Painters in Winter: Chapter Three

George B. Luks

George B. Luks

It’s the second of January, shocking news to George Luks, the world’s greatest painter. The second? What happened to the first? Shifting an ice pack from his forehead to his jaw, he flops back on the sofa. Where, since lurching into the flat this morning at six—minus coat, gloves and bowler hat—he’s been curled up in some old woolen blankets. There’s a nasty gash above his right eye and a little mouse below it. Dried blood in his silky blond hair. He says, Show me a newspaper. It can’t be the second. Already?

George, get up, says Babe, losing her temper. Get up, you big gazoon, and go take a bath. But he’s dead. I’m dead, Babe, he says, and his wife, muttering oaths, biffs him one in the shoulder, then bends down to undress him. Oh, George.

After she’s removed his trousers—she ought to burn them!—she empties his pockets. A few pennies, a wine cork, some bits of confetti, a wad of napkins covered with doodles. And a ticket stub. The Hippodrome? You were at the Hippodrome, George? He has to think for a moment, but—yes! He remembers. Vaguely. The battle of Port Arthur recreated with musical accompaniment, followed by a novelty circus. Same old trick ponies. Same old Hagenbach elephants. Same old—

George! Where did you get this?

Get what? This little bruise, do you mean?

Little bruise? Your whole chest is purple!

Finally, Babe drags him naked from the sofa, then down the short hall to the kitchen. While he’s soaking in the tub, she looks for something to feed him—rye bread, pickled fish, Limburger cheese. George, when was the last time you ate? Who were you with, George? Who beat you up?

But Luks says nothing. Just floats like a buoy. His big moonface paler than a medical student’s. Well, Babe should know by now that it’s useless to ask him questions at the tail end of a bat. Later, after gallons of black coffee and a cup of soured milk, he’ll talk her ear off, making his two-day drunk sound positively like a boy’s dime novel. Whatever cockamamie story pops into his head, he’ll swear is the truth, the gospel truth, and dramatize. He boxed with Jim Corbett, perhaps—he’s done it before—just for a lark. Or climbed Brooklyn Bridge in a blindfold! That’s how he lost his hat! Oh Babe, he’ll say, you should’ve seen me, you should’ve been there! And she’ll frown for as long as she possibly can, then laugh. Oh, George. His blue eyes will glint—he’ll grin—he’ll snatch her round the waist, and—

Later. Later he will. In the meantime, Babe sits at the kitchen table and waits….

They met in Paris—a million years ago, it seems like—introduced by Babe’s older brother John, John Noble, a great violinist and quite a spectacular drunk: Emma Louise, this is my friend George Luks. And Luks, with a mock-courtly bow, said, The world’s greatest painter. Glad to know you.

Right away they clicked, and he took her out almost daily. To the music halls, the Luxembourg Gardens—the Louvre, where with belligerent, stabbing gestures at the Raphaels and Murillos, the Rembrandts and Leonardos, he’d boast he could paint better stuff with a shoelace dipped in lard. At the boulevard cafes, he’d talk for hours in his rich, dramatic baritone voice.

Initially, Babe believed whatever he said, no matter how vivid—that he’d been a newspaper artist in Philadelphia and a light-heavyweight boxer in Chicago, a football quarterback and a Sunday-supplement cartoonist, a Yukon prospector, a black-face comedian on the vaudeville circuit. Later, though, she began to spot the contradictions, the implausibilities, the outright lies. Apparently he had been a news artist, but not a prizefighter; a cartoonist and a minstrel man, but not a quarterback. And he’d never been to Alaska, not even close. But he had been to Cuba.

The name Luks, he said, was Dutch. Did he say Dutch? He meant German. His father came from Danzig—Poland. And was a doctor. His mother was a Bavarian noblewoman. He was born in 1868, 1865, 1866. And grew up in the anthracite coal fields of north-central Pennsylvania. His best friends were Molly Maguires. He had a younger brother named Will.

But for every afternoon that he charmed her on the boulevard, there were two or three evenings when he’d show up at her flat stinking drunk, his clothing torn and his lip—or his ear, or his nose—bleeding. He’d insist they go out as planned, then would growl and call insults at everyone they passed, hoping to pick a fight. Once, he pulled out a revolver—God only knew where he’d got it—and started firing at streetlights. Another time, he exposed himself to a couple of old women outside a subway station. That side of George Luks drove Babe nearly mad.

Yet when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. It sounds like fun, George. Absolutely let’s get married. But then he’d gone uncharacteristically serious. There was just one little problem. He was already married, and not only married, but a father. Of an infant boy he’d never seen. The news stunned Babe, and she dropped into a chair, tingling all over. He’d walked out on a pregnant wife! She’d fallen in love with a married man, a real stinker of a married man. Luks admitted as much, he was a real stinker. To ditch a woman—her name was Lois—who was seven months pregnant. But he’d needed a change, he’d needed to get away, he was drying up. It would be different with him and Babe, though. It would be all different when they were married. They both liked a good time, they were kindred spirits.

As soon as his divorce was granted, Babe married him. Then they sailed back to America and settled in New York, where Luks tried to establish himself as a professional artist. He still had some money in the bank, what he’d saved from his two years of drawing cartoons for the Sunday World, and he used it to stake his new career.

