Posts Tagged ‘George Luks Death Bar Fight’

A tender painter’s mysterious death under the el

December 28, 2020

When George Benjamin Luks’ lifeless body was found in the early morning hours of October 29, 1933 under the gritty elevated train near a doorway at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, newspapers reported that this heralded artist and painter died of a heart attack.

George Benjamin Luks by William Glackens, 1899

“A passing policeman, Patrolman John Ginty of the West 47th Street Station, found him collapsed and summoned an ambulance from Flower Hospital,” stated the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in an article the next day. “The arriving physician found him dead of arterio-sclerosis [sic].”

Supposedly, Luks had left the home he shared with his wife on 28th Street around 6 a.m. and headed uptown to watch the sun rise. This story was confirmed by his brother William, a doctor at the Northern Dispensary on Christopher Street.

Luks’ take on Tammany Hall graft, 1899

“He often took long walks in the early hours,” William Luks said, per a 2015 New York Daily News article, “and it was the way he would have wished to die.”

It sounded possible, perhaps. Since he came to New York from Philadelphia in the late 1890s, Luks gained fame first as an illustrator of comics (he took over as the artist for The Yellow Kid) and political cartoons and then for his poetic street scenes, portraits, and urban landscapes.

The jazz clubs and former speakeasies of 52nd Street, 1945

Luks also gained a reputation as a straight shooter who had no love for the decision makers in the art world, someone who preferred to paint the underdogs of New York’s slums, because ​“down there people are what they are,” he said.

But the details of the death of a 66-year-old artist known to be a gutsy and “swashbuckling” (as the Eagle called him) drinker and fighter would be much more mysterious.

“Children Throwing Snowballs,” 1906

Ira Glackens, son of fellow social realist painter William Glackens and friend of Luks’, supposedly revealed the truth in a 1957 biography of his father.

Luks body was found under the elevated near Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, as it was originally reported. But heart disease didn’t kill him: a bar fight did.

Under the Sixth Avenue El at about 53rd Street, 1939

In the biography, Ira Glackens said “[Luks] was knocked cold in a barroom brawl” according to the Daily News. This was in the waning days of Prohibition, when several speakeasies in brownstones lined 52nd Street, aka “Swing Street.”

“The illegal joint could hardly report a drunken row, so Luks—dead or nearly so—probably was carried to the spot where cops found him,” states the Daily News.

George Luks, 1910

Is the barroom death story the right one? We’ll likely never know. But it might be the story Luks himself would have preferred—a tough yet tender artist who went down swinging. He’s a favorite of this site; see more of his work here.

[First image: National Portrait Gallery; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1933; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.6064; fifth image: niceartgallery.com; sixth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.18346; seventh image: Wikipedia]