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This Day in History
Lawrence of Arabia dies, 1935
T.E. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, dies as a retired Royal Air Force mechanic living under an assumed name. The legendary war hero, author…
On Monday evening, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will wrap up his stay aboard the International Space Station when he and two fellow crewmembers touch down in eastern Kazakhstan. A veteran of two previous missions, Hadfield has become a media sensation—and an inspiration to millions—during his five months in space thanks to a regular stream of Tweets and photos and nearly 70 videos that covered a wide array of topics; from what it’s like to brush your teeth and how difficult it is cry in space to how to play the guitar and clip your fingernails—in zero-gravity.
For Hadfield, who’s now a civilian astronaut after a 25-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces, reviving popular interest in space exploration is a deeply personal mission—his own career path was set at the age of nine when he, like millions of others around the globe, watched the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. And while many fans have only recently gotten to know him, his social media, space-marketing plan has been in the works for nearly three years. Already the first Canadian to walk in space, Hadfield was slated to become the first of his countrymen to command the International Space Station when the program’s Expedition 34 embarked on December 19, 2012. Hadfield decided that the mission was an ideal opportunity to get Canada, and the rest of the world, excited about space again after programs around the world suffered substantial cutbacks in recent years. With the help of his two sons, he established a presence on Twitter that grew from 20,000 followers around the start of his mission to more than 800,000 by its end yesterday. In addition, his videos have received more than 22 million video videos to the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube channel, with millions more visiting the agency’s site itself for more information on Hadfield.
The 53-year old Hadfield has clearly enjoyed his stint 230 miles above Earth. He’s installed a Zero-G Christmas Tree, talked with Star Trek icon William Shatner, sang a tune dedicated to the ISS with the group Barenaked Ladies and, like every good Ontario boy, has cheered on the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s also played witness, from afar, to a series of more somber events back home, posting photos of war-torn Syria and tweeted an intergalactic photo of Boston Harbor to wish the city well in the days following the April bombings at the Boston Marathon.
It wasn’t all fun and games aboard the ISS, however. Hadfield and the five other astronauts aboard performed hundreds of scientific experiments, leaving the crew just 12 hours of free-time each week, making Hadfield’s constant messages back home even more remarkable. And just this past week, the crew had to move to quickly to avoid a potential disaster after the discovery of a possible ammonia leak in the ISS’s coolant system precipitated a last-minute spacewalk to make repairs.
Yesterday, as Commander Hadfield prepared to hand the reins to his replacement aboard ISS and say goodbye to space, he managed to make history yet again, becoming the first person to record a music video in space. Fittingly, it was to music legend David Bowie’s 1969 hit, “Space Oddity,” written the same year Hadfield himself was inspired to reach for the stars by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the History.com team! We’ve got lots of great videos, articles, infographics and more to help you get into the holiday spirit. Check out the fun features below, and have a wonderful celebration this weekend!
Bet You Didn’t Know: St. Patrick’s Day
We bet you didn’t know where the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place. Find out and get more surprising facts.
Ask HISTORY: Was St. Patrick Irish?
He may be the patron saint of the Emerald Isle, but was he even born there? Ask HISTORY investigates.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral: Deconstructed
Explore the iconic New York City landmark.
From Ireland’s national symbol to its average beer consumption, get the facts on the Emerald Isle.
St. Patrick’s Day by the Numbers
How much green dye is poured into the Chicago River? What do people spend on the holiday? Get St. Patrick’s Day facts in this infographic.
Corned Beef and Cabbage: As Irish as Spaghetti and Meatballs
Hungry History serves up a taste of the history behind the classic St. Patrick’s Day meal.
George Washington’s Revolutionary St. Patrick’s Day
What did General George Washington do when his troops’ morale slumped in March 1780? He celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, of course.
St. Patrick’s Day Myths Debunked
Did St. Patrick drive the snakes from Ireland, and has green always been associated with his holiday? Get your St. Patrick’s Day myths and facts straight.
The History.com team has been pretty busy the last few weeks getting ready for the premieres of two brand-new series. We thought we’d give you a peek at what we’ve been up to. We hope you enjoy all this new content as much as we do!
