A Historical Artifact’s Near-Death Experience and Salvation


David Rintels and his restored “loving cup,” which once belonged to President Franklin Roosevelt. —Laura D. Roosevelt

The first time I went to David Rintels’ house in West Tisbury, he said he had something to show me that might be of interest. The object in question was a sterling silver, lidded urn called a loving cup. Made in 1932 by Tiffany’s, the cup was a gift from the members of the New York State Cabinet to their boss, who was stepping down as governor in order to become President of the United States. That man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was my grandfather.

The cup after it was destroyed and thought lost in a mudslide at Rintels’ home in California. —Ubaldo Vital

The cup is inscribed on one side with the words, “To Franklin Delano Roosevelt Governor of New York with the affection and esteem of the members of his Cabinet at Albany and with their good wishes to him as President of the United States, Albany, N.Y., December 31, 1932.” The opposite side of the cup bears the signatures of all of FDR’s Cabinet members, including Frances Perkins, who would become FDR’s Secretary of Labor making her the first woman appointed to the United States Cabinet; Herbert H. Lehman, who served four terms as governor of New York after FDR stepped down; and Henry Morgenthau Jr., who became FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury, in which position he played a major role in the design and financing of the New Deal and in the financing of the country’s participation in World War II.

Many of FDR’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal effects are now properties of the public trust, housed at the FDR Library and home in Hyde Park, and in Eleanor’s retreat, Val-Kill Cottage, which, like FDR’s house at Hyde Park, is a National Historic Site. Items like David Rintels’ loving cup were likely sold by the Roosevelts’ children, several members of whom (including my own father) fell on financial hard times at some point in their lives. I have been unable to discover who in my family, if anyone, inherited this cup, or who originally sold it. Christie’s in New York auctioned it off in 2001. Rintels bought it in 2016 at the Dallas Auction Gallery, where it was listed as part of the collection of Sam Wyly, a former billionaire who declared bankruptcy in 2014 after having been convicted in one of the largest tax evasion cases in history. He liquidated many artworks and other possessions to pay back taxes, and the objects sold at this 2016 auction may have been part of that effort. When he was flush, he was a major political contributor to conservative candidates, which makes one wonder why he ever owned the FDR loving cup in the first place.

Not so with Rintels. A bigger Roosevelt buff than David Rintels would be hard to find. In fact, one of his earliest childhood memories dates to the day FDR died in April of 1945. Two months shy of 7 years old and home sick from school with the mumps, Rintels heard the news on the radio. “The thing I thought I had to do immediately was call my uncle,” he says. His uncle, the Honorable Charles E. Wyzanski Jr., who played a large role in Rintels’ upbringing while the boy’s father was away in the war, was a judge on the United States District Court in Massachusetts, having been appointed to the post by FDR in 1941. Earlier, from 1933 to 1937, he had served in the New Deal Administration, successfully arguing several significant cases on New Deal legislation before the Supreme Court, helping to draft the Social Security Act, and earning the nickname of “the infant prodigy” of FDR’s brain trust.

Wyzanski’s secretary, knowing that Rintels was ill and sensing his desperation to speak to his uncle, called her boss off the bench to take the call. When Rintels told him that the President had died, his uncle didn’t believe him. “He hadn’t heard yet, and he thought I was delirious. He was of the generation that thought Roosevelt would never die… he was their father, their friend; he was immortal.”

Rintels’ interest in Roosevelt continued to grow as he got older. He wrote his college thesis at Harvard on an aspect of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. A couple of years after graduating, he landed a job, “miraculously,” as a researcher on a 26-part documentary series called “FDR.” He has a large collection of books about Roosevelt, all of which he has read and annotated. “In my own writing career,” he says, “I’m never far away from Roosevelt. First, I did Day One (a 1989 television documentary film) about the decision to make and drop the bomb. I also did World War II: When Lions Roared (1994), about the relationship between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.” Currently, Rintels is working on a play entitled “FDR and the Jews,” which, Rintels says, “is an attempt to deal with the people who have made Roosevelt responsible for this or that aspect of the Holocaust, in some ignorance.”

