An Artist, a Mobster, and a Mother’s Day Gift

By William A. Harris, Deputy Director

By most accounts, Sara Delano Roosevelt was a force to be reckoned with, and by all accounts, she doted on her only child, indulged him even, but most certainly loved him dearly. She had a definite way of making her presence known. FDR and his family made their home at her Hudson Valley estate, Springwood. In Manhattan, Mrs. Roosevelt constructed adjoining townhouses on East 65th as a wedding gift for her son and his new wife, a gift that kept her close to her son, but often too close for his young bride. So it isn’t surprising that for Mother’s Day 1934, Sara determined to give a special gift to her beloved son, one that would remind him of his mother each day they were apart. The gift: a portrait of herself!

Portraits and talk of them had been a regular topic of conversation within the family for the past year. Only the previous August, the eminent artist Ellen Emmet Rand had been commissioned to paint the President’s official portrait. She had been working on the project, which required visits to Springwood and the White House into the early months of 1934. Aside from her talent and reputation as an artist, which was estimable, she could also boast family connections to FDR through her cousin Grenville Temple Emmet, FDR’s former law partner, and family associations through Eleanor Roosevelt and the Delanos. In fact, it was a Delano cousin who took Rand for her first visit to Springwood.

Tade Styka, mid-1930s. Credit: National Library of Poland

When selecting her portraitist, however, Sara Delano Roosevelt went in an entirely different direction. She eschewed a safe and traditional East coast portraitist like Rand for the chicest of chic society artists, the fashionable Tade Styka, a favorite of the European and entertainment set, a purveyor of glamor without question, but a respectable one, too, for the most part. Styka split his time between New York City and Paris. In Manhattan, the bachelor artist maintained a studio on tony Central Park South. He also led an active social life. Papers reported him crossing the Atlantic on grand liners and mixing with a clientele of the rich, famous, and infamous. He had painted France’s Marshall Foch and actress Marion Davies and a bevy of naked beauties.

To appreciate Mrs. Roosevelt’s surprising choice, one must first get a sense of the portraitist himself. Born in 1889, Styka first came to the United States in 1904 along with his father, himself an acclaimed artist, who was exhibiting at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. A child prodigy, the younger Styka was featured in newspapers across the United States for his extraordinary talent, especially at rendering animals and fur. Though the trip proved a disaster for his father, some of whose work was destroyed in a fire or seized by customs, Styka must have found America a place of immense opportunity, for he returned again and again, garnering attention for his bravura brushwork and virtuosity and for the names and likenesses of his clients.

Credit: National Library of Poland

During the 1900s and 1910s, Styka developed from a precocious child with undisputed ability to a prodigious young artist with obvious talent. He possessed an easy natural style that seemed casual and unforced, derivative many said of Giovanni Boldini, the Italian portraitist with whom he was sometimes compared. His work evidences a keen eye for then current styles, and he adapted his art to the times. By his early thirties, he possessed an air of old European exoticism that played well in 1920s America. He could have stepped out of an Elinor Glyn novel with his head of wavy brown hair; sturdy, athletic build; aristocratic bearing; and whiff of Ruritanian romanticism.

Styka garnered widespread notice in 1923 for a scandal involving movie stars and romance in an innocently decadent way, the kind often flamed by studio flacks. The entire business began with his daring portrait of screen siren Pola Negri—a naked back, furs sensuously screening eager eyes from moral disaster. A torrid affair ensued, of course, but Negri decamped for Hollywood. He followed. The melodrama played out in headlines across two continents. Newspapers recounted the drama in appealingly sensational reports, the kind involving copious adjectives and adverbs and wild speculation.

The story grew even more reportable when Negri became engaged to comedian Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the biggest star in the world at the time. The pair had met in Europe, and the obligatory high octane affair had followed. It was expected of movie stars. Theirs was an equally tempestuous relationship—the talented being inherently prone to intense passions, or so the papers held. Though Styka didn’t win Negri’s heart, he won a great deal of news coverage that wasn’t bad for business. As one paper observed, “Styka finds the portrait he painted of the film beauty too full of fond memories for any eyes save his.” It was soon on exhibit for everyone to see.

