Orange County Register
Friday, July 6, 2007
Niece finds uncle's 'missing' art work – in a Mimi's Café
An American art-history mystery
If you're a very devoted reader of the column (meaning you're here for more than "Housewives" drivel), the name Carol Edmonston should ring a bell. She's the Fullerton woman who took on the Linda Evans health club chain, basically harassing it until it coughed up a settlement for scores of women who felt they'd been cheated out of membership fees.
Now comes Edmonston with a new cause – one wrapped in an intriguing mystery – and a new corporation in her sights, Mimi's Café. Unlike Linda Evans owners, however, Mimi's appears to be working diligently to right a wrong.
When we met a few years ago, Edmonston mentioned her uncle was Syd Hoff, one of the New Yorker's most prolific cartoonists and the artist who created the children's books "Danny the Dinosaur" and "Sammy the Seal." A couple of months ago, she sent me a note reminding me of that fact and telling me about her latest fight.
Edmonston was sitting in the Mimi's on 17th Street in Tustin one day when she looked up and saw on the wall a striking painting, or rather a print of one. Mimi's are full of art reproductions. But this piece dominated the dining room both by its size – roughly five-feet by 10-feet – and its subject matter: a portly man in long underwear sashaying through a room of well-dressed diners. It was unmistakably Uncle Syd's style. But it bore no signature.
"I was dumbfounded, because I knew in my heart it was my uncle's," she told me as we sat in that same Mimi's over lunch, the painting looming eight feet away. She loved her Uncle Syd for his kindness, sense of humor and stories about his days in New York. He inspired her own interest in drawing. If a restaurant was displaying his work, great, but she wanted him to get credit.
Edmonston found in her files a 1996 Elle Décor magazine article about a fashionable East Coast home. In the photo layout of the interior, the original painting – or at least what is believed to be the original – can be seen. And on this version the signature is large and clear: "Hoff."
It started coming back to her. She remembered what Uncle Syd had told her about it before he died in 2004. He'd done it in the late '30s for "Café Society," a legendary New York nightclub that featured music by American blacks and yet was open to patrons of all races. Because of this and because of its support of liberal causes in general, it was perhaps the most notorious and celebrated radical club in a radical Greenwich Village. Billie Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" there for the first time. (read more about Cafe Society)
So this artwork not only had sentimental value, Edmonston felt, but historic value, which was all the more reason to get her uncle credit. She contacted Mimi's headquarters in Tustin. The company told her the print was in 44 of its 116 restaurants across the U.S., including in Yorba Linda, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Fountain Valley, Lake Forest and Anaheim. Edmonston seeks no money. She only wants Mimi's to give her uncle credit and to say how it got the prints. Mimi's vice president and attorney Roger Tefft told me the company is happy to grant her first wish. It has struggled with the second. The decorators who acquired the prints several years ago no longer work for Mimi's.
"What I know," Tefft said, "is that the prints in question are reproductions of what Mimi's Cafe thought was a commissioned work, when in fact it was a Syd Hoff original. … To our chagrin, I can't say how it came to be that Mr. Hoff's signature was omitted from the reproductions, or that permission from him was overlooked. … But we are thrilled Mr. Hoff's family has come forward and that we have this opportunity to make things right. … It will involve retrofitting the existing murals with a plaque honoring his memory."
Edmonston is happy but not done. She wants to find the original, learn what happened to it when Café Society closed, how it came to be mass produced, etc. There's some question whether it was even a canvas – she recalls Hoff talking about it as if it were a mural. Which deepens the mystery about how a version of it appeared in Elle Décor. She is trying to contact designer Randolph Duke, whose home was featured in the article. Duke doesn't seem like a guy who would hang anything but originals.
Orange County Register
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
A Break in Art "Theft" …
You'll recall his niece, Carol Edmonston, had found what she thought might be a photograph of the original in a 1996 article in Elle Décor magazine. But she wasn't sure because her uncle had told her he had painted it for the legendary Café Society nightclub in New York and she thought he said it was a mural, not a work on canvas – which is what appeared in the magazine.
