From Basra to the Chelsea Hotel — My father’s journey
Editor’s Note: The artist George Chemeche died Jan. 11, 2022 at age 89. To mark this solemn occasion, we are republishing this remembrance of the artist’s life and work by his daughter, Amanda Chemeche.
My father, George Chemeche, is 87 years old. I live with him here in the Chelsea Hotel. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t really seen him. For his safety, I occupy the bedroom of our apartment and he occupies the living room, TV room and kitchen. I order groceries for my father, obscene amounts as if somehow I can demonstrate my love and concern through towers of boxes from Peapod and Amazon Fresh. And as for me? Since my side of the flat lacks a kitchen, I order pad thai, pizza, subs and fried chicken. My waistline grows unattractively.
Not only is my father old, he has heart disease, which makes him particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. The high mortality rate for elderly people who get the virus haunts me. I read a quote from a doctor tending to dying patients in Bergamo, Italy — “We are losing an entire generation.” I wonder what the impact will be to our society if we lose too many elderly people before we can document their stories, preserving the lessons they have to teach us.
I feel the need to make contact with my father’s history, to preserve as much of him as I can. But with this literal wall keeping us apart, I find this difficult to do. Of course, we communicate through email and he types abridged versions of his stories for me. I am grateful for them but they are shadows compared to the vibrant oral histories he used to share with me. They cannot compare to hours we spent together in the front room. Wearing a blue kimono and sitting in an 18th Century wooden chair resembling a throne, he would animatedly tell tales, waving his hands in the air as if painting pictures of the events that unfolded.
My father is an artist.
UP AT THE OLD HOTEL
The Chelsea Hotel opened in 1884. It was designed by Philip Hubert, a follower of the French philosopher Charles Fourier who believed in collective housing. Hubert invited an eclectic mixture of artists, American bourgeoise, intellectuals and blue collar workers to live in the building. Over the next century, the hotel housed some of America’s most important creative people. It also housed pimps, prostitutes, wanderers and the odd suicide. Of the artists there was William Burroughs, Virgil Thompson, Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin, to name just a few.
In 2011, the Chelsea Hotel was sold to real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. By August 2nd of that year, the hotel was closed. For us, the building’s permanent residents, it was a traumatic event. Within 24 hours of the closing, all the temporary guests were forced to leave and the paintings that covered the halls, stairwell and lobby, were taken down and locked into storage. Suddenly, we were in an empty building. Only a small fraction of the 300-plus rooms were occupied.
Now, nearly a decade after the building was shut down, the residents who live here have dwindled. I hear that of the 100 families that lived here in 2011 only 50 remain. But I don’t honestly know the exact number. People tend to cut deals with management and leave quietly. Others pass away. Regardless, one day they are there, the next, they are not.
The bedroom I occupy is also the storage room for my father’s artwork. You would think it’s a cluttered space but it isn’t. The room is large. There is an enormous, bay window that lets in good light. We face the back of the building, away from the street. It’s quiet here, and I enjoy looking down on the private gardens belonging to the line of brownstones that face us. The bed is a big, brass Victorian thing covered in woven blankets evocative of Persian carpets. The walls are covered in photographs of my father and me, and drawings I made as a child. A modern artist, my father admired my naive scribblings.
And then there are his paintings. They lie in stacks, leaning against the far wall across from my bed. For hours, I study the line of beautiful work. It’s like living in a gallery. In lieu of his voice, of the color he gave to the stories he’s told, I have turned to his artwork. I match the stories I know with the images he painted at the time. The colors, composition and subjects add another element, pieces of his spirit to the tales I write down.
There are a handful of paintings from his days attending art school in Israel in the 1950s. They are colorful, full of action and energy, depicting the bustle of people coming and going in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He was optimistic then, dreaming of becoming a professional artist.
There are even fewer from his time in Paris in the 1960’s. They are heavy with oil paint — still lives of fruits, a doll, a hunk of meat. They recall the styles of Chaim Soutine and Pablo Picasso, artists who inspired him at the time. You can tell who thinks he wants to be, which artists he admires.
