That handsome stone house facing Gramercy Park—number 15? Used to be Samuel Tilden’s. Tilden. The former Governor of New York. Who ran for President of the United States on the Democratic ticket in 1876. His Republican opponent was Rutherford B. Hayes. Election Day, Tilden handily won the popular vote and collected 184 electoral votes to Hayes’s 181. Shortly after midnight, his political and business friends came pouring through that lacquered front door. Congratulations! Congratulations…Mr. President!
But wait, someone said. A reporter from the New York Times. (Who let him in?) Florida, he said, has yet to report its tallies. Tilden felt a twinge of anxiety, but refused to let it spoil his high spirits. He drank one more glass of champagne, then went to bed (alone: he believed that women were unnecessary to success, and thus had never married). He fell asleep thinking of treaties and tariffs and patronage appointments.
Meanwhile, certain Republicans were stuffing carryalls with loot and highballing it south on express trains.
The Electoral College ultimately voted Hayes the winner, 185 to 184.
And Samuel Tilden spent the rest of his life at home—in that lovely house, right over there. The one with all of the crowned windows. The turrets. He collected rare manuscripts, and read hundreds of books a year. Puttered around the forty big rooms with a perpetual scowl on his face. Friends made careful not to mention the stolen election—it would only set him off. But if someone forgot: The crime! Tilden would exclaim, turning scarlet. The crime! His friends would shake their heads in sympathy, then ask him what he was reading. Oh, Jefferson’s memoirs. Quite a fellow, that Jefferson.
The house fairly breathed gloom.
Tilden died in 1886. His estate went to the City of New York, with instructions it be used to build a free public library. Which is currently under construction at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, on the site of the old Croton Reservoir.
The Tilden house fell into disrepair; windows were broken, flakes of sandstone drifted to the pavement; mangy cats slept on the stoop. It became an eyesore—an eyesore in the most genteel neighborhood in Manhattan! Children concocted ghost stories about the place—saw poor old Tilden’s forlorn face in an upstairs window. They did, they really did. Cross their hearts…
In 1906, the National Arts Club (founded by Charles DeKay, art critic of the New York Times) moved into Number 15 Gramercy Park and spruced things up, converting bedrooms into offices, parlors and dining rooms into galleries. And where once Samuel Tilden sat glumly alone reading Homer and legal torts, these days men and women stroll about with fixed smiles, looking at pictures, hundreds of pictures that cover every inch of wall, from baseboard to ceiling. Vegetable Garden beside Smokestack in the Rain. Young Girl in Moonlight adjacent to Skip, the Faithful Mascot. A Whistler above a Dabo, a Shinn below a Chase; Sloan etchings surrounded by atmospheric photographs; a Henri in a murky alcove. Up there, a—that’s probably a still life. Down there—a landscape? (Unfortunately, neither ladders nor footstools are available to the viewing public, so one can’t always be entirely sure.) A bright-red rose by Henry Willson Watrous, Secretary of the National Academy of Design…paired with the portrait of a stooped old charwoman, by George Luks, Academy basher. The jumble of democracy! The Special Exhibit of Contemporary Art.
Doors open every morning at ten.
This morning, just before eleven, a man dressed in a black topcoat and with a determined, almost ferocious expression on his round face, appears in the main gallery. He is accompanied by a small, somewhat stout woman. They’re the first visitors of the day, and the custodian, standing on a ladder repairing a skylight, bids them welcome. They glance at him suspiciously, then whisper together, the woman nodding, finally pointing to an autumnal landscape with dancing female figures. The man growls savagely like some big cat at the zoo, then, with his lower lip thrust out, propels himself across the gallery to the painting.
As the custodian looks on in amazement, the man stretches up, catches hold of the gilt frame’s lower edge, and tugs. But the cord is stout. The man continues pulling, though, and at last the fastening snaps. The picture comes away, leaving half the cord hanging to its nail. Hugging the picture to his heart, he makes for the door. Where he is intercepted by the custodian. It’s all right, says the man. I’m the painter! I’m the painter, I tell you! And feints to run again, but suddenly pivots and passes the picture to his companion. Who escapes with it out into the snow.
I’m going to punch you right in the nose, says the custodian. And then I’m calling the cops.
But it’s my painting, exclaims the man. I painted it!
That’s as may be, says the custodian. But you still can’t take it away like that.
But I painted it, I tell you. I’m the painter. Van Deering Perrine. Don’t you understand me, you ape? I’m Van Deering Perrine.
I don’t know anything about that. All I know is if you want your picture, you’ve got to see the committee. And you’d just better watch who you’re calling an ape.
At this point, the club secretary, Miss Innes, comes rushing down from her office on the second floor. What’s all this commotion? What is going on here?
This fellow and some lady just stole a picture, says the custodian.
That lady, says Van Derring Perrine, is Mrs. Mary B. Ford, my exclusive agent. And the picture is mine—to do with howsoever I deem fit. Now, take your filthy hands off me!
It’s all right, Michael, says Miss Innes. I know Mr. Perrine. She glances at the cord dangling down the wall. Mr. Perrine, she says coldly, you may have painted that picture, but it belongs to a member of this club. You sold it, sir. You have no—
Perrine chops the air with both hands. Then, spacing out his words contemptuously, he says, I took my picture because you have no right to hang it. I painted it years ago and it does not represent my current style at all. I wish to be known only as a painter of the Hudson Palisades, and I consider it a gross impertinence—a crime!—on the part of the committee to hang that picture without my permission.
I think, says Miss Innes, that we should discuss this in my office.
There is nothing to discuss! It is a crime! A crime has been committed!
