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Walt Kuhn: Painter Performer (continued, p. 2)
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"Lily in Black Lace" (1942)
Lily and Zita (Kuhn Cartoon, 1942)
"Lily Cushing" by Horst (1942)
KUHN ESSAY CONTINUES CLICK HERE
Prior Catalog Page (Koeniger)
Next Catalog Page (Lawson)
Kuhn and the Harrimans go Collecting
"Hedda in Straw Hat" (as framed)
Dear Walt:
In spite of what I last wrote you, as it’s bothered me in case you weren’t—to have said such a thing to you, who
have helped me so much & so understandingly, when helping me to learn to paint (& other times)—& feel terribly
how it may have effected you—& or made you feel, & beg your forgiveness, for which I’d be very thankful. I thought
I’d take a chance and write you now because I seemed to have become very perturbed about what I thought you
meant about how to judge men’s characters (not females just men) tho I may have misunderstood your meaning,
which I thought you intimated one day. I forget what we were talking about, by tapping yours with a warning look
at me, that the way to know—was by the size of their nose. And I can visualize you now tapping your nose at that
moment. How about the size and length of their chin? And personality, & expression in their eyes? As it happens,
there’ve been several guys who I took a shine to, engaged, married, unmarried & unengaged who have small
noses. But—I remembered your warning, & therefore would & do become in a dilemma, bothered, etc. So
therefore PLEASE will you have time to write me a note & enlighten me about what you meant. I hope you’ve had
real success with your work & are well pleased with it; & also that you’re well & happy as possible these trying
days. Early in the spring, I painted one small still life & ½ finished another—it wasn’t boring tho not especially
interesting. But it was painted well, tho not a bit in detail, & the tones & color were quite pleasing & alive.
Composition very simple. And some drawings & vague water-colors.
                                                                                                                                              Best wishes, Mary
PS—I’m feeling awfully blue here—scared & bothered, ashamed to stay, & to leave (as if I could leave according
to authorities here)--have you any suggestions? I wrote this ages ago—before middle of summer time.
Kuhn meant that Mary should avoid men whose purpose was to sniff (a long nose) after her fortune. W.
Averell Harriman's biographer, Rudy Abramson ("Spanning the Century," 1992, p. 258) writes: [On the
death of her mother,] "little Mary, who had been Averell's favorite [niece] suffered a serious 'schizoid
breakdown,' the beginning of problems that haunted her for years, including suicidal periods." She
inherited Kuhn’s “Apple Basket” and knowing it was her mother’s favorite, hung it in the living room of
her NYC townhouse at One East 79th Street. And as a matter of course, the heiress herself, who never
married, regularly purchased Kuhn’s work, and was partial to Kuhn’s paintings of roses, owning “Red
Roses” (1934), “Orange Roses” (1937 not 1938 in Adams) and “Red Roses” (1935). She was Kuhn’s final
buyer, acquiring three pieces from his last show (1948). Kuhn was good at extending patronage from
one generation to the next. As Vera’s records show, many of the works in the collection of Lizzie Bliss
were inherited by young and attractive Elizabeth “Betty” Bliss Parkinson, whom Kuhn also did a
commissioned portrait of. And Mary commissioned Kuhn to paint a portrait of her gal pal and later sister-
in-law, Mary Maloney Rumsey (1935 not 1936 as in Adams) which she also displayed. (A study head was
painted and gifted as was Kuhn’s practice). And Maloney later purchased other works as well (per Vera).
(Both Mary A. H. Rumsey and her mother Mary H. Rumsey and Mary Maloney Rumsey, the latter two each
bearing the name Mrs. C. C. Rumsey since Maloney married Mary’s brother who bore her father’s name,
are confused in the index to correspondents in the Smithsonian Archive and by Adams. Kuhn also knew
Mary Averell Fisk (Harriman), W.A. Harriman's daughter by his first wife Kitty Lanier).
But if anyone really knew Kuhn, it was his socialite painter protégé Lily Cushing (1909-1969). Political
columnist Joseph Alsop told historian Arthur Schlesinger that she was “the most beautiful woman in
America,” and Schlesinger later married one of her two daughters, some 16 years his junior, who had
enrolled in his Harvard course but preferred to attend his Cambridge parties instead. He described
Cushing as “tall, Garboesque, with high cheek bones and generous mouth, alert brown-green eyes,
auburn hair, a low, warm voice, and a charming laugh.” She was the third child of Bell heiress Ethel
Cochrane and artist Howard Gardiner Cushing. She studied painting in Paris from 1926-1927, and
became Kuhn’s dedicated student in 1928, as he wrote to Vera: “Lily insists that she go off sketching for
a week or so with me.” They painted together and toured galleries together. When the second of her
three husbands, William Temple Emmet, Jr., rented a farm in Connecticut in 1938—Kuhn visited and
stayed. When Lily’s car broke down—Kuhn drove her to Fort Lee to get it fixed and showed her where
he lived when first married. When Lily and her girlfriend, the illustrator Daphne Hodgson, went off to
Dorset, Vermont, Kuhn joined their painting expedition. It was Kuhn who helped her land a first solo
exhibition at New York’s Arden Gallery in 1930, and he helped recruit patrons for her out-of-town shows.