Vikings (Sundays at 10/9c)
In our first scripted drama, we follow the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a young Viking warrior whose yearning to explore new worlds puts him at odds with both his local chieftain and the long-held traditions of his people. Visit our new show site for tons of amazing content about Vikings, including dozens of videos, photos, character bios and a new infographic that explores the mythology of the Viking world. You can also catch up on the series with full episodes and an exclusive video series that you takes you inside of each episode with series creator Michael Hirst.
Check out some of our favorite clips below:
Find out more about Viking ships.
Who were the Viking shield-maidens?
How did the Vikings prepare for war?
The Bible (Sundays at 8/7c)
This new 10-hour docudrama utilizes cutting-edge imagery to offer new insights into some of the world’s most iconic characters and stories, including Noah and the ark, the Exodus and the life of Jesus. Check out the new show site for photo galleries, character bios and more. Each week we’ll also be posting video recaps and sneak peeks of next week’s episode.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show:
Did you know the Golden Gate Bridge contains 80,000 miles of wire, or that the Empire State Building has its own zip code? Our Deconstructed series breaks down the facts and figures behind history’s most famous places and things, brought to you in fun, entertaining videos with catchy soundtracks. It’s one of our favorite pieces to work on and watch, so we hope you’ll enjoy checking it out. Wondering where to start? Get ready for St. Patrick’s Day with an in-depth look at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a quick trip to the Emerald Isle.
Here at History.com, we’re busy getting ready for the premiere of Vikings, our new scripted series, on 3.3.13 at 10/9c. To give you a taste of this engrossing saga, check out this slideshow featuring the show’s major characters. Find out more about Vikings here, and be sure to tune in on March 3!
Former New York City mayor Edward I. Koch, who died last week at the age of 88, was buried today at Trinity Cemetery in northern Manhattan. In the years leading up to his death, Koch talked openly about his funeral plans, going so far as to give tours of his burial plot to journalists and informing them that he had chosen its location, in part, for its close proximity to public transportation—making it easier for his admirers to come pay their respects. Always good for a memorable quote, Koch also revealed what words he had chosen for his tombstone. In a nod to his Jewish roots, he selected both a Hebrew prayer, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and the final words of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, spoken just before his murder by Islamic militants in 2002, “ My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Koch composed his own final epitaph for the base of his tombstone, stating how he wished to be remembered:
He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people.
Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.
This got us thinking about how other historical figures have been posthumously remembered. Here’s a look at some of the stories we unearthed from beyond the grave.
The British statesman and prime minister’s biting wit and sharp tongue were well known throughout his lifetime and the caustic Churchill frequently clashed with other politicians and even fellow aristocrats. In one memorable exchange, Nancy Astor, the American-born debutante who married into Britain’s upper class and later became the first female member of Parliament, rebuked Churchill for his behavior, stating: “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison.” Not to be outdone, Churchill chirped right back, responding, “If I were your husband I would take it.” When Churchill died in January 1965, he conceded that he might not be so easy to get along with it—especially for all eternity:
I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.
Another famed British wit, comedian and writer Spike Milligan, left behind an admonition for friends and family on his tombstone. Milligan, who rocketed to fame with the influential comedy program “The Goon Show,” suffered from bi-polar disorder for much of his life before finally succumbing to kidney failure in 2002. Along with the usual commemoration of dates of birth and death, Mulligan opted to chide those who had doubted his precarious health. There was one problem: The East Sussex cemetery he had selected for his final resting place refused to comply, considering his request offensive. Mulligan’s family eventually agreed to include a Gaelic translation of Mulligan’s parting words, which now appear at the base of the tombstone:
I told you I was ill.
While we’re on the subject of witty writers, let’s discuss the 20-year post-mortem saga of Mrs. Parker. Upon her death in 1967, Parker, a lifelong advocate for racial equality, left her estate to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.—despite the fact that the two had never met. In the case of King’s death, her will stipulated that the estate go to the NAACP, which is exactly what happened the following year. While Parker made careful provisions for her literary legacy, she failed to do the same for her physical one. Parker chose as her executor fellow author Lillian Hellman, who failed terrifically in her role as posthumous caretaker. Not only did Hellman hold a public funeral—against Parker’s express wishes— she also refused to collect Parker’s ashes following her cremation. Hellman then proceeded to spend more than a decade unsuccessfully suing the NAACP for control of Parker’s valuable estate. All the while, poor Dorothy’s remains remained in storage. Finally, in 1988, the NAACP claimed the ashes and finally put Parker to rest—not in her beloved New York City—but at their Baltimore, Maryland, headquarters. The memorial plaque pays tribute to Parker’s social advocacy, but also includes the appropriately pithy epitaph she chose for herself:
Excuse my dust.
