Fernando Gerassi Story

Fernando was born one year before the century, in Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey.

His ancestors belonged to that group of sephardic Jews chased out of Spain in the XVth century by Torquemada and his Inquisition. After years of wandering the Mediterranean, they had settled in Constantinople, but continued to speak the Spanish they had left behind, Ladino. Since Spain had decided for political and commercial reasons to recognize these exiles as Spanish, Fernando was born in Constantinople, a Spaniard.

His father, Nissim, became a very successful businessman, which allowed Fernando to study at the German school in Constantinople and in Germany after 1918.

Germany was then in turmoil. The disaster of the first world war had caused profound convulsions. The advent of the Weimar Republic had fomented extremes of both right and left, whose adherents confronted each other violently in the streets. Culturally, the country was bursting with new ideas, and Fernando threw himself into its various currents.

He studied philosophy first with Cassirer in Berlin then with Edmund Husserl in Freiburg, his youngest disciple, and became friends and co-instructor (privadocent) with Martin Heidegger. Totally entangled into the leftwing politics of the day, he still managed to journey regularly to Munich to hear the great art historian Heinrich Woelfflin. It was after one of his lectures that Fernando decided to become a painter, and off he went to Geneva to study art with the painter Stueckgold.

In 1924, Fernando headed for Paris, the world art capital. He enrolled first at the Free Academy Colarossi, then at La Grande-Chaumiere, lived the bohemian life of Montparnasse, mostly at the Dome and Rotonde cafes, with such newly made chums as Soutine, Pasquin, Mane-Katz and the Spanish sculptor Mateo Hernandez. He also traveled to the South in search of the Cezanne and Van Gogh vistas, and went to Spain for the first time, to scrutinize Velasquez.

In 1927, his family ruined by Ataturk's expropriations of foreign holdings, Fernando had to find work to sustain them all now settled in Paris, while still continuing to paint. He was also now very attached to a young Ukranian-Pole named Stepha Awkykowich, whom he had met in Berlin in 1922 and who was then enrolled at the Sorbonne in the same class with Simone de Beauvoir. Fernando and Stepha married in 1929 and become very close to Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, a friendship the four maintained all their lives.

Fernando was by then representing very successfully the Tungsram company, a sort of European GE conglomerate, and in 1929, the company made him boss of Spanish sales, allowing the Gerassis to install themselves in a superb apartment on La Plaza de Torros in Madrid, where Fernando could lead a satisfying double life: company director mornings and late afternoons and painter while Spaniards took their traditional siesta.

His art matured a great deal during that period and in October 1930 Fernando had his first one-man show at the prestigious Gallery Layetanas in Barcelona, which elicited such favorable reviews that he was quickly invited to another one-man show in Paris for the following year. Meanwhile, thanks to his confortable earnings, Stepha opened their apartment to the many new friends where, having become a great cook, she lavished sumptuous meals on such regulars as the philosopher Angel Sanchez Rivero, the sculptor Emiliano Barral, Arturo Souto, Garcia Lorca, Largo Caballero (the Spanish Lenin), Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda (who was then not a Nobel winner but Chile's cultural attache).

The conversations were mostly political, and in the Spring of 1931, Fernando and Stepha took an active part in the movement to get rid of King Alfonso XIII. "Abajo el rey!" eventually became "No se ha ido, lo hemos echado" ("he didn't leave, we threw him out"), and they danced with thousands of their Spanish compatriots in the streets of Madrid to celebrate the advent of the Republic.

That summer, with Stepha pregnant, the Gerassis headed for Paris, where their son, Juan, Juanito, or Tito (John after the Gerassis emigrated to the US) was born on July 12. Fernando exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants (and would do it every year through 1935). Thanks in part to efforts by Utrillo, the Surindependants, and Gerassi specifically, got more and more press attention, so he began to sell his work well enough to quit Tungsram.

During the next four years, Fernando journeyed back and forth between Paris, Barcelona and Paris, (and even in 1934 London and Chicago) where his shows attracted more and more admirers, until a major one-man show at the Billiet Gallery owned by the reputed Pierre Worms, caused Pablo Picasso to propose a group show of France's Spanish artists, of himself, Miro, La Serna. Gris, Dali, and Gerassi, with tremendous success.

But the rise of fascism destroyed the euphoria. In France, the popular front seemed too weak to stand off the extreme right. In Germany and Italy, the dictators were rattling their sabers. In Spain confrontation became inevitable. In Montparnasse, Fernando militated among artists and intellectuals to broaden the anti-fascist struggle. His studio became a rallying place, attended regularly by Aragon, Nizan, Lipchitz, Malraux, Leger, and his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre.

After visiting the huge Cezanne retrospective at Paris' Museum of the Jeu de Paume on July 18, 1936, Fernando rushed back to his studio and was painting frenetically when he was interrupted by an extremely upset friend, the Spanish writer Benavides, who informed him that the civil war had started in Spain. Immediately, with Benavides and other Spanish artists living in Paris, none of whom had ever even fired a hunting rifle, Fernando went off to defend the Republic. After distinguishing himself in some minor skirmishes, and effecting a couple of secret missions to get arms (and with Malraux a bunch of rickety planes), Fernando was sent to head Madrid's defense around the walls of university.

Colonel Zhukov (future Soviet Marshal winner of the battle of Berlin), noticed Fernando's prowess -- and the fact that he spoke various European languages -- and sent him to serve directly under the Czech General Lukacz of the 15th brigade, composed mostly of foreign volunteers. After Lukacz was killed, Fernando took command and became close friends with many of the International Brigade volunteer commanders, such as Randolfo Pacciardi and Luigi Longo of the Garibaldi, both of whom would go on to play important roles in post-war Italian politics, though on opposing sides. Fernando also befriended Ernest Hemingway and the anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti.

