1912 to 1964
Where Are Your WPA Paintings?
A Portrait of a Michigan
by Art Bernstein
Tired, poor and huddled.
Michigan "Social Realist" and WPA artist Henry Bernstein-my father--was born in Detroit on April 1, 1912, two weeks before the Titanic sunk. As an "April Fools baby," people didn't believe that his mother had really given birth. And when Henry was a child, people often didn't believe it was really his birthday. But, as the saying goes, "our hero persevered."
Henry Bernstein's immediate ancestors came to the US during the heyday of Ellis Island immigration from Eastern Europe, at around the turn of the 20th Century. If ever two people were the epitome of "tired, poor, huddled masses," they were Henry's parents, Louis and Mary Bernstein. Louis was a tiny, quiet man and a tailor by trade, born in 1882 in a shtetl (Jewish) village in Lithuania, which at that time fell within the Russian "Pale of Jewish Settlement" and which experienced frequent "pogroms" or violent attacks against Jews. Mary Levin was born in New York City in 1892, but her parents were Lithuanian immigrants. It is unclear how or why the Bernsteins and Levins settled in Detroit, but the entire extended families of both Louis and Mary ended up there.
Mary was the oldest of five girls, all of whom were considered extremely beautiful and eligible in the Detroit Orthodox Jewish community just after the turn of the 20th Century (they also had a brother). As the oldest child, Mary was quickly married off in an arranged marriage. Soon after, their father discovered that the dowry value of his daughters was potentially much more than he'd gotten for Mary. He quickly began arranging the next marriage. Unfortunately, the second oldest sister, the beautiful but rebellious Sara, eloped to Los Angeles with a traveling salesman. The next two sisters, Bertha and Ethel, also moved West while in their teens to avoid being married off against their will. Helen, by far the youngest, wasn't married until after her parents died. She and Mary remained in Detroit.
The Purple Gang.
My father was the oldest of five children, two daughters (Florence and Lily) and three sons (Henry, Philip and Samuel), all born between 1912 and 1922. Of the five, four (including my father), died in their fifties, while their mother was still alive. The youngest child, Lily, is 81 as I write this (2003).
The 1920's was a fascinating era in Detroit, for the same reason that it was a fascinating era in Chicago and New York. Growing up in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood, my father numbered among his acquaintances, a couple of low-level members of the notorious Purple Gang. He was aware of the whiskey running across the Detroit River from Canada but his only participation the trafficking of illegal alcohol was occasional nights, as a teenager, at a downtown speakeasy, or "blind pig," as illegal saloons were called in Detroit. He was 21 in 1933, when Prohibition ended. Dad claimed he saw all sorts of people in the blind pig, from judges to City Council members. He also claimed he ran into Ty Cobb, the baseball player, a couple times, although Cobb's last year with the Detroit Tigers, as player-manager, was 1926, when my dad was only 14.
Arts and Crafts.
Always artistic, after graduating from Detroit's Northwestern High School in 1929, my father enrolled in the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, a small but prestigious art school located behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is now called the College for Creative Studies and, from the outside at least, it looks (as of 1997), much as it did in the 1960's, when I was in college and made frequent visits to the Art Institute and environs. I have no idea how it looked in the 1920's and 30's, when my father went there.
The Art Institute, in the 1930's, under the direction of William Valentiner, had access to scads of Ford money and was one of the better-financed big-city art museums. Edsel Ford was a prominent museum patron. In addition to Ford money, plus many donations and endowments, the Detroit Institute of Arts was, in the 1930's, the nation's only major art museum that received public (city) money to purchase art.
The "artist in residence" at the Society of Arts and Crafts, while my father attended, and the school's principal art instructor, was a fellow named John Carroll, whose artistic trademark was thick, sexually ambiguous, ethereal looking figures. He was quite the rage in 1930 but has since faded into obscurity. There is a mural by Carroll on the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Detroit Art Institute. In 1997, while visiting Detroit from my home in Grants Pass, Oregon, I took my youngest daughter, Anna, to the museum. She was 15 at the time and enrolled in an Art History class at Grants Pass High School. I pointed out the John Carroll mural to her, and also to a passing tour guide. Anna thought the mural was "lousy" and the tour guide, a very sweet lady who had been a devotee of the museum for 50 years, had never noticed it before. But the guide was extremely pleased to receive whatever tidbit of history I could offer.
