NEW ROCHELLE, NY — For millions of visitors each year, a tour of New York City includes a visit to Rockefeller Center. From October to April the ice rink is open. After Thanksgiving the Christmas tree is lit attracting tourists and New Yorkers alike. And at the center of it all is an 18 foot tall, 8 ton gilded statue of Prometheus, the Titan from Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man.
What few of those millions of visitors know is that a former postal worker from Westchester County was the model for the gilded adonis.
Prometheus is a symbol of human striving, man’s quest for knowledge, civilization and progress in keeping with the overall theme of the Rockefeller Center, “New Frontiers and the March of Civilization.” Beneath the statue is the inscription “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” Unhappy with the mischievous Titan, Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver everyday.
Leon Nole, the model, was more fortunate. He only had to hold the pose every weekday for 3 months.
The Rockefeller Center website says the Prometheus statue is the “fourth most recognized statue in the country, behind the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, and is the most photographed piece of art in NYC.”
Leonardo Nole, who died in 1998 at the age of 91, was born in New Rochelle, NY on April 1st, 1906, the first of seven children — 3 brothers and 3 sisters —born to Dominick and Grace Grieco Nole, immigrants from Reggio Calabria in Southern Italy. Dominick worked at a tannery.
The Noles were an athletic family, Leon included. He was an accomplished athlete who enjoyed hiking, skating and rowing. He won medals in Single Oar rowing at the New Rochelle Rowing Club. He would walk from New Rochelle to Yonkers to take a ferry to New Jersey to hike on the Palisades. He trained at a gym in New Rochelle where he lifted weights to develop his physique.
“My interest in athletics was awakened on the day when my studies in school first took up the glories of ancient Greece and its culture,” Nole told a fitness publication in 1931. “The tales of Greek athletes, their prowess and their ideals was a great source of interest to me and soon became an inspiration to me.”
Leon, as he was known to family and friends, attended Columbus School and graduated from New Rochelle High School. He took his first job in 7th grade. At age 16 was hauling ice for the New Rochelle Ice Company. ￼It was while working as a lifeguard that he was spotted by a photographer who suggested modeling.
Leon began posing for art classes at a number of women’s colleges, including Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. The pay was 75 cents an hour. He also acted in plays and films.
In the Spring of 1933, a Sarah Lawrence sculpture teacher recommended Nole to Paul Manship, a world-famous sculptor who had been awarded the commission for the Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center.
Manship was known for creating mythological pieces in a classical style, and was a major force in the Art Deco movement. In addition to Prometheus, he created the Celestial Sphere Woodrow Wilson Memorial in Geneva, Switzerland and designed the official seal for the City of New York.
Nole got the job after stripping off his clothes and posing for Manship.
“Stand on your left leg bend your body from the waist to closely imitate the horizontal position of the Prometheus,” Nole recalled Manship instructing him. “Stretch both arms out as they are positioned in the rough model.”
“I bent my left leg, shifted my weight so that my right leg lifted on the floor allowing my right leg and torso to look more less like the 18 foot stationary plaster figure representing the legendary God of Ancient Greece,” said Nole who was told to report for work the next day.
Manship paid Nole a dollar an hour for the 3 month assignment. Most of the detail work was done by Angelo Colombo. Another assistant, Henry Kiest, sculptured the hair.
In an account of his experience that he wrote in 1994, Nole said he found posing for Prometheus easier that posing for schools.
“I found posing for some classes rather difficult and extremely tiresome,” said Nole. “Some schools would devote time to quick sketches. That meant changing your pose twice every twenty-five minutes with a five minute rest period.”
“You had to be in good physical condition for that kind of posing,” he said.
Future Vice President of the United States Nelson Rockefeller came to see the plaster sculpture before it was cast in bronze. The bronze sculpture was installed in January 1934 to the dismay of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who did not like it. He ordered Manship to cover the sculpture in gold leaf.
Nole described his experience modeling for the Prometheus statue as the most interesting of his career.
“It was a difficult pose for me to hold, you know, flying through the air with the fire,” Nole told a Standard Star reporter.
After the Prometheus assignment, Mr. Nole went back to modeling at Sarah Lawrence and amateur theatrics in New Rochelle.
He auditioned for the role of Tarzan in what was later released as Tarzan the Fearless on August 11, 1933. The role went to Buster Crabbe, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer.
Nole held a series of jobs until the outbreak of World War II. He was drafted into the Army and assigned to Company B of the 113th Infantry Battalion. While serving on beach patrol on Long Island in 1942, he was sent from Watermill, NY to Old Sayville, CT for two weeks to pose for a sculpture of an infantryman commissioned by the Army to Henry Keist, the same the sculptor who had worked on Prometheus’s hair. Nole returned to duty and was later shipped overseas. He saw combat in Europe and was wounded.
After the war, Nole took a job at the New Rochelle Post Office. He later transferred to the Sacramento Post Office in the late 1950’s. He married his wife, Alva. She died in 1973. He owned and operated a golf range. He made regular trips back to New York to visit with family and friends in New Rochelle.
“Every year when I go back east to visit, I usually include a stop at the Sunken Plaza to view the now famous fountain figure of Prometheus,” he wrote in 1994.
Leonardo Nole lived in California until his death on February 22, 1998.