|Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka has the following mission: to conserve and protect for permanent public exhibition the nationally recognized Maxo Vanka Murals within St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, enabling the immigrant artist's "gift to America" to serve as an enduring catalyst for community engagement and education, inspire social and cultural dialogue, celebrate diversity, and forge connections through reflections on the extraordinary American experience. Murals by Maxo Vanka are not just Croatian cultural heritage. Unique. One and only. The planned film should have been done 50 years ago. |
St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, PA, just outside Pittsburgh, is home to one of the most remarkable works of church art in America, a series of 25 murals painted by celebrated Croatian painter Maxo Vanka. Painted in 1937 and 1941, the murals depict stories of immigration, war, labor, and injustice in vivid, expressive scenes unlike any others in a church. We will be joined by Anna Doering, managing director of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, a non-profit which works to conserve, protect, and interpret these incredible artworks and offers guided tours and educational programs.
(Text from the caption to the above video by Anna Doering and Andrew Gustafson.)
Murals by Maxo Vanka are not just Croatian cultural heritage. Unique. One and only. The planned film should have been done 50 years ago.
Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka
To conserve and protect for permanent public exhibition the nationally recognized Maxo Vanka Murals within St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, enabling the immigrant artist's "gift to America" to serve as an enduring catalyst for community engagement and education, inspire social and cultural dialogue, celebrate diversity, and forge connections through reflections on the extraordinary American experience.
To establish a lasting national monument to AmericaĂ˘€™s storied immigrant experience, utilizing the ongoing conservation of the historic Maxo Vanka Murals to create a nexus for community engagement, education and socially and culturally oriented programming that evokes reverence for the past and inspiration for the future.
My Friend Maxo Vankaby Louis Adamic
from My America, 1928 - 1938, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, London, 1938, pp. 156-183
IN YUGOSLAVIA I MET A NUMBER OF INTERESTING OR IMPORTANT PEOPLE, WHOM I then put into The Native's Return. To the subsequently assassinated King Alexander I gave a chapter, the same to the sculptor Ivan Mestrovich ... and to Maxo Vanka, the painter, two or three paragraphs, telling a few simple surface facts: how we - Stella and I - met him and his American wife, Margaret, and spent part of the summer with them at their seaside villa on the island of Korchula, in Dalmatia; and how the four of us, without knowing very much about one another, quickly became good friends, and in the winter met again many times at their apartment in Zagreb, Croatia. Which was about all I knew and understood about him that lent itself to brief telling. I did not mention the curious feeling I had about him from our initial meeting. He was a most extraordinary person - one of the strangest I have ever come upon anywhere.
Maxo was then - in 1932-33 - in his early forties, a small, slim man with a soft golden-brown Vandyke beard, thinning brown hair, and mild gray-blue eyes, which illumined and enlivened a thin, smooth face, faintly Semitic-seeming and strangely handsome, suggesting that this was approximately how Jesus might have looked at forty-two. Twenty years earlier, in Brussels, Maxo's fellow art students had nicknamed him Inri, after "INRI," the inscription on the Cross. He was not Jewish; had been baptized and raised a Catholic, but was now a species of mystic who swung gracefully between intellectual agnosticism and a profound peasant-like faith in God, the Virgin, and all the saints and angels in Heaven. He was born in Zagreb, but, I gathered, was not a Croat. [Although not "genetically" a Croat, as implied by Adamic, Vanka was one among greatest Croatian painters, as well as August ©enoa was in the field of literature. Plenty of analogous examples can be seen in the USA, etc. D.®.] He spoke excellent German, French, and Croatian, some English, Hungarian, Italian, and Slovenian, and evidently had wandered more than casually in several fields of knowledge and speculation: philosophy, psychology, ethics, history (especially the history of art), sociology, botany, birdlore, metaphysics, comparative religion.
Maxo Vanka, autportrait
What first impressed me about him was his physical strength and stamina. He was slightly over five feet, frail-, delicate-appearing, but able to walk all day, as he and I did, over the hot stony roads on the island of Korchula and, unlike myself, not be tired in the evening. He swam for hours in the Adriatic, and I marveled how that bony, almost emaciated-looking body could contain so much energy and power of endurance, and be so agile, vivid, precise, and graceful in its movements. He was a superb cook, concocting all manner of delicacies out of the simplest materials, but he himself ate little more than a sparrow.
He had been for years professor of painting at the Zagreb Academy of Art, one of the best institutions of its kind in Europe, then under the directorship of Ivan Mestrovich, who had high regard for him as a stimulating, sophisticated
teacher; and was also a recognized painter of oils and watercolors in the styles of numerous schools: a veritable virtuoso. He had annual shows at the Art Pavilion in Zagreb, and had exhibited also in Belgrade, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Brussels, and Amsterdam. His pictures were in museums and galleries all over the Continent, and in numerous private homes. In Zagreb, I saw scores of them and I liked several, including the humorous, unpretentious murals in Gradski Podrum, a popular cafe; but he interested me less as an artist than as a person. However, while in Yugoslavia, though I wondered much about him, I made no serious effort to delve into his makeup or learn his story. I was too busy watching and investigating other things, personalities, and conditions which momentarily seemed more important than Maxo. Then, too, I felt he was an extremely subtle, indirect fellow, whom it would take time to know. Perhaps Margaret would succeed in getting him to America eventually, where I might see him and he might more or less reveal himself to me.
Meantime, in Yugoslavia, I was not greatly startled when, as we talked, he repeatedly guessed or anticipated my thoughts or words, and began to respond to my remarks or questions before I completely uttered them. Nor when I saw his little canary Muri fly to him from the open cage and alight on his head, hand, or shoulders, or "play dead" at his command in his palm, or be perfectly content to squat on the bottom of his coat pocket. This sort of thing, somehow, appeared normal for Maxo. When he played with the tiny green-yellow bird, the two were sheer delight to watch. Both comedians, Maxo called Muri bad names in several languages, and Muri responded mock-angrily in his canary language, flying off, teasing his master, hiding, eluding him, jabbering away, then abruptly sailing back to him again, and song rolling out of his tiny throat the moment he landed on his head, hand, or shoulder.
Nor was I greatly surprised when I came upon Maxo in an olive grove near his house on Korchula and saw perhaps ten or a dozen sparrows, siskins, and wild canaries circling about him, cheeping and crying, swooping down between his legs, the while he laughed at them, scattering bread crumbs, some of which they caught in the air; calling them scoundrels, blackguards, unquotable names, and reaching out at them as if trying to catch them. He explained he had a "touch" of what was known as "the gift of sympathy," which he himself could not define. Very few people had it. He attracted wild birds and other wild creatures, and said that if he came to this grove regularly every day for a couple of weeks, and brought them food, the sparrows, siskins, and wild canaries would get used to him and land on his head and shoulders a la Muri, and let him touch and hold them in his hands. I had no difficulty in believing this.
Nor did it seem unnatural when, one day, as we passed a stone fence near his villa, a tiny gray lizard suddenly scurried up Maxo's trousers leg and dived into his pocket in search of crumbs, and in a few moments emerged again and, while Maxo called him a thief and scavenger, sped around the small of his back, dived into the other pocket, came out once more, then sped down
the other trousers leg and vanished in the roadside rubble. Maxo said he had "made friends" with the creature a few days before; now it seemed to be waiting for him every time he came by this spot.
Nor did Stella and I doubt him when he told us that, off and on, especially after he had not used soap for a while, butterflies were attracted to his beard. He did not know how to explain this, either, but thought there probably was something in the odor of his body that drew them to him. "Sometimes," he said, "they're really a nuisance. They get me into trouble. Once an old peasant woman in Turopolye, where I was spending a holiday, saw me with several butterflies on my beard, and she concluded I was a saint or miracleworker; and I had to leave there, lest I became an object of pilgrimages and a subject of superstition and endless controversy among the peasants .... "
He possessed a unique, delightful sense of humor, to which he gave free exercise in connection with his "gift of sympathy." One day he observed a black-and-blue butterfly flying awkwardly from stem to stem, a few feet from where we sat. One of its wings was broken. So Maxo picked up the poor, delicate little thing, which then rested on his palm; and he went in back of the house, where a few minutes before he had seen lying amid grape leaves a lately deceased yellow butterfly, whose wings - one undamaged - were about the same size as the black-and-blue one's. Then he got scissors and mucilage, neatly clipped off most of the injured wing of the live butterfly, and pasted in its place the yellow wing of the dead butterfly; and, thus mended, the live one flew off, half black-and-blue and half yellow-one of the funniest, weirdest sights imaginable. Perfectly still while Maxo was working on it with his deft, light fingers, the butterfly had seemed to know he was trying to help it. Then it flew around the house for a few hours, amusing us all, and finally disappeared.
Margaret Stetten Vanka in 1930. Source.
Margaret entertained Stella and me with the story of their marriage. She was the former Margaret Stetten, daughter of the well-known Park Avenue physician and surgeon, Dr. DeWitt Stetten. In several respects the exact oppsite of her husband, she was a buxom young woman in her late twenties: frank, simple, direct. A former art student, she had touches of culture in other fields, speaking French and German besides English, and some Croatian. Her face, with its clear big eyes, was lovely, and she impressed me as "just woman," patient, generous, without ambition for herself; immensely healthy and natural, deeply and quietly purposeful.
