When you think of big heists, your mind probably goes to banks, jewelry, and fine art, or maybe a casino vault; carefully organized plans by people dressed in black turtlenecks with plenty of cool gadgets and close calls. What we remember as the daring heist of one of the world’s most famous paintings was really neither of those. The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wasn’t even noticed when it happened. My name is Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
These days, the Mona Lisa, also called in Italy La Gioconda, and her famous wry smile hang in a prominent place in The Louvre in Paris. It holds the Guinness World Record for the highest known insurance valuation in history at $100 million in 1962, which is worth nearly $800 million now. Over six million people go to see it each year. It’s so popular that you can’t snap a quick pic of it without a few dozen strangers’ hands and cellphones in the frame with it. This popularity certainly wasn’t the case when the painting was first hung in the Louvre in 1804, or for a century afterwards. Neither was it popular with critics and the artistic elite, who often relegated to the low end of da Vinci’s work. It was just another painting. It was so un-special that it took the better part of 24 hours for staff to even notice the painting was missing in 1911. A handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia who working in the museum has simply waited in a closet until after the museum closed, tucked the painting under his smock and walked out. He was unwittingly aided by a plumber also working in the museum, who unlocked a door for Peruggia when he found himself stuck.
The police were called and they searched the museum. The only sign they found of La Giaconda was its frame, laying on a staircase, though police did find some 21 other paintings the curators had previously reported missing. The search went city-wide, then national, then international. Ships were searched before they left France or after arriving in their port of call. A reward of over half a million dollars in today’s money was offered. The Mona Lisa’s picture was printed in newspapers all over the world. It was a sort of Mona Lisa mania.
The theft of this single painting served to spawn multiple criminal enterprises. People on the wrong side of the law knew that those with more money than morals would want to buy La Gioconda. A pair of confidence men from Belgium hired a small army of forgers to make high-quality fakes, which they sold to select buyers around the globe. They made sure their buyers were unlikely to ever meet and rested soundly knowing no one would let on that they had purchased the most famous stolen painting in the world (though today, somebody would probably take a selfie with it).
The huge reward and the number of fakes in circulation meant the police were inundated with leads. For two years, they searched tirelessly but fruitlessly. The 60 man strong force even interviewed Peruggia, twice, but decided he couldn’t be the criminal mastermind they were looking for. Not only did those two years not yield the Mona Lisa, the police didn’t even find the forgeries. The head of the Paris police retired in shame.
Did Peruggia get the enormous payday he was looking for? People were soon to learn that wasn’t why he stole the painting at all. When Peruggia approached a museum in Florence to sell them the painting, the museum’s director called the police instead. After his arrest, Peruggia stated: I worked in the Louvre, making frames for paintings stolen from Italy by France. Every day, I passed the La Gionconda and swore I would return it to its rightful home. He seemed convinced he would be heralded as a national hero. This was not the case, but the Italian courts were sympathetic, giving him only a year in prison for a world-famous theft.
These days, La Giondona sits behind more bullet-proof glass than the pope, but it could just as easily have been another Italian-born work. “If a different one of Leonardo’s works had been stolen,” said Noah Charney, professor of art history and author of “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.” “then that would have been the most famous work in the world — not the Mona Lisa. There was nothing that really distinguished it per se, until it was stolen. The theft is what really skyrocketed its appeal and made it a household name.”
A quick aside for an art theft story that, while not as famous, is no less memorable. After a pair of Spanish con-men discovered the Goya painting they had purchased was a forgery, the tried to recoup their losses by reselling the painting to an alleged Arab sheik for 4 million euros, using the same certificate of authenticity that had fooled them. A mysterious Italian middleman charged the Spaniards 300,000 euros for brokering the deal. The two con-men travelled to Turin to receive 1.7 million Swiss Francs as a down payment and pay the broker the 300,000 euros, which they had borrowed from a friend. However, when the conmen attempted to exchange the Swiss francs in a bank in Geneva, it was discovered that they had been given photocopies of francs. The fake painting had been paid for with fake money, though the money they gave the broker was very real, the equivalent of $400,000 today. To make matters even worse, on leaving Switzerland, the two were then detained by French customs, who discovered the fake Swiss Francs in their suitcase and informed the Spanish authorities. The painting was also confiscated.
