Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 6


                                             

Artist and Patron

  Dean Brown has been a friend for forty years, but I don’t know if I could say we’ve been close. Our good friend Dallitt Norris might easily propose: “But who is!” Though  don’t get me wrong. Dean has been a very  good friend to me, and I think I could say it’s been reciprocal. Though it’s  hard to judge exchanges between  artist and patron, and in  truth that’s where we stand. You see, for the last forty  years since Dean first suggested  I visit his mother in Chevy  Chase, he and his family have assemble as large a collection  of Rappaports as may be found.

 Being wasps and dabbling in Washington society, Dean’s  parents entertained the idea of a family portrait. They  had  flare and panache having been interior design students in Paris when they were young, though Dean’s father, also named Dean, had to go to work running the family’s real estate holdings once they made a family.

 Allison Brown’s father, on the other hand, ruined his family  with poorly chosen investments. She was unabashedly tight  with her purse strings as she insisted, even decades later, that she was a girl from the  Depression. I don’t believe  that they were actually thrown out of their Brooklyn  brownstone. She did after all spend that year in Paris. So I suspect they had a softer landing than most.

So when she commissioned the painting of herself and Mr. Brown  with their two sons, Travis and Dean, she  offered me twenty-five dollars a head. I did the painting and one of  her ninety year old mother over the week  following the  Christmas of 1966. Dean came down from Syracuse University  where he was teaching costume design, and Travis was beginning what would become a lifetime career in the CIA.

 Thin-lipped Travis kept them very tight. The family voiced  their concern for his being so closed, but within a few  years Travis would meet a nice Irish girl from a working family who knocked his socks off. Cathy coaxed joyful   laughter bursting from him as her infectious, uninhibited  playfulness and earthy common sense convinced a willing Travis that life could be fun.

Allison, reserved and a little discomforted at first by the  idea of a daughter-in-law with so little sophistication,   understood the good Cathy brought Travis. While Mr. Brown  himself just beamed with pleasure as this whirl -wind of a girl swooped up his son and brought fun into their lives as  well. Once they were married, Mr. Brown  insisted over Mrs. Brown’s hesitation that the newly-weds move into a proper  apartment in the family’s newest building on Connecticut  Avenue.

I  painted the two brothers in the dark basement under a strong  directional light that was my preferred set-up.  The canvas was gessoed smooth that allowed the brush to glide and discharge paint or sweep it from off the surface in erasure-  all done with a flourish- a technique I learned from looking  at John Singer Sargent.

 Travis is behind Dean’s shoulder with only his head indicated in the manner of El Greco. Together the boys  make their own distinct vignette that takes place on one side of  the painting. I was pleased with their portraits but not  their parents’ that take up the other half of the painting.

 The senior Browns could not be asked to stand in their  dreary basement. Painting without an easel in lighting   unfavorable to seeing the structures of their faces put me at a disadvantage. Their portraits have a much more  primitive American look, however, the Brown’s were pleased with Mr. Brown doubling my hundred-dollar fee.

 Meeting the Browns was an enlightening adventure for the  unworldly boy that I was. Mr. Brown, though not fabulously rich, was the scion of a family that had money for generations. Mrs. Brown pointed out how much he  enjoyed  resembling the Duke of Windsor, though she vetoed Mr. Brown’s wish for a Rolls Royce, pointing out to me how badly  he took care of his Jaguar’s interior wood paneling.

 Nor was their house a grand mansion. Across the road from the Chevy Chase Country Club, it resembled more my idea of the low sprawling country house of a prosperous English  squire. The rooms were petite, and the  furnishings to my  surprise were eclectic and casually formal.

 Mr. Brown was himself small in stature, while Mrs. Brown  loomed above him. One could imagine her forebears  standing their ground in medieval armor, tale, big-boned, and rather  thick at wrist and ankle, knights who swept the Moorish tide from the Pyrenees. Though stiff in gate and prudent with means, Allison Brown was  intellectually speculative as long as it was not too far from field. Aquarius brought out an  open and  accommodating side evident in her charitable role  as director of International Visitors Information Service that welcomed the wives of the incoming ambassador corps to Washington. She was a Democrat; Mr. Brown a  Republican.

