Thirty floors atop a forest of concrete buildings, we are escorted into the canopy of Eugene Eisenberg’s Florida penthouse. From the isolation of the private elevator we step directly into his home. We are greeted by Eisenberg, a man in his late seventies. Since his retirement in 1985, he has built an extensive collection of aviation andWorldWar II themed paintings and sketches. Some would argue that it is the largest assemblage of such art in the country.
Here in his private gallery, furniture is an intrusion. It is an obstacle that limits our ability to walk around freely so that we may absorb the breadth of the 120 paintings that dominate the walls of nearly every room.
Eugene Eisenberg is a consummate collector. Yet his desire to collect isn’t limited to two-dimensional objects. His place is full of things that reflect other passions: bronze statues of eagles and horses, model boats from Italy, ceramics, clocks, and art glass.
His cave-like library contains approximately 3,000 books organized in cases from floor to ceiling.
“I collect books on World War II and the New York Yankees. It makes me happy. I don’t know of anyone who has done all this research,” said Eisenberg.
Collectors come from all walks of life and amass all manner of objects, people or animals. Some are driven to collect because, as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk describes they believe that they will “transcend history” with their collection. Some collect as a way to educate. Others less generous with their collections hoard objects like so many sacks of flour in a time of famine—just to “corner the market” or to indulge their desire for exclusivity entirely for its own sake.
Global events have a way of invading the human spirit, leaving indelible marks that shape one’s psyche. Time doesn’t seem to matter. Once these trials have taken hold, they can reappear decades later. They never lose their ability of haunt the imagination. For some, like Eisenberg, collecting items relevant to those events have the power to de-code what once seemed inexplicable. Collecting becomes a pastime that arises from the passion to understand.
As a young boy duringWorldWar II, Eugene Eisenberg understood that life was now somehow different. The war had penetrated his home front; visiting his Brooklyn community. He had grown accustomed to seeing “Service Flags” on neighbors’ homes hanging in their windows, signifying that a loved one was serving in the military. The cloth banner with a blue star on a white background surrounded by red would become as commonplace as ration books, scrap metal drives, and USO dances.
“One day, I saw one of those service flags and the star was gold. I had never seen that before. So I rang the doorbell of that house to ask why the star was gold,” said Eisenberg.
Two women answered the door, one with a baby in her arms. The young mother explained that a gold star meant that a loved one had died in service to the country. For her it was her husband, Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr. from Madison County, Florida.
Years later Eisenberg would learn the full story of Captain Kelly (1915-1941). About an aviator who had died protecting his men while on a mission in the Philippines, piloting their B-17 long enough for his crew to parachute out of the plane. The date was December 10, 1941, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the war.
Kelly’s heroism was celebrated throughout the country and his name was honored from coast to coast. In his hometown of Madison a highway was named for him. The Four Freedoms Monument which was commissioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and sculpted by Walter Russell was later dedicated to Kelly and installed in Madison.
“I put it all together after reading and researching about the war. I remember seeing the name ‘Wick’ on the mailbox of the house with the gold star,” said Eisenberg.
Research revealed that Captain Kelly’s wife, Marion Wick Kelly and young son (Colin P. Kelly, III) were temporarily living with Marion’s mother in Brooklyn in 1942. For Eisenberg, it is these stories, their connectivity and resonance that inspire his ongoing research and public outreach to the remaining veterans, their families and friends.
Part of Eisenberg’s bedroom is given over to a collection of objects and paintings that tell the story of Captain Kelly. Paintings of Kelly, his crew and his plane include those by aviation artist Gil Cohen. The pieces filling the walls are done by contemporary artists, such as Cohen and John Shaw who have mastered the depiction of period airplanes and vehicles arranged to bring tales of war to life.
Works by the British aviation and marine artist, Robert Taylor dominate the collection in this penthouse-cum-gallery.At least 20 of the paintings were commissioned by Eisenberg and reflect themes consistent with the collector’s research. Important to the research and collecting is Eugene Eisenberg’s determination to find veterans who played those real-life roles in the theater of war, obtain their photographs to use in the paintings and then have them sign the backs of the finished canvases on which they are depicted. This pursuit has re-united some comrades or brought the surviving family members of old comrades together, often for the first time in their lives.
Painting subjects include German, Japanese and British aircraft and ships. Highlydecorated combatants from both sides of the war are memorialized in Eisenberg’s collection, Lieutenant-General Günther Rall (1918-2009) of the German Luftwaffe and Sub-Lieutenant Saburō Sakai (1916-2000), of the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was Sakai who shot down the B-17 piloted by Captain Kelly.
Two paintings by Robert Taylor, “The Legend of Colin Kelly,” showing the Japanese planes in pursuit of Kelly’s plane (commissioned by Eisenberg) and “Rising Sun,” of Sakai’s Zero flying through the clouds help tell the heroic story. Sakai came to the United States on a number of visits to see his sister in California. He has signed the back of the painting of his plane. Saburō Sakai was involved in over 200 combat engagements and destroyed 64 enemy aircraft.
“Out of ammunition, I flew alongside the B-17 and saw the pilot trying to save the burning aircraft after allowing the crew to escape. I have tremendous respect for him,” said Sakai.
As we walk through the penthouse, Eugene Eisenberg talks briefly about himself and his family. He speaks about how he retired from a successful business built in partnership with his brother; that he is the father of four sons and the grandfather of 12 grandchildren. Aviation has been a fact of life for members of the Eisenberg family. Eugene became an accomplished pilot; his brother was a commercial pilot; his son was both a Navy and commercial pilot; and one grandson is a multi-engine flight instructor.
Pieces from his collection have been exhibited across the country at a number of venues including the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, the Air & SpaceMuseum in San Diego, California, the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, and the Smithsonian NationalAir and Space Museum inWashington, D.C.
Reflecting on his vast collection, Eisenberg is somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
“I never believed I could have accomplished this over all these years. I get so attached to these things,” he said.
Near the dining room is a large painting. It is a departure from most of theWorldWar II combat-themed art. This is an event that occurred in Times Square on August 14, 1945 during a victory celebration upon the announcement that the war with Japan had finally ended. A sailor kissing a nurse was photographed simultaneously by Alfred Eisenstaedt and Victor Jorgensen from two different vantage points.
Eisenberg had a painting commissioned that combines the two photographs, showing details such as the sailor’s girlfriend (Rita Petry) who watches him and laughs. Eisenstaedt’s photo is iconic for most Americans over the age of 50. In this one gesture, the sailor and the nurse capture the nation’s collective sigh of relief, embodying the promise and hope of America’s return to normal.
It goes without saying that Eugene Eisenberg researched to find out who the sailor and the nurse were. Quartermaster First Class, George Mendonsa (who signed a picture to ‘Gene’) and Greta (Zimmer) Friedman were this famous sailor and nurse duo. The painting titled “Japan Surrenders,” is by Jim Laurier.
One more talisman is in Eisenberg’s collection, the flag from Wake Island where a PanAm transport flight had stopped in 1941. It was the airline’s last visit for the duration of the war; the airfield was strafed by Japanese fighter planes. The U.S. flag that was flying there was taken down; it was the only thing removed from Wake Island that day. That same flag ended its journey decades later when it was added to Eisenberg’s penthouse gallery.
Looking around, the collector says, “It is never at the end. It just keeps going.”