Kuhn painted Lily Cushing at least four times. In 1942, he showed her en face above the neckline of a
deep green blouse—this portrait Vera’s records always refer to as “Lily Cushing.” There is also what he
called in a last (1/2/49) inventory, “Lily Emmet in Big Hat,” which Adams (No. 429) entitles “Lily with
Feathered Hat” (1942—1943 correctly per Vera). But in the same inventory we also find “Lily Emmett in
Black Lace,” which Adams fails to catalog even though it was known and shown in Kuhn’s lifetime and
still exists. Another surprise is Adams failure to connect “Girl Reading” (1942), which Vera lists no model
for and no exhibition details, with Lily, who is obviously the model. Kuhn exhibited these works, but he
heavily marked “NFS” or “Not for Sale” alongside their titles, and wrote to Duncan Phillips specifically
with the same message. But that didn’t stop Lily from acquiring Kuhn works herself, and getting her
friends to do the same. A number of sales catalogues were annotated by Vera as “sold to a friend of Lily
Cushing Emmet,” as was the case of the clown study “Sylvester.” Another friend was Elizabeth “Betty”
Bliss Parkinson, heir to the Kuhn works once owned by Lizzie Bliss, and the Emmets and the Parkinsons
were known to exchange Kuhn paintings whenever their Park Avenue décor warranted.
When Mary A. H. Rumsey decided to paint at a summer cottage by the Berkshire’s Lake Buel near Great
Barrington, MA, Kuhn visited as early as 1939 (correcting Adams), and the next summer Kuhn rented a
nearby cottage called Tenora. There Mary paints side-by-side with him, summer after summer, but as
visitors multiply the circumstances turn hilarious. Kuhn was expecting both “Daphne and a friend Betty,”
but then Lily Cushing decides to come for a visit, with her girlfriend
and model Zita. And Mary tells him
she wants to stay over to learn how to wash dishes and cook because she doesn’t want “to be
bamboozled by her servants.”  So sixty-plus Kuhn ends up with five very wealthy, quite young women as
houseguests, none of whom can cook. To keep order, he finally threatens them with not making
breakfast for the group. But Kuhn tells Vera, “I think one of the reasons Mary stayed on was the chance
to see the grand vamp Lily in action along with Zita the Oriental-eyed Pollock!”

Next Lily and Zita decide on a shopping trip into Great Barrington, dressed (much to his embarrassment)
as in the sketch he made (see illustration above). They return with a huge, tough Polish sausage for
Kuhn to cook, and the group spends the night drinking. Kuhn adds, “This Zita girl is a real peasant…last
night she sang wild Polish songs with me going along on Diamond Lil [fiddle drawing inserted]—she is a
homely, boney dark Polish Hungarian Czech mixture. The girls certainly had a field day!” And they leave
behind a present for Kuhn “four bottles of A-1 liquor, and a set of bedsheets…I can’t make out one other
item but they look like Lily’s pants, the lacy ones, in good repair and unused. I may put them up as a flag
over the lake—The Tenora School of Cooking for Young Ladies.” Lily sends him a thank you telling him to
come for a meal in New York, adding, “You may think I didn’t paint much while there—it seems to me I
learned immensely—and came away feeling my brains, and been dowsed in a mountain stream—.You wait
and see!" And when Kuhn gave Mary a small sketch to commemorate the occasion she in turn purchased
a larger canvas from him.
Lily’s face, its “high cheek bones” dramatized by Kuhn, shares the particular clash of cultures that he
was deeply attracted to, and which he often saw as an ethnic counter resonance. Kuhn’s first important
oil nude, “Miss A.” of 1931, posed the model Ailes Gilmore, a Martha Graham dancer. Once again Kuhn’s
attraction is based on mixed ethnicity, the model being the child of “an Irish woman named [Leonie]
Gilmore” and “Yone Noguchi, Japanese poet,” as Vera speaking for Kuhn puts it. (She is repeating
rumor as the father was never identified.) Kuhn’s fixation with this ethnic contrast was lifelong,
reappearing, for example, in 1946 correspondence with Vera concerning models he was painting in
Ogunquit, who were students at the Laurent’s nearby summer art school: “I got one 20 x 24 of Leona—
its quality is its beautiful color—a blue-figured dress and a big black hat against light green [most likely
“Country Girl” as titled today]. It’s not the kind of powerful thing, but quite a change in color and will be
useful somewhere. Leona Reiser, a Jewish father and Yankee mother….She’s been plenty kicked
around and knows the honky-tonk life which I used so much for subjects.” (The correspondence also
shows that Leona’s roommate Jeanette Margosian certainly posed for the late nude “Miss D.”)  