Picture if you will an artist that is more famous for his technique than for the art he created. He took his teacher’s method and not only created a small empire from it, but took business away from his teacher, moving quickly from competitor to industry-dominator. His teacher was given credit, but only at the very beginning. The public was allowed to make what assumptions they would about where this technique came from, as long as they keep tuning into the show and buying the products. That artist’s name? I’m sorry to break this to your, listener, but it’s Bob Ross.
Bob Ross, the famous soft-spoken, afro-ed host of The Joy Of Painting, was taught his famous “wet on wet” fast painting technique by a German expat named Bill Alexander, who actually had his own PBS painting show called The Magic of Oil Painting, that ran from 1974-1982. Alexander’s show, like The Joy Of Painting, which ran from 83-94, was basically an advertisement for his painting supply business, Alexander Art.
Bob Ross began his adult life in the air Force, where he would rise to be Master Sergeant and was stationed in Alaska, which is no doubt why he painted so many snow-covered vistas. He was constantly searching for an art teacher who could actually teach him to paint, when he took a class from Bill Alexander. The wet-on-wet painting technique was an epiphany for Ross.
“The Joy of Painting” started airing on PBS in 1983. At first, things were pleasant between Ross and Alexander, with Alexander even filming a segment to pass the torch to his former student. The Joy of Painting was generating so much business for Alexander Art that they couldn’t keep up with demand and someone, that person’s identity lost to history, suggested Ross start his own art supply company.
After Bob Ross Inc. became a $15 million industry of how-to books, videos and art supplies, something between the two changed. In as 1991 NYTimes profile, Ross declines to mention his painting teacher, because “he is our major competitor.”
“He betrayed me,” Alexander said in an interview. “I invented ‘wet on wet.’ I trained him and he is copying me – what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better.” Full disclosure: Alexander didn’t invent wet-on-wet or alla prima. It dates back as least as far as van Eyck, van Gogh, and Monet.
So why was Ross able to eclipse Alexander to such an extent? It may come down to something as simple as likeability. Alexander was passionate and animated, even prone to rambling and singing off-key; Ross on the other hand was laid-back and avuncular, a non-threatening peacenik. Ross saw this distinction, as did PBS station managers, who realized, as the NY Times reported, Ross’s expanding circle of viewers were, for the most part, not even painting, nor did they have any plans to start. They watch because “The Joy of Painting” is the most relaxing show on television. It is unfailingly simple, a three-camera production with a black background and, at Ross’s insistence, no edits. Ross wears the same thing every time — blue jeans and a John Henry shirt — and in 26 minutes not only completes a painting but also, in his lullaby voice, murmurs familiar Bob-isms like “happy little trees” and “what the heck, let’s give him a little friend over here” and “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. The show was so nice to listen to that it was even popular with blind viewers.
Obscuring and outselling his teacher aside, the internet isn’t wrong with its recent love affair with Bob Ross. Not only could he be called the OG of ASMR, but you’ve got to love a guy who once did an entire episode working only in shades of grey because he got a letter from a fan who was color-blind. His trademark afro was actually a perm he’s initially gotten to avoid the cost of properly maintaining his crew cut and then found himself more or less stuck with it to stay on-brand. Did Bob Ross mind when people told him his show put them to sleep, in a good way? No, he enjoyed that just as much as the people who said he’d inspired them to paint. And one time he did the show with a little grey squirrel in his pocket, so there ya go.
From art, we move to science. What do you think is the worst part of working on a group project? Is it trying to come to a meeting of the minds on what you’re going to do? Is it the person who accepts their share of the assignment, then doesn’t do anything? Or is it when someone takes all the credit for one of the greatest advances in our understanding of biology? That’s what happened to the discoverer of the double-helix shape of DNA, English chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.
There is probably no other woman scientist with as much controversy surrounding her life and work as Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. Born in 1920, Franklin excelled at science and attended one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry. When she was 15, she decided to become a scientist and, despite her father’s stance against higher education for women and his wish that Rosalind become a social worker, she enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938. She held a graduate fellowship for a year, but quit in 1942 to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where she made fundamental studies of carbon and graphite microstructures. Coal was not only important for power, but charcoal was a key component in gas masks. Her research was her contribution to the war efforts of WWII and was the basis of her doctorate in physical chemistry, which she earned from Cambridge University in 1945.
After Cambridge, she spent three productive years in a laboratory in Paris, where she learned X-ray diffraction techniques. X-ray diffraction is an important non-destructive method for analyzing all kinds of matter, from fluids, to powders, to crystals. The technique involved bombarding the sample with x-rays. The electron cloud of the atoms in the sample bends the X-rays slightly. This makes a “picture” of the molecule that can be seen on a screen. In 1951, Franklin returned to England as a research associate in John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London.