Mr. Perrine, you have—
But she breaks off suddenly as Mrs. Ford, still carrying the picture, the frame sparkling with snows, comes back into the gallery.
What do you mean by running off with that? says Miss Innes.
What do I mean? replies Mrs. Ford with flashing eyes. I’ll show you what I mean. This is what I mean!
And she dashes the painting, full force, against a chair, tearing a hole through it.
The tear is in the upper left-hand corner; probably fixable. And certainly worth trying. It’s a good painting, Sloan’s Wake of the Ferry. A bleak, wintry day, the North River forbidding, churned white; a passing garbage scow, and a solitary woman, dressed entirely in black, leaning on folded arms at the ferry’s railing, gazing back toward the dun-colored buildings of Manhattan. Is she Dolly? Ernest Lawson wonders. And takes a closer look. Could be. Though Mrs. Sloan is not quite that stout. Or tall.
The damage really isn’t too serious, Lawson decides. He’s mended pictures in considerably worse shape. Perhaps he should tell Sloan just how simple a repair it would be. A tiny patch. Nothing to it. Perhaps he should offer to repair it himself. Tit for tat. Sloan is photographing one of Lawson’s pictures for the show catalog, Lawson could—
Lawson could mind his own business, that’s what Lawson could do.
Right, he thinks, rebuking himself. Mind your own business. He leans away from the picture—it’s propped against the back wall of Sloan’s studio—and stands up straight. What was he thinking, for Christ’s sake—that friend Sloan doesn’t know how to mend a canvas? Mind your own business, Ernie. If Sloan hasn’t fixed the painting, it means he doesn’t want it fixed. For reasons of his own.
Lawson knows the story behind the tear; almost everyone does. Artists are as bad as crones, with their gossip. The story? Which Lawson picked up from—was it Ernie Gruger? It might’ve been Gruger, or Joe Laub, or it might even have been from Butts Glackens, but the story goes that one evening last April, Sloan and Dolly had Frank Crane and his wife Lois (the first Mrs. George Luks) to dinner. As usual, Sloan served only beer, and made no hurry to refill Dolly’s glass when it was empty. Everything went fine, right well. A most pleasant evening. Till Crane suggested that he and Sloan take a short stroll, for digestion’s sake. An hour later, when they returned, Dolly was thoroughly jingled, thanks to Lois Crane’s own bottle of rye. Sloan—and this is probably why the story has made the rounds; it’s so unlike him—Sloan exploded in anger, shouting at Mrs. Crane till she cried, then picking up a rocking chair and throwing it. The chair, one of its legs, was what tore that hole in the sky area of Ferry.
Lawson heard that Dolly took to her bed afterwards, and stayed put for three days. Not so much from drink as from sorrow….
When Sloan returns to the studio now (he excused himself ten minutes ago, to make a telephone call to the Society of Illustrators; he’s been trying all week to wriggle out of doing committee work), Lawson is standing at the window, watching a woman in the tenement opposite shake out a dust mop. Let’s get started, shall we? says Sloan (who’s probably good and goddamned sorry, thinks Lawson, that he ever volunteered to photograph the catalog), and they spend the next few minutes hanging Lawson’s oil painting—a dead-of-winter landscape, the pigment so thick it could easily be cast in bronze—and then rigging up a light shield.
Lawson is very interested in Sloan’s camera and how it works; he keeps asking about the lens, the plates, the process, and while Sloan is happy to answer his questions as best he can, he hardly considers himself an authority. He’s only been taking pictures since last spring. And besides, it’s no great passion of his. It’s a useful device, the camera, an invention as useful in its own way as the typewriter or the carpet sweeper, but soulless, nothing remarkable, and Sloan still bears it a sizable grudge—for greatly reducing his income and making newspaper sketch men as quaint as lamplighters.
Picture-taking has become quite the national rage; a few years ago it was the safety bicycle, now it’s the Kodak camera. All over town you see people clicking away, just clicking away, which strikes Sloan as a lot of nonsense. Hogwash. Ten thousand monotonous, haphazard, useless pictures. Half of them with people’s heads missing, or their faces blurred. The silliness of the public fad. But what seems to Sloan especially foolish, even dangerous, is all this new talk about the art of photography. Art? Where’s the art in pointing a box and pressing a button?
As he now tells Lawson: He was outraged last week when he stopped by the National Arts Club and discovered that his city-life etchings were clustered with a series of soupy photographs. He complained, most loudly. Indeed he did. Art? said Sloan. It’s machine-made! It’s mechanics! Phuzzyography, is what Sloan calls it.
Better not let Mr. Stieglitz hear you, says Lawson. He’ll throw you out a window.
Phuzzyography, says Sloan.
In the dark room on the top floor of a brownstone building on Fifth Avenue, an electric bell suddenly rings. Meaning the elevator is on its way up. Annoyed at the interruption (it’s probably just another bunch of idiots), Alfred Stieglitz puts aside a wet negative, pulls off his gloves, and goes out into the gallery. And there he stands, in front of the elevator doors, tapping a foot impatiently.
Stieglitz is 44, a man with bushy black hair, a gray mustache and a ferocious, cantankerous disposition. Behind his pince-nez, his eyes are permanently squinted, the corners crinkled; not from myopia, but with scorn. For idiots, philistines–fools. There are more fools in the world than wildflowers, and Stieglitz finds it impossible to disguise his contempt for them. If he were not a gentleman, an educated man, a man of the world, he’d lash them all with a quirt rather than with his tongue. And force them to see things his way.
He puts an ear to the elevator door. Well, hurry it up if you’re coming–hurry it up!
