As you’ve likely heard by now, Bernie Schwartz, better known as Tony Curtis, died today at the age of 85. Normally, a celebrity death, while tragic, wouldn’t mean much to me. But upon hearing the news of Curtis’ passing, I choked up a little, because I had the honor of getting to know the actor and artist in his later years.
I first encountered the Hollywood icon at his 80th birthday part, held in a few ballrooms at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. There, I also met his lovely (and much, much younger) wife, Jill, who runs a wild horse refuge. It was the first time I’d seen his art — a collection of paintings and assemblage boxes — and I was blown away by the depth and complexity of his creations.
I had started writing for a new, Los Angeles-based magazine called Art+Living around that time, and by chance, the publisher assigned me a profile of Curtis, who I then got to know over a series of interviews, both by phone and in person at his house. After that, I’d see Curtis around occasionally at VIP events, even after he was wheelchair bound due to illness. I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I still have a place in my heart for the tough, yet warm and generous man who opened up his life and home to me, baring more than a few parts of his soul to a relative stranger.
My original profile was a 4,000-word epic. The publisher only wanted about 1,600. It seemed impossible (and unfair) to condense the life of such a man into so little words. I turned in something at about 2,500 words and let the editor do the rest. Unfortunately, what was published wasn’t only heavily edited, but some parts were completely rewritten, not because what I wrote wasn’t solid (to this day, this is one of the few things I’ve written of which I’m truly proud), but because there were outside forces wanting this to be more of a fluff piece.
So, in honor of Mr. Curtis on the day of his passing, I’m presenting the pre-edited, 2,300-word profile in its entirety for the first time ever. It’s after “the jump” for brevity’s sake. Hope you enjoy.
Thinking Inside the Box
For 50 years, art has been the secret inspiration behind Tony Curtis’ life
By Pj Perez
Tony Curtis’ home in the eminent Seven Hills master-planned community of Henderson, Nev. is modest – especially by movie-star standards – but unashamedly screams, “Tony Curtis.” From the mosaic tile reproduction of a Curtis painting laid into the house’s entryway to the numerous awards and honorary degrees on display to the photos of the artist from all stages of his career visible in every room, there is hardly a square inch that does not remind the world just who lives here.
It’s not enough for Curtis to be a revered icon of the golden age of Hollywood, nor should it be. He could easily coast on his fame achieved as the star of such classic American films as “Some Like It Hot” and “The Defiant Ones.” But he doesn’t.
At 80, Curtis is defying convention. At a time when his living contemporaries have faded into the comfortable obscurity of retirement, the artist formerly known as Bernie Schwartz is arguably at the peak of his second – and in a way, first – career, as a celebrated painter and box-maker.
His art studio – a small guesthouse flanking the main house – overlooks the majestic Revere golf course, which rests in a canyon carved out of Henderson’s Black Mountains.
It’s a snapshot of an artist in constant motion. A worktable, covered with paints, brushes and supplies, features cubbyholes filled with random objects that might one day become part of one of Curtis’ boxed creations. Shelves that line the walls of the studio are packed with dozens – perhaps hundreds – of the boxes for which Curtis has earned much acclaim, small dioramas preserved beneath glass that capture a moment or feeling in the life of this walking legend.
The technical term for these captured moments that Curtis creates is “assemblage,” of which box making is just one form. But for him, his journey into expression via collected objects started as a more practical exercise.
Curtis was born in Bronx, NY as Bernard Schwartz to Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father, Emanuel, was a tailor; his mother, Helen, was a dissatisfied homemaker.
“My mom was a brute,” said Curtis. “I never knew if she was going to kiss me or slap me. She was so erratic. She was so demoralized by living – she wanted to be a queen or duchess, living somewhere, and here she is married to this tailor, with two sons. We didn’t fit for the way she wanted us to fit. There were times she wouldn’t speak to us.”
Curtis’ family moved around quite a bit when he was a child, and every time they moved, he’d throw items he’d collected, such as skate keys or baseballs, into shoeboxes and cigar boxes.
“That’s how I collected stuff,” Curtis said, “so they would disappear. As they would reappear, it would move me. That’s how I developed my desire.”
