My art and my stetson: interview with author manuel de queiroz

The following is a video of an interview (translated with English captions) shot in 2008, Portugal, with Manuel de Queiroz about his novel, Os Passos da Glória, which was selected for the Fernando Namora Award shortlist. In 2020, this novel won a grant from the Portuguese Government for its publication in the USA, under the title, My Art and My Stetson. The original book was published by Bertrand in 2008. The translated version was published in 2021 by Pleasure Boat Studio.

Below is a typed interview between Lauren Grosskopf and Manuel de Queiroz;

1. With such a talent for writing, what caused you to pursue architecture and urban planning? Was it a double passion? You obviously have the artist bug/gene like your Great Uncle… How do you find the time for it all?

You are right, it’s a double passion. My fate had been drawn quite early… When I was around nine years old, I wrote a free composition as a school assignment. In this text, I was describing how I woke up that morning with a ray of light passing through the room’s door directly onto my face. After reading it attentively, the teacher, who was a priest and a very rough man, said, “keep going like this Manuel and perhaps one day you will become a real writer.”

Not very long after this, probably in the same year, I came home with a drawing of a house in my hands to show to my mother. After looking at it she said to my father, “little Manuel is going to be an architect!” The fact is that not long after I started making house models in cardboard designed completely by me and with them, I built a little city in the garden…

Of course, it has been rather difficult to reconcile two creative activities like literature and architecture, both very demanding in terms of time, mental concentration, imagination…

And architecture being the one who paid most of the bills, it wasn’t easy to find enough time for writing, until I decided to reserve religiously a part of my day for it, usually in the morning, and keep to it with a lot of discipline, every day no matter what since then.

2. Have you seen many of Aleixo’s sculptures in person?

I’ve seen a few. During my childhood, from time to time, my father used to take us, me and my brothers and sisters, to see the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, In Santa Luzia temple, near the town of Viana do Castelo, in the North of Portugal. It was a kind of family pilgrimage, always followed by a few stories and legends about this uncle that my father was so proud of: his success in Paris, his troubles in Lisbon, his departure to the U.S., his marriage with a rich American widow, some of his eccentricities, etc.

When I started my research for this novel, I returned a few times to see this amazing statue again and appreciate it in all its dimensions as a work of art.

I discovered, also, this surprising statue of the Portuguese discoverer Vasco da Gama at the Refoios Monastery, that my uncle owned and where he lived for a few years, Today it is a Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture.

I also saw some others, mostly from his early years before he went to Paris, that still are at the house where he was born, Boavista, and at his brother Gaspar’s mansion, owned today by one of his grandsons.

And I bought, recently in an auction in the U.S., a bust in bronze, Romain, representing a French fisherman, made in Paris in 1893 just after his arrival: quite a beautiful piece of art.

As far as his American sculptures are concerned, the only ones that can be seen publicly are the Henry A. Deland bas relief in bronze, which is over the entrance of the Sampson Hall at Stetson University, in Deland, Florida, and the Frederick Ward Putnam bust in bronze, at the Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

All the others seem to be lost: the Statue of F. A. Cook discoverer of the North Pole (New York, 1909), a John B. Stetson bas relief referred in a newspaper cutting in 1910, Queen Amelia of Portugal (Chicago, 1908), a statue in plaster nearly four feet high, and, above all, the amazing Monument to Saint Gaudens (New York, 1909-1912) in honor of the great American sculptor, a statue and a bas relief 7’5 high, converted from plaster to bronze in Paris in 1914, at the famous Foundry Valsuani.

The novel includes photos of some of them. I tried for a while to find these lost sculptures, but after some inquiries without any result, unfortunately I had to give up. It’s difficult to imagine how and when they all disappeared without leaving a trace. I have no doubts that the Countess, Elizabeth, was very fond of the Count’s work and that she kept it well preserved after his death. But she died in 1929 and then I don’t know what happened.  Let’s hope that someone inspired by the novel will discover them…

3. When you spoke with your Stetson cousin (through marriage), what legends did you find you both had in common?

Lewis Stetson Allen, Elizabeth Stetson´s great grandson, my American “cousin”, came to Portugal looking for Aleixo’s family at the end of the nineties. His mother lived as a child with Aleixo and Elizabeth for a few years, so she had quite a few memories about them that she shared with her sons.

