Can the startling discovery of some 1,400 paintings bring a great New Orleans artist back from the dead?
They bought the gas masks and Hazmat suits at Home Depot. This was fourteen months after Hurricane Katrina, when parts of New Orleans had already returned to normal, but Rich and Tee Marvin weren’t taking any chances.
Rich’s mother, Shirley Marvin, had asked them to travel to her former home in New Orleans and check on the things she’d packed away at a downtown storage facility. Shirley, who was eighty-four in October 2006, had been experiencing occasional memory lapses associated with old age, and she thought she had “between twenty and seventy paintings” in one unit, she’d told Rich, and furniture in another. Most of the paintings were by somebody named Noel Rockmore.
Rich and Tee live in Cotuit, Massachusetts, a village on Cape Cod. They traveled about sixteen hundred miles to reach the nineteenth-century warehouse where Shirley had been renting space for twenty years. Covered from head to toe without an inch of flesh bare, they took a service elevator to the second floor and came to the first of the units. It was a large space, 20 feet by 10 feet, for which Shirley paid $250 a month. While helping with her bills, Rich had learned that his mother hadn’t paid for the storage in three months, giving the business the right to take possession of the property and auction it off. But Shirley had been a good customer, and so the place had cut her a break.
Rich and Tee swung the door open and stood stunned by what they saw. Boxes crowded every inch of space and pressed against the wire grid ceiling overhead. Rich pulled a box into the hallway, and he and his wife had a look inside. They found several paintings wrapped in brown kraft paper.
Shirley’s collection is yet one more story about the treasures that were discovered in New Orleans in the months after Katrina. Guided by a hopeless feeling that things would never be made right again, local residents dragged valuable flood-damaged furniture and art to the curbs in front of their homes for trash pickup. They chucked precious, mold-infested ephemera into Dumpsters—books, photographs, letters, maps, prints, paintings. They also abandoned or forgot about the things they’d put in storage, leaving them to be confiscated or thrown out.
The Marvins weren’t prepared to uncover “the tomb of Rockmore,” as Rich later described it. Rather than a manageable group of paintings, they found some fourteen hundred works of art, including sculptures, collages, portraits dating back to the 1950s, huge canvases supporting three-dimensional abstract constructions, and hundreds of watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings in some thirty sketchbooks that Shirley had squirreled away in a trunk.
The collection also included a large painting that Rich called “Shirley Marvin Discovers America,” which showed its bespectacled subject, dear Shirley herself, standing on a ship at sail with a billowing American flag in the background. Much of the work was gorgeous and profound, but some of it begged for an explanation, such as pieces from the artist’s Egyptian series, which Rockmore produced after engrossing himself in Egyptian history and literature and channeling pharaohs.
“Noel Rockmore was a fascinating, oddball, homegrown American surrealist,” says Dan Cameron, a curator of contemporary art best known for his work as artistic director of U.S. Biennial, the organization that produces Prospect New Orleans. “In the last year or so I’ve participated in some interesting discussions with friends and colleagues in New Orleans whom I respect, and there’s no denying what they think about him. These are people who don’t use the word genius very often, but they all use it when discussing Rockmore.”
The artist, it turns out, had often called on Shirley Marvin when he needed money over the course of their thirty-three-year friendship, and Rockmore, who died in 1995 at age sixty-six, seemed to always need money. The bulging contents in the storage unit were testament to his brilliance, but they also revealed Shirley’s devotion to an artist who produced some fifteen thousand works of art in his lifetime and who might have become America’s Picasso if not for crushing battles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder that, by the end of his days, had reduced him to a bona fide lunatic and a virtual pariah in the art world.
“I think one of the things you’ll find about Rockmore is this tragic dimension,” Cameron says. “He never actually realized his full potential as an artist, and you can probably take that one step further and say he did it to himself: It was Rockmore who destroyed his own possibilities.”
Shirley’s failure to pay $750 in storage fees nearly cost her a million-dollar collection. Worse still, it almost cost the world the world of Rockmore.
