By Dennis Murphy, Dateline Correspondent
You know the painting "American Gothic." A couple -- a farmer and his wife, at least she seems to be his wife, but maybe a spinster daughter, apparently fresh from sucking lemons -- stares right at you the viewer with a pitchfork between them. To me, it's always been the American "Mona Lisa." Ambiguous. As with the lady's smile, what's going on here between this man and woman from the heartland?
I mention it only because I'm coming in from the airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I wasn't on the ground long before I learned that the city was home to Grant Wood, the painter of "American Gothic". A lightning refresher art course from Wikipedia tells me that Wood's sister Nan posed as the farm woman and his dentist posed as the man. (By the way, knowing that the farmer in "American Gothic" was, in fact, portrayed by Grant Wood's dentist won a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" a million bucks.)
But I digress.
It's the ambiguity of the story in the painting -- that sharp pitch fork between the Iowa pair -- that echoes a bit with the current American gothic story we're working on in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor.
The man was Dr. Richard Nelson, a medical college executive dean, a highly regarded pediatrician, and the woman in question is Phyllis, his wife of over 30 years. What came between them was a four-inch kitchen paring knife. Phyllis was holding it when it punctured Dr. Nelson's heart, killing him. Of course, there'd been much more between the very married couple than a paring knife. There'd been his lover. The other woman.
Was it murder, as the state of Iowa charged?
Or was it an accident, as Phyllis, the wife, explained it?
It all depended on how you looked at the couple. How you read the picture. We're left without a reliable narrator.
Grant Wood, I suspect, would have understood.
Charlie Neibergall / AP file
His classic painting became, I take it, a tug of war between his detractors and champions. There was a local school of thought in Cedar Rapids about 1930 when he painted it, that the smug artist, trained in the decadent salons of Paris as a young man, was making fun of his fellow Midwesterners, satirizing rubes with sour, pursed lips and short horizons. Wood, of course, denied that interpretation, though legend has it that a farm wife tried to bite his ear off because she was so angry with his depiction of farm people.
Then, as the Depression settled over the country, the painting was reassessed again, and now Grant Wood's farm couple seemed to be the very emblem of American pioneer resolve in times of adversity. You could see in the farmland couple what you wanted to see.
"American Gothic," by the way, is not hanging in Cedar Rapids. It's at the Art Institute of Chicago. To my middlebrow sensibility it's a great, great painting.
P.S. The courteous bailiffs at the Cedar Rapids courthouse, built intriguingly on a narrow island in the Cedar River, make an excellent pot of coffee -- but you have to be a juror or privileged guest to try it. Thank you.
A special hour-long Dateline on the case of Richard and Phyllis Nelson will air tonight, Wednesday, Aug. 22 at 10 p.m. ET/9 Central. Click here for transcript, photos and more on the case.