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posted: 11/7/2004 at 11:21:56 AM ET
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November 7, 2004 -- Arts
The Masterpiece in the Hallway

IN 1980, I was in Los Angeles filming the movie "Pennies From Heaven," on the lot at MGM, which bore the musty patina of old Hollywood. The studio still maintained rehearsal halls lined with mirrors and ballet barres, and little clouds of antique dust would explode from the floors with each heel-stomp of the time-step. My enthusiasm for the movie kept me tap-dancing to exhaustion, acting my head off (which I learned later in my career was not the best approach) and enthralled with the heady stream of visitors - which included Cary Grant - who would come by to see the nostalgically staged musical numbers. The director of the film, Herbert Ross, along with his wife, the former prima ballerina Nora Kaye, were highly regarded in the loftier circles of the New York dance scene, and it was they who took me to my first ballet.

One of the visitors to the set was Leo Lerman, who was friendly with both Herbert and my co-star, Bernadette Peters. Leo, then in his 60's, was the features editor for Vogue magazine, having ascended to the position through a long history of cultural duties, including a stint as a critic for Dance Magazine. He was a genuine aesthete, with his general posture not being a critic of the arts, but a lover of them. He was versed in painting, opera, symphonic music, ballet and theater, and could recall decades-old performances and still laud them. He also balanced himself on a cane, and over the years deteriorated until his gait was so impossibly slow that we all had to engage in lengthy conversations to kill time while Leo entered the room at tortoise pace.

Leo's companion was Gray Foy. Seven years younger than Leo, Gray was equally sophisticated in the arts, and for almost five decades everywhere Leo was, he was too, tirelessly assisting Leo as he grew increasingly slow and needy. Gray had a gentle charm and was never afraid to express his artistic opinion, but I assumed his sole function in life was to be the keeper of Leo's halo.

In the early 1980's, I was invited to a dinner party at their grand apartment on West 57th Street. Leo and Gray had an eye for things, and the apartment was elegantly overstuffed with Old World collectibles. Ceramic figurines sat on the mantels of the two or three fireplaces, paintings crowded the walls and included a wonderfully bizarre collection of two dozen 19th-century Italian volcano pictures, which showed various glowing nighttime eruptions while small figurines of peasants watched helplessly below. Also included in the treasures were a few fine 19th-century American pictures; a nice W. H. Beard, the fanciful - yet serious - painter of bears cavorting; and an exceptional William Mason Brown, who painted photorealistic still lives of, among other things, cherries in hats. All this was augmented by period furniture that set off the artworks in Victorian splendor.

But the most noticeable feature of the apartment was the books. They crowded the hallways, ringed every floor of every room, and made every trip to the bathroom a side-stepping tango. Avid readers, and reluctant to throw out such worthy friends, Leo and Gray stacked the books along every baseboard until they rose precariously to the limit of balance.

I had been a collector of one thing or another my whole life, and my current interest was in 19th-century American painting, so while guests gathered for dinner, I asked Gray if he would show me around the apartment. This excursion to survey stuff was probably also motivated by the desire to avoid group greetings, which, in spite of a lifetime of appearing in front of crowds, made me nervous and uncomfortable. I longed for the repartee of the dinner, which I deeply enjoyed listening to and to which I could sometimes accidentally contribute a near bon-mot, but sneaking away to look at art could get me out of 15 minutes of predinner chitchat. Gray accommodated me, and we went from room to room as I tried, secretly, to estimate everything's value and pointlessly gauge its authenticity.

We went down a back hallway, which was hung high and low with smaller artworks, photos and memorabilia. I passed a drawing, hard to read in the dim light. It was done in fine pencil, extreme in detail, a monochromatic rainbow of gray gradients on white paper. The picture had its heart in Surrealism, more akin to the Russian Pavel Tchelitchew than Dalí, though the quality of the draftsmanship rivaled Dalí at his best. The drawing was done in the early 40's, before Abstract Expressionism obliterated the art world's need for academic drawing. It had other roots too. There was something old master-ish about it, Bosch-like, reminiscent of a dark etching emerging from the stylus of a 16th-century obsessive.

The elements in the drawing were human figures - mostly female, mostly tortured - chairs, vaulted geometric planes, vines, flowers and splayed cadavers, Arcimboldo-style horses coalescing out of tree branches. There was a man's trousered leg dangling mysteriously into frame like Manet's Folies-Bergère trapeze artist. There were udders, mouths and teeth, chimerical sea creatures and a few unrecognizable manifestations. The drawing was lush with Surrealist imagery that was woven together seamlessly. I am not a sucker for photorealistic skill, but the microscopic details were effortlessly done and expertly supported the drawing's content. I felt I was looking at an exceptional artwork.