The first time Shirley Marvin met Noel Rockmore was on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The date is hard to pinpoint, but it was likely 1962. Shirley had bought one of his paintings a few weeks before from a shopkeeper who’d placed the canvas outside on the sidewalk leaning back against the storefront. It showed a child in an abandoned car parked in the courtyard of a housing project. When Shirley first saw the painting, it was bathed in light, as if generating its own heat source, and it seemed to beckon her. She didn’t flinch at the thirty-dollar price tag.
Shirley asked the shopkeeper who the artist was, and he described Rockmore as an eccentric who until recently had lived above the store. The artist was now painting portraits of the musicians who played at Preservation Hall, a club that featured live jazz performances by the likes of Kid Thomas, Sweet Emma, Danny Barker, and Chicken Henry. A local real-estate investor named Larry Borenstein had commissioned Rockmore to produce the portraits. Borenstein had a gallery only a block away. Shirley walked over and introduced herself. “Then one day soon after, this rather attractive fellow walked up to me on the street and said he was Rockmore,” says Shirley. “I guess Larry had told him about me and what to look for. He talked and talked and when he finished he propositioned me. He said he had a lot of married women friends who just came in and visited with him and things were very pleasant and it didn’t interfere with their marriages.”
Shirley had a husband and three children, and they were living then in a quiet middle-class and largely scandal-free Baton Rouge neighborhood. Although she’d grown up in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended Wellesley College, her liberal inclinations were generally limited to politics. “I said, ‘Well, thanks a lot, Noel, but I would prefer that we just be friends,’” she says. “And he said, ‘Okay.’ And so we were friends.”
A Born Artist
The Quarter has always attracted artists drawn to its picturesque streets lined with historic buildings and populated with colorful characters, but the Vieux Carré had never seen anyone quite like Rockmore. His dark good looks and easy blend of confidence and good humor seemed to have a paralyzing effect on everyone he met, women especially. “We’d be in a bar, and a pretty girl would pass by outside, and these guys would bet him that he couldn’t get her to come inside and drink with him,” says Jerry Ducote, one of his old friends. “Sure enough, Rockmore would go and talk to her and next thing you know she’s sitting with us. He definitely had a knack.”
Himself the son of artists, Rockmore had enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York City, where his parents’ famous friends, George Gershwin and Ernest Hemingway among them, had been regular visitors. At the height of his career as a magazine illustrator, Floyd Davis, Rockmore’s father, was as popular as Norman Rockwell, and Gladys Rockmore Davis, his mother, enjoyed widespread acclaim for her mannered realist compositions that landed in museum collections and put her on the covers of national art magazines.
While still an adolescent, Noel Davis was a virtuoso on the violin and nearly as proficient at the piano and guitar. He liked to boast that he was born on the same day and at the same hour as Ludwig van Beethoven, even though most historians believe Beethoven’s birthday was December 16, the day after Rockmore’s. In any event, the artist so closely identified with the German composer that he claimed to be the great man reincarnated.
By the time he was a teenager, Rockmore was as skilled a painter as his parents, and he displayed a depth of imagination that neither possessed. “Noel knew from a very early age that he was a genius,” says Chris Davis, the artist’s son. “That word is used quite liberally these days, but a genius is a freak of nature. A genius is someone who is far from normal, like Einstein. Noel was one of these people.”
Though marked in the right New York art circles as someone destined for an important career, the artist showed evidence of a self-destructive streak when he changed his name from Davis to Rockmore in 1959 after moving to New Orleans. The change confused his admirers, but it apparently made sense to Rockmore, who complained that there were too many artists named Davis. As Rockmore he was free to start over, and he was abandoning more than his identity as Gladys and Floyd’s son. Behind him, too, were his wife and three small children and a life of soft middle-class domesticity that he could no longer abide.
Once on a visit to Shirley Marvin’s home, Rockmore removed a large watercolor he had painted of the New Orleans French Market and covered his former name, Noel Davis, with Liquid Paper correction fluid. He then used a pen to scribble Noel Rockmore across the chalky opaque smudge.