So it was that the Browns were amiable to having a Jewish artist as their houseguest, something that some of  their  acquaintances might not have been inclined to do. She did have to remind me that they dressed when dining  at home. And thank goodness I brought my sport jacket! I especially found it interesting that they didn’t use tablecloths but allowed  the wood to be exposed, unheard of in my world. And I liked the room candlelit.

 That the Browns had the distinctive English intonation of old money did not seem unduly unusual. They were old  money. They were also theatrically stylish and expressive, Mr.  Brown being playfully dry and sarcastic with a droll, sardonic, wit. That some of their mature bachelor friends, whom I would paint, seemed a bit queer was  nothing  especially unusual to me either. They were conservatively respectable in their townhouses, and as everyone treated me  well, I never gave it much thought.

On the subject of how one spoke, Dallitt Norris, who has had a  full career as a theatrical director and producer,  once explained to me its importance in his life beyond the  theatre. He had benefited greatly by taking the required class in speech for drama students at Tech. To Dallitt it  was clear: How one spoke determined how  one was judged in  terms of class and education. That either opened doors or closed them to you. If you spoke well, you could enter any  society and belong.

So it was that I was not threatened to find myself in a society where people knew how to use their voices, add a  little flourish, take a dramatic pause. If in effect it was a little bit a performance, it assumed its place comfortably within the privileged satisfactions of their society.

I  was happy to be invited into their world, and the Browns did  their best to find me commissions within their  circle. Mrs. Brown tried to overlook my missteps, while Mr. Brown sort of enjoyed them, entreating me on one occasion as he raised an eyebrow: “You could try just a little bit!”

Mr. Brown was a sparrow. He didn’t so much as eat as drink. He’d get home, give Mrs. Brown a kiss, and settled down to scotch, cigarettes, and needlepoint. His sister had died of throat cancer years before, and during  my last visit his brother died. That evening on his return home, I approached him to say how sorry I was. He looked at me calmly and compassionately and said softly in his weariness: “It’s all right.” as he touched the air  between us gently subduing the need for me to stand on ceremony.

Later that same evening he had one of his coughing spells. Mrs. Brown came up behind him and firmly pounded his back. But continuing to cough, he got up and left the room. Allison, returning to her seat, remarked about his  refusing to give up smoking: “Mr. Brown knows he must!”

Like everyone else of the circle of friends who knew Dean’s parents, I was shocked and saddened by the news of Mr. Brown’s death. It came suddenly. I had loved Mr. Brown. It was never the same for me to visit Washington.

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Luke painting close square.

Yesterday I cut up and discarded a portrait of Luke that had  failed. It was rolled up in front of me as I was  writing  about how badly I painted the senior Browns. I can’t  remember when I painted this portrait of Luke. I  think it was sometime in the early eighties in Luke’s kitchen. It caught him at his worst. Ever since his father died Luke had become deflated, strained by life, and becoming burnt out by teaching. He would get worse  progressively. However, it captured something of my friend, and I had found it hard to  destroy. It’s taken two  and a half decades to get around to  it. But I feel better now that it’s gone. One shouldn’t leave inferior pieces behind.

 When I left New York for good in the summer of 1985 it was  first 29 Downing Street where I stopped for rolls  of paintings left at the Bennett’s carriage house, and then on  to Luke’s at number 13 Downing right by the tiny  brick  walled children’s playground as Downing touches Bleecker and  Sixth Avenue. You can continue south  one block to the asphalt playground at the corner by Houston that is  overlooked by my former sister-in-law  Regina’s tiny flat.  This cluster of homesteads represented always a sort of homecoming, a sense of belonging. This triangle of destinations had a place in my heart like few others.

 Luke was prepared for my departure with a lunch of noodles, tomatoes, and cheese packed in a large glass  soup dish and  handed to me on my way out. I would stop after Harrisberg on  the turnpike and eat it delightedly.  Since then that glass  bowl has been the dish I use everyday. It’s been with me now  for more than twenty-five  years; as has the cream-white mug  with the blue “le chien” that my mother assigned to me once I got to Pittsburgh. I do have my everyday treasures. They’re useful, but to anybody else they don’t have much value.  Being sentimental should not however get in the way  of a larger overview when editing out inferior work, though it’s not always easy.

 When I look back in reflection of the portraits done in Washington all those years ago, I feel a profound sense  of dissatisfaction. I cannot excuse myself just because of the  makeshift arrangements where I painted. What I blame is a failure of ease that inhibited my response.

 Why else all those years of practice if one doesn’t trust oneself. There is no misstep when one is with the dance.  But  I got uptight. I would start to police myself by making judgments based on fear of what the client might think.

 Usually I did not know people beforehand, so I had to build upon an exploratory period in the sitting for  something to click and I get sight of a vision of that person. Then everything simplified as I entered that stream and using, say Naples Yellow, brushed on a flowing unifying mask. The more I composed myself, the more the  sitter also, and in  this final phase of mutual harmony we completed our task.

 Still, the majority of those portraits done in Washington were primitive. My uncertainties and self-consciousness   brought out a correspondence in the sitter. The works were stiff because I was stiff. Only if I got to that last  phase  did I ease the brush over the face. Only then in those last minutes of a long session did life appear in the portrait.  Three hours of hesitant courtship, fifteen minutes of consummation. Voila, a dance!

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I  had heard Dean Brown’s name years before we met because his was often mentioned with Dallitt Norris, whom my brother Bob  and his first wife Regina Ress considered as their best friend. Bob had met Dean and  mad Jack Doepp while they were still students in the drama department. It was Jack who got  Bob interested in  stage design, and as chance would, we both entered The College of Fine Arts in the autumn of 1962, Bob  in drama and I in painting.

By then Dean and Jack had left town. For years I would only hear their names spoken. They along with Dallitt,  who was  still at school, had been regular guests at Regina’s  parents’ home, my brother having taken refuge there  after my father threw him out of the house. As I was still in high  school, I hadn’t been invited to those gatherings.  Regina was also at Tech, but had not been accepted in the Drama Department. It was through her involvement with the drama club that Regina met them all.

I  could not possibly have conceived that all these people would in time become my supporters and friends in  New York City. Nor could I imagine where the connecting tendrils  would lead. Never would I have seen myself  at the home of Si  and Victoria Newhouse, be introduced to Joseph Papp, have my  paintings hung at the Public Theatre had not Jack Doepp and Richard Magpion invited Pam Newhouse, their summer stock apprentice, for  dinner where we would meet.

 Would I have ever have met Charles and Susan Wadsworth, been  invited to their inner circle, after-concert parties  following the performances of Young Concert Artist of which Susan Wadsworth was the founding  director, had Dallitt’s and  Regina’s best buddy Ann Dunbar not been Susan’s associate director.

I  still have a photo of Charles and Susan taken by Regina at  my opening at South Houston Gallery on Prince  Street in  1974. Susan is seen in profile, exquisitely classic, just as  Charles is caught turning his face suspiciously towards the  camera. You can almost hear him say: “Regina!”

If I had been a struggling pianist there would have been no easy access to such people- Charles being the director of  the Lincoln Center Chamber Society. He would attend Susan’s concert programs up in the 92nd Street Y’s balcony where he could put up his sore foot. He had gout. I  think he was a bit of a devil, you know, charming. He liked women. From him oozed this seductive southern accent and a diabolical come hither look.  Of course he took pleasure in  the advantage of his rank. He enjoyed the young women doting  on him, paying tribute to him as if he were a pasha.

 Once I got wind of a disapproving though quietly suppressed look appearing on Ann’s face as if Valekyrie held  back from  administrating judgment. One just stayed back and let that  one dissemble and dissolve. It wasn’t for us to intrude.

 Charles and Susan loved Dallitt as a kindred spirit, were on  cheek kissing terms with Regina, and because Ann  also included me in her personal entourage, I was always  welcomed, though I never entirely felt that Susan’s  solicitude was ever free of apprehension. I took care never  to show her the slightest impertinence, though it  didn’t require that I had to be always formal. It was easy. Hers  was a world that I was happy to visit. I had no stake in it.

 Ann lived in the building two away from where Dallitt and Dean lived on the block of East 10th Street just off the good side of Thompkins Square. I lived on the bad  side of East 7th Street, diagonally through the  square. So  we were all neighbors.

