In 1947, a little West Hollywood art gallery held a memorial exhibit in honor of its recently deceased owner, painter and notorious Hollywood fixture John Decker. In a brief write-up, the LA Examiner described the show, an exhibit of by Decker’s favorite artists, as a “rare collection of priceless paintings, loaned by their owners…A wonderful gesture for it affords art lovers a view of paintings never previously exhibited.”
Wonderful gesture indeed; for the next few weeks this tiny gallery on Alta Loma Drive housed a collection who’s unveiling would be a major event today at any of the worlds great museums. Hanging in West Hollywood for those weeks – paintings by Rembrandt, Matisse, Chagall, Gauguin, Courbet, Van Gogh, two Picassos and three Modiglianis. The fact that in the sleepy Los Angeles of the 40’s this collection could be assembled in a mere two months after the artist’s death is a feat that can only be considered incredible and, with the record offering few explanations of how the feat was achieved, incredibly mysterious.
But lurking behind that show, deepening the aura of mystery about it, is the elusive personality of the honoree, painter John Decker. Moderately successful as an artist is his own right, both as a painter of celebrity caricatures and weightier themes, Decker was equally renowned as the master of ceremonies to an infamous group of middle-aged rapscallions, the Bundy Drive Boys, a circle including John Barrymore, WC Fields and Errol Flynn notorious for their besozzled antics about town. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, this clan of grumpy old rakes were the terrors of the Strip, And at the center of it all, Decker, whose Brentwood home served as the group’s HQ, carefully guarded a treasure chest full of secrets worthy of the era’s noir classics. Hidden from even his closest friends were his lineage, the son of a Bavarian count, his sentence in a British POW camp during WWI, three simultaneous marriages, and, it was whispered, all the while living at the heights of Hollywood – a secret career as an art forger.
And now, almost sixty years later, certain loose threads from Decker’s life and circle are for the first time being tugged at and questions are being raised about paintings today hanging on the world’s most prestigious galleries – credited as the work of history’s giants, could these actually be forgeries by John Decker? And what of this extraordinary show from 1947, so quickly assembled and then just as quickly disappearing into the fog – could, some are now suggesting, this show have been largely a collection of Decker fakes, assembled together as a private joke, one who’s punch line only begins to echo today. To find the answers one must go back to the source, the high-flying circle among whom Decker ended his life.
Closeted back from the road, in the leafy, hillside section of Brentwood’s Bundy Drive, north of Sunset, lies an elongated cabin, barely noticeable from the street. If the little house with its postage stamp front yard attracted your notice while driving by, it would only be to draw your wonder at how the antique Norman hunting lodge has survived in a neighborhood where seemingly every house more than a decade old has been demolished to make room for a airy nouveau insta-mansion. But if you approach the lodge’s front door, you will find something to raise your eyebrows more than the minor real estate miracle – painted onto the door’s barrel-topped heavy wood, is what looks to be a knightly escutcheon, its colors now faded with time – looks at first glance until one peers closer at the mocking faces of the lions in the Crest, the unicorns dancing alongside and sees beneath the majestic initials “JD” the decidedly unstately motto, waving aflutter on little pennants: “Useless…Insignificant…Poetic.”
And then you might realize, you are looking upon the last remnants of one of the most remarkable circles of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In this little house for much of the era raged the Bundy Drive Boys, the aforementioned circle of hellraisers who’s middle-aged antics makes today’s DiCaprio mafia look positively monastic.
Described in Bundy charter member, journalist Gene Fowler’s memoir of the group, “Minutes of the Last Meeting,” it is said of the house, “That brown-beamed studio was a place of meeting for still-lively survivors of bohemian times, an artists’ Alamo where political bores never intruded and where breast beating hypocrites could find no listeners. The men seen most often at the Bundy Drive studio had been, or now were, persons of mark; yet never long-haired nor precious nor hoodwinked by false prophets who fed upon weeds of the sea. These men lived intensely, as do children and poets and jaguars.” Bundy Drive was the scene of a last hurrah for a collection of artists who at the end of long careers of hard living, each knew they hadn’t long to live.
