Molding Celebrities’ Hands

American Artisans, People
on February 11, 2007

Wrestler Andre the Giant punched Dr. Adrian E. Flatt on the shoulder, gruffly voicing his displeasure in broken English: “Is enough!”

Flatt protested that he still had another of the 500-pound wrestler’s hands yet to work on. Andre, his countenance growing more annoyed, then poked the doctor on the other shoulder. But just as Flatt feared for his safety, the 7-foot-4-inch athlete grinned, “Is joke!” Laughing, Andre offered his other hand to Flatt for molding.

Flatt, former head of hand surgery at Baylor University Medical Center (BUMC) in Dallas, never knows how celebrities will react when he asks not to shake their hands, but to make molds of their famous paws. Flatt, 85, has spent nearly 50 years chasing down well-known personalities to create a collection of 120 bronzed hands, on permanent display in the lobby of BUMC’s Truett Memorial Hospital since 1992. The collection includes U.S. presidents, astronauts, Olympic gold medalists, aviators, artists, entertainers, scientists, musicians, Nobel Prize winners, and international leaders—all who willingly stuck their hands into Flatt’s “molding box,” knowing that a cast of their hands would give them a sort of immortality.

Ike captured first

The collection was spawned in 1963, when the British-born Flatt caught up with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a railroad car. The imprint of the president’s hand showed an irregularity familiar to Flatt.

“President Eisenhower’s hands reveal that some of his knuckles were broken while playing football at West Point,” the surgeon explains.

That same year, Flatt also cornered former President Harry S. Truman before a speaking engagement and “molded” him as well, a quick and easy process in which one hand at a time is inserted into a box containing a flexible alginate—a mixture of seaweed derivative and water—that hardens in 20 minutes. Afterward, the casts are shipped to an artist in Delaware to be bronzed. When the finished product arrives in several weeks, it shows fine details of a person’s hands—even fingerprints, hairs and pores.

Opportunities to mold the hands of famous people often come with little notice. Flatt cast trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s hands between concert sets and secured Walt Disney’s hands while the famous cartoonist worked on a movie in Hollywood. While a consultant in hand surgery for NASA from 1980 to 1986, Flatt molded the hands of several astronauts, including Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. For the huge hands of Andre Roussimoff, the aforementioned Andre the Giant, Flatt ventured into Dallas’ Sportatorium during a wrestling event in 1983. Roussimoff’s hands measured 1 foot in circumference at the wrist, so a Stetson hatbox and three times the usual amount of casting material were required for the molding.

Other well-known personalities’ hands captured in bronze by Flatt include actors Paul Newman and Katharine Hepburn; evangelist Billy Graham; ice skater Peggy Fleming; baseball legend Mickey Mantle; illusionist David Copperfield; British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher; “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz; Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon; artist Norman Rockwell; broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite; and violinist Isaac Stern.

According to Flatt, most celebrities readily agree to be cast, but getting through to them often is difficult. Their staffs frequently intercept his request and send back a polite “no.”

“I’ve had to be persistent and sometimes it takes years to reach people,” he admits. “But when they hear about the exhibit and all the well-known people in it, they usually want to meet with me.”

Sculptures reveal much
Hand sculptures reveal much about their donors, according to Flatt. “Astronaut Donald K. Slayton’s left ring finger is partially missing, the result of a farm accident when he was growing up,” says Flatt, “while Roger Staubach has a misshapen pinkie, caused from multiple dislocations during Dallas Cowboys games.” As for legendary horse racing jockey Willie Shoemaker, Flatt notes that “his thumb is swollen because he had been thrown off a horse the day before the cast was made.”
As Flatt and his donors sit waiting for the mold to set, light chatter often falls between them. “Once you corral them, they’re relatively docile,” Flatt jokes about his famous subjects. “I don’t talk politics with presidents, but I do talk sports with athletes. Most of the time, the presidents notice my British accent and inquire about my background. I let them know upfront that I’m an American citizen.”

Flatt holds vivid memories of his encounters with America’s chief executives. “President Eisenhower was concerned about the casting substance, because someone had used plaster of Paris to make a mold during World War II and it took all the hair off his hands,” Flatt recalls. “President Carter insisted on leaving his gold wedding ring on, saying that he’d never removed it. I respected him for that.”

A weird sensation
Swimmer Jim Montgomery, an Olympic triple gold medalist in 1976, stuck his hands into Flatt’s molding box in 1995. Montgomery, now aquatics director at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, describes Flatt as “an energetic and upbeat individual whose company I enjoyed at least once a week.” They became friends while Montgomery was helping to design the aquatics facility in Baylor’s Tom Landry Fitness Center where Flatt came to exercise.

One day Flatt dragged Montgomery from the locker room to his lab in the hospital. Montgomery remembers “the weird sensation of sticking my hands into this gooey stuff and waiting until it hardened.” He clearly recalls the moment he watched his finished bronzed hands placed next to those of Andre the Giant and baseball great Nolan Ryan.

“I thought, ‘Wow! I’m in that case with some of the world’s greatest athletes—and not just that, important people like celebrities and presidents!’” says Montgomery, 52. “I can’t begin to tell you what a gratifying experience it was.”

The hands of Montgomery, along with those of the other celebrities, are displayed in lighted trophy cases alongside autographed photographs of each celebrity. The Truett lobby exhibit also includes an informational video showing Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman plunging his hands into the molding mixture.

Still spry and active, Flatt maintains his office at the medical center where he writes books on hand surgery and prepares for speaking engagements worldwide. The office is cluttered with molds of patients’ hands used in planning his hand operations from 1982 until 1992, when he was chief of orthopaedic surgery at BUMC. He concedes to his fascination with hands, saying, “it was only natural that my livelihood would lead to an equally passionate pastime.”

Flatt contends that there’s still room for more exhibits in the trophy case. In the future, he hopes to cast the hands of cycling champion Lance Armstrong, billionaire businessman Ross Perot and President George W. Bush. “There are so many people I’d like to do,” he says. “So many people are important to our history.”

Although Flatt has cast his own hands, he keeps them on a shelf at home. “My wife keeps telling me to put them in the display, and I keep telling her, ‘Not until I’m six feet under,’” he says. “That would mean the collection was finished.”

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