Saturday, January 09, 2010

Who was Albert Dorne?

Ferol Smith, wife of the late William A. Smith, describes Albert Dorne as, "a cigar-smoking tough-guy with fools ... but always a considerate friend to those he chose...and always courteous and gentle with us "femmes"!

Illustrator Kent Steine, who studied under former FAS instructor Owen Kampen heard many first-hand accounts about Dorne from his teacher. In a recent email to me, Kent wrote, "Owen said that Albert Dorne not only knew the name of every one of his employees... right down to the custodians... but also knew and cared about them individually and personally. A lot of people wept when Albert Dorne - accidentally and unexpectedly- passed away."

A lot of mail has come my way this week from far and wide with stories about Albert Dorne. Canned biographies are fine for laying down facts and statistics; born on such and such a date, worked at this place or that, died on this date. But nothing is quite so interesting as learning about the character of a man from the stories told by those who knew him.

Just who was this Albert Dorne?

What I have told to only a handful of people until now is that I've been corresponding off and on for the last couple of years with Albert Dorne's daughter, Barbara. With her generous permission, I'm delighted to share some terrific tales about one of the truly legendary giants of the mid-20th century illustration business. Some confirm the public persona of Dorne the magnanimous Samaritan...

... others of a ... saltier nature reveal the complexities of character of this most remarkable man. And believe me, Albert Dorne was quite a character!

In one of her first notes to me Barbara wrote of her dad, Yes, I will happily provide you with some vignettes of "Life with Father" which, I can assure you, was something considerably more than mundane. He was a very caring, very loving man, and after all these years, remains my hero... [but] no man is an angel, and probably derives much of his genius from treading where no angel would go. "

"The Stork Club was a favorite "hang-out" for Dad. I had the pleasure of dining there with him on numerous occasions. Some of his guests who joined us for dinner at The Stork were Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and while Dad steered Elsa around the dance floor, I was recruited to teach Charles the latest fox trot. My feet have never recovered."

"Dad was a phenomenal dancer, having participated early on in a quintet of straw hat and cane "shuffle off to Buffalo" tap dancers and singers known as "The Kent Boys."

"When I was visiting him at his condominium on East 57th Street in NYC, and with me wearing the very high stiletto heels of the time, my safety was always in question; he refused to carpet the floor of his very large studio."

"Why? Because he could dance himself (and me) silly on the polished teak floors - pulling me around with him to a devastatingly complex tango."

One of the people who sent me an Al Dorne anecdote was Thomas Sawyer, whose own illustration career has been featured here on Today's Inspiration. Tom wrote, [Dorne] "was really a great cartoonist in the guise of an "illustrator." Always loved his humor. I only met him once or twice, but we both lived in Westport, and I'd occasionally see him driving his huge 4-door Mercedes around town."

"One of my favorite Dorne stories -- perhaps apocryphal but in keeping with his rep for being this basically poor, wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid who'd become successful but never quite got over it -- involved his having invited to dinner at his home a very wealthy, prominent type (a man whose name I've long-since forgotten - possibly a Brit)."

"And over drinks, while they were waiting for the meal to be prepared, Dorne took him on a tour of the house, showing off his pricey possessions and furnishings, somewhat boastfullly specifying the (high) price he'd paid for each item. And when they finally sat down to dine, Al, with carving-knife in hand, asked his gentleman-guest how large a slice of roast beef he desired. The man's alleged response: "Oh, I'd say -- about eight dollars' worth."

Barbara good-naturedly responded to that story: "Dad did, in fact, want "only the best" - something he had alluded to even as a child living in rather dire circumstances," she wrote. "He often complained to me that his mother could have done something less exhausting and with better pay than scrubbing the floors of the Greeley Office Building on her hands and knees at night. Grandpa Dorne, Al's father, was busy wildcatting oil in Texas and seldom returning home to New York while the kids were growing up."

"I can tell you that Al made a few bucks after school painting features on porcelain doll faces at some factory in New York - and his reward, after turning over his wages, were two cuban cigars which he smoked under his bed while doing some utterly fantastic embroideries on hand towels. His mother (my grandmother) never "noticed."

"So, yes, he wore magnificent leather shoes, made from a last taken of his feet by an Italian bootmaker who was brought to the U.S. for that sole purpose; his amazing clothing - suits and jackets tailored to order by a British tailor who came to the U.S. at my Dad's request, carrying bolt upon bolt of magnificant Scottish woolens with which to make Dad's sport jackets (of which he had 32, all hung in one closet)."

"He was a gourmand of no small repute (I cried when I read Tavern On The Green had closed - Dad and I enjoyed many, many a wonderful repast at the extraordinary venue). And money was no longer an object (or, should I say, the lack of it, was no longer an object). He was very generous with me throughout his life and always reminded me to "see what you're lookin' at, Baby, - - lookin' ain't good enough. Ask any artist."

"And, yes, Dad was something (something?) of a "ladies' man" - with his fabulous good looks, agility on the dance floor (and his commentary on his agility in the bedroom), why wouldn't those ladies be captivated. Made him all the more fun to be with."

"For me, of course, he was "my Dad" and his painting and lifestyle were just perfectly normal to me."

"I still feel the need to thank you each time you send me an anecdote from someone who had (in my opinion), the good fortune to have spent time with Al. I, personally, treasure those moments - they were less often than I (or he) would have wanted, but life sort of got in the way for both of us as we both "grew up."

If you missed it in one of the comments sections last week, here's a wonderful al Dorne anecdote from TI list member, Dave Broad:

"After viewing your latest TI on Dorne I want to relate an experience from 1947- just back from the army in Europe and enrolled at Pratt Institute I had the chutzpah to call Mr Dorne to request a visit. He was very kind and invited me to his studio. It boggled my mind and though I can't remember the details I shall never forget upon entering the studio in the foyer were dozens of beautifully framed works of all the famous artists of the times. The actual studio was huge and luxurious with a large window, more framed pictures. a pool table and a large tabouret and drawing board. He was extremely gracious and kind when I showed him my portfolio and generous in his criticism and advice."

"At one point a gorgeous blonde lady came in and he introduced her to me. (Can't remember if she was his wife, friend or model) All I could think was that this was the life! He was a wonderful person."

Barbara fills in the details on the "gorgeous blonde lady" in Dave's story:

"I knew the lady well," she writes, "her name was Pauline - and she was a most empathetic and gracious friend to me when Dad died. She loved him almost as much as I did. She was an architect by schooling and very much involved in the operations of The Famous Artists Schools."

And speaking of the Famous Artists Schools, Kent Steine shares some hilarious Al Dorne stories that came to him from his old teacher FAS instructor Owen Kampen, who taught at the school:

"Here are two fun Al Dorne anecdotes by way of the late Owen Kampen. They represents the flamboyance and influence of Albert Dorne, and his apparent relationship with Owen," writes Kent.

"During the time Owen was working at the Famous Artist Schools in Westport... he and his famous author wife, Irene, had built a home there a few years before. One day Mr. Dorne comes up to Owen with a one-way train ticket for Owen. This would be around 1956."

"Owen wasn't sure if this was yet another one of Dorne's pranks. They were a daily occurrence. They would do things like glue someone's art materials and tools to their drafting table... and all sit back and watch the guy go ape. Anyway..."

"It turns out... this is a one way ticket to Las Vegas. Mr. Dorne wants Owen to ride out by train to pick up the Jaguar XK-140 he has just purchased from Dean Martin. He'll ride out there and be picked up by car and taken to Martin's dude ranch to stay the night before driving the Jag back the next day. Now divorced, a date has even been arranged for Owen."

"Unfortunately, his train is late getting in. It is now well after midnight. When the car arrives to take him back to the ranch, he is informed that his date waited all night, and had only recently left to go home."

"As Mr. Kampen said to us, "and that little girl who was waiting for me all evening was none other than Liz Montgomery." It would be safe to say that Albert Dorne was well connected."

Barbara remebered the story of the magnificent car somewhat differently. here's what she wrote...

"I have no problem with anyone using these wonderful stories and I do appreciate having the opportunity to read them and to make any adjustments necessary, vis-a-vis Owen's story about the Jaguar. As it turns out, it was not a Jaguar but a Mercedes-Benz. Dad had been having a problem with the IRS (dastardly folk) and wanted to buy the Mercedes. He had always driven a green Cadillac with a white convertible top. So, he asked Steve Dohanos, a neighbor of Dad's (Steve and Margo had a lovely house just down the road from Dad's, in Westport), to buy the car while Steve was in Germany doing some kind of research for a potential Saturday Evening Post cover."

"Steve bought the car in his own name, had it shipped to New York via the USS Lusitania, and Dad proudly drove his six grandchildren all over Westport in this magnificent piece of machinery re-pleat with bud vases in the back seat, a pull-out bar in back of the front seats, a horn with a star sapphire embedded in it and Dad's initials engraved in the silver plate in which the gem was embedded."

"The dashboard was a gorgeous burled walnut. The headlights were those big round jobs. There was a walnut case in the trunk of the car; it bore a brass plate with the name of the mechanic who had completed the assembly of the car and the tools used were neatly clutched in red velvet apertures made expressly for those tools. My husband was invited by Dad to spend a few days at the house in Westport; my husband said he had never seen a car like this and was absolutely thrilled to be asked if he would mind driving my Dad around Westport. Bill was ecstatic."

"When Dad passed away, the house in Westport was sold, with the Mercedes, to Zuban Mehta, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra."


And then there's this hilarious anecdote from Owen Kampen via Kent Steine (and I'll warn those with sensitive dispositions that they may want to skip ahead or risk being shocked by Dorne's salty language!)

"Another anecdote is when Mr. Dorne and Owen went to meet Norman Rockwell in NYC," writes Kent, "to take him back to Westport by train. It was when Rockwell was about to join the staff at FAS. This was their introductory meeting."