Of course, one of the most famous examples of the self-penned epitaph comes from one of America’s best-loved founding fathers. Always a perfectionist, Jefferson decided exactly what should be included on his tombstone at Monticello. A proud Virginian to the end, Jefferson chose to highlight the work he had done on behalf of the Old Dominion, omitting a rather important part of Jefferson’s resume—his tenure as America’s third president:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson,
author of the Declaration of American Independence,
of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom,
and father of the University of Virginia.
Sometimes a planned epitaph can fall by the wayside. As a young man, Franklin confided to his diary what he wanted written on his tombstone. Weaving together his work as one of the colonies’ premier publishers with his lifelong goal of constant self-improvement, he chose:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
That’s not quite how it worked out, though. Franklin, never one to shy away from self-promotion, was surprisingly modest when he made his final wishes known—his grave in Philadelphia’s Christ Church cemetery simply reads, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”
Ludolph van Ceulen
Others haven’t been so self-effacing. Dutch mathematician van Ceulen was happy to brag about his greatest achievement—one of the most comprehensive calculations of the numerical value of Pi, or π. After he died in 1610, he had the 35 characters he had discovered included on his tombstone:
Sometimes family members decide to overlook the negative aspects of a person’s life. For example, when Jesse James was murdered by supposed friend and fellow gang member Robert Ford in April 1882, his bereaved mother chose to commemorate her son with these words:
Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.
Famed (and doomed) outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived, robbed and died together, but despite their wishes were buried in separate Dallas, Texas cemeteries. Bonnie’s grave reflects how she wished to be remembered.
As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you.
Outlaw, bank robber and partner of Clyde Barrow
Clyde’s however, makes no mention of Bonnie at all:
Gone but not forgotten.
Shakespeare and Keats
Leave it the literary lions to come up with some of the most potent funereal prose. For a man whose works are full of curses, ghosts, murderers and otherworldly figures, it’s perhaps not surprising that William Shakespeare hoped to ensure an undisturbed sleep in the afterlife with these words of warning:
Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
More than 300 years later John Keats did not go quietly into the night, but instead offered up this attack against his perceived enemies.
This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet
Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
Desired these words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
Many entertainers wind up cribbing lines from their most popular works. That’s what Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin did for their respective curtain calls; “The best is yet to come” and “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” Others choose a more sentimental farewell, like the husband-and-wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. When Gracie died in 1964, George continued on his own until his own death in 1998—at which point their joint crypt was marked with two simple words, “Together Again.”
Few can top Mel Blanc, though. The legendary Blanc was the voice of dozens of Warner Brothers cartoon characters, and chose for his epitaph one of Porky Pig’s signature lines:
That’s All Folks.
The word “Viking” has long been synonymous with brutality, terror and mystery, but these legendary warriors were much more complex than their mythical reputation suggests. HISTORY’s new series Vikings, which premieres March 3, 2013, at 10/9c reveals the extraordinary world of these Dark Age raiders, traders and explorers—not through the lens of outsiders, but through the eyes of the Vikings themselves.
The nine-part series, our first scripted series, tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a young raider in search of new worlds to conquer. It’s a quest that pits him against more traditional leaders of his tribe, including chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), leading to a clash between the methods of the old and the ideas of the new. For the Vikings, you can’t become a legend without a fight.
Written and created by Michael Hirst, Vikings stars Travis Fimmel, Gabriel Byrne, Jessalyn Gilsig, Gustaf Skarsgard, Clive Standen, Katheryn Winnick and George Blagden.
You can also check out the sneak peek video here:
Don’t forget to check back often. We’ll be adding new content as we gear up for the premiere!
History lurks everywhere you turn in Baltimore and San Francisco, even in the nicknames of the cities’ National Football League franchises. Before the Ravens and 49ers battle on the gridiron in Super Bowl XLVII, see how Baltimore and San Francisco stack up on the playing field of history.
