Bentzman
Suburban Soliloquy #70

Isabel

Numbers in square brackets refer to notes in Mr Bentzman's postscript to the essay.

Isabel's half-naked image had occupied our living room through my childhood and adolescence, and now hangs in mine and my wife's bedroom. She is a young woman kneeling, bare from her waist up, her right arm raised halfway across her chest. She gazes pensively to the viewer's left. She has beautiful eyes, large and brown. While she dominates the foreground and is surrounded by symbols of classical beauty, in the half distance on the right is a blind harlequin sitting at an easel producing an abstract painting. We know he's blind only because the artist told us. The title of the piece is Classicism Versus Buffoonery. This surrealist oil painting, approximately forty-two inches high by thirty-two inches wide, is the work of her husband, Antonio Gattorno.

Antonio Gattorno is almost forgotten now, but in his heyday this Cuban artist was painting murals in South America, portraits of Cuban peons, and large paintings of political commentary against Franco and Hitler. He was a friend and colleague to Salvador Dali, but fell out with him as Dali became too much a popinjay. He was also friends with Ernest Hemingway, who took him fishing. Gattorno would get seasick. Hemingway was good enough to write a small book-catalogue for him, Gattorno, Habana, Cuba: Impressores: Ucar, Garcia Y Cia, 1935. The book also includes a short laudation by John Dos Passos. Gattorno's friendship with Hemingway was hurt for many years when the author accused Gattorno of being a sissy because he despised the slaughter of the bullfight. I will leave it to others to write accounts of the artist's life. My subject is his wife.

Antonio had been dead ten years when, in 1990, I drove my mother up to Acushnet, Massachusetts to visit Antonio's widow. Although I had met her and her husband several times in my childhood, we hardly engaged in conversation. I wanted to meet and know more about the young woman in the painting.

She lived in a cottage at the far end of a long, grassy lawn curiously lacking a driveway. We walked across the grass and knocked on the door to be greeted by a short, round woman then eighty-three years old. I did not recognize her for the woman in the painting, except for maybe the eyes. They glittered, either from corneal implants or cataract surgery, which she denied, yet at her age she was able to read small print without glasses. (She would also deny ever having posed nude or of Antonio ever having had a first wife in Cuba.) She was limber despite the swollen joints in her right hand, the result of arthritis. Her hair was mostly black, with gray streaks. She appeared to have her original teeth. Despite her age, she exhibited considerable energy while giving us a tour of the small house.

We three ended up in the bedroom. It had a narrow bed and a small painting by her husband of the head of Christ watched over it. By late that night, we were all sprawled across her bedroom floor, drinking Champagne and resurrecting the past. From out of a drawer came old photographs. Some of her earliest memories intact, I learned the stories of the woman in our painting.

Isabel was born in the Azores. Among her earliest memories was of a favored great-grandmother who was ninety-six and bedridden. Great-grandma insisted on having two cookie tins kept under her bed. She'd call her great-granddaughter to her bedside and had Isabel sing to her. For each song Isabel was allowed to crawl under the old woman's bed to take out a tin and remove a cookie. Between each song the tin was put back.

Isabel's parents were attractive. In the old photograph her mother's face was oval, borne atop the high collar of a Victorian blouse, her hair worn in a fat chignon. Her father was sharply featured and with a fine masculine expression. Isabel had inherited her mother's lush, round eyes and fortunately not her father's prominent handlebar mustache.

Her mother, Rosa, belonged to a family of means, a family that prided itself on taste and intelligence.[1] In their eyes, Isabel's father was a common laborer, although, Isabel asserted, he was in fact a master mason. Nevertheless, Isabel's father could neither read nor write. Her parents married in secret. Rosa's father disowned her and from that day denied her existence, yet Rosa never regretted her decision. Eventually a determined Rosa, with help from the priest who had married them, taught Rosa's husband to read.

It was her father who came to this country first, escorting a niece to be married in the United States. Young girls did not travel alone, then. He arrived to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a large population of Portuguese immigrants, and stayed until he no longer had the money to return to the Azores. Unable to find a job as a mason, he found work as a painter in the mills of New Bedford's textile industry, eventually bringing his family over when Isabel was only six and a half.

Isabel made a point of impressing on my mother and me her father's honesty. It was the reason he was hired by the mill. The man who ran the mill's paint department was not honest and would order more paint than was needed to then sell it. It wasn't long before Isabel's father ran the paint department. Eventually he became responsible for the structural maintenance of all the mills and was trusted to buy supplies and contract labor, not just to paint, but repair walls, replace floors and ceilings, all this without the severe scrutiny of the company's owner. He was diligent and worked seven days a week until a heart attack in his early fifties. Only after his illness did he bother to take days off.[2]

Years later, Isabel, a young woman in her twenties, became dissatisfied with her life in New Bedford. She possessed her mother's stubborn self-determination and independence. She had married and divorced a Portuguese man, of which she had little to say. It hadn't lasted long and was of no consequence to her despite the age in which she lived and a Catholic upbringing.[3]
Tired of working too hard as a secretary for three lawyers in New Bedford, she left her family and friends, put behind her the broken marriage, and made her way to New York City. In New York she found a better job for better pay and lived with a Jewish family on Riverside Drive.

