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Stephen Longstreet, 94; Jazz Artist, Writer of 100 Books

February 22, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen Longstreet, an artist, screenwriter and author of more than 100 fiction and nonfiction books, has died. He was 94.

Longstreet, a longtime Beverly Hills resident whose best-known artwork provides a firsthand chronicle of the dynamic and colorful world of jazz during the 20th century, died Wednesday of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at Century City Hospital.

An artist by training, Longstreet turned to writing to make a living during the Depression. His career as a writer, which continued into his 80s, was as varied as it was long.

He wrote detective novels in the mid-1930s under a variety of pen names before writing fiction under his own name, including "The Pedlocks" and "The Flesh Peddlers."

He also wrote radio scripts, served as a film critic for the Saturday Review and wrote syndicated book reviews.

Under contract at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, Longstreet wrote "The Jolson Story" and also "Stallion Road," based on his novel of the same name and starring Ronald Reagan. He later wrote "The Helen Morgan Story," and as a television writer in the '50s and '60s he wrote for "Playhouse 90."

He even wrote the book for the hit 1947 Broadway musical "High Button Shoes," which was based on his novel, "The Sisters Liked Them Handsome."

Longstreet's extensive list of nonfiction works includes "San Francisco, '49 to '06," and "Chicago: 1860 to 1920," as well as "A Century on Wheels, the Story of Studebaker" and a Jewish cookbook that he wrote with his wife and occasional collaborator, Ethel.

A number of his books dealt with jazz, including "Jazz From A to Z: A Graphic Dictionary," his 100th book, published in 1989.

The world of jazz was a constant theme throughout Longstreet's life.

Born in New York City in 1907, he grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was introduced to ragtime and jazz by future singing legend Paul Robeson, then an All-American football player at Rutgers University.

Their friendship began in 1918, when Robeson spotted the 11-year-old Longstreet sketching him as he practiced dropkicking.

In his 1986 book "Storyville to Harlem: Fifty Years in the Jazz Scene," Longstreet explained that Robeson made him "aware of the gap between the music taught on paper and the 'razzmatazz' sounds of the scratchy jazz recordings."

While studying at the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York in the late '20s, Longstreet drew the musical scenes in Greenwich Village, the speak-easies and the Cotton Club in Harlem.

"I had hoped to capture with black marks on white paper, this music created by these people, and set down what they looked like, felt and did before they were gone," he later wrote.

By the late '20s, Longstreet was furthering his artistic studies in Paris, where he met Picasso, Matisse and other artists. He also met and drew James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and the American "jazzmen" who were, he later wrote, "escaping from Judge Lynch and the back of the bus."

After returning to the United States in 1930, he traveled south to New Orleans, discovering the "strange and wonderful sounds" of jazzmen playing in Storyville, the city's red light district, and capturing them in his work.

He later drew and painted Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and other jazz greats.

Of Longstreet's depictions of the century's jazz scene, Louis Armstrong wrote in 1971: "You want to feel the smell--the color--the great 'OH MY' feeling of the jazzmen, and stomp around in the smoke and dusk of the joints ... then you just go and locate some of the drawings and paintings of this cat Steve Longstreet and steal you a few."

Over the years, Longstreet's jazz-era works, including collages, watercolors and ink drawings, were exhibited in museums and galleries, including the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution.

But Longstreet's lifelong love of jazz was strictly from an artistic sense, his son, Harry, believes.

"He loved how it looked; he loved the colors," he said Thursday. "I'm not sure he cared that much for the music--I confess to you, I never heard him listen to jazz--but he loved the milieu and just loved to draw and paint it."

In addition to his son, Longstreet is survived by his daughter, Joan Tanney of Los Angeles; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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