariably dated to 2000 years ago, or approximately 18 A.D.
And what about that hairstyle? It is not any period B.C. It is so 1960s. It’s Annette Funicello. The hair would make sense if it were a 1920’s style, but it most certainly is not. How could Von Zengen imagine a hairstyle 40 years in the future? For that matter, did he imagine the face and form of his statue, or had he a model?
In November of 1925, Von Zengen was a judge in the Miss Fort Myers beauty contest. The Press stated that Professor Von Zengen had been commissioned “to design a statue of the winning girl…to be placed at some entrance to the city.”
Margaret Williams was judged by Von Zengen to be “the most perfect girl in Fort Myers,” and with characteristic disregard for illogic, the Press announced that “Mrs. Margaret Williams won the title “Miss Fort Myers.”
So. Is Rachel at the Well really Margaret Williams? Was she present on April 7, 1927, when after the highly anticipated ceremonial unveiling, “the statue was closely studied and admired by the spectators, as the band played [I could not make this up] “Honest and True?”