From The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century. Copyright © 2018 by Mark Lamster.
Philip Cortelyou Johnson, the architect and MoMA curator, died in 2005 at age 98. By then, he had long since become the urbane public face of the American architecture Establishment. As this excerpt from Mark Lamster’s new biography, The Man in the Glass House, reveals, he spent the late 1930s quite differently: as a wealthy young aesthete gadding about Germany and embracing Nazi politics.
While Johnson cloaked himself behind a veneer of respectable intellectualism, he was not only aware of but actively supported the more brutal representatives of the fascist cause in America. Though he would later deny it, he admitted to the FBI that he attended several American Nazi Party rallies at Madison Square Garden. Johnson also became a financial benefactor of the Christian Mobilizers, a virulently anti-Semitic organization of street brawlers run by Joseph E. McWilliams, a soapbox demagogue who built his following with attacks on Roosevelt, the “Jew Deal,” and the “Jewspapers” that supported it.
Before departing for another trip to Europe, in 1939, Johnson completed a tendentious new essay for the Examiner on the philosophical foundations of Nazism. “Mein Kampf and the Business Man” was pegged to the release of a pair of new English translations of Hitler’s rambling manifesto, which Johnson had evidently read with some care in the original German. “Hitler’s German style may not be elegant, but it is always clear, which cannot be said of either translation,” he wrote, by way of review. The ostensible aim of the piece was to clear up a general “misunderstanding” of Hitler, especially among the liberal intelligentsia. “A long tradition in political thinking lies behind Mein Kampf,” Johnson explained. “The importance of the book, what makes it an extraordinary document, is that it presents the means — and successful means, as events have shown — for realizing these ideas in a particular, highly complex situation … The problems that this situation presented were ones of action, and in meeting them Hitler has shown himself to be one of Goethe’s ‘doers.’ ”
Two weeks into the war, on September 18, Johnson joined the foreign-press corps on a supervised junket to the front under the aegis of the Propaganda Ministry. The terrible cost of the war was apparent as soon as they crossed the border: The Polish war dead, men and horses, lay rotting along the roadside. The convoy stopped for the evening at Sopot, located on the Baltic between Gdynia and Danzig. In the evening Johnson was assigned a room with William Shirer, the gimlet-eyed CBS correspondent, who pegged Johnson as a fascist. “None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he’s spying on us for the Nazis,” he wrote in his diary. “For the last hour in our room here he has been posing as anti-Nazi and trying to pump me for my attitude. I have given him no more than a few bored grunts.”
Was Johnson a willing victim of the German propaganda machine or something far more sinister: the Nazi spy Shirer believed him to be?