Uncle Bob

Here’s an essay I wrote for The Demuth Museum‘s recent exhibit, “Robert E. Locher: A Modern Classic.”

Robert Locher photographed by Man Ray

In January 1995, shortly after I moved into my first New York City apartment, I called my parents, desperate and a tad panicked. At the time I was a 22 year-old starving actor and I’d recently furnished much of my cramped bedroom with a random assortment of discarded furniture that I’d scavenged from the streets of my Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Among the few respectable pieces I possessed was a narrow wooden bed—a loaner from my roommate’s father—that was wide enough for a single mattress. Yet I couldn’t muster a good night’s sleep. Because I didn’t own a mattress.

“There might be one in the attic at Old Top,” my father replied, after I rang him up. My dad and his two brothers, Fritz and Jay, grew up at Old Top Farm, a stone farmhouse that sits upon a bluff in a bucolic corner near Mondamin Farms. My great-grandmother, Mira Locher Schroeder, converted a 19th century barn into the family house in 1923, and the property has stayed in the family for over a century. “Call your grandmother,” my dad said. “And see if it’s still there.”

Granny (Mira’s daughter-in-law) not only confirmed its whereabouts (attic, indeed), but enthusiastically quoted its provenance. “It was Uncle Bob’s when he lived in New York, deary,” she said. From her ebullient tone, I felt as though I’d just inherited a priceless diamond ring.

Uncle Bob was, of course, Robert Locher, my great-great uncle and Mira’s younger brother. And I was thrilled to inherit one of his possessions. Not because I’d be sleeping on a piece of history, mind you, but because I didn’t have to cough up 500 bucks for a new mattress. It never occurred to me, or, apparently, anyone else in my family, that bed bugs—or worse—might have burrowed inside the weathered horsehair mattress. You see, Uncle Bob lived in New York from 1914 to 1947. That clumpy sliver of a pad, which I nestled into for four years in a scruffy westside tenement, was—at the very minimum—48 years old. The last time Uncle Bob slept on it Harry Truman was president. I itch just thinking about it.

The mattress fit my bed perfectly. At night, after returning from my shift waiting tables at an Upper West Side restaurant, I laid on the old “ticking” mattress and thought about what Uncle Bob’s life in New York must have been like. I never met him, but from the stories I heard about him as a kid, I always pictured him as a somewhat Dickensian character, larger than life, a sophisticated and arty dandy, with the grace and charisma of a movie star. During holiday dinners, my grandparents, dad and uncles spoke of his sharp wit and famous friends: the photographer Man Ray, playwright Eugene O’Neill and writer Gertrude Stein—to name a few. To me he sounded like a mashup of Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, rather than someone who’d grown up in conservative Lancaster County. He’d hobnobbed with the literati and traveled extensively to Europe and Latin America, designed interiors for Mrs. Whitney and costumes for Broadway shows. As I listened to these tales and reminisces, I beamed knowing that I was enjoying a meal at the very table he once sat. I thought, I hope my life will be just as exciting.

 

Robert Evans Locher was born in 1888 and grew up on South Queen Street, the son of Charles, a banker, and Lila (née Reno). The youngest of five children, his three older siblings included my great-grandmother, Mira, who was 11 years his senior.

He attended Yeates Episcopal School on North Duke Street, where, via acting in school plays, he was first exposed to a life in the theatre. Artistically inclined from a young age, a career in the fine arts would prove challenging, however. When he was 16, his father, Charles, died. Shortly thereafter the family business, City Savings and Trust, folded. Locher and his mother moved to East Petersburg where they lived with his aunt. As Bruce Kellner wrote in a Demuth Museum newsletter in 1994, Locher’s oldest brother David, “dissuade[d] the boy’s artistic bent in arranging for him to become an apprentice draughtsman to a local architect.” Locher also spent a year at Warburton Business College in Philadelphia and took classes at Potter Architectural School. From a young age, due to a variety of family pressures, Locher was destined for a life in the commercial arts.

It was likely during his apprenticeship, in 1909, that Locher, then 21, met Charles Demuth. (At least this is the first documented meeting between the two men. As Kellner writes, “class distinctions as well as mutual interests may have readily brought the two together when they were boys.”). Demuth was five years older than Locher, but the two became fast friends and remained close until Demuth’s death in 1935.

Charles Demuth

In 1914 Locher moved to New York City and a year later he married Beatrice Howard Slack from Brookline, Massachusetts. Slack came from Boston Brahmin stock and the pair lived on a large estate on Staten Island, occasionally vacationing in Europe. Little is known about the marriage, although Kellner states it was “widely considered to be a marriage of convenience.” (Like Demuth, Locher was gay.) Still, their marriage lasted for 18 years until their divorce in 1937. She remarried just four days later and shortly thereafter built Pride House on Fire Island, a small bungalow that became a popular destination for gay artists.

As for Locher’s career, he moved effortlessly between mediums, designing sets and costumes for Broadway shows, illustrating for Vogue and House and Garden (where he worked as an associate editor), creating his own line of flatware and tea sets, designing interiors for wealthy clients and numerous book covers.

