I Won A Prize

Last night, I was announced the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novella by the Crime Writers of Canada. The story, “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered In An Open Field With No Footprints Around”, originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s the second in a series of stories set in Depression-era Arkansas. The first, “How Aunt Pud, Aunt Margaret, And The Family Retainers Kept Me From Hanging”, also was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award a few years back. A third may be published soon. And, before you ask, No, I don’t always have such long titles — just for this series.

Remembrance Day: HMCS Spikenard

In a space above an old warehouse in St. John’s, Newfoundland are the premises of the Crow’s Nest Officers Club. The club was formed in January, 1942, and was meant to be a refuge for those engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic. Canadian, British, and American naval officers all passed through the Crow’s Nest during the War Years. At first, they scribbled their names and the names of their ships directly onto the wall until the proprietor, weary of wall cleaning, assigned each vessel its own space to decorate as it wished.

Shadforth’s spike at the Crow’s Nest Club.

On the Club’s opening night in 1942, some members pounded back a few beverages and decided to have a nail-driving contest. Whoever could drive a spike deepest in the wood floor would win glory for his ship. The winner was LtCmdr. Bert Shadforth, commander of HMCS Spikenard K198, a Flower Class corvette assigned to convoy escort duty. Two weeks later, off the north coast of Ireland, convoy SC-67 was attacked by a U-boat wolfpack. The Spikenard, veteran of several other convoy runs, was torpedoed shortly after a cargo vessel was hit. The torpedo hit forward and the Spikenard went down bow first. In the dark and confusion, vessels attending the stricken cargo ship missed the sinking of the Spikenard. Next morning, only eight of the Spikenard‘s 65-member crew were rescued from the icy waters. All others, including LtCmdr Shadforth, were lost. Back at the Crow’s Nest, members cut out a piece of flooring that included Shadforth’s spike and mounted the piece on the wall, memorializing the Spikenard.

LtCmdr. Shadford and the Spikenard

After war was declared in 1939, Britain inaugurated a program of turning out small escort vessels — not so expensive as destroyers and nowhere near as fast, these ships were labelled “corvettes”, a term dredged up from history. Small and poorly armed, slower than the U-boats that were their enemy, these ships had one great advantage: they were cheap and easy to build. Churchill called them “cheap nasties”, but he envisioned a faster, more heavily-armed ship than the Flower-class corvette.

Aboard a corvette in the North Atlantic.

Convoys transporting materiel to Britain and the Soviet Union took on cargo at Halifax and Sydney (and, after US entry into the war opened rail passage from Canada, Saint John, New Brunswick.) Convoy escorts were based in St. Johns and accompanied the cargo vessels to an area off Iceland, where British (and later, American) ships took over for the voyage to Great Britain or the Murmansk Run to the USSR. This was brutal duty for the seamen involved. After the War, ex-corvette sailor Nicholas Montsarrat wrote a best-selling novel about his experience: The Cruel Sea. The title says it all. It was not simply enemy guns that sank ships, it was the sea itself — the bitter cold, the ferocious swells that could roll a corvette forty degrees to one side, then eighty degrees to the other. Still, these short, broad ships were very seaworthy. As one seaman put it, corvettes would roll in wet grass but they would sail in any weather:

The corvette bounced around like a cork. The waves were so high you couldn’t see the top when you were in the trough. The corvette would climb that wave, then, passing the top, the stem of the ship would come crashing down on the other side. This would send shivers through the whole ship. You could feel it through your boots. [“Scrappy Little Corvettes”]

In 1939, the Canadian navy had only four small warships, and seven coastal vessels — motor launches and armed yachts. British corvettes began adding to that number in 1940. In that year, the Spikenard was completed in the Lauzon, Quebec shipyards and quickly was transferred from the British Navy to the Canadians. Over the period 1940- 1942, Canadian and British shipyards turned out 267 of these small vessels, 70 serving with the Royal Canadian Navy, the others going to allies. Some revisions were made to the Flower-class design, with 40 or so of the revised “Increased Endurance” vessels brought into the RCN.