One day she took herself to the New York World's Fair. The year was probably 1938. She had told her family that she would be coming home the next day to spend her vacation with them in Massachusetts, but wanted one day to see the fair. It was while at the fair that she was invited to a party at one of the pavilions. Among the people at this party was Antonio Gattorno. The Bacardi Company, producers of rum, had brought the young Gattorno from Cuba to paint a mural for their offices in the Empire State Building.

Isabel saw the handsome Antonio and was impressed, but not stricken. Antonio saw the beautiful Isabel and was lost. He stood by her side the rest of the night. "You're bootiful," he said to her in his limited English, even though she understood Spanish. In telling us the story, she imitated him. The party quit the fair with Isabel in tow and returned to a Manhattan restaurant for a Spanish meal. "You're bootiful," Antonio continued to inform Isabel, "I luff you," he intoned.

"You're just drunk," Isabel warned him. "Tomorrow you'll think different."

"Yez, I'm drunk," Antonio replied, "but tomorrow I will be sober and I will still luff you."

Antonio saw Isabel home. "Will I see you tomorrow? Will you come to the fair?" He whined like a child. "I luff you." And so Isabel agreed. That night she called home to let them know she was not coming.

The next day Isabel decided to not be on time. Antonio having expressed a desire for a serious relationship, Isabel intended to test his seriousness. Instead of going to the World's Fair for the appointed rendezvous, she took herself to a movie. I asked her what she saw, but she could not remember the film. She was less interested in the film and more obsessed with Antonio; nevertheless, she stuck to her guns and arrived two hours late. Antonio had waited.

"Isabel, you are two hours late, two hours! Why?" She told him she had to visit a sick Aunt. From that day on and through years of marriage, whenever Isabel questioned Antonio why he was late, he'd explain he was visiting a sick aunt.

Isabel told us her stories with vitality. It seemed we were up all night doing a considerable amount of laughing. The next morning she proved generous to a fault, gifting me and my mother with several of Antonio's drawings. I felt embarrassed and undeserving. And just before we left, she presented me with Antonio's easel, the last one he worked on, to give to my wife, also a painter. It barely fit in the car. That was the last time we saw Isabel. She died in 1993.

My parents met the Gattornos in 1943 or 1944. My father came home from work with news about a friend's daughter dating a fabulous Cuban guitarist, this being Rey de la Torre. Esther, my mother, said she wanted to meet the musician. My father dropped her off at the Georgette Passedoit Gallery on East Fifty-Seventh Street in Manhattan where Rey de la Torre was performing. The gallery was then having an exhibition of Gattorno's work, Rey de la Torre's friend.

Antonio was there and saw in my mother a great beauty. He invited her to a party he was having after the show at his apartment, 10 Downing Street in the Village, and Rey de la Torre took her. It was there that she first met Isabel. That evening is one of my mother's favorite memories, walking about the party with a drink in her hand while other artists gathered around her begging her to come sit for them. Antonio stepped forward and said "no!, I discovered her; she sits for no one except for me."

It was at the Gattorno's apartment, Esther found two painting she adored. Over the Gattorno's living room couch was the large painting mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The other was the small portrait of Isabel, 11" by 8", which now hangs in my study. In 1943-44 it hung in the Gattorno's powder room. When my father finally caught up to my mother at the party, she told him she wanted those paintings and he arranged to buy them.

One last painting I want to mention also hangs in my study. It is a portrait that Antonio later did of my mother, 21 " by 17 ". My mother is fifty-eight years younger in this painting and has a face like Botticelli's Venus. In the background cranes are building nests. My mother was pregnant with my older sister. There are stories here, too.


Postscript October 19th 2003:

It has only been eighteen days since my essay about Isabel first appeared. Today I received an email from Isabel's niece, Teresa Ana Cabral, who was gracious enough to point out several inaccuracies. I can't say with confidence whether the errors were mine, the result of poor listening and note-taking, or those of Isabel, who did seem to want to revise her history. I am embarrassed by the errors and apologize to my readers. So that my readers can appreciate the limit to which they can trust me, I have gone back and annotated my piece rather than revise it.
[1]
Where I found the name Rosa shall remain a mystery even to me. Ms Cabral informed me that her grandmother's name was Ana Lopes. Ms Cabral was (baptismally) named for her grandmother. She further writes: "My grandmother was a teacher in the Azores at the young age of 15. The wedding was arranged as were all weddings at that time. My grandfather was nearly 15 years older than my grandmother. She was quite happy teaching and never really wanted a family but was mother to nine children." Ana Maura died at age fifty-six.

[2]
Ms Cabral wanted me to know that despite his early heart attack, her grandfather, Joseph Maura Cabral, died at age eighty-six.

[3]
Isabel was never divorced. According to Ms Cabral, Isabel had been married twice before. Her first husband died of a rare blood disease when she was eighteen years old. Of Isabel's second husband Ms Cabral writes: ". . . her second husband was a scoundrel. His family loved Isabel and feeling he had dishonored her, as well as his own family, obtained an annulment and also provided Isabel with a stipend which saw her through the Depression years."

I wish to thank Ms Cabral for her corrections. She enriched for me the story of her family by furthering my knowledge of it, but I leave it to her to tell the more complete story, to which my family was merely tangential.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is number 70 in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"