Wednesday, February 29, 2012



Gertrude Cato
In her apartment in the Dakota, Ruth Ford had many paintings hanging on the walls; so many visitors often commented to me that they felt as if they were visiting a fine art gallery. Ruth and her husband Zachary Scott had enjoyed collecting art for many years, and they enjoyed the friendship of many artists as well.

Potrait of Charles Henri Ford by Gertrude Cato
The walls of Ruth’s apartment were especially full of paintings by Pavel Tchelitchew, the longtime companion of her brother, Charles Henri Ford. But there were also many paintings on the walls done by Gertrude Cato, Charles and Ruth’s mother. Ruth had her mother’s paintings hanging in most of the rooms in her apartment, very special paintings that never got much attention. Gertrude Cato did have one show in New York, at the Blanche Bonestall Gallery in 1946, but other than that, the paintings remained part of the Fords’ private collection at home, and over the last fifty years they have not been seen outside the Dakota.

The paintings are all signed “Gertrude Cato.” She never used her married name of Ford when signing any of her work. Some of her paintings are of cats, particularly interesting-looking, surreal cats, whose faces became very familiar to me with over the many years of seeing them in Ruth’s apartment. In addition to the paintings on the walls, Ruth had many more of her mother’s paintings and drawings stored away, some unopened since the days when they were wrapped in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Painting by Gertrude Cato
Gertrude Cato was born Minnie Gertrude Cato in Copiah County, Mississippi, on September 27th, 1886, to Henry and Ruth Higdon Cato. She married Charles Lloyd Ford in 1907, and their two children were named after her parents. The Fords owned several hotels in various towns in the South, so while they might not have been fabulously wealthy, they were certainly not poor and Charles and Ruth both went to good private schools as children.

Gertrude always enjoyed the pleasure of traveling and she had a taste for adventure that she shared with Charles and Ruth. She first took them to visit New York City some time in the early 1920s, and it has been written that there were arguments between Gertrude and her husband, Charles Lloyd Ford, over her spending money on frivolous trips that would have been better spent somewhere else, or saved. She was not a typical mother of her time, and her bohemian spirit was inherited by her children. When they were grown, She loved spending time with them, in interesting places. Pavel Tchelitchew gave her painting lessons and encouraged her work, which flourished, although it doesn’t appear that she was particularly ambitious about “success” but painted more for the pleasure of doing it. As an artist Gertrude Cato lived in the shadow of her much more successful children, but there is no evidence to suggest that she minded.

Not long ago Jonathan Rabinowitz, publisher of Turtle Point Press came to visit along with Rose Burlingham, who is presenting an exhibit of Gertrude Cato’s paintings in the gallery of the Harlem Jazz and Gospel Getaway on West 123rd Street. We opened some of the wrapped drawings that had been stored for so long the wrapping paper had turned brittle and crumbled as we opened them. Thankfully the bright, lively drawings inside were just as pristine as the day they were wrapped. Gertrude Cato’s style is full of color and the pictures are like dreams. One can look into the face of one of the cats and see Charles Henri Ford’s eyes. Jonathan Rabinowitz looked at a painting of three faces together and guessed that they were meant to be Gertrude, Charles and Ruth.

Gertrude, Charles and Ruth
When I forwarded to my email list the press release from Rose Burlingham announcing the show, including a photograph of Gertrude taken by Pavel Tchelitchew, I got an interesting response from a close friend of Ruth’s in Mississippi, named Maude Schuyler Clay. She is an established artist herself, with some of her beautiful photographs of the Mississippi Delta published in a recent book called Delta Land. In her email she wrote:

“Thank you so much for sending the notice about Gertrude Cato. Do you know I have never even seen a picture of Mrs. Ford? And the one you sent is fabulous. This was the lady that my grandmother (Minnie Maude McMullen May) was so frightened of; that her daughter, Ann May (later Eggleston, the mother of William Eggleston the photographer) would be "corrupted" by Mrs. Ford in NYC. She said Mrs. Ford "lived like a gypsy." Of course Ann was fascinated when she lived with Ruth and C.H. and Mrs. Ford in NYC and went to Columbia. She said it was possibly the most interesting bunch of people she ever met in her life. Of course it sounds like it would have been!”

From the stories about Gertrude Cato Ford that remain, it seems that nothing she did was ordinary. She once told Charles about the night that she gave birth to Ruth. She was having a dinner party, and in the middle of it, she got up, told the cook to keep things going, and went to her room to have the baby. She said her guests could hardly believe it. 