Almost from the time he started to paint, he exhibited work, at the National Arts Club and in small group shows. He was usually rejected by the big annuals, though. And he still is. The bimbos at the National Academy have consistently fired his pictures. But he couldn’t care less.

Most days he gets up early, has breakfast and goes out sketching, over to Central Park or down to the Pennsylvania Station construction site, or to the piers, or to the Lower East Side. He’ll come home—they live on West Fifty-sixth Street—in time for lunch, excited, exuberant. While he eats a sandwich, Babe will look through his sketchbook, page after page of quick portraits—a flower seller, some old barfly—and street scenes, doorways, wagon wheels, a carousel horse. In the afternoon, he paints.

Sometimes, Babe keeps him company in the studio, watching him jab at a canvas, working rapidly, using short strokes, a wide brush, blending nothing. He hums to himself, he laughs out loud, enjoying every moment. Painting a butcher’s cat, Jewish wives at market, two tenement girls dancing on the pavement.

After several hours, he’ll flop down on the sofa and instantly be asleep. But twenty minutes later, he’ll leap up as though his clothing were on fire. Throw some water on his face. Come on, Babe, let’s go, let’s go have some fun. I feel like a roast of beef, come on, come on!

And then it’s either to the Cafe Francis on West Thirty-fifth Street, or the red plush Mouquin’s on Twenty-eighth and Sixth Avenue. Both places are always filled with artists and writers or just plain eccentrics. That nondescript little man drinking heavily at a table in the corner? Might be Sidney Porter—O. Henry. Luks knows everybody, but usually sits at a table with friends from the old Philadelphia gang.

And within minutes of his arrival, he’ll be the center of attention. Recalling episodes from his minstrel days; embellishing them, combining them, inventing brand-new ones. And next thing, he might be standing on a chair, pretending to mush a team of sled dogs, calling for more wine, another beer, a second dinner, a late supper. His voice might grow thicker, but never slower, and he never runs out of stories.

Eventually, the others—John and Dolly Sloan, Butts and Edith Glackens, the doleful Ernest Lawson, usually alone but sometimes in the company of a pretty young woman, Ernie Gruger, Jimmy and May Preston, Robert Henri—all of the others at the table will eventually get up and go home. Till it’s just Luks and Babe. He’ll smile at her and collect her coat and hat, then walk her to the sidewalk, call a cab, put her in. And that will be the last she’ll see of him for two hours, twelve hours, till the next afternoon, the following weekend….

Babe stands up from the table. She takes hold of Luks by one of his meaty shoulders, and squeezes, digging in her fingers. Don’t fall asleep in there, George. She sticks an arm down into the bathwater and feels around for the wash cloth. Handing it to him, she says, Come on, get finished and get dressed. Have something to eat.

In the hall, the telephone bell rings. Before running to answer it, Babe makes Luks sit up straight. Don’t slide back, George, don’t drown.

The telephone box is mounted too high, and Babe has to stand on her toes to speak into the mouthpiece. Yes? Hello? Ahoy? The caller’s voice is indistinct at first, but then after a sizzle of static comes clarity: it’s John Sloan. Yes, John? She looks up the hall, seeing part of the tub, one of Luks’ knees, a puddle of water on the kitchen floor.

George is working, she tells Sloan. She hates to disturb him. Can she take a message? Yes. Nodding, yes. This evening. She’ll tell him, yes. Before she hangs up, though, she says, John? Could you see to it, as a favor to me, that he comes directly home? Afterwards? Thank you. She clips the heavy receiver back on the prong and returns to the kitchen.


Dear God, he’s completely submerged. His hair floating like seaweed, his eyes wide open. Then suddenly, with a great splash of water, the Drowned Man rises! His jaw drops, his tongue spills out, horribly. His arms come up, his fingers bend into claws. He wails, then his wailing turns to macabre laughter. I’ve returned from a watery grave! To see that justice is done!

George. Please. Not right now.

He lifts one leg over the side of the tub, and nearly slips on the wet floor.


Drown me, will you, sister? To steal my inheritance? You’ll not get away with it, greedy woman!

George, you’re going to break your neck!

Revenge, sister, revenge!

Babe takes a step backwards and bumps her hip against the table.

Staggering toward her, the Drowned Man’s lips draw taut, his eyes narrow to little slits.

Babe grabs a towel and throws it at him. You’re making puddles all over. Grow up, George.

Suddenly…his mouth trembles, he clutches the towel to his bosom. Oh please, please, he begs, leave me with my virtue! I’m a good girl, I’m a good girl!

And Babe laughs. But when he reaches for her, she jabs him in the ribs. Get dressed. That was John Sloan on the telephone.


While you were drowning.

What’d he want?

To remind you of a meeting tonight.

Tomorrow night. The second.

Today is the second.

Ah, the meeting.

He said you still owe fifty dollars.

Who did?

John Sloan. I thought you paid that months ago.

That was something else.


It was something else, I tell you. My slats, don’t look at me like that.

But how she can not look at him like that? Look at this short, soft, bruised-purple two-hundred-pound man, stark naked, soaking wet, holding a towel to his groin and punching the air with a fist. George Luks, the world’s greatest painter, champion drunk, and king of liars. Look at him with pity and amusement, a little fear, considerable disappointment, lovingly: look at him like that.

Get dressed, George, she says. Have something to eat. And I’ll run down to the pharmacy and pick up something for your head.

Continue to read CHAPTER FOUR →