MY FATHER ... HOW TO BEGIN? Well, I thought that he was as near to a perfect being as could conceivably exist on the face of the earth. In conjunction with my mother, they formed one totally perfect entity, capable of anything, all knowing, and all powerful. There was nothing that they could not do. I had a very happy childhood. From my first memories, I thought of my father as a combination of Superman and playmate, a possessor of great wisdom, and reader of fairy tales and funny papers. He in turn thought of me as a sort of nifty toy. He was simply delighted with the idea of putting food and liquid into one end of this magical doll he and my mother had so cleverly created, and having it come out the other end. He loved to change my diapers – said it was sort of like having a real Betsy-Wetsy doll! He found humor in everything, and was a man of tenderness as well as great wit.
On the other hand, he was a man of great physical strength. His hands were so tremendous, that when I was an infant he could hold me fully extended in the palm of one hand. I was always aware of his unusual strength, which gave the lie to the notion that all artists were sissies. In fact, so sure was I of his prowess that when I was five years old, I made a bet with my girlfriend that my father could bend steel with his bare hands. (Such is the effect of television on the mind of a child !)
In any event, my girlfriend's father heard of this wager, and came down the street to see what my father was going to do about the situation. I remember as if it were yesterday. We went marching in to my father's studio, and there he sat - in the same chair I am sitting in now, behind his easel, rag in one hand, pen in his mouth, (he always held his pen crosswise in his mouth rather than putting it down when he needed to use the brush), looking somewhat amazed at our entrance.
"What's the matter, honey?," he inquired.
"I told Barbara and her daddy that you could bend steel with your hands, and they don't believe me," I said determinedly.
"Oh, you did, did you," chuckled my father, "Well, I guess we'll just have to show them," he said, and proceeded from his desk to the carport, where there were odd pieces of lumber and metal laying about. At this point my mother had joined the audience. Well, he found a piece of steel, and with great and concerted effort, and the use of his knee as a balance, he bent it into an arc for all to see. Everyone was properly amazed, except for me of course. After all, I knew he could do it - he was my daddy !
Years later, my father would recall the episode with gales of laughter, saying that he couldn't find it in his heart to disappoint my adamant determination and belief in him by not bending that piece of steel, but that he still didn't know how he had, and he devoutly hoped I wouldn't ask him to do it again !
My father was a man of many parts. Every night I got to pick what I would like him to draw on my blackboard. I had a rather extensive imagination, but he never failed me. My favorite was a raccoon, with which I got stories of masked bandits, and anything else he could come up with. If he wasn't in the mood to make up a story, my mother would tell me a story of her own imagining, and he would illustrate it for me. After all, what is a story without pictures !
Although I was not yet born when my father served in the army, I heard about his experiences many times. He often talked with my mother about Okinawa, where much of the poetry in this book was written. It was a vile experience for him, and years later he had violent nightmares about it. Thirty-two times he went out into combat with his battalion, and thirty-two times he was the only survivor. He was older than the rest of the men he served with, and his hair was platinum blond so they called him Pops. He said they were just too young, that they couldn't even count to 10 before they threw their grenades, that they were dead, and that it was all so brutal, so painful, so wasteful.
My mother used to say that the war had changed him, and that he was never the same after he returned. He became somewhat reclusive, and rarely went anywhere, preferring to sit behind his desk and draw, sketch, or paint. And that was what he did. In all the years I knew him, he always had paper and pencil in hand. His idea of relaxation after working for 48 hours straight through on a deadline was to sit down in the living room and proceed to draw. He considered the two things to be separate illustration and painting. Actually, as it turned out, they are totally separate. So much so, that he wished this poetry to be published with some of his gallery pieces specifically chosen for this purpose, and yet to date very few people have ever seen his gallery work. Such is the irony of fame. As my father used to say, "Be careful what you ask for, you might get it." Meaning of course that he received plenty of fame and recognition, but not necessarily in the area in which he would have liked it.
Also, as he said, when he asked for fame, he forgot to ask for money ! As you will no doubt read in memoirs by others who knew him, we were not rich. In fact, when I was a baby we had to return the beer bottles for the deposit to buy milk, and the milk bottles to buy beer. I knew we didn't have any money, but somehow it never bothered me. We always had plenty to eat (my mother was an excellent and extremely creative cook) and I just took for granted that there were certain material things I saw on television that I could not have. However, I never went without a super birthday or magnificent Christmas. One way or another, we always managed to enjoy life and never to do without. I think that was due in great part to my mother, who handled our finances, such as they were. My father never cared what she did with what money there was, and in fact had very little interest in money or its uses. All he knew was that there was never enough, and since there wasn't anything much he could do about that, he just left it up to my mother.
He was very frugal in his work as far as his tools and equipment went. He never threw out even a scrap of paper, and always sharpened his pen points until there was nothing left to sharpen. He said they were just getting properly broken in after the twentieth sharpening, when he was forced to throw them away. I always thought it was a sad commentary on the life of an artist that when he died he had a brand new box of 100 pen points that he had yet to open. I still have them.
