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Volume 24, Number 4July/August 1973

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They Went To The Fair

Native golden marble, streaked with fossils, was quarried and polished; the selfsame costly and fragrant Cedar Wood of Lebanon, which adorned Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, was carpentered with wainscots, frames and maps, Silk was raised, woven and embroidered by our peasants; oil canvases unfolding ancient Mythologies and telling Tales of Romance and Chivalry depicting history in Lebanon, were commissioned to our artists. The best materials were used to express the highest of our ambitions.

Written by Frederick King Poole
Illustrated by The Charles Corm Collection

Most of the headlines, that August day, made grim reading: REICH AIM TO GET HUNGARY NOW SEEN... JERSEY ADOPTS RELIEF PLAN... $85,000,000 ORDER FOR ARMY PLANES. Only one, in fact, dealt with the lighter side of life. That story, headlined MAYOR IN CHICAGO SCORES CRITICS, had to do with New York's irrepressible Fiorello LaGuardia, the 10-cent hot dog, a fan dancer named Sally Rand and the incidental revelation by His Honor that at the New York World's Fair of 1939, the most comprehensive and grandiose international exposition of all time, one of the most popular attractions was a small, hastily assembled, historically oriented pavilion from a tiny, almost unknown country called Lebanon.

Given the ebullient mayor's motives—to stimulate interest in his World's Fair—that disclosure may not have been either incidental or accidental. Nevertheless, Mayor LaGuardia was genuinely impressed by Lebanon's entry. When he visited the fair he paused in front of the three-dimensional "diorama" of an ancient Lebanese city called Byblos and said, "When I look at Byblos thousands of years ago, and then look at many of the streets of New York, I am ashamed." The mayor also issued a proclamation making Charles Corm, Lebanon's Commissioner General, a citizen of New York, and presented him with a gold medal. In so doing he gave formal recognition to the businessman-turned-poet who, 34 years ago, with little warning and less money, pieced together a comprehensive display of his country's past and present, a display that blended Lebanon's golden marble, cedar branches, and home-grown silks into what one commentator called "the most restful, simple and inspiring" exhibit at the fair.

That proclamation and the gold medal hang today, along with yellowing photographs and old sketches, in the Corm's unusual six-story home in Beirut. They are among the proud possessions of Charles Corm's handsome, graying widow, Samia, who, as a young bride, accompanied Charles to New York and stood proudly by as he poured out not only time and energy but also his part of personal fortune. "In those days," says Mrs. Corm, "people knew so little of the world. Some thought Lebanon meant Liberia, some thought Libya. In the United States, Lebanese were called 'Turkos' because of the area's long association with the Ottomans... What Charles Corm wanted to do was to tell the truth about Lebanon to the world..."

For Charles Corm idealism of that sort was by no means empty rhetoric. Although he had been a highly successful businessman, Corm, the descendant of a long line of Lebanese artists and scholars (his grandfather, Simon, had been tutor to the court of Lebanon's powerful ruler, Emir Bashir), was far more interested in art and poetry. In 1934, at 40, he had turned over many of his commercial interests—such as his Middle East motor car agencies—to his employees and had begun to devote his energies—as he would continue to do until his death in 1963—to art and poetry.

Many of his poems reflected his absorbing interest in Lebanon. Published in French, they were widely circulated wherever that language was spoken. He won numerous international literary prizes but his feeling for Lebanon was so real that, for nationalistic reasons, he turned down one of France's greatest marks of esteem: the legion d'honneur. It was no surprise therefore, that when he was asked to serve as Commissioner General of Lebanon—just a few months before the fair was scheduled to open—he plunged into the undertaking as if it were a challenge to him personally.

And it was a challenge. Aside from a small pavilion from Iraq, and an unofficial one from Palestine, the Middle East, still largely governed under mandate by the Western powers, would have gone entirely unrepresented at the fair if it had not been for the personal efforts of Corm. In less than three months from the time President Emile Edde gave him the go-ahead, he conceived, constructed and opened an exhibit which, in that pre-jet era, offered millions their first glimpse of the Middle East.

To be certain that it was an accurate glimpse, Corm concentrated on giving the American people information rather than commerce or spectacle. In addition to the usual displays he focused on such great leaps of the imagination as the discovery of navigation, the invention of the alphabet and the development of stonecutting—all Lebanese contributions to civilization—and on such historical footnotes as the fact that six Roman emperors and six Catholic popes had Arab blood; that an ancient Roman law school still stood in Beirut; that the city of Tyre held out for nine months against Alexander the Great.

Every inch of the pavilion was utilized to say something of cultural significance about Lebanon. The floors were in Lebanese marble. At the entrance, behind traditional archways, was a mural depicting Lebanon as seen from the sea. Beneath the mural were flower boxes of the scented green herb, basil, which is bound up with lore concerning courting couples in Lebanese mountain villages. Above the mural were the ironically innocent, pre-1940 words, "NO ARMY." "NO NAVY." "NO AMMUNITIONS." "NO INTERNAL DEBT."

