It’s in execrable shape—but then, so am I—but here is a pencil drawing I made at the age of four. It is inscribed by my mother in Hungarian “Jimmy drew this in March 1949.” It displays an attention to detail surprising for a little boy who did not have access to television and who did not know a word of English. All I had were the stories my mother told me. Interestingly, she made them up herself most of the time. A lot of them involved fairy princesses and dark forests.
Then, too, there were the stories she read to me from library books. We would go together to the public library near Harvey Rice School (where I would go for kindergarten and half of first grade) and pick them out, mostly based on the pictures in them. My mother knew English: she was born in Cleveland, but taken back to Hungary to be raised. She would meticulously translate the selected stories from English to my little-boy Magyar tongue. (Magyar means Hungarian in the Hungarian language.)
At the time, we were living at 2814 East 120th Street in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland. For several blocks around, one could be born, live, and die without knowing a word of English. Not any more, of course. Eventually all the Hungarians moved out and it became a black ghetto. We moved out, too, in 1951, shortly after my brother was born.
The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.
At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?
I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”
My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been putting on an exhibit entitled Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment, which ends in a few days. I was enthralled by both his drawings and his sculptures, of which the above bust of Mme Vleughels is one of my favorites. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762) is not well known to most people, but thanks to the Getty, I have made another discovery.
His work that shows the same technical virtuosity of some of the great rococo painters, as in the ornately draped blouse worn by the young woman, yet retains an austere classicism in her facial features and shoulders. Below is one of his drawings:
Head of a Woman Wearing a Scarf
Here again we have a combination of simplicity and technical virtuosity, which seems to be a hallmark of Bouchardon’s style.
Visiting an art museum can be a thrilling experience. But you have to open your eyes and be willing to make comparisons.
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