For a circle now almost entirely forgotten, they were, in their time, individually living legends and collectively, a fearsome set on the Hollywood scene. Joining ranks around Decker – the original master thespian Barrymore, the cantankerous Fields and the swashbuckling rake Flynn, as well as such supporting players as boxer Jack Dempsy, art critic Sadakichi Hartmann and actors Vincent Price, Anthony Quinn and Thomas Mitchell. “They found in each other a great sense of humor, a love of all art forms and a love of pretentiousness. Not to mention an enormous love of drink,” tells Stephen Jordan, a Maine attorney who has just authored, “Bohemian Rogue” a life of John Decker.
A typical Bundy Boys night, as described by Fowler, might involved being forcibly ejected from Sunset Strip nightclubs and then segueing to perform on an impromptu performance of Macbeth at the Bundy living room, cutting out all the insignificant bit parts, of course. On more than one occasion, art openings at the Decker studio disintegrated into drunken brawls; ending with the police riot squad escorting the culture lovers in the streets.
The clan is slightly less fondly remembered by perhaps the one person still living who witnessed them in action. Mary Lou Warren, Decker’s step-daughter, now a retired Air Force officer living in Florida, grew up from ages five to fifteen living at with her mother and Decker at the lodge. While she still rhapsodizes at memories of Flynn, to whom her girlfriends at Uni High fought for introductions: “He was always so charming. I thought he was wonderful,” of the rest of the group, her memories are less rose-tinted. “I thought the rest were a bunch of old characters. They were very mischievous and always laughing and joking, but mostly I just thought they were old.” Among her memories is the constant presence of Barrymore asleep on their couch, and the foul odor of art critic Hartmann who was known, when drunk, to “piddle in his pants. I walked far away from him because he smelled so bad.” Coming together in the late 30’s, by 1947 Fields, Hartmann, Barrymore and Decker would all be dead of premature deaths at the hands of the massive abuse their bodies had endured.
At the center of this circle, reigned the man beloved by all his friends but truly known by none of them, John Decker, the man with a treasure chest full of secrets. Decker was born Leopold Wolfgang von der Decken in Berlin, Germany – the son of a scandalous marriage between a Prussian Count and a British opera singer. Fleeing the social repercussions of the union, the couple fled with their baby to Brixton, England, where after a stormy and combustible marriage, they would both abandon each other and the child before he reached his teens. (For the rest of his life, Decker was known when drunk to slam his glass down and bellow, “Goddamn my mother!”) Left to raise himself in the streets of London, the boy found work as a scenery painter for the theater, and discovered an affinity for the craft, soon seeking to study painting seriously. Whether his course in life was already set before he made his choice of tutors, or whether the man he picked pointed the budding painter in otherwise unimaginable directions, while still a teen Decker began painting under the direction of a notorious London forger, a man who made his living painting fake old masters to hustle off on American tourists.
By his early 20’s, Decker was scratching together a modest living as a legitimate painter with a surreptitious sideline. Already, his carousings had become infamous as his every sale led to epic drunken sprees. All this came to an abrupt end, however, in 1916 when he was arrested by the British War Ministry; one of his customers, it was charged, had been using the backings of Decker’s faked old masters to smuggle war secrets out of the country. Decker was tried and convicted as a German spy and spent the next two years in a British POW camp on the Isle of Man. For the rest of his life, Decker hid the experience from almost all who knew him, only confiding in Gene Fowler late in life, “I saw way too much and learned more than I wanted to learn- most of it was miserably degrading. Only when I paint or drink can I put it out of my mind, even today. It was terrible looking at the sun when it set over the Isle of Man.” For the rest of his life, Decker tumbled into unreachable pits of gloom at the sight of a sunset.
The war over and a free man again, Decker escaped Europe (and his German birth name) stowing away on a steamer to New York, entering America with forged papers in 1921. There, he found work on Broadway as a scenery painter and as a newspaper caricaturist and met the man who would become his lifelong alter-ego and soulmate, John Barrymore. He also enjoyed a brief marriage, the first of three, each of which he would enter into with out bothering to formally end its predecessor -a habit which would cause him great pains late in life when, while living on Bundy with wife number three, his undivorced first wife would suddenly reappear in a very public way.
