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Monday, February 16, 2015

Milton Menasco

Milton Menasco sketching silent film beauty, Fay Wray (King Kong's girlfriend).                  
It's not unheard of for men (usually) to go through what's come to be called a "mid-life crisis." Most commonly it involves an awakening sometime after the age of forty to the realization that half their life has passed and they've accomplished far less than half of what they'd hoped; or that their life has become boring, tired, and meaningless. Paul Gauguin is sometimes considered the artist poster boy for such a phenomena, though quite a number of others involved in various aspects of the fine arts could serve just as well. Sometimes, the mid-life crisis is forced upon the individual--he or she gets fired from their day job. Very often it's a failure to change with the times. Charlie Chaplain continued to make silent films for ten years after the advent of talkies. It nearly bankrupted his film company. Milton Menasco was also a fixture in the silent film industry during the 1920s. Maybe the two knew each other. Menasco was the art director or set designer for some thirty-three silent films from 1918 to 1926.
The Lost World, 1925, Milton Menasco, art director.
A poster for The Lost World said
to be by Menasco.
Born in Los Angeles in 1890, Menasco was probably best known for his work as art director on the 1925 film, The Lost World. If you've never heard of it, let me refresh your memory. It was kind of a silent version of Jurassic Park, dinosaurs and all that. The poster above gives you some feeling for what the film was all about, as well as a glimpse of the work Menasco did long before special effects involved much more than slow motion, matte paintings, perhaps a little animation. The movie was based upon a book by the famous British writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Although directed by Harry O. Hoyt, critics credited Menasco's team with much of the success of the film. However, it must be remembered that Hollywood in the silent film era and what we think of today, were a world apart. Even as late as the 1950s, motion picture studios were often compared to factories, literally mass producing cinematic entertainment on a vast scale. That was especially the case with silent films in the 1920s. The Lost World was just one of nine films Menasco worked on in 1925 alone (another nine the year before). Keep in mind Menasco's total of thirty-three films were over a period of just eight years.

When Victory is Ours; advertisement for Lee Rubber & Tire, 1944, Milton Talbot Menasco
Menasco's cover for one of Farley's
Black Stallion novels.
Perhaps fleeing the horrendous work schedule, Menasco left Hollywood around 1926 to work for a New York film company where he contributed set designs for another three more films. His last one, ironically, or perhaps prophetically, was titled Too Much Money. From that point on, through the 1930s, the artist turned his hand to advertising, designing magazine and book covers including several for Walter Farley's Black Stallion series. In the process, he discovered a knack and love for painting horses--not quite a mid-life crisis, more of an epiphany. A gallery in New York did a brisk business selling Menasco's equine oils, watercolors, and prints. When the war came, Menasco went to work for Life magazine illustrating land and sea battles both in Europe and the Pacific (above).

Morning Inspection at Saratoga, watercolor, Milton Menasco

At Start of Santa Anita,1952, Milton Menasco
After the war, came the major "mid-life crisis." Menasco decided to give up the big-time art world of New York with all its pressures and deadlines in favor of a quiet farm in Versailles, Kentucky (a few miles west of Lexington), better known as "horse country." There he made for himself a whole new career painting portraits of horses. Owners and breeders liked the rich feeling and colors reflected in Menasco's paintings. His clients included John Hay Whitney, Isabel Dodge Sloane, President Ronald Reagan, and Allaire du Pont. One of his first large paintings depicted nine horses belonging to Lucille Markey of Calumet Farm, including Citation, Coaltown, and others. As time went on, Menasco's relatively brief career in Hollywood was forgotten while his fame spread far beyond the bluegrass of Kentucky to Virginia, New York, Florida, and California, wherever the wealthy kept and raced their thoroughbreds. Milton Menasco died in 1974 at the age of eighty-four. All the famous winners he painted have likewise passed on. Yet we have Menasco's paintings of them recalling their fame. Unfortunately, there's not a single painting of Milton Menasco to be found anywhere.

Dancer's Image Winning the 1968 Kentucky Derby, Milton Menasco



  1. Love the article. We actually bought the house he lived in here in Santa Maria .

  2. Thanks for your comment. He's a favorite of mine.