When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter


In the meantime, Harry Knight had said to me one day, “Are you eligible for relief?” I told him I certainly was, that I had no source of income except my weekly paycheck from the project. Up to that time I had been employed by the project on a “nonrelief ” basis, which meant that I was not subject to investigation of my financial need. Harry explained to me that if I were “certified” as being in need, my job would be more secure; the “nonrelief” category was subject to dismissal before relief workers were presented with the dreaded “pink slip,” which was the official notification of being fired. I applied for relief status, was investigated and certified. I told the investigator the truth except for one small fact that I concealed—that my wife had a small part-time job as night supervisor at the Cooper Union Museum. She had had this position since the days when she was a student in the Cooper Union Art School, long before our marriage; she loved the museum; the job didn’t pay enough, remotely, to support her. I saw no point in mentioning it. But it wasn’t long until the relief investigator called and, after a few polite routine questions, said to me, “This morning on my way down here I passed a Woolworth’s on Lexington Avenue where I saw an artist painting in the window as part of some sales promotion. Couldn’t you do something like that?” I told her I might be able to. I admitted I had never tried. I attempted to say something about the importance of the work I wasengaged in. Then she calmly asked, “And what about your wife’s job at Cooper Union? You said that neither of you had any source of income other than the WPA.” I had no answer to this, and a few days later I received a pink slip.

I went down to King Street to try to reclaim my nonrelief status, but I knew this would take time. The whole project had been under fire recently. There had been a reduction in its funds, and many artists had been laid off. The response had been demonstrations culminating in a sit-in at the King Street office (a premonition of the sixties!), and the police had staged an attack, dragging the protesters from the building. The Washington office of the WPA had appointed an Army officer, Colonel Brehon Somervell, to direct the New York WPA, and the office in King Street feared the worst. My own situation seemed desperate. My murals had been rolled up and put on the shelf for weeks. I had no place to work; I had no job.

I went into the big factorylike room where dozens of project clerical workers had their desks and saw Mrs. McMahon there. This was unusual—she rarely emerged from her private lair. I discovered that she was interviewing the nonrelief contingent of the project. I saw them called to her desk and heard her ask each in turn how their projects were developing and how much time they estimated they would need to complete their work. Suddenly I lost my head and charged up to her desk, pushing the others aside. I began to shout and curse. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I yelled that it was a god-damned outrage that my project should be stalled like this while these others who were doing far less important work were coddled in this obscene manner— or words to that effect. The office force froze. Secretaries stood up and craned their necks. I raved on. “Arsenic and Old Face,” as her assistants called her, stared at me for a moment in silence, then gave me her famous double-whammy. Her left eyelid came unhinged and began to flutter spasmodically. This device had unseated stronger men than I, but I was carried along on a wave of madness. I continued to curse loudly, and Mrs. McMahon retired to her office. The crowd looked at me in silence.

I was about to turn and go, resigned to my fate, when someone came to me and said, “Mrs. McMahon wants to see you in her office immediately.” I thought I might as well get it over with then and there, and I followed to the inner sanctum. I hardly noticed the little man in the dark suit seated in the corner. She sat at her big desk and let me stand. “Mr. Laning,” she said, “what was it you were saying to me just now in the outer office?” Suddenly the whole wave swept over me again and I became vituperative. “You let me wait outside,” I said, “begging to be allowed to continue my work, while you interview these others. I’m only interested in one thing in this world and that’s to be allowed to get back to my job and carry it through"—and then I began to rant and rave again. She interrupted me, saying, “Mr. Laning, this language in my office would warrant my severing your connection with this project!” I answered that if I couldn’t do my job, I wouldn’t give a damn. “You may go now,” she said, and I left the office.

Walking home, feeling defeated but purged, I reached Bleecker Street when I suddenly wondered, “But who was that little man who sat so quietly in the corner of her office while I blew my top?” And then I remembered- this was Colonel Somervell’s representative in the project office, Colonel Somervell’s “spy.” Mrs. McMahon had used me well. The charge the Establishment had been making against the whole project was that the artists were lazy boondogglers. My rebellion had offended her, but she had quickly risen above personal affront and had made me grist to her mill. Colonel Somervell’s man would report to his superior that a WPA artist had dared all to be allowed to get on with his job.