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.

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 The resulting quest is now the basis for her as yet unpublished memoir The Secret Life of Howard Chandler Christy, Painter of the Café des Artistes Murals.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.’”

Lunguski then discovered her mother’s grey tin file box where she found a trove that included, she says, "home movies of Poppy rocking me in his arms when I was three months old, teaching me to swim at six months, and Poppy and I swimming in the Mettowee at our Old Red Mill in Vermont. There were newsreel clips of Mother and Poppy, the hoisting of the I Am An American World War II poster above Times Square, family photos of Poppy and me and all of us together, and mother’s journal.”

There was still no reference to Christy as father, but she says it seemed that "the answers to my life were in that box."

She also learned that by the time her mother was 10, she was doing solo skits in vaudeville and winning acting awards. “In her twenties, using the stage name of Elise Ford, she modeled for the John Powers Modeling Agency,” Lunguski says. “When the Great Depression hit, Nana introduced her to Christy, who was looking for models for the Café murals.” Lunguski believes the relationship between them began around then, and that Christy’s second wife Nancy tolerated it. “I met Nancy only once—on the night before Poppy’s death,” Holly says. “The receptionist at the Hotel des Artistes announced my arrival and Nancy met me at the door of Poppy’s studio. She was kind to me. She gave me a book with pictures of horses.”

Ford and Lunguski

The same couldn't be said of Christy’s first wife Maebelle Thompson, who Longuski says threw fits over his models coming to the house. “It was during Anthony Comstock’s reign of terror—with his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and his so-called ‘chastity laws’ around 1910—that Poppy was forced to flee to Cuba with his daughter [Natalie] and his sisters. Apparently, Maebelle had sicced the sheriff on him for crimes of drinking and bringing models across the border, which violated the Mann Act for ‘White Slave Trafficking.’”

Elise Ford was never openly referred to as Christy’s mistress. “Not publicly anyway,” Longuski says, adding that an article in the Washington Post did “take note of her presence during Poppy’s three-year battle with Congress for a commission to paint his Signing of the Constitution.”

Things have changed. “Today, no one gets upset about illegitimacy,” Longuski says. “However, as a child, I always sensed that my existence posed a threat to me, Poppy, and Mother. I am still rejected by my cousin for insisting Poppy was my father. Its as if my existence has besmirched her family name. She won’t even talk to me or answer my letters.

“Nonetheless, I’ve had an amazing life ... The arc of my story is the love of a little girl for her father, the eventual rejection of Poppy and Mother as sinners for which I had to suffer, and my eventual love and understanding of them through growth.”