My father definitely made his mark at the Society of Arts and Crafts, winning awards and scholarships each year, which was a good thing considering the Depression and his parents' financial situation. He ended up as Carroll's assistant. For better or worse, the Carroll influence is definitely evident in my dad's painting, especially his earlier works and murals.
Fun with Marvin.
Henry graduated from art school in 1933, which was not a good year to graduate from college, art school or any place else. My father, however, had a couple of gallery shows early on that were very well received. He was also well received in a group show in New York City, and at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Buoyed by this, and by the opportunities for artists opening up with the advent of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, Bernstein was determined to make his living solely as an artist. Soon after graduating from art school, my father rented a studio on Cass Avenue (while mostly living with his parents), with Marvin Beerbohm, an art school friend (who later painted an excellent mural in the main branch of the Detroit Public Library). Beerbohm, also to become a WPA artist, was as outgoing and eccentric as my father was shy and reflective. Unlike my father, Beerbohm, wisely, had picked up a credential enabling him to teach art in the public schools -- just in case the New Deal didn't pan out. Beerbohm was four years older than my father.
Thelma and the WPA.
I'm not sure exactly what year my parents met - sometime between 1934 and 1937 - but the story of their meeting is classic and oft told. Basically, my father and Marvin weren't doing well financially and decided to try to get on the Federal Artists Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
According to my uncle, Professor Milton W. Brown, a noted Art Historian and one-time Dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the City University of New York (I may not be 100% correct on his exact title), the WPA's Federal Artists Project was essentially a welfare program that had little to do with the public building mural competitions for which the New Deal era is remembered. Artistic adornment of public buildings was a program, run by the Treasury Department, called "TAPA" (Treasury Art Project something), in which 1% of all money spent on pubic buildings, mostly post offices, was earmarked for art.
(Note: My uncle, who died in 1996, was a knowledgeable and brilliant art historian, possibly the first to specialize in American painting. His book "American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression" is a groundbreaking classic. In casual conversation, however, Uncle Milton, while hysterically funny, did not always get his facts straight. He once insisted to me that Goodman and Jane Ace had played Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. I insisted, correctly, that they were played by Jim and Marian Jordan. He never backed down. Uncle Milton was married to my mother's sister, Blanche, also a noted Art Historian who taught Greek and Roman Archaeology at NYU for several decades.)
As my mother explained it, to get on the WPA program, you had to first be eligible for welfare, which my father and Marvin definitely were. The steps in the process were to apply for welfare, be visited by a social worker, and have the social worker confirm that you were a bona-fide artist of professional ability. The social worker could then refer you to the WPA.
The welfare social worker who visited my father and Marvin was none other than Thelma Levine, the vivacious and adorable daughter of a local paper bag wholesaler. Like Henry, her parents were also Orthodox Jews from Lithuania. Thelma was one of the few women to attend college during the height of the Depression (her parents were fairly well off, unlike Henry's parents), graduating from the University of Michigan in 1931, where she had been an outstanding track and field athlete. Her sister Blanche was a stunning (and also very outgoing) redhead, who in the mid-1930's was working on her BA in Art History at NYU (Thelma, my mother, was a brunette. Shirley, their much younger sister, was also a redhead like their father).
Coincidentally, Blanche just happened to be in Detroit when my mother was informed that she had been assigned to visit two eligible young Jewish artists who had applied for welfare. She decided to bring her sister along. I'm told that my father dated Blanche a couple of times and Marvin dated Thelma a couple of times, then my father started dating Thelma and Marvin started dating Blanche. Marvin quickly stopped dating Blanche, who returned to New York, and my father continued to date Thelma.
The lost works.