The paintings from Israel in the late 60s and early 70s show a time when his career flourished. They are figurative and whimsical, filled with dancing ladies and men and riotous flowers growing around them. They are full of confidence too. In these pictures, I see him gaining his feet, knowing who he is and what he wants to contribute to the art world. I also see images of a woman with long, blond hair and I know he must be in love. It must be Mira, his first wife and the love of his life.
And of course, there are many, many paintings from his time living here in New York, in the Chelsea Hotel from 1971 to the present day. This was when he created “The Warriors,” a collection of dramatic metal sculptures evoking chieftains and kings from West African history. The aluminum figures are stapled onto colorful backgrounds and decorated with oil-painted dots and stripes. He also made “The Fields,” enormous white canvases covered in tiny, flowered meadows interspersed with trails leading to gallivanting, puckish couples; and the “Aya” series, psychedelic portraits dedicated to his muse, Aya Azrielant. In these I see the explosion of creativity that erupted from him. I see how the hotel and the artists within inspired him. I see too that he fell in love twice more. There are portraits of an unknown woman. And there are some of my mother, Gwynne Geyer, a Pennsylvania Dutch, Metropolitan Opera singer..
He met her before her career took off, when she was only 27. By then, he was in his 50’s. Her family didn’t approve of her marrying an Arab Jew. My grandfather threatened to drive from Pennsylvania to New York and, gun in hand, retrieve his daughter. They eloped and flew first to Paris and then to Israel to hide with friends. When they returned, she moved with him into the Chelsea and he rented a second room for her to rehearse in. Her voice would ring through the marble halls of the building as she practiced. They divorced in 1990, after six years together, but to this day, residents tell me they miss the sound of her voice.
I enjoy this visual biography, the collection of paintings representing his 60-year oeuvre. However, they leave out the remarkable tale of how my father became a painter. As an artist myself, but also as a Jew, I cherish this part of his story. Set in Israel right after the new nation was established, it exemplifies some of the initiatives the Zionists made to support and cultivate the first generation — particularly children — who migrated there in the early years. There are no paintings or drawings from that time but there is a book. He received it when he was just a boy in a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee. The book, and the person who gave it to him, changed the course of his life.
FROM IRAQ TO ISRAEL
My father was born in Basra, Iraq in 1934. Today, it is a specter of what it once was. America’s Iraq War (2003-2011) laid waste to the country. In Basra, many buildings are destroyed, lying in piles of rubble. The waterways are so polluted that they are poisonous. But it was once a jewel of a city that was called the “Venice of the Middle East.” The Shatt-al-Arab river ran through it in a series of idyllic, crisscrossing canals. On the shores, lining the water, were beautiful homes. Like gondoliers, men pushed boats along the shallow waters with long sticks.
His father, Simeon Saiq, was a goldsmith. He catered to the nomadic Bedouins, crafting their gold into jewelry so they could travel with it. It was dangerous work because robbers would try to ambush him on his way to the Bedouin campgrounds, so he always rode out into the desert with a shotgun over his shoulder. My father rarely saw him.
My father was one of seven children, and the second to last child. His mother, Gala, loved him particularly, perhaps because he was a sensitive and creative boy who was sweet to her. Or perhaps because, prior to his birth, she had two other children who didn’t make it past their infancy. When my father was born, she treasured him, watching after him and his health constantly.
As a child, he obsessively drew pictures of strangers, family members, of animals and objects. He drew them with a stick in the dirt in the courtyard of his home. He doodled in his notebooks during school. His mother, fearful of the evil eye, was worried his artwork would bring bad fortune. When he drew a portrait of the local rabbi while attending temple, it was too much. His father beat him for it. But he didn’t stop. He made statues out of twigs and dates, he fashioned animals and flowers out of the Arabic characters he copied in his calligraphy book. When I was growing up, my father described this fever of inspiration, this hunger. “If you want to be an artist, it must be like this,” he said. “You must feel you will die if you do not create. I felt it since I was born.”
