• Fred R. Kline

Notes for a Memoir The Astronaut’s Picasso and the Children’s Santa Claus

FRK 3.22.2019

Fred R. Kline Copyright ©2019

Well into my 80th year and still very much an "art explorer" at play in the fields of art, I find inspiration on a given day joining Columbus sailing off to China, or bonding with the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table in search of the Holy Grail, or linking up with the Apollo astronauts blazing a pathway to the Moon and the stars. You don’t always find what you expect but, for me, hope blooms eternal, and history and mythology inspires me to keep trying.

Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr.

Which reminds me. My friend Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr. (now 90!) once asked me to authenticate a “Picasso” painting he owned. I thought, “Mercy, let it be true!”

The “Picasso” had been gifted to Jim in 1970 by some official in Paris in honor of Jim’s then recent adventure as captain of Apollo 13. Many of us remember the saga from live broadcasts and later from the 1995 movie, “Apollo 13” with Tom Hanks playing Jim Lovell: the damaged spaceship, the crew hanging on by the skin of their teeth as they flew around the Moon, and then finally their miraculous Hallelujah return to Earth. Breathtaking, hair-raising, nail-biting, heart stopping, was how I experienced it on the ground and glued to the TV.

A fake Picasso painting.

Jim put the Picasso away in storage but had always wondered about it and even entertained a slight hope it might be authentic. Who wouldn’t welcome a windfall of millions of dollars? The Picasso mania continues.

Can modern heroes be more mythic than the Astronauts? Jim Lovell is surely a modern Ulysses, supported by his undaunted crew, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise—each fighting and defeating monsters of a kind in Outer Space and finally safely coming home. Imagine that story evolved over a thousand years.

After several decades of wondering about his Picasso, the bad news was clear after I saw it: Lovell had been given a fake Picasso! It was not even close. Jim took it well enough, thinking from the first that it was too good to be true, but yet…there he was, like any one of us, hoping for a Picasso jackpot. Dammit to hell, you just shouldn’t gift a fake Picasso to a great Astronaut. I really hated to tell him. It hurt my heart.

On one occasion in Santa Fe in the early 1990’s, when Jim and his wife Marilyn were lunching with Jann and me at our home, I asked Jim if he remembered the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 (the first mission to fly around the Moon). Did he remember that time when he said to the entire world, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” quoting the famous response a newspaper editor made a hundred years ago to an inquisitive young girl named Virginia. It was Christmas Eve, after all.

This was right before Jim and fellow Astronaut Frank Borman read an unforgettable selection from Genesis, with the surface of the Moon looming below and the Earth a distant blue marble shining in the darkness of Space. “In the beginning….”

'Earthrise" photograph by James A. Lovell Jr., inscribed to Fred and Jann Kline

Their world famous photograph “Earthrise” captured that first epochal moment. A large “Earthrise” hung for years in my office at National Geographic and still hangs in my home. Looking at it, I always have to catch my breath. It is kind of like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time.

Thomas Nast, "Santa Claus and a loving child" ca. 1880

“Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Jim said with a big smile, remembering. And Jann, who was responsible for hundreds of gifts from Santa Claus, made a happy little hand-clapping. “Who could forget that!” she said. “I loved it!”

Marilyn was smiling, knowingly. “And off course the evangelical folks complained.” “That was a little gift for all the children out there,” Jim Lovell said. “Me included!” #