Rockmore would keep an apartment in New York until 1977 and continue to exhibit at galleries there, but he had found in New Orleans a home where his prodigious appetites went unsuppressed and were, in fact, encouraged.
“I was s
elling my pictures in Pirate’s Alley,” says Gypsy Lou Webb, ninety-four, a former French Quarter artist and frequent subject of Rockmore’s paintings. “I remember my husband meeting him. Jon was going down Pirate’s Alley in one direction and Noel was coming in the other, and Jon gave him hell. He said, ‘Don’t you touch my wife, Rockmore. You won’t be here long,’ and he meant it. Noel never touched me.”
The restless Rockmore moved from one dilapidated French Quarter apartment to another, renting only when he couldn’t stay for free. “Noel was kicked out of every apartment he ever stayed in,” says Andy Antippas, one of his friends. “He’d end up trashing them, and he’d give paintings in payment for the rent. Usually he was content to have electricity and running water and a mattress on the floor.”
Antippas once let Rockmore live for six months in a vacant upstairs apartment at his home on Esplanade Avenue. Antippas, a gallery owner and former English professor, grew accustomed to the strange, miscellaneous noises coming from the ceiling, but one day he heard a sound that he couldn’t place. And Rockmore, he knew, had left the house earlier in the day. Antippas decided to investigate. “There was a girl—I remember her as being Korean—manacled to the stove handle,” says Antippas. “She was attached with a chain and handcuffs, and she was wearing clothing. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She answered, ‘Oh, he really cares. He really likes me. And I like him. You know Noel. He hates being alone.’”
Wild Days in New Orleans
For years Rockmore kept a studio in the First Skyscraper, an architectural landmark at the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets. With its scabbed stucco facade and tall shutters painted a dull verdigris, the four-story structure looks as if it belongs on the Left Bank of Paris, home to a colony of starving, beret-clad artists. The building stood catty-corner to an A&P grocery, popular with both Quarter residents and tourists. One day Rockmore, then thirty-eight, spotted a girl there.
“I remember there was a street sign, St. Peter and Royal,” says the artist’s former lover, who asked that her name not be used in this story. “And I twisted around the sign pole and as I came out of my twist he said, ‘Are you from the Quarter?’ I turned around. ‘No, I’m not.’ I’m a nervous person now but I wasn’t nervous then. He said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘River Ridge.’
“I think he said, ‘I’m an artist.’ And I said, ‘Good.’ He said, ‘Would you like to model for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”
They met the next weekend at a jazz bar called the Bourbon House. He showed her an art book filled with images of famous paintings, and he impressed her by naming the artists who’d created them without having to refer to the captions. He gave her the nickname Saki and pronounced it the same way one says sake, the Japanese drink. After cocktails he escorted her down the street to Preservation Hall and pointed to the dark, moody portraits hanging on the walls. “I did those,” he said.
His studio was their next stop. “It was messy,” she says. “The bathroom wasn’t the cleanest. But I didn’t say anything. We talked and we made love. I’m sorry but it’s true. I saw him years later when I was thirty-five years old and visiting the Quarter, and he brought me to a bar and told the bartender that I was Saki who used to pose for him. He told me I was fifteen when it started, but I thought I was sixteen. It seemed important to him that I was only fifteen.”
The affair lasted all through her high school years. Every weekend she would lie to her parents about where she was going, then take a bus into the city and transfer to the streetcar that brought her down Canal Street to the Quarter.
One day her father was walking on Royal Street and spotted a large nude portrait hanging in the window of Larry Borenstein’s gallery. It was Saki, then a junior at a private girls’ school in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The man threatened to kill Rockmore unless the painting was removed and the artist stopped seeing his daughter.
“Daddy, how did you know it was me?” Saki asked him.
“I know my daughter,” he said.
He also vowed to have Rockmore charged with statutory rape, but Saki mollified her father by promising never to see the artist again. She waited until things settled down at home, and then she found herself on the Kenner express once again, heading toward the city and another date with “the most important thing that ever happened to me in my life,” as she still remembers Rockmore.
