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 Ben Ali Haggin  (1882 - 1951)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: portraits of society women, horses and theatre performers, stage design

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Ben Ali Haggin
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
James Ben Haggin. Portrait painter and stage designer, most commonly referred to as "Ben Ali Haggin." James Ben Ali Haggin (III) was born in New York City, the son of James Ben Ali Haggin Jr. (1853-1891) and Lee Wood (1856-1934). He was the namesake of his illustrious grandfather James Ben Ali Haggin Sr. (1822-1914), the famous turfman and California mining millionaire.

Ben Haggin attended the Pomfret School in Connecticut and later the Thatcher School in Ohai, California close to where his grandfather had lived. In New York, he studied under the noted educator Frederick S. Grow (1868-1933). His art training began with travel to Munich, Bavaria where he studied at the Academy there, later returning to this country to study at the Art Students League in New York City.

He married Ms. Margaret Faith Robinson (1883-1958) in November of 1903 at the Little Church Around the Corner. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Robinson of New York City and Narragansett, Rhode Island. Soon after their return from their honeymoon, Haggin began to paint portraits professionally.

He began exhibiting formally in the United States at the National Academy of Design in New York City, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C., in the year 1908. Also in that year his portrait of Ms. Mary Garden as Thais, which caused great excitement at the time, was exhibited in the windows of The Knoedler Art Gallery. At that time Haggin was working out of a studio at 27 West 67th Street. In 1910 he exhibited again at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The MacDowell Club at 108 West 55th Street invited Haggin and several of his contemporaries to exhibit there in November of 1911. In addition to Haggin, some of the other artists who were included in the exhibition were George Bellows (1882-1925), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Jonas Lie (1880-1940), and Irving Wiles (1861-1948). This exhibition was one of the first to attempt to dispense with the "Jury System" of selecting works by allowing a committee of participating artists to determine whose work should be hung.

In 1912 Haggin was elected as an Associate Academician (A.N.A.) of the National Academy of Design and became a founding member of the National Association of Portrait Painters. Their first exhibition was held in March of that year where Haggin exhibited two works, portraits of "Miss Marjorie Curtis" and "Mrs. Wilfrid Buckland." Later that year a selection of Haggin's portraits where exhibited at the Glaenzer Galleries and featured works that were called " . . . brilliant and vivacious to the verge of unreality." They included portraits of Mrs. Leo Everett, Ms. Kitty Gordon, Mademoiselle Rita Sacchetto, Otis Skinner, Margaret Lee, and others.

In February of 1913, Glaenzer Galleries assembled a special exhibition of "Women's Portraits by Modern Masters," including works by Ben Ali Haggin, James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), and John Singer Sargent (1865-1925). The National Association of Portrait Painters exhibition, held in 1913 at Knoedler's Art Gallery, included Haggin's portrait entitled Mrs. George M. Landers.

Ben Ali Haggin was enjoying a successful career when he heard of his grandfather's death in 1914. With that death, life would become much easier as he was named as one of the primary heirs to his grandfather's $20,000,000+ fortune [Note-His grandfather's estate in Kentucky was later sold to the noted art collector Joseph E. Widener (1872-1943)]. Later that year he and his wife Faith separated, and Haggin went to a sanitarium in Connecticut to recuperate. In 1916 they were officially divorced. Soon after Haggin married his second wife, the actress Helen "Bonnie Glass" Roche (1888-1980), and they moved to a new residence at Roslyn, Long Island, New York while retaining a New York City residence as well as Haggin's studio, now located at 116 Central Park South.

In addition to painting, Ben Ali Haggin became well known for his incredible ability to design society "tableaux vivants" and to decorate the many important balls held each season in New York City. One of the first, which took place in 1915, was the "The Children's Revolution Ball" in which society children dressed and performed in the guise of their revolutionary ancestors. Haggin designed several tableauxs for this special event which raised funds for French soldiers and their families engulfed by World War I.

In 1917 Haggin entered into stage design with his work on the Red Cross's National Red Cross Pageant and Drama, which was held at the Metropolitan Opera House.

The year 1918 brought a flurry of activity, including service during America's involvement in World War I. Haggin's portraits were the subject of an exhibition to benefit French artists through the Fraternite des Artistes and Appui des Artistes at the gallery of Jacques Seligmann and Company in New York. Some of the portraits on display included those depicting Mrs. Ben Ali Haggin, Maxine Elliott, Frances White, Laurette Taylor, J. Hartley Manners, and Edward Vincent Ireland. Haggin also designed part of the United States Navy Music Festival's "entertainments" at the Metropolitan Opera House in June of that year. July brought a new venture, designing a tableaux for Florenz "Flo" Ziegfeld's (1869-1932) Midnight Frolic at the New Amsterdam Theater. This would be the first of many designs for Ziegfeld.

Like many other wealthy socialites of the day, Haggin often found himself in a position of having spent too much money while waiting for the regular distributions from his trust funds. This led to lawsuits. In 1918 he was sued for over $7,000 by the Aeolian Organ Company for failing to pay outstanding bills. This would just be the first of many suits to come. In 1919 it would be followed by a claim of nearly $5,000 by the jewelry company Sigmund Wyler and an additional $4,000 claim from a dressmaker, antiques dealer, and motion picture apparatus company.

He continued with his work as a stage designer with "Ziegfeld's Follies," which advertised their feature "Ben Ali Haggin's Sensational 31 Follies Picture Show" in June of 1919.

