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 Jack Levitz  (1896 - 1964)

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Lived/Active: Connecticut/New York / Lithuania      Known for: painting

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BIOGRAPHY for Jack Levitz
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Birth
1896
 
Death
1964

Lived/Active
Connecticut/New York / Lithuania

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Jack Levitz (1896-1964)

In September of 1896 Jack Levitz was born in Vilna, Lithuania.  Or was it New Haven?  Was his name Jack, Abraham, or Ebbitt? Or perhaps Ebbet?  Why was he arrested in 1931?  Does his run-in with the law explain his many courtroom paintings?

Jack Levitz resembled Winston Churchill and his 5’4” frame was typically graced with a cigar.  He seemed to enjoy living on the edge of legality and never achieved commercial success in keeping with his critical acclaim.

As best can be determined the legal name of Jack Levitz was Ebbitt Abraham Levitz, born September 27, 1896 in Vilna, also known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  There was civil unrest in Vilna in 1897 due to agitation for worker’s rights by the General Jewish Workers Union, also known as the bund.  It is likely that Levitz immigrated to the United States with his family around the end of the nineteenth century.

The Levitz family settled in the New Haven, Connecticut area.  In 1918 Levitz registered for the draft and listed his nationality as “alien.”  The 5’4” Levitz weighed 145 pounds.  He answered “no” to all questions pertaining to mechanical aptitude but did affirm that he was a good swimmer.    

Jack Levitz claims to have graduated from Yale University School of Fine Arts, but Yale is only able to confirm that Levitz attended during the 1917-1918 school year.  Finances may have been an issue.  While at Yale Levitz borrowed $100 from the school but took his time paying it back.  During the Depression Yale sent collection agents to get the loan repaid.  Instead of repaying the loan Levitz would convince the collectors to buy him a meal.  “A veteran process server finally collected the debt by going to Levitz’s home each morning and shouting, ‘Why don’t you pay the money you owe Yale?’  The artist paid at the rate of $0.50 per week, and now [1947] has documents signed by the Yale Bursar… to prove that he paid the debt.” [1]    

Levitz and his wife, Florence, lived in Queens, New York in the Jamaica area.  They had two children: Martin (1925) and Mary (1928), who was named after Levitz’ mother, and who may have died in 1922.  Levitz was chronically short of cash and the Depression could not have been easy for his family.  

In 1931 Levitz was arrested and charged with a violation of the sanitary code for transporting a dead body without a license.  It seems that Levitz was operating a cider “stube” (a “saloon”) at 236 New York Avenue in Brooklyn.  One of his clients, Frank Forman, spent most of September 9th drinking hard cider at Levitz’ stube then keeled over, dead.  Levitz placed his customer’s body in a car, then threw the body from the car near Lakewood Avenue in Jamaica where it landed on the sidewalk.  An assistant medical examiner disclosed a fractured skull but attributed Forman’s death to acute alcoholism.  At the time of his arrest Levitz gave his name as Jack Levitz, but it was soon determined that his legal name was Ebbitt A. Levitz.  

Although it does not appear that Levitz was sentenced to jail, he produced several paintings depicting courtroom scenes with judges typically ogling female defendants, perhaps as payback for his encounter with the legal system.  

Levitz received recognition for his art, but seemed always to be on the periphery of the commercially successful art world.  He was a member of and exhibitor with the Queensborough Art Society, Salon of America, and Society of Independent Artists.  His approach to art was very much in what is today called the “Social Realist” style.  Levitz painted people in action at their everyday lives – wrestlers, circus performers, gangsters, and more – and often in caricature.   