Sailors rescued from a sunken freighter aboard HCMS Arvida, St. John’s, September 1942.

The revisions did not help the corvettes’ fighting ability. Armed with one or two small guns and racks of depth charges and hedgehogs for anti-submarine work, the ships lacked firepower. The basic corvette tactic was to charge directly at an attacking U-boat, hoping to make it submerge, since that reduced the speed of the undersea craft to less than that of the corvette. If it stayed on the surface, the U-boat could outrun the corvette. So long as the subs were operating beyond the range of coast-based aircraft, that was the best that could be done. And that best was complicated by the fact that Canadian corvettes were using obsolescent sonar which was confused by the mix of fresh and salt water in the St. Lawrence. This last became important in the spring of 1942 when U-boats began attacking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and even in the river itself.

Between May of 1942 and early 1944, four Canadian warships and twenty-three merchant vessels were sunk in the Battle of the St. Lawrence — the first engagements in Canadian coastal waters since the War of 1812. In October, 1942, the SS Caribou, a Newfoundland Railway ferry operating between Port Au Basques and Sydney, Nova Scotia was torpedoed. 137 lives were lost, half of them military personnel on leave, the other half civilians, including women and children. Although residents along the coast had witnessed naval battles and seen bodies washed ashore, they were not allowed to speak of it under wartime censorship rules. Authorities decided to relax the restrictions and report the ferry sinking so as to prevent rumors that might be worse than the truth. The truth was bad enough. There was an uproar when Canadians discovered how poorly the St. Lawrence was defended and demanded that more vessels be added to the original force of four warships — two small motor launches, an armed yacht, and the minesweeper that was Caribou‘s escort when she was attacked. Five corvettes had recently been added, but the force was still inadequate. The Royal Canadian Navy continued to prioritize the convoys, seeing that as their main strategic duty. Meanwhile, Canadian shipyards turned out ships at an increasing rate, including the new River-class frigates that were faster, better armed, and equipped with better electronics. By the end of the War, Canada had increased the size of its navy almost a hundredfold, becoming the fifth-largest navy in the world.

Chaplain-General John Fletcher visiting the Battle of the Atlantic Memorial.

After the War, corvettes were sold to various nations where they served, generally, in a mercantile capacity. As they aged, the ships were broken up for scrap. The last corvette afloat, HMCS Sackville, is now a museum ship in Halifax.

The Spikenard‘s stone at HMCS Prevost

Today, the Canadian ships sunk and the men lost at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic are memorialized at HMCS Prevost near London, Ontario. Each ship that was lost in the Battle of the Atlantic has a stone. Many are surrounded by photos of the men lost at sea who crewed them.

NOTES:

For Posterity’s Sake page on the Spikenard

The Crow’s Nest official site

“Inside A Secret World War II Officers’ Club” on Messy Nessy [via Nag On The Lake]

The Stones, ship memorials at HCMS Prevost

The Battle of the Atlantic Memorial

Corvette K-225 is a 1943 movie where the real K225, HMCS Kitchener, plays a ship called the Donnacona. There are some scenes shot in Halifax of actual convoy assembly. Film crews actually went on convoy runs to gather background and the film rates as better than the usual wartime propaganda.

Action Stations (1943) is an NFB-produced wartime docu-prop film that has great shots of the conditions faced by these ships and their crews, but the narration is hard to take. Corvettes were not “swift” nor “maneuverable”, nor “heavily-armed”.

 

 

Denmark’s Queens

Denmark has the longest continuous rule by a single family of any European nation, tracing its lineage back to at least Gorm the Old, who reigned in the mid-10th Century. Yet, in all its history, Denmark has been ruled by only two queens. Margrethe I ruled in the 14th Century, Margrethe II has been on the Danish throne since 1972.