On my side, I only had some legends passed from generation to generation, sometimes contradictory versions of the same fact, embellished or fantasized according to one’s imagination.

An example: how Aleixo and Elizabeth really met and how they decided later to get married.

The various versions running in my family always included an exhibit at a hotel in Paris, where Aleixo was showing his work. A group of American tourists came to see it. In this group there was a distinguished and beautiful lady that, been so impressed with the sculptures exhibited, asked to meet the artist. And after nearly a month they got married…

Lewis´s version was in fact much more realistic, I think.

Elizabeth and John B. Stetson were looking for a sculptor to make a bas relief of their good friend Henry A. Deland, founder with John B. Stetson of the Stetson University in Deland, Florida.

During a visit to Chicago, someone, probably the famous Mrs. Potter Palmer, known as the “Queen of Chicago”, told them about Aleixo, a Portuguese sculptor not very known but rather talented, who had an exhibit at the Congress Hotel, on South Michigan Avenue. So, they went there to see it and liked his work so much that they decided to commission him the bas relief.  In order to do it Aleixo had to go to Deland for some posing sessions with Henry, and stayed at the Stetson’s Mansion there. During that time, he and Elizabeth had time to make their acquaintance, but of course far from imagining what would happen in the near future.

In 1906 John died and after a few visits, their relationship became a romance. Their marriage took place two years after she became a widow.

4. What scenes or people were from your imagination?

This novel has a deep and long research at its foundation: in the U.S.—Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Washington DC, etc.—Paris, Lisbon and North of Portugal, where I visited places, consulted archives, newspapers, essays, photos, and personal documents, etc.

The newspaper clippings about the marriage collected in an album by Emma Beach, Elizabeth´s private secretary, which Lewis showed me during my first visit to his home near Boston and from which he kindly sent me a copy later, was instrumental to my decision to write this novel and to its development.

But as I wrote in the “note to the reader”, “having thus scrupulously respected the facts, the characters, and their circumstances, the author felt free to invent all the rest…”

That means that I fictionalized scenes, dialogues, thoughts, as well as characters, like the American journalists who covered the wedding, the servants at Idro, the hotel receptionists in Paris, etc. I also invented characters behind real names and developed others from which I had only a few references.

5. If your great Uncle was a Count, then so too was your grandfather? Did these titles get passed down to your father, then you and your siblings, or when/how did they become a thing of the past?

No, the title of Count of Santa Eulalia that was given to Aleixo by the King for his services to the Crown, was not an ancient title. Normally, if he had a son, the son could inherit it, but no more than this. And of course, with the Republic, established in Portugal in 1910, even if the noble titles remained legally valid, they lost a good part of the importance they had before, during the Monarchy.

6. What are the main messages from this book that you would like to pass onto readers? I see the element of pursuing one’s artistic expression no matter what the critics say, and at whatever cost, but also the cost of giving up on one’s creative pursuit. I see kindness and philanthropy and generosity on the one hand, and I also see the way journalists are like predators in a sense of how unfair their actions can be to people seeking privacy and their own peace. 

I don’t see a novel or literature, in general, as a way to pass messages on to readers. For that I prefer essays or political texts. But the issues you raised are all very present in the narrative independently of my will or my intentions. They arise directly from the characters and from their historical context. Many of them are still present today in our modern societies. The impact of the media on culture and society was already an important issue. Even if the opposition is no longer the same towards other new aesthetics, the “yellow press” can still destroy an artist and what is more serious, the art he tries to innovate.

7. This book stands as a historical record of a sculptor whose place in history you wanted not to be lost; as well as a largely now unknown, but powerful pairing of the couple, who were so broadcast in their era; and it’s also a historical account of the times… What do you hope for as far as the life of this book and its place in historical accounts / education?

All I hope is that readers, and especially American readers, will enjoy the story of this European artist who in despair decides to come to America, the land of opportunities, seeking for a new development in his career. And through this journey, through the artistic “mouvance” between countries I ´d like to reach those interested in American and European history, in the visual arts and creative challenges… I hope that my novel deeply reflects the historical and cultural particularities of those different worlds in such an incredible era as has been the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

—Manuel de Queiroz, May 20, 2021