Henry Bernstein and Marvin Beerbohm were both accepted by the WPA. My father, in exchange for his $28 a week relief check, was required to submit one easel painting a month (or one a week, I'm not sure), to the US government. Here is the point: Assuming that Henry Bernstein was on the WPA for three years (which I do not know for sure), that means there at least 36 paintings of his (he did oil on canvas, and egg tempera on canvas), possibly many more, which have not been seen or accounted for from that day to this.
If ANY reader of this has ANY knowledge of how I might go about tracking these paintings down, PLEASE let me know.
Marriage and Politics.
Henry and Thelma were married in 1939. They were wed in a civil ceremony, on the spur of the moment during a visit to New York City. My dad was 27 and my mother was 29. When they got back to Detroit, Thelma's parents insisted on a second wedding by a rabbi, with lots of guests.
Money being kind of tight despite my mother's job and my father's promising career, Thelma and Henry moved in with another just-married, slightly younger couple, who were fairly close friends. The couple was Karl Prussion and his wife (I do not recall the wife's name). To understand about Karl Prussion, you have to understand the politics of the 1930's, and the politics of my parents. According to my father, prior to the election of Roosevelt in 1932, at the height of the Depression, with unemployment at 25%, the country was on the verge of a Communist revolution similar to the one in Russia in 1917. He believed to his dying day that the Republicans did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the "Grapes of Wrath" masses of unemployed, and that Franklin Roosevelt saved the country from Communism.
Although my parents were definitely left-leaning, and my mother, among other things, was a professional union organizer, they were never Communists. My father could not understand the fascination among American Jewish intellectuals with Marxism, considering that Stalin was a notorious anti-Semite. It was also obvious to my parents that Russia under Stalin was a brutal totalitarian dictatorship and hardly a "workers paradise." Still, my father went to a couple of Communist meetings, and supported many liberal causes such as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which solicited Americans to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930's. Any mild interest my father may have had in Communism was dashed by the Warsaw Pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939.
If my father was anti-Communist, the same could not be said for Karl Prussion, an active party member who spent days on end standing on street corners passing out leaflets, trying to persuade people to join the party. Prussion's father had also been a Communist and named his son after Karl Marx. Karl Prussion tried particularly hard to get my patents to join but they never did.
In 1954, during an automobile trip to the West Coast, my parents, myself, and my brother and sister spent several very pleasant days with the Prussions, who then lived in Los Altos, California. At the time, Karl was a Metallurgical Engineer employed by Westinghouse, in Mountainview, California. We have photos (slides and 8-mm movies) of our day touring downtown San Francisco with Karl and Dorothy Prussion and their two small children. Everybody was smiling. It was a happy time.
Fast-forward to 1962. I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan and my sister Barbara was a senior at Wayne State University. I came home one weekend to find my father in a quiet, sullen mood. On the coffee table in the living room, there was a copy of the Wayne State student newspaper. On the back page of the newspaper was a half-page ad. It said: "Speaking tonight, Karl Prussion, former Communist Party member, former FBI counterspy."
"I always wondered how that bastard managed to always get top-secret clearance as an engineer even though he was a Communist," my father muttered. But mostly, he kept repeating, "I could understand if he was just gathering information. But he stood on the street and actively lured people into the party. Then he promptly had them arrested."
Prussion has done much writing and public speaking on the "Communist Menace," all from an extreme right-wing perspective. Aside from the "I Led Three Lives" guy, he is probably the best known and most notorious FBI counterspy. In slight fairness to Prussion, and if it's any solace to my parents, his informant days didn't begin until 1947. How genuine his Communist activities were in 1939, only he can answer.
My parents always joked that my father's post office murals all preceded the births of their children by nine months. Actually, that isn't quite true. I was born in 1943, after the post office program had ended, and my brother Paul was born in 1946. My sister Barbara, born in 1940 (and died in 2001), did actually result from a mural contract.
My father painted four post office murals. I don't have the dates but they were all done between 1938 and 1941. The mural for the East Lansing, Michigan Post Office, "America's First Agricultural College," is the most interesting to me because I once read the contract and a series of letters from the regional artistic director for the Federal government. I came across the material while surreptitiously rummaging through bureau drawers in my parents' bedroom, at age 14. My dad was paid $800 for the mural, which has since been moved to the main library at Michigan State University. In today's money, that's about $10,000. Still not very much.