Margrethe I was born in 1353 in prison where her mother was confined, possibly for adultery, by her father, Valdemar IV of Denmark. At this time Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were embroiled in a struggle with German princes over control of the Baltic. Marriages, births, depositions, and occasional battles were part of this ongoing struggle. At the age of six Margrethe was betrothed to the Crown Prince of Norway for political reasons which shifted causing the engagement to be cancelled, then shifted again, resulting in Margrethe’s marriage at the age of ten to her original betrothed, Haakon VI, King (then) of both Sweden and Norway. She was raised by a Swedish noblewoman and was more or less an adult by contemporary standards when she finally consummated her marriage. She bore Haakon a son, Olaf, when she was eighteen. By that time Haakon had been ousted as King of Sweden by a German noble from Mecklenburg. Meanwhile, Haakon had a stormy political relationship with his father-in-law that ended with Valdemar’s death in 1375. Margrethe did manage, then, to ensure that her son, Olaf, was named heir to the Danish throne. This was a tricky matter since Margrethe’s elder sister was married to the Duke of Mecklenburg and she also had a son. Valdemar’s only son had died before the throne became vacant and, succession being what it was then, only a male could inherit the crown. Margrethe also pressed for Olaf’s claim to the Swedish crown, a claim that later bore fruit.

Margrethe I, tomb effigy. [Wikipedia]

In 1380, Haakon died. Margrethe took over as regent for her son, Olaf, now the child-king of both Norway and Denmark. Margrethe proved an adept and popular ruler, taking back some territory held by Germans. In 1387, teen-aged Olaf suddenly died, but Margrethe stayed on as Regent (or one of a number of other titles that were invented to fit her status). Denmark was then aiding the Swedes in removing their unpopular king, Albert of Mecklenburg. The Mecklenburg line had long been a problem for Margrethe, who Albert sneered was “King No-Pants”. The Germans were unhappy about losing Sweden, of course, and a decisive battle was fought in 1389 between Albert of Mecklenburg’s forces and those of Margrethe (which were led by a Mecklenburgian general). Margrethe’s victory made her ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which was formalized as the Kalmar, an alliance directed against the German Hanseatic League. Eventually, she was called Queen of Denmark, especially by foreign potentates, such as the Pope, though the title was not exactly official in Denmark itself. Margrethe never re-married but trained an heir from her father’s bloodline. She remains an important monarch of the day, vastly superior to those male kings who were her contemporaries. She died in 1412.

WikiMedia Commons

Sarcophagus of Danish Queen Margrethe I, Roskilde Cathedral. [WikiMedia Commons]

Margrethe II was born in 1940, one week after the German invasion of Denmark. Her father, then the Crown Prince, became King Frederick IX in 1947. Frederick had three daughters and no sons. Immediately on taking the crown he began working for constitutional reform that would allow a woman to ascend the throne of Denmark. The Act of Succession passed in 1953 said that women could reign if there were no immediate male heirs. Frederick died in January, 1972, and Margrethe became Queen of Denmark.

The Danish Royals, last April, on the occasion of Margrethe’s 77th birthday. Crown Prince Frederik at far right, Prince Joachim at left, Prince Consort Henrik to Joachim’s right, then the Queen, God bless her. [copyright Getty Images. via dailymail.co.uk]

Margrethe had married a French diplomat, Count Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, now known as Henrik, Prince Consort, and the couple has two sons. Margrethe has been a popular queen, one seen as an example of Denmark’s acceptance of feminism. But therein lie complications. Henrik has never been completely happy with his secondary role as Prince Consort. Sometimes he has thrown a hissy-fit or two about this problem. Margrethe has always cajoled him back into public acceptance of his secondary status. When Margrethe celebrated her 75th birthday, Henrik was not present at the celebrations, apparently relaxing in Venice instead. But, on Margrethe’s 76th birthday, Henrik was right there, waving at the crowd like any dutiful member of the monarchial establishment. When the Heir Apparent appeared as Crown Representative in 2002, while Margrethe was ill,  Henrik refused to attend, saying publicly that he was used to being number two, but being demoted to three was too much. He complained that he had to beg for pocket change and cigarette money (whatever that means to someone at this level of wealth) and won an official allowance. “I should be King,” he says.

