The painter Samuel—called Finley—Morse had a long, narrow, chinny face, and sideburns. His dark clothes were always clean and well-tailored, and unlike the great majority of his fellow citizens in old mercantile New York, he bathed with some regularity. Judging from appearances, you would’ve thought him well-to-do. But he was just the opposite. He slept on the floor of his rented studio–a man in his middle thirties!–and took just one meal a day, cold supper, at a boarding house near Trinity Church. Portrait commissions were lamentably scarce. Gentlemen of commerce and banking had no time to sit. To waste sitting. When Finley’s hat was stolen, he was forced to break his last five-dollar bill to replace it.
On the last day of December, 1907, John Sloan is taking dinner by himself at a Chinese restaurant. He’s brought along a book to read—Joseph Andrews—but it sits unopened in his lap. Because: at a table by the front plate window, a young woman brazenly puffs on a machine-made cigarette, causing several older people to stare at her as if she were dining with a rodeo Indian. Sloan composes and recomposes the picture in his mind, taking away a superfluous potted plant, adding cafe curtains, an ashtray, a cruet of soybean sauce.
Then his waiter appears, and Sloan–who’s ordered the usual chop-suey–eats quickly, every mushroom and sprout, every last dab of chicken. Meanwhile eavesdropping on nearby conversations. He hears Bill Haywood’s name mentioned, and Gladys Vanderbilt’s. And, say, have you seen Maude Adams yet in Peter Pan? You must. But hurry. It closes tomorrow night.
On New Year’s Day, just after two in the afternoon, a dozen city marshals arrive in a downtown neighborhood. They’ve come bearing dispossession notices for more than a hundred families participating in a rent strike organized by the Socialist Committee of Ten. Citing hard times, the Committee petitioned landlords back in November to reduce everyone’s rent by a dollar. Reduce rents! What, asked the landlords, would these, these—people want next, maid service? The tenements, many of them secretly owned by local churches, are filthy, unventilated, and dangerous. But so what? What of it? said the landlords in court. If these…people don’t like where they live, they can move. It’s still a free country. Thank God. Plunging into one flat after another, the marshals hurl down clothing and baby carriages, bed springs and chamber pots, a chromo of Pope Pius X….
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.
Early on that evening of the second, at Mouquin’s (called Mook’s by regulars), Robert Henri has drinks with John Sloan and a narrow-faced woman named Mary Perkins, a teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina. Just this afternoon Miss Perkins invited Sloan to contribute a picture to her college’s annual spring art show—she very much admired the small dark one titled “Coffee Line.” Sloan has agreed to send it, naturally. He never says no to an exhibit. Usually it’s the other way around.
Henri signals the waiter—Another sauterne, s’il vous plait—and wonders why this Perkins woman hasn’t asked him to submit a painting. She visited his studio as well as Sloan’s, she saw all of his work. Why hasn’t she asked Henri for something? It bothers him. It shouldn’t, but it does. He’s feeling raw these days, and her snub irks him. Though how important can the show truly be—a college in South Carolina? Tell me, Miss Perkins, he says now, have you ever been to Holland? It’s so delightful! I spent last summer there, you know. Painting.
William Glackens and Ernest Lawson are the first to arrive, followed almost immediately by Everett Shinn, impeccably dressed as usual (tonight it’s an English-tweed suit and box-toed shoes). As the five of them are shaking hands and exchanging art gossip, there’s a loud crash on the landing below, then George Luks appears in the doorway, panting like a dog in July, one fist pressed to his heart.
Staggering in, he tears off his muffler, then collapses on the sofa. He’s been shot! Three times! By the Black Hand! He—he—by God, he thwarted their scheme to plant an infernal device in an Italian restaurant! Jumped them from behind, the bastards—knocked them down—snatched the bomb (in a brown paper sack) and ran it to the East River. But—my slats! Those devils were angry! Chased Luks all the way there, then all the way here, firing their pistols. Henri, lock the door, for Christ’s sake!
After leaving Henri’s place, Sloan, Glackens, Lawson and Luks decide to go for beer and deviled kidneys. Ev, will you join us? Everett Shinn considers for a moment, then says all right, sure—even though he won’t touch alcohol and wouldn’t eat kidneys to save his mother’s life. On the way across town to Shanley’s, however, he changes his mind and hails a cab. Which aggravates the bejesus out of Sloan, and he comes this close to making some crack, something like Oh, stony broke, are you? But why waste his breath? Rebuke Shinn? Impossible. Shinn would only laugh. Call Sloan an old maid. Say, Everybody needs some luxuries—and I need more than most! As he used to say back in Philly when he’d borrow and starve rather than go without a new pair of button shoes.
Around six in the morning, Friday, January third, Jerome Myers wakes feeling anxious, mind abounding with Things to Do, that Must Be Done. Buy varnish. Borrow Sloan’s handsaw—
Beside him, Ethel stirs in the bed, swallows noisily, coughs once, turns over.
