Saturday, July 01, 2006


Before Hollywood began making pictures that moved and talked, illustrators who created the still pictures for popular magazines were national celebrities. Successful illustrators were paid huge sums, received hundreds of fan letters and hung out with the "beautiful people" of their day.

No illustrator was more of a celebrity in the 1920s than the now forgotten Ralph Barton, whose work appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and in books such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A notorious womanizer, Barton lived a fast life and went to glittering parties in Paris, London and New York with friends such as Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, H.G. Wells, Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken and the Barrymores. He was reputed to be the highest paid artist in New York City.

At the peak of his fame, Barton fell in love with a sultry young Broadway starlet with the exotic name of Carlotta Monterey. She was allegedly the daughter of Danish aristocracy.

It turned out that Carlotta's real name was Hazel Taasinge. She was the unwanted daughter of a poor fruit farmer from a small town in California. Abandoned at age four, she worked as a housekeeper but was crowned Miss California in 1907. After that, she used her looks to secure a bit part on Broadway where she was "appallingly bad."

Carlotta's Broadway career flopped, but she moved in with Barton who soon divorced his second wife in order to marry Carlotta.

Despite his love for Carlotta, Barton could not quite let go of his philandering ways. Carlotta walked in on Barton in bed with some "country club type" so she divorced him. She didn't ask for alimony, just "my Krazy Kat clippings in a Chinese lacquer box." (Clearly Carlotta had the right priorities). Soon she set up housekeeping with the great playwright, Eugene O'Neil.

Too late, Barton realized that Carlotta had been "the one." He became fixated on getting her back. His career went into a precipitous decline. He could not work without his muse. His health suffered, and he lost much of his fortune. But Carlotta never returned. He wrote one last impassioned plea to "my dear lost angel" but the note arrived in Paris the day after Carlotta and Eugene O'Neil sailed for New York. Despondent, Barton dressed himself in his silk pyjamas, wrote a suicide note, lay down on his bed with Gray's Anatomy opened to a picture of the human heart, and killed himself. He was 40 years old.

I find it fascinating that an artist who was so jaded-- a smug, sophisticated veteran of countless affairs on several continents-- could no longer work-- or even go on living-- without Carlotta, the small town girl with the made up past.


leifpeng said...

This is a compelling and entertaining new series you've started, David. I hope you'll share more of these with us. This new one on Ralph Barton is great! The artwork that accompanies it really evokes the times you describe.

Just imagine the contrast in lifestyle between the cosmopolitan decadence of those New York society types and the vast majority of small town rural America (for whom Barton's work would have been like a portal looking into another world).

Absolutely fascinating stuff.

theory_of_me said...

Wow. Killing yourself with Gray's Anatomy opened to a picture of the human heart.... What a cornball! And what terrific caricatures.

This just goes to show that one must never expect the personal lives of great artists to make much sense. It's as if they need to lobotomize themselves before proceeding to create with such flair and gusto.

Musicians are probably even worse.

David Apatoff said...

Leif, I don't know if illustrators are more hot blooded than the average person or if they are just more eccentric, but there is no shortage of stories where love and art combined in tragic, inspiring or illuminating ways!

leifpeng said...

David; I like to think more hot blooded because they are more eccentric. How vain of me! ;-)

I suspect many eccentric people find comfort ( acceptance? ) in expressing themselves through art. And art and passion certainly go hand in hand... otherwise what would be the point?

Do you know if the tragic ending of Pruett Carter's life is such a combining of love and art? I've only heard vague rumours of how he died. Perhaps if you know the details you could share them with us in this series of posts.

Anonymous said...

Such sad and wonderful stories.

I discovered your site a few weeks back and I'm hooked. I'm having a blast reading past posts while looking forward to new ones. Thank you!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Irene. That's music to my ears.

Anonymous said...

I think there was almost an unwritten rule that illustrators had tempestuous love lives. Flagg had a model who killed herself over him. Barklay married his second cousin (who's last name happend to be McClellan), left her for a model, then dropped her and spent some time in jail over alimony, and later took up with another model. One exception was Gibson. A Hearst newspaper reporter sent a girl to his studio pretending to be a model to see if she would be taken advantage of. Gibson, of course, was totally professional and figured out the ruse because she couldn't hold a pose.

theory_of_me said...

All this examination of great artists' love lives makes them appear not that different from average, unartistic people.

tellurian said...

I'm loving this series. I came upon it while doing some research on New York apartments. Here's the text of Barton's suicide note [scroll down]. "I have run from wife to wife, from house to house and from country to country in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself. In particular my remorse is bitter over my failure to appreciate my beautiful lost angel - Carlotta - the only woman I ever loved and whom I respect and admire most of all the human race."
[He was] "fed up inventing new devices (such as a new gal) for getting through 24 hours every day. I present the remains with my compliments to any medical school that fancies them, or soap can be made of them."

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story.

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to see this kind of window into the past being made available on the web.
Does anyone know who the photographer is in that caricature?

Lone Primate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lone Primate said...

I find it intriguing how many of these stories end up being, at least in part, cautionary tales about pompous jerks who have no regard for the feelings of those who love them, and then wallow in self-pity and self-immolation when someone they actually did care about calls a spade a spade and walks out for good.

On the other hand, you've told a few stories where people realize what they have and wrap themselves up in it... way too tightly for my comfort, but then, it's not my comfort, it's theirs. More power to them for the wisdom it takes to achieve contentment.

And by the way, I think your blog is genuine treasure. Thank you for sharing. (And apology for the deletion... spelling mistake. I wish these things had edit buttons!)

Helen said...

Ralph Barton was my great-great uncle and I own several of his original pieces of art. He also was the first in his crowd to buy his own movie camera, and he took many home movies of his movie star friends, including Charlie Chaplin "messing around" at Hearst Castle. My mom donated his original home movie reel to the American film Institute, and they made it into a special on Ralph Barton that was shown on PBS. His home movies also included the only known film of Charlie Chaplin directing ("City Lights")and Paris at night, with Model T cars driving around haphazardly (no traffic laws yet). I have a copy of the home movie reel on DVD - great fun to watch - includes Clarence Darrow, Paul Robeson, Ethel Barrymore, Claire Booth Luce, and the others you mention in your biography of Unclu Ralph.