Tapestry by Nørgaard depicting the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik. Hey! That’s an apple. And a tree! Does this have anything to do with that old anti-feminist myth? You know the one I mean… [via http://www.bjoernnoergaard.dk/en/gobeliner]

Margrethe was trained as an artist (she illustrated the Danish translation of Lord of the Rings after corresponding with Tolkien) and is today very involved in design, both stage design and her own clothing. Sometimes this draws criticism, because a woman is judged by how she dresses. Henrik is a poet and much of the domestic turmoil around the two might be explained by the problem of having two artists in the house. Who gets recognition? Hollywood is full of such problems. In 2009, Margrethe gave a commission to Bjørn Nørgaard to design her final resting place. See, she knows how important commissions are to artists and handed this plum to the guy who has done other great Danish works including a series of tapestries that depict Danish history — the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik is the final hanging in the series. A model of the sepulchre has been produced; it is a lavish design that would have Margrethe’s silhouette encased in crystal or glass and raised on marble pillars decorated with silver elephants. (This sarcophagus would actually stand above the place where the bodies are interred.) There is space for Henrik, who is 83, to rest there, too, but he has publicly refused and said that he wants to be buried somewhere else, maybe France, maybe another part of Denmark. Margrethe says that she understands. The Press is indignant and calls Henrik “petty” and “grumpy”. It may or may not be relevant that Henrik is just back from a stay in hospital.

Margrethe’s sarcophagus. The base is layers of sandstone, possibly a reference to Henrik’s France. The pillars are stone from Greenland, the Faroes, and Bornholm. Silver elephants. Glass made to look as though someone is there even though they aren’t — Margrethe will be buried in the floor below. The whole thing topped with gilded bronze bric-a-brac. [Photo:  Mikkel Møller Jørgensen © Scanpix. via dr.dk]

This might be a joke, one of those squabbles between old folks over issues meaningless to the young, or another of those silly problems created by the ridiculous institution of monarchy, which is certainly in the mix. Consider that several Danish royal family members and their progeny were cut out of the succession because they married commoners, succession being what it is now. (Margrethe has made certain that her sons’ children have rights to succession, despite both princes marrying  commoners. The future Queen is Australian, for goodness’ sake!) And consider that when Henrik complained that women’s rights didn’t seem to mean human rights, at least for guys like him, some feminists replied that this was not about men and women, it was about royalty and the law around that: “The law on gender equality does not apply to the royal court.” Others suggest that Henrik is a model of male feminism, who had been chief caretaker of the Royal children back in the day. Then consider that it took six centuries for Denmark to allow a woman to rule officially and now, perhaps, the Danes are still in the process of working out what that means. Consider as well, that it is only in the last century, less than sixty years ago, that human beings decided that they should be able to control their reproduction and the entire status of women everywhere changed. No other species has ever attempted to manage this kind of change. Everyone is walking a new road. Henrik’s discomfort is the new reality.

 

 

TrumpShake II: I Am So Sorry

Reporters now say that the big reason Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord is because Macron did that handshake thing and then bragged about it. As he said in his speech, Trump doesn’t like the world laughing at him: “Hearing smack-talk from the Frenchman 31 years his junior irritated and bewildered Trump, aides said.” I am so sorry that I added to the giggles. I now realize that my unthinking mockery may have consigned the human species to extinction.

Now you may say that I am not to blame, that everyone is saying stuff about Trump and at least I didn’t mention tiny hands, and you may be thinking, “What is this guy? Some kind of special snowflake?” The answer is: Yes. I am. But snowflakes make avalanches. I am so sorry, folks.

(But I don’t promise not to do it again.)

The TrumpShake

President Trump’s trip to the G7 and the Middle East has given the world a good look at The Donald. One thing that stood out for many was the TrumpShake. Trump honors old-fashioned business practices, like the Manly Handshake, where you give the shakee a firm grip. If you want to be Macho, rather than Manly, you crush those outstretched phalanges like an empty beer can just to make it clear who is Bull Goose in this barnyard. Watch here as Trump tries to cripple Macron.

 

That standing handshake bit at the end demonstrates another TrumpShake concept: using a jiu-jitsu move to yank the shakee off-balance. (It would be funny to watch, say, Erdogan lose it and go flying across the room.) But Justin Trudeau has his number:

Check out Trudeau’s smile. Very very sincere, right? [via thestar.com] Here’s video from The Guardian.

