This Month in History
Momentous or Merely Memorable
30 Years Ago
Calling her a “person for all seasons,” President Ronald Reagan nominates Arizona appeals court judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court, August 19, 1981. The first female nominee to the high court, O’Connor faces opposition from anti-abortion groups concerned about her record. At her confirmation hearing, she describes the role of the judiciary as “interpreting and applying the law, not making it”; she is confirmed by a unanimous vote in the Senate on September 21. O’Connor’s 25-year tenure is marked by centrism, and hers is often the swing vote.
60 Years Ago
J.D. Salinger publishes The Catcher in the Rye on July 16, 1951. The novel of teenage turmoil is told in the 17-year-old voice of Holden Caulfield, expelled from prep school and on his own in Manhattan, longing for human connection yet deploring the “phony” people around him. A critical success— “an unusually brilliant first novel,” says the New York Times—Catcher rides the best-seller lists for seven months. Today considered one of the 20th century’s top novels, with more than 60 million copies sold, it is also among the most frequently targeted for banning. Salinger dies at 91 in 2010.
100 Years Ago
Da Vinci Disappearance
A painter visiting the Louvre on August 22, 1911, discovers only hooks where the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1503-6 portrait of Lisa Gherardini, should be. The museum shuts down for days as police comb for evidence. Suspicion falls briefly on writer Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso, and rumors are rife—the masterpiece has been taken to America, Russia, Switzerland. More than two years pass before former Louvre employee Vincenzo Perugia (far left) is nabbed trying to sell the painting to a dealer in Florence. “The picture smiled down at me,” he says of the theft, and claims he stole it to restore the work to Italy. He is sentenced to time served.
130 Years Ago
Failed lawyer and office-seeker Charles Guiteau, convinced that new president James Garfield will be the ruin of the Republican Party, shoots him in the back and arm in a Washington, D.C. train station July 2, 1881. Garfield, his injuries aggravated by unsanitary care, dies September 19. Calling his act a “political necessity,” Guiteau pleads insanity but is convicted. He is hanged June 30, 1882.
160 Years Ago
In a challenge for superiority on the seas, the New York Yacht Club’s schooner America takes on 14 of the British Royal Yacht Squadron’s best in a 53-mile race from Cowes, England, around the Isle of Wight, August 22, 1851. “A fresh breeze soon cleared us of our hangers on,” one of America’s owners will later recall, and the yacht, designed and built by New York shipbuilder George Steers, wins the race by eight minutes. Its owners donate their silver trophy—known as America’s Cup, after the yacht—as a perpetual prize for what becomes the premier international yacht challenge race. The 34th America’s Cup race will be held in San Francisco in 2013.