In the correspondences, my father apparently kept submitting sketches and ideas, none of which the artistic director liked. The artistic director's letters kept getting more and more critical and terse, eventually threatening to withdraw the contract. Finally, at the last minute, dad came through with a sketch that met with the artistic director's approval.
Moral: You did not have a whole lot of creative leeway when you did murals for the US Government. (Note: After my father's death, and again after my mother's death, I scoured the house for those mural contracts and letters but never could find them again).
Anna and the Frankfort Post Office.
In addition to the East Lansing mural, my father painted murals in the Post Offices in Midland, Michigan (depicting the Dow Chemical Company, which is located there; since 1989, the mural has been located at the County Service Building, 220 West Elsworth Street, Midland, MI), Mount Sterling, Illinois ("Crossing the Prairie"), and Frankfort, Michigan, a small and very picturesque town on Lake Michigan. Frankfort is the eastern terminus of the car and railroad ferry that still crosses from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The mural depicts a notorious blizzard on Lake Michigan, in which railroad boxcars were thrown overboard to prevent the ferry from sinking. The mural remains in place and the people of Frankfort are very fond of it. The local stores sell postcards with photos of the mural.
In 1991, I took my daughter Anna, then nine, to Frankfort. We also brought along her cousin Amber, who is ten days older than Anna, and our oldest granddaughter, Jacqueline, who is two years younger than Anna. The kids were having great fun playing in the back seat as we drove down from my wife's parents' house in the Upper Peninsula. During the ride, Anna expressed no interest whatsoever in the mural or in her grandfather. After all, he meant nothing to her. He died in 1964 and she was born in 1982. So there was no connection whatsoever.
There was no connection, at least, until Anna walked into the dim lobby of the post office and saw her own name written in the corner of the mural: "Bernstein - 1941." Suddenly it hit home. Her grandfather was a real person. She began stopping postal patrons and announcing that her grandfather had painted the mural. The patrons all played their parts to the fullest and acted impressed, as indeed many were. The postmaster even came out to talk to us. Across the street in the drugstore, where we purchased postcards of the mural, Anna mentioned to the clerk, a very pleasant and chatty lady in her fifties, about her grandfather.
"That's wonderful," the lady replied. "My father was a crew member on the ferry during that storm."
With World War II, the era of government sponsored pubic art came largely to an end. There were no more post office murals and no more WPA. Henry Bernstein, being ineligible for military service due to a heart murmur traced to a bout with scarlet fever that led to rheumatic fever, when he was twelve, got a job as a draftsman and engineering assistant at the Willow Run bomber factory, near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Run by the government and the Ford Motor Company, Willow Run did for the mass production of airplanes during wartime what Ford had done for the mass production of automobiles. At the time, Willow Run was correctly called the "Arsenal of Democracy." My father had taken mechanical drawing in high school, and a couple more courses in it in art school.
Years later, my daughter Anna also contracted scarlet fever (now called "scarlatina"). With antibiotics, her disease lasted a day. I had rheumatic fever when I was 13 but it did not cause a heart murmur. It certainly lasted more than a day, though.
My father's brother Sammy fought proudly in World War II. So did my uncle Milton Brown, the Art Historian. Brown participated in the invasion of Italy and later wrote for the Rome "Stars and Stripes," the military newspaper, about the great art treasures of Italy.
A momentous and erroneous decision.
With my father steadily employed and babies arriving every three years, my parents moved away from the Prussions to a rented house on Blaine Street, then purchased the family home on Littlefield in 1944. The three Bernstein children all grew up in the Littlefield house and both my parents died there, my father in 1964 and my mother in 1974. My brother lived in the house until 1984. There was obviously something significant about the "four" year of each decade.
Because of the rapidly arriving babies, and enjoying the security of a steady paycheck, my father made the momentous and erroneous decision that he would continue to work as long as he had children at home, and that art would henceforth become only a sideline. He figured that the self-promotion and unsteady income of an artist was not fair to his children. My mother had quit her job with the welfare department in 1940, after nine years, on the birth of her first child.
