DALLAS - As part of an Allied mission tasked with saving works of art during World War II, a homesick James Rorimer told his wife in a December 1944 letter from liberated Paris that he was working hard but worried about how much he was achieving.
"But I'm here to save works of art and that is what really matters," he wrote.
Rorimer, then 39 and a curator at New York's Metro-politan Museum of Art, went on to carry out his mission successfully, helping to discover where works of art looted by the Nazis were tucked away across Europe. He was a leading figure in a group of 350 men and women from Allied countries attached to the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. In the movie "The Monuments Men," Matt Damon portrays a character inspired by the real-life Rorimer, who died in 1966 at age 60.
"He was fighting for the art," said daughter Anne Rorimer.
His contributions included helping discover works of art looted from German museums that were stored in Germany's Helibronn mines and helping to establish the Munich Collecting Point where works were received, processed and then restituted after the war.
The Monuments Men included architects, artists, curators and museum directors. The Harvard-educated Rorimer went on to become director of the Metropolitan Museum after the war.
Robert Edsel, the Dallas-based author who wrote the book the movie is based on, said Rorimer was "always a whirlwind of activity."
One of Rorimer's major feats was gaining the trust of Rose Valland, the French art expert who had been allowed to stay behind at Paris' Jeu de Paume after the Nazis made it the base for their looting operation. Valland, who unbeknownst to the Nazis spoke German, managed to keep track of where the works - most stolen from Jewish families in France - were being sent.
But Valland, who inspired the character played by Cate Blanchett, was not going to easily give up her information. Living in Nazi-occupied Paris had made her wary, even of her fellow countrymen, and she wanted to know that she was giving the information to someone who would help return the works to their rightful owners.
"Valland is watching everything that Rorimer's doing," said Edsel. "What evolves between the two of them is this dance ... She's testing him. She's trying to find out where his loyalties lie."
Rorimer was first introduced to Valland in fall 1944. Over the months, he earned her trust and by March 1945, when Rorimer was headed with the Army into southern Germany, she told him that Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps was the Nazi hideaway for about 21,000 items stolen from mostly Jewish collectors in France.
"If you got to know him, you realized that he's got to be appreciated. Saving culture was ingrained upon him and he was successful," said Harry Ettlinger, who as a 19-year-old U.S. soldier volunteered his services to Rorimer after learning the Monuments Men needed someone who spoke German.
Ettlinger, one of only a handful of Monuments Men who are still alive, had fled Nazi Germany with his family the day after his bar mitzvah in 1938 and returned to Europe in 1945 with the U.S. Army. He inspired a character played by Dimitri Leonidas.
Ettlinger said he quickly realized that Rorimer was a man who got things done, a "wheeler and dealer," as Ettlinger put it. Ettlinger recalled a time when Gen. George Patton's men had their sights on moving into the building the Monu-ments Men were using as the Munich Collecting Point - a building that happened to be the former Nazi quarters. Rorimer, Ettlinger said, quickly put a stop to that.
Anne Rorimer grew up in the postwar years and says most of her memories of her father are tied to his work at the Met. "I heard more about all the day-to-day workings of the Metropolitan Museum."
Her father died when she was in college, but she became an art historian and eventually learned more about his work as a Monuments Man. As Edsel was writing his book, which came out in 2009, he asked her to track down wartime letters from her father to her mother. When she finally found the letters in storage and read through them, she was struck by her father's longing for family life and by the hardships he described.
"This week has been a cold and difficult one," he wrote in January 1945. "I left Paris a few days ago on a field trip. The cold winds, ice, rain and snow blew into the open jeep with which I went about from place to place."
But by the end of that year, as successes mounted, the letters became more upbeat. In October 1945, he wrote, that they were getting results in the "long fight for cultural objects."
In addition to roles played by Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Dimitri Leonidas, several other parts featured in "The Monuments Men" film were inspired by real people who worked to save cultural treasures across Europe during World War II.
•George Clooney: Clooney plays Frank Stokes, inspired by George Stout, a Harvard art conservationist who had served in World War I. Robert Edsel, who wrote the book "The Monuments Men" is based on, said it was Stout's idea to create the group that eventually became the Monuments Men. "Every time they would find discoveries, the word went out to find Stout because he was such an even steady hand. And he was methodical and he was calm," Edsel said. Stout left Europe in July 1945 and was sent to Japan in October, where he volunteered his services as a Monuments Man there. He later resumed his position as head of the conservation department at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. In 1947, he became director of the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. In 1955, he became director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where he remained until 1970. He died in 1978 at the age of 80.
•Bob Balaban: Balaban portrays Preston Savitz, a character based on Lincoln Kirstein. Before the war, Kirstein co-founded the School of American Ballet. After the war, he co-founded what became the New York City Ballet and served as its general director until 1989. He died in 1996 at age 88.
•John Goodman: Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, inspired by sculptor Walker Hancock. After the war he returned to his post as head of the sculpture department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he remained till 1967. He also continued to create sculptures, including a bust of President George H.W. Bush for the rotunda of the Capitol. He died in 1998 at age 96.