In 1949, a year after Israel was created, he and his family immigrated there, leaving an ancient community that dated back to the time of Abraham and Isaac. In this historic moment, they left behind their ancestral home of over 3,000 years. His family was seduced by the news of a state for Jews — a haven where they would have beautiful homes and be welcomed by a new community. When they arrived, they were shocked to find a developing nation full of cinder-block buildings and tent cities. They were disturbed by the tensions they witnessed between Jews from different nations and with different skin colors.
On the border, their names were changed from Saiq to Chemeche. In a comic moment, both he and his brother Menashe were given the first name Moishe by accident, so my father went back to being called Gorgi or, in our language, George. The family of ten — my father, his parents, siblings and his sister’s husband — were put in a small tent. Because food was scarce, they were given onions to plant for sustenance. Unfortunately, having no agricultural knowledge, they planted them upside down. They lived their first months in Israel filled with hunger. Half a year after they arrived, the children who were young enough were sent to separate kibbutzim around Israel and the others to work in factories. After that, though the family remained close, my father saw his parents and siblings only sporadically.
A FATEFUL ENCOUNTER.
My father says he was 16 when he came to the Ein Gev Kibbutz in 1950. In truth, we don’t know how old he is. His parents might have changed his age, making him young enough to meet the requirements for the kibbutz. He could have been 18.
The kibbutz was beautiful. Behind it were high, rocky hills. Near the base of the hills and around the buildings were clusters of palm and olive trees. On the peripheries was farmland. The buildings were simple, squat things with slanted or round roofs. In front of the compound was the Sea of Galilee. On the beach were tables and umbrellas. But the children ate in an indoor mess hall. There was a small reservoir. Four or five staircases led down to the water and to anchored rowboats.
His time was divided between working on the farm, studying in the school and painting with a watercolor kit the kibbutz provided. His talent was evident and he was encouraged to cultivate it. My father painted pictures of the kibbutz, the children, the teachers, the animals. He gave them to the other residents, much to their delight. Early on, he dreamed of going to Paris to study.
Roughly eight months after he arrived, a teacher took him aside, told him that some very important people were coming to visit, and asked him to make more paintings. A week later, a bus arrived with a group of elegant, richly dressed women from the Youth Aliyah program, which helped Jewish children who immigrated to Israel. Initially, Youth Aliyah, established by Recha Freier in Berlin in 1933, was focused primarily on aiding European children from the Third Reich, but after World War II ended, the organization started to aid Jewish children immigrating to Israel from all over the world. This particular tour was organized by Eleanor Roosevelt.
After the women toured the kibbutz, they were served lunch at the tables overlooking the sea. They nibbled sandwiches and sipped black tea in tall glasses with stalks of mint in them. The teacher introduced my father to them, explaining that he was an artist. “Show them, don’t be shy,” he said.
My father handed out his drawings. The women were polite. They passed the pieces around, blandly complimented them but otherwise ignored him.
But one woman sat quietly, studying the artworks; she took her time with each drawing. She looked to be in her 40’s, blonde-haired and elegantly dressed.
“I am the artist, I did those,” he told her.
“I like them,” she replied.
“If you want, I can take you in a boat onto the sea,” he said.
She smiled, looking delighted and relieved, “I would love that; I am getting sick of all these women anyway,” she said.
It was early evening and the weather was good. He rowed her out in a small boat. As the water gently rocked them, he told her about himself, where he came from, what his dreams were. An hour went by. When it was time to row back to the kibbutz, she said, “George, I understand you want to be a painter and to go to Europe. This kibbutz will not be able to do that for you. When the time comes, write me a letter and I will send you money to go to Europe.”
Later that night, he told his teacher what had happened.
That woman, his teacher told him, was the great-niece of Lord Balfour, the Prime Minister of England who, when he was the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary signed the Balfour Declaration in 1917, announcing Britain’s support of the establishment of a Jewish nation in what was Palestine. Her mother was the daughter of Eustice Balfour, the brother of Lord Balfour. She was a Zionist and friend of Chaim Weizmann. My father was shocked; he had known nothing about who this woman was and where she came from.