See that hand on Trump’s shoulder? That’s how Justin keeps his balance. Possibly Trudeau coached Macron on the Shake, as they are Besties:

There were many other G7 moments, but they were marred by reporters looking for a reason to diss the Prez. For instance, I don’t believe that Trump really gave Italy the finger. And it’s possible that he ignored the Lithuanian president because he mistook her for Angela Merkel, because all those women look alike. But for sure, he did muscle out Montenegro’s president, so perhaps I’m wrong and the President of the United States of America is reminding Italy and Montenegro just who’s in charge.

President Trump flapping his arms before crowing over the shove. Darko Markovic, Montenegrin president, is on the right. [NBCnews.com]

I take all the anti-Trump stories with a grain of salt: I don’t believe Trump engaged in water sports at a Moscow Hotel in order to show his disdain for Obama, for example. Water sports, sure, and Moscow would be the place, it’s the motivation ascribed to Trump that I question. The press needs to show a little more restraint.

On the other hand, I sure can’t explain this (unless Trump has joined the League of Super-Villains or something):

[photo: Saudi News Agency]

The r/Place Experiment In Internet Community

Reddit is a place where anyone can find or create a group about anything. It is very loosely moderated and, consequently, has developed a reputation as a hangout for neo-Nazis, anti-Social Justice Warriors, misogynists, and assholes in general. But on the April first weekend, reddit.com created an experiment that will be the focus of discussion and debate for years to come — or at least as long as people are interested in the Internet.

Reddit created a space, r/place, where any Reddit member (and there are legions of them) could contribute to an art project. The Place was 1000 X 1000 pixels in size. Participants were invited to place a pixel, in any one of 16 colors, anywhere on the space. Users could place more than one pixel, but had to wait five minutes in between placements. After a few individual attempts at making a picture, groups formed to make team projects. Penis pics proliferated. Soon the entire one million pixel grid was covered and pictures both created and destroyed by users. There were attempts to grief the project, including the creation of a black blot that spread like a malignant virus from the center of the page. Teams began utilizing their time and energy to protecting what they had done, and this was the final result at the end of three days:

via sudoscript.com/reddit-place

Pretty impressive, right? Let’s check out a few highlights. First, that block of text is a Reddit tale inspired by the Star Wars prequel. The national flags show an interesting progression over the weekend — someone extended the German flag over the French one. The French retaliated by going vertical and, finally, the flag overlap was replaced by the European Union banner. Canada began with a suitably modest maple leaf that was replaced by one that was somewhat larger but perhaps more significantly, hockey logos abound in the grand scheme. The entire design is strung together (sort of) by a rainbow highway.

Here is the final version of Place on Reddit.

Here is a time lapse of the Place being created. (You can search “r/place timelapse” on YouTube and get others of varying lengths.)

Here is a time lapse of small (but interesting) sections.

Fall of the Void (black blot).

There are several heat map breakdowns, showing most-changed pixel sites over time. A fully browsable map done in Minecraft.

Already major critiques and interpretations of the project have appeared on-line. Here’s Ars Technika being sort of thoughtful, for instance. But my favorite is this post by sudoscript, who comes up with a Hindu exegesis: Creators, Preservers, Destroyers = Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. (If you don’t look at any other site about this, you should click on sudoscript, which has some fine graphic excerpts.)

Andy Baio has a swell collection of links, but by the time you read this, it’s already obsolete.

[discovered via Metafilter]

Pictures I Like: John Decker

The other night I watched a 1940s crime movie, Scarlet Street, on TCM. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who holds down a stultifying job as cashier/bookkeeper at some sort of company. His only joy is painting, which he does in the bathroom of his run-down apartment. His wife hates his painting — doesn’t like the smell. One day, Edward G. Robinson meets Joan Bennett and is enraptured. Dan Duryea plays the heel who Joan loves (she likes to be smacked around). He persuades her to seduce the old guy. Things lead to a murderous climax. Okay, pretty much standard noir fare, but…

The paintings that Edward G. Robinson’s character creates are derided by his wife and others, but the first one I glimpsed made me sit up. The subject matter is a nondescript white flower in a glass, the painting looks like the artist was using hallucinogenic drugs. This was something special! In the movie, critics and dealers agree. Leaving aside the movie plot, I had to know more about the flower, some street scenes, and an incredible portrait of Joan Bennett, with eyelashes spiky as a psychedelic flower!

