Washingtonians believe (and now can see) that this once stuffy capital has a vibrant, urbane demographic. Yet within the parameters of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “American Cool,” only three locals, all long dead and male, made it into this somewhat arbitrary pantheon: a 19-century poet (Walt Whitman, America’s first bohemian?), a civil rights pioneer (Frederick Douglass, but wasn’t he fiery?), and a 20th-century musician (Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, yes, Big Band smooth).
Curators picked 100 souls, all of whom factored before the millennium years and continue to represent an enviable quality of charm with a dark side. Each had to match at least three of these criteria: an artistic vision with a signature style, cultural transgression for a given generation, iconic power with instant visual recognition and a recognized legacy. Some of the photographers themselves have a celeb quotient: Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, Linda McCartney and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Many of the select 100 did, on occasion, pass through D.C. Musicians factor heavily, like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Muddy Waters, drawn here by Black Broadway clubs and the Lincoln and Howard theaters. Dizzy Gillespie played Blues Alley in Georgetown, and Elvis came once, an early, poorly attended gig on a Potomac river boat. But latter-day stars like David Byrne, James Brown, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Willie Nelson and Prince, most in confrontational pose here, played to full houses.
Who else fleetingly blessed the city with his or her coolness? Clint Eastwood filming key scenes of In the Line of Fire on the Mall and in Adams Morgan; Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston earning an associate degree in 1920 at Howard U. and waiting tables at the Cosmos Club (At Eatonville restaurant, food and decor pay her homage.); Bob Dylan, sometime painter, who visited the Phillips Collection Bonnards before a nightime gig; the ill-fated Jimi Hendrix who set his guitar on fire at Merriweather Post Pavilion; Theolonius Monk remembered here with an institute of jazz; Lou Reed with his band Velvet Underground at an Adams Morgan roller rink and later at the 9:30 club; Jackson Pollock visible in museum holdings and his personal papers at the Smithsonian American Art Archives; and Andy Warhol at gallery openings and at a White House state dinner where he wore jeans under his tux pants.
Those three locals? Frederick Douglass, a force for justice in his writings and oratory, built Cedar Hill, a hilltop manse, now a National Park Service property at 1411 W Street SE. Composer/bandleader Duke Ellington grew up here and won his regal nickname with a dapper presence at clubs and on the Hollywood screen. An arts-focused high school at 3500 R Street NW bears his name. And Walt Whitman worked here during the Civil War, writing poems out of his heartbreak over Lincoln’s death and the wounds of soldiers. He nursed the latter in mosaic-rich halls that became a Smithsonian museum devoted to American portraiture. Hey, that’s the site of this exhibition. Cool.