Today is the birthday of Paul Swan (1883-1972). Swan is not only one of the most remarkable people I’ve come across in my research, but I think it can be safely said that he was one of the most remarkable people of the twentieth century: painter, sculptor, model, dancer, choreographer, poet, movie actor, set and costume designer, and, for a few weeks in 1914 — vaudevillian. Furthermore he functioned in all these areas at the very highest levels, enjoying national and even international reputations in some of these fields.
Born on an Illinois farm, Swan was eccentric from childhood, alienating himself from his family and all of his neighbors by covering his hands and face with burlap sacks as he plowed so that he wouldn’t get a tell-tale farmer’s sunburn. Inheriting artistic talent from his mother and paternal grandfather, he drew pictures every chance he got. When he became a teenager, he made several ill-fated attempts to move to several midwestern cities, taking some art classes, and working at a succession of jobs (window dresser in a department store was one of them). Finally in 1906, he was able to move to New York, where he got a job at Dilineator magazine drawing ladies hats. In 1908, one of his illustrations made the cover of Putnams magazine, and from then on, things started to slowly change for him.
The turning point in Swan’s life came when he painted a life-sized portrait of the actress Alla Nazimova at his own expense on spec, and sent it to her, resulting in a commission for several more, and the chance to live with her for several months. From that moment on, he was a man of the world. A tour of the great capitols of the Renaissance and antiquity fed his art immeasurably, and inspired what he was probably best known for in his lifetime, a series of self-created dances based on classical Greek and Egyptian poses, in costumes he designed himself. (Although untrained as a dancer, at this stage he sought out Isadora Duncan and others to study with). When he came back to the states, he toured the country with this unique dances, to great acclaim.
And this is how Swan happened to be booked by Loney Haskell to play Hammerstein’s Victoria for several weeks in 1914 billed as “The Most Beautiful Man in the World.” Audiences were confused by him at first, and were apt to laugh at his performances (this type of reaction was to dog him from some quarters all his life). But critics praised him, and, once he began lecturing audiences from before the footlights, they came around, too. Meanwhile, his own visual art was winning prizes and commissions all over the world, and he himself, with his Dorian Gray-like visage, became the muse of many an artist, as well. In addition to the many portraits he sat for, he was to appear in a number of Hollywood movies, including Diana the Huntress (1916),The Ten Commandments (1923) and Ben Hur (1925).
Paul Swan continued to be celebrated for his visual art into his old age; as late as 1960 he was featured in Life magazine. Unfortunately though he seemed to be in denial about the fact that he had aged, and became something like a local figure of fun, a New York character. With badly dyed hair and a great deal of make-up he continued to perform his Greek dances (in full toga and sandal costumes) weekly for small audiences well into his 80s. It was at this stage of his life that Andy Warhol made several films of him: Paul Swan, Camp and Paul Swan I-IV, all made in 1965. Thus, even into his old age he continued to be both an artist and an art object, although the context had shifted incredibly. The idea that he was something of a joke may have hurt his reputation as a serious artist, although he does have his critical admirers today and his paintings and sculptures are in museums all over the world.
(By the way, most of the information for this post came from the excellent 2006 book The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan, from Wilde to Warhol, by Janis and Richard Londraville).
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, and eccentric performing artists like Paul Swan, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever informative books are sold.