 Around 1978 Ann left for L.L. to become the director of Young Musicians Foundation. That ended our regular close  connection with the Wadsworths; especially as Dallitt was spending more and more time in Washington,  eventually becoming a partner and the artistic director of the  theatrical touring company that had hired him  freelance. Though he kept his apartment for a few years longer, he  would within a short time move permanently to Maryland.

 Why on earth did Dean Brown in the beginning move into that tenement had mostly to do with Dallitt’s being  there, but let’s not pretend; Dean also was just a little bit cheap. Oh yes, he would protest, pleading all kinds of  reasons why he couldn’t afford better arrangements. After all, for the last fifteen years he was still paying off the  inheritance tax  from his aunt’s holdings in the family’s real estate  company, though that was almost or already  completed. And Allison was not partial to the idea of the family taking on  debt to see her son in a more  congenial setting. I heard her say that if Dean wanted better, he would have to go out and  work for it. Instead,  he stayed on for years and years in  that cramped, dark warren, only getting restless once Dallitt finally gave up the East Village for good.

It was not my custom to hang out with Dean the way I might meet Dallitt for lunch. But we were always one friend removed. I  would stop by Luke’s, welcomed in as he was on the phone  with Dean and speaking into the  receiver say: “Here comes  Richard, see ya. Dean says hello. What do you want to drink?  Wait till I tell you  what Jack Doepp has gotten himself into  now. Stay for diner, something you’ll like. It’s in the oven.”

 Luke was of the salt of the earth with a rakish dash of easy  urbane sophistication. He was raised by his  grandmother back in Italy while his parents made their move to Brooklyn. I’m  sure that’s where this suave,  feisty Aries terrier absorbed  the benefits of the quieter, slower, more graciously  compliant pace to life, and where he learned to cook so  well.

 And that’s where I come in. Back in the spring of 1973, right after seeing Dean’s portrait, Luke had me do one  of him on the installment plan of fifty dollars a month. Still  sporting a mustache and sideburns from the sixties, he  was  in the prime of his life, trim, intelligently alert, touched  with an aura of kindness and devilish playfulness, The  portrait came out great.

It was soon after, that he began to give Regina and Ann Dunbar  Italian lessons, serving them diner afterwards,  Once when I  stumbled into class, I invited myself to stay, but I’m  hopeless with languages. But you know me.  Seeing a large,  flat pan come out of Luke’s oven with some wonderful pasta  dish made me the happiest I had  been in ages. The two  girlfriends practiced their Italian as Luke brought out some  vino. Nobody really minded  my intrusion as my recently  completed portrait presided over the boisterous squeals and laughter of these good friends.

 Regina, divorced from my brother, continued to treat me as  family, just as Ann, a tall, stately beauty in her early   thirties, reserved and out of reach, had already claimed me  as a sort of brother as well. Ragamuffin that I was,  my three years painting in Paris and the recent portraits provided me a sympathetic credibility in the eyes of the very practical, no nonsense Ann, whose younger brother was a struggling ceramicist back home in Wyoming. So  being younger  than her, impoverished and unworldly, I was tacitly directed  by this imposing headmistress that this was not an affair as  she took possession of me as her artist friend.

I  would meet her at the offices of Young Concert Artists prior  to going off to lunch. She towered over Susan  Wadsworth. Both were exacting perfectionists running in tandem the  competition that sponsored and managed  the debut concerts of  the next generation of classical virtuosos. Ann, the  competent Virgo, supervised the  operation as if it were her  own vicarage, a vestal virgin par excellence; while Susan,  whose mother’s upper East  Side building housed their offices in the penthouse, reigned as its queen. It astonished Ann  that Susan was  capable during auditions of precisely  spotting missing notes by any unfortunate musician not up to  the prescribed playing.

 Beyond her presiding over the grueling competition with its exacting program of auditions, Susan used her beauty, her  husband Charles’ prestige, and her mother’s support to fund raise amongst those of New York’s  elite who loved classical  music.