The eldest son of a wool merchant, Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, just across the river, and grew up in a house full of quiet servants, excellent sweet wine, and good books. His German-Jewish father sent him to Europe to complete his education, but while studying chemical engineering at Berlin Polytechnic, he became infatuated with photography, thanks to a cheap little camera that he bought one rainy day. It was as if he’d found Aladdin’s lamp! The Aladdin’s lamp of the industrial age. The possibilities for miracles were endless! How absurd, he thought, that this device should be used primarily for advertisements, stilted family photographs (everyone standing around with their eyes closed) and records of public events, medical curiosa. It was an artist’s tool; that was obvious to Stieglitz, if to no one else. After all, a pen could be used to write a grocery list–or a rondeau.
For several years, first in Europe and later in America, he experimented with dry plate technique, taking pictures under impossible conditions–in the rain, in the fog, in a blizzard, at night; photographing the ordinary (a young mother sewing, a peasant girl asleep on a bed of wood chips, a group of scruffy men lined up to use a common water pump) but organizing his images exactly as a painter would: considering light and symmetry, and crafting–generating–emotion. Pictorial Photography he called it, and was initially astonished–then angry–then insolent–when his pictures were not recognized for what they were: modern, the most modern, art.
It fell to Stieglitz, then, to sever visionary photography from the mundane camera-club variety. Late in the ’90s, he launched a magazine called Camera Work, to propagandize the medium as a fine art and to reproduce the work of serious photographers; then, in 1902, along with his friend Edward Steichen, he announced the creation of the Photo-Secession Movement and assembled an exhibition at the National Arts Club. He anticipated some hostility, and got it–far more that he’d expected, and primarily from painters. Who scoffed at the very idea that a photograph could be the expression of an individual temperament. It was a mechanical and chemical product. You point the box and press a button. Bah!
And bah to you, said Stieglitz, never one to shrink in the face of criticism. In fact, the nastier and more vituperative the criticism, the stronger his resolve and sense of mission, and the crankier and more contrary his temper.
In 1905, he leased three small connecting rooms at 291 Fifth Avenue, near Thirtieth Street, and opened The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession; he’s kept it running ever since with his own money. At first, he exhibited only photographs, but last year it occurred to him that his mission should include the championing of all advanced–and thus despised–works of art. Which startled and annoyed many of his fellow photographers. They objected. So naturally Stieglitz had to bully them. For their own good. The Secession Idea, he said, is neither the spirit nor the product of a medium. It is a spirit. Let us say it is the Spirit of the Lamp…the too-often disregarded lamp of honesty; honesty of aim, honesty of self-expression, honesty of revolt against the autocracy of convention.
Bah! said his fellow photographers.
And bah to you! said Stieglitz, crusty as ever, and then just last week mounted a show of 58 drawings by Rodin, the French sculptor….
He can hear the grunts of the West Indian elevator operator hauling on the rope…a cable thrumming…and finally the cage appears. Art students! Three boys and a slim girl, all come to see for themselves the inscrutable little “scratches” they’ve no doubt heard ridiculed by their sonorous and fat-headed professors. (The other afternoon, William Merritt Chase–high silk hat, red carnation in his lapel–stopped by for a look, and within seconds became nearly apoplectic. Why, Rodin must be senile! he said. Those aren’t drawings, they’re damnable scribbles! Stieglitz, you must take us all for perfect fools! And Stieglitz replied, Yes, that’s precisely right–then threw the old goat out!)
Crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes to slits, Stieglitz glares at his visitors.
Do come in, children.
While the fearsome Alfred Stieglitz is inviting the four art students into his gallery, Ernest Lawson is on his way out of John Sloan’s flat. With his painting, wrapped in heavy brown paper, tucked beneath an arm, he thanks Sloan for all of his trouble, nods at Dolly, then starts down the stairs. And nearly slips on an ale bottle lying on a tread. Outside, the street and pavements are covered with two inches of fresh snow, and big flakes are falling steadily. Deciding to take a surface-car, Lawson turns east, making for Broadway. His shoes crunch.
Earlier, he was hoping that Sloan would invite him to lunch; he would’ve enjoyed sitting around chewing the fat—except for painting, there’s nothing Lawson enjoys more than the company of a good fellow. And Sloan is a very good fellow, indeed, and very smart, very smart. But very busy. Too busy to entertain Lawson all afternoon. He’s got better things to do. Than to chat with me. Waste his time chatting with Gloomy Gus.
Ah, well. He’ll just go on home, then. Look over the sketches that he made yesterday morning wandering in the bitter cold from Washington Heights to Inwood Hill, Lawson’s favorite part of the city. Because it hardly seems like the city at all. So empty, rugged, cut with glacial ravines and strewn with big granite boulders. Country air. So quiet.
When he came to New York in 1898, that’s where he settled. At Manhattan’s northern, rural tip. One-hundred-and-fifty-fifth Street, in a house beside a field of oats. With his wife and daughter. And nearly every canvas that he’s painted since then—ten years already, ten years!—has been inspired by that melancholy, folded landscape. An abandoned farm. A frozen pond. A squatter’s shack by the Harlem River. The hills in half-light, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine a smudge in the distance.
He wishes that he lived up there still.
With his wife and two daughters.
But that’s impossible. Quite impossible….
He’ll go straight home now and—and look over yesterday’s sketches. Perhaps one of them will suggest a painting.
Perhaps he’ll even begin a painting.
The surface-car is crowded, damp-smelling, fetid with blue tobacco smoke. Lawson sits up straight on the hard bench, elbows nipped to his sides, the painting on the floor between his feet and sticking into the aisle. Whenever someone bumps against it, he apologizes for its being in the way. Forgive me, he says. Excuse me. I’m sorry.
