Categotry Archives: Artists


Liz Renay

1 comment

Categories: Actors, Artists, Criminals, Hollywood, Writers/Editors

lrenay.jpgLiz Renay was a multifaceted woman who experienced life with wild abandonment — and rarely worried about the consequences of her actions.

Born Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins, Renay was raised in Arizona by strict evangelical Christian parents, and a grandmother whom she described as a “hellion.” At 13, Renay ran away from home and hitchhiked to Las Vegas. The voluptuous girl won a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest and supported herself by working as an underage cocktail waitress, showgirl and size 44DD bra model.

By 18, Renay was supporting her two children, a boy and a girl, as an exotic dancer and movie extra. When Life magazine featured her in a five-page photo spread, she decided to seek her fortune in New York City. There Renay became a high-fashion model, and even appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine. But she fell in with Tony “Cappy” Coppola, the right-hand man of mob boss Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, and life in the fast lane soon proved a bit too brisk for Renay. When her relationship with Coppola turned violent, she moved to California to become a film star.

Renay appeared in more than two-dozen pictures, mostly B-movies like “Date With Death,” “The Thrill Killers,” “Mark of the Astro-Zombies,” “Desperate Living” and “Dimension in Fear,” and won $1,000 for correctly answering geography questions on Groucho Marx’s TV show, “You Bet Your Life.” In the Hollywood press, she was famed for her beauty and for dating actors and celebrities. The blonde, and sometimes red-headed, bombshell eventually married seven times, divorced five times and widowed twice. She recounted her many flings in the 1992 memoir, “My First 2,000 Men.”

Perhaps her best-known paramour was Hollywood mobster Mickey Cohen. Renay’s relationship with Cohen was closely examined by grand juries on both coasts, and she received a three-year suspended sentence in the late 1950s for perjuring herself at his federal tax evasion trial. When she violated her probation for allegedly disturbing the peace during a photo shoot, Renay was sent to federal prison. During her 27-month incarceration, she ran a prison newspaper and taught art to the other inmates. Renay also painted 150 canvasses in the joint, including one of a centaur surrounded by beautiful women in a garden. The painting sold in 1964 for $10,000.

Renay’s flamboyant nature didn’t fade as she aged. She earned top billing in the 1970s for a string of X-rated pictures, despite the fact that she didn’t participate in the actual sex acts or appear in the nude. Renay penned cookbooks and beauty tips as well as the bestselling autobiography, “My Face for the World to See,” and toured the country in a double striptease act with her daughter, Brenda. In 1982, Brenda committed suicide on her 39th birthday.

In the height of the streaking craze, Renay was the first grandmother to run nude down Hollywood Blvd. The promotional act for a local theatre drew a crowd of thousands, and got her arrested for indecent exposure. Renay was later acquitted when the jury determined that she “was nude, but not lewd.” Several jurors even asked for her autograph after the proceedings ended. During the final years of her life, Renay kept a loaded German Walther under her bed. However, she only shot the gun on the 4th of July to make sure it still worked.

“She was unsinkable, indefatigable, incorrigible, irresistible. Liz was larger than life and had the bust line to prove it,” Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith wrote. “Even as she approached her 80th birthday last spring with her bum hip and other age-related maladies, she still led with her best assets. In the right light, she could still turn heads and charm the chips from casino players’ pockets. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.”

Renay died on Jan. 22 from cardiopulmonary arrest and gastric bleeding. She was 80.


Danny Finegood

1 comment

Categories: Artists

Daniel Ned Finegood liked to play pranks. Big ones.
On New Year’s Day in 1976, Finegood and some friends climbed up Mount Lee in Los Angeles and altered the famous Hollywood sign. Using only rocks, rope and four 12-foot white sheets, they changed the last two Os to make the sign read: “Hollyweed.” Members of the media were notified in advance of the unveiling, and photographs of the stunt later ran in newspapers across the globe.
When asked why he chose that word, Finegood said he was making a statement about the state’s new marijuana law, which changed the charge of possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor. He was also an art student at Cal State University Northridge at the time, and he used the sign-changing stunt as a project for his environmental sculpture class. The professor gave him an “A.” Finegood later graduated from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.
The California native never outgrew his love of the grand practical joke. In 1979, Finegood altered the 507-foot Hollywood sign again, this time to honor the Christian holiday of Easter. During that antic, the sign became “Holywood.” During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, he changed the hillside landmark to read “Ollywood,” in honor of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. Finegood’s final sign caper occurred in 1990 when he decided to make a very public statement about the first Gulf War. With the help of some plastic sheets, he made the Hollywood sign read: “Oil War.”
Some called Finegood a “makeover artist”; others viewed him as a vandal. Over the years, however, security at the sign increased — a fence and closed circuit surveillance system were installed — and Finegood decided against committing other embellishments. Instead he focused on his family and the direction of local education. He also collected neon signs.
Finegood died on Jan. 22 of multiple myeloma. He was 52.


Robert Volpe


Categories: Artists, Law

Robert Volpe was the Sherlock Holmes of the art world. The veteran detective was the sole member of the NYPD’s Art Identification Team, the only squad in the entire country dedicated to solving art-related crimes.
Volpe spent 12 years outwitting criminals, discovering forgeries, breaking up stolen art rings and hunting down missing masterpieces. He found artwork pilfered from the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and recovered two Byzantine ivories worth $1.5 million that were stolen from an Italian museum. The Hungarian government once requested his assistance in locating two Raphaels, and five other paintings, worth a total of $40 million. Volpe not only helped the authorities recover the stolen pieces, but nab the art thief as well.
The Brooklyn native always had an interest in the arts. A painter and sculptor, Volpe was just a teenager when he sold his first paintings to a local art dealer for $250. He studied at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League.
Volpe served with the Army in Vietnam until 1964, then joined the NYC police department. After walking a beat and patrolling the 9th district, he worked undercover for several years investigating organized crime and drug dealing, including the infamous heroin smuggling operation known as the “French Connection.” When he switched to the Art Squad in 1971, the move earned him the nickname “Rembrandt.”
Volpe’s most famous cases were chronicled in the 1974 book, “Art Cop,” by Laurie Adams. His work was also featured in the 2003 memoir, “Framed: Hollywood’s Dealer to the Stars Tells All,” by art dealer Tod Volpe. The pair were not related, but their paths crossed in the 1970s when Robert found a piece of art that was stolen from Tod.
Volpe retired from the police force in 1983, but continued to lecture at museums and universities. He also offered his expertise to law enforcement agencies all over the world, including the FBI training facility in Quantico, Va.
Art and law enforcement apparently ran in the Volpe family. Robert’s wife, Grace, ws an art instructor. And Justin Volpe, the youngest of his three sons, joined the NYPD as a police officer. In 1999, Justin pleaded guilty to sodomizing a handcuffed Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima with a broken broomstick. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Ever dedicated to his family, Robert Volpe drove 1,200 miles each month to visit Justin in the federal lockup in Rochester, Minn.
Volpe died on Nov. 28 of a heart attack at the age of 63. Justin was not allowed to attend his father’s memorial service due to “security reasons.”


Katherine Dunham

1 comment

Categories: Artists, Writers/Editors

Katherine Dunham, a multicultural dancer-choreographer who established one of the first self-supporting all-black modern dance groups in the United States, died on May 21. Cause of death was not released. She was 96.
Born and raised in Illinois, Dunham began taking dance classes as a teenager. She performed in several productions at the Cube Theatre, a local playhouse her brother Albert Dunham Jr. helped to establish, and danced her first leading role in the 1933 ballet “La Guiablesse.”
Dunham earned a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1936. One particular lecture on cultural anthropology inspired her to begin viewing dance as more than an art form, but as a cultural symbol. Inspired by these new ideas, Dunham started studying the anthropological roots of dance. She earned a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, and used the money to study native dance in Haiti and Jamaica. Once the villagers in these Caribbean nations felt comfortable with her, Dunham was invited to attend several sacred dance rituals. At one of these ceremonies, she viewed the Myal dance, which is based on the belief that the dead can back to life. Dunham would eventually adopt Haiti as a second home and become a priestess of voudon (voodoo).
Known as the “matriarch of black dance,” Dunham added her African-infused dance steps to Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Aida” and to the Broadway musical “Cabin in the Sky.” She also choreographed several films, including “Carnival of Rhythm,” “Stormy Weather,” “Mambo” and “The Bible: In the Beginning.”
In the spring of 1938, she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in New York. The renowned Dunham Dancers performed all over the United States and toured 57 countries on six continents. In a time when the color of her skin led to discrimination, Dunham fought back by suing hotels and restaurants that wouldn’t cater to her dancers. She refused to allow her company’s productions play at segregated theaters and even choreographed “Southland,” an hour-long ballet about lynching.
Dunham opened schools in Paris, Stockholm and Rome, but thousands of students studied at her New York studio, including actors Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt and James Dean. There they learned the “Dunham Technique,” which combines African movements with the classic elements of ballets and modern dance. This technique is still taught at colleges all over the U.S., and at prestigious dance companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
After serving as an advisor to the cultural ministry of Senegal in the late 1960s, Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Ill., a predominantly black town that suffered from povery and high crime. Determined to bring arts and hope to the area, she taught at Southern Illinois University and opened the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities, a school and community center that provided free classes in dance, drama, foreign languages, social science, woodcarving and African hair-braiding. Dunham’s center also offered martial arts training to help young, black teens channel their anger.
Dunham and set designer John Thomas Pratt were married for 49 years. After his death in 1986, she was plagued with health problems and poverty. Former students and celebrities helped keep her from living on the streets, but no matter how much she struggled, Dunham was always aware of other people’s problems. In 1992, she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. government’s policy of repatriating Haitian refugees.
For her social and artistic contributions, Dunham received numerous honorary doctorates, the National Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize and France’s Legion d’Honneur. In 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition named her one of “American’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.” The Katherine Dunham College at the Library of Congress features nearly 1,700 documents and videos that document her career. Her life was also chronicled in the biography, “Katherine Dunham: A Dancing Life” by Joyce Aschenbrenner, and in her 1959 memoir, A Touch of Innocence.”
Listen to a Tribute From NPR