Styka traveled back and forth to the United States throughout the 1920s, painting subjects as varied as storied French leaders and Hollywood starlets. He became a chevalier in the French Legion of Honor and exhibited publicly in New York and Paris. He also painted his share of well-heeled Americans such as Senator William A. Clark. Styka became something of the family portraitist for the immensely wealthy Clark family doing multiple likenesses of the senator, his second wife, and their daughter, Huguette, whom he befriended and took as a student. He spent extensive time at their Santa Barbara mansion and apartments in New York City.

Styka also garnered a reputation as a master painter of women and frequently offered his views about women to the press. “It is ridiculous,” he stated, “…to say that smoking, eating candy or drinking is detrimental to beauty…In smoking I like to see a woman use a cigaret (sic) holder. She should hold it gracefully, avoiding any jerky motions or any contractions of the face in exhaling.” He remarked “that with regard to stature and features American women have not their equals in the whole world” for which he credited “the dry climate” as women “in countries with much damp weather without exception are more heavily built and have thicker features.”

Credit: National Library of Poland

By the end of the decade, Styka was well known enough that no less a sage than Walter Winchell, whose gossipy, often mean-spirited column appeared in papers nationwide, reported that the artist, “who charges them 10 Gs for their portraits, is here [New York] from Paree looking for chumps.” As for critics, their reviews were often filled with hyperbole more in line with automobile ads. The Chicago Tribune gushed “If there is genius in the world today, Styka is possessed of it.” Even the august New York Times reported that his “canvases shriek with vitality” describing them as “nervous, keen, theatrical” though “they savor of magazine covers.”

The stock market crash of 1929 didn’t initially impact Styka’s career. He continued to paint and travel back and forth to Europe. But by 1933, with banks collapsing daily, he needed money and entered into an arrangement with furniture designer and decorator James Mont, described as “the George Raft of American design, with a carnation in his button hole and brass knuckles in his pocket.” Though an acknowledged talent, Mont had a violent temper and an unseemly reputation for doing business with organized crime. He was known to have crafted art deco bars for speakeasies in Atlantic City and the homes of notorious mobsters.

Aside from the mob, Mont’s clientele included a range of celebrities, such as rising star Bob Hope, who served as best man at Mont’s wedding. The swank St. Moritz hotel provided an elegant location for his business, Salon Moderne. He described himself as a “Decorateur-Artiste” with locations in “Paris, Venice, and Egypte (with an E)” as one columnist teased, adding that his coat of arms was “a cocktail shaker rampant on a field of what looks like standing ash trays.” Mont was an unlikely partner for the artist. Times must have been tough indeed.

Mont sold a variety of stylish wares at his boutique. Styka admired Mont’s design aesthetic and had patronized the establishment. He may have also known Mont from the New York social scene, most likely nightclubs and speakeasies where Mont courted clients, including well-known mobsters, such as Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. Mont and Styka became friendly and the designer promoted Styka to his varied clientele. In mid-1933, Mont established a gallery in Atlantic City, and Styka consigned $100,000 worth of art to Mont. For any paintings sold at list price he would get a 25% to 30% commission.

Credit: National Library of Poland

Styka left for Europe shortly thereafter. Unfortunately for both men, the venture proved unsuccessful. Mont lost his entire investment. Styka lost no money out of pocket, but the lack of sales must have been disappointing. The failure of the Atlantic City venture did not end the business relationship as Mont continued promoting the artist’s paintings. In December 1933, Styka returned from Europe, and his prospects were improving. In early February, the Wildenstein and Company Gallery at 17 East 64th Street hosted an exhibit of his work. Included were his recent portraits of the crown prince and princess of Italy, painted in Turin.

The New York Times published a generally favorable, if slightly tongue-in-cheek review. Of note was a portrait of “a small boy in a white silk suit … companioned and amply guarded by a magnificent black Greenland dog.” “Tade Styka could become famous as a painter just of dogs,” the writer observed, with canines in his canvases “here and there, tucked away as engaging accessories.” He described “two dazzling nudes” as “the most incredible feats of brush gymnastics exposed in New York in a long while,” but added that “this fashionably resourceful artist does not paint all of his subjects with a brush that has been dipped into the heart of a gilded marshmallow and that has plundered the orchid of her beauty.”

Clearly in search of a plundering brush fresh from a gilded marshmallow, Mrs. Roosevelt commissioned Styka in early 1934 to do her portrait. How this came about, one can only surmise. Perhaps she had heard of him during her European travels or through her sister who lived much of the year in Paris. Or perhaps she had happened around the corner from her home to the Wildenstein Gallery and discovered Styka’s portrait of Mrs. A. O. de Kernell, “sumptuously dark, and cunning in its treatment of fabric textures.” Regardless, the estimable Mrs. James Roosevelt commissioned Styka to paint her portrait, a gift for her only child on Mother’s Day.

