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5 Things You Didn't Know About Maya Lin

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Maya Ying Lin, the Yale architecture student who submitted the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, holds a scale model of her design on May 6, 1981. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Sculptor and architect Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., but modern viewers may not know about her rise to prominence and the subsequent controversy. Let’s take a look at five interesting facts about the architect from Athens, Ohio.

1. She Had an Early Start

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Lin’s design has become so celebrated that it’s easy to forget how young she was when she first proposed it. The national contest to design a Vietnam memorial drew 1,421 entries, including such oddball suggestions as a steel soldier’s helmet the size of a house, but in the end, Lin’s granite wall won the competition. She wasn’t a seasoned architect and sculptor, though; when Lin won she was still a 21-year-old senior at Yale.

Although the victory obviously kick-started Lin’s career, it also led to some awkward situations. Lin had originally designed the monument as a project for a class on funerary architecture with Professor Andrus Burr. Burr had submitted his own design in the memorial competition but lost out to Lin. It's often reported that Burr gave Lin's design a B+, but the professor claims she received an A (but she received a B+ for his course).

2. She Had Her Share of Critics

Lin had to weather harsh criticism from a variety of sources. The National Review denounced Lin’s project as “Orwellian glop.” Vietnam veterans decried it as a “black gash of shame.” And those were the nicer critiques. Tom Wolfe and Peter Schlafly witheringly dubbed it “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” While Lin had intended for the wall’s simplicity to prompt introspection and honor for the fallen soldiers, many critics just thought it was bleak or strange, particularly because the soldiers’ names were listed chronologically rather than alphabetically.

Ross Perot might have been Lin’s most visible opponent, though. The tycoon and future presidential candidate had put up $160,000 to help fund the design competition, but he dismissed the winning design as “something for New York intellectuals.” Lin later told The New Yorker that Perot even visited her office and asked, “Doncha just think they need a parade?” Lin responded, “Well, they really need more than a parade.”

3. But She Had One Very Polite Ally

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As veterans’ groups and Perot were publicly agitating for Lin’s design to either be scrapped or heavily modified, Lin found an unlikely advocate: Miss Manners. Judith Martin, better known to the world as the etiquette columnist, took Lin under her wing during the architect’s tumultuous time in Washington as she tried to get the memorial built. Martin, along with Washington Post architecture critic Wolf von Eckardt, helped Lin get some positive publicity to sway attitudes in favor of her project.

4. Her Critics Ended Up Eating Crow

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Although Lin’s design was controversial when it was in the planning stages, once it was built a number of her more outspoken critics changed their stances. Lin later told PBS that the critic who had penned the “Orwellian glop” insult wrote her a very nice letter to apologize. Lin recounted that the critic wrote, “I'm really sorry. I made a mistake."

In the end, Lin took all of the controversy in stride. In the same PBS interview she said the only people she ended up really thinking less of because of the whole fracas were Ross Perot and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, who held up the memorial’s building permits in an attempt to change the design.

5. The Wall Wasn’t Her Only Controversial Win

For a while, Lin seemingly couldn’t escape controversy no matter how hard she tried. In 1994, documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Nice honor for Lin as the film’s subject, right? Not so much. Turns out that Lin was part of another award-winning project that drew considerable fire.

While most critics agreed that the film about Lin was a perfectly good documentary, they couldn’t understand why Hoop Dreams, which most viewers thought was a vastly superior film, couldn’t even garner a lousy nomination for the Oscar. After similarly praised docs like The Thin Blue Line and Roger & Me had suffered the same slight, many insiders began agitating for a new way to nominate documentaries. Since Mock had formerly chaired the Academy’s documentary committee, conspiracy theorists leveled charges of cronyism against the award.

The real problem, though, was that the criteria for garnering a nomination were a bit bizarre. Since the Academy only had 47 people on its documentary nomination committee – as opposed to 400-plus on its foreign film committee – it was incredibly difficult to screen every potential nominee. While most categories required that films be shown for at least a week in a theatrical run in Los Angeles, best doc nominees could only be drawn from a list of films that had appeared at a select handful of festivals. While this system helped cut the undermanned committee’s workload, it led to head-scratching omissions from the final lists of nominees.

The Lin documentary’s controversial win (and Hoop Dreams’ snub) ended up being the last straw for documentary filmmakers. Within a year the Academy added a second documentary review committee in New York and began requiring a weeklong theatrical run for eligibility in the category.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads

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Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.

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