In the summer, 1931, Margaret was motoring with her father and his wife Alice through Central Europe and the Balkans, and one day, nearing Zagreb and seeking water for their car, they halted at a small chateau off the highway. The people of the little castle, who were somewhat run-down but proud Croatian nobility, asked them in and, proceeding further along the lines of their traditional hospitality, served them refreshments.
A week-end guest at the place, Maxo Vanka was introduced to the Americans; then, following his wont, he made sketches of all of them, presented the
drawings to them, and was generally very charming-one of the easiest things he can do. His hosts owned a few of his paintings, which they showed to the Americans, who liked them. And to keep a short story short, Margaret fell in love with him, but managed not to tell him so then and there.
Basically a highly sensible person, she had lately realized she possessed no artistic talent herself and, attached to art, determined to marry an artist, preferably a poor, unrecognized one, and help him. She had a monthly income, which she wanted to put to some use. She had been looking around for some time. Now, suddenly, here in this strange country of Croatia, was this wisp of a Jesus-like man who looked every inch an artist, was evidently not rich and but faintly famous in Yugoslavia, Belgium, France, and Central Europe; and whose career, her instinct told her, had scarcely begun. She asked for his Zagreb address and said he would hear from her.
Maxo's ability to guess people's thoughts did not work in this instance. He imagined the young lady would send him a card from somewhere, or perhaps some art books he had discussed with her, for Americans were reputedly generous. In the next few weeks, when no card nor anything else came, he all but forgot her.
Then, of a sudden, a telegram from Athens: she was Zagreb-bound, and would he please promptly resign his professorship at the Academy; she wanted to marry him and they would go to live in Paris or New York, where he would really realize himself as the fine artist he was. Since their first meeting she had looked up his work scattered through the Balkans and Central Europe, and shed all doubt as to the extent of his talent.
Maxo laughed, for of course it was all a joke. These American women! An ascetic, an aesthete, a celibate, happy with his art, living in a tiny studio, he had never given marriage a thought. His professor's salary was meager, but adequate for his modest requirements. He owned the little house on Korchula, where he spent the summers. His fame, true, was nothing like Mestrovich's, but not a few people here and there appreciated him as an artist. His students responded to his teaching. His colleagues at the Acadeniy respected him. He had valued friends and was invited to their houses. Besides, he had his little Muri; and when weary of Zagreb and human contact, he could always go into the country week-ends and have a gay time in the woods and fields, all by himself, with the birds, butterflies, squirrels, and lizards.
But the next thought turned Maxo's mirth into panic. The young American person might he crazy and really come and want to marry him! He decided to hide. Not finding him, if she came, she would soon depart. And, acquainting one of his Academy colleagues with the ludicrous situation, and instructing him to tell her he had unexpectedly journeyed to Siam and Java, Maxo shuttered his studio-dwelling and disappeared.
This would have been all very well hut for the fact that Margaret Stetten, a most untrifling person, had never been more serious about anything in her life than she was now in her idea to make Maxo her husband. She came and
upset the Academy, demanding they produce Professor Vanka, then turned over half of the capital of Croatia, frankly stating her purpose; and, hearing of this in his near-by hiding place, poor, chagrined Maxo was obliged to emerge. He begged her, politely, to go away. He was an artist, a teacher of art, a confirmed bachelor, an eccentric, completely content to live alone, and, begging her to forgive his bluntness, he queried, "And, anyhow, Miss Stetten, who are you to invade my life in this manner?" She answered she loved him; in fact, if he would pardon her using American slang, she was "nuts about him," and declared her determination not to depart from Zagreb till he came with her - now what did he think of that?
Trying another tack, and being genuinely humble, Maxo asked, "But who am I that you should honor me with your love?" - "Never mind about that," returned Margaret. "I know what I'm doing." He pointed out he was fifteen years older than she, funny-looking and skinny; all to no avail. She replied she had eyes to see and knew all about that.
Staying at the Hotel Esplanade, she insisted on seeing him daily. She argued: didn't he realize he was wasting himself in a provincial city like Zagreb, in a small country like Yugoslavia? Here were no opportunities for real work, unless one was a Mestrovich; and there was room for but one Mestrovich, and he had made his name not in his native land, but in Austria, Italy, France, England, and America .... "I want to help you," declared Margaret, simply. "In France, in America, especially in America, oh, in America, you will have opportunities galore to really show what you have in you ...
Maxo saw her daily, for otherwise she would have resumed upsetting the city, and he hinted he was in truth a most difficult person, a woman-hater, and what not. Beneath his seeming mildness he was really cruel. Like all artists, he was temperamental. His Jesus-like aspect was but a disguise for the devil in him. As a Balkanite, if they married, he might beat her. Margaret laughed. He told her he was an illegitimate child, in fine, a bastard, and she averred, "What do I care!" She was utterly uninterested in his origin; it was all-sufficient to her that he lived and painted. He asked her to pardon his frankness and remarked that he thought she was crazy, and she laughed again, saying she did not care if she was. Too many sane people in the world, anyhow.
Maxo perceived "crazy" did not dispose of the young woman. She was something elemental, genuine. Although the exact opposite of her on this point, he began to respect her directness and frankness. Then, with no slight inner perturbance, he realized he was growing generally fond of her as a person and a woman. Those tremendous, honest eyes of hers! Her whole generous personality ... . By and by he began to look forward to their meetings, following his classes at the Academy. Somewhere deep inside him, he was flattered that this girl had picked him out of possibly dozens of men she knew in New York and elsewhere who probably wanted to marry her.
This went on for weeks; the affair was the talk of Zagreb. Finally, with
the amused approval of all of Maxo's friends, he succumbed and they were married.
Margaret's victory, however, while great (everybody admitted that), was only partial. Consenting to the marriage, Maxo had stipulated they would not go to France or America, but stay in Zagreb, where he had his friends and his position, which gave him a standing and an income, which, however slight in her American eyes, was enough for his expenses. In New York or Paris he would have to live off her - something he was unwilling to do. Margaret said he was silly, for what money she had was not good for anything else than to support him; but she gave in to him temporarily, and they rented an apartment that was bigger than Maxo's old dwelling.
They had been married a little over a year when Stella and I met them. Talking with Margaret, I saw that, aside from the facts that he was an illegitimate son of high Austrian nobility, and a fantastically nice human being, she knew nothing - yet, in another sense, everything - about him. His illegitimacy did not interest her. She loved and accepted him.
Two months after we met the Vankas, Margaret gave birth to a girl Peggy, from the start a remarkably vivid, enjoyable child, amazingly vital and healthy, a blend or fusion of her parents. When Stella and I visited them during the winter, the four of us wantedly spent most of the time around the crib admiring the baby, then four or five months old.
Margaret was happy in Zagreb, but her mind remained set on getting Maxo to France or America, preferably America; and, quite frankly and directly, she enlisted me in her cause, which I served willingly, urging Maxo to quit his professorship, come to New York, and take a chance at making a place for himself in American art, the modern trends of which greatly interested him. I kept telling him that his scruples about living on Margaret's income were really silly. She, herself, was not earning what she had, but was receiving it from a trust fund; and he half admitted my reasoning was sound, then expressed his fear he might have difficulty in getting himself oriented in New York. He was no longer young, there was a depression in America, and - silly or not - he had been making his own living now for so many years that he would not be comfortable there if he failed to earn some money. We argued back and forth nearly every time we got together, and when Stella and I returned to New York in the spring, 1933, Maxo did not know if he would follow us or not; I had a feeling, however, that he would, and said so to Margaret.
But Maxo hesitated for another year and a half. Then - in the autumn, 1934 - he, Margaret, and little Peggy, now two years old and palpably a prodigy, arrived in New York, and I got a mighty triumphal hug from Margaret, who believed I had helped her in getting him to decide to come to America. What had, I think, really decided him just then was his thought that he had no right
to keep his wife and child in Europe, where the dangers of war seemed to be increasing by leaps and bounds.
I enjoyed showing Maxo New York. Every few minutes, as we walked in midtown, or in the financial district, or through the Rockefeller Center, he exclaimed, "Ovo ye kolosalno! (This is colossal!) Kolosalno!" Or, "There is something here! ... power, energy, the future .... Kolosalno!" The city exhilarated him, and for two or three weeks after he came he scarcely slept. Worn out from eight or ten hours' tramping with him on hard pavement, I left him somewhere late in the evening, then he wandered alone for eight or ten hours more before he finally went home. And the next day Margaret told me he had been exclaiming "Kolosalno!" in his brief sleep, and he recounted to me what he had seen and experienced.
Because of his beard and Jesus-like appearance, or for some other reason that does not occur to me, experiences came to him thick and fast in New York, whether he was with me or alone. People gazed at him; many smiled to him; others paused to talk with him. Jews asked him was he a Jew; others, was he French or what was he. An actor? An artist? A Greek Orthodox priest? To Maxo's amusement, urchin's shouted "Whiskers!" and ran. Somewhere on the East Side I left him on the sidewalk as I entered a drug store to telephone, and on coming out found him surrounded by a mob of little boys, arguing whether he was Santa Claus; and Maxo had a great time, talking with them in his picturesquely broken English, blessing them and clowning before them. Negroes came up to him, smiled, and shook his hand. An obvious prostitute stopped him to inquire if he would let her touch him "for good luck."
