Edward Hopper’s Universe: New York, A Nagging Wife, and Nazis

French Six-day Bicycle Rider by Edward HopperFor 54 years, from 1913 to his death in 1967, Edward Hopper’s primary residence was a 3rd floor studio apartment in Greenwich Village. He was undoubtedly enamored with New York City, and his paintings are infused with imagery produced by keen observation of his surroundings: diners, office interiors, bridges, railway cars, restaurants, and street scenes.

Hopper seemed to paint in flourishes and then suffer idly for extensive periods between creative outbursts. His primary distractive measures during the fallow periods were drinking coffee in a nearby Automat and doing word puzzles in the Evening Sun. Thankfully, on occasion Hopper must have ventured beyond reading the paper and drinking coffee to kill the time since one of his bouts of “painter’s block” was spent attending 6-day bicycle races in Madison Square Garden, ultimately resulting in the work French Six-day Bicycle Rider. Says biographer Gail Levin:

“February [1937] was fallow, but on March 5 he began French Six-day Bicycle Rider. The subject had been simmering since December of 1935 when Jo [Hopper’s wife] complained to Marion [Hopper’s sister] that Edward was going repeatedly to the bicycle races at Madison Square Garden, just to see the same scene over and over again. She was annoyed at the forty-cent tickets he indulged in, when, as she saw it, nothing came of it. At that time, he was stuck and unable to paint and she thought they could take a trip, perhaps to New Orleans, so he could work once again. It was one of the occasions when she simply misunderstood the often lengthy gestation periods that Hopper’s creative process required. Very little of Hopper’s time was actually spent painting.”

In later letters, Hopper described the painting’s subject matter:

“I was unable to remember the name of the rider, only that he was young and dark and quite French in appearance. I did not attempt an accurate portrait, but it resembles him in a general way. He was I think a member of one of the last French teams to win a race at Madison Square Garden. He is supposed to be resting during the sprints while his team mate is on the track or at the time when `The Garden’ is full in the afternoon or evening, when both members of a team are on full alert to see that no laps are stolen from them.”

Alfred Letourner as seen in a program for the December 1932 Madison Square Garden 6-day race.Based on Hopper’s recollections and the painting itself, the rider depicted is very likely Frenchman Alfred Letourner, one of the era’s great six day champions. He won at Madison Square Garden on six occasions, and as Hopper opined, Letourner was indeed the last Frenchman to win at the Garden. The vivid red jersey also points to Letourner, whose customary jersey choice generated his nickname: “Le Diable Rouge”. While Letourner cemented his reputation as one of track cycling’s greats through years of success on European and American velodromes, he is perhaps best remembered for breaking the paced bicycle speed record in 1941. Letourner was the last person to achieve the record on a regular track bike (albeit with a gigantic, custom chain ring and a 6t cog on the rear wheel for one monster gear). He blazed to 108.92mph Breaking Away-style: drafting a race car on a public highway in Bakersfield, CA. That certainly took nerves of steel.

The December 1935 six-day race at Madison Square Garden witnessed by Hopper was a particularly raucous affair, rife with drama both on and off the track. The race exploded from the blast of celebrity starter Pat O’Brien’s pistol shot and set a new record for the most distance covered in the first hour of a six-day race (a shade under 28 miles). Crashes were plentiful as well, and ultimately about half of the participants were forced to retire due to injuries. In addition to on the track excitement, the undertones of Nazi Germany were felt at the Garden. Two German teams were entered, and the promoter John Chapman refused to let the Nazi swastika flag fly over their bunks. The German cyclists were forced to use the recently retired German national flag (the Norddeutscher-Bund flag used since 1867, forbidden by the Nazis in 1935) instead so as not to offend the audience. Ex-heavyweight world champion boxer Max Schmeling also made a public appearance in the infield, as he was friends with one of the Germans teams (Adolf Schoen and Eric Putzfield) and recently sailed to New York to attend a Joe Louis title bout. Louis fought (and knocked out) Basque challenger Paulino Uzcudun at the Garden about 1 week after the six-day race concluded. A German team (six-day legends Heinz Vopel and Gustav Kilian, who in this particular event became the first German team to triumph in a MSG 6-day race) emerged victorious, with Letourner and partner Paul Broccardo finishing third.