On government missions to France to try to get more arms, Fernando managed to see his son who had been placed in a boarding school near Paris. But even when convinced that the Republic was going to lose to the forces of Franco, aided by Hitler and Mussolini, he returned to take his place at the front. Finally, after Barcelona fell, he crossed back into France and with Picasso and Dora Maar dragged himself dejectedly from cafe to cafe in Antibes. When he read an editorial in France-Soir written by Aragon justifying the Russo-German pact, he realized that World War II was inevitable, and headed back to Paris to propose to the French government to raise a couple of divisions of Spanish Republican refugees to fight the Germans. France refused and Fernando tried to go back to his paintings.

But after the war actually began, he was arrested, forced to join the French army, then given the title of colonel and sent with his troops to defend the Voges border. After the debacle, he brought his whole regiment to Paris where, thanks to his poker-playing buddy Porfirio Rubirosa, who was Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's top henchman (and his son-in-law as well), Fernando got passports and exit-visas for all the Jews in his ranks.

When the Dominican legation staff fled Paris, Rubirosa simply handed all the stamps to Fernando, in effect making him ambassador, and left himself. Fernando then tracked down some 8000 Spanish refugees, made them "Dominican", gave them passports and, finally did the same to himself, Stepha and Tito. Thanks to those diplomatic credentials, they arrived unrecognized in Lisbon, where they would probably have stayed had not Franco's agents finally fished them out and tried to assassinate them with passing bursts of machinegun fire. On September 3, 1941, the Gerassis arrived in New York and declared themselves not diplomats but political refugees.

Instead, all three Gerassis were arrested, charged with illegal entry into the United States, released pending trial, and held under threat of expulsion for the next 25 years. But General Bill (Bull) Donovan, who had been commissioned by President Roosevelt to create a new secret service known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), spotted Fernando's dossier and quickly enlisted him into his agency. At first Fernando was used to break Franco's code but then he was submarined into Spain to set up an underground sabotage network which would blow up roads and bridges if Franco allowed the Germans to attack Gibraltar when the allies invaded North Africa. Issuing a letter saying Fernando made the African landing a success, Donovan offered Gerassi a medal in 1944.

Fernando refused, left OSS, lived off translations and started painting again. On the back of his first work, he wrote: "First pitiful attempt to paint after nine years of war (1936-1945)" Nevertheless, his colors were vibrant.

Life was difficult in New York. The freelance jobs were not enough. Tito was forced to sell newspapers before and after school hours. And the Immigration Service kept harassing. For 20 years, Fernando had to report to one of their agents (never learning until 1964 that the agent was not from Immigration but from the CIA). Every six months of so, the order to deport the family was issued by an unknown bureau, always rescinded at the last moment. All of Fernando's OSS superiors, from Donovan down, promised to help but did nothing. Then in 1964, Alexander Calder, one of Fernando's chums from the old Montparnasse days, got to one of his friends, Abe Fortas, who was then a top Lyndon Johnson aide. Fortas got the CIA file and discovered that the agency had been trying to blackmail Fernando by threatening to deport his whole family to Franco Spain, unless he agreed to work for the CIA. Fernando had always refused.

Fortas gave the file to Robert Kennedy, the former president's brother and still attorney general. Bobby made Fernando and Stepha American citizens on the spot (Tito had been drafted during the Korean war and became a citizen in the army) and apologized "in the name of America".

Meanwhile, by 1947 Fernando's zest to paint had returned. His first postwar exhibit, a group show at the New Age gallery, got him singled out by the New York Times. By 1949, he abandoned all figurative designs and focused on the juxtaposition of dancing colors. He also began to question his political perceptions. "No political struggle can justify war, blood and violence", he wrote in his diary."That can only lead to bitterness and despair". He read Loyola, Khrishnamurti, the Bhagava-Gita, and the Bible, of which he knew the New Testament almost by heart. That year too, the art historian and critic Meyer Shapiro, who greatly admired Fernando's work, connected him with Carmelita Hinton, founder and director of the Putney School in Vermont, and she immediately hired Fernando to teach art and Stepha to teach anything she wanted (and over the years she did teach French, Spanish, Russian, ancient history, Latin, European history and German).

Finding Vermont very much like the Basque country, Fernando and Stepha quickly adapted themselves to life in a small town, and walk the hills with a new found sense of tranquility. The village population knew Fernando well, as he walked, beret atop his bald head, with his dog in tow, the two miles from his house to his studio, the old abandoned little red schoolhouse which the town voted to rent him for $45 a year. At the Putney School, Fernando discovered he liked teaching and helped some great students, such as Calder's daughter Sandra, to bloom even more.

In 195l, Fernando shared an important exhibit with Georgia O'Keefe and then, alone at the Panoras Gallery elicited rave reviews in 1955. Time magazine dedicated two full pages to that show, with two color reproductions, enough from then on for him to quit teaching and paint full time.

Determined to stay well isolated, Fernando now rarely went to New York, shunned the "art world," even found excuses not to attend his own shows. Shapiro organized a few for him, and his son Tito having become Newsweek's art critic kept him abreast of important developments in the field, but all he wanted was to sell just enough to pay for his materials. He put down his brush just once more, to go back to Europe and see old friends and Stepha's surviving family members. But his real contentment was staying with Calder in Saché, France, where the sculptor had set up a formidable studio and some huge, imposing black stabiles in the rolling hills behind it.

Fernando returned to Putney to paint until his death in 1974.