Baltimore: A dozen years after the Baltimore Colts slinked off to Indianapolis in 1984, the Baltimore Ravens arrived in Charm City. In the competition to name its new franchise, fans wisely bypassed two generic choices, Marauders and Americans, for a moniker paying homage to one of Baltimore’s most notable former residents, Edgar Allan Poe. Baltimore’s nickname alludes to Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” Since death has fittingly suited Poe better than life ever did, cities are increasingly eager to lay claim to him. But while the poet was born in Boston and achieved his greatest success while living in New York and Philadelphia, Baltimore is his final resting place and, given his macabre proclivities, the place he’d likely consider home.
San Francisco: Will Rogers aptly said San Francisco was “the city that was never a town,” and that was thanks to the “forty-niners” who stampeded to California in the Gold Rush that peaked in 1849. As a violent epidemic of gold fever swept across America and the world, swarms of prospectors and gold dust worth millions poured into San Francisco, transforming a frontier outpost of less than 1,000 people in early 1848 into a boomtown of 25,000 by the end of 1849. The San Francisco 49ers nickname honors that heritage, although it long ago ditched its original logo of a grizzly goldminer in boots and a lumberjack shirt firing a pair of pistols, Yosemite Sam style.
Edge: Baltimore by a beak.
Baltimore: The original three-street town founded in 1729 was named in honor of British nobleman Cecil Calvert, the second Baron of Baltimore and a founding proprietor of the colony of Maryland. Lord Baltimore’s younger brother Leonard Calvert was Maryland’s first colonial governor.
San Francisco: When the Spanish arrived in 1776, they erected a mission in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, San Francisco de Asís, along with a small town dubbed Yerba Buena (Spanish for “good herb”) for the wild, aromatic mint plants that grew in the surrounding hillside meadows. After the United States claimed Yerba Buena during the Mexican-American War, it rebranded the town San Francisco in 1847.
Edge: San Francisco. Nobody remembers Cecil Calvert.
Native Sports Legend
Baltimore: A bambino named George Herman Ruth, Jr., was born in a small Baltimore row house on February 6, 1895. The Babe’s love of baseball blossomed at St. Mary’s Industrial School, and in 1914 he suited up for the minor league Baltimore Orioles before getting the call to the big leagues. The site of one of the bars operated by Babe Ruth’s father is now center field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
San Francisco: Baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio grew up near San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf, where his father tied up his fishing boat that plied the bay. The New York Yankee outfielder married actress Dorothy Arnold in 1939 at Saints Peter and Paul Church in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, and in 1954 “The Yankee Clipper” eloped with Marilyn Monroe at San Francisco City Hall.
Edge: Baltimore. Two greats, but Ruth is baseball’s gold standard.
Baltimore: On the morning of February 7, 1904, winds whipped a small blaze in the business district into a massive inferno. The Great Baltimore Fire raged for 30 hours and destroyed an 80-block area of downtown. While more than 1,500 buildings were incinerated and another 1,000 severely damaged, there was incredibly no loss of life in the city’s worst disaster.
San Francisco: As most San Franciscans slumbered on April 18, 1906, the earth suddenly heaved and furrowed at 5:12 A.M. Hundreds of buildings instantly collapsed. But the worst was yet to come. Flames that erupted from burst gas mains set fire to the city’s literal tinderbox of wooden structures. Making things much worse for firefighters, the earthquake severed water mains. The three-day conflagration reduced nearly 500 city blocks, one-third of San Francisco, to rubble. The unofficial death toll was 3,000, and a quarter of a million people were left homeless. Reporting from the scene of the disaster for Collier’s, Jack London wrote, “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone.”
Edge: San Francisco wins this dubious round.
Baltimore: After setting Washington, D.C., ablaze during the War of 1812, British forces launched an unsuccessful two-pronged attack on Baltimore. The land assault began on September 12, 1814. The next day, the British fleet unleashed its artillery on Fort McHenry, a bombardment that lasted into the night. By dawn’s early light, Francis Scott Key spied the American flag still fluttering over the bastion, and the successful defense of Fort McHenry inspired him to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the words to the national anthem in 1931. (The first monument to Francis Scott Key was erected not in Baltimore, though, but in San Francisco.)
