Between Stability and Chaos—Part Six (of 6): “He Can Run, But He Can’t Hide” – Demons are Forever

Two days after she suffered a massive stroke, William Brice’s mother died. The monumental figure in his life had suddenly ‘evaporated’, leaving Brice no time to prepare for such an immense loss.

On the day of Fanny’s funeral, Brice, barely 31-years-old, and his wife’s car approached over 1,300 fans jamming both sides of Hollywood Boulevard in front of Temple Israel, waiting to bid his mother goodbye.

Inside the Temple, Brice sat among the crowd of mourners, next to his wife, sister, and brother-in-law, surrounded by the city’s high and mighty, including

legendary, powerful studio heads like Louis B Mayer, super agents like William Morris’ Abe Lastfogel, Fanny’s agent, along with many of Hollywood’s fabled stars and comedians. More than a hundred grand floral pieces filled the temple’s entire pulpit area.  A colossal ring of orchids had been sent from Billy Rose, Fanny’s third husband.  Her casket was shrouded by hundreds of carnations


As Brice’s Mother was Large in Life, so she was in Death

For the rest of Brice’s life, his mother’s sizable public mystique, as well as his tangled memories of her, lived on.

Occasionally, Brice would regale friends with stories of his late mother, always told with a light, ironic touch, which belied his deeply conflicted emotions.

To one friend, Brice shared an anecdote of when he was a young teen and about to enter his Manhattan public school one morning.  Suddenly, he noticed a limousine pulling up across the street. It was his mother’s. The limo’s rear window rolled down and his mother’s hand eased out, her face unseen. She beckoned him to her with bended finger.  He was thrilled that his mother was taking time to see him off to school. He hurried to her, but just as he neared, his mother rolled up her window as her limousine drove away.  Brice recounted this small event with a laugh: ‘How about that for a mother!’

To another friend decades after his mother’s passing, Brice described her as “cold”.

At yet another time, Brice said of her, “I didn’t really get to know her until we moved to Los Angeles when I was 16.  She wasn’t so much a mother as my best friend.  She was a fascinating person.”

Indeed, Fanny admired her son’s maturing intellect, his absolute dedication to his art, and so she became an advocate for his budding talent.

Brice and Fanny studying her Henry Botkin painting, made by Brice’s beloved mentor.
Fanny, center, shows off her son’s painting to friends. L to R are: Anya Arlen, Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Fanny, and Brice, ca. 1940


Brice’s Father Also Loomed Over Him…

Nick came calling shortly after Brice’s mother’s funeral, having abandoned his son since age six.

He surprised Brice by bringing his Pasadena wife of 20 years with him.  As Brice opened the door, his father introduced her: “Meet your new mother.”  “…your new mother?” Brice was shocked by his father’s severe insensitivity. However, later in life Brice occasionally told the story, always with the same tone of ironic amusement.

Next, his father invited Brice to San Pedro Harbor for a special tour of his new business project: a “banana boat”/cargo ship that he was converting. It was to become a swank, legal gambling nightclub, anchored a mile offshore, and so beyond the legal limit against gambling.

Julius ‘Nicky’ Arnstein, aka, “Julius Arnold,” “Jules Arndtsteyn," "Nick Arnold," "Nicholas Arnold," "Wallace Ames," "John Adams," and "J. Willard Adair"

Exiting his car at the dock, Brice was greeted by his father dressed in perfectly polished two-tone shoes, flannel whites, a double-breasted, blue blazer with shiny brass buttons, and sporting a captain’s cap with scrambled egg on the visor.  Still the dandy.

Brice trailed behind his father through the bowels of the ship, passing below workmen perched high on catwalks and ladders welding, hammering, and painting. He couldn’t help but notice their disgusted looks as his father passed below them.

Saying goodbye to his son, Nick pitched how great a business opportunity his ship was going to be: “It’s gonna be the cat’s meow; it’s gonna be worth millions.  We’re nearly there!  I’m just thirty thou short; just thirty thou. Could you just help me a little bit, Billy?  Pay you right back plus interest as soon as the dough starts rolling in. Ground floor; gonna be worth millions!”