—and postal stamps! Get stamps. And stretcher bars.
Myers draws the blanket up to his nose, then over his head. Wishing it were—November. October. July!
And that his one-man show at Macbeth’s were still months away.
Instead of weeks. Three short weeks.
After lunch, John Sloan (hair wet-combed, fingernails clipped) walks down to the foot of Twenty-third Street and meets Dolly at the Pavonia ferry. After squeezing and kissing her as though she’s been away for a season instead of a week, he makes a thorough examination of her dental work. Looks right good! (And not a trace of alcohol on her breath! Sloan decides to believe she hasn’t had a single highball, not one, since leaving New York.) Your smile’s even prettier than before, he says. And hugs her again.
He first met Dolly—Anna Marie Wall—in the late nineties, at one of the monthly parties at Robert Henri’s Walnut Street studio. Sloan was 27, Dolly just 21, but it was she who struck up the acquaintance. He was terribly shy around women, always had been; they flustered him, made him clumsy, hot in the face. He could never think of what to say. But that was all right with Dolly. She didn’t mind doing most of the talking, it was fine with her.
Carrying a small leather suitcase and a wooden paint box, Arthur Davies arrives at Grand Central Station and buys a return ticket to Congers, one hour’s distance from New York on the West Short Line. He examines his change carefully before leaving the counter, then weaves through the Friday-evening commuter crowd, grimacing as though he’s been stabbed. No, he does not wish to purchase a newspaper. Or candy. Or chewing gum. Or flowers. Now, please! Out of his way! Vendors. Henri and Sloan and that madman Luks might find them all picturesque, but not Davies. Not Arthur Bowen Davies.
The train leaves on schedule and follows a route north that runs parallel with the Hudson River. Davies sits alone studying his pinched expression in the dark coach window. Lighted houses flash by. The conductor—the same ruddy German that Davies sees almost every Friday, and then again on Sunday night—appears with his big hole-punch. They chat briefly, about the weather being so unnaturally fine, and about Davies’ cigar (yes, it’s Cuban), and then the conductor (who’s long since pegged Davies as a flinty man of commerce and a weekend painter) touches the brim of his cap and moves on—lurching—up the aisle.
In Boston, it’s a cold, wet, and blasty morning. Tuesday, the seventh of January. Holding a cup of hot tea in both hands, Maurice Prendergast stands at his front window and watches the mail carrier (Mr. Wires, such a nice man) toot his whistle on the steps of a brick row house diagonally across Mount Vernon Street. A small gray-haired woman in a dark-blue dress opens the door. (Mrs. Catlow, no sweeter, gentler, kinder person on earth.) She takes all of her letters and gazettes, then disappears for a moment, returning with a furled umbrella, which she presses upon the dripping postman. And Prendergast, feeling his eyes tingle at the corners and turn moist, smiles radiantly.
The kindness of people! The goodness and kindness of people! It’s inexhaustible. Throughout his life–and he’s lived a long time, 48 years–he’s never seen anything to make him think otherwise. Never. Even when that Englishman stole his sketchbook in Paris and published it under his own name, Prendergast was scarcely fazed. He didn’t excuse the theft or the deception, but–where was the real harm? And no doubt the poor fellow regretted it all later on.
Ten of ten, Wednesday morning. The eighth. Evelyn Nesbit Thaw arrives in a shiny electric brougham at the Manhattan Criminal Courts building. She’s dressed in a modest tailored blue suit which flattens her figure and makes her look like a convent girl of twelve. A bunch of violets are tucked between the crown and rim of her hat. The moment she steps from her automobile, she’s surrounded by snapshotters and reporters, and while she tries to look appropriately solemn–it’s the third day of her husband’s second trial for murder–Evelyn can’t help but smile at several newspapermen she recognizes. She doesn’t want them to think she’s been spoiled, made snooty, by all the folderol of her recent life. She’s still Evelyn, fellas. The Floradora Girl.
At Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue town house, there is a dinner dance this evening, primarily for debutantes. The guests begin to arrive just after seven, doffing their wraps in the dressing room, then ascending the winding marble staircase. Mrs. Vanderbilt receives in the French drawing room. My dear. My dear… Forsythias, pink roses, white orchids, and ferns.
Over dinner, the main topic of conversation, naturally, is the imminent marriage of Miss Gladys Vanderbilt to Count Lassio Szechenyi–no bigger event this winter! Such a handsome couple! And did you hear what happened today at the Plaza, during tea hour? Pandemonium! When not only Gladys and the count, but also Theodora Shonts and her titled fiancé–the Duc de Chaulnes–appeared almost simultaneously. Well! The corridors became thronged, everyone craning for a glimpse; people, don’t you know, were standing on chairs, on benches! It was–
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.
There go Mr. and Mrs. Owens, says the young husband.
Oh, come away from the window, says his wife, and eat your breakfast. You’ll be late to work.
They’re taking a cab, he says. Have you noticed? That Mr. Owens takes a cab nearly every morning? He must be well off, I should think. Have you any idea what business he’s in?