I’m sorry, Father, said Ernest Lawson on his eighteenth birthday. But I intend to be a painter. A painter! said Dr. Lawson. It’s a lazy man’s profession, Ernest. You will regret it. Then I’ll regret it, said Lawson, and took a train to New York City.
Excuse me, said Ernest Lawson one summer day at Moret-sur-Loing in the south of France. But you are Alfred Sisley, are you not? Mr. Sisley—Monsieur Sisley, I wonder if you would do me the great, great kindness of looking at my painting. Excuse me for asking, sir, but I know you speak English, and any advice you could give me would be most sincerely appreciated. And Sisley, the great Impressionist, said, Put more paint on your canvas and less on yourself. Then he walked off through the trees.
Forgive me, said Ernest Lawson to his wife Ella, two years ago. Please. I am not in love with Charlotte, she is in love with me. That, said Mrs. Lawson, is not what this…creature’s husband tells me, that is not what your…mistress’s husband tells me at all. Forgive me, Ella! I am afraid, she said, that I cannot. Then she left for Ashville, North Carolina with the two children.
I’m sorry. Excuse me. Forgive me. Here, let me move it, says Ernest Lawson, turning his parcel and resting it flush against the bench. And now he’s sitting in a terribly awkward position, the frame pressing against the backs of his knees, and his feet in the air. Excuse me, he says when someone nearly trips over them. I’m so sorry.
Lawson glances up and notices a young, round-faced girl seated opposite him. She’s struggling not to smile—not to laugh—at his comical fumblings and apologetic litany. He blushes, then shrugs. And wishes that the next stop were his. And wonders whether the girl is married—engaged? And if she would consider having dinner with him this evening, should he be so bold as to ask….
He asked, she said no. He asked again, and again she declined. No is no. And please don’t ask me again. But then what did Eugene Speicher do, the very next afternoon, during anatomy class? Said, Come on, Patsy, I want you to pose for me. Tell me yes. And she turned around and practically bellowed into his nice-looking—rather nice-looking—face: No! Which, of course, drew the ire of the instructor, that dreadful Mr. Kenyon Cox. Who wore the most ill-fitting clothing she had ever seen, his coat sleeves far too long, his trousers full of lint and baggy as a vaudeville comedian’s. Not that there was anything funny about Kenyon Cox: he was a loathsome dragon, a dragon, and was especially belittling to women. Women? Don’t belong in art school! He’d made his feelings perfectly clear about that. And now he was about to do it once more. Young lady, he said in that high-pitched, condescending voice of his—young lady, if you cannot sufficiently control yourself to pay attention to my lecture, perhaps you should consider other pursuits. And then, with an evil little smile: Perhaps you should take up knitting.
Well! She felt like throwing her notebook right into his face, but she controlled herself. Sufficiently. After class, though, she grabbed Gene Speicher and really lit into him. If he ever bothered her again, he’d be sorry!
And Speicher, folding his arms, leaned blithely against the wall, smiled and said, All right. I promise. I’ll never bother you again. So now will you pose for me?
She gave him a hard shove, and walked away.
Behind her, he started laughing, but forcing it, then called, I’m going to be a great painter one day and you’ll probably end up teaching art at some boring girls’ school!
She stopped abruptly and pivoted. We’ll see about that, she said.
Grinning, he came after her, spreading his hands and cringing in a burlesque of an apology, begging a truce. Oh, don’t get so bothered, Patsy, I’m teasing.
Why do you insist on calling me Patsy? she said. It’s not my name.
Isn’t every O’Keeffe named Patsy?
She rolled her eyes—their pigment was very unusual, partly brown and partly blue—and once again turned to go; she was on her way upstairs to Mr. Chase’s still-life class. And she hated to miss even one minute, it was her favorite. And Chase was her favorite teacher. Portly Mr. Chase. A very sweet man, almost jolly—like Santa Claus! He would demonstrate with a loaded paint brush. And he always dressed so…elegantly. Never got so much as a stipple of pigment on his scarf or his spats. Panache.
I’m late, she told Speicher, who was trying to make her slow down, stand a moment and talk. Whoa, Nelly. I only want to draw your face, he said. I’m not asking you to take off your clothes.
Furious at herself for blushing, she ran up the stairs, her heels echoing down the well. Speicher hollered, You have a wonderful face, Patsy. Patsy! All right: Georgia.
But she was gone.
And the next day? Yesterday? It started all over again, that time in Luis Mora’s composition class.
Oh, come on. It won’t take but an hour.
I’m an artist, she said. I’m not a model.
And when Speicher said, You’re a pretty artist, she laughed.
Pretty? Hardly that. She felt. She knew. She was no self-deceiver. Her features were small, her face was too long—and her brown curly hair was short as a young boy’s. Speicher—who was sweet on her, of course, in his secret college-man’s heart–thought that was terrific, her short hair, and had decided she must’ve cropped it as some kind of, well, bohemian statement. Truth was, her hair had all fallen out last summer: typhoid. Which nearly killed her when she’d gone home to visit her family in South Carolina. She’d worn a cap till she came to New York in September to enroll at the Art Students League. She never mentioned her illness to anyone. More the taciturn prairie girl–she spent her childhood in Wisconsin—than the free-thinking bohemian.
Nevertheless, Gene Speicher found her mysterious. She dressed in white blouses and black bows and black skirts. She would look you straight in the eye, like a man. Bohemian. With the genuine bohemian’s tell-tale pallor.
No, she said. For the last time, I don’t want to. But she felt her resistance wearing thin. He was a good-looking boy, and she was tired of living like a convent girl, which for two years in Madison she’d actually been.