Henry Bernstein spent the subsequent twenty years at jobs he hated, literally working himself to death, 50 to 60 hours a week. After Willow Run, he worked at another engineering company. And in 1950 or so, he got a job at Pioneer Engineering Company on John R Street in Detroit. He was at work there when he died, of a sudden massive heart attack. He never made more than $10,000 a year during his whole life, but he bought a house and put two children through college and his wife through graduate school on that money.
My dad continued as a hobby painter. On most Sundays and many evenings, he could be found alone in the bedroom, working on a painting, always with a slightly melancholy look on his face. He looked forward to the day when he could retire, quit his job, go back to painting full-time and possibly travel to Paris. One of his lifelong dreams was to visit Paris.
Henry had a couple gallery shows during that extended period, including a group show in New York, and several portrait commissions, and he designed the Jewish War Veterans' "Book of Life" honoring Detroit Jews killed in US military service. And he taught art classes, first on weekends at the Jewish Community Center, then in his basement.
Marvin Beerbohm, meanwhile, went to work for the Detroit Public Schools and taught high school art for years. He also co-taught the free classes they used to have at the Detroit Art Institute on weekends. When I was in high school I attended those classes with my girlfriend. While Marvin was very nice to me and lots of fun to be around, I think he was a little disappointed that I didn't have anywhere near the talent that my father did.
The Michigan Artists Show.
If you were (or are) an artist in Michigan, the annual Michigan Artists Show at the Art Institute is THE major event. My father was represented in the show every year from 1932 to 1948. He won their top prize a couple of times, helped judge the show for several years, and won at least two purchase awards so that the museum owns a couple of his paintings (which are not and never have been on display).
One reason for both my father's success at the Michigan Artists Show and his weekend job teaching at the Jewish Community Center, was the friendship of a wealthy art patron named Anna Werbe, who sat on the Board of both organizations. There was for many years a portrait of Anna Werbe, painted by Sarkis Sarkisian, on permanent display at the Art Institute.
In 1948, Anna Werbe visited my father's Jewish Center class, unannounced, with a bunch of wealthy guests. For some reason, she thought my father had been rude to them during the visit, which he denies (I think that's how the story goes). The next week, she barged into his class and began screaming at him in front of the students. When my father complained about this to the Director of the Jewish Community Center, Werbe insisted that my father be fired. When the Director, Herman Jacobs, refused, she had them both fired.
From that point on, my father was never again accepted in the Michigan Artists Show. The apparent ban continued long after Anna Werbe's death, which occurred not too long after the Jewish Center incident. While dad's failure to be accepted in the show might have initially had something to do with Anna Werbe; in later years, the late fifties and into the sixties, it had more to do with my father not keeping up with the times and fads. He loathed abstract art and would not do it, and he remained locked into the tightly drawn, tightly crafted realism popular in the government art of the thirties and forties. If anything, over the years, Henry Bernstein's art became even more technical and tight, in part because of his continued fascination with egg tempera, which demands much more precision than oils, and much finer brushes. His subject matter, too, became more and more constricted. He went from grand social themes to still-lifes of kid's toys and portraits of his children.
Dad was always asking his kids to pose. A few years ago, I assembled from relatives, all the portraits of me that he had done over the years. There were five of them. When you lined them all up, it turned out, they all had the same mostly expressionless, slightly brooding look that passed for "emotion" in those days. And they were all three-quarter view portraits, all facing slightly left (not unlike my father's politics).
In 1992, my daughter Sara did a portrait of me, in ink and spray paint, for a college art class, based on a silly snapshot she'd taken, of me pulling my then long hair with a wildly insane look on my face. I loved the gallery of somber, brooding portraits by my father, culminating with the explosion of emotion in Sara's portrait.