When Rintels, a self-described auction catalog junkie, saw the silver loving cup for sale, he was determined to acquire it, and he did. “The members of Roosevelt’s New York State Cabinet went out to Tiffany’s,” he says, “and, I assume at their own expense, had this made. I imagine it must have been as treasured a possession for him as it is for me.”

Many things can increase the personal value of a possession to its owner — the person from whom it was received passes away, for example, or maybe the item is lost and thought gone forever, but then it turns up again. In early 2018, Rintels thought he’d lost the FDR loving cup forever. The circumstances of its loss were devastating: After the Thomas fire in Southern California in late 2017 stripped the vegetation and destabilized the soil on steep slopes around Rintels’ home in Montecito, torrential rains that followed in January of 2018 caused a massive mudslide that left 23 people dead, destroyed 65 homes, damaged nearly 500 others, and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in property damages. Rintels’ home, and indeed his entire property, were literally wiped off the map.

The rains had been predicted, and Rintels and his wife, Victoria Riskin, were given a day to evacuate their home. Having just one day earlier moved their art and other valuables back into the house after the wildfires, they moved as much of it out again as they could, but they couldn’t take everything. They were concerned about flooding, but it never occurred to them that a day later, their house, everything in it, and even the ground beneath it would be gone.

“Vicki went out and got a few sand bags and moved a couple of things for research for her book up to the second floor,” says Rintels, “but we weren’t that concerned.” After all, while the wildfires had damaged houses all around them, their house had been spared. But shortly after 3:00 am that night, asleep at the Hotel California in Santa Barbara, Rintels awoke to what sounded like an explosion and “a rainstorm from Hell.” Half an inch of rain fell in five minutes, causing mud and boulders from the Santa Ynez Mountains to loosen and begin flowing toward Montecito. The flows of mud, rocks, and debris reached heights of up to 15 feet and speeds of nearly 20 miles per hour. The rains continued for two days, with a total rainfall of some four inches.

“They wouldn’t let people into the neighborhood for three days,” recalls Rintels. “They were looking for bodies. We were on a street of eight houses, and two friends of ours, a doctor and his college-age daughter, were killed because they disregarded the evacuation order. Across the street, a beloved cousin of ours was killed. We lived really on a kind of chute, the San Ysidro Creek. Now it’s a canyon.” When they got back to what had been their property, only the chimney of their house remained. Everything in the house, including the FDR loving cup, was gone.

Fortunately, less than a year earlier, Rintels and Riskin had bought a second home in West Tisbury. They’d owned a house in Chilmark for several years in the 1980s, but had sold it when they bought their place in Montecito. In the spring of 2017, they happened to see the West Tisbury house for sale, and decided, Rintels says, that “it would be nice to have a summer place, and a place for our dotage, which is approaching.” When their Montecito house was washed away, they came here to Martha’s Vineyard, and now they’re here full-time. “We’re now tax-paying voters in Massachusetts,” says Rintels, “which is great for me, because I was raised in Massachusetts — born in Newton, raised in Brookline. I felt I was coming home.” (Vicki, he tells me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, likes to quip that while he got older in Massachusetts, whether he “grew up” anywhere remains questionable.)

A few weeks after the mudslide, the couple went back to Montecito to deal with the calamity. They hired a crew to clean up the debris on the site of their former home, with instructions that if they found anything, they should let the couple know. A few things did turn up, buried in the mud, and one of them was the loving cup, which was missing its top, badly crumpled, and the color of lead. “The thing was in God-awful shape,” says Rintels. Calls to Tiffany’s in both London and New York were unhelpful, and Rintels was “short on hope” until a friend in the visual art business recommended a silversmith named Ubaldo Vitali. Rintels sent Vitali before-and-after photographs of the cup, and Vitali said he thought he could do the restoration.