In 1967, a woman named Barbara Izard (co-author of a book called Requiem for a Nun, Onstage and Off about the play that was written for Ruth Ford by William Faulkner) visited Hazelhurst, Mississippi, where Charles and Ruth were children. There she met a relative of Gertrude Cato’s named Mrs. Gillis Cato who was then in her eighties. Mrs. Gillis Cato told Barbara Izard that she remembered Gertrude as an actress. And she said that in her opinion, Gertrude was more talented as an actress than her daughter Ruth.

It is difficult to find much written about Gertrude Cato, but looking at her many paintings and drawings shows a person of imagination and cleverness. She seems to have been a true free spirit, perhaps something of an eccentric. In a diary entry from December 1950, published in Water From a Bucket A Diary 1948-1957 (Turtle Point Press), Charles Henri Ford writes, “Mother says she’ll buy a cattle-ranch or angora goat farm in Arizona if I want to help run it,” adding a few entries later, in February, that Tchelitchew called Gertrude “a great dreamer.” It is easy to imagine that when Charles decided to start his little magazine, Blues, at age 16, he must have had lots of encouragement from his mother.
A Painting by Gertrude Cato

 In 1957, some months after her death, Charles described a colorful dream he had in his diary: “Mother and I were sightseeing (dreamed last night). Was it an open car we were in? She turned her head to look at something and lifted her tight-fitting hat, which came off with her hair (false hair): underneath hat and hair was her close-cropped head. Further down the road along came a man on an enormous pig; he was wearing an Indian Chief’s headdress. I wondered why Mother had had her air clipped: I asked her but she wouldn’t tell me.”

If she could have seen that dream, perhaps Charles’s mother might have turned it into a painting. Charles and Ruth were very close to her until her untimely death in an accident while traveling in Mexico, on January 28th, 1956. And her presence was always around them as long as they both lived. I hope you will join me in celebrating the extraordinary talent of Gertrude Cato at the opening of her exhibition on Wednesday the 29th of February 2012. You can schedule a viewing appointment by calling (646) 229-0998.

-Indra Tamang


Friday, February 17, 2012

RIP Whitney Houston


In memory of Whitney Houston : 9 August 1963 - 11 February 2012

I felt very sad to hear about the death of Whitney Houston last week. She was not someone I knew personally, and I never went to her live performance, but her voice was so present for such a long time that she felt very familiar to me.

I haven’t been in a movie house for years, but I remember going to see “The Bodyguard” when it came out, where she sang the song “I will Always Love You.”  I liked her voice very much. It was an extraordinary voice with such a reach. I would hear her on the radio in the car, or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, in the grocery store, almost everywhere. Her voice was unmistakable.

In the 1980s in Nepal, Charles and I used to listen to "Voice of America" on the radio and they’d play a lot of music from the United States. They’d play Blondie, Patti Smith, Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, and the whole break dancing craze at the time made it all the way to Nepal. I remember going to see a Nepalese break dance performance in Kathmandu. There was a huge crowd and I saw Nepalese men break dancing to Michael Jackson music. In New York there was Studio 54, and while the party was going on, there was always Donna Summer singing “Hot Stuff.”  And I remember being in Greece, where there was a station that played American Country Western music, which is where I first heard Dolly Parton sing “9 to 5” and I liked her too. I listened to an interview with Dolly Parton and I liked the way she spoke in her southern accent. Something about the way she talked reminded me a little of Mae West; “Come up and see me sometime.”  Another singer I liked was Celine Dion.

Thinking about Whitney Houston has made me think of all these other singers, but that’s what happens. They are all cultural icons. Losing one calls to mind the others. I think Whitney was my favorite. She’s the one I’d always hear in the car; her soothing voice, and it makes me sad to think of her dying so young.

When I heard the news of her death, I realized that I had assumed she was much older than what she was: just 48. Somehow I thought that she must have been at least 60, perhaps because she seems to have existed on this earth for a very long time. I understand that she struggled with alcohol and maybe drugs, and that probably played a part in her demise. When I read that she was found in her bath, it made me think of stories I’ve heard on occasion about people falling asleep in a hot bath and just not waking up. That happens, where a person relaxes in hot water and their heart stops. If you have a sedative in your system it’s probably more likely to happen. But life and death is mystery. Charles used to say, “Die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”  Whitney had her troubles, but I imagine that she probably did leave a beautiful corpse.

I know I join many in being thankful to her for all the music she’s left for us. I will pray for her departed soul and for her eternal life, and also for her mother, her daughter and her family.

- Indra Tamang

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Memory of Charles Henri Ford

Charles in Paris.
Photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1935

Today, February 10th, 2012, is 104th years from the day Charles Henri Ford was born. Not a day passes by that I do not think of him and appreciate him. I live surrounded by all the many things he made and wrote. Happy birthday Charles. The vitality of life continues, and you’ll never be forgotten.

-        Indra Tamang
     February 10th, 2012.