It finally ended when Saki enrolled at LSU and moved to Baton Rouge. “I don’t think Noel ever thought he did wrong,” says the sixty-one-year-old Saki today. “Noel was the kind of person who could never admit that he had a fault. He wrote in his letters how much he loved me, but I didn’t really know I was that special to him because he had paintings of other women all over his studio.”
The Dark Side
Rockmore once told Gypsy Lou Webb that he’d had eight hundred lovers in his lifetime. “You’ll never meet anybody like me again,” he said to women when trying to seduce them. He also used the line on girlfriends when another relationship was coming to an end. Depending on your point of view, this pronouncement could be either good news or bad news.
“Noel had a very magnetic personality, very charismatic, very driven,” says his son, Chris Davis. “As an artist he could muster incredible courage, which everyone finds attractive. Very few people can work with the level of commitment and seriousness that he did. He used to say that a painting was life or death. He often likened it to entering the bullring. ‘When you enter the arena,’ he said, ‘someone is going to die and it might be you.’”
Davis had no contact with Rockmore until 1974, when he was twenty and asked to meet him. His father had left when Davis was four, and Davis had only a vague memory of him. Rockmore’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Hunter Davis, never spoke of her children’s father, and she didn’t display any of his art in their home. She kept no photos of him, either. “It was as though he didn’t exist,” says Rockmore’s younger daughter, Emilie Heller-Rhys, who was eighteen months old when he left.
Like her brother, Heller-Rhys made an effort to get to know Rockmore when she was twenty, and she briefly lived with him at his home in the French Quarter. Her father had a gift for physical comedy and could be hysterically funny, she says, but his mood could change in an instant. “He started attacking me very rudely and vociferously,” she says. “I was such a shy kid that I couldn’t have competed with him on any level, but I seemed to threaten him because I, too, was an artist, though a young one just starting out. Of course, it’s also possible that my presence reminded him of the decisions he’d made.
“He would get roaring drunk,” she adds, “and he would go from being the most charming, warmhearted, delightful person to a very angry man. He obviously was in a lot of pain. We had a terrible fight and I didn’t speak to him again for a couple of years.”
Rita Posselt, who was involved with Rockmore from 1978 to 1984, says Rockmore’s alcohol dependency was so severe that he drank a glass of vodka as soon as he got up in the morning. He continued to drink as he worked in his studio during the day, loud classical music issuing from the stereo, Rockmore flailing his paintbrushes as he conducted an orchestra that only he could see. Even during his worst benders, he still managed to make art.
The artist challenged Posselt’s capacity for humiliation by telling her what to wear and by sometimes dragging her behind him by the arm when they went out together in public. The sight of the tall, beautiful blonde being pulled behind the caveman artist was such a spectacle that one local sculptor constructed a papier-mâché homage to the pair. Rockmore liked Posselt in tight, revealing shirts and short skirts, and he insisted she wear cowboy boots. He was quick to fall into a rage when they encountered a tour group blocking their path on the sidewalk. “Part the waves, part the waves,” he bellowed. “I’m a tax-paying citizen. Out of the way.” Police cuffed him once after he bullied tourists and became disorderly. Posselt had to plead with the cops to let him go.
“In 1980 or ’81 he had to have exploratory abdominal surgery,” Posselt says. “Doctors put seventy-two stitches in his abdomen. I stayed with him in the hospital as long as I could, but after a couple of days I had to go back to work. The hospital called me not long after I left, and this woman said, ‘Rita, Noel has become very disoriented, and we need you to get here right away.’ Well, he had lied to them about his drinking, and he was having d.t.’s. Noel had all these tubes in him, and in the middle of the night he started yanking them out and walking down the hall. They said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘Johnny White’s,’” the name of his favorite bar.
“They had to put him in restraints,” Posselt says. “They needed six orderlies to hold him down, and Noel wasn’t a big guy.”