And just how would I have that? says the wife, joining her husband at the window. She peers down into Fifty-second Street, watching the cab disappear from sight. He doesn’t speak to anyone, she says, as far as I can tell.
The Sullivan Ordinance goes into effect today, Monday, January the twentieth. Women are forbidden, henceforth, to smoke in public places. Exactly what is a public place, though? Restaurants and hotels and train stations, certainly. And ferry boats. Surface-cars. The subway. But what about the sidewalk? Is the sidewalk a public place? This big gruff policeman on the Bowery seems to think it is, and so here he is now cautioning a young lady named Katie Mulcahey, who is about to strike a match on the wall of the Alligator Café. Madam, you mustn’t! he cries. What would Alderman Sullivan say?
The baby just recently started to crawl, and now there’s no stopping her: one second she’s here, the next–scooted away–gone! Under the gate leg table, behind the big upholstered sofa. Jerome Myers is forever, it seems, jumping up and chasing after her, snatching her away from the steam pipe, the cat’s bowl, the garbage sack. When Virginia is awake and scudding about, her chubby legs splayed, there’s no peace for Myers and the missus, none.
Take this morning. When Myers went down to the corner to get a newspaper, the baby was sound asleep in her crib, and Ethel was at the breakfast table humming to herself as she finished her tea and wrote in her diary. A peaceful scene. (Like a scene in the series of popular chromolithographs: “Why A Man Marries.” Thousands sold by subscription.) But ten minutes later, he returned to discover the ink bottle overturned, the diary moist and puffy with spilt tea, Ethel in a dither, and Virginia howling, trying to squeeze behind the wardrobe.
Saturday, February the first. Mrs. Robert Fox rides the train to the city from New Rochelle, arriving at Grand Central Station shortly after one in the afternoon. From there, she takes a cab to the Manhattan Theatre and purchases a ticket for the matinee performance. Checks her cape and is escorted to her box. Which she has all to herself.
It’s lonesome sitting up here, but Mr. Fox simply abhors the theatre, unless it’s an operetta by Victor Herbert. She’s brought a novel with her, though–The Man of Property, a Christmas gift–and she’ll amuse herself till curtain time reading about disagreeable Soames Forsyte and his troubled family. Chapter VII. Old Jolyon’s Peccadillo.
As a rule, William Macbeth doesn’t appear at his gallery before ten-thirty or eleven o’clock–there’s never enough business in the mornings to warrant his coming in any sooner; besides, he has three young men quite capable of unlocking the door, dusting the picture frames, slitting open the first mail. But this Monday–February 3, 1908–he makes a rare exception, showing up at twenty minutes before nine.
Yesterday’s newspapers were just full of the exhibition (naturally playing up the artists’ squabble with the National Academy and giving short shrift to the actual pictures on the wall, but no matter: ink is ink), and Macbeth suspects that he might be needed rather earlier than usual. Which is precisely the case. Stepping off the elevator, he finds a dozen people already in the corridor, waiting to get inside for a look.
And so it’s over.
The exhibition closed yesterday–Saturday, the fifteenth of February–and this afternoon the paintings are to come down off the walls. Macbeth’s people will be doing that, much to John Sloan’s relief. Though he does hope they’re careful about it; seems like every time he’s had pictures hung, at least one of them has returned home with a puncture hole or a broken frame. We’ll be very careful, says Macbeth, anxious to get Sloan out, so the dismantling can begin. We know our business, we know our business here! Pumping Sloan’s hand and simultaneously patting him on a shoulder. You just let us take care of everything! He seems a bit giddy today, Macbeth does–but why not? The sales amounted to nearly $4,000, and that’s damned respectable, according to the dealer. Who’s absolutely convinced that if the financial climate were only better he could’ve sold yet another $4,000 worth of pictures. And next time we will, he tells Sloan at the elevator, then shakes his hand again, wheels around and walks back down the long, empty corridor to the galleries. Stops, turns, waves, and says, A great success!
NOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
I’ve written elsewhere at Cafe Pinfold about the ill-fated circumstances surrounding the composition of Painters in Winter (the introductory essay at BOOKS, which predates the discovery of this long-lost manuscript), but now that I’ve posted the entire 60,000 words, I thought it wise to add these supplementary remarks, and to include a woefully abbreviated bibliography.
To recap what I wrote many months ago: I was contacted, sometime in 1987, I believe, by an art-book editor who’d read my novel Funny Papers and who was in the early stage of shepherding to publication a coffee-table book to feature full-color reproductions of paintings by the “rebel artists” who’d exhibited together in an influential gallery show called “The Eight” that opened in New York City early in February 1908 and ran for just two weeks. The editor (whose name I can no longer recall, and whose correspondence with me, if any, has yet to turn up) wanted to try something different with the accompanying text; instead of asking an art historian to write it, he wanted a novelist–me–who could, he hoped, bring to life the artists in their time with a different narrative tone and focus.