 Why I never offered to paint her, in retrospect, was very stupid of me, or then again, maybe it was just as well.  But  in any case at the time I wasn’t painting by brush and had  lost my edge. Still, Susan would have made a  sterling,  striking image.  Strange I do believe that it never occurred  to me. What a lost opportunity to paint the  porcelain skin,  dark haired beauty with the delicate, crisply chiseled  features of the classic Jewess- an image right out of “Ivanhoe”.

 Except here was no unguarded lamb waiting to be rescued. One  look at Susan Wadsworth and you knew not  to treat her in any  way other than with deference. So perhaps I felt a little intimidated by the lingering specter of  danger emanating from her cool looks- a touch of the savage betraying uncertainty, even desperation from the sunken eyes in their bruised orbits, something of the wild animal cornered at bay.

Of course, these two very attractive women making up this partnership were very different. I can’t remember, but if I were to guess, Susan Wadsworth had all the complacent charm  of a Leo who almost always got her way . And that almost  always rubbed Ann, steadfast, responsible, and somewhat pedantic, to the point of petty annoyance if not self-righteous, Presbyterian indignation. Throw into the mix a Scot’s penchant for penny  pinching, and I’m sure just a  little outright jealousy, as for instance whenever Susan  would go off casually in the  afternoon to buy a few linen blouses or a dress without much ado, then coming back to the office saying: “Oh, I got these on sale.”

None-the-less, there was much loyalty and I think affection between them that over-road all these irrelevancies, and  theirs was a very successful match as sisters can be manning  the front lines.

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In recalling what I have summoned of Ann or Susan, I must confess by not being in their world I enjoyed the privileged place of not having to take them too seriously. That for women who make or break careers may have  proven to be refreshing. For I just looked at them as charming, sophisticated women.

My coming along on the coattails of an already established  group of friends gave Ann little room but to include  me. I  suppose I was an almost mythic figure as Dallitt and Dean already had paintings of mine, and Regina was inclined to  romanticize.

So there I was after three years in Paris to find myself in Ann’s East 10th Street apartment. Worse, I was   showering in her just-completed plywood shower- meaning I  was literally the first person to shower in it. Ann  had been looking forward to it. But my being directed there from the  airport on my arrival back from France  meant I got to it  first. That was negotiated by Regina, with whom I would be  staying. I forget the reason to meet  at Ann’s. Poor Ann, she  tried to be a sport about it, but something inside her felt denied. She laughed about her own reaction, but she was  undeniably chagrined.

Her kitchen was still sun drenched in late afternoon. Ann got home moments after I got out and was dressing- a  strange  man in her home who wasn’t a stranger to her closest  friends. I apologized for all my baggage in her kitchen, though I immediately felt the assurance of hers and Regina’s tight bonds.

I  was clearly startled through the haze of an exhaustion  temporarily relieved by the refreshing shower. For me it  was  the comfort of a homecoming after the long flight mixed with  the thrill of meeting a beautiful woman- a stranger in her  strange apartment who was already a long-standing member of my clan.

 Regina chattered away happily with the two of us, maybe not entirely oblivious to our both going on silent alert  that spelled some accommodation would have to be agreed upon. After all, it was boy meets girl. I tried not to be too obviously taken by surprise, and Ann tried not to be too guarded. She covered better than I did; the  exchange required balance. We composed ourselves.

 This was a family event. A few deep breaths were taken. I did my best to stop my head from swimming and get my feet on the ground. We had a drink, and I went back into fatigue mode. Ann with hesitation seemed relieved.  She chatted  agreeably with Regina and smiled at me more easily.

In the cab on the way back to her place, Regina informed me that Ann had her admirers. That was just as well as I had some unfinished business with Barbara Schwartz that occupied me for the next week before my leaving  town. When I would return to make New York my home I would be wasted by illness and surgery. I would elicit more concern than apprehension: a solitary returning from the underworld.

 That would be a year and a half later when Jack Doepp invites me to stay at his design studio efficiency on West 85th Street while I paint his and Richard  Magpion’s portrait. Add another three or four months before I move  into my place on East 7th Street that made  me neighbors with Ann and Dale and Dean. By then we had found a  comfort zone. After all, women like to be admired. So never having had sisters, I found having a number of them was very pleasant, so much more confiding and easy than the  stressful about-face of love decoys.

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