French Six-day Bicycle Rider was purchased in 1937 from the Frank K M. Rehn Gallery in New York City, Hopper’s primary middle-man to the buying public, by the husband and wife screenwriting team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. The duo amassed quite an enviable art collection in their Bel Air residence, even by Hollywood standards, and considered their 2 Hopper oils, French Six-day Bicycle Rider and A Woman in the Sun, the prize items. The Hacketts were unquestionably well acquainted with Hopper’s work since Frances Goodrich’s brother was the art historian/Whitney Museum of Art curator and director Lloyd Goodrich, an early champion and lifelong friend of Edward Hopper. The painting remained in the Hackett’s private collection from 1937-1995, until the death of Albert Hackett. During their ownership, they allowed the painting to be displayed in 9 public exhibitions (primarily at the Whitney, but also notably for a 1965 exhibition of sport related paintings at the location of its genesis: Madison Square Garden). Why did Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett buy the painting? I’ve wondered if the purchase was more related to the prestige of owning an Edward Hopper painting with the subject matter being of a more secondary issue (if it was an issue at all). Interestingly, Frances Goodrich grew up in one of early 20th century America’s cycling hotbeds (Nutley, NJ) while the velodrome’s racing schedule was at its peak. Her childhood home was a mere two blocks from the Nutley Velodrome and one can speculate whether her memory of the track’s presence and prominence in Nutley played any role in the painting’s purchase.

As an aside, through my readings of Edward Hopper’s life I stumbled across the name of a man, a rather wealthy man, who was largely responsible for keeping Hopper financially solvent through the purchase of his paintings. The name struck a chord, since it turns out that this fellow, philanthropist and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, is the same man responsible for putting Cooperstown, NY on the map for reasons other than being the home of author James Fenimore Cooper. The benefactor’s name is Stephen C. Clark and in addition to his art collecting, among other things, he was instrumental in locating the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, donated the land and buildings which now comprise the Farmer’s Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum, and created the eponymously named Clark Foundation philanthropic trust. In recent years, about 3 million dollars of his family money is doled out annually via the Clark Foundation to Cooperstown-area, college-bound high school seniors for tuition assistance. The scholarships are based on merit; the better your high school record, the more money you receive. I had the good fortune to attend high school in Cooperstown and graciously applied Clark Foundation money to paying the hefty Duke University price tag. Six degrees of separation indeed regarding the largesse of Clark family cash.

Tom Simpson’s Reign in Spain: A Redux

Forty years ago, Tom Simpson emerged victorious at the professional world championships conducted in San Sebastian, Spain. Recently, Edmond Hood elegantly situated Simpson’s legacy amongst the pantheon of cycling’s elite. Fittingly, a piece of Tom Simpson returned to Spain for this year’s world professional road race, borne by young British pro Tom Southam. As this photo illustrates, Southam wore a piece of Simpson’s base layer, used by Simpson during his 1965 world title effort, wrapped around his wrist. Unfortunately for Southam, his gesture of tribute to Simpson came up short and he DNFed in Madrid. Roger Hammond was Great Britain’s highest finisher, rolling in for 41st 25 seconds behind Boonen.

Stealth American

Guido TrentiTwo weeks ago a solitary American professional made the winning split at the Madrid-hosted World Championships, yet that result raised nary an eyebrow, remaining largely a post-script buried in deep in journalists’ accounts(oh yeah, by the way…Guido Trenti finished 23rd). Maybe it’s because he only finished 23rd, maybe it’s because he speaks Italian and the American press were unable to talk to him conveniently, maybe it’s because many question whether he is actually “American” (despite the wholly legitimate dual Italian-American citizenship due to his American mother), or maybe it’s because he was assisting the victor, Tom Boonen, and merely coasted in as a keenly curious spectator. Even USA Cycling itself, the governing body who issues his racing license, seems a bit perplexed about Trenti, listing the results of a 2001 Cat 4 race as his sole American palmares.

