Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
From a transcription he made six weeks before his death, Artist John Decker’s voice came back to intone his philosophy at his funeral yesterday.
In his flower-decked studio at 1215 Alta Loma Road, where the private services were conducted, came the voice reciting a speech of Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“…to sing, to laugh, to dream, to walk in my own way, and be alone.”
Even in death at the age of 51, John Decker was quite a showman, but that was keeping with his tight circle of raucous friends: author Gene Fowler and actor John Barrymore, along with W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, John Carradine and many others. They used to carry on at the Villa Nova Café at 9015 Sunset Blvd. on the Strip, where the inscription over the fireplace said: “In Pane Vita, In Vino Letizia” (In Bread, Life/ In Wine, Joy). In 1967, The Times’ Lois Dwan called them “the original Rat Pack.”
There’s virtually no biographical material and few images of his paintings on the Web, and his only biography was published by the Scarecrow Press, but Decker was the equal of Fowler and Barrymore at the time. Note that “Artist” before his name was capitalized in his obituary. I imagine he was considered an Artist with a capital A in the 1940s.
A Times critic wrote in 1948: “Decker did his best work in my estimation, in still life, street scene and clown pictures, examples of which are on view [at a posthumous exhibit]. In paintings of fruit, vegetables and bric-a-brac he achieved deep but luminous tones to rival the Dutch 17th century masters; and few contemporaries have succeeded better in capturing the feeling of neon-lighted excitement and architectural banality aroused by small-town American business streets.
He was apparently a great technician, a figurative painter in an era of modernism, and won prizes and great acclaim. He sold many paintings to the Hollywood stars of the day, some of them as his own and some as well-executed forgeries.
Will Fowler, Gene Fowler’s son, had a wonderful story about taking Decker out to the Valley, where he bought an old dresser from someone who had it for sale by the side of the road along Ventura Boulevard. Decker tore the bottom out of a drawer for a wooden panel to paint a fake Rembrandt, then broke the panel and sent the painting to Europe to be repaired, thus giving it a little provenance.
The victim of this supposed Rembrandt was Decker’s friend Thomas Mitchell of “Gone With the Wind.” Like all of Will Fowler’s stories, it’s a good one. I’m not sure it’s true, but it has enjoyed a certain conversational currency regardless of whether there’s any fact to it.
One of Decker’s best-known works was his deathbed sketch of Barrymore, which was owned by Will Fowler. Will was furious when I told him there was another copy being sold on Ebay.