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Monday, March 26, 2018

The Billy Rose Fire

Fire and paintings do not mix.
(This is a reasonably accurate digital reconstruction. I did NOT run out and take a picture of my stupidity for old time's sake.)
About fifty years ago, when I was a sophomore art student at Ohio University, my wife and I lived in a 12 by 60-foot mobile home. One Sunday afternoon, we invited my parents over for a barbecue (my dad was big on barbecued chicken). I set up a brand new grill on the concrete pad just outside our "trailer" (or caravan as the British call them), and proceeded to light the charcoal "briquettes." That required a special lighter fluid just a little less flammable than gasoline and somewhat more so than lamp oil. In any case it was a rather time consuming, hit or miss operation. In this case it was both.

The left painting is now known only through this photo. The painting on the right I redid the following year.
A strong thunderstorm wind came up to speed ignition but the accompanying shower threatened to leave us with chicken tartar on the menu. We had a small metal storage building next to our magnificent abode so I decided to move the grill just inside the broad access door (dumb move on my part). What with the wind, in no time the contents of the building were on fire. The steel building was a total loss (above) and came within about a foot and the Chauncey (Ohio) Volunteer Fire Department of incinerating our mobile home as well. In the process I lost two Christmas paintings (above), which I'd stored in the building awaiting the appropriate season for display. Except for that we were quite lucky.
This present day reconstruction of Rose Hill appears somewhat smaller than Billy Rose's ostentations mansion, (tiny inset) but does suggest the architectural opulence that went up in smoke in just a few hours.

  In the early morning hours of April 2, 1956, the famous Broadway impresario, Billy Rose, was not so lucky. A fire at his Mount Kisco, New York (a northern suburb of NYC), destroyed not only his multi-million-dollar, 28-room, Georgian mansion (now referred to as Rose Hill) but his entire private art collection consisting of at least seven Salvador Dali masterpieces, as well as numerous others by classical artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Franz Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and others. Taken together, the art was probably worth more in dollars and cents that the sprawling mansion (which was far removed from a mobile home and had almost enough wings to take flight). No one was injured in the conflagration, though fighting the fire was something of a comedy of errors. The fire department had to be called from a neighbor's phone (a half-mile away) thus they were quite late in getting there, only to discover that the nearest major water supply was a lake over a mile away (to which a hose had to be run). By daybreak, it would seem to have been hardly worth the bother. (Life magazine took pictures of the bubble but no photos of the fire or the ruins seem to exist today).

Billy Rose's close friend, Salvador Dali (1944) posing with his series, "The Seven Lively (or Animated) Arts." All were lost in the fire. Dali later reproduced at least one of them from memory for Rose.
Not surprisingly, when the press interviewed Rose as to his loss, he was not inclined to talk about it: "Let's just say it all burned up. That’s all I want to say. I lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced with money.” Although some of the works by classical artists were probably worth more on the art market at the time, nearest and dearest to Billy's heart were the series of seven painting he had commissioned from his friend and sometimes collaborator, Salvador Dali, dealing with "The Seven Lively Arts"--opera, ballet, cinema, theater, radio, art of the concert (music), and Boogie-Woogie (dance). Four of them survive in black and white photographs. Missing below are The Art of Theater, The Art of Radio, and The Art of Ballet.

Typical of Dali from the late 1940s.
Dalí and Rose first met during preparations for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where the artist was commissioned to create a pavilion that he called “Dreams of Venus," while others described as a “surrealist funhouse.” The pale-pink facade, covered with weird protrusions and statuary, led into a space filled with naked women, bizarre tableaus, and a radical combination of references to the Renaissance, current pop culture, and the risqué. Rose helped Dali achieve his vision using his experience as a nightclub owner known in putting on raucous shows of his own, among many other profitable showbiz ventures.
As you can see in comparing this version of The Art of Boogie-Woogie with that just above, the recreation is only an approximation of the original.
Beginning with that collaboration, a long friendship was born. Dalí went on to supply the illustrations for Rose’s 1946 autobiography Wine, Women, and Words. But before that, Rose envisioned a theater extravaganza for which he enlisted the surrealist’s help. In December 1944, with World War II still raging, Rose bought the Ziegfeld Theater and transformed it from a movie house back into its original incarnation as a showcase for the arts of the stage. To christen the theater, he decided to put on a musical revue that would both introduce the space under his new management while being a Broadway spectacle the likes of which New York hadn’t seen since the before the war. His new play was titled The Seven Lively Arts, which told the story of a group of young people who come to New York to woo the arts.

The only known photo of the interior of Billy Rose's mansion.
In addition to the art of the stage, Rose decided that he wanted to wow his theater guests with art of the painted variety. He asked Dalí to create seven works of art to be displayed in the lobby of the theater that would depict the seven arts also referenced in the show: theater, popular music, opera, ballet, classical music, movies, and the radio. Life magazine, which photographed the paintings in the series for an art feature, reported that Dalí created the works while “locked in a cubbyhole high in Ziegfeld Theater.” The result were canvases that were classically Dalí, surrealist visions of the forms and effects of the arts in question. Of all those destroyed in the fire, only Dali's Seven Lively Arts: The Art of Boogie-Woogie was recreated by the artist (above).

One might argue that Billy Rose was even more famous for his collection of wives starting with Fanny Brice in 1929 until his death in 1966.
Billy Rose’s Seven Lively Arts would go on to have 183 performances, but its run at the Ziegfeld was outlasted by the Dalí paintings, which remained on display for 10 years. Two years before the devastating fire broke out, Rose moved the paintings to his mansion in Westchester. Their loss—and the loss of most (but not all) of his worldly possessions was devastating to Rose. Incidentally, I should note that Billy Rose collected wives (above) like some people collect art. None of his wives burned up in the fire.
Billy Rose, 1947, Salvador Dali


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