It was in Randall’s lab that she crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins. She and Wilkins led separate research groups, although both were concerned with DNA. Randall assigned Franklin a DNA project that had already begun, but no one had worked on it for months. Wilkins was away at the time, and when he returned he misunderstood her role, behaving as though she were an assistant, disappointing but not surprising given the climate for women then. Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin’s colleagues went to men-only pubs.
Nevertheless Franklin persisted on the DNA project. Her techniques allowed her to take better images of the structure of DNA than anyone had done before. J. D. Bernal, scientist who pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology, called her X-ray photographs of DNA, “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Without Franklin’s knowledge or permission, Wilkins showed her images and data to James Watson and Francis Crick, who were themselves working on DNA projects. Franklin’s photo was essential to the findings they published in 1953, again without her knowledge. Franklin was aware of their research, but had no idea that her work has been subsumed into theirs as she was not credited at all. The closest she got was the journal Nature citing her work to bolster Watson and Crick’s claims.
Rosalind Franklin continued working until her death from ovarian cancer in 1958. Four years later, Watson and Crick were awarded a Nobel prizes for “their” discovery. They shared the award with Wilkins, but made no mention of Franklin. In fairness, Nobel prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, so we’ll never know if she would have finally received the credit she had been denied during her lifetime.
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The theft of intellectual property from one person is inarguably bad, but it pales in comparison to stealing the life savings of thousands of people. Compounding the the economic crisis of 2008 was Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme. He and his accomplices stole as much as $20 billion dollars from investors. They’d been at it for so long that to this day, no one is sure when they started. We we can be sure of is that most of the people he bilked will see little to no money coming back.
Outside of “really bad fraud,” what is a Ponzi scheme anyway? The basic mechanism is to promise your investors irresistible returns and take their money. Then, you promise amazing returns to a second group of people, take their money and use it as the “returns” for the first group of people, who will hopefully give you even more money, now that they see that it “works.” Then you get a third group of investors and give their money to group two, all while keeping back a tidy sum for yourself. Lather, rinse, repeat. The word Ponzi itself is a proper noun, the family name of a charismatic Italian immigrant who lived in Boston in 1920. Charles Ponzi stood only 5’2”, but he was a giant in his community, though only briefly.
Ponzi claimed that he had figured out a way to cash in on the chaotic post-WWI economic conditions in Europe, by buying International Postal Union coupons from certain countries where they were discounted and redeeming them at full value in the States. For example, a coupon could be bought in Germany for a penny and redeemed for a nickel. Ponzi claimed he had an army of agents scouring Europe to buy up all the available discounted coupons. In 1919-20, Ponzi took in upwards $15 million in small investments from 40,000 people, many of them Italian-Americans and recent immigrants. People lined up around the block to get through the Pie Alley entrance to Ponzi’s Securities Exchange Company and hand over their hard-earned savings. Everyone gets rich in America, right?
Ponzi certainly did. He bought a hundred suits with matching shoes. He smoked copious cigars through diamond-studded holders. His mansion in LExington had air conditioning and a heated pool. He was just shy of lighting those cigars with hundred dollar bills while he propped his feet up on a poor investor. His Life of Riley came to an end in the summer of 1920. After an investigation, the Feds declared that every single postal coupon redeemed in the entire country by everyone wouldn’t account for a fraction of the profits Ponzi claimed to have made. A public relations man who worked for Ponzi briefly told the Boston Globe, “The man is a complete financial idiot, he can barely add. He sits around with his feet on his desk, talking complete gibberish about postal coupons.” The publicist further claimed that Ponzi had never once issued or received a foreign financial draft.
On Monday August 9, a bank commissioner declared Ponzi’s account was overdrawn. On Wednesday, it was revealed that Ponzi had served prison time in Canada for forgery and in Atlanta for smuggling illegal aliens. Investors swarmed his office, desperately trying to get their money back. By Friday, Ponzi was in custody. In the face of over ten thousand creditors demanding $4.3 million, Ponzi declared bankruptcy. He was later sentenced to five years in federal prison for 86 counts of mail fraud, since he had mailed his victims letters to report how well their investments were doing. He served around three and a half years, then got his release to face state charges, for which he received a sentence of nine more years. But before he could go back to jail, he jumped bail and tried to start new scams in Florida and Texas. (You’d think the government would have learned their lesson about trusting this guy.) Eventually, though, his time on the lam ran out, and he served his whole sentence.
