A WRITER’S JOURNEY INTO AN ARTIST’S WORLD

Arthur Hittner and his wife are longtime collectors of American art of the Depression era. To share his passion for the topic he’s written an intriguing novel ARTIST, SOLDIER, LOVER, MUSE set in the New York City art world of the late Thirties.

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A large wooden crate arrived on my doorstep on a winter morning in early 2006.  Inside was the painting Eventide, a 1936 work by the artist Harold J. Rabinovitz (1915-44), a poignant depiction of a crouching young mother in a rose-colored dress clutching her naked infant, the child looking out the open doorway at the approaching figure of his father, a lunch pail in his hand, an expression of exhaustion on his face.  As a collector of American paintings executed during the Great Depression, this 1936 work was irresistible, though I’d never before heard of the artist.  That so talented a painter could have gone unnoticed for much of the seven decades since Eventide’screation mystified me—and motivated me.

Years later, I self-published a brief biography and catalogue raisonne, At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz (The Rabinovitz Project, 2014; rev. ed., 2017).  I’d traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of his nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum. Many were brilliant works, very much the product of the times in which he painted: a blind beggar in a subway car, his hand turned upward in supplication; a jobless man on a curb, his face etched with dejection and hopelessness; an old woman, clad in rags, selling pretzels outside a subway station. Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.

Not surprisingly, no market exists for a biography of a long-forgotten artist, however talented. Except for the Frick Art Reference Library and the Yale University Library (where Rabinovitz obtained his degree), I could count the proud possessors of the fruits of my labor on two hands.

But no matter.  I wrote that book out of a compulsion to discover the story behind my painting. Yet I learned much more: I’d become immersed in another time and place—the New York City art world of the late Thirties, a metropolis teeming with struggling artists, many surviving on meager paychecks from government-sponsored artist support programs. At some point I had an epiphany. I realized that I could share this world with a wider swath of readers by turning to historical fiction.

Inspired by the life I’d just documented, I created my own young artist, Henry J. Kapler, placing him in the heart of the world I’d uncovered in my research. Buoyed by further research and honed by an endless succession of drafts, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (Apple Ridge Fine Arts Press, December, 2017) was ready for publication.

Henry J. Kapler is not Harold Rabinovitz, although their lives share a number of salient facts, a common timeline, and even some of the same artworks. Henry is a figment of my imagination, as are his thoughts, desires, motivations, quirks, and foibles. Beyond this, I sought to portray the world in which Henry resides, the New York art world of the late Depression, including the artists, athletes, politicians, events, and institutions that contributed to the rich history of the period, with as much historical accuracy as possible.

In tackling historical fiction, one often uncovers little known characters and facts that prove the adage of Mark Twain that truth is stranger than fiction. In seeking a villain, an author could have done no better than New York Yankee outfielder Jake Powell, whose on-field belligerence was the perfect resume for his violent encounters with Alice and Fiona, the two women in Henry’s life, and whose ill-fated radio interview in 1939 and the events that followed are little-known footnotes in the shameful history of segregation in professional sport.   Similarly, the saga of “Bunny” Taliaferro, the gifted African-American athlete from Henry’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts and target of a 1934 racial incident in Gastonia, North Carolina, seemed a natural inspiration for Henry’s imaginary masterpiece, Gastonia Renaissance.

Scores of artworks make at least a cameo appearance in Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse. Paintings by artists other than Henry Kapler are works that might have been seen by a young artist in New York City at the time. Some are monumental murals that still adorn important buildings in New York. The paintings attributed to Henry are about evenly divided between purely fictional creations and works painted by Harold Rabinovitz, although the inspiration behind all of Henry’s paintings, as well as the details of their creation, derive solely from my own imagination.

As many writers of historic fiction will attest, it is a delight to experience the will of the characters we create. They gradually assume their own personalities, dictating their actions in ways that are often serendipitous. Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse became their story, and the journey on which they took me was gratifying, mystifying, illuminating and, at times, heartbreaking. I invite you to share the journey.

What an intriguing story, Arthur. You’ve given us a great insight into the spark that lights historical fiction.

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse by Arthur Hittner – Freshly graduated from Yale, Henry J. Kapler parlays his talent, determination, and creative energy into a burgeoning art career under the wing of painters such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. The young artist first gains notoriety when his painting of a symbolic handshake between a young, African-American baseball player and his Southern white rival is attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Yet even as his art star rises, Henry’s personal life turns precarious—and perilous—when his love for Fiona, a young WPA muralist, collides with his growing attraction to the exquisitely beautiful Alice, an ex-chorus girl who becomes his model and muse.  Alice is the girlfriend of Fiona’s cousin, Jake Powell, the hotheaded, hard-drinking outfielder for the New York Yankees baseball club whose jealousy explodes into abuse and rage, endangering the lives of all three.  While Henry wrestles with his hopelessly complicated love life, he also struggles mightily to reconcile his pacifism with the rabid patriotism of his Jewish-Russian émigré father.  As war draws near, Henry faces two difficult choices, one of which could cost him his life.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Transported in Time and Place by Harald Johnson

Harald Johnson brings us his take on transporting readers in time and place. In his novels Harald builds the world of 1609 and the early days of what we now know as New York City. He’s lived in Paris and speaks fluent French, worked in Hollywood as an art director, and published magazines. Harald also launched and ran a marketing communications agency in LA. Quite the career!

