While sifting through some old periodicals yesterday I came across a fascinating article in The History Channel Magazine about a sculptor named Anna Ladd.
One of the great films of the 1980s was the powerfully memorable Chariots of Fire. It’s a story of two British track and field athletes striving for gold in the 1924 Olympics. Early in the film there is a scene in a bus station that sets the post-WWI context for this film. As the athletes climb aboard we see men with a variety of contraptions on their faces and bodies, revealing the physical handicaps they came away with after their service in “the Great War.”
This is where Anna Ladd’s story comes in, and the History Channel article begins:
In the final months of 1917, groups of wounded soldiers began arriving at an artist’s studio on Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Moving haltingly and sometimes guided by helpers, they entered a courtyard filled with statues, climbed five flights, and found themselves in a large room illuminated by tall windows and banks of skylights. Their host was an imposing American with high cheekbones and pinned-back hair, a 39-year-old Bostonian named Anna Coleman Ladd. She gave them dominoes and checkers to occupy them, refreshed them with chocolates and white wine, and offered them newspapers.
As the men laughed and smoked, Ladd examined them. She studied their shot-off jaws, missing noses, and scarred and empty eye sockets. Doctors could not restore these soldiers to handsomeness, or even to ordinariness. But as a sculptor, Ladd could apply talents that the doctors lacked. She could make new faces—masks—for the men, beautifully crafting them of copper, metallic foil, and paint. And wearing their prosthetic masks, the soldiers could return to the families, fiancées, and friends they had been afraid to allow in their unsightly presence.
Physical pain is very challenging to the psyche, but disfigurement goes deeper. The film Vanilla Sky deals with the challenges David Aames, a handsome but spoiled, ultra-wealthy son of a publishing magnate must deal with when he is mutilated in a dramatic car wreck. The experience cuts to the core of who he is.
Yes, Vanilla Sky is a surreal story, but there’s nothing surreal about war. That’s why Anna Ladd, when she saw what World War I had done to many of the men who put their lives on the line, she decided to do something about it.
Ladd was an American sculptor in Massachusetts. She’s studied in Paris and Rome, but married a doctor in the States, moving to Boston in 1905. She was also a writer, producing two books and two unproduced plays. It was 1917, while they were living in Paris in her late 30’s, that she saw the cruel impact of the great conflict.
As a sculptor who had studied under Auguste Rodin, among others, Ladd used her talent to “fix faces” broken by the war. On this Veteran’s Day as we honor those who sacrificed so much, let us also remember the doctors, nurses, volunteers and even artists who have used their gifts to help bring them back.
Read here the full story of Anna Ladd’s Masks.
EdNote: Anna Ladd's Masks, written by Jack El-Hai, first appeared in the July-August issue of The History Channel Magazine and was later posted on their website in 2009.