The depression didn’t spare Locher. Charles Demuth recognized this and ensured Locher would be taken care of after his death. When Demuth died in 1935, he bequeathed both the family home on King Street and his watercolors to him, which, when sold, provided Locher with a much-needed source of income. Locher eventually inherited the house and paintings after Demuth’s mother, Augusta, died in 1943. Subsequently Locher and his longtime partner, the dancer Richard Weyand, returned to Lancaster from New York and opened a clothing store and an antiques store on the premises.

The two men, now middle-aged and firmly ensconced in Lancaster, visited my great-grandmother and her family at Old Top Farm over the holidays. Dressed in tailored suits, accented with discreetly tucked pocket squares and well-polished shoes, the men, neither of whom drove, rode the Lancaster city bus to Old Top Farm. Reposing in the living room, sipping martinis and smoking cigarettes wedged into a long filter, Locher radiated the aura of a well-traveled sophisticate, sprinkling French words into his conversation and employing his rapier wit, occasionally reminding my young father and his brothers that “children should be seen and not heard.”

By this stage in his life, Locher walked with the assistance of a cane. Photos of him from this time period capture a dignified man, handsome and refined. But the photograph of him I like the most was taken by Man Ray in the 1920’s when Locher was in his 30’s. In it, he sits with his left side to the camera, left elbow resting just above his left knee. The tips of his left index and middle fingers touch his chin and his steely eyes look mischievously into the lens. He’s youthful, willowy and as angular as a Picasso. Slicked hair hugs the top of his head, and the languid curves of his profile mirror the lines he incorporated into his art deco designs. Here, the photograph seems to say, is someone in the pursuit of beauty. A man who’ll explore the world, befriend great artists, apply his deft touch to a broad range of arts and crafts, and later bring that experience back to a Lancaster farmhouse, where it will impress itself on my elders, and through their fond reminisces, onto me.

 

When I moved out of my Hell’s Kitchen apartment in 1999, I lugged the now flattened mattress down four flights of stairs and unceremoniously chucked it into a nearby dumpster. After four years, what little cushion it had had been squashed as flat as a slab of Manhattan sidewalk.

A few years later, thanks to the kindness of my parents, I inherited another one of Uncle Bob’s possessions: a framed draft of one of his early costume designs. In the watercolor sketch, a fanciful female matador wears an orange waistcoat, red cape and matching beret. Bright red lipstick pops off her otherwise serene face. The paper on which it’s painted is water-stained, and unerased pencil marks provide an outline for the vivid colors, lingering evidence of the draughtsman’s creative process. I don’t know which play it’s from, perhaps the Greenwich Village Follies which opened at the Shubert Theatre in the summer of 1921. Regardless, it links the two us: our lives, our career paths. Separated by nearly eighty years, two young men who grew up in Lancaster, left the pastoral countryside for the dazzling lights of the big city, motivated both by our oversized dreams and the pursuit of art.

Like Uncle Bob, I, too, eventually left New York. And, like him, I’ve sought out a life of adventure and creativity. Today I live in Hong Kong where I proudly display that framed sketch on my living room wall. It’s well-traveled, having logged thousands of miles, from New York to Hong Kong, via a nine-year stint in Los Angeles. On my more reflective days, I study its graceful lines, bold colors and the matador’s whimsical clothing. But more than anything I consider the woman’s body language. In a graceful gesture, she raises her left hand up and to the side as if inviting the viewer to walk down an invisible path. “Take this road,” she gestures, “You may not be able to see what lies ahead, but whatever you do, don’t stay where you are, because a life of excitement awaits.” Uncle Bob took that path and it’s in large part because of him that I did too.

George Rogers Clark

Here’s a story I wrote about George Rogers Clark for the defunct iPad-only publication, The Daily. It never saw the light of day and I only just remembered I wrote it.

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In 1897, Werner School Book Company, released a series of books titled “The Four Great Americans.” The series’ sixth volume, “Four American Pioneers,” told the stories of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, “David” Crockett and George Rogers Clark.  While it’s hard to know how familiar kids then were with these figures, it’s likely that the names of Boone, Carson and Crockett at least ring a bell for most twenty-first century Americans. The same, however, is doubtful for Clark. As the historian Robert M. Sutton has noted, “he is perhaps the most copiously documented American frontier hero, and yet one of the least known.”

Born near Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1752, Clark had bright red hair, grew to about six feet tall and, as the writer Landon Y. Jones observes, had “hooded blue eyes and bristling eyebrows that gave him a commanding presence.” A product of the Enlightenment, Clark became a surveyor and, in 1772 when he was just 19, set out to explore the Ohio River Valley, west of the Appalachians. The Iroquois Confederacy had recently ceded the territory to the British via the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and Clark immediately fell in love with its fertile lands. “A richer and more Beautifull Cuntry than this I believe has never been seen in America yet,” he wrote to his parents.