A month later, my father received a package in the mail from Scotland. It was a book about Van Gogh. In Basra in the 1940’s, children were not given gifts like they are today; my father had no toys or trinkets or storybooks. Thus, Lady Fergusson gifted my father his first book. Tucked into the front cover was a letter from her. In it, she told him how much she enjoyed their time on the boat. She repeated her promise — when he decided to study in Europe she would fund his education.
AN ARTIST’S EDUCATION BEGINS
In 1954, my father enrolled in the Avni Art School in Tel Aviv. For a time, he would work days at the Israeli Electric Company offices as an IBM computer operator and go to the art school afterwards. In the evenings, he painted.
After two years of art school, he won a $1,000 grant from the American-Israel Cultural Foundation Grant to study for one year in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. My father packed his bags, bringing with him Lady Fergusson’s book and the letter inside of it, and flew to Paris. There, he rented a small garret in Montparnasse where he lived a humble but exciting, bohemian life. Things were cheap then. Breakfast and lunch at the school only cost five cents. He studied part time at the school and spent the remainder of the day painting. In the evenings, he joined his friends — an international group of expatriate artists — in the local bistros, mingling with intellectuals, prostitutes and peddlers while every now and then coming across the likes of Joan Miro.
By 1959, my father had transformed from kibbutznik to bohemian. He wore loose trousers, black turtlenecks and a long red scarf. When wound around his neck it still dangled past his belly button. He was thinner, paler. But women fancied the image of a sensitive, even frail artist. My father had also run out of money. It was nearly a decade since he rowed Lady Fergusson out onto the Sea of Galilee. He wrote to her and asked if she would be willing to help him.
Two weeks later, to his amazement, he received a reply. She told him how happy she was to hear that he had become an artist. Of course she would help. She instructed him to go to the Credit Lyonnais bank. There would be $150, the equivalent of $1300, waiting for him each month. Lady Fergusson supported my father for two years.
A SCOTTISH IDYLL
In the summer of 1962, my father received another letter from Lady Fergusson, asking him to come visit in Ayrshire, Scotland. He had never been to the United Kingdom; the only European country he’d seen was France. He flew into London, then took a train to Glasgow, Scotland. He observed England’s countryside, its dirty cities and tenements; the beautiful coastlines. Then, as the day shifted into dusk, he took in the steep hills of the Scottish borders, and the coastline dotted with sheep.
The next day, he was shocked when he arrived at Kilkerran House, a 16th Century castle nestled within the green, rolling hills of the lower highlands. A grand entryway opened into a main room with over 20-foot high ceilings and an enormous fireplace. The space was decorated with family treasures, collected over several centuries. The tables and chairs were made of hardwood; some looked medieval, others baroque, others Victorian. In glass cases were artifacts, daggers, cups and jewels. There were spears, guns, shields and armor on the walls. On the centermost wall facing the entranceway was a portrait of a man in uniform, wearing many medals, a long sword, and a big mustache. It was James Fergusson, Louise’s husband. Standing under the portrait were Lord and Lady Fergusson themselves. “Welcome, George. I am so happy to see you,” she said.
Over the next two weeks, Lady Fergusson took my father through the highlands, local towns and historic sites. They even went to see her daughter graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Everywhere she introduced him as, “a dear friend.” At the estate, my father blushed when servants referred to him as “the guest of Lady Fergusson.”
Of the many experiences my father had over those 14 days, two events stand out in my father’s memory. The first was dinner, a series of rituals and manners he had never witnessed before. A gong sounded, summoning everyone to a waiting room where the family and guests mingled, making small talk, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars. Then a second gong sounded, signaling the guests to enter the dining room. The mahogany dinner table was enormous, covered with a table cloth and finely set. Waiters entered with platters of food, placing them on a nearby credenza. Then Lord Fergusson rose to carve the meat. When he was done, Lady Fergusson, her daughter and two sons, gathered the guests’ plates and served them. Once everyone had their food, they served themselves, sat down, and began to eat. Near Lord Fergusson were two great hounds who sat watching him alertly and waiting for food. He never gave them any.
