Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Portland’s iconic lobsterman statue embodies some of Maine’s most romantic notions about itself. A strong, Anglo-Saxon man, subdues nature while making a living, alone on the sea. He’s wearing his hip boots rolled down and his billed cap sits right beside him. He’s crouched over his lobster trap’s lead line. You can almost “heyah” his Down East accent. Ayuh, that man is a real Mainer.
The artist who sculpted it, Victor B. Kahill, was a Mainer, too. He was a Middle-Eastern immigrant, labeled an “enemy alien” by the government, who went on to serve the United States in two world wars. He was also the only Mainer to greet Charles Lindbergh in Paris after his famous solo flight across the Atlantic.
The city dedicated Kahill’s bronze statue, at the corner of Temple and Middle Streets, 40 years ago this week, on July 27, 1977.
Kahill came to Maine from Lebanon in 1909. He was 14 years old and joined his brother Joseph, a noted portrait painter, in Portland. When the U.S. entered World War I, Lebanon was under Ottoman rule and the government labeled Kahill an “enemy alien.” He joined the army anyway and served in France.
After the war, he stayed on in Paris, studying art. While there, he also became a pilot and a photographer. He was in the throng that met Charles Lindbergh in Paris in 1927 after making the first solo flight across the sea. Kahill was the only Mainer there to greet him.
Upon returning to Maine, he worked as a photographer and an artist. In 1930, the state of Maine commissioned him to make a bias relief sculpture of the first Mainer killed in WWI. That likeness of Harold T. Andrews still hangs in the Hall of Flag at the State House.
Kahill got another commission when the Legislature cooked up the idea of having a bronze lobsterman sculpture placed in the Maine pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Nobody remembers how they met, but the artist chose Bailey Island lobsterman Elroy “Snoody” Johnson as a model. Johnson was a familiar face at the State House and often weighed in on lobster-related bills. He said he didn’t mind posing but wished Kahill had included his dog, Bruin.
Johnson said Bruin was the smartest dog in the world and could tell legal-sized lobsters from shorts. The commissioner of Sea and Shore Fisheries even issued him a real lobstering license. From the time he was a pup, until his death, the dog only missed five days of lobstering with his master.
Kahill carved Johnson’s likeness (sans Bruin) in plaster. The cast bronze version had a $10,000 price tag. But, money being tight in the Great Depression, officials only managed to raise $1,500. So, Kahill painted the plaster a bronze color and shipped it to New York.
It was a hit. Millions of people saw it between 1939 and 1940. When the fair was over, the statue came home to Portland. It was first displayed in a hotel lobby and then in the foyer at city hall. Unfortunately, the fragile plaster took a beating. The lobster’s legs broke off along with Johnson’s fingers. It finally ended up in a Boothbay warehouse where rodents and damp conditions did even more damage.
Meanwhile, when the United States entered WWII in 1941, Kahill volunteered for the Army again. He proved most useful in North Africa with his ability to speak French, Italian, English and five Arabic languages. It was there he acted as a guide to both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
Rumors abound of his doing clandestine work for the allies in Casablanca, too. But secret spy work is hard to confirm.
We do know he spent part of the war running a G.I. nightclub in France. There he oversaw entertainment and 8,000 meals per day for tired, hungry soldiers.
Kahill left the Army 1947 and settled down in Casablanca. There, he operated one of the most luxurious and famous nightclubs along the African coast.
The Legislature tried budgeting money for a bronze casting of the crumbling plaster sculpture in 1962, 1967 and 1973. All three efforts failed. The project finally got funding in 1974.
Boothbay Harbor sculptor and shipyard worker Norman T. Therrien got the job. First, Therrien had to fix the plaster version. Then, he cut it into 17 pieces, casting a bronze version of each piece. Finally, they were all welded back together again.
Today, there are three bronze versions of Kahill’s creation. One is in Washington, D.C. on Maine Avenue. Another is at Land’s End on Bailey Island. The third is right here in Portland.
Kahill came back to the United States in 1965 at the age of 70. He died that same year. Old “Snoody” Johnson died on Bailey Island in 1973. They never saw their statue completed. And they say the two men never met again after Kahill made his plaster sculpture.
But I think they’ll always be together, right here in bronze, showing us what a Yankee and a new Mainer can get done, together.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.