Clark wasn’t the only colonist attracted to the frontier, and as more and more settlers flowed into the region (known as Kentucky, but still part of Virginia), tensions rose between them and the Shawnee and Chickamauga populations. In late 1777, after years of Indian raids on colonial settlements, Clark — now a major in the Kentucky militia — convinced Virginia governor Patrick Henry to expand the Revolutionary War into Indian Territory. The goal? To capture major British outposts, Detroit in particular. (The British had allied themselves with the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot and Mingo to further stem the colonists’ migration.) The plan was approved, and western land grants were promised to any man who’d fight under Clark.

Clark never took Detroit. But in the summer of 1778 he did successfully capture Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Vincennes, three towns in present-day Illinois and Indiana. Soon after Clark took Vincennes, British lieutenant governor Henry Hamilton (nicknamed the “Hair Buyer General” because he purportedly furnished natives with scalping knives and paid them for colonists’ scalps) sent troops to retake the town and a nearby fort the British called Sackville. He succeeded.

What happened next is, according to Robert M. Sutton, “one of the great epics of American history.” On February 5th, 1779, Clark and 170 men started off from Kaskaskia on a frigid 180-mile trek across southern Illinois. Unbelievable as it may sound to modern ears, the troops averaged 25-30 miles a day, despite having to cross numerous streams and endure freezing rains. They reached Fort Sackville on February 23rd, and, upon arrival, Clark ordered his limited force to march around the surrounding hillside “to magnify [their] numbers.” When several Indians allied with the Crown returned from a raid, Clark’s men tomahawked them to death and tossed their bodies in the nearby Wabash River. Hamilton witnessed the entire episode and, thinking that Clark had assembled a large, brutal force, surrendered Sackville the next morning. “George Rogers Clark had become the first early hero of the Revolution,” as Jones puts it, “the ‘Hannibal of the West’ who had driven the British out of the Illinois country.” Two years later Thomas Jefferson promoted the 29-year-old Clark to brigadier general.

The Illinois campaign, as it’s now called, proved to be the apex of Clark’s military career. In 1782, after more than 70 Kentucky militiamen were killed at the Battle of Blue Licks, one of Clark’s political enemies, Virginia Assemblyman Colonel Arthur Campbell, blamed him for the defeat, saying that he had “lost the confidence of the people and it is said become a sot; perhaps something worse.” The accusations about his alcoholism were untrue. But it nonetheless spread rapidly among influential politicians. A few years later, a Spanish spy named James Wilkinson — covetous of Clark’s then-role as Indian Commissioner — undermined him even further by spreading more rumors about his drinking. And Rogers wasn’t just the victim of dirty politics, but of a grasping bureaucracy as well. He’d financed his frontier campaigns with his own money, but his home state of Virginia never reimbursed him. (In a sad irony, his disputed receipts were discovered in the state’s Capitol in 1913.)

By 1789 Clark had entered what Sutton calls the “dreadful treadmill of loneliness, and despair.” Avoiding creditors and drinking quite heavily (the rumor that once followed him having become truth), he grew increasingly bitter about his state of affairs. One night, either drunk or the victim of a seizure, he tumbled into a fire at his Indiana cabin and burned his leg so badly it had to be amputated. With the discovery of ether still another thirty-seven years away, the only “anesthesia” administered to him during the two-hour surgery came from just outside the door, where fifers and drummers played music to lift his spirits. Nine years later he suffered a stroke while living with his sister near Louisville, Kentucky, the city he’d founded forty years earlier. He died shortly thereafter. “His death in 1818,” Sutton writes, “seems to have gone unnoticed beyond the borders of his own state.”

Today, historians debate the significance of Clark’s triumphs. Some say his victories helped to double the size of the original thirteen colonies, thus ensuring that land-hungry colonists could finally move west into what would later become the Northwest Territory and the states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Others argue those claims are exaggerated. That may be why so few people outside the Ohio River Valley, an area where he’s frequently memorialized, have heard of him.

As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning what might have been for Clark. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson asked him if he wanted to lead an exploratory expedition to the Pacific. Clark declined, preferring to try his hand at making money. Jefferson kept the idea alive and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, named U.S. Army Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the “Corps of Discovery Expedition” as it was called. In turn, Lewis asked Clark’s younger brother, William, to join him. It took Lewis and the junior Clark nearly two years to reach the Pacific Ocean a journey that cemented their legacy. Perhaps, if George Rogers Clark had accepted Jefferson’s commission, we’d now be as familiar with him as we are with Boone, Carson, Crockett, and, of course, Lewis and Clark.

Hong Kong’s Sedan Chair Race

Here’s my most recent story for NPR’s sports show, Only a Game. It’s about an annual race here in Hong Kong (香港) in which hearty souls race around Mount Kellett road carrying whimsically decorated sedan chairs.

Of interest, sedan chairs were registered in the territory as late as 1962, according to this South China Morning Post article. For a photo of a reposing  Air France crew enjoying the luxuries of a coolie-carried sedan chair, check out gwulo.com, a wonderful online repository of old Hong Kong.

SedanChairPhoto

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