Following Barrymore to Los Angeles in 1930, Decker’s artistic career of sorts took off as he found success with a series of portraits of film stars in the style of the Old Masters. Fanny Brice, for example, he painted as Gainsborough’s “Pinkie”, Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy was brushed into a recreation of Franz Hals’s “Laughing Cavaliers.” Most famously, he portrayed WC Fields as Queen Victoria, a canvas which hung in the foyer of Chasen’s until its closing. (Upon seeing this regal interpretation of himself, Fields harrumphed, “Sabotage! Decker has kicked history in the groin!”) Despite his success, the somewhat stabilizing influence of a new young wife and the circle of friends which soon formed around him, Decker’s freewheeling ways continued, only moderately curtailed as the Bundy lodge perpetually warded off bill collectors, electricity disconnections and a faithfully irate landlord.
It is from this period that the faintest wisps of artistic irregularities emerge. In offhand comments to friends passed along, some of which were recorded in various memoirs – Decker claiming that a Modigliani in a San Francisco gallery window was actually his; a story of coning an heiress with a hurriedly created Venetian scene; a wink about fooling the LA Times art critic with a drawing masquerading as a Daumier. Throughout his lifetime these vague tales colored in the mysterious recesses of the mischievous society player, thumbing his nose at the “establishment.”
By the time of his death in 1947, Decker had moved on from the caricatures and was garnering true critical, and commercial, praise for his more “serious” drawings –brightly colored but strangely moody scenes of desolate people and spaces – Times Square, a funeral scene, a deserted Western street, clowns. Of his work, the LA Examiner’s critic Kay English wrote a year before the artist’s death, “The name John Decker has grown in significance with each succeeding year. His work is greatly admired for its constant good quality. His ability to give each scene its special character definitely makes him one of the top ranking painters of today.” And although most of the other anchors of the Bundy Boys had beaten Decker to the grave by a few years, when he died his memorial service was a hugely attended Hollywood event with a crowd that included Flynn, restaurateur Dave Chasen, Ida Lupino, Mickey Rooney, Ward Bond, Red Skeleton and Anthony Quinn. He was eulogized in the press as a “Hollywood artist bon vivant” (New York Times), “an inveterate party goer and party giver,” (New York Sun) and “painter-extraordinary” (Art Digest). The memorial show thrown at his gallery two months later was seen to be a fitting, if extraordinary, tribute to a distinguished artist and beloved friend. Thus, did Decker, manage to complete the greatest con job of all – leaving this world at the height of fame and respectability without a whiff of scandal attached to his name.
It would only be much, much later – in our own time, in fact – that the secrets long buried and traces of a subterranean life would begin to cry for air and emerge to the daylight, and then only brought forward by a most unlikely team of sleuths.
While working on “Bohemian Rouge” author Jordan was intrigued by one particular tale that hinted at Decker’s secret lives. While hints of forgery dabblings had drifted through his research, this one story came with a degree of detail and specificity the others lacked. The story had been printed in “The Second Handshake,” Will Fowler’s 1980 memoir of his father, the Bundy Boys’ Boswell, Gene Fowler. In the book, Fowler Jr. recounts his father’s tale of Decker faking a Rembrandt in 1940 to sell to character actor/ Bundy-regular Thomas Mitchell. According to the account, one night at the lodge, Mitchell, a fairly serious art collector, expressed sadness that he would never be able to afford a Rembrandt. Decker quickly replied that he knew of a small one he could get him for a mere $2000, an offer Mitchell jumped at. The next day Fowler and Decker secretly traveled to an antique dealer in the San Fernando Valley where Decker bought the drawer from an antique dresser and, cutting out an 8 x 10 slab, painted the counterfeit Rembrandt onto the block. Decker then, as was the custom of the time, hired an expert in Flemish paintings to authenticate the painting; paying $600 for his thumbs-up to WR Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Art (later to become curator of LACMA). Decker artificially aged the painting by breaking its backing and shipped it to Holland to be reinforced, the return shipment giving the painting papers from Dutch customs which certified its entry into America. Thus prepared, the painting was then sold to a delighted Mitchell.