Upon his release, Ponzi was deported to Italy where the man who was more clever than he was smart tried to defraud Mussolini. The rest of his life was a string of less-successful cons and jail sentences, until his death in a charity hospital in Brazil in 1949. As for our modern-day Ponzi, Bernie Madoff currently makes $40 a month in prison, wiping down electronics, and is scheduled for release in 2139.
Circling back to the dedication from the top of the show, much in the way the Mona Lisa would not have been famous if not for a theft, it was theft by the late R. Lee Ermy that made him arguably the world’s most famous drill instructor. When we first meet gunnery sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam epic “Full Metal Jacket,” he’s introducing recruits to the Marine Corps boot camp.
“I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on, you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘sir.’ Do you maggots understand that?” he begins, launching into a nearly six minutes of rapid-fire dialogue.
As a teenager, the Kansas native was arrested twice for criminal mischief. The court gave him a choice: prison or military, according to Deadline. Ermy chose the latter and joined the Marine Corps, where he served for 11 years, including 14 months in Vietnam and completing two tours in Okinawa, Japan. Eventually he became a drill sergeant, which is one reason he so excelled as Hartman.
After retiring from the military, Ermy decided on a new career path and began taking acting classes. He once told an interviewer that he devised a plan to break into Hollywood: Use his knowledge from his military service to become a technical director on certain films. Then, once in the crew, show filmmakers that he should be starring in their movies. The plan worked three times in a row, scoring him the first three roles of his career: a sergeant in Sidney J. Furie’s “The Boys in Company C,” a helicopter pilot in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and the role of Hartman.
The role of Hartman originally belonged to actor Tim Colceri, but he tired himself out after 30 minutes of yelling at extras during a videotaped rehearsal. Ermey stepped in and took over; his energy never let up. Colceri ended up playing the door gunner instead.
Here’s where the story starts to spin off into modern legend territory. Some accounts claim R. Lee Ermey went to director Stanley Kubrick and asked for the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann, since, in his opinion, the actors on the set were not up to snuff. When Kubrick declined, Ermey barked an order for Kubrick to stand up when he was spoken to, and the director instinctively obeyed. Ermey got the role. Another account holds that Ermey persuaded Kubrick to cast him by making a homemade audition tape that showed him screaming insults with a stone face as tennis balls and oranges were thrown at his head, according to the Guardian. Once he landed the role, he rehearsed in the same manner. Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali would sit across from Ermey in a 50-foot-long room and hurl tennis balls at the actor practicing his lines. ”I had to catch the ball and throw it back to Leon as fast as possible and say the lines as fast as possible,” Ermey told the New York Times in 1987. “If I were to slur a word, drop a word or slow down, I had to start over. I had to do it 20 times without a mistake. Leon was my drill instructor.”
For the most part, those lines weren’t written. Ermey improvised about half of his dialogue, drawing on memories from the service. Inventing those insults wasn’t particularly difficult for Ermey — he was just being a drill sergeant, this time on camera. “My main objective was basically to just play the drill instructor the way the drill instructor was and let the chips fall where they may,” Ermey said in a History Channel interview. “You can ask any drill instructor who was down there in 1965 or 1966, that’s exactly how the drill instructor’s demeanor was. There were no punches pulled.”
Remember how I said I have 11 pages of show ideas? My list can’t hold a candle to Ermy, who Kubrik described as having an astounding 150 pages of insults.
Though a kind and gentle family man in real life, Ermy would play essentially the same character, to varying degrees, in over 100 of projects as varied as HBO’s horror staple Tales from the Crypt, the short-lived sci-fi series Space: Above and Beyond, and the family-friendly classics the Toy Story movies, where he voiced the little green Army man, Sarge.
Bonus super-geek fact: In the same way Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty,” and Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson,” the phrase “full metal jacket” does not appear in the book the film was based on, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-timers. Kubrick read it in a gun catalog.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. There are a lot of metrics you can use to measure the magnitude of a theft. Maybe it’s the dollar value, maybe it’s how much press coverage it gets, maybe it’s the stamp it left on modern culture or language.
I’d like to take a few seconds to thank my listeners for their patience. My background contains very little in the way of audio tech and I thank you for tolerating the coval quality on recent episodes and other growing pains, and thanks for spending part of your day with me.