This morning, she had a ten o’clock life class, but the model was physically repulsive—he was a man in his thirties, his skin milky white, his chest covered with moles, everything sagging. Even his loincloth. She left after the first pose, then went out and found Speicher smoking in the lounge. Did he still want to draw her? Draw her? He wanted to paint her! First draw, she said. Then paint.
She sat on a stool in the corner of one of the galleries, stiff-backed, her hands on her lap.
So, where are you from? he asked.
A farmer’s daughter! he said. Well, I’ll be!
After a while, two fellows, both classmates, stopped by to scrutinize Speicher’s drawings. One of them was eating a pear that he’d swiped from a still-life bowl. The other was lazily smoking a pipe. They were on their way downtown, they said. To see the Rodins. Speicher and Georgia O’Keeffe decided to join them, and they all started off on foot, in the snow. Passing the New York School of Art, down the block, the three boys exchanged insults with a couple of Robert Henri’s students. Henri’s students—God’s gifts! Or so they acted, Speicher told O’Keeffe. Think they’re better than everybody else, said Speicher. Think they’re so modern.
She nodded, but considered it a lot of silliness, this rivalry between schools, artists behaving like football teams. Apparently, though, art was a competitive sport. Since arriving in New York, that had become clearer and clearer to her. There were star players, aging veterans, promising rookies. Coaches. Many coaches. Scores were kept. Trophies awarded. O’Keeffe didn’t much like it, but to say so would only make her seen naive and green. Patsy the girly-girl.
Better to be one of the boys.
In front of the St. Regis, Speicher threw a snowball at her; she nimbly dodged and threw one back–it pulverized against his elbow, spraying powder on the hotel doorman, who wrinkled his nose but otherwise remained passive, at soldier like attention.
Patsy has a good arm, Speicher said to his friends. Amazed and surprised. She can throw.
It began snowing harder, and the walk turned uncomfortable, into an ordeal. Reaching “219” was a relief.
This would be O’Keeffe’s first time at the Photo-Secession galleries, and she didn’t know what to expect. The way some people talked about the place, it sounded almost dangerous, an intellectual opium den. Most commercial art galleries that she had seen–this year in New York, and last year in Chicago, where she’d attended the Art Institute—resembled little shrines and chapels, or else funeral parlors: paintings hanging against red plush, potted flowers all about, dealers speaking in hushed voices, their faces solemn.
She walked into the elevator a bit timidly; perhaps this would be a different sort of gallery—after all, she’d never before seen a giant Negro operate a cage by sheer muscle power, pulling on the rope hand over hand.
She walks out of the elevator even more timidly than when she entered. This scowling man in front of her–is Stieglitz? He’s so…belligerent. Curt. He follows everyone to the first Rodin, which does look a bit like hen tracks–with patches of watercolor laid on. Luis Mora said something in class about them being done blindfolded. Was he serious, or was he joking? O’Keeffe makes no comment on the drawing, but one of Speicher’s friends dares to call it pathetic. Being deliberately provocative.
What’s pathetic? says Stieglitz. You’re pathetic.
And they’re off, everybody arguing, Stieglitz arguing—not arguing, exactly; haranguing—louder than anyone.
O’Keeffe slides away, goes by herself into the second room. Filled with the same kinds of drawings. Pretty but pointless. To a girl who’s used to sketching from the antique cast and painting bowls of ripe fruit. She proceeds into the third room, as far from the clamor as she can get. There’s nothing to sit on, so she stands. Stieglitz’s voice reaches her even here, ringing.
He sounds as ferocious as a farmer at the Grange Hall.
A feeling of dismay bears down heavily upon her. She’s spending her father’s hard-earned money for—this? Perhaps she should look for a job. In advertising art, maybe. How can she be living in New York City and feel so bored?
Ernest Lawson feels like climbing the walls. It’s late afternoon, the electric ceiling light is on, the room shadows are harsh. He’s stretched out on the narrow iron bed, shoes off, one knee drawn up. Anxious for six o’clock to roll around, so he can go eat some dinner and start drinking, though he’s not sure where. Now that Jim Moore’s Cafe Francis is in receivership, he no longer has a regular haunt. Too bad about Moore; the man’s being hounded, persecuted by creditors. Lost a bundle in the stock market crash. Another bundle in a civil suit. A broken human being. To see him today, so distraught and distracted, so embittered, you’d never recognize him as the happy gastronome and womanizer in Glackens’s At Mouquin’s, or as the conniving son of a bitch who once sold a picture that Lawson had given him, then refused to split the take.
It must be tough to have it and then to lose it. Lawson can sympathize; though he’s never had a lot of money, he does know about reversals of fortune. One year he might sell a dozen pictures at good prices and win a few cash prizes; the next, he’ll sell hardly a thing, and see a favorite painting go for $22.50 at auction. One month he’ll peel currency off a fat roll and stand everyone to drinks; the next, he’ll settle his tab with a small landscape. Crazy life. Well, his father did warn him.
He gets up from bed and removes his shirt, then critically regards his stomach, a biggish mound straining against his soiled woolen undervest. He’s put on a lot of weight over the past year, year and a half; and it’s not only his middle that’s gone soft, his upper arms have become flabby, too–they don’t have much definition anymore. Like a lot of Manhattan artists, including George Bellows and George Luks, Lawson used to play semi-professional baseball; a shortstop, he’d make a few dollars every Sunday during June and July, in Central Park or out on Staten Island. Those days are gone. His legs are no good, his kneecaps pop, he’s lost his wind, and now he’s growing fat. In March he turns 35. Oh, he probably could get back into shape, if he really tried. But most likely—most likely he won’t make the effort.
His razor strop is hanging on a hook beside the sink. He gives it a few whacks with his razor, then washes his face, then shaves. Even though he’s already shaved once today, when he got up this morning. No sense not looking the best you can, though. At all times. He doesn’t want anyone to think he’s slipping.