While Fowler’s tale contained many specifics, he purposefully omitted the name and subject matter of the painting from his account. After handing in his book on Decker last year, the question nagged at Jordan – what could have become of this portrait? Determining to keep on the Decker beat, Jordan joined forces, united from across the country via email, with two other amateur Decker sleuths: Lesley Mayo, a Studio City-dwelling retired Pac Bell manager, who had become interested in the painter after inheriting one of his works, and Charles Heard, a Texas-based collector of old Hollywood artifacts with a special interest in the Bundy Drive Boys. In league, “Team Decker” as they refer to themselves, sorted through mountains of arcane art evidence, looking for some trace of the Mitchell Rembrandt, before stumbling, in an old Decker scrapbook in Heard’s collection, on the program of the memorial show at Decker’s gallery. On the program’s cover is a picture of a Rembrandt painting, “Head of Christ.” “Immediately, we said, this has got to be the Rembrandt,” recalls Mayo. Tracing the painting’s name and image, the team was stunned to find it now hung at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and their suspicions were only further titillated when they learned that the Rembrandt had indeed come down to Harvard from the estate of Thomas Mitchell, who died in 1962. Pushing back further, they found an array of red flags in Mitchell’s dealings with the New York gallery who officially handled the sale (in collusion, the team suspected, with Decker). The gallery described the painting as coming to them from a mysterious “refuge Polish prince” whose identity and records have never been clearly explained.
Looking into the history of this portrait, Team Decker could find no reference to the work in any book or study of Rembrandt before the painting appeared in New York in 1940. Further, the subject made an ideal target for forgery – the painting is allegedly a study for the image of Christ’s head in preparation for a much larger Rembrandt work, Supper at Emmaus, which hangs in the Louvre. There are six known other “Head of Christ”, studies for the larger work. And in the forger’s plotting, “If there could be six, why couldn’t there be seven?” Mayo questions.
However, before the paintings are stripped off the walls and sentenced to forgery purgatory, Harvard has some cold water to throw on Team Decker’s case. Fogg Curator Ivan Gaskell, interviewed for this article, accepts the possibility that the painting may not be a Rembrandt. “We want to try and understand the objects in our collection as well as we can, of that means if something turns out to be a fake, then that’s what it is.” He also admits that the murky story of the painting’s origins does raise eyebrows, “We really have no idea,” he says. “I would look at that with a grain of salt.”
However, he continues, “Nobody has ever doubted to my knowledge that this is a 17th century painting.” Gaskell points to evidence from 1977 tree ring analysis done on the painting’s wood backing, which indicates, with tools unavailable to Decker in 1939, “The tree was felled in 1655. It is what you would expect to find a 17th Century Dutch painting painted on. I don’t know of any pieces of furniture that you might find anywhere that’s made of 17th Century Baltic oak.” Further, he explains, the wood was originally treated in a manner designed to make it suitable for painting on, a process very different from furniture preparation. The 1977 study of the wood further identified the tree rings as matching those of another Rembrandt, the portrait, “A Young Jew” hanging in the Berlin Museum. The story, Gaskell asserts, of Decker finding this rare, antique piece of wood in a San Fernando Valley flea market in the 1940’s, just doesn’t hold up.
While these assertions would seem to prove, if not the portrait’s authenticity as a Rembrandt at least that it was painted several centuries before John Decker ran wild in Hollywood, the case is not so cut and dry experts interviewed for this article say. For starters, Gaskell’s claim of Baltic oak’s rarity as a cabinetry material is disputed by furniture experts. Asked whether 17th Century cabinets made of that wood are common, “You could find dozens of them,” replies Bruce Duncan, President of Chicago Appraisers Association, an art and antique evaluators firm that has reviewed many Rembrandts and many pieces of antique furniture during 40 years in the trade. “It was very commonly used in the 17th Century. That would be no problem to find a cabinet like that. You could find one today if you wanted to.” Duncan continues to dissent from Gaskell’s confidence on the subject, saying “to defend it based on the wood doesn’t make sense. That’s silly.” A precise answer, he says, could be had by testing the paints and comparing their chemical make up to paints known to have been used by Rembrandt. That testing has not yet been performed on Harvard’s “Head.”
