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California - Brighter prospects

After Julian's abortive suicide attempt, his situation and disposition did improve a bit. Julian managed a bit more work in the summer of 1938 painting scenery for Warner brothers. There, he met another scenery painter who told him about the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and the opportunities it presented for artist. Barely a week later and once again out of work, Ritter packed his meager possessions into his Ford roadster and headed to San Francisco looking for work at the Golden Gate International Exhibition of 1939. He talked architect Mark Daniels into initially hiring him to paint murals for the Mines, Minerals and Machinery Building for a commission of $2950 dollars. When Julian heard that there were additional murals planned for the California Agriculture Exhibit and one for the theater attached to the Mining building, he pressed Daniels for these commissions as well. Daniels was reluctant, fearing that Julian would not be able to complete all three commissions on time. Julian was determined and confident in his ability to work quickly and assured Daniels that not only would he finish on time, he would have the work done a week early. Daniels relented and signed Julian on for the additional murals for a total commission of $5000 and a case of whiskey for finishing on time. These large murals (one as large as 90 feet by 10 feet high) were a great success. Julian also made contact with the Emil Kotzbeck and Gus Drautz of the Kotzbeck Gallery. Kotzbeck exhibited and sold the freelance work Julian did after he completed his mural commission, and secured him a number commissions to San Francisco's upper-crust society. He also got him commissions to decorate the pediatric ward in an Oakland hospital and a San Francisco bordello. Julian especially enjoyed painting the bordello, giving it his best effort.

Julian Ritter tells about painting the San Francisco bordello

He [Kotzbeck] introduced me to a madam, five feet tall and five feet wide, who wanted a half-dozen paintings to decorate the roms of a new place she was opening. I was excited by the job and I took a lot of pains with it. I would lie on the bed, assuming the position of the customer, composing nudes to be viewed from that perspective. I was very proud of them, but when the madam saw them she hit the roof, calling me every name in the book. "What's the matter?" I said. "Don't you like the paintings?" She said, "Son. I'm running a business here and my girls got to jump from customer to customer. I don't want my customers dawdling around looking at pictures. Paint 'em out and give me some hollyhocks." So I did, and she was happy.

While I was decorating this place, I became aware that she owned another, much more elegant place. So I made her an offer to decorate it and take it out in trade. We made the deal: all the food I could eat, all the whiskey I could drink and two girls for a certain number of days. I don't know how long we agreed on, but I didn't make it. I had to call Kotzbeck before that: "Look, you've got to come and get me. I can't walk."

While in San Francisco, Julian had a chance encounter with his Micheltorena housemate, Jimmy Lawrence, who was doing photography for the fair. They met after the bars closed as they were both drunk and walking on Telegraph Hill, and went back to Julian's place to drink some more. They closed the bars several more times in the next three or four months.

Just about the time that he ran into Lawrence, Julian was surprised to run into another old friend from Los Angeles.

Julian Ritter runs into Francesca Chesley in San Francisco

I was reading an article in the newspaper about this show that was going to be opening at the fair when I ran across Francesca's name. Until then, I had no idea she was in San Francisco.

Julian and Francesca saw a good deal of one another during the six-month run of her play at the fair, dining and nightclubbing together. Julian made a stab at a reconciliation, begging her to take charge of his finances before he spent his earnings. But, if his desire for a reconciliation was sincere, his actions were somewhat ambivalent: Julian never once attended a performance of Francesca's play. and, if Julian was ambivalent, Francesca was even more so, keeping a cool non-cohabitating distance between them and spurning any entanglement in his finances. It wasn't until the next year, after they had both returned to Hollywood, that their relationship warmed into a closer friendship with Francesca once again modeling for him and taking some interest in his affairs. They eventually divorced in 1943 but remained friends through the years. Francesca was a guest at the gallery event where Ritter recalled his ill-fated voyage.

With all its fluctuations, debauchery was a more or less constant part of Julian's life, which had surprisingly little effect on his work. And this was the case even at the 1939 peak of debauchery. In addition to the three huge murals for the Golden Gate international Exposition, a half-dozen portraits and a dozen or more nudes that he painted that year, he continued to expand his repertoire, experimenting with new styles and materials.

Julian Ritter experiments with new styles and materials

I did my first abstracts in San Francisco, in poster colors on poster board. I did a whole flock of them - selling some, giving some away and destroying others; the only one that I kept was the one I gave to my daughter, Christine, in the 1970s.