Because he’s not.
He’s doing well. Fairly well. He’s selling pictures. Once in a while. (He sold something in October. No, September.) And his work is generally admired, widely praised, by conservative painters as well as by people in Henri’s circle. He was invited onto the Winter Exhibition jury at the Pennsylvania Academy. Which was quite an honor, and came—happily—with a small stipend. He’s respected as an artist and as a fellow. He’s well-liked. He’s met a few wealthy people at Gertrude Vanderbilt’s sculpture studio, over in Eighth Street, and has spent several weekends in the country as their guest. Because they like his art, and because they like him. Among the well-heeled, he’s never experienced any awkwardness, none—he’s always felt that he fits right in!
So there you have it: He’s in fairly good shape. All and all. Maybe not physically, but spiritually. Emotionally.
Except whenever he gets a letter from Ella. He’ll read into some slip of a phrase, or the complimentary close (Yr. Loving Wife), a softening of her heart, an inclination to forgive, and suddenly he’ll be tossed dizzy by a whirl of feelings. Hopeful and romantic, self-recriminating, rueful. He’ll remember terrible arguments—the things he said, the things she said; he’ll remember her breasts heavy with milk—or the time he threw eggs at her feet, he was so angry, and she never once looked up from her theosophy book. He’ll remember the day he took Ella for a buggy ride, and used his straw boater to catch horse shit, then flung it away before it could splatter his beloved’s white muslin dress. His beloved. His nemesis.
On stationary bearing the Lawson family motto (The Lord Will Provide), he’ll write to her, suggesting a visit, a trial reconciliation. All my love to the girls. I await your reply.
Until it comes, he paints erratically, and drinks too much whiskey. Sits in a saloon among friends, with a stale mouth and a big headache. A pale, quiet drunk, who occasionally will kick off his shoes underneath the table, then forget about them and stagger home to Greenwich Village in his black hosiery….
Ernest Lawson met Ella Holman in Kansas City, when he was 15. That was 1888. He came down from Canada (where he was born, though he’s always told people he was born in San Francisco bay, aboard a clipper ship) to rejoin his parents who’d been living in the United States for almost five years without him. He found work at a novelty company, copying paintings of thoroughbred horses onto linen handkerchiefs. Saturdays, he took instruction at the Art Institute. Dressed in an apron, standing at an easel in a gloomy, green-walled room, a fragile stick of charcoal in his right hand. The drawing teacher was Miss Holman, several years Lawson’s senior, a tallish, pretty woman with dark hair and a disinclination to smile.
Lawson was smitten almost from the start; sketching a plaster torso, he’d find himself speculating about Miss Holman’s family background, Miss Holman’s flat Midwestern inflections, Miss Holman’s calves, Miss Holman’s flesh. Whenever she commented upon his work, showing him how to better blend the charcoal, his heart beat fast, and lurched; whenever she praised a finished drawing, he flushed brightly.
By term’s end, she’d begun calling him Ernest, even—sometimes—Ernie. They went to picture exhibitions together, on Sunday afternoons. She convinced him that he had a serious, professional talent. He tried to kiss her. She resisted his ardor—if only he were older!
That summer, the Lawson family moved to Mexico. Dr. Lawson had been hired by an American civil engineering firm, as its medical officer. Ernest worked for the company as an assistant draftsman, and took classes at Santa Clara Art Academy. He painted the bull fights, Indian ’dobes, village fairs and religious feasts. He wrote weekly to Ella, the letters partly a diary of life south of the border and partly bold declarations of love. Ella was the first to mention the subject of marriage. She had complete faith in Lawson, he could make his mark as an important artist, and she would bask in the reflected light. They would live in Paris, they would live in New York. But first, she wrote, they must marry.
Lawson quit Mexico on his eighteenth birthday. He visited Ella. They took a long walk around Kansas City, embraced on a bench in a street-railway station. Ella wept frequently, kept wanting to know when they would become engaged. When would they marry? He didn’t know when, exactly, he said, then took himself off to New York.
He spent a year at the Art Students League, then attended summer school at Cos Cobb, in Connecticut, the classes conducted outdoors by J. Alden Weir and John Twatchman. Weir called one of Lawson’s canvases the worst landscape he’d ever seen. Lawson was so humiliated he considered going home. Weir found him packing his clothes. You are trying to get the whole world on one canvas, he said and put a fatherly arm around Lawson’s shoulders. Don’t be so generous! Lawson smiled. Simplify everything, said Weir, and stick to your first impression. You can do no more than suggest things in nature.
Suggest. Suggest things.
The following winter, Lawson sailed to Europe. Although he enrolled at the Academie Julien, as did nearly every other American in Paris at the time, he rarely attended classes—it was kind of a Bedlam there, students always quarreling over seats, sometimes coming to blows, everyone crammed into amphitheaters that resembled medical-school surgeries. And besides, the professors were all salon artists, painters of fleshy nudes in metaphoric settings. That wasn’t for Lawson. He wanted to paint like the Impressionists—light and air were his refreshment!—so naturally he passed June, July and August in the south of France. He painted every day, packing a lunch first thing in the morning, taking his bicycle into the countryside and setting up his easel. As mentioned, he met Sisley one day. More paint on the canvas, less on yourself.
More paint on the canvas. More paint.
In the fall, he returned to Paris, and drank and smoked at left-bank cafes, and visited the Louvre, flirting with lady painters who were trying to copy the old masters. He lived on soldier’s bread and crème cheese. He watched a suicide jump off a quay into the river, he sampled absinthe, he went to Fontainebleau. His regular companions were a Canadian artist named James Wilson Morrice, and an English medical student named Somerset Maugham, who came from London whenever he could, and who once shared a room with Lawson for several months.