It’s easy to try to search for the meaning in the myriad boxes on display in Curtis’ studio. At first, the artist denies that they contain have any reflections of him, saying he prefers to “let objects speak for themselves.” However, after showing a few more boxes and talking about their meanings in detail, he contradicts himself.
“All have a little sense of reality,” Curtis said.
That reality can be both whimsical and unsettling for the revered artist. He points out one early box, resting on a high shelf, which features a nude woman standing up. Curtis said this was one of his girlfriends, and she is standing because that was the only way they could “do it” when he was a young man.
“You either did it standing up against a tree or against a car,” said Curtis.
He points to another box with dismembered figures of small children scattered inside. Curtis said he created this box based on a distinct memory he had of being on a trolley car in the Bronx and finding a kid beneath a blanket in the street, blood running from his hand.
“You can’t get rid of anything,” Curtis said. “You’ve had that experience.”
Later, Marvin Weisman, a long-time friend of the artist, reveals that the young boy under the blanket was actually Curtis’ younger brother Julius, who died when he was hit by a truck in 1938. Curtis had to identify his body, supposedly because his parents didn’t have the courage to see their dead son.
Curtis talks about another memory, this one of him as a young boy riding in a car with a little girl, on their way to getting their tonsils removed. He seems lost in the moment, as if he is trying to catch the memory before it passes.
Last June, Curtis celebrated his 80th birthday with a limited-engagement showing of his artwork at a ballroom inside the MGM Grand hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Dozens of paintings and boxes – many never before exhibited to the public – filled the massive space, much as they fill his house now. Having so much of Curtis’ diverse portfolio on display at once was a testament to the prolific and wide-sweeping scope of his oeuvre. His paintings are bold, colorful expressions of hope and joy, influenced in equal parts by early 20th-century Fauvism and mid-century surrealism.
“For my paintings, I’d like for you to find some joy in them,” said Curtis, “a different way of doing things. Artists can do that for you.”
One night during the three-day exhibit, a birthday gala was held for the man that so many people admire, cherish and take delight in. Family and friends – including his sixth and current wife, Jill, and his daughter, actor and author Jamie Lee – surrounded him, as did hundreds of fellow actors, artists, and other well-wishers. Hotel security actually had to close off the ballroom at one point, leaving a winding line of hundreds more waiting outside.
Of course, people weren’t always lining up to see Curtis or his art. In his earliest years, he experienced quite a different reaction.
“My father was a hard working man,” said Curtis. “When I started drawing, it was all right – he told me to keep it in the house. But when I started making boxes, my father wouldn’t let me do it in the living room. I could do what I wanted in my bedroom.”
Curtis said his father was a practical man. Having just moved to the United States from Hungary right before the Holocaust, Curtis said, “There was no bullshit.”
“He didn’t understand,” Curtis said. “Why a skate key and a ball glued to a piece of paper inside a box – why would you do that?”
At 16, Curtis lied about his age so he could join the submarine corps. Watching Cary Grant’s portrayal of a submarine captain in “Destination Tokyo” inspired him to sign up.
“Cary Grant had something that he felt he lacked,” Weisman said.
After he left the Navy, Curtis studied with acclaimed assemblage artist Joseph Cornell. A shy, eccentric artist who dedicated most of his life to caring for his cerebral palsy-affected brother Robert, Cornell often sent boxes Hollywood starlets or to people he admired.
Curtis recently taught a box making class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He told his students about the special box Cornell created for his brother, a delicate work that contained a “thimble forest” within, seen through a skylight-like opening.
“He created a whole sense of art out of his love for his brother,” said Curtis.
The students, inspired by Curtis’ story, recreated Cornell’s box as their final project. Curtis was moved by their gesture.
“What a connection,” he said.
Tony Curtis the artist and Tony Curtis the actor may as well be two separate entities, but that does not mean the two are mutually exclusive. It would be ludicrous to think that Curtis’ fifty years in film and television have not influenced his art in some way. The most apparent effect can be seen in his sought-after giclée prints of montages that capture multiple facets of the artist’s personality and memories in one singular image. These typically come in the form of a self-portrait-within-a-portrait, in which Curtis is seen looking in a mirror as he currently is, but painting himself as a young man.
“This is how he sees himself,” said Weisman, pointing to such a painting. He said that he suggested that Curtis begin painting the montages when he noticed that the artist does not see himself as an old man when looking in a mirror, but as a young, vital matinee idol.
