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Here's Your Chance to Own a Piece of Reagan-Era History

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Christie's

Conspicuous consumption was a theme of the Reagan era, so it wouldn’t be surprising to find an auction of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s personal effects littered with high-status, high-glitter items in keeping with 1980s excess. But while the auction of Reaganobilia taking place at Christie’s later this month does feature some glitzy high points—like a diamond, sapphire, and ruby Bulgari American flag ring Nancy used when pledging allegiance—it’s more notable for its humble touches, like the horse-shaped jar of jellybeans than once sat on Reagan’s desk or the linen dinner napkins he favored, embroidered with the phrase “Mr. President.”

Bess Lovejoy

The auction includes plenty of glimpses of Reagan the man, including a set of doodles he penciled on White House stationery around 1982. Alongside cartoon characters with a Western theme, they feature two self-portraits: one of Reagan dressed up as a cowboy, and another of him in a suit. In keeping with the former president's love of Western themes, the auction also features a pair of Tony Lama-designed cowboy boots made of ostrich, cowhide, and bullfrog skin, embossed with the Great Seal of the United States in 14k gold.

Another doodle in the same set, of a football player, reflects one of Reagan’s most famous film roles, when he played the gifted but doomed Notre Dame player George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American. That role is also commemorated by another item in the collection, an official NFL Wilson football Reagan inscribed “win one for the Gipper”—a line Reagan uttered both in the film and at the 1988 Republican National Convention (when he directed it at George W. Bush).

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Aside from repeated uses of the phrase “president” (“first place president” is engraved on one punch bowl), the football is one of the few items with obvious political overtones. However, there’s also a fine needlepoint pillow decorated with the line “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” and depicting all the states Reagan carried in the 1984 election (all but Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota). The 1984 election is also echoed in a Tiffany marine chronometer Frank Sinatra gave Reagan as a 1981 inauguration gift, which includes an inscribed plaque that reads “Good morning Mr. President.” (That “morning” theme, of course, is reminiscent of the TV ad campaign that propelled Reagan to his second term: “It’s morning again in America.”)

Politics also shows up in a more humorous vein in the couple’s collection of 27 elephant figurines, which were once strewn (alongside several bald eagles) around the couple's Bel Air home at 668 St. Cloud Road. According to the auction catalog, the original address was 666, before Nancy Reagan made them change it.

Bess Lovejoy

But perhaps the most humble item of all is the most significant—a chunk of graffitied concrete to which Reagan added his name in black felt-tip marker. The 25-inch slab of the Berlin Wall recalls another of the 40th president’s famous moments, on June 12, 1987, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and implored “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

For those interested in owning a piece of presidential history, the auction runs live at Christie’s in New York, September 21-22 (public previews run until September 20) and online September 19-27. While there are plenty of items with lower estimates—you can have napkins that once graced presidential lips for only a few hundred dollars—the auction in total is expected to raise over $2 million for the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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