I'd painted an odd clown portrait before this, and I'd been sketching them for years, but I painted a half-dozen or so over a period of a couple of weeks, working on my technique. But the thing I noticed, that brought me back to painting clowns after the war, was how readily I could sell them.

With money from the fair, Ritter packed up his roadster and returned to Los Angeles and looked for a new studio. Julian first into an apartment on Beachwood Drive in Hollywood, but the place had poor light so Julian only did a few sketched and no paintings before het hound a new place only a month later - a studio at 1749 N. La Brea. The site had been the location of the Hollywood School for Girls, where Hollywood's elite (including C. B. de Mille) sent their daughters for an education. After the school closed, the property was purchased by the Women's Club of Hollywood in 1939. The Women's Club occupied the main building but rented the other buildings on the property, mostly to aspiring artists and actors. When Julian arrived at this address he found many like-minded people and a new best friend: Charles "Chick" Rosenthal. Rosenthal lived in one of the upstairs apartments with a married couple - Rod and Nikki Redwing.

Julian Ritter talks about his friend, Rod Redwing, at 1749 N. La Brea address

The couple he [Chick Rosenthal] was living with - Rod and Nikki Redwing -  were characters too; in fact, Rod was a character actor and a stuntman. He was very handsome, a half-American Indian and half Indian Indian, who'd get bit parts as one or the other. He was also a sharpshooter who'd teach actors to shoot and do sharpshooting stunts for movies. When I met him, India was fashionable and he'd wear a turban and burn incense in his apartment. Then westerns became very big and he switched to buckskin, feathers and beads.

Julian talks about his best friend, Chick Rosenthal

Chick Rosenthal was living there [1749 N. La Brea] when I moved in, sharing an upstairs apartment with a married couple named Rod and Nikki redwing. Chick was a sculptor about ten years younger than me, who soon became my closet friend. Chick and I worked together, drank together and chased women together. We went to New York together, then lived together for about a year after I came back until I went in the army. We remained friends after the war, as we raised our families, right up until his death a few years ago.

Julian's new address housed a number of characters who had been or were involved with the arts: Louis Ogier Densmore was once a famous ballet dancer who'd fallen on hard times and was now making lampshades and performing furtive abortions; Madame Rouche, an elderly woman who had once danced in the Follies Bergere; and Norbert Schiller, a Viennese poet, playwright, actor and director who became a well-known character actor. While these characters were fun and eccentric, perhaps the most interesting person to also lived in the complex was William Frederick Foster, a renown illustrator and painter. Like Julian, he was also a student of "The Munich School" and Frank Duveneck. His technique was similar to Julian except that he painted "dry", right from the tube without the addition of any oil. Julian remembers that his beautiful work meant that he always had beautiful medels wanting to pose for him.

Several of the other residents were Julian's drinking buddies, but Densmore and Schiller went beyond just being Julian's pals. Densmore falsely stated in an affidavit that he had known of Ritter through a painting he bought in 1925 and that Julian looked him up when he moved to California. This was a fabrication made to puff up his credentials for citizenship and joining the military; ironically, it was unnecessary since Julian was still married to Francesca, a U.S. citizen. Schiller collaborated with Julian on a series of three "paintings with a Poem", about the French Revolution, which Julian showed at the Newhouse Galleries in New York City in 1941.

Julian enjoyed living in this complex, thriving in its bohemian atmosphere. He was painting furiously, turning out better work than ever before, and selling enough to liberally pursue his favorite vices.

Julian Ritter on his "reserve fund" at Fogcutter's

Whenever I'd get a big check for a painting, I'd take it down to Fogcutter's and deposit it to my account. I kept a reserve fund there so Chick and I wouldn't have to worry about getting a drink when we wanted.

While Julian and Chick were living it up, Julian's mother, Angela, turned his name into some organization as an alcoholic who needed help. Julian told them he wasn't an alcoholic and didn't need their help and they ony contacted him once, but Julian was once again incensed at his mother's meddlesome ways.

In the fall of 1940, Julian's old Art Center School friend, Ken Bauer, another portrait portrait and figure painter, introduced Julian to a man that would provide Julian with his first truly big break in the art world.