Trenti’s role in the American camp at the worlds seemed rather low key to the point of wondering if he was even there. For approximately one week after the event, the only photograpic evidence that Trenti actually was a part of the American team was this photo taken by team mechanic Chris Davidson. Trenti’s bike is second from the left, #51. Slowly a few more images made their way into circulation, but it just struck me as odd that all of the other American participants had at least one picture posted within 24 hours (if not sooner) of the event’s conclusion. Only Saul Raisin shed some light on the story, posting a pre-race photo of Trenti and confirming that Trenti and Fred Rodriguez were protected riders for the final 2 laps.

If you looked at the results with trade teams after the rider’s names, rather than nationalities, then Trenti’s position looks suspiciously like that of the final leadout rider rolling across the line after dropping off his captain about 250 meters out. After all, Trenti is Boonen’s final leadout rider and Trenti was an integral part of numerous Boonen victories in 2005: from the sands of Qatar, to Paris-Nice, to the E3-prijs Harelbeke, to the Tour of Belgium, to the Tour de France, and ultimately, possibly Boonen’s final race (and victory) of 2005- the world championships. Of the three pre-race favorites on a course deemed sprinter-friendly, only Petacchi had the luxury of having his favored leadout man (Marco Velo) being of similar Italian nationality. Boonen’s favored leadout man was not a Belgian, but an American, and Robbie McEwen actually faced a similar dilemma with Fred Rodriguez. Of course, strange things happen in world championship road races and rather odd and potentially unknown allegiances may rear their head. For instance, I don’t think I ever realized the Phil Anderson/Greg LeMond alliance which took place during the 1983 world championship road race. John Wilcockson weaves quite a captivating narrative involving this Aussie/American pact. This quote by Boonen the day after his victory certainly raised my eyebrows:

“So Bettini attacked on that last climb, Nuyens and Leukemans anticipated that perfectly. The last three kilometres Nick and Bjorn took gas back and I asked Peter to give it full blast. Before the last turn I was comfortable, saw that everything was okay. My QuickStep team mate Guido Trenti was able to come underneath still, but I didn’t need his ‘help’ anymore. I nestled myself in Alejandro Valverde’s wheel, he started sprinting with 300 metres to go. Hundred metres before the finish line I picked my moment.”

While perusing Pez Cycling News, I eventually discovered this photo which shows Boonen front and center and Trenti on the far right, a bit blurry. When coupled with the Boonen quote, Trenti appears to be rolling in on the tops, a bit in the periphery, trying to catch a glance of who emerges victorious between Boonen and Valverde. Two of Boonen’s Belgian teammates, Nick Nuyens (white helmet) and Björn Leukemans (red helmet), are also visible (and blurry) in the far background, hoping to see Boonen raise his arms in victory. Just this weekend I caught the cycling.tv video coverage of the race and repeated viewing proved inconclusive. Boonen and Trenti were lost in the scrum about 600 meters out before Boonen emerges on Valverde’s wheel. About the same time of Boonen’s appearance more towards the center/left marks Trenti’s appearance on the right side of the group. Maybe quick words were exchanged between Boonen and Trenti along the lines of Boonen’s quote (”Guido, don’t worry, I’ve got it myself”) leaving Trenti with nothing to do but sit back and spectate.

If Trenti actually appeared to give it full gas on the drops all the way to the line I don’t think I’d ever question his motives, but sitting up certainly got my attention. Perhaps this is nothing more than the stark realities of the consummate professional. I’m sure Trenti knew who was in his group and surely ruled out a chance of defeating Boonen and Valverde. The bronze would still be up for grabs, but maybe Trenti was fried from the effort to make the split and realized a podium spot was out of the question. Who am I to venture how 273 very fast kilometers feels on a hot day. Peter Van Petegem sure looks spent. I was struck by John Lieswyn’s observations of his own efforts and how he sat up and lost more than 5 minutes in the closing 10 kilometers. Lieswyn knew he was cooked so why kill himself to finish maybe 45th. Just shut down the engines and roll on in (…”my days as a pro are over”…). Trenti likely wagered the odds of bronze were slim, that his contract is firm for some time with Quick-Step, and that his duty as the ace lead out man in Boonen’s posse is secure. He already proved to his American peers that he was the best American on the day and he proved to Boonen that under similar circumstances the other 364 days of the year he could be in there for the kill with his boss Mr. Boonen to deliver an armchair ride to victory. Mission accomplished for employment purposes, but regarding national pride I’m still a bit curious about his passion.