The Hollywood Gangster Who Was One of Frida Kahlo’s First Collectors
Fade in: a gas station at night. An armed man exits a car and three gunshots are heard, followed by the ding of a cash register opening. He gets back in the car, which speeds off. Cut to two fedora-wearing gangsters on barstools in a diner. “Shoot first and argue afterward,” quips the gunman, Caesar Enrico Bandello, played by actor Edward G. Robinson, in the opening scene of his breakthrough film Little Caesar (1931). “This game ain’t for guys that’s soft.”
Onscreen, Robinson was a hardened criminal, the quintessential Depression-era gangster who inspired a string of cinematic bad guys. Offscreen, he was a sensitive lover of the arts with a museum-level collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, some African sculpture, and a handful of canvases by emerging contemporary artists (such as Israeli painter Reuven Rubin and a young Frida Kahlo).
“If I hadn’t become a movie gangster, it is highly probable that not one of my paintings would have had the chance to collect me,” Robinson wrote on the occasion of a 1953 exhibition of his collection’s highlights that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “Here is a paradox: Turn killer and you have the means to satisfy your thirst for beauty. When Hollywood conveyed me, through devious and sin-stained roles, to a succession of sizzling electric chairs, the paintings began to appear. Crime, it seems, sometimes does pay.”
Robinson’s illustrious collection began modestly a few years before he played Little Caesar, with a painting of a cow. The bovine portrait by an anonymous artist cost two dollars at auction, and the actor proudly installed it alongside his reproductions of works by Rembrandt and Henri Matisse. Years later, when Robinson could afford an actual Matisse (he bought a dinner scene by the artist because it reminded him of his mother’s Friday night dinners), the cow looked out of place but still had sentimental value, so he hung it in a back room.
After the box office success of Little Caesar, and aided by his classical training in stage acting, Robinson enjoyed an acting career that spanned another 40-plus years. He started out working primarily on stage, made the jump to the silver screen, and became a regular presence on radio and television—where he narrated documentary series about art, competed against fellow art-collecting actor Vincent Price on an art history-themed run of The $64,000 Question, and had a 1967 cameo appearance on Batman. With every gig, his earnings snowballed and he earned millions per year in current dollars.
Horace Pippin, Christmas Morning, Breakfast, 1945. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
This Hollywood Golden Age income enabled Robinson to buy works by artists he’d long admired, with most of his favorites culled from 19th and early 20th century France. In his autobiography he described drooling over an unusual Paul Cézanne still life featuring a black clock and a Vincent van Gogh portrait of his paint dealer, Père Tanguy, while gallery-hopping with composer George Gershwin; in time Robinson bought both. He evicted that quaint cow painting in favor of scenes by Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani and Berthe Morisot, among others in a collection that numbered roughly between 70 and 90 works.
“Other Hollywood notables owned renowned art,” Alan Gansberg, a director and former film professor who authored Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson (2004), explained, “but not as renowned collectors.”
Unlike film industry moguls who paid experts to strategically place a couple easily recognizable masterpieces above their fireplaces, Robinson selected his artworks himself, bought art regularly, and concentrated on a specific era. “One cannot emphasize enough that Robinson did not seek consultants,” Gansberg said. “Hollywood money bought art then and it buys art now. But Robinson knew the market and became a world-famous collector without ‘guidance.’”
He bought on instinct and impulse, guided by what he loved. Sometimes he bought paintings to mark special occasions; after the birth of his only child, Manny, Robinson celebrated with a shopping spree on New York’s 57th Street gallery row. “To mark suitably the birth of my son, I bought a good sized Degas of two dancers and a lovely Pissarro—oh, such a lovely Pissarro—for $2,500 and a Monet painting of some willows for another $2,500,” Robinson recalled in his autobiography. “The next afternoon, in my heady and nutty joy, I bought still another Pissarro.”
Sometimes he bought paintings as souvenirs from trips overseas. When Robinson and his first wife, Gladys, took Manny to Europe in the late 1930s, they met Les Nabis painter Édouard Vuillard in a Parisian café and asked if he would paint their portrait. The artist happily agreed. Robinson later admitted that the interior scene of him, his wife, and his fidgety six-year-old son surrounded by mint-green pastels wasn’t a masterpiece, “but it beats hell out of a Kodak snapshot.” (It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)
Around the same time, Robinson and Gladys went on a romantic getaway to Mexico City and visited muralist Diego Rivera. After Robinson selected a few pieces he wanted to buy from Rivera, the artist guided the actor into the workspace of his wife, Frida Kahlo, who was still unknown in the United States at the time. “Robinson bought four [paintings] from me for two hundred dollars each,” Kahlo remembered. “For me it was such a surprise that I marveled and said: ‘This way I am going to be free.’” Robinson’s purchases were Kahlo’s first major sales, her first to an American, and gave her some financial independence.
Back in his Beverly Hills home at 910 North Rexford Drive, Robinson carefully arranged his treasures in a purpose-built gallery that he added to his his vast Tudor-style mansion. “It didn’t take much thought for me to realize that a lot of other people besides us should have the opportunity to enjoy these fine works,” Robinson wrote in 1953. Twice a week, anyone could visit the Edward G. Robinson collection (for fellow celebrities there was more of an open-door policy). Everyone in the household was trained to give docent tours, including the butler.
Edouard Vuillard, The Family of Edward G. Robinson, 1939. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Weiner. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston
One of the great tragedies of Robinson’s life was being forced to sell his entire collection in the 1950s in order to settle his divorce from Gladys. He sold it all to shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos for $3.5 million, with the understanding that he could eventually buy some of the paintings back. In time, with his second wife Jane, he repurchased 14 works from his original collection and started over. Robinson’s appetite for art might have kept the aging actor in showbusiness, appearing in films until the year of his death at age 79, in 1973.
During his six-decade career Robinson played gangsters, newspaper editors, a retired bootlegger, and, in his last film appearance, Soylent Green (1973) with Charlton Heston, a police analyst with a personal research library. One role he cheekily denied performing was that of a collector.
“I am not a collector. I’m just an innocent bystander who has been taken over by a collection,” he insisted. “I am just a lover of paintings. I do what I do for the sheer joy of it.”