Zita had modeled for Lily from 1940 on, and Kuhn wrote to Vera that "Lily had showed up [in Great
Barrington] with all her pictures. She is going to send three to Carnegie. One of them is really first
class--Zita was the model." And the same fascination with Zita’s Polish/Asian face led Kuhn himself to
paint her three-quarter length (24” x 20”) as “Hedda” (1943), where she wears a green performer’s
bodice. Thanks again to Robert Laurent, in the academic year on the art faculty of the Univ. of Indiana,
the painting was exhibited in one of an annual series of group shows of Contemporary American Artists
at the University’s John Heron Museum, and listed as No. 33—Walt Kuhn—“Hedda” in the exhibition
catalogue—see illustration. Wilbur Peat, the Museum Director wrote to Kuhn on Feb. 2, 1944, requesting
a painting for the Exhibition, and Kuhn replied via air mail special delivery on the 14th: "I shall be glad to
lend you a painting for your coming exhibition. The title is "Hedda"--size 20 x 16."  Peat acknowledged
via telegram and again by post on the 18th. (The painting resurfaced as “Hedda in Green Bodice” in
December 2003, when it was sold at Christie’s for $47,800.) “Hedda with Straw Hat” (1943) was never
exhibited, and is clearly a trial study
of Zita. Kuhn is likely to have gifted it to the model, or to Lily
Cushing, who wore a similar hat. The name "Hedda" is likely a reference to Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler,"
which Kuhn knew well and wrote to daughter Brenda telling her to read it--at this time. He even paid for
a typescript of H.L. Mencken's introduction to the Everyman edition of Ibsen. Mencken begins by
likening Ibsen and  Cezanne and Kuhn told Brenda the likeness included himself as well. The Laurent's,
father, and even more, son John, were close to Kuhn, owing to their summer art school in Ogunquit.
Later, in 1947, Indiana art department chair Henry Hope purchased Kuhn's "Green Apples before a Grey
Curtain" and donated it to the Heron Museum.
"Hedda"
"Miss A."
"Zita"
"Hedda"
Kuhn paints his model’s “face with startling frankness,” as Duncan Phillips observed, (Adams p. 211).  
His aim is to reveal how much innocence has survived brutal “kicked around” experience, with “just a
hint of his understanding and compassion.” Art critic John Baur points to Kuhn’s “powerful emotional
treatment of the eyes, extraordinarily large and dark, which stare from the painted mask of the face. It is
these which carry the romantic stress, but the [facial] colors are almost as important, for they suggest
the colors of decay, of tawdriness….Kuhn’s art today springs from the same general current which
produced the pallid harlots and dance hall queens of Toulouse Lautrec” (Adams, p. 104). These are the
eyes he discovered in the Ruth Clark paintings—straight from the commedia dell’arte! (In February,
1942, Kuhn wrote to Mitchell Kennerley of the Sixty-Fifth St Bookshop, to buy three out of print works:
"Clowns and Pantomimes" by Maurice W. Disher, "The History of the Harlequinade" by Maurice Sands,
and "Italian Comedy" by P.L. Duchartre, which according to its sub-title shows the "portraits and masks
of the illustrious characters of the comedia dell'arte." Kuhn's “Lily Cushing” mirrors “Girl from Madrid”
(both 1942), giving us the classic Kuhn female stare from a face whose features are thick and coarse,
while the eyes are powerfully knowing, and typically framed by coal black hair. In the Hedda paintings
and elsewhere the jaw is almost wolfish. This is what it is to be an “Oriental-eyed Pollock”—like Zita—
she is by definition a Tatar!—a mix of Russian (Slav) and Turkish (Mongol). The twin-face is both sullen
and sensual, hence Kuhn’s fascination, and reminds us that Kuhn’s "Fifty Paintings" proclaims “that a
particular balance of culture and brutality is necessary to produce a really fine painting.”
Kuhn Essay, p. 2
Kuhn Essay, p. 3
Kuhn Essay, p. 4
Kuhn Essay, p. 1
The blessings were probably owing to Kuhn for devoting even more attention to her daughter, Mary
Averell Harriman Rumsey (1913-1989). The Harriman’s were worried about her following the death of her
dad, when she was only nine. Her mother threw a coming out party for her in 1932, inviting more than
1,000 guests to Arden, where she was “introduced to society at a unique costume ball,” whose
socialites dressed as farm hands and sat among corn sheaves, as the "New York Times" reported. But
young Mary’s grandmother passed in the same year. Worse, her mother died in December 1934, after a
fall from a horse, leaving Mary A. H. Rumsey a very, very wealthy orphan at age 21. And tragedy
continued when her younger brother Bronson died with a fellow Harvard student while flying a plane in
Mexico in 1939. Mary A. H. Rumsey became an extremely close life-long friend of Kuhn, as her
correspondence with him reveals. She learned painting at his hands, as he later told Vera: “I certainly
have been finding the way to her heart. She’s actually painting again and likes it.”  Kuhn thought she
had “real big time simplicity…and the Harriman’s will be relieved that they have a trustworthy somebody
to take an interest in Mary.” Just how deep an interest can be seen in a letter believed to be written
when she was recovering from a breakdown following her brother’s death: