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JOHN LEGRAND HELL'S KITCHEN ARTIST 1916-2005

By DAVID JARRETT

 

Figurative artist, John “Jack” M. LeGrand, was a pioneer in the migration of gay artists to the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, moving there in 1963 and remaining in the area until the time of his death in 2005. Born in Elizabeth, NJ, August 29, 1916, LeGrand started painting in high school. One painting from 1933 survives in the collection of his grand-nephew, Theodore Heisler. After graduating from high school in 1934, he commuted to New York City, where he studied illustration at Pratt Institute and worked as a Wall Street runner. He entered the U.S. Army in 1939 and, like many other creative people in the service, found himself directing troop entertainment where he was stationed in San Antonio, TX and during the last year of the war when stationed in France. While in the army, he continued his development as a visual artist by drawing his fellow soldiers, and is known to have painted a mural in an officers’ club in the French city of Nancy.

 

Leaving the army in 1945, LeGrand moved back to San Antonio and trained with the American Theater Wing, launching his career as an actor and baritone. In San Antonio, he married a singer he had met in the theater. Within six months, the newlyweds moved to his family home in Elizabeth, NJ. The marriage ended after two years when LeGrand realized he was gay (although still in the closet). It is known that by the early 1950s, LeGrand had a secret boyfriend, “Ken,” whom he often painted. Two paintings of “Ken” are in the Heisler collection.

 

The thrust of LeGrand’s creative career for over 30 years was as a performer. For a while, he toured with the high profile Lunt-Fontaine production, The Great Sebastians. He considered this his first real break in the theater. Later he toured nationally for three or four years with, The Sound of Music. He also did many seasons of summer stock in New England, Maryland, and Michigan. Throughout his acting career, however, LeGrand continued to draw and paint, particularly drawing his fellow thespians.

In May 1963, LeGrand moved from Elizabeth to Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen (the neighborhood, also known as Clinton, bounded by W. 40th St., W. 57th St., Eighth Avenue, and the Hudson River, and the setting for West Side Story). LeGrand’s two-room, third floor apartment at 441 W. 49 St., on the east side of the building facing the street, gave him a view of this working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood, which because of its proximity to the theaters and its low rents was also home to many young dancers, actors, and writers. It had its seedy side: Eighth Avenue was loaded with prostitutes. And it had its dangerous side: LeGrand was mugged and his apartment was burglarized on several occasions.

 

In June 1974, at the age of 58, LeGrand changed careers. He joined the United Scenic Artists Local 829 and became a scenic set painter for theater and television. He created for the soap operas, Edge of Night, and, All My Children, and worked on the sets for the movies, Hair, and, The Wiz.

Prior to his move to New York, LeGrand had painted mostly still lifes and landscapes—scenes around his home town of Elizabeth. In New York, his passion for landscape continued with a love affair for Central Park, where he spent a great deal of time painting and drawing. And it was at this time that his male figurative art began to flourish.

 

Over the years, LeGrand drew and painted with numerous artist groups in art studios and apartments around New York. Through-out the 1970s, he attended Joe’s Sketch Group, which operated out of a cellar at 43 Greene St. in SoHo. Approximately 15 to 20 artists attended this gay-friendly group, which alternated between male and female models. Along with three other artists, LeGrand also drew models in Tom Lyon’s private apartment in the East 70s. He attended Charles Bell’s group, the Bell Boys, which started out in Greenwich Village, moved to Bell’s Prince St. loft, and continued in rented quarters after Bell’s death including the now-demolished Apollo Theater, 422 W. 42 St., near Tenth Avenue. LeGrand joined the group at the 42 St. venue. Starting in 1993, he painted male and female nudes from life in Minerva Durham’s open-drawing Studio 225, and continued when she moved across the street to her Spring Street Studio (64 Spring St.) LeGrand also drew models with the drawing group at the LGBT Community Center in New York. Furthermore, he drew and painted beefcake male nudes from Playgirl magazine (a huge stack of the magazines was found in his apartment upon his death).

 

While he often gave drawings and paintings to his models and friends, he sold very little. LeGrand’s only one-person show opened on March 1, 1992, at Singer’s Forum Gallery, a now-defunct gallery at 31 W. 21 St. in New York. Scenes of Central Park and Other New York Cityscapes showed 100 oil paintings. The show ran until March 22, 1992. Five times between 1992 and 1999, LeGrand visited his grand-nephew in Prague, where he painted the Czech landscape. Eight of the Prague landscape paintings survive in the Heisler collection.

