THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Monuments Men": Saving Historic Structures in Wartime

If you enjoy rejection, criticism, small-minded thinking, and antiques (e.g., the book business), becoming an author is for you! Why then pursue it? In my case, I am driven by my passion to tell the story of a group of men and women -- museum directors, curators, art historians, artists and librarians -- who volunteered for service during World War II to save the greatest structures (hence the moniker "Monuments Men") and other priceless works of art from the destruction of the war and theft by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. With an average age of 40 years, most with accomplished careers and families, they had everything to lose and they knew it. Still, they wanted to serve.

I first discovered the story quite by accident while living in Florence, Italy. Standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge one day, the only one of six not destroyed by the Nazis as they fled the city in August, 1944, I wondered aloud, "With Europe's cities so devastated by the war, how did so many famous structures and so much of its irreplaceable art survive the most destructive conflict in history? Who were the people that saved it?"

Several meetings with prospective publishers in New York City about a photographic telling of the Monuments Men story proved illuminating if not depressing. After all, how many ways can someone say "NO!"? "No one cares about World War II anymore." "A book about a bunch of old people?" "It's already been told; that book has been written." Now that last comment really intrigued me because after a year of searching, I knew there was no such book, so I challenged the fellow to name the book to which he was referring: he couldn't.

It was clear to me that if I wanted to author such a book, I would have to put my money where my conviction lay and self-publish it. Perhaps kicking your dog might engender more loathing than saying you have self-published a book: I'm not sure. But it certainly does not make you a darling of the publishing world. Still, passion and ignorance are a powerful combination. Two years later, having hunted down thousands of photographs, cleared them for use, written accompanying text of about 16,500 words, then locating and working with a great team of experts that truly loved publishing who guided me through the process of layout, jacket cover design, and other critical issues most authors never confront, my first book "Rescuing Da Vinci" became a reality. Today, four years later, it is in bookstores nationwide and continues to sell well.

In the course of my interactions with all 16 living Monuments Men (including two women), and dozens of children of deceased Monuments Men, I came across many never before seen documents - photos, field journals and most importantly their letters home to loved ones written during combat. It was clear that with these essential documents in hand I could tell their story in a deeply personal way using many of their words to describe their remarkable, harrowing, yet uplifting experiences as they hitchhiked their way across Europe searching caves and castles looking for paintings by Leonard da Vinci, sculpture by Michelangelo, and millions of the most beloved cultural treasures of our western civilization. Much of the material I needed was available, but certain critical gaps had to be overcome which meant locating documents some of the Monuments Men's children didn't know they had. It was a slow process. Further complicating matters was working with archival documents in four languages.

My new book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History", was published in September by Center Street. It will be published at last count in 19 other languages which will be accessible to almost four billion readers fulfilling one of my original objectives: making sure the story of the Monuments Men reached the broadest worldwide audience possible. My time is now consumed promoting their story through my work with the Monuments Men Foundation for Preservation of Art, which in 2007 received the National Humanities Medal for its work to preserve these heroes' legacy.

Any article about being an author would be incomplete without commenting, albeit briefly, on the difficulties of gaining media visibility for your book. If the subject of your book is salacious, involves vampires, or any aspect of "how to", you will have the wind to your back. If it involves heroes of another era who are all old, or a story that has timeless relevance and significance but isn't viewed as "Breaking News; Happening Now", don't expect any help from the mainstream media. By all means, if you are passionate and believe in your subject, proceed regardless. Just know the road ahead is filled with frustration before you reach what I believe should be THE reason to write such a book: meaningfulness. With that as your intended destination, no amount of rejection can prevent you from achieving your goal.