"Albert Dorne was an old fashioned man's man; worldly, sophisticated, and powerful. At the time, I believe he was actually making more money for his work than even Rockwell. Norman, on the other hand, was an old fashioned boy scout type of guy. Except for a possible "damn" I can't even imagine Mr. Rockwell cursing."

"Kampen recognized this difference between the two men, and was worried about their first meeting. As a confidant, he related his concerns about possible conflicting personalities to Mr. Dorne. Obviously, everyone was excited about the possibility of Norman Rockwell joining the staff of the FAS."

"Albert Dorne assured Owen that there was no problem, and that in fact, he would have Rockwell eating out of his hand by the time they got back to Westport."

(What Mr. Dorne actually said was, and I quote: " Don't worry Owen. I'll know whether or not he farts when he fucks by the time we get to Westport.")

"Before the train had arrived at the station in Westport, Norman Rockwell had signed on as a staff member of the Famous Artist Schools."

Barbara wrote this to me about here dad: "- his vocabulary of "unusual" descriptive adjectives and adverbs could have earned him an Oscar for outstanding performance in the realm of expletive proficiency. He called it "artistic license."

And on another occasion, "I'm looking forward with great excitement to reading all that you've written about a man who openly cried his eyes and heart out when Mike, his dalmation, had to be put to sleep. The photograph of Dad leaning over his drawing board shows a chair in the background. It was dark green leather, and Mike's own, special "kennel" where no one but Mike could sit."

"Thanks so much for this wonderful effort to keep my Dad's legacy alive. He was, indeed, a unique man, a doting Dad, and a very proud grandfather. My son, Robert Grayson is named after my Dad's beloved sister, Grace, who passed much too early in life. And my son's little daughter, Ryan Olivia, just having turned five years of age, knows exactly who Albert Dorne is - "Albert Dorne is your Daddy, Grammy." Yes!"

Doting dad, flamboyant man-about-town, tough-as-nails businessman, respected illustrator... rascal? Yes, Albert Dorne was all of these things - and more. Now you know him a little bit better. And in this second week of showcasing Dorne's career, we'll learn even more!

* My Albert Dorne Flickr set.

* Thanks to Heritage Auctions for allowing me to use the Wurlitzer ad scans in the above post. The original art from these two ads - plus three others - will be available at auction later this month.


  1. Wooooow! These latest scans are simply stunning--inspiring and awe-inspiring!

    I don't understand why anyone would even want to debate whose rendering skills are superior over another artist's if the two artists being compared have styles and techniques that contrast each other. Al Dorne's work seemed to rely quite heavily on his own raw drawing skills--from the initial concept sketch to the finished product. I really couldn't imagine a great deal of photography and models involved in most of his pieces. It's like assuming Jack Davis went and found models for his work. Fawcett seemed to be more of your classic scene-setting illustrator that relied heavily on models and getting the lighting correct--and basically attempting to capture and enhance reality. Dorne seemed to be a cartoonist with phenomenal drawing and painting skills. Comparing Fawcett with Dorne would be like comparing Alex Raymond with Walt Kelly. And again, I have to say these magnum-opus Dorne pieces are just eye-boggling.

    Thanks for the time and effort with these scans, Leif!

  2. Fantastic post, Leif. Thanks for putting all of these wonderful stories together.

    Here is another Dorne story for you: When Bernie Fuchs first moved to New York, he was a skinny young kid who didn't look old enough to order a beer. But he did good work, and that did not escape the eagle eye of Al Dorne. So Dorne called Bernie out of the blue, introduced himself and said he wanted to arrange a lunch where Bernie could meet some of the established illustrators. When Bernie showed up, all of the greats were there (apparently, when Dorne invited you to something, you didn't say "no"). He sat Bernie next to Norman Rockwell, and Rockwell talked to him about his work.

    At this time, Bernie had no reputation. He was just starting out. But Dorne plucked him out of the crowd because he saw something in Bernie's work. Years later, when the rest of the world had caught on, Dorne (together with Austin Briggs) invited Bernie to join the faculty of the Famous Artists School.

  3. Thank you Leif for glimpses of an a personal nature of an artist I have always admired.

  4. Crazy eyebrows, but cool work

  5. These stories are a lot of fun.And it's only monday.Great stuff,thanks Leif.

  6. Chad Sterling7:47 PM

    Man,are those eyebrows for real? Not sure if he looks like Al Jolson or Ed Asner.
    Look, Dorne found a route to the American dream and he took it.With his kind of energy he'd have been a success at anything.
    Personally, I find his work a bit too hokey. But wotta guy, kind of an illustration Jack Kirby.

  7. Anonymous7:50 PM

    Absolutely fantastic! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.


  8. Anonymous10:39 PM

    "And, yes, Dad was something (something?) of a "ladies' man" - with his fabulous good look"

    Good looks?? The man looked like an ugly Abe Vigoda...and that's saying something.

    HE could certainly draw though (Dorne, not Vigoda).

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  10. Anonymous1:17 AM

    Are there any pics of the faculty member arriving at the train station?it is signed with a partial address on it.

    1. Anonymous1:19 AM

      I would love to know more about the art I have.