In long letters to Ella, he summarized conversations, described buildings and bridges, and recounted every adventure, no matter how minor. Her letters back had a frantic tone. Just what were Lawson’s intentions? She had to know. She was not young anymore, she was 23. Could she expect to become formally engaged, or not? Lawson turned fretful, like the hero in a novel by William Dean Howells. He had to do right by Ella—should he marry her? Sometimes he was quite certain that he adored her, but at other times—she was only a formidable memory of first love.
Eventually he decided to return to the United States. It was time to see Ella once again, to square things one way or the other.
They reunited in New York City, and were married in Philadelphia. November, 1894. Then Lawson took his bride away to France, where they spent the next two years. Their daughter Margaret was born in Paris. They were ill-prepared for parenthood—they didn’t own a cradle, and Lawson had to wrap the baby in one of his painting aprons till he could get out to a bon marché and buy a few diapers and gowns. Money became especially tight. Margaret had terrible colic. The Lawsons quarreled. Ella didn’t know why he couldn’t sell more pictures, why he felt it necessary to have so many friends, why he had to drink so much. Why he had to drink at all. Or smoke cigars. In short time she became disappointed—disenchanted—with Lawson (nothing that happened later would ever change her opinion) and keenly interested in spiritual matters. She would sit in a stuffed chair for hours while her mind wandered the astral plane. Lawson stood in front of his easel and painted harmonious landscapes with not much sky. Margaret crawled from one parent to the other, back and forth, back and forth.
Upon their return to America in 1896, they separated for the first time, Ella and the baby going to North Carolina, Lawson to Georgia. In Columbus, he taught art, and loathed it; painted his first commissioned portrait, and was never paid. No more teaching, no more portrait work—no more living in the South! He convinced Ella to join him again, she became pregnant, they settled in New York City.
Where, for a couple of years at least, his life was happy, and even occasionally prosperous. He went outdoors in all weather to paint, and his pictures were regularly accepted at the big juried exhibitions. He was made an Associate Member of the National Academy. He played baseball. And enjoyed the companionship of several women less—metaphysical than his wife. These were dalliances. That’s all, dalliances. Or so they were to him, at any rate.
In the summer of 1906, Lawson was shattered when a young pianist he’d spent some time with threatened suddenly to starve herself to death if he refused to divorce his wife. She was quite willing to shed her husband—had, in fact, already informed him of the love affair. Love affair? said Lawson, going prickly all over. Charlotte, what are you talking about? He broke it off then and there, enjoining her to forget him and refusing to speak with her again.
One night a week later, Charlotte’s husband came to Lawson’s house. He must agree to visit Charlotte, he must, and at once: she was debilitated from hunger, at death’s door! Lawson departed hastily, but the husband stayed behind, explaining to Ella that his wife was very emotional, severely neurotic. Your husband and she are made for each other, he said, they could take each other to great heights, and Ella laughed in disgust.
You seem eager to be rid of her, she said.
The husband looked at his hands, then looked away.
I must remind you, said Ella, of Mr. Lawson’s family responsibilities. He is a father. He cannot possibly marry your wife. Besides, he has no money. I suggest, sir, that you force her to eat. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone.
Lawson returned several hours later. Forgive me, he said. Please. I am not in love with Charlotte, she is in love with me.
A superior, dry-eyed being, Ella glared daggers at him. She would neither forgive nor forget. This was a promise.
Lawson continues to study her letters, for intimations of clemency.
There hasn’t been a new letter, though, in quite some time. Since late fall. Several weeks before Christmas, he mailed his wife and daughters a parcel of gifts, which so far has not been acknowledged. Forgive me. Excuse me. I’m sorry.
But not slipping….
It’s ten o’clock (the last time he checked his pocket watch it was only a few minutes past eight!) and he’s drunk his way all the way uptown, from MacDougal Street to Broadway and Fifty-seventh. He’s in Tom Sharkey’s saloon, which has been converted once again this evening into a private club. Boxing is illegal in the state of New York, except in private clubs. Lawson and a hundred other men are admitted as members upon payment of their “dues.” The roped-off canvas ring is in the back room. Sawdust on the floor. Using a cheerleader’s megaphone, the referee announces the first match; both fighters are shanty-Irish with cauliflower ears. Lawson puts down a small bet. And suddenly it’s one in the morning, and he’s straggling across slushy Broadway with a half-dozen other men, following them past a throng of young and old prostitutes and into the Lincoln Arcade, then into the service elevator and up to a studio on the fourth floor, to an all-night poker game. A couple of newspaper reporters, a magazine illustrator, a show broker, a vice-president of the Automobile Club of America, and an alderman are seated at a round wooden table. Presided over by a Hearst sports cartoonist who signs his pictures TAD—Thomas Aloysius Dorgan.
Tad is six-foot tall and farmer-lean; he’s wearing a black vest and no coat, sleeve garters and a green eyeshade. Across his lap is the spindle of a chair that he smashed an hour ago—the pieces are scattered about. On the average, two chairs get broken a night. (As good luck would have it, there’s an office-furniture company right there in the building.) In the middle of the floor is somebody’s stomped-upon derby hat. All around the room are clusters of talking, arguing, joke-telling, boasting, swearing, cigar-smoking men. The place is stag. Oh, there’s George Luks, his derby set impossibly—cartoonishly—far back on his head. His face is red as a tomato. Both his hands are gesturing fervidly.
