On John Decker, Who Painted W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria

The legendary Hollywood character John Decker (Leopold Von Der Decken, 1895-1947) was born on this day. Many of my New York friends live and die by dreams of the Algonquin Roundtable. Personally, I find myself much more drawn to the theatrical and bohemian crowd whom the visual artist Decker drank and debauched with in his Hollywood painting studio, the so-called Bundy Drive Boys, a group that included W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Sadakichi Hartmann (whose birthday it also is today), Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, et al. The finest account of their shenanigans is the Gene Fowler book Minutes of the Last Meeting. 

Decker was as remarkable as his more famous guests. The Von Der Decken family home was Castle Ringelheim in Salzgitter, Germany. His grandfather was a famous painter and a member of the German Reichstag. His father was a newspaperman; his mother an opera singer. John drifted into the arts himself, first as a theatrical scenery painter in London, then as a cartoonist for the New York Evening World throughout the ’20s. After this came Hollywood, where he continued to design sets, but became famous for his portraits and caricatures. The most famous may be his picture of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria, which hung in Chasen’s Restaurant for many years, and he did the paintings that are at the heart of the Edward G. Robinson noir thriller Scarlet Street (1945). Over the years he also painted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, and John Wayne.

It’s not hard to glean what drew these guys together — love for visual art was one of the keys. Barrymore had started out as a painter, Hartmann was an art critic, Fields dabbled in cartooning, and Carradine had also begun as a set designer. And a few, like Hartmann and Fields, also had German roots. And then there is the serious, epic, and pathological pursuit of drink, at once hilarious and tragic. I’ve always found it interesting that Decker, Fields and Barrymore died within months of each other. Surely, as a result of the same bad batch of poisonous rotgut, consumed years previous, finally pickling them at the same time like a ticking time bomb.

This 1946 portrait by Decker of Hartmann, now at the Laguna Art Museum, says it all don’t you think? They all even grew to look alike, pencil thin mustaches, and the vague, glazed over look of men habitually befogged by Demon Alcohol. One of life’s tragicomic mysteries.

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