I got an email from Elle Décor's editor, Margaret Russell. She'd read the column online and contacted designer Randolph Duke, whose home had been the subject of the layout. Duke, she said, "believes his Syd Hoff painting was an original canvas and that he sold it to a local Hampton’s antiques dealer some time ago. … I had styled the photo shoot 12 years ago, and I still remember how fabulous that painting was in Randolph's house."
Duke, she says, has promised to do some research and try to provide details.
Orange County Register
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
HOFF HANGS IN THE RIGHTFUL PLACE - FOR NOW
The mystery remains as to exactly how the huge Syd Hoff print came to hang in many Mimi's cafes without the permission of the late Hoff's family, one member of which is Carol Edmonston of Fullerton. But I feel I'm getting closer to the answer all the time, and over the weekend a milestone of sorts was achieved.
I drove up to the Edmonstons' home in Sunny Hills and helped her husband hang a massive 10-foot-by-5-foot copy on the dining room wall. The Mimi's corporation gave her a print of "Café Society" as part of the deal they cut after she discovered her uncle's work hanging uncredited in the company's 17th Street location earlier this year. It depicts a portly middle-aged man with a walrus mustache (a classic Hoff character) sashaying through a restaurant as a fan dancer as shocked patrons look on.
Hoff painted the original – as a mural, she believes – on the wall of the legendary 1930's New York City nightclub, The Café Society. Hoff was a prolific cartoonist for The New Yorker and author/illustrator of dozens of children's books, including "Danny the Dinosaur." He died in 2004.
By the time I arrived, Carol had moved one of her husband's game bird prints into another room and took down some wall sconces to make room for the Hoff piece. Its size was such that I suggested drilling two holes into the studs about three feet apart, then screwing in two thick hooks, so as to distribute the load.
Nope, said her husband, Bob, a retired surgeon. The gal at Aaron Brothers had told him that a single hook secured with four two-inch nails spaced about an eighth of an inch apart would be enough. No need to find a stud, he said, because the whole wall was plaster-and-lath, meaning that anywhere he nailed he would hit real wood in the form of eighth-inch-thick lath board. I had my concerns, but who am I to argue with an orthopedic surgeon who has consulted an Aaron Brothers employee.
We hung it without incident and their son, Chris, placed beneath it a plaque that reads, "Syd Hoff, 1912 – 2004." As part of the agreement, Mimi's will put one under every copy it displays.
"Oh, my," sighed Carol, bringing her hand to her chest as she stood back to marvel the piece. "We need a booth now, red leather."
A booth would look great. Plus, it will help break the fall.
UPDATE: April 2008
After an exhaustive search, I contacted Randolph Duke. Apparently he sold the original mural about 8-10 years ago to an antique dealer in the Hampton’s (The Yard Sale owned by Vinnie Manzo). I spoke with Vinnie, and while he remembered the mural, he indicated he had “no record” of who purchased the mural.
Last month while I was in NYC, I met with the widow of Barney Josephson, who owned the Café Society. We exchanged stories about Syd and she shared that she has a book coming out in January about Barney and Café Society. I can hardly wait to read it, as I’m sure it will offer even more insights into the world which creatively influenced my uncle.
And the story goes on - another mystery to be solved. However, I am determined to find where the original mural is, as I believe it is probably hanging on a wall in someone’s home in the Hampton’s. My interest is solely in locating the original and sharing with the owner about its rich history and the creative life of a great cartoonist. I am content having one of the copies hanging on the wall in my own home and sharing with friends who visit, all about my uncle, the man behind the dinosaur.
In my ongoing research, I have also discovered who the other 7 artists were who contributed their creative talents to Café Society in the late 30’s. The list includes: Adolf Dehn, William Gropper, Sam Berman, Abe Birnbaum, John Groth (whose family I recently spoke with) and Ad Reinhardt. All had amazing careers and contributed greatly to the world of art.
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