Julian tells of meeting Mr. Newhouse

Newhouse was a very important man who owned one of New York's biggest galleries. But I'd never herd of him or his gallery before my friend Bauer brought him by. And Bauer didn't have a chance to tell me about him - all he did was introduce him and say, "this man wants to look at your pictures." But Newhouse was a tall, dignified, well-dressed gentleman who looked at my painting with a professional eye and asked very intelligent questions, so I was anticipating a sale. When he gave me his card, though, and said he liked my pictures and wanted to show them, I had to pinch myself.It was a dream I had dreamed hundreds of times, suddenly come true.

Chick Rosenthal grew up in New Jersey so it seemed just natural that he would accompany Julian to New York. Although his show was not scheduled until March of 1941, he saw little point in waiting to go to New York. After selecting the paintings he would take with him, he organized a party where he sold raffle tickets to dispose of his inventory. Winners would boast of getting a "Julian' for a mere quarter and, even counting the losers' contribution, Julian probably made no more than twenty dollars a painting. Julian used the proceeds from the raffle to buy himself a used panel truck. Around the beginning of November, Julian painted his lucky mascot, the Green Monkey, on the sides of the panel truck and he and Chick set off for New York City.

Chick was good company as they crossed the country. He was able to pay his own expenses and Julian and he were having a good time, often invited to parties at one farmhouse or another. When they arrived in New York City, they unloaded the paintings at the gallery and, then, rented a cheap room at a West Side hotel. Julian surrendered the truck back to the creditors and they set out to explore the city's artistic resources.

Julian Ritter on New York City

We went to every museum in the city, every exhibition, every gallery. It was terrific, seeing all the famous works I'd seen in bad reproductions, and it was exciting to see all the latest work from all over the world.

During one of their expeditions, Julian and Jimmy Lawrence again crossed paths at a Dali opening. Lawrence was in New York studying photography to fill in the gaps of his education and having Julian around led to several months of partying. Julian, Chick and Jimmy spent New Year's Eve together at the Times Square celebration.

Ritter exhibited at both the Gallery of Modern Art and the Newhouse Galleries in New York City during 1941. Both exhibitions were critically acclaimed. The Art News (March 15, 1941) wrote: "Especially in the portraits, his style shows fluency and ease" and Arts Digest (November 15, 1941) wrote: "Ritter is more than versatile, he is complex, exceptionally talented." Edward Alden Jewell of the New York Times noted that Ritter's work was shown in the small entrance room of the Gallery of Modern Art, devoted to small oils, watercolors and gouaches in addition to the main exhibit. New York Times art critic, H.D., wrote of the Newhouse Galleries exhibition:
Paintings and drawings by Julian Ritter, who has done portraits of movie stars, studied anatomy and been under contract to act in the films, may be seen at the Newhouse Galleries. This is rather flashy work with more than a little cleverness, and includes three paintings accompanied by poems–rather dire comments on life today.

The one-man show at the Newhouse Galleries was a particular success and led to portrait commissions. This was Ritter's big chance in the New York art market. However, attending a party thrown by a patron, a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank, who commissioned a portrait of his daughter, Ritter got drunk and stripped off his clothes, calling the other attendees "phony baloneys". Ritter returned to Los Angeles feeling he was still his own man.

Lawrence left New York a few months later and headed to San Francisco to pursue a career as a photographer. Chick and Julian's friend, Frances, who had come to visit Julian, headed back to Hollywood while Julian stayed on for the smaller show at the Gallery of Modern Art.That show was also successful for Julian. He sold a number of paintings that had not sold at Newhouse.

Julian Ritter on the Gallery of Modern Art sales

Most of what they sold though were the charcoal and watercolor drawings I'd begin to do. This was a new medium for me that I'd taken up less than a year before, and I was pretty encouraged by the brisk sales. I wasn't getting big prices for them, but I could finish them quickly, and sell them nearly as quickly.

Julian has a new flame in his life, a ballerina named Audrey. She was the model for many of his new drawings. Julian sold these drawings through the Gallery of Modern Art and, as a newly established gallery, they were happy to have a best seller. The gallery pressed Julian to produce as many pieces as possible, so anxious that someone from the gallery would pick up the drawings in the morning before Julian awaoke and leave him a bottle of whiskey as a down payment.

After a while, Julian established connections with a couple of other 57th Street galleries who would by his art. Between the three of them, he sold just about all the paintings and drawings he did of Audrey; only one painting of Audrey made it back to California and it sold within a month.