I turned to Gray and said, "Who did this?"

He said, "I did."

He pointed out several of his other drawings in the hallway, each of the same quality, though smaller in size and scope.

I said, "Do you still draw?"

"No," he said.

"Why did you quit?" I said.

"To take care of Leo," he said.

After that night, I didn't see the drawing for 24 years.

After Leo died in 1994, I saw Gray occasionally, inviting him to lunch around the corner from his midtown apartment. Gray was still vibrant, though slowed down, and he remained polite and unassuming. And he had a head of gray hair so dense that I understood what Jimmy Carter meant when he reiterated, "Life isn't fair." At the last lunch we had, this past spring, Gray had told me he was undergoing chemotherapy. He made jokes about his ailments, and he always kept lunch brief, probably on the assumption that I was "busy." I walked him back to his apartment and within a few days went to Paris to finish shooting the film I was working on.

While in Paris, living in the kind of luxury that you only responsibly indulge in when someone else is paying for it, I thought about Gray and wondered if he might need money. I guessed, with no evidence at all, that the estate might have dwindled through the years and that the chemo probably had put an enormous pressure on whatever was left. Gray and I did not have the kind of relationship where an outright gift would be appropriate nor did I know him well enough to ask if he was financially O.K., yet I felt that there was something suitable that could be done.

Over cocktails with a friend, I was telling the story of Gray Foy and Leo Lerman, when I remembered the drawing. I wondered about offering to buy it from him. At first it sounded sinister, like a midnight raid on someone's personal possessions. But I remembered what a painter friend once said, "Artists love it when you love their work." I thought it over for a few days and decided that it was a legitimate way to send some money his way, as my regard for the drawing was real. I thought about the price and came up with a decent figure, an amount respectful for the drawing and enough to perhaps ease whatever burden he might be under. I called him from Paris and asked how he was. I loved his straightforward answer: "Oh, not so good." We chatted a bit then, I told him how much I had loved the drawing and remembered it through the years and wondered if he would consider selling it. He seemed surprised and elated, and said jokingly - though I wasn't sure if it actually was a joke - "that'll pay for a week of chemo!" I sent off the check that day.

Four weeks later I returned to New York and made a date to visit Gray to say hello and pick up the picture. I wondered if I had exaggerated its quality or if my taste had changed and I would no longer appreciate it the way I did over two decades ago. In fact, my memory of liking it was actually stronger than my memory of the drawing itself. I was greeted at the door by Gray's friend Joel Kaye. I didn't understand their relationship other than that Joel seemed to be taking care of Gray. I didn't know what to expect of Gray's condition, but he came down the hall confidently and though a tad frail, had a spryness that instantly relaxed me.

Gray and Joel led me to the drawing, which had been moved from the back hallway to the front room. The daylight that fell on it everyday except the gloomiest made me nervous, as no work on paper should be anywhere near the sunlight. The drawing was at least twice as large as I remembered it (it is 22 inches high by 28 inches across), and seeing it now was a fresh experience. I was startled by its complexity and detail. It was done during the war, Gray said, when he had been working in a warplane factory in Burbank, Calif. It had taken him several years to complete. The picture was even better than I recollected, and its date, the early 1940's, made it part of the peripheral history of Surrealism and not a one-off anomaly by a talented artist. The drawing was fully mature, without a weak moment, and possessing its own voice. Some of the passages appeared to accomplish the impossible: certain strokes seemed smaller than a pencil point. The world-class quality of the work could very likely make him the most advanced artist and finest draftsman working in California in the 1940's.

I rhapsodized over the drawing for a bit, went to look at a few other of his smaller drawings in the hallway, and Gray's tiredness indicated it was time to go. Before I left the apartment, Joel took me aside and asked if they could get a full- size reproduction of the picture to rehang in the apartment. I had no idea how to do it, but I said I would try.

Then he asked if I knew anything about the taxes that might apply on the sale of the artwork. "We're in the 50 percent bracket, you know."

Steve Martin is the author of "The Pleasure of My Company."


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posted: 11/8/2004 at 11:36:15 AM ET
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That was wonderful. Thank you for posting that - I would have missed it otherwise. Steve Martin is a fun writer, and a good soul too. I have enjoyed his fiction quite alot.

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