Screengrabs from Scarlet Street: the flower, portrait of Joan Bennett, closeup of portrait. The movie is in black-and-white, of course. I don’t know if any color was used in these paintings or not. (At least one of the paintings — that features a snake wrapped around an elevated train support — was in color). Decker has deliberately aimed at a primitive, untrained style — look at the dead-on composition of the Bennett portrait, for instance.

It didn’t take much digging to discover that the paintings had been made by John Decker. I researched him and that’s where things got really interesting, because John Decker was an artist, art forger, and drinking companion of W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, and other famous boozers. He may or may not have been a spy. He may or may not have forged the Head of Christ attributed to Rembrandt that hangs in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He certainly did a famous portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Any of these accomplishments are enough to make a man interesting.

John Decker probably about 1935. [Wikipedia]

John Decker was born Leopold von Decken in Berlin. Or possibly in London. Or Greenwich. One story had his aristocrat father eloping with an English opera singer and the young couple fleeing social scandal to England. An art gallery bio has him born in San Francisco before being abandoned in England. Wikipedia has the more conventional tale: that the child was two when his parents moved to London.

Graf Ernst August von der Decken, son of an artist, worked as a reporter and married Maria Anna Avenarius, an opera singer, in Greenwich in 1898. Their son was born in 1895. Hence the scandal. Maria abandoned the household at some point in what was, apparently, a stormy marriage. Ernst left his son alone in 1908. Decker despised his mother, “That red-headed whore!” “I like John Decker,” John Barrymore once said, “He hates sunsets and his mother.” Sunsets, possibly, because they reminded him of his mother’s red hair. At least that is the legend as recalled by one of Decker’s cronies. It does appear that Decker hated the natural auburn shade of his own hair. Maria died in 1918. Ernst in 1934.

Legend has it (meaning John Decker told a drunken story that was recalled later by someone who had heard it while drunk) that, at the age of thirteen, the young lad began to work for an art forger, whose specialty was conning tourists. During World War I, some of these paintings were shipped back to the continent and some had writing on the back of the canvas that may have been coded espionage messages. And that, according to legend, got the young man interned on the Isle of Man in 1917 or 1918. Later, Decker said that it was a terrible experience; that he had witnessed scenes of depravity too horrible now to relate. One that he did relate had to do with an internee who committed suicide by immolating himself on an electric fence. Since there is no record of electric fences at the Man internment camp, that seems unlikely. Decker also claimed that internees had to eat the corpses to keep from starving.

Internee art for one of the four newspapers published at the Isle of Man camp at Knockaloe. [via bbc.com, copyright Manx National Heritage, knockaloe.im]

Most likely Decker was interned because he had been born in Germany and was still a German citizen. His father may have left him in 1908, but someone seemed to support him, and it probably wasn’t an art forger. Decker was studying art at the Slade School of Art in London (where Barrymore also studied) before his internment, but that factoid was later embellished by naming his teacher as Walter Sickert, who, both legend and Patricia Cornwall claim, was Jack the Ripper.

Released at the War’s end, the young man may have travelled to Europe (or not) but did shift his name from von Decken to John Decker. Using phony papers, at some point he sailed to America, probably in 1921. He hung around New York for a while, working as a newspaper caricaturist and set decorator for stage productions. He tried acting, but, legend has it, he was already a heavy drinker and passed out on stage during a scene with Jeanette MacDonald. In 1928, or possibly 1930, Decker emigrated to Hollywood, where anybody can be anyone they want to be. He left his first wife, Helen, in New York, along with his baby daughter. When he arrived in California, Decker had a second wife, Judith. He never divorced Helen, not even after marrying a third time.