At dinner, my father was introduced to guests who studied art, knew Middle Eastern history, or had an interest in Jewish culture. One night, they invited a priest who had the distinction of being the only Hebrew speaker for miles around. He was self-taught, kind and eager to employ his skills. But my father could barely understand what the man was saying. Not wanting to embarrass him, he said, “Your Hebrew is very good.”
The second event had a lasting impact on my father’s philosophy of how to carry oneself through life. My father was intrigued by the Fergussons’ library and spent hours looking over their art books. One day, he was seated in one of a pair of wingback chairs. reading a book. Lord Fergusson came into the room and sat opposite him, silently. My father took notice of him, then continued reading. After nearly an hour, my father finished the book and closed it. Lord Fergusson immediately started speaking with him. He spoke for only thirty minutes then left.
After he departed, my father realized that Lord Fergusson had come to the library expressly to speak with him. But rather than interrupt, he politely waited. My father was humbled and honored that an illustrious noble would treat him, a young man from the kibbutz, with such dignity and respect. He had witnessed, in his mind, manners and respect for others that was rare. He swore he would carry himself with the same dignity and good manners that Lord Fergusson did.
A few days before my father’s departure, he was having tea with Lady Fergusson in her garden. “Do you know why I decided to support you?” she said. “My family has always supported Israel. I have spent years giving money. But it was to organizations, to the State. I wanted to help someone directly, to see him or her grow. I wanted to know the person.” Smiling fondly, she continued, “This is a long summer. Why don’t you stay here with me for two months? I will give you a room here or you can stay in the groundskeeper’s house. I will send someone to bring you everything you need to paint as well.” My father politely declined. He was overwhelmed by their generosity but didn’t know what he could give back to them. He felt uncomfortable. He wanted to go back to Montparnasse, to his home and friends.
Before he left, Lady Fergusson wrote two letters. She sent the first to Baroness Alex Schey de Koramla in Paris, another member of the Youth Aliyah Program, and the second to Lord Robert Balfour, the 3rd Earl of Balfour and her uncle. Since my father was returning to Paris by way of London, she arranged a meeting with him in the city.
MEETING LORD BALFOUR
My father’s experience with Lord Balfour was very different from the one he had with Lady Fergusson.
He met Lord Balfour at his private club. In the main entrance, standing at the base of a grand staircase, a butler asked, “Are you Mr. Chemeche?” When my father nodded, the butler replied, “Come with me.” He led my father up the stairs into a wood-paneled room. There were many men there, all dressed in crisp, finely-tailored suits. Some sat alone in upholstered chairs, reading the newspaper. Some sat across from one another at tables, chatting. It was the 60’s, and nearly all of them had a cigar, pipe or cigarette in one hand and a stiff drink in the other.
The butler led my father to an old man who looked to be in his eighties. He had enormous, shaggy white eyebrows that nearly covered his eyes. He stood and shook my father’s hand, introducing himself as Louise Fergusson’s uncle. Once they were seated together and a butler handed my father a glass of cognac, Lord Balfour started to speak with him. My father tried to make polite conversation, but my father couldn’t understand Lord Balfour’s accent. He found himself saying, “I apologize, could you repeat that?” over and over. Soon, Lord Balfour looked frustrated and my father, anxious, was dripping sweat.
“Come with me, we’ll go to my office,” Lord Balfour said. My father followed him down a hallway to a room the size of an apartment. Lord Balfour invited him to sit at the table. Then a waiter appeared and offered them menus. My father doesn’t remember what he ordered, “I think I took the same as him; I was too nervous to make a decision.”
After they finished eating, Lord Balfour went to his desk, opened a drawer, pulled out two, small canvases, and placed them in front of my father on the table. One was a copy of a Vincent Van Gogh landscape. Another was a copy of a Jackson Pollock. “Do you paint like this? Or like this?” he asked.