Julian's departure from New York was not planned and quite involuntary. Julian had gone to Boston to see a show that a friend  was lighting. They held the cast party to celebrate a successful tryout in Boston, with big expectations for the show in New York, and, not surprisingly, Julian got wasted. He asked his friend, Robbins, to put him on a train back home. Julian thought he was headed back to New York but when he awoke late the next day, he found that his train was headed for Chicago. Julian was beginning to tire of New York and, with winter approaching, that ticket to Los Angeles in his hand looked pretty good.

Julian's return to Hollywood in early December was at the best time of the year when the weather in the rest of the country turns foul. But it wasn't the climate that reminds Julian of the date of his return.

Julian Ritter tells about his return to California and Pearl Harbor Day

It was less than a week after I got back, while Chick and I were hanging around in his studio, back at the old La Brea place, when we got the news about Pearl harbor. People were yelling it house to house, gathering in the compound to discuss it. We knew right away that it was going to change everything, turn everybody's life upside down. As soon as they realized it, we knew, they were going to have the same idea we had. So we rushed right over to Fogcutter's to get a head start and tied one on.

Julian had reason to be apprehensive. He had already encountered some prejudice, the result of his thick German accent. That night, at Fogcutter's, he heard more references to "Krauts" and "Heinies" then he would normally hear in a year. Fortunately, he had taken steps to resolve his illegal alien status nearly two years before, complying with the newly-enacted Smith Act by registering to receive his alien registration (green card). He had kept his illegal alien status secret from everyone; he even kept it secret from Francesca, not realizing that marriage to an American would automatically legalize him.

Julian had moved into a cottage at 1735 3/4 N. La Brea Avenue, just south of the old complex where he lived before going to New York. This complex was also occupied by many artistic types. Julian had determined that he wanted to bear arms for his adopted country. His mother, Angela, had been interned for professing her love of Germany (not Hitler). Julian's life was somewhat disarranged when in late February, 1942, he met Hilde Meyer-Radon.

Julian Ritter tells of meeting Hilde Meyer-Radon

One afternoon while I was painting, I happened to see a pretty young woman passing through the compound with a violin case, on her way to take lessons from my neighbor, Madame Beringer. I watched the clock and, an hour later when she came out, I strolled out and managed to meet her on the path. I introduced myself and talked with her for a few minutes; she was an intelligent young woman of German extraction, interested in music and art, and she was even prettier close up than I realized. So, when she had her next lesson, I was there to meet her again as she left, to invite her inside for a glass of wine. She had a glass of wine with me and we became better acquainted. After that, she'd stop by after every lesson; in fact, she began coming by even when she didn't have a lesson.

Hildegarde (Hilde) Sabena Meyer-Radon was born in the Altona district of Hamburg, Germany on October 5, 1919 to Kurt and Gertrude Meyer-Radon. Kurt and his family immigrated to the US with Hilde arriving in New York aboard the Hamburg-American ''Hansa'' on October 21, 1923. The family eventually settled in Eagle Rock, CA. Kurt was an architect and a talented artist doing woodcuts and etchings and the family was generally cultured. Hilde worked at the original Walt Disney Studios on Hyperion Way where she ran the department that mixed the animators' paint colors for Snow White and the other early classics.

Theirs was not what you would call a whirlwind courtship; they married a little over a year after they met. But it was evidently a courtship that became fairly intense in its first month or so, because, by Easter, Hilde wanted to have Julian over for dinner at her parents' home. to meet her whole extended family.

Hilde's uncle, John Radon, remembers

I must have been thirteen when I first met Julian at our Easter dinner. My sister, Hilde, had invited him after telling Father about her new beau. When she said he was an artist, Dad groaned and shook his head, remarking, "Humph! Glad to know!" It was a stigma, before there was any label like beatnik or hippie. I don't even think the term bohemian was used. But when people thought of artists, their response was, "Oh, God, an artist!" Dad kind of shook his head.

Hilde and John Radon's sister, Lizzie, was also there that Easter Sunday, with her husband, Stewart potter. Stewart was an exuberant, fun-loving young man, who, says John, took an instant liking to Julian. "He [Stewart] was goading him on. 'Have a drink. Have another one. Have some more wine.'" Stewart didn't get Julian drunk enough that day to precipitate any outrages or major indiscretions, but Julian also took an instant liking to Stewart. Julian would say later, "I took to Stewart immediately as he did to me. He was a happy-go-lucky fella.