Thomas Hoving, the legendary former Director of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum and bestselling author of “Making the Mummies Dance” as well as “False Impressions” a book on art forgeries encountered in his career, agrees that validating a painting on the basis of its backing is a tough case to make. “They proved the Shroud of Turin was painted at the time of Christ, that its materials were from the time of Christ but it was done in the 14th century.” Hoving, whose declaration that a supposed Rembrandt belonging to Norton Simon was a fake led the billionaire to withdraw his entire art bequest from the Met and create the Pasadena museum in his name, says “science is nice but the impressions of a well-qualified art connoisseur will either say bingo, or it’s a fake.” As to the difficulty of a forger finding an appropriate board to paint on and masking it adequately, Hoving is not impressed, “These guys aren’t fools. They know all that,” he says.
As for his impression of the Fogg Rembrandt, based on viewing an emailed scan of a black and white photograph of the portrait, Hoving was unable to make a definitive call. If it was a fake, he wrote, “Decker did his homework and at first glance through so many filters it looks Rembrandtish.”
Another view, dissenting from Harvard’s assurance comes from one of the most renowned forgers of recent times, the British John Myatt who in 2002 was sentenced to a prison term in what British police called “the biggest contemporary art fraud the 20th century has seen.” Now out of prison and speaking frequently on forgery issues, he says of the dating claims on the wood, “If that is true, then I think the painting is original. It certainly throws doubt on the probability of it being a fake.” He cautions, however, that the dendrological analysis was conducted in 1977 and techniques have advanced beyond what was available at that time. “It’s moved on since then. I would say it needs to be done again.” Further, he says the Fogg’s failure to provide chemical testing of the paints themselves mean that the matter is likely to remain unresolved. “They can not say that because there’s a bit of Baltic wood on the back of the thing that it cant be a forgery, it doesn’t stand up. They have to do paint analysis and they have to cross reference the paint analysis with existing Rembrandts which are contemporary with that work. If they can do that, they’ve got a jolly good case. If they can’t, they have no case at all.”
About Decker’s personality, however, Myatt is much less equivocal. “He fits the profile very much. Kind of a devil may care attitude, isn’t it? Odiously, he’s one of these people who are phenomenally technically gifted, He has a vast amount of sheer technical facility. You meet these people in art school and every one is very jealous of them. It’s a bit like being able to sight read Liszt, they just do it, Quite often it also is accompanied by not a great amount of creativity. so they’ve got the facility but they haven’t got the creative version and obviously they look at something like a Rembrandt, a Renoir and say, oh gosh, I could do that.” The story of the Rembrandt fake, allegedly produced in a period when Decker was stuck doing celebrity caricatures in the style of the Old Masters, certainly bears the historic marks of a technical prodigy creatively stymied. Decker’s very attraction to Hollywood and to the actors he surrounded himself, Myatt says, suggests a love of skillful pretending which may well have spilled over to his work on the canvas.
For her part, Decker’s step-daughter claims no knowledge of his forging career (or for that matter of his second bigamist marriage) but responds on hearing the accusations, “I’m surprised but I’m not surprised, if you know what I mean. He did all these wonderful paintings, but he’d love this fuss now. Anything to keep the name going. He worked very hard as a painter but he worked very hard at being a character too.”
And so the mystery deepens: Is this a Decker forgery hanging in Cambridge? An answer might be on the horizon. Since 1968 the Amsterdam based Rembrandt Research Project has working in chronological order through every claimed Rembrandt painting on Earth, systematically evaluating their claims. The next volume, which covers the time span in which “Head of Christ” was allegedly painted, is due out in 1998.
But then what of the other works at Decker’s last show? Most, returned to their unnamed owners and vanished into the mists. Many appearing nowhere else in the literature on those painters, at least not under the names by which they were displayed in West Hollywood. Today, wherever they are, if accepted as originals each of the 25 is worth many millions and may well grace some of the world’s great galleries and collections. The whereabouts of one of them is known – a Gauguin loaned to the exhibit by Errol Flynn, in honor of his friend Decker who helped him buy the painting, fetched the highest price ever paid for a Gauguin, a reported 35 million, when it was purchased by Las Vegas kingpin Steve Wynn. So the question lingers – could the worn, dog-eared program to this mysterious show be an anti-treasure map to a world full of classic art forgeries? At the very thought that the question is being asked, somewhere John Decker is raising a glass with a contented chuckle.