My father said he was a young artist and had not settled on a style yet, but he leaned more towards figurative work. He left out that his concept of figurative art included Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon.
Lord Balfour nodded to the walls. There were many, formal looking portraits of stern-looking men. “These are the styles that I appreciate, anything after this is too modern for me. Those two,” he pointed at the reproductions again, “are far too modern for me. I don’t understand any of it. I don’t know anything about contemporary art.”
There was a long pause, at which point my father understood that Lord Balfour was telling him that he couldn’t help him with his career here in London. Embarrassed, my father said, “Thank you for having me. You see, I came to visit you because I admire Lady Fergusson and her family and she introduced me to you. I did not come for help. But thank you, again. I am very honored to have met you.”
A FRIENDSHIP WITH A ROTHSCHILD
When my father returned to Paris, he found a letter from Alex de Rothschild, promising to continue funding his education for the next two years, but he did not meet her until a year later, in 1963, when my father had his first art show at the Galerie Transposition. Near the end of the evening, a small woman with light hair in a chignon and glasses arrived. Although she had never met him, she greeted him warmly and, after perusing his exposition, purchased a piece. This was the beginning of their friendship.
My father remained close with Alex and Louise for the rest of their lives. They corresponded for years and he became close with their children. In 1965, my father returned to Israel and over the next few years, thrived as an artist. In 1969, he went to London to install an exposition of his artwork in a gallery. While there, he visited Adam Fergusson, one of Lord and Lady Fergusson’s two sons. Louise was there too. She was in London to do Christmas shopping. They spent hours catching up, exchanging stories and news from the past decade. They stayed up so late that my father ended up spending the night. The following morning, she invited him to join them at Kilkerran for Christmas. But he couldn’t; he was going to New York for the first time to install a show.
In 1970, my father was in Tel Aviv. He received a letter from Alex de Rothschild telling him she was coming to Israel and asking if she could drop by for tea. Israel is full of stray cats and when Alex arrived, she was holding a kitten. “Would you please give it a bowl of milk?” she asked. After the animal was settled in the kitchen, they spent the afternoon together looking at my father’s paintings. She was pleased with his progress. A few months later, she sent him a letter inviting him to her son David’s wedding. But my father couldn’t go. He was preparing to move to New York City and had rented a flat in the Chelsea Hotel.
LAST DAYS IN THE CHELSEA HOTEL
My father still has the book Lady Fergusson sent to him over 60 years ago and the note that went with it. He kept it with him throughout his life. It is a tattered thing now. Pieces of the cover have flaked off and the letter inside is marked with stains. Knowing how my father’s story unfolded, it is surreal to hold these items and read the promises she made. Today, they seem like prophecies.
There are parallels between the hotel where my father and I still live and Israel. For me, both places are havens. The hotel is a refuge not only for artists but for outsiders: people of color, those suffering from mental illness, members of the LGBTQ community, pimps, prostitutes, social outcasts. As a queer, bohemian woman, it is my home. But as a Jewish woman, Israel is my physical and spiritual sanctuary. I am comforted by its tangibility, its geographical location. There is no other place where I feel such a strong kinship with my heritage and people.
Writing here in this hollow building, I find myself living between two important, aging generations. On the one hand, I am surrounded by the old bohemians who lived here during New York’s heyday as an artistic epicenter — Bettina, the artist; Merle Lister, the choreographer; Gerald Busby, the composer; Judith Childs, the art collector. On the other hand, I am just a room away from a man who came of age in the new state of Israel and befriended the likes of Lord and Lady Fergusson, Alex de Rothschild and Lord Balfour.
It will be a great, painful loss when both groups — the first generation of Israelites and the last generation of this hotel — are gone.
Amanda Chemeche is a writer and filmmaker. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Lithub, Popula, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Harvard Review Online, Medium and Litro. She is a graduate of Yale University and is currently attending Trinity College in Dublin completing an MPhil in creative writing.