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.
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.]
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.
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.