On the windowsill stand two bottles of mash whiskey. But no glasses. Fortunately, Lawson pocketed his over at Sharkey’s saloon. He removes it now from his coat, and pours himself a drink. Watches a deal, the gamblers slotting their cigars back and forth in their mouths. Cards, gentlemen? Raise? See? Call? One of the players—Harry Raleigh, who does covers and story art for the Saturday Evening Post—swears loudly and folds. Getting up, he deliberately kicks over his chair with a shoe heel. A young fellow stoops and rights it, then returns it to the table. Fellow with a long shiny face, broad forehead, stick-out ears, and a whopping nose. A blue bow tie with a few white polka dots.
Tad glances up. Then points to the empty chair with his purplish two-fingered nub of a right hand. (Boyhood accident: four fingers crushed at a building site.) Park yourself, Reuben, says Tad, but the young fellow, tonguing his cigar into the corner of his mouth, declines with a grin. Play poker? Bet money? When he spent a good piece of last fall living on soup and bread, and trying like crazy not to pawn the diamond ring his father gave him when he left California? No, sir! He knows the value of a dollar. Besides, he wouldn’t stand a chance against Tad and his cronies. So, if nobody minds, he’ll just hang around and soak up the atmosphere.
He’s still the new boy on the block. Untested. Feeling his way. Not quite accepted into the brotherhood. But that’ll all change, soon enough. He intends to make his name as well-known here as it was out West. Rube Goldberg. Rube Goldberg. The one and only Rube Goldberg. He’s working for the Evening Mail, a second-rate paper, drawing titled cartoons for the sporting page. His salary is the same as what he got paid at the San Francisco Bulletin, $50 a week. But once his stuff catches on, and it’ll catch on, all right, it will—once that happens, he’ll start seeing the big money.
That’s what’s so good about his particular line of work, the potential is boundless. Take civil engineering. Goldberg earned a college degree in civil engineering. Waste of time! A civil engineer can go only so far, earn just so much, unless he does graft, which Goldberg could never see himself doing. But a newspaper cartoonist! If people like your stuff, if they start talking about it, adopting the little catch-phrases that you make up—why, you could write your own check.
Live in a brownstone house, get married, have children, servants….
Now, it might take him a few years to rise so high (he only started at the Mail in November, and doesn’t even have a sweetheart yet), but time is on his side. He’s only 24. Still a young man! All right, youngish. But he’s thrumming with energy and pluck, full of invention. How can he fail? He can’t! The trick is to keep his blue eyes open, and his big ears unblocked. Plenty of jays can draw better pictures than he can, Goldberg knows that. It’s not the picture that counts, though, it’s the idea. The observation. And the simpler, the better. Such as—most people that you meet are lunatics. Harmless, but still batty about something; squirrelly self-deceivers.
When Goldberg was still in San Francisco, he used to earn six dollars a month escorting mental patients to state institutions at Napa and Stockton; they were always handcuffed and belted into straitjackets, but to Goldberg nearly all of them seemed far more rational than most fight fans of his acquaintance, most newspapermen, politicians, pillars of the community. Just stand back and look at people, and give a real listen. They’re all loonies.
All great material.
Take that redheaded fat man, across the room. A reporter for the Journal. Listen to him gabble on about how well he knows Miss Evelyn Nesbit. Interviewed her over lunch at her townhouse on Park Avenue. Expecting everyone to jump to salacious conclusions. A lunatic.
Or take this newsboy who’s just come bounding in with an armload of papers. Look at his sneer, his swagger, the flare of his nostrils. Practiced. A cigarette tucked behind an ear. Of course. The tough guy. Another lunatic.
Or take this chunky fellow with the pointed goatee. Who’s taking a seat now at the poker table, shaking hands all around, introducing himself, saying Ernie? Ernie Lawson? As though he’s asking a question. The man is snozzled, in no shape to play cards, but there he goes anyhow, buying chips, clumsily arranging his hand, showing half the players that he’s got the two of hearts, the four of spades, the Jack of diamonds. Lighting a fresh black cigar and burning his thumb with the safety match. Laying his cards face down, so he can roll up his shirt sleeves. A tattooed star on his right forearm. Ernie. Ernie Lawson. Happy as a clam at high tide. Dee-lighted to be here! To be one of the boys. Who are going to clean him out, sure as shooting, and leave him with nothing in his pocket but a latchkey and some bits of lint. Yet another lunatic.
Goldberg smiles to himself, then shakes open the newspaper he’s just bought from the little tough guy, and leans against the wall. The president of Smith College—it says here—is recommending easier examinations for young ladies, since strenuous study, he believes, seriously interferes with normal female physical development and early marriage. Another lunatic!
And at a suffragette rally in Madison Square, a heckler shouted, What do you frails want the vote for? Do you want to make a pie of it? Another lunatic.
And, say, get this. This is really rich. Some painter tried to swipe his own picture back from the National Arts Club, then his lady friend up and smashed it against a chair. A couple of lunatics. Goldberg can just see it, this little guy with a big baloney-nose, dressed in a smock and a beret. He’s got a Van Dyke, maybe, or a goatee. Fists clenched, teeth clenched, goo-goo eyed; knees bent, feet off the ground. And this fat dame with a silly flowered hat, her bum sticking way out. Speed lines, and a mangled painting.
New York. Is so full of lunatics. Praise the Lord.
He carefully rips the story out of the newspaper, then rolls it up and creases it, then folds it in half, then folds it in half again. And finally sticks it into his coat pocket, along with a matchbox, some change, a soft pencil, and several caricatures he made today at the Automobile Show; a wad of lined paper containing some new slang that he heard Tad use tonight (Bonehead. Kisser. Buttinksky. Bowl of java), and an unfinished letter to his father Max, out in sunny California.
…am in the pink, so don’t worry about me. I’m getting plenty of rest and eating regular meals….