Bernard Taper (1918-2016)
Bernard Taper was an inimitable writer and journalist. Born in Scotland and raised in London, England, his mother and father were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania, respectively. Shortly after the death of his father, Bernard was sent to live with his grandparents in Los Angeles, California. He began his journey across the Atlantic in 1929 onboard a small merchant ship when he was just eleven years old.
Taper possessed a gift for journalism from a young age. He edited his high school’s newspaper before founding two student magazines as editor-in-chief at the University of California at Berkeley. Armed with a typewriter and a degree in creative writing, Taper then began publishing articles for Agenda, the San Francisco-based magazine devoted to architecture and public planning.
Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Taper was drafted into the U.S. Army. He worked briefly in the San Francisco shipyards before being officially inducted and attached to an anti-aircraft battalion. His unit trained in Death Valley, California, where the desert terrain was intended to prepare them for action against General Rommel’s forces in Egypt and the Middle East. The anti-aircraft battalion never saw active duty, however: he later remarked with a smile that the only thing they ever hit was the plane towing the practice targets. At the end of a thirteen-week course at the Infantry Officer’s Training School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Taper became a full United States citizen. He then returned to the University of California at Berkeley to teach English to non-English speaking Army personnel.
In early summer 1946 Taper was discharged from the U.S. Army in order to accept a position with the MFAA Section of the Allied Military Government (AMG) in Germany. As an art intelligence officer, he assumed the role of an art detective tasked with investigating and recovering works of art looted by the Nazis. The successor of Monuments Man Lt. Walter Horn, Taper worked alongside Monuments Men Edgar Breitenbach and Maj. Karol Estreicher, the Polish art restitution officer. Using his fluency in German (which he taught himself by listening to the radio), Taper liaised with other U.S. Military Intelligence units and maintained relations with local German police forces to establish a vast network of information. He also recruited the German police, who helped the MFAA recover works of art looted from the Goudstikker collection which had been sold by Frankfurt art dealers during the war. In Munich, he investigated paintings belonging to the Adolphe Schloss collection, which had been originally confiscated from the Schloss family by the Vichy Commissioner of Jewish Affairs, and later taken by a mob during the fall of Munich. A similar mob descended upon a train found in Berchtesgaden, Germany, which contained portions of the collection amassed by Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering. Taper and Breitenbach conducted a series of investigations to recover these objects in the fall of 1947. Taper also interrogated numerous Nazi officials and collaborators involved in art looting operations, including Hans Wendland, the German art dealer associated with the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the team tasked by Hitler to acquire works of art for his planned Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria). In 1948 Taper visited Spandau prison where he interrogated prominent Nazi officials including Albert Speer, Baldur von Schirach, Walther Funk, Karl Haberstock, and Walter Hofer.
One of Taper’s most prominent cases remains a mystery today. In September 1939, Nazi officials stole Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man from the Czartoryski collection in Kracow, Poland. Along with Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine (also taken from the Czartoryski collection), the paintings were included in detailed catalogues that served as “shopping lists” for Adolf Hitler’s selection of works of art for his planned Führermuseum. Portrait of a Young Man was last seen in January 1945, in a chalet on Lake Schliersee belonging to Nazi Governor-General Hans Frank. Taper and Estreicher interrogated both Kajetan Mühlmann and Wilhelm Ernst von Palezieux, Frank’s former art advisors, extensively. While Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine was eventually found and returned home to Krakow by Estreicher, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man has not been located.
Taper left Germany in August 1948 and resumed his career as a successful journalist. During his service as a Monuments Man, Taper continued to publish articles back in the United States. Some of his pieces relating to postwar Germany were featured in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Harpers’s. He worked for five years as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, during which time he received a Press Club award for his work on a housing discrimination case. In 1955 he returned to his academic studies and earned a Master’s degree in English from Stanford University. In 1956 he began an almost forty-year term as a staff writer for the The New Yorker. From 1970 to 1998, in conjunction with his work with The New Yorker, Taper taught the next generation of journalists as Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
A prolific writer, Bernard Taper wrote numerous books, articles, and columns about subjects relating to the arts, civil rights, and urban affairs. His published works include Balanchine (1963), the authoritative biography of George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet’s co-founder and hallmark choreographer, The Arts in Boston (1970), Cellist in Exile: A Portrait of Pablo Casals (1962), and Gomillion versus Lightfoot: The Right to Vote in Apartheid Alabama (1962). Taper also served as editor of the anthology Mark Twain’s San Francisco (1963). In 2004 he donated his collection of photographs of George Balanchine to the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.
Taper was present in Washington, D.C. to participate in the ceremony honoring the Monuments Men and Women with the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor, on October 22, 2015. He died in Berkeley, California on October 17, 2016.
At once a creative journalist, determined art detective, and inspiring professor, Taper’s two years as a Monuments Man were only a small part of a life incredibly well-lived. Even so, he looked back on his service with well-deserved pride:
It had been gratifying to me that ours was an organization that was concerned with preserving Germany’s art heritage as well as with restituting to other nations the things that Germany had pillaged from them. It was good, I thought, that amid all the sickening evidence of man’s depravity and destructiveness I should have had the opportunity to help preserve some of the things mankind has done that one could not only bear to contemplate but even take joy in.
Photo courtesy of Bernard Taper (private collection).