Rockmore recovered, but his attempts to stop drinking rarely lasted more than a couple of years or until another crisis brought him back to the bottle. Sometimes the crisis was the death of a friend. Other times it was nothing more than a bout of loneliness, to which he was especially vulnerable. Posselt grew up in Wisconsin and went there each year to spend the Christmas holidays with her family. Upon returning to New Orleans, she says, “it was always to a nightmare. There’d be dishes caked with food all over the place, and Noel would’ve put cigarettes out on the floor of his studio. And he wouldn’t have showered or washed.
“I was brainwashed,” she says. “But I loved him and recognized all along that he was like nobody else. He would insist whenever I came home from work that I sit and watch him paint. I’d come home tired: ‘Noel, let me at least change, please.’ ‘No, you’ve got to come and watch me paint.’ He’d be all fired up. ‘But let me change and get comfortable.’ ‘No, Rita. No.’ And so I’d sit with our dog Remby and watch him, and it was just so fascinating. The energy, the whole scene. He was masterful. After we broke up, I missed that more than anything because I knew I was watching greatness.”
Posselt wasn’t his last relationship, but she was his longest. He replaced her with an eighteen-year-old girl who worked at the A&P.
“Noel’s soul was bared to anybody who would listen,” says his friend Antippas. “He was a cranky drunk who was also a brilliant painter. He was really not a pleasant person, especially late in his life after he deteriorated because of the alcohol. Somehow, though, his flaws didn’t matter because of his brilliance as an artist.
“When the art magazines would come out, he’d go and buy the latest and he’d come over to my gallery and yell and scream about some guy being celebrated in a huge article written about him. He would say, ‘But this guy is horrible.’ He was very critical of the art scene because he was an outsider—he was always removed from the art scene itself—and so he could see it for what it really was.”
When Rockmore did have gallery representation, he typically violated his contract by selling work on the side. And he was notorious for constantly squeezing gallery directors for money. “I remember once when we gave him a nice-size check and he came back the next day, really loaded,” says Greg Breland, director for Bryant Galleries in New Orleans. “He’d been up all night and he was on a nasty roll. He says said he wanted his money. Well, it was a Saturday. We’d paid him half and we couldn’t get him the other half until Monday. He pulled this little pistol out of his pocket. I was a track guy in high school, and I knew the gun was a track pistol. I said, ‘Noel, what are you going to do with that?’ He said, ‘I’m going to take care of business.’ I said, ‘Give me that. What you’re going to do is get yourself shot out here on the street.’”
Gallery people were the enemy, and so were other artists. He called them hacks and seemed especially disdainful of the successful ones. There was no bigger hack in Rockmore’s eyes than LeRoy Neiman, the prolific Playboy illustrator who was also a highly collected gallery artist. Rockmore had crossed paths with Neiman at Paddy McGlades Saloon in New York, but Neiman had gone on to wealth and fame while Rockmore had pursued his appointment with obscurity. “I once met Neiman at a gallery where I was working,” Rita Posselt says. “The gallery handled his work, and we had a big show of his, and it just about killed Noel. I went to the opening and met Neiman. ‘My boyfriend knows you,’ I said. ‘Oh, who’s that?’ ‘Noel Rockmore,’ I said. ‘Oh, yeah? Noel Rockmore? Hell of an artist, hell of an artist.’
“When guys like Neiman would ascend and become successful,” Posselt adds, “Noel would get angry because he wasn’t getting the recognition. And yet he didn’t want to play the game or put himself in a situation where a gallery owner was telling him what to paint. The closest he ever came to that was doing the Preservation Hall jazz series for Larry Borenstein. As much as people love them today and are willing to pay for them, Noel always said to me that he felt they were not his best works.”
Rockmore told Shirley Marvin the same, and he discouraged her from buying them. Shirley had been his greatest champion and most dedicated patron. She occasionally bought things from him that she didn’t like because he was desperate for a sale, and she placed them in storage without ever displaying them in her home or closely appraising their merits. She financed a documentary film about him in the hopes of raising his profile, and she shopped his genius to museum curators, determined that others see in his creations what she did.
