I’ve shared letters with you from Mrs. Melchers’ archive before, but this one really stands out. It is one of the most revealing first-person character sketches we have of Gari Melchers. This letter affirms some of the personality traits reported by others, like his quickness to anger, but it also provides vivid anecdotes to entertain us and round out our understanding of the man.
The letter is from a former model of the painter’s, Lenore Morrow, an aspiring actress who had just learned of Melchers’ death. She posed for the Young Woman with Gold Earrings in 1930, shown above. Evidently, she was fond of Melchers and admired his great talent, despite his idiosyncrasies. But then I’ll stop. The letter speaks for itself.
We can glean a good deal more about Gari Melchers from his letters held in our archives and from interviews with those who knew him. Mrs. Melchers’ cousin, Robert McGill Mackall, a muralist and one-time assistant to Melchers, recalled with some amusement that “Gari didn’t pull any punches. I mean he told you what was what, but that was OK,” as Mackall wanted to learn from him and liked and respected him.
Fielding Wheeler, who worked the grounds and served as an occasional chauffeur and valet, echoed the same, saying “I found him all right, . . .now a lot of people didn’t like him cause he was very frank in speaking… he would holler right crabbish . I figured I never knew what he was going to do next and maybe he would have something I would learn something else from, you know, so I really enjoyed working around him. I learned to like him right well.”
Melchers could be imperious and when suffering from phlebitis late in life was known to wave his cane about as he issued commands. That condition plagued him a great deal and made painting at his easel often impossible. No wonder he is reported as being cantankerous!
Elsie Symington, a friend and one of his portrait subjects, wrote a sympathy card to Mrs. Melchers in which she recalled the painters’ fondness for beauty in the ordinary and his deep humanity, “I will never forget some of his (Gari Melchers) enthusiasms and prejudices. His delight in the faces of the negro waiters at a luncheon party in my garden or his violent indignation over the dead man in the road when I was with you. I’ve always loved him for that.”
In fact, “loveable” is a word often used in association with Gari Melchers, as is “loyal” and “fair, ” particularly with regard to his leadership in art circles and other organizations. Friends bemoaned his lack of self-aggrandizement and felt that that trait worked against his reputation. Instead, Melchers was given to great generosity, especially where it involved indigent artists. The Gari Melchers Memorial Medal was established by the Artists’ Fellowship, Inc. in 1945 to commemorate the late artist’s generous service to the Fellowship, his genial comradeship and his sympathetic understanding and great goodwill for artists. The medal is awarded to a person or an organization that has materially furthered the interest of the profession of the fine arts. The medal continues to be awarded to this day.
Frances Goolrick, the daughter of Mrs. Melchers’ good friend Nannie, said that “sometimes people were intimidated by Melchers, [but] it was only because they were intimidated by the knowledge of who he was and that after meeting and chatting, they would find him to be very kind.” Frances added that he was particularly fond of children, and both he and his wife were devoted to young people. From his letters we learn that Melchers shopped for Christmas presents in New York one year, bringing a nice pair of red rubber boots home for little Archie Lucas, the son of the Melchers’ cook Sarah. He painted Ivan Payne as an infant in his mother’s arms, and Payne informed us that his name was Melchers’ idea. Mr. Payne remembered how Gari Melchers would spot him hanging around Nelson Berry’s store and sit him down on the floor between his legs and bestow some gift to entertain him .
What an interesting character Melchers was! It just goes to show you how multi-dimensional, how very complex he was. His paintings, on the other hand, were like his conversational style, frank and direct, or as Gari Melchers liked to say “true and clear!”