Commentary by Fred Swift
Worthington Hagerman became a well-known artist in the Taos, N.M., art community and a trusted, but mysterious, American diplomat in wartime Europe, yet he is not well-known here in his hometown of Carmel.
The son of Quaker parents, Hagerman was born in 1878 on a farm off Clay Center Road north of 116th Street. In 1896 he graduated from Carmel High School, where his artistic talent had already begun to show itself. Although by no means wealthy, he managed to enter art school in Chicago, and later graduated from William Penn College in Iowa.
Wanting to go to France to pursue his art training, Worthy, as he was known, managed to get to Paris a few years before the outbreak of World War I. To support himself he first landed a teaching job, then sought and secured a job with the American Foreign Service Association. He volunteered in the medical corps during the war, and at the same time moved up through the AFSA’s ranks.
He married, divorced and married again, then had a daughter and remained in France following World War l. He was still a diplomat attached to the U.S. embassy as Nazi Germany began its rise in the early 1930s.
By the late ’30s something interesting showed up in Worthy’s job assignment. He was sent on brief visits to a half-dozen European capitals including Rome, Berlin and London.
Why was a mid-level foreign service employee sent to major capitals as war loomed in Europe? Records of these travels either do not exist or have never been found. Was he doing intelligence work for the U.S.? We may never know, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to see that he could easily pose as an innocent artist if indeed a “cover” was needed.
In 1940 he was transferred to the U.S. embassy in Lisbon. Interestingly, during World War II, he returned to America with orders to report to the State Department in Washington. What was he reporting? Again, we have no record.
During that visit in 1942 Worthy came back to Carmel, staying several days with relatives. He was invited to speak to the students at Carmel High School, where he likely gave a firsthand account of the events in war-torn Europe. Local newspapers reported his appearance.
He returned to his post in Lisbon, a neutral city known as the European escape hatch for Jews and others sought by the Nazis. Evidence suggests that he helped in the escape effort. (After the war, a Frenchman wrote a letter to diplomatic authorities noting that Worthy assisted in his escape.)
With the end of the war, Worthy retired and returned to the U.S. to finally take up his beloved art full-time. He settled in New Mexico and painted some prized art, which is on display at the University of New Mexico. Some of his work, including auctioned paintings, can be found online.
He died in Santa Fe in 1967. Then, 104 years after graduating, Worthy was posthumously inducted into the Carmel High School Hall of Fame. Along with those of other inductees, a small picture of his self-portrait is displayed in the main entry hall at CHS.
Fred Swift is a former member of the Carmel City Council and currently serves as a board member of the Carmel Clay Historical Society.