Having deserted Brice for twenty-five years, Nick was now hustling his own son.  Brice was unequivocal.  “No,” he told his father and drove away.


An Inheritance of Confusion

By 1965, both Brice’s parents were gone.

While his father’s choices and behaviors marked and disgusted Brice, nonetheless for the rest of his life Brice would secretly harbor profound fears that he might become his father: that he might have his father’s ‘blood’ flowing through his veins. Would his awareness of his father’s character be enough of a ‘blood-brain-membrane’ to protect him from his father’s character pathogens, or would they somehow seep through to Brice?  Nick’s late intrusion into Brice’s life amplified his foreboding about who he might yet become.

From his mother, Brice inherited laudable values and traits, many that Harry Botkin, Brice’s beloved mentor, shared: a strong set of ethics, a relentless creative impulse, an interest in people, a desire to help others, intelligence, inquisitiveness, elegance, a deep sense of irony, juxtaposition, and humor.

However, Fanny’s contradictory facets of “mother” and her complex, uncompromising personality, one bereft of warmth, left Brice with painful enigmas about who she was and what kind of mother/son relationship they had.  Moreover, memories of his harsh governesses, proxies for ‘mother’, also cast long shadows over his life.

Unfortunately, Fanny’s early death ended any chance that mother and son could become truly reconciled.  She would not see Brice come into his own as a man with his own ‘power’. Never would he receive her due regard for him as a person in his own right.

But what if his mother had lived another fifteen years until she reached seventy-five—how might their relationship have changed?  What would she have seen?

She would have experienced her son as an engaged father—a ‘parenting style’ so unlike her own, but so similar to his mentor’s parenting and of his mentorship of Brice.  She would have seen Brice and his son’s positive, intimate, loving relationship.  What would she have thought of her son, the parent?

Brice and son, John, Lake Annecy, France, Brice's sabbatical to study frescos, 1958.

She would have also seen her son become a revered and sought-after UCLA professor of art, who helped lead its art department to national and international recognition, a man so very different than his fraudster father.

And she would have seen her son’s works collected by America’s most prestigious museums as well as his representation by important gallerists who also showed artists such as Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark di Suvero, Helen Frankenthaler, Alberto Giacometti, Joe Goode, David Hockney, Edward and Nancy Kienholz, R. B. Kitaj, Gustav Klimt, Lee Krasner, Gaston Lachaise, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, Ed Moses, Alice Neel, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Pablo Picasso, Ken Price, Man Ray, Egon Schiele, Cy Twombly, and Peter Voulkos amongst others.

But his mother died too soon. Never would the power dynamic between Brice and his formidable mother become leavened.

 

He Can Run, but He Can’t Hide – Demons are Forever

Joe Hirshhorn and Brice at the Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills. Mr. Hirshhorn purchased 73 Brice paintings and works on paper in 1957. The works are part of the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. collection.

Despite Brice’s successes, the blessings of his birth, and no matter how he reached for his better angels, the effects of his parents’ personalities and his childhood abandonment became internalized.  At his core, he experienced a black hole, a frightening void of inner emptiness that occasionally plunged him into despair, self-loathing, and intense confusion.  At these times, he became dangerously desperate to fill this emptiness by any means possible.

No matter how hard Brice tried to outrun his demons, they periodically erupted from the depths of his psyche to wreak havoc on his personal life and threaten his career.

Thus, Brice did not conquer his demons.  Instead, he used them to gain vital insights, which became the wellspring of his teaching and of his art.

However, in his concluding years, Brice seemed to come to terms with them; to accept the paradoxes of his life.

In fact, his last works appear to move from a conflict of opposites towards a synthesis of dualities, and so into investigations of yet deeper truths.

What emerges when one compares Brice’s concluding works to his early ones is the picture of a significant and intriguing artistic journey, one that reflects Brice’s fascinating journey in life.

 

Brice, age four or five, already 'lost' in the activity of drawing, ca. 1925
53 years later, Brice seen referring to a sketched notation for the large painting in progress behind him, Untitled, 1978 (WB78-0046), Brice's Van Nuys warehouse studio, 1978.

 

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