Almost immediately on their arrival in New York, the over-eager Margaret arranged for an exhibition of her husband's pictures in a gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, but it was ill-managed; the paintings shown were not his best; much of his finest work remained in Europe, owned by private persons and public museums; and the New York art world did not get excited. Later the Yugoslav consul in Pittsburgh arranged an exhibition of his work there, which also set nothing on fire.
Margaret found an apartment near Peggy's kindergarten, while Maxo made his studio in an empty loft of a building owned by the Stettens in the warehouse section off the Bowery, and began to work. He drew and painted mostly bums, white and Negro workers, prostitutes who stopped him in the street or with whom he otherwise became acquainted. On warm days he went outdoors and sketched or painted warehouse-district and river-front scenes, which fascinated him. Or, clad in a pair of corduroy pants and a leather windbreaker, he just "bummed around" with his sketch-book; then came to me with vivid word-pictures, accompanied by pencil drawings, of the unemployed living in fantastic "Hoovervilles" on both ends of Williamsburg Bridge, of diverse Bowery degenerates and unfortunates, of prostitutes on the lowest rung of their profession, of drunkards imbibing shoe polish and "canned heat," and of other characters from the substrata of American society. I saw that, somehow,
his sympathies and proclivities drew him in that direction more than to Park Avenue, although he was deeply fond of his in-laws and many of their friends.
He continued to be excited about New York; and, hypersensitive to line and form, he pointed out to me beauty or ugliness where I had not seen it before, so that by and by he was showing me the city as much as I was showing it to him. We visited the art museums and galleries, and he was impressed by the power and technical skills and innovations of the recent and current American artists. But, essentially a child of the Old World, he was often also deeply confused by the New World, and, brooding, came to me with tremendous questions. What was this civilization, with these sharp contrasts? What was its center, core, motivating force? Had it a "soul"? Was it all materialism? There were so many incongruities. The "lower depths" here were frightfully deep .... He witnessed a "Communist" demonstration on Union Square, and wondered if a Red revolution was not a part of America's immediate future. I assured him no. His impression was that deep in them, many Americans were unhappy people, hungry for something, with which I more or less agreed; and he wished, laughing, he really were Jesus and able to perform in America the miracle of loaves and fishes on the spiritual and cultural plane. ... I hardly knew how to explain the country to him; I tried merely to assure him that New York was not America.
In autumn and early winter I had to give some lectures in New England, upstate New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, while magazine assignments took me as far as Pittsburgh; and, if I happened to drive, I took Maxo with me. We had a great time; his reactions to places were nearly always interesting, and I was afforded new glimpses of certain phases of his character and attractiveness which I had but dimly noticed before. For one thing, it became clear to me that he was perhaps the most intensely conscious and observant person I have ever known. Nothing escaped him.
He liked rural New England; it was "so chaste, so austere," a bit bleak and cold - and this not only physically that time of the year (late November), but spiritually. New England faces fascinated him; some, he said, were like "ghosts of Puritanism, but strong, strong; so competent, held-in, and reserved." Unlike the people of New York, where Jews, Irish, and other "foreigners" predominate, no Yankee smiled to him, or came up to speak to him, though many looked at him, curious. Those who did smile, or who paused to talk to him, in New England were invariably Irish, Jews, or Polish or Canadian immigrants or Negroes . ... As we stopped in such towns as Concord, Salem, Lynn, and Lenox, Massachusetts, or Brattleboro, Vermont, he quickly sensed - somehow, in rough outline - these communities' past, though he had never read the history of New England. He was really uncanny.
Lecturing, I was usually obliged to put up at fairly good hotels; but Maxo always went to some fourth- or fifth-rate place, often no better than flop houses - this partly because he was naturally frugal, partly because he did not want to spend any more of the money he had not earned than he had to (he
wouldn't hear of my paying his bill), but perhaps largely because, as I say, he seemed inevitably to gravitate toward the lowly, dirty, degenerate, and neglected.
In Washington, for instance, where I had to be for a week, he established himself in a "hotel" within a few blocks of the White House, where he paid a dollar a day, and the furniture, what there was of it, seemed on the verge of moving under the impulse of the vermin that must have inhabited it. ... Busy, seeing people, I left Maxo to his own devices during the day. Evenings, he usually had many things to tell me. He had discovered that his "hotel" was really a brothel, but that did not disturb him. In the Negro district, an old black woman had invited him to her house and served him coffee with molasses, which she had stirred in his cup with her finger; and he had drawn a sketch of her. ...
He made friends with a young policeman who in his spare time was trying to become a writer, and who had stopped him to talk with him. He did not know why he had stopped Maxo, unless it was that he looked like an artist who might sympathize with a would-be author, or because he had a mouthful of aching teeth he could not afford to have pulled or treated, for he had a family and other responsibilities and expenses. He had not yet succeeded in getting anything published, but had manuscripts constantly in the mails or in the editorial offices. Maxo duly sympathized with him, and the cop visited him in uniform at his "hotel," which threw its owner or manager into panic, thinking the place was being raided. Maxo showed the policeman the sketches he had done since leaving New York, and mentioned he was traveling with me, and that from Washington we were going to Pittsburgh, where a gallery was having a show of his pictures.
Pittsburgh - with its great, smoking, flaming steel mills and its ugliness which is so honest and intense it almost becomes beauty - excited Maxo even more than New York, where we returned a week or so later, and where Maxo received a long letter from the Washington policeman, written on the Pittsburgher Hotel stationery: which I want to quote, in part, because it is an amusing self-portrait, indicative of the sort of people Maxo attracts, and why:
I have a long story to tell, and much time in which to tell it. I am in Pittsburgh. Two things brought me here: my interest in you and your art, and my toothache.
The toothache, itself, is a long story. I was unable to do anything about it, as I have told you, because of "economic conditions over which - I have no control." The other day, however, my sister came to Washington for post-graduate work in nursetraining; she met a dentist at a Government hospital and arranged for me to meet him. He offered to pull my teeth without charge. He pulled seven of 'em, oh boy!
... and I sold a bit of gold bridgework for $2.90 and got a three-day sick leave; so, having now both time and money, I bought a bus ticket to Pittsburgh.
At twelve midnight, with a hundred aspirin tablets, which I was supposed to take one every hour, I boarded an old wreck of a bus. First stop Baltimore, with a
half-hour lay-over, giving me a chance to get a cup of coffee. An aspirin. Then, for two hours, to a one-horse town called Emmitsburg. The restaurant there is usually closed at 3:30 a.m., but this time it was open, waiting for some runaway boys to be brought home by the east-bound bus. Another aspirin. When the four fifteen-year-old boys arrived, I could sympathize with them; I had done the same thing at that age. At five o'clock the west-bound bus picked us up, to take us over the mountains. It, too, was light and rickety, and the road humped in the middle, rolling like a ground-swell, as well as having many turnings, going up and around mountains. Fog reduced visibility to zero, but the driver was a good one; we got to Pittsburgh at eleven, as per schedule.
I walked to the gallery, hoping to surprise you, but learned you had left the day before. I looked at your pictures through pain- and sleep-weary eyes, and could not see them till I stood well back .... They are wonderful; that's all I can say. ...
While I was there, two poorly-but-neatly clad men of swarthy complexion came in. I guess they were your countrymen from Yugoslavia, for they exclaimed delightedly to each other, pointing at pictures that seemed to represent scenes from near their home region in the Old Country.
Leaving the gallery, I wanted only to get into a horizontal position on an innerspring mattress, but I couldn't afford a hotel room; so I walked the streets. I wanted to talk to a policeman about his pay, working-hours, and equipment, but every cop I saw was busy as could be. I went into a dentist's office to ask a simple question - were my gums healing properly? He tried to high-pressure me into letting him make me a plate. I told him I was returning to Washington in a few hours; then he used high-pressure trying to sell me a thirty-five-cent bottle of mouth-wash.
I like a cup of coffee at such a time in a cheap restaurant, where I can sit at the counter and nudge the guy next to me, and ask him, "What do you think Roosevelt is trying to do?" and get some kind of answer. But here I, somehow, walked into a drug store with a fountain, all stainless steel and marble and mirrors, which chilled me, and I almost turned around, but went in, anyhow. I ordered coffee and, because of the atmosphere in the place, I spoke to the clerk instead of my neighbor on the next stool. "Well, what do you know?" said I. "Not much," said he. "How's your razor blades?" I thought this was some kind of Pittsburgh gag, and made a gesture which might mean anything. And, presto! he dropped a milkshake on the stainless steel and brought forth from each vest pocket a package of Gillette razor blades. "We're having a 'special' on these: two packs for forty-three cents." I said I was a stranger in a strange city and had only enough money to get home. He whisked the blades out of sight and left me to my coffee. Conversation comes high in Pittsburgh.
I thought to myself: "I'll write to my friend Vanka and I'll feel as though I talked to him." So here I'm writing to you in the lobby of the Pittsburgher, hoping a bell-hop will not stop me as I go out, and charge me for the stationery. ...
