This Day In History


Theft of Mona Lisa Is Discovered

August 21, 1911

An amateur painter sets up his easel near Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, only to discover that the masterpiece is missing. The day before, in perhaps the most brazen art theft of all time, Vincenzo Perugia had walked into the Louvre, removed the famed painting from the wall, hid it beneath his clothes, and escaped. While the entire nation of France was stunned, theories abounded as to what could have happened to the invaluable artwork. Most believed that professional thieves could not have been involved because they would have realized that it would be too dangerous to try to sell the world’s most famous painting. A popular rumor in Paris was that the Germans had stolen it to humiliate the French.

Investigators and detectives searched for the painting for more than two years without finding any decent leads. Then, in November 1913, Italian art dealer Alfredo Geri received a letter from a man calling himself Leonardo. It indicated that the Mona Lisa was in Florence and would be returned for a hefty ransom. When Perugia attempted to receive the ransom, he was captured. The painting was unharmed.

Perugia, a former employee of the Louvre, claimed that he had acted out of a patriotic duty to avenge Italy on behalf of Napoleon. But prior robbery convictions and a diary with a list of art collectors led most to think that he had acted solely out of greed. Perugia served seven months of a one-year sentence and later served in the Italian army during the First World War. The Mona Lisa is back in the Louvre, where improved security measures are now in place to protect it.

Hawaii Becomes 50th State

August 21, 1959

The modern United States receives its crowning star when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs a proclamation admitting Hawaii into the Union as the 50th state. The president also issued an order for an American flag featuring 50 stars arranged in staggered rows: five six-star rows and four five-star rows. The new flag became official July 4, 1960.

The first known settlers of the Hawaiian Islands were Polynesian voyagers who arrived sometime in the eighth century. In the early 18th century, American traders came to Hawaii to exploit the islands’ sandalwood, which was much valued in China at the time. In the 1830s, the sugar industry was introduced to Hawaii and by the mid-19th century had become well established. American missionaries and planters brought about great changes in Hawaiian political, cultural, economic, and religious life. In 1840, a constitutional monarchy was established, stripping the Hawaiian monarch of much of his authority.

In 1893, a group of American expatriates and sugar planters supported by a division of U.S. Marines deposed Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii. One year later, the Republic of Hawaii was established as a U.S. protectorate with Hawaiian-born Sanford B. Dole as president. Many in Congress opposed the formal annexation of Hawaii, and it was not until 1898, following the use of the naval base at Pearl Harbor during the Spanish-American War, that Hawaii’s strategic importance became evident and formal annexation was approved. Two years later, Hawaii was organized into a formal U.S. territory. During World War II, Hawaii became firmly ensconced in the American national identity following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In March 1959, the U.S. government approved statehood for Hawaii, and in June the Hawaiian people voted by a wide majority to accept admittance into the United States. Two months later, Hawaii officially became the 50th state.

Dirty Dancing Opens

August 21, 1987

On this day in 1987, Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze as a dance instructor at a summer resort, opens in theaters across the United States. The film was a surprise box-office hit, earning some $64 million and turning Swayze into a Hollywood star. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack went multi-platinum and included the hit singles “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen and “She’s Like the Wind,” co-written and sung by Swayze himself. The film also contained the now-famous line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

Set in 1963 at the fictional Kellerman’s resort in upstate New York, Dirty Dancingtold the coming-of-age story of the well-to-do teenager Frances “Baby” Houseman, played by Jennifer Grey, who develops a crush on the resort’s working-class dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze) while vacationing with her family. The term “dirty dancing” referred to a sensual style of dance that the resort staff engages in during off-hour parties. When Johnny’s dance partner gets pregnant, Baby becomes her unlikely replacement, and the two end up falling in love, against the wishes of Baby’s protective father (played by the future Law and Order star Jerry Orbach). The film ends with a triumphant dance sequence in which Johnny and Baby dance and he lifts her high in the air.

Written by Eleanor Bergstein, who based the script on her own experiences growing up, Dirty Dancing marked the feature-film debut of director Emile Ardolino, who won an Oscar for the 1983 documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. The film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega, who trained with Gene Kelly, later directed the High School Musical movies.

Before Dirty Dancing, Swayze studied with the Joffrey Ballet and appeared in such films as The Outsiders (1983) and Red Dawn (1984), also featuring Jennifer Grey. Following his breakout performance in Dirty Dancing, the actor co-starred in another blockbuster, Ghost (1990), with Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. Swayze’s later film credits include Point Break (1991), City of Joy (1992) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), for which he earned his third Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of the drag queen Vida Bohemme.

Re-released in 1997 and again (briefly) in 2007 for its 10th and 20th anniversaries, Dirty Dancing is now recognized as one of the best loved female-oriented films–dubbed “chick flicks”–of all time. In 2004, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, a reworking of the original film set in Cuba in the 1950s, just before Fidel Castro’s revolution, was released to a tepid response from critics and audiences. The still-fit Swayze appeared in a cameo role as a dance instructor.

Michael Phelps Wins Eighth Medal

August 21, 2004

On this day in 2004, American swimmer Michael Phelps wins his eighth medal of the 2004 Athens Olympics in spite of sitting out his eighth scheduled event, the final of the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Phelps left Athens with six gold and two bronze medals. His eight total medals tied him with Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for the most medals ever won by a competitor at a single Olympic Games.

Michael Phelps entered the 2004 Olympics intent on breaking American swimming phenomenon Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics. He got off to a fast start, setting a world record in his first race, the 400-meter individual medley, and Olympic records with victories in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley. Phelps then settled for third place in the 200-meter freestyle and the 4 x 100-meter freestyle medley, and entered the final day of the swimming competition with five gold and two bronze medals. Though this put him short of Spitz’s record seven golds, he had already tied Spitz’s record of four individual golds in one Olympics.

Phelps sat out the finals of the 4 x 100-meter medley so that his teammate Ian Crocker could leave Athens with a gold medal. The veteran U.S swimmer Crocker had failed to qualify in the 100-meter freestyle and had swum poorly in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle final in which the U.S. won the bronze. Crocker then lost the 100-meter butterfly by .04 seconds to Phelps, who qualified for the 4 x 100 medley team with his win. Phelps swam the butterfly leg of the race in the preliminaries, but then ceded his spot in the final to Crocker.

Aaron Piersol, the first of the U.S. relay team into the water, swam an impressive 53.45-second backstroke leg. Next up was Brendan Hansen in the breaststroke, and then Crocker, who rewarded Phelps’ faith in him by swimming the second-fastest butterfly leg in relay history. A strong finish in the freestyle leg by Jason Lezak gave the U.S. the gold and a world record time of 3:30.68, which knocked a full three seconds off the former mark.

Since then, Phelps has become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. In Beijing in 2008, he broke Spitz’s record by winning eight gold medals. After his performance in London in 2012, he now has 22 medals, including 18 gold medals.