This is where a mobster comes into the story, and not just any mobster, but none other than Joe Adonis. An intensely vain man, hence his name, Adonis possessed a high regard for his looks and preened constantly in front of any available mirror. He was also purportedly a rapist and murderer who controlled the rackets, from prostitution to gambling, throughout Times Square and Midtown Manhattan, not to mention his home turf, Brooklyn. There, he ran his many, illegal and nefarious concerns out of an Italian restaurant. Lucky Luciano considered him a trusted lieutenant, and Adonis held a leadership position in the National Crime Syndicate.

Adonis was James Mont’s biggest client, and he had been decorating the gangster’s Brooklyn home to the tune of $50,000. Adonis also sold cars, his front, and Mont drove around New York City in a gleaming new Cadillac purchased from the gangster who also reportedly forced customers into buying “protection” insurance. Mont lobbied Adonis to commission a Styka portrait for his fancy new dining room. The gangster demurred at first. Why did he need a $4,000 painting? Mont persisted, and Adonis later recalled that Mont had gone on and on “always around Styka, the great artist he was.” The crime boss eventually relented.

Joe Adonis. Credit: NYPD

The painting would be of Mrs. Adonis and their infant son. Mont was also savvy enough to know that “more faces” in a portrait meant more money for the painting. Adonis visited Styka at his Central Park South studio one day in March 1934. There, amongst bibelots and object d’art, he made arrangements for a series of sittings. Styka was now in business with a mobster, with Mont as his agent. To seal the deal, Adonis invited Mont and Styka to a spaghetti dinner at his Brooklyn home. When asked later if he enjoyed it, Styka responded without hesitation, “yes, indeed.”

Styka began painting Mrs. Roosevelt on the same day that Adonis first visited his studio. The contrast must have been mind-numbingly jarring. He would alternate sittings between the President’s mother and Adonis’ wife and son. One can imagine Styka gossiping in French with the worldly Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had lived in Asia and Europe, about current events and common acquaintances in New York and abroad. One can just as easily picture him perhaps self-consciously, and nervously, dabbing at his palette with not only Mrs. Adonis and junior looking on, but also Adonis himself and his coterie of protectors and loyalists.

Mont was certainly pleased with the arrangement. The $4,000 fee would result in a healthy commission. Like Styka, Mont lived large. Styka would get some much needed funds, too. He required the best suits, the finest restaurants, and the most sumptuous accommodations. He had an image to maintain for his rich and famous clientele. He dined with them, entertained them, and mingled with them. As for Adonis, he would get a fine portrait from an internationally acclaimed artist that would fit perfectly in his glamorous Brooklyn dining room where spaghetti dinners were without doubt regularly served.

Styka likely completed both paintings in mid to late April. Mrs. Roosevelt’s lacks some of the flair usually associated with his portraits. Her painting, after all, could hardly “shriek with vitality,” but his touch is deft. She peers from the canvas with loving eyes, the warmth emanating from her delicately painted face focused squarely on her son. She emerges from a rich, brown background draped in Styka’s signature sables, his technique with fur as fine on Mrs. Roosevelt as it was with the crown princess of Italy. Sara Delano Roosevelt must have been pleased indeed. Unfortunately, no image exists of the Adonis work.

Styka’s portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt appeared in the press in early May 1934. It was covered extensively with photographs and stories playing up the Mother’s Day angle. No one mentioned the rather curious notion of a mother giving a portrait of herself to her son on Mother’s Day. On Sunday, May 6, 1934, Mother Roosevelt surprised her son with the painting. He had spent the day on the Presidential yacht, Sequoia, and returned to the White House to find his wife and her guests, along with his mother and Styka, at tea on the south portico. Mrs. Roosevelt allowed Styka to make the presentation.

The tea must have been a curious affair what with Eleanor Roosevelt’s guests, two women reporters and two progressive educators, mingling with Sara Delano Roosevelt and the Polish high society portraitist. The President was delighted by the gift, and the painting was hung in a prominent place in the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt must have been pleased, too, for soon thereafter Styka attended the Navy Ball Group luncheon at the Ritz Tower Hotel in New York City where the President’s mother was the guest of honor and speaker. That crowd was entirely different from the speakeasy set to be sure. Perhaps Styka netted a few new commissions.