Driving about the country, Maxo and I talked, and he gradually told me his story.
His illegitimate parents were a son and a daughter of two of the foremost families in the Hapsburg Empire. His mother's home was in Moravia; and when her condition became apparent her conventional, scandalized mother and elder sisters sent her to distant Zagreb, in Croatia, where no one knew
her; and she lived there incognito, in charge of a midwife who specialized in such cases, till the child was born and baptized. Supplied with a sum of money for the purpose, the midwife then turned the infant over to a poverty-ridden peasant woman named Dora Yug from the near-by village of Pustcha Kuplenovo; and Dora, receiving periodically a small sum of money from the midwife for his keep, fell deeply in love with the child as though he were her own, and raised him till he was about eight years old. Though she never knew anything but poverty, Dora was a large, buxom woman of extremely rich, open, generous nature ... and it is possible that, decades afterward, Maxo succumbed to Margaret Stetten because, albeit a daughter of Park Avenue, she physically and otherwise recalled to him Dora, who - as I have tried to show in my novel, Cradle of Life, which is based on Maxo's life-story - was more his mother than was the noblewoman who had borne him.
When Maxo was eight, his maternal grandfather, one of the wealthiest Austrian noblemen, suddenly learned of the lad's existence and came in person to Pustcha Kuplenovo, took him away from Dora and, through his confidential agents, established him in a castle in Croatia, where the boy thereupon lived for some years in charge of professional tutors, not knowing who he was. His surname "Vanka" had been given him in Putscha Kuplenovo, when he started going to school and was required to have a second name.
Following his removal to the castle, Maxo never again saw his grandfather, who died soon after; but there always was ample money for his needs throughout his youth. Having an extraordinarily acute mind, and being generally very sensitive, he puzzled endlessly about himself; and puzzling, enhanced his natural acuteness and intuition, and developed an intense consciousness of himself and everything about him. Already in his 'teens, if not even earlier while he was still with Dora, nothing escaped his eyes, ears, and mind. His paid tutors and other persons with whom he came into contact, and none of whom knew who he was, were consistently kind to him; but even so a subtle insecurity or uncertainty was the principal note of his early life, and he instinctively felt it urgent for him to get along with everybody, and he learned somehow - to anticipate everyone's thoughts and desires. Which probably is important to know in order to be able to theorize about some of his experiences in America, which I shall narrate.
In his mid-'teens, he determined to become an artist and went to an art school in Zagreb. At eighteen he had a profoundly unsatisfactory interview with his real mother, who - now a highly respected married noblewoman with several legitimate children - came to see him in Zagreb. This was his first meeting with her since birth, and his last. And about this time, through channels too complex to trace here, he also learned the entire story of his origin, including the name of his father, which he was sworn to keep forever secret. And soon after this, at once vaguely and deeply unhappy as he brooded about himself, he decided to leave Croatia, to leave Austria-Hungary, and study art in Brussels, Belgium.
He lived in Brussels during the six years immediately preceding the war, and for some months during the war. There he began to grow a beard and acquired the already-mentioned nickname "Inri." He became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth, formerly a Bavarian princess, who, Maxo suspected, knew whose son he was. She was extremely kind to him, sending him weekly bouquets of flowers from the royal gardens, inviting him frequently to musicales at the Court, and bestowing upon him other favors as though they were his due; while her husband, the late King Albert, was also graciously attentive to him whenever they met.
At the war's outbreak in 1914, Maxo was twenty-five, officially an Austrian, and, as such, internable in Belgium as an enemy; but with Queen Elizabeth's great influence he was made an officer in the Belgian Red Cross, in which capacity he witnessed the German conquest of Belgium.
As Queen of the Belgians, Elizabeth went into exile to England; but as an erstwhile Bavarian princess and a niece of the late Empress Elizabeth of Austria, she gave Maxo a letter addressed to the German High Command, requesting he be given every possible consideration without being subjected to humiliating examinations or questioning. The German military authorities did not know what to make of Maxo, but respected Elizabeth's wish.
Feeling a sudden need to go to his beginnings, to see Dora Yug in Pustcha Kuplenovo, Maxo wanted to return to Croatia, and was allowed to do so, in charge of a trainful of Croatian miners, whom war had caught working in Belgian mines, and who had been interned until the German occupation.
In Croatia, being of military age, he was subject to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army; but, unwilling to be a soldier because opposed to killing under any pretext, he communicated with some one in high authority in the Hapsburg Empire who knew of his secret parentage and procured for him an exemption from military service and immunity from molestation on the part of any Austro-Hungarian official.
He lived in Zagreb all through the rest of the war, devoting himself to art and the amelioration of war's horrors in Croatia. He had considerable money, which had been sent him, through devious channels, by his mother; also, he sold the estate on which his maternal grandfather had established him; and he frequently visited Dora, his "real mother," helping her financially, and generally giving full play to his inclination to favor the lowly. He spent much time living in poverty-stricken Croatian villages.
Puzzled by, and deeply unhappy, about the whole mess of things, feeling now like a Hamlet, then like a Van Gogh or a character out of Dostoievski, he studied various religions and philosophies, including those of the Orient, and upon the base of his Catholic youth he built a structure of mystical concepts in an atmosphere of speculative freedom, which (and this is also important to remember if one wishes to be able to theorize about his subsequent adventures in America) kept his psychological makeup open to anything and, I think, helped to make him unusually attractive to a vast lot of different people.
After the war, when Croatia became a part of the new Yugoslav state, there was a great, Europe-wide currency confusion, in which Maxo lost most of his money, but he did not care greatly about thatĂ˘€”he had enough left to build himself the little seaside villa on the island of Korchula which I have mentioned; he became professor of painting at the Academy ... and thereupon led for many years a quiet, industrious life in Zagreb, till Margaret Stetten invaded it.
In the spring, 1935, the Vankas took several weeks to drive from New York to California, stayed West most of the summer, and returned to New York early in the fall. Maxo brought back a load of paintings and sketches he had done during the trip, and he told me of encounters with people which were monotonously strange. An old man in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who probably was an unemployed immigrant steel-worker, and whom he asked to pose for him for a quick sketch as he sat in a park, burst into tears when Maxo showed him the picture, and exclaimed "Oh, you think I am good!" A middle-aged Indian in Oklahoma came up to him at a filling-station and reaching for his hand, said, "How!" and passed on. In Los Angeles, a man made him a proposition to start a new religion, "because you have the personality for a religious leader," and spoke of being willing to guarantee him a huge annual sum in profits therefrom. ...
During the rest of 1935 and through the winter months of 1936, my own work took me out of New York and I saw little of the Vankas, while the following spring they went to Yugoslavia, to attend to some of their affairs there, and they did not return till late in the autumn. I saw Maxo briefly soon after. He had just taken out his first naturalization papers, and was glad he finally was in America to stay, for in Europe a new war seemed almost a certainty. But he still felt uneasy about himself in this vast, strenuous New World. Did I really believe he would make a place for himself here as an artist? He was forty-six; happy with Margaret and Peggy, both of whom he adored, and they him; but he would hate to live off his wife for the rest of his life. Should he not open an art school? ... Hardly knowing what to advise him to do, I chided him about his masculine pride. I had overworked the past year and was tired; Stella and I were going on a trip to Guatemala, and rest.
Months later, early in 1937, when we returned, Maxo met us at the dock. He seemed dejected. He had worked hard all winter, had painted several pictures that he considered better than anything he had done in Europe, but ... there was the old "but": he was not earning anything. "Don't be silly, Maxo," I said, repeating what I had said to him many times before, "you're doing Margaret a favor by living on her money." He was seriously thinking of starting a school of painting; he had several prospective pupils.
He accompanied us from the pier to our apartment, where I found a basketful of mail that had accumulated in our absence ... and one of the first letters I opened was from a Croatian priest of whom I had not heard beforeĂ˘€”the
Rev. Albert Zagar, pastor of the Croatian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas at Millvale, an industrial suburb of Pittsburgh. He inquired if I knew the whereabouts of Mr. Vanka, explaining that his parishioners and he were thinking of "decorating" their church with murals, and would like to know as soon as possible if Mr. Vanka painted murals and was interested, for they hoped to have the job completed by mid-June, the time of one of their celebrations.
"Maxo," I said, handing him the letter, "your future in America seems about to begin. This looks like the opportunity you've been hoping for."
Maxo hastened to Pittsburgh to see the priest and the church, returning in a few days ablaze with creative enthusiasm. Father Zagar, he bubbled, was a grand fellow, a Franciscan and, in many respects, a true follower of Saint Francis of Assisi; instinctively intelligent, simple, direct, well-intentioned, and much beloved by his people, who were exclusively Croatian immigrants and their American-born children, most of whom were for letting him do what he liked with the church. He had been twelve years in America, and parish priest of St. Nicholas for half that time. The murals were his idea, and he was giving him (Maxo) entire freedom to paint what he liked on the walls, so long as, at least, some of the pictures were to be of a religious character.
Rev. Ante ®agar in mid 1930s. Source.
