Sunday, February 27, 2011


Malice Neel.

This is what some of her “friends” called her. She showed that temperament in her relationship with John Rothschild, whom she called “the money man.” She was often biting, sarcastic and rude to him in front of others. She maintained their relationship for years, keeping him around on the side even when she became involved with others. But this was not a one-way street. John had many lovers besides Alice.  In fact, he was married to his second wife when he met Alice in 1932.  He left his wife and children, spending the summer of 1935 with Alice in Spring Lake, New Jersey in a little house Alice later purchased with help from her parents and John. When Alice got on the WPA’s easel project in 1935, she found her own apartment and John was out - used only as the money man and occasional lover.  When she refused to let him live with her, John moved just a few blocks away. Alice told people John was a masochist and she provided what he needed in that respect.  Even though their relationship was often bitter, John was always supportive of her, even when she returned to Kevin Doolittle for weekend treks  - even when she met her next love interest, Jose Santiago Negron. Jose was a handsome musician, 10 year's younger than Alice.  Not long after meeting – during a night out with John Rothschild – Alice moved him into her apartment in NY. She lived with Jose and continued to paint WPA projects for a monthly sum.

By 1937, Alice was pregnant with Jose’s child, but lost the baby 6 months’ into her pregnancy.

By 1938, Alice was pregnant again. John offered her money for an abortion. Alice used the money to purchase a photograph instead. While pregnant with her first son, Richard, Alice moved to Spanish Harlem, where she would live for 24 years.   She painted many portraits of the residents of her neighborhood.

1938 was a good year for Alice. She was the only female member of the New York Group (founded by Jacob Kainen). She had her first solo show in Manhattan at Contemporary Arts and not long after that show, she was included in a show of work by the New York Group at the ACA Gallery.

In 1939, when the New York Group gave it’s final show, the Social Realist movement of which Alice was such a large part, began to wane. Early work in the Abstract Expressionist style of de Kooning and Gorky were beginning to take hold. Alice was included in several group shows between 1939 and 1942, but she would not have another solo show for 5 years. So began the obscurity that enveloped her for more than a decade of her life. In July 1939, Alice’s WPA payments were adjusted down and she was terminated in August of that year. The WPA was terminated by Congress in 1943.

In the summer of 1939, Alice's daughter, Isabetta, came to Spring Lake for a visit.  Alice was living there with her parents, Jose and his daughter.  Alice hadn’t seen Isabetta for 5 years. Nothing is known about the visit except Isabetta, on her return to Havana, said she would never go back there.  Something very bad happened to Isabetta when she was living with Alice – hints of someone molesting her. Isabetta did call the police and asked them to contact her Cuban aunts, who were then staying in New Jersey. They came and got her. Whatever happened, Isabetta never talked openly about it and from then on, would only visit her aunt Lily, Alice’s sister. Lily did not approve of Alice’s lifestyle, but loved her niece and allowed her to live with her for Isabetta's 3rd year of high school.

It is not that surprising that Isabetta might have caught the eye of a pedophile among the group surrounding Alice, especially given the nude painting done during the visit.

Alice’s first son, Richard (named Neel Santiago and often called Neel Neel at school), was born in September 1939. Just 2 ½ months after Richard was born, Jose left. Jose’s sister said Alice “was more interested in her art and Jose was more interested in himself” to keep a relationship going. Alice was not heartbroken over Jose’s leaving. Jose moved in with a 16-year-old model, Ruth, and Alice kept in touch with Jose’s mother in Spanish Harlem.  She, and Jose's sister and brothers were still a part of Alice's life after Jose was gone. 

Although Richard was healthy when born, about a year later his eyesight was so bad he was almost blind.  At the time it was thought that Jose had syphilis and passed it to Alice who passed it, in utero, to Richard.  But doctors who treated Richard and tested him for syphilis said it was a severe deficiency of Vitamin A.  In fact, hospitalizing Richard and giving him Vitamin A intravenously and then sending him home with recommendions for eye drops and a diet strong in Vitamin A helped Richard for a time.  His eyesight was never good.

Why would Alice's son be so deficient in Vitamin A?  Because the man who came into her life about a month after Jose left starved Richard, putting him on a very restrictive diet.  He was known to put salt in Richard's bottle and terrorized him to such a point that Richard would often vomit in his presence.  Alice met that man, Sam Brody, at a WPA meeting in January 1940.  Brody would father her next two children and be her companion for the next two decades.  And he would continuously verbally and physically abuse Richard, often calling him names and childishly kicking him under the table as they sat together.  Alice, when asked why she put up with that behavior said, "I did the best that I could." 


Jane said...

Tough stuff, sometimes hard to read on.

RH Carpenter said...

Yes, it's not a pleasant story at all. I don't think I would have traded relationships with children and family in order to become famous in art - but maybe that's what it takes to become that famous (although she spent most of her life unknown but for a small bunch of artists and friends - until she was pretty old and then became quite famous). More to come later - but it doesn't get much better as far as her relationships with men and her children.

Irina said...


RH Carpenter said...

I'm reserving judgment on her - but it does seem pretty clear that she'd never get a "mother of the year" award :(