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Archive for June 23rd, 2007

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This story came to mind the other day and since it relates to the Janice story, however tangentially, I thought this might be a good time to tell it.

In 1947 a group of New York artists (and the heavy-weight gallery operator Edith Halpert) decided to form an organization to protect artists’ rights modeled after Actors Equity hence named Artists Equity Association. (A digression: one of the founders was a famous Hungarian-American Communist activist, Hugo Gellert. Among other things he did cartoons for The New Masses which is how most people knew of him. His most famous cartoon shows a slatternly and angry housewife stirring a pot on the stove while her husband, in his underwear, sits at the kitchen table. The wife says, “I have to slave over a hot stove all day while you get to work in a nice cool sewer.”  Being Hungarian he was acquainted with my grandfather, who was a journalist known to most expatriate Hungarians. He was also the uncle of one of my high school friends, Jane Gellert.)

The first president of this new organization was Yasuo Kuniyoshi, my mother’s teacher.

For the first couple of years of their existence Artists Equity threw a huge, wild New Year’s Eve costume party in the old Manhattan Opera House. They gave out prizes for the best costume and prizes for the nudest costume and so on. Since some of the models showed up in high-heel shoes and nothing else, one of them always won the latter. At midnight a grand parade was organized and everyone joined in snaking around the large ballroom floor. For at least a couple of years the Grand Marshall and Queen of the parade were Julio de Diego and his wife Gypsy Rose Lee. It was a comical sight. De Diego was a short man, perhaps 5’ 4”, perhaps a little more. Gypsy Rose Lee was a tall woman and, of course, she wore very high heels and a big ostrich feather device on her head, creating an image well over six feet tall. There were jokes about an organ grinder and his monkey and other sorts of mean cracks.

An important part of the festivities was a program, a printed booklet of 30 or so pages mostly made up of advertisements with the artwork done by the artist members. The way this worked was, if you got the advertiser, you got the art job, which was done by etching directly on the zinc plates used to print the program. The revenue from the ads went towards defraying the cost of the party.

My father was an electrical engineer who, among other things, had a reputation for innovative lighting designs. In the course of his work he became friends with Herbert Kliegl, the owner of KliegLights, the famous theatrical light manufacturer. As a consequence my mother got a full page ad in the party program, a real coup.

The last I saw of Kuniyoshi was at one of these parties. The party was winding down. I was at the foot of the stairs, at the entrance. On top of the very long flight of stairs, 50 or 60 steps worth, was Kuniyoshi, very drunk, a twisted wire clothes hanger in his left hand which he was admiring as though it were a Rodin, and his right arm draped over Karl Fortess’ shoulder for support. Fortess was hanging onto the hand rail for dear life. Fortess was Yas’ chief sycophant in those days and was, therefore, despised by Kuniyoshi’s students and friends, but he got a teaching position at the League out of his brown-nosing so didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. Kuniyoshi died within a couple years of this occasion.

A month or two after one of the parties my mother got a mid-afternoon phone call. What I heard went like this: “Hello. Who? Who!? Oh! Oh!” and then an explanation for how she got the KlieglLights ad. It appears Gypsy Rose Lee was then the newsletter editor for AGVA, the American Guild of Variety Artists, a performers union. She wanted to try to get Kliegl to advertise in the AGVA newsletter. When she called she identified herself as Mrs. Julio de Diego which accounted for my mother’s confusion and delayed recognition. My mother explained that it was my father who had gotten the ad and gave her his work number.

When she called my father’s office (I think he was at Guy Panero at that time) she identified herself to the receptionist as Gypsy Rose Lee. The other guys in the office took turns coming up to touch my father.

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