Maxo told me further that, along with the parish house and the parochial school, which was in charge of nuns, the church stood atop a knoll, overlooking a vast industrial area, which included a street-car barn, an extensive railroad yard, and several factories and mills, with rows of workers' houses. It was not a very large church, nor an architectural masterpiece. "But," said Maxo, "I think I can do something with it. In fact, the walls, although mostly concave, curving in all directions, are well-nigh ideal for murals. It is a marvelous opportunity, and I would be willing to paint the whole place for nothing." But the priestĂ˘€”a thoughtful, generous man who momentarily had a considerable sum of money at his disposalĂ˘€”had insisted on giving him a substantial advance on the amount he had himself suggested in payment for the work, and to which Maxo had agreed.
While the church in Pittsburgh was being readied for him, according to the instructions he had given to a contractor, Maxo worked in New York on his sketches for the murals; then, early in April, he returned to Pittsburgh, whence I received a note from him: "I begin tomorrow. I'm not going to write to you till I finish, which must be by June tenth. I shall have to work day and night. Meantime, please don't come here, and don't let Margaret come. I hope to surprise you all with the completed work."
During the next two months nearly all the news I had of Maxo were a couple of Pittsburgh newspaper clippings describing his work-in-progress at Millvale. The photos accompanying the stories showed him doing immense and lovely figures on the church walls and ceiling.
Finally, exactly two months from the day on which he had begun, IĂ˘€”along with Margaret and the StettensĂ˘€”received word from him: "Finished! Dedication on Sunday; please come; am eager for you to see what I have done." And
so we all journeyed to Pittsburgh, to dismal Millvale ... and I was never more amazed by anything in my life. Here was work single-handedly and superbly accomplished in two months that would doubtless have taken most artists a year, except that very few could have achieved a corresponding artistic excellence even in that time.
Over the main altar was a five-times-life-size Madonna with the Child, both in costumes decorated with Croatian peasant designs; and beneath the Madonna, on either side of the main altar, two pictures, each with several lifesize figures: one depicting religion among Croatian peasants in the old country; the other, religion among Croatian immigrants in America. Over one of the side altars was a picture of the Crucifixion; over the other, of Mater Dolorosa. Upon the arched ceiling were the strikingly beautiful figures of John, Mark, Luke, and Matthew; and on the two straight walls beneath the choir, probably the two best pictures of the lotĂ˘€”one showing Croatian mothers in the old country sorrowing for their sons fallen in wars; the other, Croatian immigrant mothers in America weeping over the body of one of their sons killed in an industrial accident. Executed in indescribably vivid colors, all the murals and other elements of the interior wereĂ˘€”with sheer artistic power and with the aid of ornamental strips of Croatian peasant designs, which occurred also in the garments of many of the figures in the picturesĂ˘€”closely integrated into an exquisitely blended whole, a superb composition whose quality was the sum total of all its parts which, in turn, enhanced the quality of the parts.
Had I not known when he had begun, I would have had difficulty in believing that my little friend Maxo had done all this in eight weeks, which had allowed him only four or five days to a mural; and as I remarked to him to this effect, he said that he himself could scarcely believe the calendar and his own eyes. I learned that he had not only done every bit of painting himself, but had mixed most of his paints; only Father ZagarĂ˘€”whom I found a remarkable, intense, marvelously genuine, spontaneous, and delightful man, a few years younger than Maxo, and also small and baldishĂ˘€”had helped him occasionally at night. He had used almost no models, painting nearly everything from his imagination.
To my question "How did you do it?" Maxo answered, seriously, "I don't know." Father Zagar smilingly advanced the explanation that God, the Madonna, and St. Nicholas had helped him. I noticedĂ˘€”as had Stella, Margaret, and the StettensĂ˘€”that Maxo was terribly thin, but he insisted he was not tired. He felt better at the finish than at the start, which was evident in his work. We were informed that, except on Sundays, he had worked every day, under great creative tension, from nine in the forenoon till two or three the next morning, and had slept very little when not painting, and eaten rather less than a sparrow, but drunk much coffee.
The church was packed for the dedication ceremony, during which Father Zagar delivered an impassioned address, thanking Maxo for his an and bringing tears to most eyes. In the afternoon, there was a picnic in a near-by wood,
attended by thousands of Croatian immigrants and their children who, on several spits, roasted scores of lambs; and people, mostly steel-workers and their wives, crowded around Maxo to take his hand, congratulate him on the completion of his work, and express their gratitude to him. Many exclaimed, "Vi ste nashe suntse, vi ste nasha zviezda! (You are our sun, you are our star!")Ă˘€”moving Maxo to the brink of tears and open hysteria. The praise and gratitude of these people meant more to him than the subsequent favorable articles about his murals in the magazines and newspapers.
In the ensuing weeks strangers by the dozens, by the score, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, people of no definite religion, began to come to the little, externally unattractive Croatian church in Millvale, to ask the happy, proud, bustling Father Zagar to let them see the paintings. This stream of visitors continues as I write, and the majority are deeply impressed, especially when the priest tells them that the artist had done all this in two months. But they are unawareĂ˘€”as I was, when I first saw the muralsĂ˘€”of the extraordinary, really fantastic circumstances under which Maxo had worked.
From Pittsburgh, Maxo returned East in my car; we were alone and he seemed to me half hysterical most of the way, talking incessantly about what a marvelous man Father Zagar was; how he loved him; how fortunate he was to have received his first big job in America from a man like him, and been free to paint what he liked; how fine it was to have earned so large a sum of money in a couple of months; how glad he was he had come to America ... and often about nothing in particular, or at least I could not make out what he was driving at. He was repeating himself, just talking, talking, till it became a strain to be with him. At first I ascribed this to his weariness; then, somehow, it occurred to me that he simultaneously wanted desperately to tell me something and was trying just as desperately not to tell me. But I let him be, thinking if it was anything important he was sure to tell me by and by.
During the next two months I saw him once a week or so; he looked better, enjoying the publicity his murals were receiving throughout the United States and Europe. One critic had called them "the best church murals in America." But Maxo had continued a bit hysterical or uneasy ... till one day late in August he suddenly said, "I must tell you something that happened in the church while I worked there. Terribly strange. I would have told you long ago, but Father Zagar and I had promised one another we would not tell anyone for a while. We were afraid it might result in some crazy, inappropriate publicity. Now I want to know what you will think of it, and I hope you will have Zagar tell you his version of the thing. I know he is nervous about it, for a few other persons connected with the church know or suspect what happened; and, with visitors coming daily to see the pictures, it is possible the story will eventually reach the ears of some newspaper man or writer and get into printĂ˘€”in all likelihood, I fear, superficially, inaccurately, to the possible damage of the reputation of the murals. ...
"Well, when I got to Millvale, on April fifth, I was obliged to wait four days before I could start work, because the scaffoldingĂ˘€”although it already hid the entire ceiling and most of the wall spaceĂ˘€”and other preparations were not yet completed. This was all right; for I could spend the next few days procuring my paints and other supplies.
"I had a meeting with the church committee, under the chairmanship of Father Zagar, and I promised themĂ˘€”without knowing how I would do itĂ˘€”to complete the job by about June tenth, in time for their celebration in the middle of that month.
"I asked Father Zagar to request everybody around the place please to remain out of the church while I was working inside. I did not want curious people to come climbing up the scaffolding to watch and distract me, and possibly fall. I knew that if I was to complete the job in two months, I would need every minute I could get; and, therefore, I also suggested to Father Zagar that, so far as possible, he, too, stay out. I feared that, if he came in too often, I might spend too much time talking with him, for I found him from the start very charming, intelligent, and entertaining. He said, 'O.K.,' which is one of his favorite expressions; and proposed to have all the church doors locked every weekday from nine o'clock on, after the last massĂ˘€”for, as you know, there are two priests in the parishĂ˘€”Zagar, and his assistant, the Rev. Nezich. I was given a key to a small side door, entering under the choir, which enabled me to go in and out as I pleased.
Rev. Ante Neľić in 1930s. Source.
"On April ninth the church was ready for me, and I locked myself in; and, with all my materials on the scaffold, I began the Madonna and Child, which, because of the curvature of the wall above the main altar and the size of the figures, was very difficult to do. Also, I had never done anything like it. To save time, I had decided not to draw even an outline of the figures before I started to paint, but to work directly with paint, as I would upon canvas; and as the paint I used dried very quickly, I had to work extremely fast and carefully. But I felt fine andĂ˘€”except for the few minutes I took out for lunch, and the few minutes for supperĂ˘€”I worked from nine in the forenoon till two-thirty the next morning. Or, rather, I discovered that it was two-thirty when I came into the parish house, where I had my room, for I had determined to have no watch with me on the job. My reason for this was that if I had the watch where I could look at it and see how late it was getting I might feel tired before I was really exhausted for the day, and quit earlier. Throughout the two months I never took my watch with me into the church.
"By way of further introduction to what I have to tell you, let me add that everytime I came from the church to the parish house after quitting for the night, which was always between one-thirty and three-thirty after midnight, I found Father Zagar waiting for me with a pot of coffee on the stove and cake and fruit on the table. This annoyed me, and I told him not to stay up for me; I could take my own coffee if I wanted it. But he said, 'Never mind, gospodine profesor'Ă˘€”he called me professor at first. He assured me that he seldom slept
more than three or four hours, anyhow. ... So every night I had coffee and a bite, and chatted with Father Zagar for a while; then we both went upstairs and to sleep.
