The Greatest Forgotten Celebrity: What Did Admiral Dewey Do?

Everyone knows Adele. Nobody knows Dewey.

At one time, everyone was daffy for Dewey or, as he was hailed and feted and revered and honored and celebrated and beloved and sold,, Admiral Dewey!

Before he became the world’s most famous celebrity in early May 1898, he was merely the 60-year old Commodore George Dewey, leader of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet. By late April 1898, the United States and Spain had declared war on each other, one for allegedly blowing up the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, the other for aggression in Cuba, a colony of Spain. Attention was also focused on Spain’s other colony, the Philippine Islands. When Dewey was wired from Washington to attack the Spanish navy in Manila Bay, he directed his command vessel, the U.S.S. Olympia, to Manila Bay and faced down the rotting wood ships of the Spanish Armada.

In the melodramatic version Americans got in the papers, Dewey had planted his feet firmly and stood tall and proud, his head practically in the heaven on a spot just below the crow’s nest, as he squinted with laser vision across Manila Bay to locate his targets. Managing to hear his immortal words of “Fire when ready!” mumbled beneath his white walrus mustache, the Olympia‘s gunners volleyed the cannonballs that easily nailed Spain’s coffin. Within hours, Dewey decimated the cruel oppressor, liberated their tyranny over the Philippines, and launched the United States into its fateful role as the new world leader of land and sea.

As much as any one element of the narrative, it was the steady stance of the near-sighted Commodore’s footing which peculiarly seemed to grab public attention, and so he was forever envisioned standing – in posters, banners, postcards, even a massive oil painting, where he seemed to be able to look through the cloud cover, as a super-human. The poor old boy never seemed to sit, his firm footing a metaphor for his nation’s new role as vigilant protector of oppressed nations in need of democracy:

Within weeks, the poor old gent was overwhelmed with invitations from every major city in the U.S. which intended to honor him. No, no, Dewey sort of backed off. He just couldn’t. He would not be returning to the U.S. by the Pacific but rather a longer route in the other direction, going through Suez and Gibraltar. Intimidated by his rapidly expanding fame, Dewey would rather sail closer to the coast of Spain itself than lead parades in San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Once it was realized Dewey was coming home in September 1899 through New York, that city rapidly constructed a ceremonial arch and colonnade for the Great Hero to pass beneath and along during the city’s two-day parade for him. Made of plaster, plans were made to reproduce it in white marble and make it permanent.

Modeled after the Arch of Titus in Rome, the Dewey Arch was designed and executed with two dozen sculptors working for two months, topped by four horses pulling a ship, all of it lit by electric lights at night.

He got a ceremonial sword crafted especially for him by Tiffany’s, and presented to him by President McKinley in Washington.

He got the new title of Admiral of the Navy by Congress, awarded retroactively.

He got more silver cups from cities across the country than any MVP in any sport, the loot usually gathered up after he endured endless parades down grand avenues in open carriages, nodding to cheering crowds on the sidewalks.

Unwittingly, Dewey taught generations of celebrities that a unique visual trademark branded one’s image in the public mind – be it Churchill’s cigar, Reagan’s pompadour, Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox, Liz Taylor’s beauty mark, Jack Benny’s violin, or Donald Trump’s champagne-colored comb-over. And in 1899, factories went into overtime mass-producing just about every practical item with Dewey’s unmistakeable white mustache. Thrust into an orgy of media fame, it generated a frenzied pubic obsession – which in turn sparked the imagination of marketers and manufacturers. Anyone in America walking into any store could not escape the manly demeanor and steady gaze of the Commodore on any one of dozens and dozens of household objects:

Best of all, even without paying a dime for all the Dewey detritus, one could see him in action in some of the first movies ever made in the new technology of Edison’s motion picture film – for a nickel. In the first part of a compilation of some of those early films, cut to the 2:30 mark to avoid the narration cards or just listen to the Admiral Dewey March as your read on (hopefully):

And then, as it always has a way of showing up just when someone hovers just slightly above their game, Hubris began appearing and the whole Dewey craze began to jump the shark, all very de trop, as the French say.