Decker had met John Barrymore in New York (in a bar, of course, where they discovered they had the same taste in beer, the legend says) and soon became part of a drunken crew known as the Bundy Drive Boys. Bundy Drive was the location of Decker’s studio and the boys included, besides Barrymore and W.C. Fields: Ben Hecht, who wrote the dramatic sketch that Decker performed in New York; Gene Fowler, journalist turned script-writer; Sadakichi Hartmann, art critic and poet; and actors Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Mowbray, and others who drifted in and out. Toward the end of the group’s existence, a few younger men, such as Anthony Quinn and Vincent Price, tagged along. Members of the original group had achieved some success in New York, where several of them first met, and had trekked out to Hollywood where the money was. Most of them hated the place and the film industry. All wanted to be a different kind of artist than they were — the screenwriters wanted to be novelists, the actors wanted to be painters, and so on. Decker was very clear about his art and his motivation: he wanted to make money and he would paint anything, anytime for a fee.

Decker was very gifted and could draw well and paint quickly. Somehow, though, he could not become wealthy, or at least, not wealthy enough. Mind you, he was living the high life through the 1930s, but there was an air of dissatisfaction about him that was revealed in the coat-of-arms that he hung on the Bundy Drive door. It shows his initials on a shield flanked by unicorns and bears the motto: “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”

Decker portrait of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, 1935. [photo from eBay sale of painting. It went for $3250.]

For a time, Decker produced caricatures, the same kind of work he had done in New York. Occasionally, he did a portrait and, one auspicious day, someone — legend varies as to who — requested a portrait in old master style, or as a knight or royalty or something, and Decker obliged. Soon, many of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars had paintings that showed them as a lead character in some historical fantasy. Decker’s forte turned out to be satire and most of his clients understood his work. There were some dissatisfied customers, though — Clark Gable is said to have refused to pay for a portrait that made his ears look big — and there were lawsuits. When one client refused a portrait, Decker painted prison bars over his face and was sued for defamation. Decker counter-sued and the case was dropped.

Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton admire paintings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. Note the Army outfit on Durante who was probably on his way to or from a USO gig.

Sometimes Decker worked for himself and not a contracted customer. So he produced a portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, recognizable both as herself and as Fields, frowns at a picture of Johnny Walker. Fields pretended outrage: “Decker has kicked history in the groin.”  Dave Chasen, owner of the restaurant where the Bundy Drive Boys hung out, demanded a copy. Decker dashed one off for him. He claimed to have done many others in various sizes, small copies going for $50 a picture. One would think that there would be more examples on the Internet, but surprisingly few examples of this famous image can be found on line.

 

Fields/Victoria hanging. [via Movies from the 20’s – 60’s]

Decker continued to create other works besides the caricatures. A few items can be found by googling. A painting of the Normandie on fire in New York harbor is interesting, but a study of black singers is not. Recent auction prices have Decker’s portraits going for $10000 and up, depending on who is the subject, and his “serious” work selling for $2 – 5000.

Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”. Dave Chasen liked this painting so much that he commissioned one with his face on it. The Chasen picture actually was blue and not green.

In 1941, Decker did a series of murals depicting the history of Hollywood for the Wilshire Bowl nightclub. The murals have disappeared, but Decker’s preliminary drawings are in the Smithsonian. Then, in 1942, Decker produced a great piece: a drawing of John Barrymore on his deathbed.

Barrymore on his deathbed. He had eczema and clawed at his skin as he died. Decker turns this into a theatrical gesture.

Barrymore was Decker’s closest friend. The actor’s self-destruction was mirrored in that of the painter. Both were very aware of the damage that they were doing to themselves. Later, Decker worked up some finished, sentimental, death-of-Barrymore pieces, but it is the drawing that strikes home. It may have hung over Barrymore’s coffin at his funeral, or that may have been one of the more sentimental pieces that Decker did at the time. Errol Flynn once claimed to have abducted Barrymore’s body and, with some other Bundy Boys, transported it from bar to bar, feeding it booze. Later, Flynn admitted that he made up the story (which has also been told of other dead drinkers).