San Francisco: On July 9, 1846, just weeks after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, village residents, numbering no more than 200, dashed to the windows of their shanties as drums and fifes sounded outside. They watched as United States soldiers and marines hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the central plaza and seized the town with no resistance from the handful of Mexicans in the lightly guarded presidio. The only shots fired were the 21-gun salute from the USS Portsmouth that thundered around the bay.
Edge: Baltimore. Alicia Keys will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the kickoff of Super Bowl XLVII. Enough said.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of one America’s most iconic structures—New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Originally built for the New York Central Railroad, it remains the largest railroad station in the world and, with more than 750,000 visitors a year, one of the busiest.
As we mark this landmark’s centennial, explore the history of Grand Central Terminal in photos and videos.
An American IconToday, 100 years after it first opened, Grand Central Terminal remains one of the busiest railroad stations in the world—with more than 750,000 visitors every year.
Grand Central DepotThe current building is actually the third transit center to occupy the site. The first, known as Grand Central Depot, opened in October 1871.
Statue of Mercury, Hercules and MinervaGrand Central’s original owner, William K. Vanderbilt chose Mercury as the primary figure for the sculpture that adorns the building’s south façade. The Tiffany stained glass clock at the center is the largest in the world.
Main Concourse, 1913More than 150,000 New Yorkers attended the official opening of Grand Central in February 1913. (Getty Images)
Main Concourse CeilingOne of the most recognized parts of Grand Central is the astrological ceiling mural. What few visitors realize is that the stars of the galaxy were accidentally painted backwards. (iStockphoto.com)
War Bonds DisplayDuring World War II, Grand Central was a major transit hub for soldiers going to and returning from the front. There was even a branch of the USO set up in the station to provide entertainment for servicemen. (Getty Images)
Walter Cronkite in Grand Central broadcast roomCBS News was one of several radio and television stations to broadcast from studios inside Grand Central.
Philippe PetitTo commemorate Grand Central's 75th anniversary, French aerialist Philippe Petit crossed the main concourse on a tightrope. According to recent reports, he'll repeat the stunt in 2013 for the building's centennial. (Getty Images)
Keeping TimeThe massive clock atop the main concourse information booth is one of Grand Central’s most iconic features—and it’s worth an estimated $15-20 million.
Grand Central, October 2012An empty main concourse, as New Yorkers prepare for Hurricane Sandy. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)
Find out everything you need to know with Grand Central Terminal: Deconstructed
Did you know that Grand Central is home to the largest Tiffany stained glass clock in the world?
Find out more about the iconic clock in the middle of Grand Central.
Did you know that Hitler once sent spies to destroy the Grand Central train system?
Hello history (and film) fans. We’re happy you’ve joined us for this week’s installment of “History on the Big Screen”. Once again, we’re exploring the real stories behind some of this year’s Academy Award—nominated films. As usual, we’ll tell you what the filmmakers got right, what they got wrong and everything else you should know to be the history know-it-all at your Oscar® party. This week, we’re decoding “Argo,” the (mostly) true story of the clandestine rescue of a group of Americans, set against the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis. Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead.
How accurate is the depiction of the taking of the U.S. embassy by Iranian militants?
According to witnesses-—including many of the 52 Americans hostages-—the film’s opening sequence accurately portrays the chaotic takeover of the embassy compound on November 4, 1979. The filmmakers utilized newsreels of the actual event interspersed with new footage to recreate the events. And while the film focuses almost entirely on the six Americans who were not taken hostage, the few scenes of Americans who remained in captivity take only a few historical licenses: The Islamic militants did put young carpet weavers to work reassembling documents shredded by Americans as the mob approached, but there is no evidence that they discovered the identities of the missing Americans this way. What you don’t see in the early part of the film, however, is that there were actually two groups of embassy workers who tried to escape–the group of six who become the focal point of the film, as well as another, smaller group. This second group never made it to safety; they were quickly apprehended by the militants and brought back to the American embassy where they remained in captivity for 444 days.
Was the Canadian film ruse the only option the Americans had to choose from?
In the movie, the U.S. government comes up with several possible scenarios to smuggle the hostages out, eventually discarding them all in favor of the Hollywood hoax. In fact, a number of different options were prepared and when Tony Mendez traveled to Tehran he presented three of them to the six American hostages. The hostages were skeptical of the other two, which involved impersonating either businessmen or schoolteachers, as was Mendez. They all felt the fictional film crew backstory was the most developed, and together with Mendez they moved forward with that scheme.
