MarketInsight | The Umbrella
I like umbrellas. I like the way that they keep me dry and I love the sound that the rain makes as it patters over my head. It is very soothing. I am also aware that, to this day, umbrellas are considered effeminate. They say that Clark Gable destroyed the undershirt when he did not wear one in the film, “It Happened One Night,” co-starring Claudette Colbert. The scene from the 1934 film was considered racy at the time. Gable strips off his dress shirt and exposes his bare chest.
Gable epitomized masculinity at the time and his lack of an undershirt “suddenly made all sorts of men realize,” according to Geoffrey Beene, “why do I have to wear an undershirt if Clark Gable doesn’t wear an undershirt?” The downfall of the men’s umbrella can similarly be traced to one man, Neville Chamberlain.
Chamberlain was prime minister of England. In 1938, he flew to visit Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair in Berchtesgaden. While he was there, he acquiesced to Hitler’s demand for a hunk of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. Hitler, who had already gobbled up Austria, agreed to not ask for anymore. Chamberlain came home in his bowler hat, with an umbrella over his arm and triumphantly announced that he had achieved “peace in our time!” As we all know, the peace claim was premature. “Appeasement” did not work. The Nazis grabbed all of Czechoslovakia and then most of Europe.
After that event, men all over the world and particularly politicians refused to be seen or photographed carrying an umbrella. President Richard M. Nixon was adamant on the subject. Even today, you will often see someone else holding the umbrella for the president. The umbrella in the hands of a man, a symbol of appeasement in the hands of a prime minister named Neville, became a symbol of weakness.
On the day that John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a man stood in Dealey Plaza as the presidential motorcade passed dressed in a black bowler hat and tails, standing under an open umbrella. Conspiracy theorists call him “Mr. Peanut” and ponder what nefarious purpose his presence portends. The man, Louie Steven Witt, told the police and the FBI that he was there to protest JFK’s appeasement of Cuba after the Communist takeover led by Fidel Castro.
He had purposefully dressed like Chamberlain for the event. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was ambassador to Great Britain and a supporter of Chamberlain’s ill-fated attempt at appeasement. The protest made sense, but the modern eye can easily see the opening of the black umbrella as a signal to would-be assassins.
Diplomacy, umbrellas, and undershirts come off badly in this story. Of course, so does mindless aggression. Perhaps there is an allegory there.
Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.