Shirley was also there for him when his spirit ebbed. After Rockmore’s mother died, in 1967, she contacted Andrew Wyeth and asked him to send Rockmore a letter of condolence. Shirley thought a note from the celebrated artist might give Rockmore a lift. Wyeth did write to Rockmore, and Shirley never told him that she was behind it.
He usually called her late at night when he needed to hear a friendly voice. On occasion he read to her from a favorite book, and she listened for as long as she could before falling asleep, Rockmore’s voice droning on.
“Someday When I’m Gone”
FOR A WHILE after Rich and Tee Marvin uncovered Rockmore’s tomb, Tee wondered if it was possible that her husband was the artist’s son. How else could you explain Shirley’s devotion? But when Tee did the math, it didn’t add up. Rich was born in 1958, a year before Rockmore arrived in New Orleans and four years before Shirley met him.
But Rich and Rockmore both had black hair, Tee argued, not willing to abandon the notion.
“So did Rich’s father,” answered Shirley, now eighty-eight.
But wasn’t it at least possible?
“No,” said Shirley. “It wasn’t possible. You know me, Tee, and so you should know that answer.”
In 2006, Rich, Tee, and Shirley created the Noel Rockmore Project and developed a website where they catalogued the artist’s major paintings and posted information about his life and career. The Project introduced Rockmore to those who didn’t know his work, and it asked those who’d neglected or failed to see his greatness during his lifetime to have another look. In working to promote the artist, Rich and Tee took the torch from Shirley, who still said she wouldn’t rest until her friend received the recognition he deserved.
Rich and Tee have five children. They are both unemployed. He taught school for years before quitting to run a computer business with his wife. Although they admit that finding work should be a priority, they instead have made a career of Rockmore. The Marvins have sought out audiences with some of the most influential museums and galleries in the country, and they have interviewed more than a hundred people who knew the artist. They’ve traveled all over in pursuit of his story, often when they couldn’t afford it. They’ve made three visits to Los Angeles and Santa Fe. They’ve journeyed to New York City and Washington, D.C. They’ve toured Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. And they’ve became so familiar with New Orleans, after fifty visits, that they know it well enough to give a Rockmore walking tour.
Rich and Tee had hoped to score a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, just as Shirley had decades ago when she wrote to the institution’s directors telling them about the artist and offering to donate one of his paintings. But the museum, like the Getty and the Hirshhorn and others, did not respond to their entreaties. The rejections did not dissuade the Marvins. Even after their Rockmore quest depleted their finances and they resorted to auctioning off lesser works in Shirley’s collection to keep the bill collectors at bay, their faith never waned. All they had to do was look at Rockmore’s work again to know that his day was coming, and theirs along with it.
“It occurs to me that I was destined to experience all the things Rockmore had to experience in order for me to understand him,” Rich says. “This includes rejection from the art world in New York City, being destitute, peddling great art at any price to survive, then dying unrecognized, unknown, and unfulfilled, with great dreams.”
They finally attracted the interest of a museum, albeit a small one. The LaGrange Art Museum, located in LaGrange, Georgia, committed to an exhibition of Rockmore’s work in 2011. The conservative Southern city of about 28,000 seemed an unlikely venue for an artist who wasn’t afraid to paint pictures of his father naked and well-endowed teenage girls, but Rich and Tee saw it as an ideal starting point.
“When people know Rockmore’s name like they know Picasso’s name, that’s when we’ve done our job,” Tee says.
At the end, Rockmore could no longer lift his arm to paint. His organs failed and sores covered his body. His skin turned black. Terrified of doctors and hospitals, he waited until it was too late to go for help. He took a cab to a hospital in suburban Kenner, and as the driver was dropping him off at the emergency-room entrance, the man told the admitting nurse that he thought Rockmore was a street person.
“I am not a street person,” said Rockmore. “I am a great artist.”
These were the last words anybody recalls him speaking.
“Oh yes,” Rita Posselt says, “and Noel never wavered. He used to talk to me about it. ‘Someday when I’m gone,’ he’d say, ‘they will realize that. Somebody will realize it.’