The Spirit of St Louis
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Levon West, also known as Ivan Dmitri, grew up on the prairies of North Dakota. While studying business and economics at the University of Minnesota, a chance meeting with printmaker and illustrator Joseph Pennell in 1925 convinced Levon West to instead pursue a career in etching. With lots of ambition, but little money, he headed for New York. Setting up a studio in the fifteenth floor of the Waldorf hotel, West became acquainted with the hotel’s head waiter. Taking the budding young North Dakota artist under his wing, the head waiter occasionally provided Levon with the opportunity to sit in at banquet gatherings held at the Waldorf.
While pursuing an art career, Levon West and seven friends also formed an aviation corporation, servicing planes at Roosevelt Field in Long Island. One day in 1927 he noticed a new type of plane on the field. After a quick investigation, he discovered it belonged to a young man named Charles Lindberg. Intrigued by the plane, he took out a pad and made several sketches of it.
Then on May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh took off in his Spirit of St Louis from the dirt runway of Roosevelt Field and less than thirty-four hours later he landed in Paris, the first to fly the Atlantic alone. When West heard the news, he hastily made an etching from his sketch of Lindberg’s plane, and headed for the New York Times. When questioned on his asking price for the etching, West told the newspaper, “I don’t care how much I get for it, but put my name on it good and big at the bottom.”
On this day, May 29, 1927, Levon West’s etching of Lindberg’s Spirit of St Louis appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The very next day, West was contacted by New York’s Kennedy Galleries. Demand for his work soon followed.
The etching of the Spirit of St Louis not only gave the former North Dakotan his first big break as an artist, it also gave him an opportunity to meet Charles Lindberg. When the famed flyer returned to New York, a reception was held for him at the Waldorf. As West had done several times before, he attended the banquet as a self-invited guest; seating himself in an empty chair at the head table. While the banquet’s speaker, Charles Schwab, then president of US Steel, was addressing the guests, Levon West approached Lindberg with two copies of the etching.
“I want you to autograph one for me,” West said, “the other one you can have to give to Mr. Schwab.”
Returning to his seat with an autographed copy in hand, West watched Lindberg present the other etching to Mr. Schwab a few minutes later.
Lindberg’s flight provided the first big break for the young man from North Dakota. Levon West, who would also use the name Ivan Dmitiri, went on to gain further international fame for his etchings, watercolors and color photography.
Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall
Lang, Joyce. “Jottings.” In Dakota Portraits: A Sentimental Journal of Pictorial History, ed. Marion J. Piper, 57-61. Mohall, ND, 1964.
“Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award”, North Dakota State Government http://www.governor.state.nd.us/awards/rr-gallery/toc.html (accessed 2008).