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In 1972 George Gordon was an ambitious, can-do adman working in New York City when he was struck by a bold idea. He would get Alexander Calder, the world-famous sculptor known for his playful, colorful mobiles, to decorate a jet airplane. After all, Calder invented kinetic art, art that moved, and airplanes could be thought of as mobiles without the wires. Besides, if Gordon could get an airline to sign on as the projects sponsor, he might be able to nab a major new account.

The only problem was convincing Calder.

The American-born artist was living in the Loire Valley region of France. Gordon dialed directory assistance, and the French operator, to his great surprise, patched him through.

calder1.jpg

I am Calder, and I am an artist, and this is my home. Whats on your mind? Calder barked into the phone after Gordon had introduced himself.

I have an idea for you.

Whats the idea?

Gordon insisted it was too big to describe over the phone, so he suggested a meeting.

Youre an insistent fellow, Calder said, but then invited him for lunch. Gordon booked a flight, and a few days later he was breaking bread with one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.

When Gordon showed up for his lunch with Calder, the artist told him to sort his mail. Then he took him on a car ride to one of his studios, driving, Gordon recalls, with his eyes rarely looking straight ahead. He veered to the right when you talked to him. After they ate a lunch of soup, pat8E, leg of lamb, homemade bread, and two bottles of 1971 Bordeaux, Calder took a two-hour nap. Finally, after Gordon announced he was going to have to leave soon, Calder said, What do you want me to do?

I want you to paint a plane, Gordon replied.

I dont paint toys.

No. I mean a big jet.

His face lit up, Gordon recalls. Calder agreed to paint the jets for $100,000 a pophis agent felt he should have asked for a millionand Gordon persuaded the now defunct Braniff International Airways to sign on as sponsor.

For the next five years Calder and Gordon collaborated closely on two multicolored planes that Calder called flying mobiles. Gordon, who at times was jetting to France every week to work with the artist, did everything from dabbing the paint on Caldermodels to getting pleasantly inebriated with the artist over lunch. He also had the good sense to keep detailed notes of his experience and is now writing a book he has tentatively titled Plane Fun.

We had so much fun, Gordon, who is now eighty years old, recalls. The project was a spectacular success.

The Braniff advertising account also brought Gordons firm $25 million and enabled Gordon to start his own ad agency. The first of Calders airplanes was christened in 1973 and flew regularly to South America. The second came along in 1976 to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial. Braniff, meanwhile, scored a public-relations coup because of all the media attention the planes received.

Gordon says Calders workday consisted of making sketches, then painting the ones he liked onto six-foot-long airplane models. He remembers Calder once drawing a picture of a monkey with prodigious genitals, which Gordon politely suggested was probably not the best image to display on the side of an airplane.

calder2.jpg

What Gordon remembers most about the experience was Calders sheer joy at work. When you hit his funny bone, his laughter would start at his toes and erupt into laughing grunts, Gordon recalls in Plane Fun. The two laughed together and became friends. When you were his friend, you were his friend for life, Gordon says. Hed do anything for you.

Calder died in 1976 while completing his third plane for Braniff. By the end of the 1970s, Braniff was in serious financial trouble and no longer wanted to bear the cost of maintaining the artistic masterpieces. Gordon cobbled together a group of investors to buy the planes, but by the time theyd gotten the money together, Braniff had painted them over. They are probably in some junk heap somewhere, Gordon says. Its tragic. They should be in museums.

Gordon, who lives up the Hudson River from New York City, still owns a dozen models of the Calder planes as well as twenty sketches. The models, he says, may be worthwhile collectors items, but thats not why he keeps them. They are, he says, reminders of an experience that changed him forever. Lawrence Goodman





Comments (7)
05/01/07
 
Loved the story on George Gordon and Alexander Calder, as I am a Braniff enthusiast and builder of airliner models (mainly Braniff's).
 
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09/10/07
 
An amazing history for me to share with my son, who is Mr. Gordon's great grandson!!
 
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10/13/07
 
To synthesize George's life into his friendship with a legend trivializes a life that continues to reach into the heavens. A dreamer if ever there was one.
 
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07/13/08
 
Mr. Gordon's story is so inspirational! My father has the sense of humor everyone loves in books.
 
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02/11/09
 
hello, i am trying to locate george gordon who was featured in the below article in brown alumni magazine. he produced a limited edition calder sculpture and i own one. problem is, at a recent party i hosted someone had the nerve to steal one of the pieces off the stabile (sculpture) and i need to reach george to see if he has any replacement parts!  
 
http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/january/february-2007/my-pal-alexander-calder.html 
 
any assistance would greatly be appreciated! 
 
skot foreman 
 
PS the last address i have for him is in cold spring, ny but i cannot seem to find him there. thank you
 
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01/24/10
 
Hello, I am a plane and calder lover which incidentally brought me to this article. I was thrilled to read that George Gordon wrote a book (Plane Fun) about his amazing experiences with Calder. I was saddened however, when i was not able to find the book anywhere for sale. Does this book exist? Is it published or is it out of print? Could someone please help me! 
 
Thanks, 
 
John 
 
P.S I loved the article.
 
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05/24/13
 
I am saddened to report that George Gordon died on Monday, April 22, 2013 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, following treatment for Lewes Body Dementia. We came to the site as an archival search for his obituary. He is to be buried at St. Philip's Church in the Highlands, in Garrison, New York, 10524.  
 
For information, kindly contact Rev. Frank Geer (845) 424-3571. Donations made be made in his memory to St. Philip's Church in the Highlands. His book, "Plane Fun," was completed but it remains unpublished.  
 
For further information, please contact his writers, Alexa Paul and/or Goldee Greene. 
 
Nancy Wareham-Gordon & Chloe' Wareham-Gordon 
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