Memorial Tribute to Noel Rockmore for Putney School Newsletter by Rodney Dennis '48
NOEL DAVIS ROCKMORE ’47 died in the winter of 1995 a few days before Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where he had been living since 1960. His memorial service was in Preservation Hall, And, as far as I could tell, the whole French Quarter was there. John Heller was there too and so was I and Debby Davis and his three children, Robin, Christopher and Emily. It was obviously the funeral of a celebrity, since New Orleans takes Preservation Hall seriously. Everyone in the street seemed to know about Noel, and a very large percentage seemed moved and bereft. Noel’s enormous personal impact, I gathered, could not be separated from the general perception that he was a great artist, that is, a painter of major format. People talked, as Noel always did, of Picasso and Rembrandt.
In 1945, when I had been at Putney for just two or three weeks, I heard in the dark music room, one late afternoon, the 7th symphony of Beethoven, and I went in and sat down in the dark. After awhile I perceived that I was not alone, and, in fact, someone was upside-down, standing against a wall, and it turned out to be Noel. We introduced ourselves afterwards, and he told me he was a genius. Now John Heller, Noel Davis and David Amram were the three funniest boys in the Putney classes of 1946 – 1948 respectively. I think we thought the funniest boys in America. Heller’s humor was pure; you just found yourself paralyzed. Amram was verbally inventive beyond anything I have experienced since. Noel stood there, or he did something. He ate a flower. He threw himself out of a window. He depicted his mother’s unhappiness. I think he was the champion.
His mother was a very successful painter, and his father was a brilliant illustrator and draftsman, and there was his sister Debby, who painted beautyfully, who spent her life being jumped on by her brother and who describes herself as a heroine among sisters. As a painter Noel could do a lot right away and by sixteen or seventeen, very large accomplishments were already apparent In respect to form and line. He worked all the time as he was to do all his life. He was conservative and representational. He detested modernism, detested Picasso and then even more, Pollock and the New York School. But his realism became more and more distorted, the paintings, large, complex, hallucinatory, and dark and off-putting. Everyone saw their quality and importance, and when they did, Noel would make a distraction. He would change galleries, or move, or pick an argument when he shouldn’t have. The result of local celebrity but never a national or international one, as he certainly should have been. But his output is prodigious in quantity and quality, and there is little doubt in many people’s minds that his time is at hand.
Noel exchanged himself by working and rubbing very hard against everyone he encountered. In the French Quarter he went into the bars every night and picked fights. People adored him. So did his old friends and his children. In his last year he began calling a few people up very late at night and reading to them from The Wasteland. And so it was that his children gave me a book of T. S. Eliot and asked me to read from it at the memorial service. After about ten lines, a drunk fellow got up from his bench and shouted, “This is bullshit. Rockmore was my best friend.” A lot of others of us thought that too.