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THIS PARTICULAR DUESENBERG is more than divine; in a sense, the car was Divine’s. Namely, it was specially built as a Throne Car for the complexly charismatic African-American evangelist Father Divine. And just as Father Divine was a personality larger than life, his Throne Car was the largest automobile ever to carry the Duesenberg emblem. Today, I’ll focus on the automobile; tomorrow, I’ll delve into the career of Reverend Major Jealous Father Divine.
It was the mid-1930s, the height of the Great Depression. At $8500 (almost $150,000 in today’s dollar) for a chassis alone, the Duesenberg Model J was for those unaffected by selling apples in the streets. As an example, coachbuilder Bohman & Schwartz fabricated a Town Cabriolet Model J for candy heiress Ethel Mars.
And, in 1936, the company received an order from “John the Baptist” for what was to be the largest and heaviest Model J. Indeed, this Model J Limousine Landaulet was destined to be the penultimate of the marque.
With this second to last order, wealthy Californians Florence Hunt and her two sons, John and Warner, enter the tale. Like others caught up in Father Divine’s charismatic preaching, they donated their worldly goods–or at least some of them–to his Peace Mission. Along the way, the Hunts adopted new names, Florence taking Mary Bird Tree; John becoming John the Revelator; and Warner, confusingly enough, John the Baptist.
Father Divine received the Limousine Landaulet Throne Car from Mary Bird Tree as a Peace Mission donation (i.e., he didn’t own it per se, though the car was solely for his use). According to Jill Watts’ book God, Harlem U.S.A., son John the Revelator was in Bellevue Hospital at the time, convicted of distributing obscene literature through the mail. (Ironically, the leaflets in question were confessions of his pre-conversion hedonism.)
According to the Bonham auction catalog, Mary Bird Tree made the Throne Car offering, “John Hunt having been imprisoned for violation of the Mann Act.”
Which John? Relevator or Baptist?
Whichever, the offering was one significant automobile. Standard Model Js (now there’s an oxymoron) had two choices of wheelbase, 142.5 or 153.5 in. The 1937 Throne Car’s was 178.5 in., 8.5 in. longer than a Bugatti Royale’s, albeit a tad shorter than Oom the Magnificent’s 1929 Minerva’s 180.0 in.
Who says the Great Depression didn’t affect the wealthy?
Seating for the seven-foot-wide Limousine Landaulet was 4 + 4 + 2: The chauffeur had room for three to his right; another four were accommodated aft in jump seats in the Throne Room. Father and Mother Divine (more on the latter tomorrow) had elevated seating. A planned hydraulically actuated seat was scrapped for added cushioning. (Father Divine was just a touch more than five feet tall.)
The Throne Car had a built-in public address system so “The Messenger,” as Father Divine also called himself, could communicate to followers his views on renouncing worldly possessions.
Entering storage in 1948, the Divine Duesenberg had 100,743 miles on its odometer. The Bonham catalog notes, “Following Father Divine’s surrender of his mortal body in 1965, it remained in the care of Mother Divine, in storage awaiting his return.”
In the intervening years, the car has passed through several owners. At the Bonham Quail Sale, August 19, 2011, it sold for $400,000 including premium.
I like to think Father Divine would be pleased with this, even though he never really owned the car. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016