Hartmann was the next of the group to die. He was also the oldest, 78 at the time of his death in 1944. In some ways. Sadakichi Hartmann was a model for the other Bundy Drive Boys. Born to a German father and Japanese mother in Japan, Hartmann was thrown out of the family (he said) at the age of fourteen and later adopted a Bohemian lifestyle in New York. He met Walt Whitman, quarreled with him, it is said, and eventually moved west to California. He is more known now for his criticism, which took photography seriously, than his other work, which included poetry, painting, and a brief turn as an actor (he appeared in Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad).  Alcohol and other drugs fueled his poetry. He had the habit of pissing himself while drunk. Decker’s daughter found Hartmann repellant and steered clear of him because he smelled so bad. Alcoholics may be fun to read about but aren’t so nice to live with. [pictures by or of Hartmann may be seen here. And here.]

Decker portrait of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1946 [via Laguna Art Museum ]

Born in Japan with two Axis parents meant that, during World War II, Hartmann was a person of interest to the FBI. He escaped internment because of age and infirmity, but was visited several times by federal agents, just to make certain he wasn’t passing information back to the Motherland. Gene Fowler was working on a biography of Hartmann that was never finished. In 1952 Fowler published a book of Bundy Drive tall tales about attempting to write the bio. Hartmann’s daughter was incensed by the fact that her father’s life had been reduced to a bunch of drunken anecdotes, but that was the fate of others of the Bundy Drive Gang as well, including Decker.

At the end of 1946, W.C. Fields died. Six months later, suffering from diabetes and cirrhosis, Decker passed away. His then-wife, Phyllis, had an open bar at his funeral. She also darkened his red moustache with mascara. The drawing of Barrymore on his deathbed was placed on Decker’s casket and a Decker portrait of Barrymore hung on the wall. Legend has it that, when the minister recited the words, “Let us pray”, the flower wreath fell from Barrymore’s portrait into the coffin. John Decker was 51 at the time of his death.

Van Gogh or Decker?

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1949, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased by William Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, was pronounced a fake by experts. Goetz angrily defended the work, which he had bought from a dealer in 1946. The dealer, said to be reputable, withheld the painting’s provenance for “business reasons”. The authenticity of the picture is still being debated and one name that keeps coming up is that of John Decker. According to a drinking buddy, Decker loved Van Gogh’s work and claimed that the Dutch artist sometimes used his penis to apply paint. No one has examined the disputed painting looking for traces of Decker’s organ, but legend has it…

The Fogg Museum says this is a Rembrandt study. Legend has it that the painting was done by Decker.

And in 2003, Stephen Jordan published a biography of Decker in which he claimed that Decker faked a Rembrandt study at the behest of Thomas Mitchell. Whether Mitchell was part of the con or its victim is unclear. According to the story related to Jordan, Mitchell, who was an art collector, bemoaned the fact that he could not afford a Rembrandt. Decker said that he could locate one that only cost $2000. Then Decker bought a piece of 17th Century furniture and pulled out a drawer bottom that he used as a surface. After painting the piece, Decker then cracked it along the back and sent it to Holland for repairs. When the piece returned to the US, it bore Dutch customs papers, which helped provide some provenance. Mitchell may or may not have paid $45000 for it, but it seems to have been part of his estate. That painting is now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum (which bought it for $35000). Harvard and the Fogg maintain that the work is genuine. Some testing was done a few years ago which showed that the wood panel was, indeed, Baltic oak from the 17th Century.

Finally, although not as valuable as Rembrandts or Van Goghs, Decker’s paintings have been a target for thieves.

Notes:

Bohemian Rogue: The Life of John Decker by Stephen C. Jordan, so far as I know the only full-length biography. The paperback now sells for $90

Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive by Stephen C. Jordan. Out of print.

Hollywood’s Hellfire Club by Gregory William Mank. Was out of print, now seems to be back in stock.

The books above recycle all the legends and anecdotes that might better be read in:

Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler. Fowler’s account of trying to write Sadakichi Hartmann’s biography. Mostly anecdotes about the Bundy Drive Crew.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Gene Fowler. Bio of John Barrymore with lots of anecdota.