In the center of the central hall of the pavilion was a walk-around high-relief map of Lebanon. The scale was so large that Lebanon's 10,000-foot peaks were three feet high. Surrounding the map was a railing with wrought iron designs based on Corm's sketches of graceful Phoenician motifs. Every village in the country was depicted on the map. "The Lebanese immigrants would wander around until they had found their villages," Mrs. Corm says. "Then they were so overcome by emotion they could not speak."

The hit of the exhibition, however, was the Lebanese cedar tree. Great cedar branches, trimmed from a surviving grove, shipped to New York and used as frames for Lebanon's exhibits, quickly attracted the attention of the press. The cedars' "fragrance fills the pavilion as you enter and their beauty fills the eye with delight," wrote a reporter from the old Brooklyn Eagle. "The wood as you touch it feels alive and tradition says that if you have a cold and touch the sacred cedar your cold will be cured." "Lebanese immigrants," he continued, "have kneeled down in tears and kissed the sacred branches."

That many visitors considered the cedars to be sacred, and treated the pavilion as if it were a house of worship, is confirmed by Mrs. Corm. "People did kiss the cedars. It was a sight I will not forget."

Everybody was so interested in the cedars that Lebanon eventually decided to give some to New York and according to Today at the Fair, the exposition's daily newspaper, did so on September 1, Lebanon Day at the fair. "Visitors witnessed the presentation of 1,000 seeds of the famous cedars of Lebanon to Allyn R. Jennings, superintendent of the Department of Parks of the City of New York... by 20 beautiful Lebanese girls. (The seeds) are to be planted in city parks."

For the Lebanese immigrant, of course, the pavilion was a must—as Professor Philip Hitti (Aramco World , July-August, 1971) made clear in a letter to Charles Corm. "I am sure I voice the sentiments of our people throughout the land when I say that all of us felt proud of it and considered it very much worth the effort and the investment on the part of the Lebanese Government and on your part. The results will become clearer as Americans visit Beirut and tell you that they received their inspiration from the inspection of the pavilion." His words were immediately echoed by a Lebanese-American garment manufacturer, Jamile Najeeb Kiamie, who wrote that "it is a great satisfaction to all our Arabic-speaking people to hear from thousands of our prominent fellow Americans of the marvelous showing Lebanon displayed in its pavilion."

It was not only Arab immigrants who responded. At the rate of 5,000 visitors a day, people from everywhere came to the fair. There were New York subway riders, taking advantage of free entertainment in grim depression years. There were clergymen and scholars in search of a vicarious trip to Bible country and sightseers from all over the country. Queries came in from such diverse people as F. O. Benson, president of the Iola (Kansas) State Bank, who said that since he had returned from the fair his friends had been asking him for further information about the cedars; Virginia B. Starin, a Basking Ridge, New Jersey, decorator who wanted pictures of the model of Byblos to help her in her work; Augustus A. Munson, a Minneapolis attorney, who wrote that "at the Lebanon exhibit I was overcome with emotion." And Herman Jaffe, editor of the Book of Nations, confided, "I am happy to say that your pavilion is my favorite..."

It was many people's favorite, but with another world war threatening, attendance was dropping—too swiftly for the taste of Mayor LaGuardia. His Honor decided to make a cross-country tour to boost the fair. During the tour he told a Chicago audience that New York's fair would not, like Chicago's exposition, depend on Sally Rand's fans for success. New York's fair, he said, had a 10-cent hot dog and the pavilion of Lebanon.

The mayor's tour was successful—attendance jumped—but the Corms, after seven exhilarating months, had to leave. Their infant sons David and Hiram were still in Lebanon and, fearing they would be separated from their children for the duration of World War II, the Corms went back. In leaving they turned over supervision of the pavilion for the second season to Mrs. Corm's brother, Jamil Baroodi. Mr. Baroodi has been in New York ever since and has represented Saudi Arabia in the United Nations from the time of its inception.

Because of the war, the various components of the exhibit could not be shipped back to Lebanon after the fair closed and so were dispersed. Some exhibits went into storage. Some went on temporary display in the Semitic Museum at Harvard University. Some were sold—Edsel Ford bought the rugs with the Phoenician patterns—but many were lost in the confusion wrought by the war.

But the Corms had achieved their goal and the memory of their work still inspires, to a significant degree, their family in their own careers. David Corm, is now a Beirut architect whose activities extend throughout the Middle East. He has his own firm, employing his brother Hiram, now a civil engineer, and their two young sisters, Madeleine, an interior designer, and Virginia, a graphic artist. "We are in a position," David says, "to put into practice our father's ideas about taking the best from the past and using it to reestablish our culture in the modern age."

There is one lingering disappointment, however. To this day no one knows what happened to the cedar seeds that were to leave throughout New York's parks living reminders that, in 1939, little Lebanon went to the fair.

Frederick King Poole is a novelist and freelance magazine writer living in Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1973 images.