If anything is fictionalized, it’s the Hollywood stuff, right?
While Los Angeles is the land of make-believe, the movie plays it pretty straight when it comes to Hollywood’s role in the plan to spring the Americans hiding in Iran. Renowned makeup artist John Chambers really was on the CIA’s payroll. Chambers and Tony Mendez did set up a fake film company that claimed to be producing a fantasy film called “Argo.” There were ads taken out in the trade papers to make it look more convincing. And there were people waiting around to answer phone calls from curious Iranian officials should the need arise. However, the producer played by Alan Arkin is a composite of a number of media people recruited to work on the project. The movie script that becomes the launch pad for the mission was not called “Argo,” and Tony Mendez didn’t discover it. The real story of the fake movie is even more complicated. The screenplay was originally called Lord of Light, and had been adapted from a popular 1968 sci-fi book by screenwriter Barry Ira Geller. But Geller had more than just a movie in mind. Lord of Light was going to be the launching pad for a science fiction theme park he intended to build in Colorado, and his project had lots of successful talent attached: Legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby, who had co-created characters such as Captain America, the X-Men and the Hulk, designed storyboards for the film and theme park, and both author Ray Bradbury and theorist Buckminster Fuller consulted on the project. When Geller’s plans went awry amid accusations of fraud, the movie—and theme park—ideas collapsed. When Tony Mendez was searching for script to use as part of the project, it was Chambers, who had also worked with Geller, who suggested Lord of Light.
Did that nice Canadian ambassador save American lives?
Well, yes and no. The six Americans who escaped: Bob Anders, Mark and Cora Lijek, Lee Schatz and Joe and Kathy Stafford, did not rush immediately to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Lee Schatz split off from the group and initially went into hiding with some helpful Swedish friends. The rest of the group spent more than a week hiding out in Tehran, moving from location to location (including a few nights spent with British and New Zealand officials) before phoning a friend, Canadian consular official John Sheardown. It was Sheardown who invited them into the protection of Canadian custody. Sheardown then contacted Ken Taylor who obtained official permission to shelter the Americans for as long as necessary. The entire group didn’t even stay with Taylor, but were instead split up between the ambassador’s residence and Sheardown’s house and spent little time together. It’s Sheardown, who is not included in the movie at all, who the American workers credit with initial saving their lives.
How involved was Canada in the plot?
Our neighbors to the north actually played a far bigger role than depicted on the big screen. In “Argo,” the six hostages are shown camping out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor for the duration of the film, simply waiting for American assistance. In fact, Canadian officials devised some of the earliest evacuation scenarios; provided intelligence information about how to evade detection at Tehran’s airport; bought the plane tickets used to get the prisoners out; and spent weeks instructing their guests on the finer points of passing as a Canuck. And it was a Canadian consular officer who saved the day when he realized that the entry visas created by Mendez were incorrect—the CIA had failed to take into account that New Year’s is celebrated during the spring in Iran, and the U.S. documents bore the wrong year and had to be fixed at the last minute. On screen it’s the U.S. government officials who are seen questioning the rescue mission, and that happened across the border as well. Just issuing the passports that the Americans used during the ruse caused quite a stir in the Canadian government, and it took a clandestine, fractious, late-night session of Parliament, the first since World War II, to get the official go-ahead for the paperwork.
Were the Americans nearly caught during the escape itself?
There are a few details in the latter parts of the film, both large and small, that are purely fictitious. Tony Mendez did not take the group to a market in central Tehran to meet with Iranian officials. That would have been far too dangerous. The only time the group left their safe houses at all was for the trip to the airport that ends the film. It is true that the group did not have the necessary paperwork to get past one of the checkpoints, but the Canadians had already determined that the Iranian guards rarely tried to match that form of documentation. There was no potential glitch with airplane tickets, because in real-life the Canadians themselves had purchased the tickets, not the CIA. There was some delay in getting the group on board the Swiss air flight, but that was due to maintenance problems, not some last-minute questioning of the Americans’ true identities. In fact, after all of the groundwork the CIA and Canada had done to make both “Argo” and its film crew appear legitimate, Iranian officials never questioned them at all, let alone chased them down the tarmac. In the end, the mission went off without a hitch.