As long as I knew my father, and as frustrated and sad as he often was, he remained the consummate artist and a wonderful, devoted father. Everything he did had a creative flair, and his world view was always from an artistic perspective. I remember him painting breasts on my sister (when she was six), and painting the dinners that my sister and I had just eaten, on the outside of our stomachs. He was also a terrific extemporaneous story-teller -- one per night, made up on the spur of the moment, for ten years. I also fondly remember the hilarious, hand-drawn greeting cards he loved to make. And I recall him observing once, at a family gathering, of which there were many, that my cousin Elliott, then six or seven years old, had "square knees." I have a vivid memory of him sitting on a park bench at Detroit's Belle Isle Park, sketching passersby, factories, the Detroit River, the park and ore freighters. He loved ore freighters.
But mostly, I remember him alone in his room, on weekends and evenings, painting furiously and carefully storing the completed paintings in a closet.
Taking it easy.
In 1962, my father was rushed to the hospital with severe chest pains and shortness of breath. It was not a heart attack but he was found to have an enlarged heart with an irregular beat, fibrillations, and severe damage from childhood diseases. A valve replacement or heart transplant would have lengthened his life considerably, but those were not options in 1962. He was put on medication and told to "take it easy." He took it easy by cutting his work week from 60 to 50 hours. And he began building lawn furniture so he would have something to sit on while he took it easy. I think he missed the point.
His paintings changed drastically during those final two years, when he knew he was dying. They become much looser, almost frantic, and he painted mostly self-portraits, with many intense close-ups. He never quite got loose enough to go abstract, or even slightly abstract, but it was a radical departure and psychologically very interesting.
In June 1962, my sister and mother both graduated from Wayne State, my sister with a BA in Spanish and my mother with a Master of Social Work. My mother immediately found an excellent job with the Family Service Society of Detroit. In May 1964, I graduated from the University of Michigan, with President Lyndon Johnson giving his "Great Society Speech" at my graduation (coincidentally, President Clinton spoke at my daughter Sara's graduation from Portland State University in 1997). Also in May 1964, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. My father gave my mother a diamond and ruby engagement ring, claiming that he didn't believe in such maudlin and materialistic sentimentality in 1939, and that he'd "felt guilty about it ever since."
In July 1964, I was working as a counselor at a day camp. One day, after drinking in a bar with friends until two a.m., then chasing after kids all day, I came home exhausted and ready to collapse into bed. When I got home, my sister Barbara came up to me.
"Daddy died," she said quietly. It took me a couple minutes to get beyond the denial and to comprehend. I'll never forget my answer:
"That's terrible. Is he OK?"
The Detroit newspapers were on strike at the time of my father's death, but when they started up again, they ran a very nice obituary and article.
Most of this article was written from memory and I have indicated where I was not sure of the facts. I would have made a greater effort to verify my information, except that all the potential informants I could think of, who had close knowledge of my parent's activities in the 1930's and 40's, are deceased. My mother would be 93 and my father 91 were they still alive. Marvin Beerbohm would be 95. His daughter, Cynthia, whom I last saw in 1965, is very interested in her father's career but I have no idea where she lives. Somewhere in Indiana, last I heard. Uncle Milton and Aunt Blanche would be 92 and 88 and are both deceased. My parents' closest friends, the Grafs, the Werbes, no relation to Anna Werbe as far as I know, and the Feinbergs are nearly all deceased as far as I know. I have no idea if Karl Prussion is alive or not.
Update August, 2004: According to Detroit Radio personality Peter Werbe, and his sister Susan, the children of my parents' dear friends Ray and Jennie Werbe, Anna Werbe was Ray's second cousin and remains a memorable historic figure as a Detroit art patron. Ray Werbe, as of 2004, lives in Baltimore where he is in excellent health and swims and plays tennis regularly.
(Art Bernstein is the son and middle child of the artist Henry Bernstein. After receiving his MS in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan in1972, Art and his family settled in Grants Pass, Oregon, where they continue to reside. Art Bernstein is the author of 14 guidebooks to the hiking trails, natural history and back-country byways of Oregon, Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. His most recent book, published in June, 2003 by the Globe-Pequot Press, is a collection of strange-but-true short stories called, "Weird Hikes.")
© 2006 Nancy Lorance
All Rights Reserved.