In 1929 he won first prize in the art exhibition of the Queensborough Art Society.  His subject was “Fine Feathers.”  In 1936 Levitz had a one-man show at the Lounge Gallery of the Eight Street Playhouse, a Greenwich Village movie theater.  The art critic for the New York Times commented favorably, “Brawny wrestlers and prizefighters are depicted in solid rhythms.  A girl waits at a street corner for her ‘date’ to appear.  It is rugged work with real life sympathetically interpreted.”[5]  

Levitz became friends with William Saroyan, the author of many children’s books.  In 1941 Saroyan wrote a profile of Levitz for Don Freeman’s Newsstand journal.  He describes Levitz as “roly-poly” with a cigar in his mouth.  According to Saroyan who got it from Levitz, Levitz could not recall his original first name and simply made up the name “Ebbet.”  Levitz was prolific and tossed off drawings and casual paintings with ease which he sold for a few dollars.  According to Saroyan, “The paintings he really paints… are usually great.” [10]    

Howard Devree, art critic for The New York Times, wrote favorably about Levitz’ one-man show at the Norlyst Gallery on 59th Street on January 5, 1947.  

"Jack Levitz has sung in oils the saga of Fourteenth Street.  A visitor to the Norlyst Gallery may wonder for a moment if Luks has been reincarnated and if Sloan has returned to the scenes of his youth.  William Saroyan’s forward reassures one that Levitz is very much alive and individual and prolific.  Bar and grill, strip tease, sidewalk characters are the subjects.  When he makes an excursion, as in ‘Queens Goes Republican,’ with its Klan parade, there is gall in the paint.  This is well-painted and stirring contemporary genre.” [7]

Levitz was resourceful at making a living, but true financial success seemed to elude him.  In the late 1930’s he ran a photography studio on 14th Street.  By retouching the prints Levitz made his customers, especially taxi drivers, more attractive, and the trademark of his store became, “Jack Makes ‘Em Handsome.”[12]  Levitz also painted at night and during this time a favorite subject was gangsters – their crimes, weddings, and funerals.  Levitz’ tough, Churchillian look was deceptive.  “It is rather a shock to hear him speak for the first time about the color of the quivering sunlight playing on the new spring leaves which he sees out in Jamaica, Long Island, or about his son, Marty, in the army, this with a half chewed cigar hanging from his mouth.” [12]  Around 1941 Levitz moved his store to 31st Street near Sixth Avenue and created his own “art gallery.”  There he sought to attract “refugees” from Macy’s or Gimble’s – consumers whose pocketbooks were not fat enough to buy famous art, but who could buy the kitsch art that Levitz painted to earn a living.  He painted landscapes of Brittany and other popular scenes from his storefront window, usually drawing a crowd of curious onlookers and potential buyers.

By 1951 Levitz was sharing space with a barbershop opposite the Flatiron building at 5th Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets.   For less than $100 a customer could buy a work of art signed by Ryder, Renoir, or other famous artists.  Levitz “neither claimed nor denied that were genuine… ‘If they were real [he said]… they’d cost thousands of dollars.’” [8]

Ebbitt Abraham [Jack] Levitz died in December, 1964 at the age of 68.  He was survived by his wife, Florence, his son the doctor, Martin, his daughter Mary Kleban, a brother, and grandchildren.

Sources:
1)  Amarillo Daily News, January 6, 1947.
2)  Ancestry.com
3)  New York Times, “Artist Seized, Admits Leaving Body in Park,” September 10, 1931.
4)  New York Times, “Study Painter’s Death,” September 11, 1931.
5)  New York Times, “In Local Art Galleries,” April 19, 1936.
6)  New York Times, February 16, 1941.
7)  New York Times, Devree, Howard, “Artists One by One,” January 5, 1947.
8)  New York Times, Louchheim, Aline B., “Art, Collecting and the Name Mania,” April 29, 1947.
9)  New York Times, Obituary, December 11, 1964.
10)  Newsstand, Saroyan, William, “Jack Levitz,” Winter, 1941.
11)  Oneonta Star, November 26, 1952.
12)  “Side Street Renaissance,” unknown New York City newspaper, 1942.
13)  Yale University School of the Fine Arts.

Information provided by Steven Wasser, American/Jewish Art


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