My Dad, the Famous Painter?

Holly Longuski's quest to find out whether she's the daughter of Howard Chandler Christy brought her to a greater understanding of her mother, one of Christy's models.
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Howard Chandler Christy and Elise Ford with his Signing of the Constitution in the background. (courtesy Holly Longuski)

The name Holly Chandler Christy, the nom de plume of Holly Longuski, pays homage to the famous illustrator and painter Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952). It also hints at what may have been a hidden identity for him, and for Longuski.

Longuski's mother, Elise Ford, modeled as a nude wood nymph for Christy’s eye-popping 1936 Café des Artistes mural (recently restored for The Leopard at Café des Artistes in New York). An aspiring actress who later became a respected painter, Ford was also Christy’s student and research assistant—and, Longuski believes, Christy’s secret lover.

Christy and Longuski with her grandparents in Freeport.

While having a mistress was fairly common, unwed motherhood was frowned upon in proper society. But Holly—as a child, teen, and adult—long wanted to solve the mystery of her missing father, and suspected that Christy, who she adoringly called “Poppy,” was more than a doting family friend. The resulting quest is now the basis for her as yet unpublished memoir The Secret Life of Howard Chandler Christy, Painter of the Café des Artistes Murals. It’s filled with vivid and impressionistic recollections that offer intimate knowledge of one of America’s leading popular artists.

I am an admirer of Christy’s vibrant art, especially his coverage of the Spanish-American War in drawings of the Rough Riders campaign. His stylish “Christy Girl,” along with Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girls” and Harrison Fisher’s “Fisher Girls,” garnered fame and fortune. He’s also the creator of several iconic WWI posters, and with Ford’s assistance, he painted the historic Signing of the Constitution, which resides in the congressional stairwell of the United States Capitol.

But Lunguski’s book is not about art and illustration per se. I admit I was more voyeuristically intrigued that Christy may have had an alternate life.

Christy and Ford on the Atlantic coast

The man with the “wild, white hair,” as Christy is called throughout Longuski’s manuscript, spent most of his evenings in Ford’s living room dispensing parental warmth, though the young Holly was not permitted to call him daddy. Lunguski’s mother, uncles, aunts, and cousins, and Christy himself—who had a second wife with whom he lived, and daughter from a previous marriage—all refused to confirm her suspicions, instead offering alternative explanations for her parentage.

Longuski recalls that she grew up calling herself Holly Morris, and her mother referred to herself as Mrs. Morris at Holly’s school. But on the day of her first marriage, she saw her birth certificate for the first time and discovered that her maiden name was Ford. “What a shock,” Longuski says. “The fictitious name of my father on my birth certificate was Benjamin Carlyle Ford. Carlyle is a family name on my mother's father's side. It goes back to 1600s in Lapland. My maternal grandfather was Swedish. You see, it's complicated. I didn't know who I was.”

A Christy mural at Café des Artistes (courtesy Margot Dempsey)

After reading the first chapter, I was hooked, especially knowing that for Holly, Christy’s Café des Artistes murals represented a Pandora’s box. She tells me, “until the night before Poppy’s death, I had never set foot in the Hotel des Artistes or its Café.” Nor was she encouraged to, lest she see her mother Elise baring all.

But towards the end of his life, Christy asked Lunguski to return to Manhattan from Daycroft School in Stamford, Connecticut. Lunguski recalls that although he was bedridden, with her mother sitting beside him, “That night he got up, dressed himself, and took me to dinner without mother. I remember the fear in her eyes when she saw us leave together—a fear I saw repeated in the mural she appears in titled The Parrot Girl, beneath which Poppy and I ate our last meal together. It was the most devastating night of my life when he told me goodbye. Since then, going back to visit the murals has marked a major change in my life.” But even at this last supper, Christy refused to confirm Holly’s suspicions. 

Christy and Lunguski

"My mother never admitted that Poppy was my father, even when she knew she was dying of cancer in 1963," she says. It wasn’t until Lunguski was 35 years old with her own children, during a trip to visit relatives, that anyone offered testimony that supported her hunch.  It came from her uncle Jim, the husband of her mother’s oldest sister­: “I ran to meet him, and before he had time to reach the house, I shouted, ‘Was Poppy my father?’ His answer stunned me. ‘Of course he was. Your grandmother planned the whole thing.’”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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