One thing seems clear: If anyone could properly restore a nearly totaled item like this silver cup, it would be Ubaldo Vitali, a fourth-generation silversmith who worked in the family business from the time he was a teenager until he left Rome for the United states in 1967, at the age of 23. “Even when I went to the Academy,” he says, referring to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma, where he studied sculpture and art history, “I went every afternoon to my father’s or grandfather’s shop.” For five decades, in his studio in Maplewood, New Jersey, Vitali has been doing metalwork restorations and creating his own objects, mostly in silver. Museums all over the world house examples of both kinds of his work. His restorations include innumerable historically valuable objects, including Torah crowns that were buried in WWII for safekeeping and unearthed years — even decades — later, and the reliquary that houses the head of St. John the Baptist. In 2011, Vitali became a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” award.

“This object,” says Vitali of the FDR cup, “when I heard the story of it, it really affected me.” He recalls growing up in post-war Rome and learning at an early age of America’s role in Italy’s liberation and in its post-war rebuilding. One of his most poignant childhood memories is of visiting the American cemetery near Anzio, “where thousands of white crosses are lined up row upon row in perfect order … I can still remember the constant lamenting sound of the cicadas and the pine trees silhouetted against the sky… Roosevelt was not just a great President, but a most important one. He steered the country from the Great Depression to the great war victory that saved all human civilization from evil. Metaphorically speaking, the silver cup, physically born at the climax of the Great Depression, needed to be restored to bear witness for future generations to the beginning of FDR’s presidency.” He adds that the cup itself seems to have tried to save itself from a near-death experience. “There was a little piece of it protruding from the mud. It wasn’t even shiny anymore, but it had enough spirit to want to be found and saved.”

The MacArthur Foundation’s literature on Vitali says that he “works entirely by hand, from the mixing of raw materials and chemical analyses to building custom-made tools, wooden models, and wax molds.” Restoring the FDR cup involved fabricating a new lid, using old photos as a guide; un-crumpling the body and re-rounding it; removing the handles, recreating their former shape, and reattaching them; and being careful to preserve the inscription and the signatures, all of which had, incredibly, survived the cup’s being thrown about, crushed, and buried. The job took several weeks, but Vitali has trouble estimating the number of hours, because he runs what he calls “a strange shop,” time-wise. “We work in a different kind of time,” he says. “I may wake up in the middle of the night and come to work because something has come to my mind, an idea about how to do something, the proper solution for an impossible problem. It can save you hundreds of hours.”

Silversmith Ubaldo Vitali restored the loving cup in his studio in New Jersey. —Ubaldo Vitali

In order to restore the FDR cup, Vitali says, he had first to understand how every injury to the cup had happened. In this way, he uncovered the cup’s “secrets,” which enabled him to bring it back to life. He believes that objects have memories; he thinks of museums as “memory palaces.” He also believes in the importance of history, both one’s own and that of others, and he values lessons learned from the past. “I have a medieval furnace,” he says, “actually, the same type of furnace that was used by the Romans and before. All I have to do is turn my head and see the coal; I know exactly who I am and where I am coming from, and I know where I’m going.” The FDR loving cup, he notes, “is not just an English Queen Anne’s cup made for Tiffany’s; it’s about what it represented for your grandfather, it’s about the important time in history when it was made.” Restoring it, he says, was “one of those jobs that was a raison d’etre; it makes your life worth living.”

The FDR cup may not be as precious as a reliquary that holds the head of a saint, but it evokes a pivotal time in modern American history, and displays the names of a number of people who helped shape that period. For me, as a Roosevelt descendant, its story is one of a meaningful little miracle – a family artifact that disappeared and reappeared, lived with a political conservative for a time, was nearly destroyed, was restored to its former glory, and now, happily, resides in the home of a good New Deal-style liberal, a history buff with a particular fascination with FDR. It’s found a great resting place. As Vitali says, “People say there are no accidents; there are only God incidents.”

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