Thomas J. Abercrombie


Categories: Artists, Writers/Editors

As a writer and photographer for National Geographic magazine, Thomas James Abercrombie was paid to travel to the ends of the earth and take pictures of some of its most awe-inspiring sights.
The Minnesota native earned a degree in art and journalism from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He broke into the news business as a staff photographer for the Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., and the Milwaukee Journal. In 1956, Abercrombie landed a job as a correspondent for the National Geographic and set off on a life of adventure. Over the next four decades, he shot pictures of deserts, quake-ravaged towns, geishas and African natives, wrote stories from every continent and befriended peasant and prince alike.
In 1957, the publication sent him to Antarctica, where he won a lottery to become the first reporter to visit the South Pole. Before he could take off, however, the plane froze, leaving Abercrombie stranded in the frozen wasteland for nearly three weeks. He finally made it to the pole, and set up an all-night exposure of the sky to show the stars making concentric circles.
Known for putting his own life at risk to get the perfect shot, Abercrombie’s exploits became the stuff of legend. He took stunning underwater photos during a dive with Jacques Cousteau. He survived a plane crash while trying to cover a civil war in Yemen. He fell off a yak in Afghanistan and nearly plunged into a 1,000-foot chasm. On an assignment in the Himalayas, Abercrombie nearly died from typhoid and had to amputate the toes of a pilgrim after gangrene set in. A scar across the bridge of his nose marked the time he got knocked off the top of a mountain cable car in Venezuela, but was rescued by a Swiss guide who caught him by his belt and hauled him back to safety.
One of Abercrombie’s favorite shoots involved climbing up 5,000 feet of vertical rock and ice to take pictures from the top of the Matterhorn. Soon after reaching the summit and viewing both Italy and Switzerland, a squall drove him back down to the picturesque town of Zermatt.
His most famous story, however, ended up costing the National Geographic a fortune. Back in the mid-1960s, Abercrombie took an assignment in Alaska. He learned to fly, bought a Cessna 180 and took off for the northernmost state. Once there, Abercrombie purchased pontoons for the aircraft, shot his photos and flew home. He then expensed the whole experience to the magazine. The company reluctantly paid for it all, but Abercrombie helped out by selling the plane and giving the proceeds back to his employer.
Although he was fluent in German, English, French, Spanish and Arabic, Abercrombie was frequently described by friends as a man’s man, one who could ride a camel, smoke a pipe and write off AK-47s on his expense report as “auto insurance.” Married to National Geographic photographer Lynn Abercrombie for 53 years, Tom and his wife often worked on assignments together.
Abercrombie won the 1954 Newspaper Photographer of the Year award and the 1958 Magazine Photographer of the Year award; he was the first photographer to win both honors. After retiring, he taught geography at George Washington University and spent his spare time building a skipjack by hand. His life and work were chronicled in the documentary “White Tiger: The Adventures of Thomas J. Abercrombie,” which was shown at the New York Film and Video Festival in 2004.
Abercrombie died on April 3 of complications following heart surgery. He was 75.
Watch a Trailer for “White Tiger”
View Posters of Abercrombie’s Work

1 2 3 4 5 6 19 20