White House Study

Alas, the Adonis portrait proved a troublesome thing. The mobster refused to pay. Mont gave Styka five hundred dollars on account. He was heading to Europe and needed the money. From Poland, the artist continued to seek final payment but found no money on his return in March 1935. Styka first threatened to sue Mont. But then, surprisingly, he told an angry and horrified Mont that he would sue Adonis! In a chance encounter on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, Styka repeated to Mont that he would sue the mobster. Mont menacingly warned, “then try, you will see what you get.” Perhaps the import of his words was lost on Styka, but that seems doubtful. Yet the artist did the unthinkable. He sued Joe Adonis. And, shockingly, he won.

The trial played out in a Manhattan courtroom. Styka wanted the $3500 he claimed was owed by Adonis. The mobster asserted that he had paid Mont for the painting. Styka argued that Mont had not served as his agent, but merely as an informal middle man and that he himself had contracted with Adonis. Thus any payment made to Mont was irrelevant. Mont sounded nervous on the stand. Adonis came across like a gangster being sued—all bewilderment and innocence and probably wondering how he’d gotten mixed up in a lawsuit with an artist who had painted the President’s mother. He didn’t need that kind of heat. To complicate matters, Mont had gone bankrupt in late 1934.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s name came up in testimony, but it is obvious the judge, and most likely Adonis, didn’t want to draw attention to the connection. Styka’s attorney used her commission to set the date on which the deal with Adonis had been struck. His attorney hammered away at Mont and Adonis over timelines. That his client had also painted the President’s mother certainly gave Styka added credibility. The judge found in the artist’s favor. The suit cost Mont Adonis’ business. Fortunately, it cost neither Mont nor Styka their lives. The verdict was upheld on appeal. Styka received the balance due and interest, but no more spaghetti dinners in Brooklyn.

Styka’s career seemed to sputter for a period afterwards. A 1936 joint exhibit with his brother Adam earned the pair a terrible review in The New York Times. “The adjective slick,” the writer observed, “seems inevitable.” Styka’s works were described as “pyrotechnic” and “very chic and mostly in the treble cleff.” Yet ultimately the reviewer wasn’t impressed, considering one study in particular “one of the most unpleasant pictures ever painted.” Styka’s brother suffered harsher criticism. The reviewer suggested that “the artist might learn some perhaps pertinent lessons in chromatic restraint” by seeing the new Technicolor, Marlene Dietrich picture, The Garden of Allah.

By 1937, he was exhibiting paintings with his brother at Eaton’s Department Store in Winnipeg, Canada. He still lived in his Central Park South studio, and on his last trip abroad before the war, cameras caught him strolling with the Duke and Duchess de Nemours in Deauville. Yet on his return to New York, he travelled in second class on the once grand Aquitania. Regardless, he rarely economized. He made the men’s best-dressed list that same year and remained active on the New York social scene, hosting teas in his studio with a steady stream of guests that included aging society dowagers, a variety of Polish counts, and Huguette Clark, whom he continued to teach and escort around town.

Styka, Ilka Chase, and Jimmy Durante, Polish Relief Fund, 1940. Credit: NY Public Library

In his fifties, he married a model. The union produced a daughter, who became Huguette Clark’s goddaughter, and ultimately her heir in a much publicized controversy following Clark’s death at age 104. Always active within the Polish community, he supported war relief efforts after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. He also became an American citizen and registered for the draft. And in a nod to his connections in the Polish community, in the election year 1948, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of President Harry S. Truman. He did so at the White House to the approval of Mrs. Truman. He died in 1954 at age 65. Unfortunately, his reputation has languished. He is perhaps best known for his painting of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider from which the Roosevelt Room in the White House takes its name and for his association with the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. He needs a proper re-appraisal.

Styka’s portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt continued to hang in the White House after her death in 1941. As for Adonis, he played a major role in organized crime for the rest of his life. He returned to Italy in the 1950s and died in police custody in 1971. Mont revived his business, but eventually served prison time for assault. His designs have enjoyed renewed appreciation. Styka is little known today. Perhaps he was too much of his times, not timeless. He lives on at the Roosevelt Library. The portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt—her Mother’s Day gift to her son—is part of the permanent collection. It was most recently exhibited in 2016. Draped in sables, she still possesses that loving gaze for her beloved little boy, the President of the United States.

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