"At night while I worked the church was dark except for the powerful moveable lamp on the scaffold, whence a few sharp sheafs of light reached down, illumining parts of the altar or the communion table, depending on where I had the lamp. Mixing the paints, I turned the lamp down, so I could see what I was doing; and at such times most of the altar below me was doused with lightĂ˘€”but I scarcely had time to look down.
"Now, too, before I come to the story that I want to narrate to you, I should probably help you to imagine the atmosphere of the church at night and, so far as I can tell you, how I felt working in it. The scaffolding, of course, creaked all the while, all over the church; but that did not bother me. It rained a good deal, and it was cold and damp, and on some nights I wore two shirts and two sweaters and a windbreaker; which kept me warm enough in my body, but my hands frequently were none too warm to be efficient in holding the brush.
"For an instant, now and then, it felt a bit strange to be alone in the church; but only for an instantĂ˘€”I had no time for feeling strange or otherwise. Outside I could hear the whir of automobile traffic on the road below-hill, and the clanging of locomotives and the clattering of trains in the railyard. Every once in a while the churchĂ˘€”the whole hillĂ˘€”shook when a heavy truck passed, or when the trainmen were joining cars, making up their trains .... Occasionally, the two dogs that belonged to the parish houseĂ˘€”a police she-dog and a nondescript houndĂ˘€”barked, squealed, howled violently outside .... On the second or third night, a sudden long sound came out of the organ in back of the church, which startled me; but then I thought it was due to the vibrations from the motor traffic or from the railyard. ...
"On the fourth night, as I say, while mixing paint and feeling rather cold and tired, but not exhausted, I glanced at the altar beneath me, which was rather fully illumined by my lamp's downward flood of light ... and there was a figure, a man in black, moving this way and that way in front of it, raising his arms and making gestures in the air.
"I thought, of course, that the man was Father Zagar, and, in my frenzy of work, I did not take a very good look at him. I was slightly annoyed for a moment. He had agreed to stay out like everybody else; now here he was! But then I said to myself I had no right, really, to require him to keep out. I went on mixing the paint, then began to put it quickly on the wall, and could not help wondering why he should be going through all those motions in front of the altar at this time of night, forĂ˘€”having no watch, rememberĂ˘€”I judged by my weariness and by the work accomplished since nightfall that it was around midnight. Thinking about it, it occurred to me he might be a perfectionist and was practicing ritualistic gestures; and I said to myself, 'To the devil with him! I'm busy!' But then another question popped into my head, 'Why didn't he say something to me as he came in?' This seemed strange, for
Zagar is a very talkative, almost effusive, man. After a while, however, I decided that he had kept silent in order not to disturb or distract me; and, the Madonna being one of the hardest jobs I had ever attempted to paint, I finally dismissed him from my mind. It never occurred to me that the man could be the other priest, Father Nezich, who, I knew, always went to bed early in the evening.
"That night I quit shortly after two o'clock. As I got out of the church, the dogs, which had been barking violently during the past several hours, dashed up to me, terribly excited. They rose on their hind legs and pawed me and licked my hands. But I thought nothing of this. As I entered the parish house, there was Father Zagar, as usual, full of talk and concern for my welfare. Was I cold? Would I have a brandy? He hurried into the kitchen to fetch me coffee and cake and a dish of canned peaches; whereupon we chatted, perhaps till three o'clock. But he said nothing about having been in the church. I thought this was strange, and almost asked him about it, but did not; I was tired and wanted to get to bed as soon as possible, and did not care to start any sort of long conversation, which, I feared, might be the case if he began to explain to me why he practiced those ritualistic gestures. Besides, shta me briga!-none of my business!
"The fifth night, working till past two o'clock, I saw nothing out of the ordinary; and I noticed, by comparison with the previous night, that the dogs were quiet. When I quit, again coffee, cake, fruitĂ˘€”talk with Father Zagar and so to bed.
"The sixth and seventh nights, the same.
"On the eighth night, skipping Sunday, which is to say on April nineteenth, I happened, about midnight, to look down from the scaffold while mixing paint, and there was the figure again, the man in black who I assumed once moreĂ˘€”without looking carefullyĂ˘€”was Rev. Zagar. His gestures were a bit fantastic, but I thought this was due to the fact that I saw them from above, and there were shadows; and I was annoyed againĂ˘€”why was he coming in like this? Was he, perhaps, a little crazy? The explanation that he might be a perfectionist practicing ritualistic gestures, which had satisfied me four nights before, now suddenly impressed me as improbable. I felt weird, cold; and, trying not to think of him, I worked furiously on the Madonna, who was practically finished. ...
"A while later I heard him walking slowly down the main aisle of the church, mumbling rhythmically. 'Well,' I thought, 'he's praying. To the devil with him!' But, vaguely vexed and feeling very unpleasant, I determined to have a talk with him tonight. I would ask him, as a sort of joke, what he thought he was doing in front of the altar so late at night? Didn't he do enough praying in the daytime? ... He paced the aisle, mumbling, for half an hour or an hour. Glancing down, I saw him momentarily as he cut the light, here and there, that poured down through the scaffolding. ThenĂ˘€”all quiet; only the dogs were barking outside, the cars honking and, way off, a locomotive bell clanging.
"I assumed Father Zagar had gone out; and after a time, still feeling strangely cold and uneasy, I decided to quit, though I sensed it was still earlyĂ˘€”perhaps only twelve-thirty. I used up what paint I had made, cleaned my brushes; then climbed down, extinguished the lights, and went out, and into the parish house.
"Entering, what do I see but Father Zagar asleep on the couch in the livingroom. Waking with a start, he jumped up and said, 'Hello, gospodine profesor!' Then, looking up at a clock he cried, 'Oh my, it's past one o'clock! Why didn't that woman wake me?' He meant his cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Dolinar, an elderly widow, also known as Dolinarka. He was angry, explaining he had lain down at about nine, having instructed Dolinarka to wake him at eleven; but she had apparently gone upstairs and also fallen asleep. "Now, this was strange! I said to Father Zagar, 'Do you mean to say that you have lain asleep here since nine o'clock?'Ă˘€”'Why do you ask?' said Father Zagar. I smiled and asked him to answer me, and he said, 'I believe I fell asleep soon after I lay down; by nine-thirty, anyhow.'Ă˘€”'And,' I asked, 'you've been asleep ever since?'Ă˘€”'Yes.'Ă˘€”'Are you sure?'Ă˘€”'Sure!'
" 'Well,' I thought, smiling to myself, 'all this is easily explained now: he is a sleepwalker.' Father Zagar asked, 'Why do you smile?' I told him; then he laughed and lighted a cigarette, pacing about the room. I sat down. 'You saw something?' he asked then. Ă˘€”'I saw you in front of the altar, making gestures like this' (illustrating). 'Sure you saw me?' asked Father Zagar, very serious. I said I had not looked very carefully, but had assumed it was he; now, if he insisted that he had been asleep ever since nine-thirty, I was impelled to think he was a somnambulist. We laughed.
"Smoking nervously, Zagar said, 'Believe me, gospodine profesor, I am not a sleepwalker. I was really on that couch from about nine till you awakened me.' He hesitated, then asked, 'Tell me: have you, since coming here, heard there is a tradition that this church is occasionally visited by a ghost or some strange phenomenon?' I answered, 'No.'Ă˘€”'Are you sure?'Ă˘€”'Yes.'Ă˘€”'Well,' Zagar went on, 'there is a fifteen-year-old tradition to that effect, dating nine or ten years back before I came here. I have never seen, or had any experience with him, or it, but not a few people say they have. Before I came, there were quarrels and arguments among the Croatians hereabouts pertaining to this ghost, or whatever it is. I am a sceptic as to ghosts and apparitions, and never believed the tradition, not really, but sometimes, listening to people speak of it, I admitted there might be something to itĂ˘€”some phenomenon which we do not understand .... Do you know why I asked Dolinarka to wake me at eleven?'Ă˘€” I said, 'No'Ă˘€”'Do you know why you always found me here so late, when you came out of the church ?'Ă˘€”'No.'Ă˘€”'Because,' said Zagar, 'ever since you decided to work late, I was half afraid that, alone in the church, you would have some "experience" and get frightened and possibly fall off the scaffold; and every night since you began to work, except today, I have stood watch outside the door between eleven and one. You never saw me, for I was outside, behind
the door, looking in, keeping still, listening. My purpose was to rush in, in case you cried out, or started hastily to climb down.'
"I said, 'Father Zagar, you aren't crazy, are you?' He answered, 'I don't know, but I don't think I am!' We laughed again, then had some coffee and cake and canned peaches; and, discussing the thing, decided that hereafter Father Zagar would come into the church at about eleven or before every night I worked, and stay with me till quitting-time.
