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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"On the merry-go-round of life at last I've grabbed the brass ring."
Walter Broe’s Improbable Journey from Bowery Bum to Darling of New York’s Art World


By
©Copyright 2015. All rights reserved by the author.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to become darling of New York’s art world than Walter Broe. He was the only child of poor Irish immigrants. His relationship with his father was “not sweet and light” and after his father abandoned the family, his mother disappeared as well. They placed Walter in a Catholic orphanage and he tormented the nuns so much that when his father returned to claim the boy, the sisters were glad to oblige. Upon reaching adulthood, Walter Broe started a prolonged, winding, and ultimately unsuccessful, search for his long-lost mother, crisscrossing the country jumping freight train boxcars and sleeping in hobo jungles.[1] When the Great Depression arrived, Broe settled in among the nameless hordes of destitute and disposed men in Lower Manhattan’s Bowery district skid row.

During the cold winter of 1933 the Bronx-raised social realist artist Raphael Soyer and his friend Katherine Schmidt were walking near the Whitney Museum of American Art, when it was still on New York City’s Eighth Avenue, the ‘Main Street of Greenwich Village.’ They stumbled upon a poor elderly fellow using sticky chewing gum attached to a twig to fish for coins that had fallen through a subway grating. Conscious of the couple scrutinizing him, the old man (Broe) explained, “many’s the pennies and nickels one finds down there.”[2] Interrupting the commendably industrious man’s toil, the artists engaged him in conversation, learning about his nomadic adventures in search of his mother and that he was now homeless and flat broke.[3] Broe’s rough existence gave him a gaunt, worn-down appearance. Hardship seemed woven into the lines of his wrinkled, bony face; he was the very embodiment of Depression-era suffering. Raphael Soyer asked Broe to come to his studio the next day for a painting session, in exchange for small remuneration, some hot food and a bed for the night, an offer Broe quickly accepted.

On particularly cold nights, Broe used panhandled or ‘fished’ coins to pay for a bed in a Bowery flophouse, where a friend named Whitey also bedded down. The night he met Soyer and Schmidt, Broe had a noticeable case of the jitters, and Whitey asked him what was wrong. Broe replied somewhat sadly that he had been offered a steady job; Whitey seemed horrified at the prospect. You see Broe had misunderstood Soyer’s offer, thinking Raphael wanted him to come and actually paint the interior of his studio, not to serve as a model. It was going to be grueling work. “Okay Walter,” Whitey decided, “go to sleep and in the morning go over and try it out, it sounds safe enough.” The next day, Broe arrived at Soyer’s Fourteenth Street studio and proclaimed, “I’m here, gimme the brush, but I’m warning you, it’s a long time since I’ve had one of them in me hand.” Soyer, whom Broe described as “a small man, serious in mien and sensitive,” calmly explained all Broe needed to do to earn twenty-five cents per hour was sit as steadily as possible, and do nothing. This was a job he could handle. Broe proved so reliable and adept at idly sitting still, Soyer contacted several artist colleagues to recommend his new model, and eventually Broe commanded fifty-cents per hour. He was on his way to becoming a prominent member of New York City’s liberated bohemian realm.