 

Left in his apartment after his death were over 100 paintings of New York streets and Central Park, 100 male figurative paintings, 50 female figurative paintings, and perhaps a thousand drawings and pastels. Much of his artwork, particularly the figurative pieces, was neither signed nor dated, but just prior to his death he did sign a group “Le Grand.” He had mixed feelings about selling his work, although he did pursue the possibility half-heartedly once or twice. He referred to his works as his “children” and liked to keep them close by.

 

In 2005, antique and art dealer, Tom Stearns, bought a few scenic paintings, 85 male figurative paintings, and a few hundred drawings and pastels from Heisler. Stearns sells the works, mainly to tourists, from his shop, Yesterday’s Treasures, in Provincetown, MA (176 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657). In November 2006, Stearns returned to Heisler and purchased most of the balance of LeGrand’s work, which included several hundred male figurative drawings and pastels. This writer purchased a male figurative painting from the Provincetown shop.

 

LeGrand was known as “Jack” to all of his friends and professional colleagues but “John” to his family. Such was a metaphor for the virtually dual life he led. His best friend was his grand-nephew, Ted Heisler, who inherited all of his paintings and apartment content. LeGrand came out to Heisler around 1980, when his nephew was 23. LeGrand was very nervous about coming out to any family member. Instead of telling Heisler about his being gay, he gave him a letter and tape recording, which talked about his being gay. The letter itself is poetic and a bit sad, instructing Heisler to give the tape to his mother (LeGrand’s niece) when he felt it would be appropriate or upon LeGrand’s death. (Heisler never disclosed this to his mother.) A street mugging a week prior to his writing of the letter had spurred LeGrand to disclose his homosexuality to Heisler. The letter details LeGrand’s difficulty in accepting his gayness as a young man and finally his acceptance after he moved to New York. Of course, Heisler already knew his uncle was gay and had absolutely no problems with this—a big relief to LeGrand. His coming out only strengthened their friendship.

 

The individuals I interviewed said that LeGrand was a warm, giving, likeable man with a brilliant mind. Stately and handsome with a distinguished profile, he stood 6 feet tall and weighed 185. He was legend for his abiding sense of humor and the abundance of jokes and limericks he would frequently trot out. An avid reader and social observer, he had thousands of books, magazines, and newspapers in his cluttered apartment, which he said chronicled his life and times. But he was also very conservative—he disliked the counterculture, hippies, Black Panthers, modern architecture, and abstract art. Many referred to him as “old fashioned.” Until he succumbed to cancer, he apparently never let any of his friends or family into his apartment—perhaps due to the clutter and his desire for privacy.

 

Because he remained very closeted and private about his personal life he has been perceived as a loner, but to the contrary, LeGrand was very popular and had a broad range of friends. His social calendar was full well into his 80s. He spent quite a bit of time with gay friends who lived in Hell’s Kitchen, some of whom were involved in an informal breakfast club that frequently met at the Galaxy Diner, a neighborhood restaurant on the northwest corner of 46 St and Ninth Avenue.

 

In early 2004, LeGrand became ill but stubbornly refused medical care. On April 4, Heisler took him to an emergency room; he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. After several hospital stays, in July 2004 LeGrand voluntarily moved out of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He spent three months at the Kateri Residence on Riverside Drive. When his Medicare hospice care ran out, he moved to St. Rose’s Home, a hospice that provides free care for incurable cancer patients, where he stayed until his death on November 18, 2005, at the age of 89. His body was cremated at Rosehill Crematory in Linden, NJ. No funeral services were held, and a memorial service is pending.

...

I am very grateful to the many people interviewed for this article including Richard Bowden, Robert B. Gable, Jim Steffens (of Steffens Studio, 405 W. 44 St., New York), Larry Swanson, Wayne Snellen, Richard Taddei, and especially to Ted Heisler of Madison, NJ. Heisler, who retains most of LeGrand’s non-male-figurative art, has produced a limited website featuring the Central Park and New York paintings: www.jlegrand.net.

David Jarrett is chairman of the LLGAF Advisory Committee and a frequent contributor to The Archive.




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Untitled, ND
Oil on canvas
30 x 26"
Collection Warren Tarmas


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Untitled (Reclining
Male Nude),
ND
Oil on canvas
29 x 21"
Collection Mar Potter

 

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Untitled (Standing
Male Nude),
ND
Oil on canvas
30 x 24"
Collection David Jarrett

 

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John LeGrand
Photo by Ted Heister, 1981





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