By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED: Oct. 28, 1999
On the mornings he could get out of bed, Marvin Friedman liked to drive across the river, seeking the Chester of his boyhood.
Bulldozers had claimed the damp chill of the coal cellar on East 14th Street, where his older brother, Alton, built astonishing radios out of copper wire and Quaker Oats boxes. Closing his eyes, Friedman could still conjure its smell.
Gone was the closet where Mother stored the winter rug every Memorial Day, after sprinkling it with moth balls and swaddling it in newspaper. She’d shake her head when Charlie’s ice cream truck would come by every afternoon at 5:30, right as Captain Midnight signed off the radio.
Who eats ice cream at this hour? she’d ask, pouring cold borscht into tall, thick glasses. “I don’t understand goyim. “
It’s a curious tonic for clinical depression, trying to find peace by wandering a city of ghosts.
But for Friedman, 69, his visits to the place where most of his family lies brought him comforting memories of a life with “warmth, security, no migraines, no Maalox, no mortgages. “
They also brought the West Trenton artist a second career.
In the early ’90s, Friedman emerged from a decades-long funk only to find his illustrations no longer in demand. He had worked for the best – the New Yorker, Playboy, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, the New York Times. If he wanted to draw the pilot’s view on a transatlantic flight, Boy’s Life sent him to London. Every Gourmet magazine featured three Friedman sketches from restaurants too fancy for his meat-and-potatoes palate. A new art director wanted photographs, not drawings.
Inspiration for the artist’s latest works – his reminiscences of Chester and an idiosyncratic collection of portraits he calls “Sitting Jews,” now on display at North Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom synagogue – came from scribblings Friedman made during that hopeless time.
He’d stay up at night, slipping desperate messages under the door to his sleeping wife and children, pleas such as: “Van Gogh cut off his ear. We’ll make it. If Jasper Johns could do it, I can. Please bear with me. “
They did. His wife, Sonny, saved the notes and they made it into collages made later and shown in Princeton – kaleidoscopic images of family weddings, vanished street signs, scenes from porn flicks and Post-its from the depths.
He soon noticed that people were spending most of their time reading his emotional words. That’s when Friedman started working in pastel watercolors and pencil, each work accompanied by a lengthy, hand-scrawled narrative, complete with misspellings and scratched-over words. The pieces preserve now-shuttered shops and the longings of his adolescence, memories of one uncle who slept in a separate room from his wife, and another whose wooden leg clicked and clomped up the back stairs.
An agent has helped Friedman secure a book deal from Algonquin Press. The Chester pieces will become the middle of Friedman’s illustrated memoir. It will start with his grandparents’ travels across Russia, Germany and Poland, bound for Ellis Island. The end will be his sickness and the way he worked his way back.
Depression first closed in on Friedman in 1972, while in Los Angeles, sketching Bonanza for NBC.
“When I’d wake up in the morning, it was like someone dropped a Baldwin locomotive on my head. It was difficult to stand. ” He searches for the words. “Ever had a spinal tap? You’re dead. You know you’re alive, but you’re dead. As many times as this happened, it still frightened me. “
Friedman is tall and duckpin-shaped, his gray trousers held up by suspenders that resemble tape measures from his father’s old hardware store. He wears a mandarin-collar shirt, buttoned at the neck. His white whiskers are short. His hair is long on the sides and wispy. The top exists only in memory. His voice is torpid, which makes the streams of profanity with which he embroiders his stories all the more effective.
His worst bouts would last three or four days. “I’d sit on the couch and couldn’t function. I couldn’t read, couldn’t watch TV. ” His four children would eat their dinner at the end of his bed. His son brought in a stereo and put on Richard Pryor records. Friedman fell out of the bed, laughing – the first levity in months. For 15 years he worked in fits and starts as his wife supported the household from her work as a receptionist. Medication and hospitalization helped, he says, but his family’s sticking with him made the biggest difference.
Lately, he’s been capturing in watercolors and words the stories of ordinary people. He calls his Rodeph Shalom show “Sitting Jews” mainly because he has captured the temple’s families on couches in their homes.
“I work in a square, which to me is the most perfect shape there is. If you have standing Jews, the figure is so small in the surroundings. [This way] I can cut them off at the knees. “
His wife would drive him to his subjects’ homes, where he’d turn on the tape recorder and ask questions.
He asked a 7-year-old girl if she was married. He asked the rabbi where he bought his suits, what kind of car his father drove. “Not rabbinical questions,” Friedman says. The rabbi had to ask the curator of the exhibit, the woman who’d seen Friedman’s work at the Cherry Hill JCC, what sort of pieces this guy was doing.
In his text, you can see Friedman comparing his models’ lives with his, trading memories of fathers’ shops and quirky relations. After talking for a few hours, he’d take their pictures, then go home, where his daughter Michele transcribed the tapes.
He did a similar exhibit at a Pittsburgh temple. Next is Hebrew Union College in New York.
“The only way I can make a living,” he says, “is to aim as casually as I can to people who might buy the paintings after the shows. Some do, some don’t.”
He says this in his converted garage amid the sycamores and pines off River Road in West Trenton. He lives with his wife and Misia, a Siamese cat.
Their cottage is filled with artwork – his and his grandchildren’s – pictures of Jack Benny and George Burns, and laminated bits of personal history, such as the announcement of his engagement to Sonya “Sonny” Grayboyes, of 5478 Berks St. She was a graduate of Pepper Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania; he of the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, now the University of the Arts.
He remembers getting into the school on the strength of his copies of Norman Rockwell drawings. He went there for three years; then his father got colon cancer, “and I had to go back to the damned store. ” His father made him promise he’d finish.
Friedman’s done a piece on the Ridley Park hardware store that his father bought at age 50. “He taught me to make keys and to cut glass,” he wrote. “The keys never worked and the glass always broke. He tried to teach me how to put wagons and bicycles together. It took him 10 minutes. It took me three hours and then they were never right. . . . God, what patience he had with me. How I miss that little store. God, how I miss him. “
One more piece is dedicated to Dad: It shows the grille of a Cadillac, the car his father always wanted to ride in.
“I told him when I became a famous artist, I would buy him one,” the text reads. “He was a dreamer, who all of his life wanted to play the piano but was continually demeaned and discouraged by his family. He failed in so many businesses that his sisters told him he should drown himself. “
In 1939, his father bought a green Pontiac, and on Yom Kippur “he was able to buy seats near the front of the synagogue along with his sisters. I think he was finally content. In 1959 a goddamn cancer began a vicious war that decimated him in 9 horrific months. The funeral was on my 21st birthday. The hearse was a Cadillac. “