|Loren MacIver by Carl Van Vechten undated|
Walking by the little parking lot at the corner of 6th Avenue and 17th Street (where a weekend flea market used to be) and finding it empty and fenced, I felt blue. It wasn't my favorite flea but I liked it just the same. On one of my last walks through, I came upon an old issue of Time magazine from January 1953, and read in it the following item:
“LOREN MACIVER, 43, started painting her personal world with a child's vivid imagination at three and is still going strong. A shy, blue-jeaned figure who roams Manhattan in winter and enjoys the seacoast in summer, she paints sand dunes, dilapidated beach shacks, blistered city sidewalks and budding trees. Most of the time her subjects become misty, almost phosphorescent fantasies. Sometimes she turns sharply realistic and does a meticulous study of a battered window shade or a pair of old shoes. One of her best: Emmett Kelly, a sympathetic portrait of the sad-eyed circus clown.”
And I remembered Loren telling me about Emmett Kelly herself a dozen years ago or so in her yellow-painted bedroom on the top floor of number 61 Perry Street. Thanks to him, Loren said, she was allowed to hang around the circus right up close and make a whole bunch of drawings. He was a real pal, Emmett Kelly was, and the portrait she made of him ended up on the cover of Life magazine in July 1947.
Loren was someplace in her eighties when she told me the story, but she was like a kid in a lot of ways. I can still conjure up her voice in my head. It was low, rich like honey, and very easy on the ears. She told me that on the opening night of the Big Top, she stood among the ropes and sandbags and watched as just a few feet away Marlene Dietrich mounted a magnificent white horse. Loren smiled up at her. And Dietrich looked down at Loren and winked. Then she rode out into the big ring to start the first night of the circus in Manhattan. Loren said that little exchange, just between the two of them and the wink, was a thousand times better than anything that could have been spoken in words.
She had hundreds of little stories like that. There was nothing more pleasant than going to hear her tell them, sitting side by side on the edge of her bed in her pretty bedroom with the marble fireplace, where she had been sleeping since 1938. She had some Beatrix Potter figurines sitting on the mantle that had so delighted Dylan Thomas when he first saw them that he clapped. And he wrote some of his finest poems in that very room. Loren told me how the chimneysweep used to come and use old corsets called Mae Wests to clean the chimney, and that Alexander Calder would come over and bring champagne and marshmallows after the chimney was swept and a fire was blazing. She said he used to drive around in an old Rolls Royce, delivering his sculptures. Her friend e.e.cummings lived nearby in the little mews over by the Jefferson Market Library, and hanging above her fireplace was a beautiful little painting of a carousel that he had made and given to her. Sometimes she said, “I think e.e. would have liked you and that you would have liked him.” And that was magic. Even if she was only saying it to please me, it made me feel as if it were true. She told me how several afternoons a week she would walk over to e.e. cummings’ place at five o’clock for tea and cookies. He was probably the only person living in the Village who didn’t drink, she said. Everyone else sure did. Loren drank with Dylan Thomas and she drank with Dawn Powell, and she made me laugh one night telling me about the time she and Dawn Powell went out to eat and the host told them to wait at the bar for a table to open up. They sat and downed a few and when he came back and said, “Ladies, your table is ready,” Dawn replied, “Thanks, I’ll crawl right under it.”
Sometimes we talked in her studio and she let me sit at the piano that once upon a time Billie Holiday used to play a lot just for the fun of it. That was magic too, like the studio itself, especially on nights with moonlight coming through the big skylight, or with rain pounding on it.
She told me about painting a big mural of butterflies and fish in the library of the steamship Argentina, for which she and her husband Lloyd Frankenberg got free passage to France. And then in Paris they both fell terribly ill and a young nun came every day free of charge to look after them in the little room they had, and they’d fill her pockets with sweets. She told me that once in Venice she wore a real Chanel suit in a gondola, and about some friends who had a big white kitty so beautiful they decided to give her an ugly name just to balance things out. I said, “What did they call her?” And Loren said: “McGurk.”
She told me about telling off Evelyn Waugh at a party because he was just so pompous she finally couldn’t stand it anymore. And about Greta Garbo, who she knew, she just shook her head and said very quietly: “Poor sad creature.” Sometimes though, Loren just felt like watching Entertainment Tonight, which she called “The Silly Program,” and so that’s what we did.
It was nice to ring the buzzer and hear Loren ask, “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Romy,” I’d say. And she would exclaim, “Hooray!”
Somehow, even though I know she gave that to many, she had a way of making it sound, every visit, like the first time she ever said it.