• U.S.

Art: Paint-Gunner

3 minute read
TIME

Most uncomfortable woman in London last week was kindly, grey-haired Mrs. Lucy Macdonald, longtime manager of the staid and starchy Arlington Gallery. Mrs. Macdonald found herself with the season’s most sensational art show on her hands; the pictures, she admitted herself, were terrible, and the artist admitted himself that he had palled around with real live U. S. gangsters. This appalling state of affairs came about because she had been too busy to go out to Chelsea and look at the paintings beforehand, and the artist “was so smooth and persuasive that I took a chance. When I came to the gallery and saw what was being hung, I just stood there gasping.”

Smooth persuasion comes easily to bullnecked, six-foot, 252-pound Jack Bilbo. He was trained in the world’s highest powered school of dialectic, the Chicago underworld. Jack Hugo Baruch was born 32 years ago in Berlin, schooled in The Hague, went to the U. S. at 16. In Manhattan he was a Shubert office boy and manager of Manhattan’s Bijou Theatre before he changed his name to Bilbo, went to Chicago and fell in with gangster Al Capone in 1926. How close he was to Scarface Al is a moot question. There is no record that he ever lay in bilboes in the U. S.

Since the garaging of the Capone machine, Jack Bilbo has had a hand in several less lucrative activities abroad—organizing anti-Nazi movements in Germany (pre-Hitler), fighting for Haile Selassie in Abyssinia, for the Spanish Loyalists in Catalonia. On the side he says he found time to design three German villas and his own residence in Spain.

Bilbo’s first autobiographical tome, Carrying a Gun for Al Capone, had England by the ears eight years ago, ran into 17 editions, was translated into nine foreign languages. Five years and one book (I Can’t Escape Adventure) later, Bilbo opened a highly successful night spot in London’s arty Chelsea, where he assiduously cultivated those in the know. Five months ago he started painting, now does nothing else, often works in his studio for 20 hours at a stretch. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least if his fellow-refugee and longtime friend, Haile Selassie, should drop in for a chat and see what he has accomplished since the old Addis Ababa days.

For the most part, visitors to his one-man show last week agreed with Mrs. Macdonald. Bilbo’s sloppy, raw-hued pirates, animals, nudes and caricatures of Hitler looked as if he had dipped his gat in the paint pot and then let fly at the canvas. But with metropolitan art critics, the astute, silk-toppered Artist Sir William Rothenstein, the Duke of Kent and bevies of Mayfair socialites swarming to see his pictures, and with the whole show bought by Scottish Art Dealer Andrew G. Elliot, the bushy-headed, self-styled ex-gangster pal could well afford to smile.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com