Haggin continued to work as a painter during this time as well. In 1921 he participated in an exhibition at the Arts Guild Galleries which featured works that incorporating painting into architectural design. A number of mantel and over-mantel creations were shown, including some designed by Haggin, Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928), Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872-1930), and Stephen Haweis (1878-1969).

By 1922, Haggin and his second wife were separated. During this time he continued to work with Flo Ziegfeld in creating fantastic tableaux's and "living pictures." His work for Ziegfeld would continue to be popular throughout the 1920's. Haggin's legal troubles continued with judgments against him mounting to over $9,500 for unpaid bills from silver companies, jewelers, and clothiers.

Haggin's most important tableaux and ball designs would be for the "Beaux Arts Ball," which was organized to support the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. Haggin worked to design and stage the ball beginning in 1924, a position in which he would serve frequently through 1933. For the 1924 ball he recreated the famed Parisian La Ville Lumiere at New York City's posh Astor Hotel. In December Haggin left on a recuperative trip to Italy and Algiers aboard the famous liner, The France.

After an extended trip to Paris, Haggin returned to New York in 1926 where he painted the portraits of Bille Burke Ziegfeld (1885-1970) and Patricia Ziegfeld (b. 1916), the wife and daughter of Flo Ziegfeld. He also began work on a new painted scene for Ziegfeld's Follies entitled The Glorification of the American Girl.

All seemed to be going well, but in 1928 disaster struck. On April 14, 1928 a huge fire engulfed a building on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Sixth Street containing the studios of several artists, including that of Ben Ali Haggin. Haggin was able to remove most of his paintings and pile them in the hall of the neighboring Sherwood Studio Building where they remained under police guard. At the time, the very large collection of paintings were valued by Haggin in excess of $3,000,000.

In 1928, Haggin and his second wife finally divorced and soon after he married, for the third time, to the well known dancer Mary McLoughlin Colahan (1907-2003). He had met Ms. Colahan in 1925 when he visited Italy to paint her portrait. After their marriage they maintained a residence in the city as well as in Tuxedo Park, New York.

Not long after another successful Beaux Arts Ball in 1929, Haggin again found himself in trouble with the law. This time the noted firm of Black, Starr, & Frost presented a claim in excess of $41,000 against the artist for a series of expensive jewelry purchases.

Even with his legal problems, Haggin continued to devote himself to the arts. In November Haggin's portrait entitled Mary was included in the National Academy of Design's winter exhibition. The portrait was described as having a face of "brilliant charm." Later that year he and his new wife also attended the opening of the "Cafe Bonaparte," which included designs by fellow artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953).

In 1931 Haggin was the featured artist at a exhibition at the Levy Gallery where his portrait of the actress Gertrude Lawrence, star of "Private Lives," was shown. In September of that year he was invited to participate in an exhibition at the newly renovated Sears & Roebuck Galleries in Washington, D. C. along with fellow artists Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942), Jerry Farnsworth (1895-1983), Albert Herter (1871-1950), and Herbert Hooven (1898-1979).

All throughout the 1930's Haggin either helped design new stage sets or participated in arranging other private balls (he designed the Metropolitan Opera Balls from 1933-35). But he also continued to paint. In January of 1936 the National Academy of Design held the first ever portrait exhibition in it's entire 111 year history. Mounted in the American Fine Arts Building in New York, it featured a number of important works by Paul Trebilcock (1902-1981), Harry W. Watrous (1857-1940), Gertrude Fiske (1878-1961), and, of course, Ben Ali Haggin. His portrait of Mrs. Harrison Williams was considered one of the stars of the show.

During the later 1930's and through the mid 190's most of Haggin's time was spent attending the fabulous parties and fetes that New York Society arranged. It was also time to enjoy activities with his two young sons from his third marriage, Jonathan Ben Ali Haggin and James Lee Haggin.

In October 1944 Haggin participated in a special exhibition held by the School Art League in honor of its 35th Anniversary. Titled "Portraits of Children by American Artists," it was held at the Gallery of Portraits Incorporated at 460 Park Avenue. Besides Haggins's works, those of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Robert Brackman (1898-1980), William Glackens (1870-1938), and many others were shown.

By 1951 Ben Ali Haggin was nearly seventy and suffering from poor health. He remained in New York City as his health continued to fail, eventually being moved to the well-known Doctors Hospital. On September 2, 1951 he died there at the age of 69.

In addition to those mentioned above, Haggin is known to have painted portraits of Mr. & Mrs. William Baylis, Mrs. George Biddle, Lord Birkenhead, Rev. Roelif H. Brooks, Madame de Cerami, Arnold Daly, Juliette Day, Gordon Grant, Ellen Farnsworth Loomis, J. Hartley Manners (the noted playwright), Edward MacDowell, Eileen Riggin, Bishop Herbert Shipman, Mrs. Addison Taylor, and many others. He also painted a number of horse portraits, a connection to his grandfather. These included portraits of the horses "Twenty Grand" and "The Porter."

He was a member of the National Academy of Design, National Association of Portrait Painters, Society of American Artists, and The Society of Independent Artists. He belonged to the Knickerbocker, Tuxedo, and National Arts Clubs, as well as being a Mason. He was a veteran member of the Twelfth Regiment N. Y. N. G. and was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Greek Royal Order of The Holy Sepulchre. His works are held in many public and private collections.

Written and submitted May 2005 by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director
Southold Historical Society, Southold, New York

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Ben Haggin is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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