Transported in Time and Place – by Harald Johnson

The final motivation for writing and publishing NEW YORK 1609 came in the mail from my mother. It was an old family photo album; the kind with the black pages, white ink captions, and those little black-and-white photos with the scalloped edges. For some reason, I had placed it next to a binder of my old swimming accolades, and it now struck me: When I had swum around the island of Manhattan in 1983 as part of a swim race, I was swimming over the exact spot where my family had arrived (with me as a child) on a ship from Germany in 1953 to start a new life. And this was also the very same location Henry Hudson encountered in 1609 when he arrived with his Dutch-Anglo crew seeking a new water passage to the Orient. The parallels were just too hard to ignore.

Photo: Arriving in NYC in 1953. That’s me in traditional lederhosen and knee socks with my Mom and Dad. My mother’s written description reads (translated): “Now we’ve done it, and in a few moments, we’ll step for the first time on American ground.”

I had already decided that I wanted to write a historical fiction novel in the style of James Michener or Ken Follett (two of my favorite HF authors), and had played around with different concepts, including one involving New York City, a place I had visited many times over the years. But nothing really clicked until I made the connection between my own history and that of the city itself. It seemed we were solidly tied together. It was time I took action on this idea.

The first thing I did was to locate and read the historical novels about NYC that already existed. And oddly enough, I could only find three that covered this early- to mid-17th-century time period. And none of them started at the beginning, which in my mind is clearly 1609 with Hudson. So I was determined to be the first.

After reading all the nonfiction history books about NYC I could find, my last step was to make another trip to The Big Apple to meet with history experts and to basically verify the research I had already done from a distance (and from my memory). This trip also included finalizing the licensing of the amazing image you see on the cover of the book. It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.

And most importantly, this final visit would help me get one last “look and feel” for my setting. My characters would be living and spending their time in and around the rivers, sounds, and straits that are such an important part of what New York is, so I had to re-experience that for myself, both on land and water (I didn’t swim this time!). I wanted to watch the sun as it arced through the sky, listen to the gulls wheeling overhead, touch the gnarled bark of an oak tree, smell the rotting of seaweed, and, yes, taste the water’s brininess (NYC is situated in a tidal estuary). In other words, I wanted my readers to really feel like they had been transported, in both time and place.

Here’s a small excerpt from the novel to give a sense of place and of the time period:

“Hudson spent each morning tasting the water for its saltiness. He used an empty bottle partially filled with small stones for weight, which he tied to a long rope and flung over the side. The presence of salt far up the river suggested he wasn’t sailing on a river at all but, rather, on a fjord or strait, which to him could only mean one thing: this channel connected to a saltwater sea. The South Sea. The Orient. So far, there was a fine taste of salt in his mouth in the mornings.”

PHOTO: Here I am on Governors Island judging the distance across to Lower Manhattan in bow shots. It’s five, and it’s in the book!

For me, there is nothing better than standing in an important historical location and imagining what it was like before. Sometimes long before. In my case, I would travel to New York City again and again, and on each trip, I’d stop and stare at the waters encircling Manhattan. And think back to the day I was treading water at the island’s tip, waiting for the ebbing tide to change, and looking up to wonder: What was this place like at the beginning? I mean, what was it REALLY like? And how did things get to be the way they are today? Imagining the answers to those questions helped inspire me to write the story told in—and transport readers to—NEW YORK 1609.

PHOTO: Standing at the tip of Lower Manhattan, this is the view—minus the Statue of Liberty above my right arm—the native Manahate band would have had as a strange ship carrying strange beings sailed into New York Harbor in September of 1609.

(photo: Jay Tanen)

NEW YORK 1609 by Harald Johnson

When a Native American (Lenape) boy joins Henry Hudson’s expedition up the river that now bears his name, the fearless and visionary–and misunderstood–Dancing Fish doesn’t realize his entire world and way of life are in peril. Enthralled at first by these strangers, he begins to discover their dark and dangerous side, touching off a decades-long struggle against determined explorers, aggressive traders, land-hungry settlers, and ruthless officials. If his own people are to survive, the boy-turned-man must use his wits, build alliances, and draw on unique skills to block the rising tide of the white “salt people.”

Many thanks, Harald. I can vouch for the authenticity Harald brings to this novel and I’m sure readers will be delighted to experience that long ago time.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.