Bessie Lasky in her studio, courtesy of Jesse L. Lasky.com.
Though overshadowed by her husband, Jesse, Bessie Lasky was as much an artist as he, a multitalented artist in many fields with some renown from the 1920s through the 1950s. Born Bessie Ginzberg April 30, 1888, in Boston, the gentle, spiritual woman earned an early education in Boston’s Sacred Heart Convent before studying at the New England Conservatory of Music with hopes of becoming a pianist.
After marrying vaudeville producer Jesse L. Lasky in 1909, however, Bessie’s life turned inward as she focused on marriage and motherhood. A shy and retiring woman, Lasky preferred the quiet and peace of her garden and home to that of the overly superficial, social, and grand world of entertainment. She spent her time playing the piano and working on poems when not gardening and taking care of home and children, enjoying the life of the mind and spirit.
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A catalog from a 1930 show of Bessie Lasky’s works, courtesy of the Met.
In 1920, however, Bessie Lasky found a new calling, painting. Her husband, Jesse, described her awakening in his autobiography, “I Blow My Own Horn.” He stated that Bessie was inspired to take up painting after she and Vera Buckland, wife of Famous Players-Lasky’s art director Wilfred Buckland, visited Carmel’s artistic colony and meeting painter William Silva, studying under him and later Felicie Waldo Howell in New York.
Bessie herself described an almost spiritual feeling drawing her to art in a June 9, 1940, Los Angeles Times feature by Elza Schallert. “I looked at the sea and the trees and they seemed to whisper into my ear something of the serenity of the contemplative life. I listened and I yielded. And before I knew what I was doing, I found myself in a little shop talking to a quaint old gentleman and buying supplies. The next day I was out in the countryside, trying my hand at painting… .”
Seeing her passion, Jesse hired Wilfred Buckland to design her a personal studio over their garage at their home at Hillside and La Brea in Hollywood where Bessie could work when not painting in the garden. Her son Jesse Jr. described her wearing a glamorous hat when working outdoors at their Hollywood home in his book “Whatever Happened to Hollywood,” preferring the company of poets, sculptors, and writers to the babble of cocktail parties and premieres. Bessie herself would later write in her memoirs, “I was not influenced by Hollywood. My heart sung gaily of landscapes, still lifes, flower and water subjects.”
Somehow finding time to paint around being a mother, wife, managing homes in New York and Los Angeles, and playing tennis and golf, riding horses, and swimming, she worked on several canvases at once. Bessie worked in the studio while in New York, spent time outdoors in California and found time to paint in the Pasadena hills and Mojave Desert on the weekends. She noted in a 1928 wire story, “You can find time for anything, if you really love doing it.”
Bessie concentrated on the spirit and nature in her paintings, turning out still lifes, landscapes, flower paintings, and occasional likenesses. She found most of her inspiration in what she called “those metaphysical gardens of beauty,” the world of the spirit and nature.
May 7, 1939: Bessie Lasky’s “Spring Bouquet” in the Los Angeles Times.
In 1925, Bessie gained representation and a showing in a Paris salon, the start of her long exhibition career throughout the world. She soon followed up with shows in London, Boston, and New York’s Anderson Galleries that November. She even found time to give George Gershwin painting lessons in the family’s New York apartment in the late 1920s.
Critics noted her simple, spiritual take in creating art in their reviews, focusing on the details of her own life as she looked for beauty and light. The New York Times praised her paintings of trees in a June 30, 1929, review of the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit, an almost mystical look at nature.
The February 2, 1930 Chicago Tribune enjoyed a showing of some of Lasky’s flower paintings, calling them exquisite and placid. On June 25, 1930 the Tribune positively reviewed her gallery exhibit there, finding her paintings charming and her still lifes filled with great beauty. “Bessie Lasky has a gentle and delicate talent and a flair for color and texture.”
Lasky’s first local exhibit occurred at Grace Nicholson’s Gallery in Pasadena, with the Los Angeles Times noting her previous exhibitions in Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Boston, Detroit, and the Newark Museum, which had purchased her painting “Interior With Red Lantern.” In their April 20, 1930 review of the show, the Times found her interior paintings the best, light and authentic. In an interview with the paper, Lasky mentioned the unpredictability of the film business, a foreshadowing of what was to come for the Lasky family. “The films are a gamble. Tomorrow we might, by some turn of the wheel, lose everything. I want a profession of my own and I have a rare chance to work at it now. Later I may need it still more.”
As time went on, critics noted the maturity of her talent and deepening emotional expression. In the June 3, 1934, Times review of Lasky’s first Los Angeles show at the Stendahl Gallery, they noted the growth of her art. “Especially in flower paintings, where her natural gift for decorative improvisation gets free play…She shows a sumptuous ‘Fruit Arrangement,’ a delightful ‘Victorian Bouquet’ and some charming lily pond pictures… .”
Another Times review on June 17 described how Lasky moved into painting for another way to express “the nameless longing of a romantic spirit enamored of the beautiful.” They reported that “To her, painting was an esthetic adventure. She was not attracted by the cult of the modernists but adhered to the romanticist traditions…For purity and delicacy of color her flower studies are little masterpieces.”
April 2, 1941: Bessie Lasky’s painting of Christ in the Los Angeles Times.
By August of that year she was included in Who’s Who in Art in California. The August 26 Los Angeles Times included the writeup for Bessie Lasky. “Gifted artist who published a book of charming free verse before she developed her genius for form and color. Paints intimate scenes in the California lowlands, highly romantic in composition and color. Her canvases are color harmonies, dream pictures that are highly admired by competent critics.” By May 7, 1939, Fred Hogue stated in his Los Angeles Times review of her work, “For my humble part, I can only say that the beauty of the California landscape, with its turf, foliage and flowers is vivified and enhanced by the sensitive soul of the painter.”
Celebrities began acquiring her work as well, including celebrated collector Edward G. Robinson, Mary Pickford, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn, and Elizabeth Arden.
At the same time, as Bessie’s technique continued to mature and improve, more and more museums desired her work. In 1933, the Los Angeles Museum placed 85 of her paintings on display in the first showing of a national exhibition. The Los Angeles County Museum exhibited her work again in 1941, showing sacred-theme paintings in fresco technique.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Lasky continued exhibiting around the country, from New York’s and Paris’s Knoedler Galleries, Washington, D. C.’s Corcoran Gallery to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor to Stanford University to exhibits at the Ebell and Beverly HIlls. She spent three years visiting all of California’s 21 missions in the mid-1940s, painting over 30 canvases depicting them after being her son Jesse Jr.’s enthusiastic suggestion. First exhibited at the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento in 1950, she later donated them to the Los Angeles Natural HIstory Museum in memory of her husband Jesse.
Jesse’s death in 1958 hit Bessie hard. She refused to exhibit any of her paintings publicly for years after his passing. She told Art Seidenbaum of the Los Angeles Times in 1964 that Jesse loved her work. “…He was always dragging people into the studio,,,he kept saying that the paintings would last much longer than his motion pictures.”
Bessie continued painting and exhibiting work to the end of her life. Even in her 80s, she remained active and creative, writing poetry, painting, and playing music until her death in 1972. Though mostlly forgotten now, Bessie Lasky shows the hidden side of Hollywood, where moguls’ wives were often as talented and ambitious as their more famous husbands.