My father had cancer, and after the surgery was greatly weakened physically. Nevertheless, although he was barely home from the hospital, he insisted that I not postpone my wedding. He came to the wedding under my protests, and swore he had a wonderful time. As I said, my father never failed me.
Shortly after my marriage, my mother and father came to visit my husband Julio and me in Puerto Rico, where we were living, early in 1970. My father seemed to know that he would not live long, and was determined to get to know my husband, of whom he became very fond. My parents were to spend two weeks with us in Puerto Rico, and stayed three months. I am so glad, for I never saw my father again.
My father was a true Renaissance man in that he enjoyed all forms of art. He loved the ballet, music, etc., and when I chose to become an actress, both he and my mother were nothing short of delighted. They both encouraged me in every way, and it is undoubtedly due to my background that I chose that particular path. I always felt sorry for my colleagues in the world of the arts whose parents would have preferred that they become schoolteachers or what have you. My parents would have been horrified had I chosen a field outside the arts. And they were equally happy that I chose to marry a musician. Although my mother played piano adequately, she never went on to develop concert skills. Therefore my father, who was a great lover of classical music, as well as almost every other kind, was perfectly thrilled that I chose to marry an accomplished pianist and classical guitarist. He enjoyed listening to my husband at every opportunity while he visited with us, and went so far as to go to the club where my husband was playing on several occasions during his stay. He was also fascinated with the fact that Julio is an Aztec Indian, and made many sketches and several drawings of him, both at the piano and with the guitar. They formed a mutual admiration society, and I am so delighted that they were able to know one another before my father's death.
My father spent many years trying to achieve recognition in the gallery field. However, times were lean and he was more or less tied to his drawing board so that he could make the money necessary to survive. He was, however, extremely prolific. He was a nictolept - he preferred to sleep in the daytime and to work at night, which gave him many uninterrupted hours of concentration when all other activity had ceased. As long as I can remember, daddy was always sitting at his drawing board into the wee hours of the night, either working on a drawing or creating something new and different. I remember all the periods of painting. He went through them all, having become tired of the realistic approach. He felt that once you had reached perfection in realism, you had to move on in order to grow, and so he passed through expressionism, abstraction, and non-objectivism. He felt restricted by his pen and ink technique; said it made him very tight and he had difficulty loosening up after having completed a drawing. He became extremely good at all the areas he tried, and yet, if you look, there is always some subjectivity in the most non-objective of his paintings.
He had certain subjects which he continually investigated, and re-investigated. The Yang and Yin of the Oriental cultures fascinated him. It is a perfect round of black and white, birth and death, combined in the circle, representing all the aspects of life and death. He did many paintings and drawings into which he incorporated this symbol and ideology. He was taken with the idea of mother and child, even as far back as Okinawa, where he drew an Okinawan mother and child which won him mention in the Metropolitan. He also became interested in the ego and id, and drew many pieces reflecting the "I, my lover" theme. He was fascinated with the psychological attributes of mankind, and tried to incorporate his insights into his paintings. He saw as much value in a muscular bald man embracing a glass of beer as he did in a prophet staring toward the heavens for guidance. He painted them all, and saw beauty in all of them.
He dreamed of someday living amongst others in his field. At one time, he and my mother discussed moving to Cuernavaca on the coast of Mexico where he believed Robert Bloch and other creative talents were living. It never got past the talking stage because of money, then his illness, etc., although he said it was because the price of gin was exorbitant there, and that was the only reason he could not possibly consider moving there. Still, he discussed everything with my mother. She was his confidant and partner. Both extremely well educated, and with rapier wits, they made perfect foils for each other. Since my father rarely left the house, and my mother did not work, they became almost symbiotic through the years. He never did a drawing without first discussing it with my mother. Indeed, oftentimes he would say after reading a galley that he couldn't find anything worthwhile to draw, and would turn the galley over to her for her opinion. She could always come up with an idea to inspire him, and in later years, sometimes she would read the galleys, and indicate where she felt a drawing would be appropriate. They worked well together, performing beautifully as a team.
It is twenty one years since my father died, and it will be thirteen this October that my mother is gone. To say that I miss them sorely would be the understatement of all time. Yet, my father left me a legacy. Whenever I want to see him, all I have to do is look around me. He left me his thoughts, his very being in all the paintings that now surround me. In them I see his humor, his anger at wrongdoing, indeed his entire life as seen in "The Voyager" an autobiographical painting of his journey through life. I feel this painting is the sum total of his existence. A man who was hired by Abe Merritt by telegram in a fairy-tale story of a dream come true for a young artist, a man who proceeded to make his name at The American Weekly, Weird Tales and on and on, a man who became respected all over the world for his unique talent and technique ... a man who fought for his country and was fiercely patriotic ...a man who would bend steel for his daughter, can be seen in his painting, "The Voyager." It portrays a man whose feet are mired in the depths of torment and despair, but whose hand is reaching desperately toward the sun.
– Lail Finlay Hernandez