A Studio for Scandal

A summer resident of Skaneateles, S. Montgomery Roosevelt bought the De Zeng mansion in 1899 and renamed it Roosevelt Hall. He was an artist, based in New York City, and his studio there was more than just a spare room. While this essay may seem a bit far afield from Skaneateles, Mr. Roosevelt is an important part of our history, and the man is so much fun.

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The first scandals to emerge from the studio of S. Montgomery Roosevelt weren’t even his own. On earlier visits to New York City, Swedish portrait artist Anders Zorn had been pressed into using his hotel room and even a storage room at the Waldorf Astoria for a studio. In 1901, Roosevelt offered Zorn the use of his studio and the visiting artist painted two famous works there, both of which caused a stir.

The first was “Drömmer” (“Dreamer”) which sparked a scandal when it became known that Zorn’s nude model was a New York City doctor’s wife. (Models then were generally drawn from the anonymous lower classes.) Zorn, very much in character, wrote that the woman was perfectly comfortable posing and didn’t care who knew. (Later, when the painting was published on a postcard, the police in Berlin confiscated every copy.)

Zorn’s second painting was specifically dedicated “To My Friend Roosevelt” on the canvas, a corner of which is shown above. Called “Freyja,” the painting depicts the Norse goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war, and death, which covers a lot of ground. The conventions of the 19th century dictated that nude women be idealized and depicted as goddesses; Zorn outraged people by depicting a goddess as a naked woman, sprawled languorously on her throne, holding an empty chalice and giving no thought to modesty at all. None whatsoever. Even today the painting causes one to step back; I cannot imagine how high the eyebrows flew in 1901.

From Zorn’s paintings, you would not get an idea of what S. Montgomery Roosevelt’s studio was like, but fortunately a reporter for Broadway Weekly took the tour in 1906, and wrote the following:

“S. Montgomery Roosevelt has one of the most interesting studios in New York. The entrance hall is copied from a palace in Padua. The studio proper, which is on the floor above, is also entirely Italian in treatment, carved rafters supporting the roof and a large fireplace running to the ceiling. Off the studio is a circular dining room, the ceiling bas relief supported by columns with the intervals between the columns hung with silk, the whole giving a charming effect.”

Talk about having your own playhouse. And apparently there was room for an orchestra, too. In 1915, a reporter for the New York Herald wrote:

“Mr. S. Montgomery Roosevelt gave a small dance at his studio, at 44 West 77th Street, after the performance of “Androcles and the Lion” and “The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife” in Wallack’s [Theater]. Mrs. Granville Barker and several members of the Stage Society were among the guests.”

In 1920, though a ocean apart, Anders Zorn and S. Montgomery Roosevelt died within three days of one another. But there was one more scandal to emerge from the studio both had graced.

In March of 1921, the millionaire owner of the Ansonia Hotel, W.E.D. Stokes, sued his wife, Helen Stokes, for divorce, and in the courtroom sought to characterize her as wanton and unfaithful. In support of that suit, Mr. Stoke’s attorney summoned Valentine Kubicke, the former chauffeur of S. Montgomery Roosevelt.

On the stand, Mr. Kubicke recalled that he once went to Mr. Roosevelt’s studio to deliver some paint. After knocking on the door, he entered and therein saw Mrs. Helen Stokes sitting on a chair, smoking a cigarette and clad only in a kimono robe. Mr. Roosevelt stood with several brushes in his hand; on his easel was a painting of a nude woman in the same pose Mrs. Stokes was holding, smoking a cigarette.

The finished painting may well have prompted a quote that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1919: “Montgomery Roosevelt paints a woman smoking a cigarette very knowingly.”

Indeed. I wish I’d had the chance to hang out at the studio, smell the linseed oil, go to a party. I would happily have emptied ashtrays and cleaned brushes for the privilege.

* * *

Ander Zorn’s “Drömmer” is today in the collection of the Thielska Gallery, Stockholm.

“Freyja” has been around: In 2004, it was stolen from a family in Stockholm; six years later it popped up at Sotheby’s in London. The Swedish police halted the sale and hastened to question the Swiss collector who had consigned the painting; I don’t know if he said, “I found it,” or if he had a more believable tale.

I do not know what has become of Montgomery Roosevelt’s portrait of a woman with a cigarette.

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