"So the following night he came in, announcing it was quarter to eleven, standard time; then, by way of horseplay, he called out, 'Come on, ghost, show yourself and see if the gospodine profesor and I are afraid of you.' I laughed, and went on working. Father Zagar climbed up, bringing me a pot of coffee; helped me with paint-mixing-something he did regularly thereafter; then went down again, lest he distract me, for I had started on the new mural, Religion in the Old Country, on the left side of the main altar ... and suddenly there was a strange click or knock in back of the church, beneath the choir. It sent a chill through me. 'Hear that, Father ?'Ă˘€”'What ?'Ă˘€”'That strange knock back there ?'Ă˘€”'Yes; but wasn't it a creak in the scaffolding? 'Ă˘€”'I don't know,' I said; 'I don't think so.' It sounded terribly strange. I kept working as we talked.
"ThenĂ˘€”another click or knock, the same as the first, but in another part of the church. I turned around and looked down at Father Zagar, who stood on the other side of the communion table. He turned, to face the rear of the church, and in a tense, sharp voice challenged, 'Come on, show yourself, if you are a ghost, or whatever you are; or speak, if you can. We're busy here, the gospodine profesor and I, decorating the church, making it beautiful, and we should like to be let alone. If you are a ghost; if you are a dead man, go with God,Ă˘€”peace to you: I shall pray for you. Only please don't bother us.Ă˘€”'
"I interrupted him with a yell, for just then I saw himĂ˘€”the ghostĂ˘€”or at least let me call him thatĂ˘€”sitting in the fourth pew. I saw him very clearly: a man in black, an old man with a strange angular face, wrinkled and dark, with a bluish tinge. He leaned on the front part of the pew, looking upĂ˘€”not so much at me as at everything in general: a sad, miserable gaze. I saw him for just a moment, then-nothing. He vanished. But I felt cold all over, at the same time that sweat broke out of every pore of my body. I got off the scaffold, which was not high for that mural, and barely managed not to fall off the ladder, I was so frightenedĂ˘€”only the sensation I had was more than fear: something indescribable, but related to the milder, more remote sensations I had experienced on the two previous evenings when I saw him gesticulate in front of the altar.
"Rushing to me, Father Zagar put his arms about me and asked what was the matter, but I had no time to talk with him. I pushed him aside and rushed out of the church as fast as I could. Outside, the dogs were barking. They rushed to me, yelping and whining.
"Father Zagar, who followed me out, had not seen the ghost; and, taking
the attitude of the sceptic again, he said I had probably only imagined I saw him. 'But,' I insisted, 'I really saw him, FatherĂ˘€”with these eyes, as I see you now.'Ă˘€”'You imagined it!' Zagar repeated, and I became angry and went to my room and made a sketch in my notebook of the manĂ˘€”the ghost, whatever he wasĂ˘€”as I clearly recalled him sitting in the pew.
"I calmed down, went into the bathroom, and changed my sweat-soaked underclothes. Father Zagar came up and I went down with him. We begged one another's pardon, I had coffee and cake; we talked, speculating, Father Zagar telling me what the tradition had to say; and shortly after one, when I felt perfectly quiet again, we returned to the church, where also everything was entirely normal, and I resumed work. Zagar stayed with me till I quit, then I had more coffee and he went to his room, and I to mine. Exhausted, I fell asleep at once.
"In the morning Father Zagar told me of the following occurrence: A few minutes after he had turned out the light over his bed, there were three clear and distinct clicks or knocks in the closest proximity of his bed. The knocks were not as if some one struck a piece of wood or metal or a wall, but something different and strange, as though one snapped one's fingers, yet not quite that, either ... as though they came out of infinityĂ˘€”the same that we had heard in the church. 'They touched my heart, and everything in me with a long chill feeling,' he said, 'and, though I could not see him, I knew there was a dead man in my room. I blessed myself and began to say an Ave Maria, and switched on the light and saw nothing. The chill feeling in me persisted. I was frightened and angry, and said: "Who are you? Why don't you show yourself to me, when you do show yourself to Mr. Vanka? I am the boss here. I am the pastor. Talk to me if you can. Let's settle this once for all. Have some consideration for us. I work hard all day and I am tired, and I want to sleep. Poor Mr. Vanka has a task on his hands; you should let him alone. But now talk to me and tell me what the trouble is. I shall pray for you." I waited, but there was no reply, so I turned out the light, said a paternoster and an Ave Maria for the peace of his soul, and the cold feeling left me and, I think, I soon fell asleep.'
"The next night, and for two or three nights after, we were left in peace, and I worked right through, finishing Religion in the Old Country and beginning Immigrants' Religion in America, in which I included a portrait of Father Zagar. He posed for me in the daytime, then came in late in the evening. He was beginning to credit himself with sending the ghost away. It took a fellow like him, by golly, to deal with ghosts and spirits and such strange phenomena. He had given the ghost a piece of his mind the other night; now he stayed away. Ghosts, apparitions, and things of that sort, he said, were like people. If you talk to them as though you mean it, they listen to you. ...
"Father Zagar came in shortly before eleven, unlocking and locking the door, and cracking his usual jokes, boasting he had sent the ghost packing ... when the whole komedia started all over again. There was again that strange,
awful knock or click in one corner under the choir, then another in the other corner. 'O-ho!' cried Zagar, scratching his head. I used up what paint I had in the pail, then laid everything aside and got off, intent on fleeing: for I was abruptly all cold inside and beginning to drip with perspiration. But the Father detained me, seizing my arm, suggesting we face the situation. 'Not I,' said I, and made for the door, Zagar after me, seizing me again.
"There was another knock, I could not tell just where, but it cut into me like a knife. Then I saw himĂ˘€”the old man in blackĂ˘€”moving down the aisle altarward. Terrified, horror-stricken, panicky are faint words to describe my sensation. 'Look, Father,' I yelled, 'there he goesĂ˘€”to the altarĂ˘€”he's at the altarĂ˘€”he's blown out the light!' The last few words I shrieked out with more lung power than I ever thought I possessed, and simultaneously lost sight of the figure, and began to feel a trifle better.
"ThisĂ˘€”his putting out the lightĂ˘€”is, perhaps, the most important point in the story. The light was the sanctuary lamp. It usually hangs in a special fixture depending from the ceiling above the altar. It burns all the time; the nuns next door see to it; the tallow and wick inside the bulb need to be changed only about once a year; and the sisters assured us afterwards that as long as any of them had been thereĂ˘€”for eight years, at any rateĂ˘€”it had never been out. The glass bulbs around the flame are so arranged that it is almost impossible to blow it out. No wind or draught can touch it; besides, all the doors and windows were closed .... The light usually hangs, as I say; but now, because of the scaffolding, the fixture had been pulled up and the lamp stood like a huge red cup on the altar, where the ghost, or whatever it was, now blew it out with a puff of breath.
"When I yelled that he had put out the light, Father Zagar demanded, 'What light?' I said, 'The sanctuary lamp! There! Can't you see it's out?' Bome, by golly!' he exclaimed and rushed to the altar, where he saw that the wick in the lamp was still smoking. He touched the lamp; it was hot. The flame had, obviously, just been extinguished.
"Meantime, I had left the church. The dogs were yelping and squealing outside. Father Zagar followed me out. 'Till now,' he said, 'I still had a glimmer of doubt. I thought, possibly, it was your fantasy. I thought, possibly, I had imagined the knocks in the church and by my bed the other night. But now I believe. Bome, now I believe. There is something here. That light was blown out just when you said it was."
"At one o'clock we returned to work again, and everything was normal. Whereupon we had two .or three 'good' nights, as we began to call those when nothing happened. Then 'he'Ă˘€”we called him 'he'Ă˘€”came two or three nights in succession. I had no watch, but when 'he' came I knew it was somewhere between eleven and twelve, standard time. 'He' paid no attention to the fact that meanwhile Pittsburgh had gone to daylight-saving. One night Father Zagar tried to fool me when he came in, apologizing he had fallen asleepĂ˘€”it was nearly one-thirty; wasn't I quitting yet? I might readily have believed
this under ordinary circumstances for I was weary enough for it to be one-thirty; but not this time. He no sooner spoke than the chill feeling pierced me, which was always the signal, and I said, 'Father, you'rl! a fibber; it's somewhere between eleven and twelve, standard time. I must go.'
"Almost always I left the church immediately I got 'the signal,' as I called the chill feeling. I tried to ignore it a few times, and worked furiously. I put blinders, made out of newspapers, on either side of my face, like a horse, so I would see nothing but the SPot on the wall where I worked. I stuffed cotton in my ears. No use! At the end I had to go; the sensation and the situation were intolerable. I saw 'him' on each of these occasions when I stayed after getting 'the signal.' He looked perfectly mild, pensiveĂ˘€”like, sitting in the pew or moving up and down the aisle; yet he filled me with indescribable horror, with something higher and stronger than fear; what, I cannot tell you. Father Zagar, who also got 'the signal,' though usually later than I, and not as terribly, wanted me to stay and 'face the ghost and the whole business' with him, but I could not. Twice, when he tried physically to detain me, I pushed him violently away, bashing him once against a wall, the second time against a door, and he suffered bruises. He had locked the door and I was so crazy with that fear which was more than fear that I told him I would kill him unless he forthwith let me out.
