Cloud of Witnesses: James Charles Risk

I never saw James Charles Risk (1913-2005) in a plain business suit. A dinner jacket without decorations was to him tantamount to aboriginal nudity. Lifelong interest in numismatics led to the study of royal orders and decorations, plenty of which garnished his wiry frame.

Like all civilized men who find time for high things in dark times, he managed to publish British Orders and Decorations, a harbinger of his masterwork on The Yale University Brasher Doubloon, while defying German attacks in the navy in 1943. For 35 years he worked for the Coin Gallery in New York and discovered the “King of Coins,” an 1804 silver dollar proof coin that was the original in a set given by President Andrew Jackson to the King of Siam in 1834.

In one photograph he smiles wryly at dinner with me and my long-suffering German tutor, a vital Austrian baroness who fascinated him because of her direct descent from a field marshal whose neglect of military form in 1848 gained him the nickname the “Butcher of Hungary.” In full flash of white tie, like a defiant lightning rod, Jim sports medals of the Orders of St. John in Jerusalem, Sts. Maurice and Lazarus, the Crown of Italy, Malta, St. George, and the badge of the Royal Victorian Order, of which he was the only living American member. A privilege of the last was to take tea once every three years with the queen, for whom he catalogued her private collection of orders and decorations and who always called him sui generis.

After early years in Forest Hills, New York, and Upper Montclair, New Jersey, Jim graduated from Dartmouth in 1936 and taught history at M.I.T. following graduate studies at Harvard. In 1940 he enlisted in the active naval reserve and was soon assigned to antisubmarine and convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic, participating in the invasion of Sicily. In an eccentric case of the navy not wasting a man’s talents, he was ordered to write the administrative history of Mediterranean naval operations and then served the Allied Commission on the Democratization of Italy. As protocol officer between the Vatican and the Quirinal Palace, he had frequent contacts with Pope Pius XII. Once he substituted for an unvarnished American general who cancelled a papal audience to play golf in Florence. For half an hour he and the pope chatted, neither letting on that he was not the general. On the night of the referendum on the monarchy, he watched Communists destroy ballots outside the Ministry of the Interior and deduced that the Americans allowed the interior minister, Togliatti, to fix the vote in favor of a republic. King Umberto and he visited every year thereafter in Cascais, Portugal. His gift for friendship embraced the duke of Wellington, and he often stayed with him at Stratfield Saye and attended the Garter Service at Windsor in a front seat.

This lover of intrigue spent eleven days on the trans-Siberian express to take up a posting as vice consul in Vladivostok. As vice consul in Vietnam, which he always pronounced Indochine Francaise, he went on a hunting party with the Emperor Bao Dai, who held a sumptuous banquet in a tent in the jungle, at the end of which the emperor stood up and relieved himself before all the ambassadors and their wives—very unlike the protocols of the Royal Victorian Order.

Jim threw off the Calvinism that had shackled his youth and became a Catholic during his sojourn in Rome. Blandishments of privilege vitiated the convert’s zeal, and he reverted to ushering in a Protestant church; but in twilight time his chivalric ranks all rattled and he attended a Mass in my church, arranged by the prince of Savoy. A year before he died, he was reconciled to the Holy Church and anointed, receiving Communion in his last months from a knight of Malta.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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