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Around the Foothills

'They thought if anything ever happened . . . I'd protect them because I knew Hitler."

August 18, 1988|DOUG SMITH

The last few years haven't been especially kind to Mt. Washington artist Noel Quinn, who describes himself, almost in dead earnest, as the last survivor of the Lost Generation.

A series of strokes and related ailments has left Quinn a semi-prisoner in his living room chair, surrounded by hundreds of paintings and illustrations that sum up his six decades as an artist.

Quinn has lived the last 38 years in the secluded, modern wood-paneled house he designed for himself above San Rafael Avenue, overlooking vistas of Los Angeles.

His paintings of local settings and such distinctive works as his series on the races now hanging at Santa Anita's Turf Club have established Quinn as a figure in the art of Southern California.

But these days, Quinn has his mind on Europe in the 1930s.

If he could find a good writer to work with him, Quinn said, he would like to commit his memories of the Lost Generation to print.

As he told the story in a recent sitting, it appeared that Quinn was not so much a member of that group of artists and writers who shaped the 20th-Century viewpoint as he was an astute observer who went looking for it and who found it, more or less in its twilight.

"I knew what I was doing, and I was very fortunate," Quinn said.

With equal pride, Quinn recalled his afternoons with Picasso and friends in Paris cafes and his interview with Adolf Hitler in the home of a wealthy German family.

Speaking in a voice that was painfully slow and scratchy--the result of a stroke--Quinn said Hitler sought him out as a fellow artist.

"He was more interested in meeting me than I was in meeting him," Quinn said.

There is a convoluted story behind the meeting. During Christmas of 1936, Quinn, having made his way to Europe on a fellowship, traveled to Berlin to visit a German exchange student he had met in college in Rhode Island. It happened that her father, Putzi Hanfstaengl, had put up the penniless Hitler on his arrival from Austria.

"So, when Hitler came into power, as far as he was concerned, the Hanfstaengls could do no wrong."

The rising world miscreant asked to meet the 21-year-old house guest because of his slighted efforts in art, Quinn said.

Hitler had recently been rejected by the Royal Academy in Vienna and wanted another opinion on his own water colors, Quinn said.

The young American's opinion was that Hitler was no artist.

"They were like large postcards," he said of Hitler's paintings. "He was a reporter rather than an artist. You know what a reporter is, in my opinion? One who doesn't see beyond what a photograph reveals. You have to take what you see and say something about it."

Hitler was a follower of the occult, Quinn said, as was Dora Maar, another figure in his own past.

"You know who Dora Maar was? Well, Dora Maar was Picasso's most famous model. She was a friend of mine. It was through her that I met Picasso.

"I've just told you about Hitler. Now I'll tell you about Picasso.

"He used to work late until 2 or 3 in the morning. . . . That left Dora free, you know, for the morning. So I used to meet Dora at Fouquets. . . . Picasso, I think, trusted me because I was a Catholic and because she was a Catholic. And I guess he thought I was a nice guy."

Illuminati of the Lost Generation swirled through Quinn's stories. He was befriended by Isadora and Raymond Duncan, the extravagant dancer and her brother. He worked with Raoul Dufy on the Power and Light mural for the Paris Exhibition. He attended the 1937 funeral of Gerald Kelley, patron of the arts as director of an influential New York gallery.

"He wanted a pauper's funeral," Quinn said. "There were only about eight people at the funeral. Of course, I was one of them. I was surprised, a because one of the eight was the Duchess of Windsor. She was harder to see then than Reagan is now. She had married Edward in June, and here she was, at Thanksgiving, at Gerald Kelley's funeral. Isn't that something?"

Quinn knew that his stories sound fanciful.

"You know, it's hard for people to believe this," he said. Speaking of Picasso, he said: "Why would a man of his reputation and snobbishness go to a kid?"

He had his own theory.

"You know, I think another reason why the artists made so much of me, the guys like Braque and Dufy, was because they knew about the Hitler business. This is just in my imagination. They thought if anything ever happened to France and the Germans were to come in, I'd protect them because I knew Hitler."

It did seem almost unbelieveable.

But there on the wall behind him, above his 1937 painting of the Thames River, hung a photograph of two familiar faces in a Paris cafe: a world-weary Picasso and a beaming young Quinn, wide-shouldered in a tweed jacket, sitting erectly in a cane chair.

Beside it was the framed wrapping that the photo had been mailed in, in a large, bold hand that could not be mistaken.

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