Trouble began when the well-meaning widower was awarded a fully-furnished mansion in Washington, D.C. as a gift from a giddy and generous nation, as if to coax the roaming and lonely fellow to settle down. Before taking possession of the place, however, he was wooed by the willful widow, Mildred McLean Hazen, heir to the McLean newspaper fortune. Within just two months of meeting, she got him on November 9, 1899 to the altar of her Catholic church, St. Paul’s in Washington. Although Dewey did not become a Catholic, anti-papist bigots seized on the marriage as the latest example of a secret plot by the Vatican to grip its talons around Protestant America’s institutions, like the U.S. Navy. And then there was just silly Millie herself.

Spoiled, entitled, and incapable of restraining herself, she talked freely to the press about the future she saw shaping up for herself as Mrs. Admiral. She posed for some nice pictures in the furnished mansion the nation gave her husband, and soon announced that he had turned it over to her. And she didn’t plan on roosting there for too long, if she had her way. Millie bent George’s ear that he was underselling himself, that he could, in fact, get himself elected President in 1900 and get her into the White House.

The press ran with the new angle, enthusiastic for any new reason to extend the Dewey craze. That is, until Dewey began talking. Great Old Mustache pontificated on just how easy it would be to serve as Chief Executive, after all he would just follow the orders of Congress and sign laws and bills: “I shall execute the laws of Congress as faithfully as I have always executed the orders of my superiors.”

Dewey the Dumb got dumber when he not only showed an ignorance of presidential duty, but confessed he had never voted before.

Meanwhile, the Philippines weren’t bursting with glee over Dewey the Liberator, but seething with outrage over Dewey the Liar, as revolutionary leaders saw it. As part of the strategy for taking the islands from Spain, Dewey had transported exiled liberation leader Emilio Aguinaldo on the Olympia to lead his forces on land to battle the Spanish out for good. Confident and appreciative of American support, he then led in the Filipino declaration of independence. Dewey took formal possession of Manila on August 13, 1898 about which time President McKinley sent his representatives to Paris for peace negotiations with Spain and agreed to pay for possession of the Philippines as a new American colony.

And that’s where it was lost in translation, so to speak.

Aguinaldo said Dewey had promised the U.S. would back the revolutionaries and help get rid of Spain so the Filipinos could run their own new nation. No, no, Dewey sort of mumbled a bit vaguely – he’d said nothing of the sort. He’d only written that Aguinaldo and his leadership council were “intelligent” and “capable of self-government” – he didn’t promise it. No, Dewey suggested – it was the Filipino revolutionaries who were backing the U.S.. Ironically, it was Dewey’s swift  victory which encouraged President McKinley into thinking the Filipinos would welcome being annexed as part of the United States.

There was an especially tragic legacy to it all: during Dewey’s doings in Manila Bay, only nine men were injured. During the rarely-mentioned Filipino-American War which ensued, 34,000 Filipino soldiers died and estimates as high as 200,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of American families whose sons, husbands, fathers and brothers languished in the tropic heat, paranoid of being victimized by one of the war atrocities committed by natives on U.S. soldiers – or fearful of being commanded to do likewise to the natives, rapidly lost a taste for national imperialism. They just wanted their loved ones home alive.

By 1905, when most armed conflict simmered down, Dewey Deification was dead as a doorknob., all that glee a bit mortifying, in retrospect. “Dewey who?” one vaudevillian cracked. He now became the rather belated poster boy of the Anti-Imperialists. Although with the caveat of having been the new hit song of the sheet music industry was “What Did Dewey Do to Them?” While it was  written with “much enthusiasm and respect” for Dewey, this musical “Patriotic Query” questioned the right of the U.S. to usurp the sovereignty of a people it had liberated.

Dewey died on January 16, 1917, buried at the National Cathedral in Washington. Months later, as the U.S. entered World War I, there was an effort to ride a short wave of Dewey nostalgia, that famous old white mustache appearing on Marine recruitment posters. For almost another long thirty years, however, the white mustache was seen every single daily in the Philippines, even throughout the Japanese occupation of the islands during World War II. Both President McKinley and Admiral Dewey remained on the native currency.

As for that temporary Dewey Arch in New York? The plaster structure deteriorated in the rain and was hauled away. Nobody mentioned the permanent marble replacement that was originally announced. The space was left empty.