"This went on throughout the jobĂ˘€”for two months. When 'he' came, 'he' came always between eleven and twelve, standard, except once, early in June. On that occasion, he came earlier in the evening, perhaps at nine or nine-thirty, but gave me no 'signal.' The feeling I had was unpleasant, but not intolerable; I put on my newspaper blinders, stopped up my ears, and worked. 'He' burned candles on the chandelier in front of the little altar on the right from the time 'he' came till Father Zagar entered the church at eleven. 'What's this smell?' demanded Father Zagar, entering. I said, 'He's been burning candles all evening.' Then Mrs. Dolinar, the, housekeeper, came in, too, in the wake of the priest, who told her what I had said. The two of them inspected the chandelier; it was full of molten tallow, while one wick, burned almost to the bottom, stillĂ‚· flamed. Mrs. Dolinar put it out.
" ... This is my story,' concluded Maxo, "absolutely true, as I know it. I think I am not crazy. Nothing so intense, so terrific has ever happened to me. A ghost! I think soĂ˘€”something, some one, that is not substantial with flesh and bones and blood. An astral body, if you likeĂ˘€”something: call it what you like. I know that I had a most terrific experience. . . .'
Listening to him,, I was thinking, "This is too weird even for Maxo.' Not that I questioned his statement about having had an intense and terrific experience. Nor did I doubt that Father Zagar would substantially corroborate his story, and I knew both of them well enough to feel they were genuine, beyond any charlatanry or trickery. But the "ghost,' to me, was a ghost in quotation marks. I had long since become settled in my belief that once we
died we were dead; that our personalities disintegrated into atoms, molecules and other such basic life-units, which then became available as material in the construction of other life forms.
The matter of the sanctuary light going out, I realized, was hard to explain, save as a coincidence; but I inclined to believe that Maxo's experience was largely, if not entirely, of his own creation. I did not doubt his saying that no one had told him oj the fifteen-year-old "ghost" tradition, which was the creation of a few superstitious persons, the like of whom might be found in any group; or the result or manifestation of a collective psychosis or illusion; but I thought that, since the tradition existed, it was not beyond Maxo to get wind of it, somehow, via his acute, penetrating intuition, which was a matter of his whole strange background. After being a few days in the church, he could have sensed it. He was somewhat like D. H. Lawrence, who had the ability to sit down immediately on arriving in a city he had never visited before and write an article about it. I, myself, who was not nearly as acute and intuitive as Maxo, had lately lived in a three-hundred-year-old house in the city of Antigua, in Guatemala, and dimly sensed some of the things that I later learned had happened there long ago. Before that, in Yugoslavia, while interviewing King Alexander, I had had a feeling, which had amounted almost to knowledge, that he would be killed before long, and then had predicted his assassination in print in America a year before it occurred. ...
Of course, Maxo's conscious mind, with which he told me the story, had had, I figured, no part in creating the "ghost" and the whole terrific drama he had narrated to me. The "ghost," I theorized, was a creature of his subconscious. But why did his subconscious create him? Perhaps to keep himself constantly stirred up so he could carry out the great task before him. Perhaps, way down in him he doubted that he could complete the job on time, and his subconscious, getting wind in one way or another of the ghost tradition, had created the "ghost" to have him there as an excuse in case of failure. Other such thoughts occurred to me. I expressed them to Maxo. He smiled, complimenting me on my resources as a psychologist, but shook his head; I was all wrong.
We let Margaret and Stella in on the story, but, both sceptics, they joined my party against Maxo.
He Was asked, "Why didn't you quit when these dreadful things began to happen?" He answered, "I thought of quitting, but how could I return to New York and face all of you? How could I have explained it to you? You would all think I had gone crazy. Besides, how could I leave Father Zagar with a partly painted church? I thought of painting only in the daytime, but then I could not possibly have finished in two months as I had agreed. I took that agreement very seriously, for I had entered into it, not only with Father Zagar, but the whole church committee. The parishioners generally were very much interested in what I was doing. There was much talk. Everybody was expecting me to finish by about June tenth. Also, when I started the job, the
big Pittsburgh newspapers printed stories about me and my project; and now, if I quit, the thing might get into the papers in some way that might make me look ridiculous and be ruinous to my future in America. ... " Maxo showed us the sketch of the ghost in his notebook. This was no proof to us. We did not dispute that he had "seen" "him" after his subconscious had created him. We asked him: did anyone have any theory who the ghost was? "The popular belief is," said Maxo, "that 'he' is a dead priest who, while alive, took money from parishioners for masses which he never read, and who had not read his breviary daily and had neglected his other priestly duties; and is
now coming to the church to make up for his sinful negligence during his life. Father Zagar inclines to this theory; so does the other priest there, the Rev. Nezich, who has never had any 'experience' and, not wanting any, never enters the church after dark. Mrs. Dolinar accepts the ghost as a permanent institution, and has no fear of 'him.' The same is true of the parishioners, who believe that 'he' comes. They say the thing to do is to stay out of the church late at night, and let 'him' have the place to 'himself.'
"The nuns, who live over the parochial schoolhouse, next door, do not disbelieve in 'his' existence; none enter the church at night. The dogs seem to feel 'him,' for they barked violently nearly every time I saw 'him' or heard the knocks or felt the 'signal.' On the night that 'he' burned candles in the church, Mrs. Dolinar felt a chill pass by, or over, her in the church. "There are persons in Pittsburgh, all Croatians, who have had 'experiences' with 'hirn'Ă˘€”have heard the knocks or clicks; have heard the organ play, which is electrically operated and, therefore, not subject to vibrations from the traffic either on the road below-hill or in the railroad yard. There seem to be
people who claim to have seen 'him.' Before Father Zagar's time, there have been arguments in the parish between those who believed in the ghost and those who considered the whole thing a supe~stition, a collective illusion, or simple nonsense. One of the priests before Zagar, a certain Rev. Sorich, quit the parish on account of it. He claimed 'he' frequently knocked in his room, and that he had had other experiences with 'him.' Many people did not believe Sorich. He almost came to blows over the matter. He is still alive, living somewhere in Chicago. ...'
Maxo paused, then said, "I don't know what it is, .but I saw a figure who looked as I have drawn him in my sketchbook. I am certain there is something."
Whether "something" or a psychological quirk on Maxo's part which involved the priest and the housekeeper in his "experiences," the thing was interesting ... so in mid-August, asking Maxo to join me, I drove to Pittsburgh and we spent two days with Father Zagar at Millvale. We had long talks, back and forth, from all angles we could think of. The priest and Mrs. Dolinar, both of whom impressed me as utterly incapable of any charlatanry, corroborated. Maxo's story to me in every respect, adding a few insignificant details. Father Zagar repeated to me Maxo's account of the incident with the sanctuary lamp. He could not think of it as a coincidence. Both he and the housekeeper insisted that on the occasion when "he" had burned candles all evening, no living persons could passibly have got in to burn them, for all the doors had been locked and the keysĂ˘€”except Maxo'sĂ˘€”were in the parish house. Joking, I accused Maxo of burning the candles himself. He laughed; he had too much to do to bother lighting candles. ...
I looked up a number of other persons who had had "experiences." Much of what they told me was confused and confusing. Some believed, with Father Zagar, that "he" was a dead priest trying to make good what he had neglected in his duties while living. Some thought "he" might be a parish priest who had served at St. Nicholas about twenty years ago. There appeared to be a number of people who had heard the strange knocks, both in the church and in the parish house, and had felt the chill that Maxo, Father Zagar, and Mrs. Dolinar had experienced. None with whom I talked had seeh "him," but some had heard of persons who claimed they qad seen "him," and that "he" looked like a priest. Certain it is that a number of people accepted the tradition. None of these were afraid to enter the church in the daytime, but they shunned it at night, especially between eleven and twelve, standard time.
The majority of parishioners, however, seemed to be sceptics in this regard; a few were emphatic there was no such thing as a ghost. They held that those who believed in "this nonsense" were superstitiously inclined, not very bright, apt to be influenced by "this crazy talk which was started God knows how or by whom, long ago." None of these knew of Maxo's and Father Zagar's recent "experiences," and thought the less said of the so-called "ghost" the better.
They were afraid that, now that Mr. Vanka had made the church famous, the thing might get into American newspapers and thus act as a reflection on the Croatian people in the United States. They all thought Mr. Vanka's paintings were wonderful, and that he must be a great man to have done all that work in such a short time.
Father Zagar and I went into the church at eleven, standard time, on Tuesday, August 17thĂ˘€”and stayed there about an hour. I was, I think, perfectly prepared to have an "experience"; but there were no knocks or clicks, we felt no chills and saw nothing unusual. Maxo did not want to come into the church with us. I was told that sometimes, apparently, "he" did not come for weeks or possibly months at a time. The dogs had been very quiet at night now for many weeks.
I left Pittsburgh, not as definite a sceptic or scoffer as I had come there, but certainly an agnostic. There seems to be "something' in that church, but what it is, I don't know. The thing intrigues me both by itself and in connection with Maxo, whomĂ˘€”franklyĂ˘€”I do not understand any more than, apparently, he understands himself, but whom I like and whom I instinctively trust a good deal further than I can see him. I can say this: if there was "something" to see and experience, Maxo Vanka, if anyone, would see and experience it.
Many thanks to Mrs. Marta Pirnat-Greenberg, lecturer at the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures, University of Kansas (Kansas City), for having sent me a copy of the article by Louis Adamic. D.®.