We were living in Eagle Rock at the time, about twelve miles from where he was living, and beyond the [five mile] limits he was supposed to travel as an enemy alien. So there was this minor drama when Hilde went to pick him up, about smuggling him over. When he arrived, the whole family was there - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws. I remember him sitting there, my Dad looking at him out of the corner of his eyes. In all my life - in all the years I've known Julian - it was the only time I ever saw him nervous.

Julian was in love but there was one issue: he and Francesca Chesley were still married. Francesca took the opportunity to resolve this matter in April, 1942.

Francesca Chesley describes her decision to divorce Julian

I happened to file for divorce then because I heard from my old friend, and Julian's old friend, Raymond Lee, about this forty dollar divorce his mother had just gotten. I hadn't bothered to file for divorce before this because it was too expensive and because there was no immediate need for it. I took this opportunity to resolve it because it was cheap. I remember his reaction when I told him I was filing for divorce. The first thing he said was, "Are you divorcing me because I'm a German?" I was astounded because that didn't have anything to do with it, of course, and I couldn't understand where he had gotten that idea. I recall it distinctly because it seemed like such an odd reaction.

Of course, Julian had never told me that he and his mother were illegal liens; his reaction makes a little more sense in that light. His mother's arrest may have been part of it too. The FBI did come and question me about Angela. I said basically the same thing as Julian did, that she was too stupid to be a spy.I told them,"She can't be a spy. She talks too much." They came later to question me about Julian too. They asked me about his politics and I said he didn't have any. "He wouldn't sit still for a political meeting," I told them. And that's true.

Julian understood that the divorce would be final a year from the date it was filed. He never understood that the final divorce decree might take longer than that.

Julian continued painting in 1942 but, compared to the three years prior, his output was slight and undistinguished. He did a few oils of Hilde in his studio, and a couple of commissioned portraits, but nothing he saved or even remembered distinctly. By far the greater part of his work in 1942, both the best and the worst of it, was in pastels on paper. Julian had been working on paper increasingly since 1940: over two-thirds of the pieces he showed at the Newhouse Galleries had been charcoal and watercolor drawings and practically everything he sold at the Gallery of Modern Art was the same medium, Based on how quickly Julian had adapted to charcoals and watercolors, there is every reason to believe that the transition to pastels was equally uncomplicated.

Since few of his charcoal and watercolors from 1940 and 1941 are known, the 1942 pastels probably give the best impression of the quality of Julian's work in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, the only known examples of his pastels were in a collection, since dispersed, that once belonged to a clown painter named Benton Scott. And the circumstances under which Scott acquired this collection from Julian leaves considerable doubt that it represents the best of his work.

Julian Ritter on his dealing with Benton Scott

I met Benton Scott as a laundry salesman on La Brea Street. He was an amateur painter, and he used to come around to talk. Then he began selling his clowns and eventually got out of the laundry business. He bought a whole flock of my work at one time in 1942, when I was flat broke and desperate. i gave him whatever I had around - a couple of dollars for this, three dollars for this, five dollars for this. He knew I needed the money so he drove a hard bargain.

Ironically, the haphazard manner in which the Scott collection was assembled makes it unique in that it is a broad sampling of Julian's work rather than a collection of his major pieces. The collection included the schlock that paid Julian's bills and the pen and ink doodles he was doing for his own amusement.His humbles work, the tiny sketches he never framed, are naturally the best; naturally because only the best of them didn't end up in the trash. Among them are cartoons, the earliest examples of a style that would, over the next forty years, edge its way into Julian's mainstream work. Among them, too, are compositions as dynamic as anything he's ever done, tiny ink and watercolor sketches as carefully finished as his finest oils.

Julian would work out his ideas in these sketches but there were often times in 1942 when he could not afford canvas,  so he would work the idea fully as a sketch.

Probably the worst, but perhaps the most interesting work that Julian did in 1942 was represented in the Scott Collection by three examples of the cubist abstracts he did in poster paints on colored paper. The colors are harmonious, the composition is deft and intuitive, and Julian's humor is evident in themas he even planted personal references (like the Green Monkey) in them. They're interesting as curiosities, showing Julian's hand in such an uncharacteristic medium and style. But they are, as Julian himself says, schlock.

Julian Ritter on his cubist abstracts from 1942

I did about fifty drawings in this medium because poster paints and colored paper were the only materials I had around. I did them bing, bing, bing - all fifty within a month or less. I knew I could sell this stuff if I sold it cheap enough. And I didn't mind selling it cheap because I didn't care about it. It was like painting sailboats on lampshades.

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