Throughout Curtis’ life, a sketchbook has never been very far, whether in his bedroom as a child, on a submarine in the Navy, or on the set of a big Hollywood production. Whenever he was limited on time to create boxes or to paint, he would draw. At first, he did it because it was all he could do.
“I did a lot of drawings as a child,” Curtis said. “I didn’t have the wherewithal to paint, until the war ended, when I could afford it. Up to that time, to buy oils or to know how to use it – I wasn’t quite sure what you did with oil.”
Though he started with oil-based paints, Curtis switched to acrylic paints as soon as he discovered them.
“Acrylics came out, and changed the whole look of the painting,” said Curtis. “It looks the same, acrylic and oil in a way, and you can make the two of them even, but the acrylic is a fast subway, where the other is a local.”
The strength of individual colors and the clarity that results from Curtis’ judicious application of acrylics is evident in nearly every painting he creates. Most of his pieces are still life, interior or landscape renderings, and heavy influences from Picasso to Matisse can be inferred, often with a single glance.
“I make adjustments to things that I feel are not just,” Curtis said. “Or I feel that they have failed the process. So the landscape isn’t as interesting to me unless I make little minor changes. Not that my landscape is better than the one that has been done; just for my eye, it fits much better. It’s such a personal experience.”
For the most part, Curtis is self-taught. He was invited to study with Jan Stussy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and though Curtis claims he was already “an old dog” by then, he did pick up a few new tricks.
“He showed me perspective and distance,” said Curtis, “so you could take a one-dimensional surface and do it in such a way that it became perspective. He was the finest of men. He liked my work right from the beginning.”
A major influence on Curtis was the late surrealist Salvador Dali. It makes sense, as Dali studied with Picasso, and Curtis’ love for Picasso’s work runs deep. But the unique approach and rare talent that Dali exhibited in all facets of his career captivated Curtis.
“He projected himself into the future,” Curtis said. “That’s what makes his paintings so desirable to me. I don’t think there’s as good an artist – a person that can paint as well as he and do figures as good as he. That’s a gift in itself.”
The inherent vibrancy and vigor captured in Curtis’ paintings belie a long life of pain, success, heartache, joy and loss. One can almost feel the optimism beaming from the canvases, yet Curtis has dealt with not only the loss of Julius at such a young age, but also of his own son, Nicholas, who died of a drug overdose at 22.
“All these inequities that we go through,” said Curtis, “we don’t want to have to rely on, we don’t want to get bummed out over things, but we do. And that is the dichotomy between them. One that does and one that doesn’t. So I can sit here, and I do, and I don’t recall the past in any way. Just delicately.”
Curtis does not deny that pain exists. He admits that he frequently thinks of Nicholas, even, and it is obvious is his recollection of stories that Julius is not long forgotten. But even as an adolescent, he used hit art as an emotional thermostat.
“I started doing these [boxes] to calm myself,” Curtis said. “I would get so frustrated and angry and put up with all of these madnesses of other people’s behaviors and the inequities that I saw around me.”
Curtis is standing in the middle of his studio, holding one of those old black-and-white speckled notebooks. It’s full of poetry he has written over the course of his life, some of which dates back more than fifty years. He said that he has 70 or 80 such poems.
“I’ve got a lot of poems with me, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them,” said Curtis. “One of these days, I’m going to try to publish them. I’m going to make a book of poetry for my friends, and just make enough for my buddies. Wouldn’t that be a nice thing?”
He flips through the notebook until he finds a poem that he wants to read. With no provocation, he begins to read it aloud. It becomes clear that the showman the world has come to know the last six decades is just one side of a man driven to create.
“I wanted to express myself all my life, in any way that I felt I was able to,” Curtis said. “I want to be – what do you call these guys that do everything – a renaissance man, whatever that is.”
It’s safe to say that, whether he believes it or not, Curtis is the embodiment of a renaissance man. His body of work, from theatre and film to painting and assemblage, is undeniable proof of that notion. But even at his advanced age, Curtis is far from ready to rest on those laurels.
“I’ve only just begun,” he said. “There’s a whole area out there that has not been touched yet. Everything has been done, but it hasn’t been done by me.”