Fame, as they say, is fleeting. And speaking of fleets…

Well over a century since the Dewey craze, there remains one tangible, genuinely fascinating souvenir of those days – of mammoth proportions. And, in truth, it is not so much an ego glorification of the Admiral but a testament to the engineering technology of the era and those sailors who didn’t have the commodious accommodations of the Commodore and whose bravery was entirely eclipsed by his shining star.

That relic has, in fact, its own little record as the oldest steel warship in the world still afloat. On any day, except holidays, anyone can go to Philadelphia and board the U.S.S. Olympia, and tour its sections below deck and above. What makes it something more than a typical historic site is the authentic authenticity – the look, the feel, even the faint ocean mustiness of a time truly gone, this being a result of it never having been gutted and restored to pristine condition, but rather maintained as it was, a bit creaky and stinky but somehow, very real. Being in the water and constantly exposed to the elements for over a century, maintaining the hull and staving off rusting is an ongoing struggle, all the more remarkable because it is an effort made by volunteers and reliant on private donations, rather than underwritten by the National Park Service. In fact, go to see it sooner rather than later. Necessary repairs are desperately needed, and in recent years the private foundation working to maintain it, has come near to closing it to the public. At press time, its fate is uncertain. More information about it can be found at: http://www.phillyseaport.org/ships_olympia.shtml

In December, I visited with a friend who lives in Philadelphia, an even she, someone interested in American History, was unaware of the site. It is a fascinating experience, where the guns and other metal hardware can be touched and the various spaces explained with small cards. And, if you can find them, there’s even two brass footprints “where Dewey stood” and you can too. Here’s a gallery of some photos taken on the U.S.S. Olympia:


Categories: Americana, History, Legends

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9 replies »

  1. Mr. Anthony, Sir -
    You have neglected or “forgotten” to provide the city and state where this great man was born. No doubt I am sensitive on this matter because it is the state and city where I first saw the light of day.

    • You know, I thought about it and thought about it – but then thought just his age might be of interest – but for the sake of full disclosure….George Dewey was born in that Green Mountain State of Vermont in the town of Montpelier. I think his birthplace is an historic site, right?

  2. I didn’t know much about Dewey before this article. The use of “material culture” to get a better understanding of historical figures (and their relationship to fame, legacy and social meaning) is one of my favorite approaches. Great work! I especially loved learning about the plaster triumphal archway- so like the grand buildings of the universal expositions made of lathe and plaster that melted away over the years.

    • Yeah, he was quite a character – really a modest man at first – I don’t think he expected the response he got. As for those plaster archways – the same thing happened with a lot of the smaller buildings at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was shot. It’s amazing that they let hundreds of thousands of people through there in plaster buildings! I guess one reason you don’t hear about plaster archways or buildings anymore is because of the potential collapse of them in the rain! Thanks again for writing Jason and I urge my regular readers to check out your excellent website – really appreciate and love your essay on History. People should go to http://www.myeyeinthesky.wordpress.com

  3. Having read the story of the battle of Manila Bay, I eagerly bought a paperweight of Commodore Dewey at a tag sale. The picture is the same as this paperweight, without the blue decoration. To think that the family had saved it for over a hundred years says a lot. That part of history is an interesting look at foreign policy in the years when Germany and America was flexing it’s muscle and Spain declining.

    • Hey there Ray – Thank you so much for writing- its easy enough to read stuff online but it makes a big impression when someone takes some time to write, so I appreciate it. I just finished writing a book out next year about President McKinley’s wife and go into great depth about the new American Empire emerging under his hand at that time – and so interesting about how the Germans and Japanese were just waiting in Manila Bay ready to seize control of the Philippines once the Spanish were out. Also interesting – which I hadn’t known before was that when Cubans wildly celebrated their independence from Spain it was emotionally shocking for the Spanish people because they had thought of Cuba as simply another province of Spain The event sparked a whole new sense of nationality in the culture of new arts in Spain. Anyway, thanks again for writing.

  4. Hi Carl- my friend multi-media artist Ben Wood created this new work projection for the Admiral Dewey memorial here in San Francisco- check it out!
    http://www.benwood.net/dewey2012.html

  5. Hi Carl- I just wanted to share this interesting new projection by artist Ben Wood. He created it especially for the Admiral Dewey memorial here in SF.
    http://www.benwood.net/dewey2012.html

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