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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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, 11¼" by 8½", 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 ½" by 17 ½". 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
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.
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.
Ms Cabral wanted me to know that despite his early
heart attack, her grandfather, Joseph Maura Cabral,
died at age eighty-six.
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