I’d finally settled on the revelation that Mahlon’s cover painting was a self-portrait, but that wasn’t until a couple of weeks after the first copies of my book, Mahlon Blaine ~ One-Eyed Visionary, had been spun off the printing presses.
I’d bought the original painting twenty years before, as one of my last batch of Blaines from the Dunninger collection. Many years earlier I had been fortunate to make acquaintance with Joseph Dunninger’s widow, Billie (Agnes). I had had no opportunity to meet Joseph, a world famous magician and mentalist. My annual visits to New York City began about 1978, and Blaine’s friends, Jack and Minna Brussel, referred me to Billie as another friend with information about my artist.
I called her on the phone and explained who I was, who had recommended her to me, and how my interest and passion in Mahlon Blaine’s work had brought me all the way from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She sounded a bit wary, but perhaps the fact that my obsession was with Mahlon and not the late Joe made me seem less worrisome. A dead-person stalker? Is that what I was? I made sure I sounded non-threatening on the phone.
Kindly, Billie invited me over for the next Sunday afternoon and gave me a brief outline of the somewhat-complicated directions having to do with variously-numbered Orange buses, misleading cross streets, and windy urban pathways through Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Coming all the way from Brooklyn, it turned out to be a two-hour trip. As I finally approached the impressive overgrown mansion perched on the last north lot on the east end of Grant Street, all my insecurities swelled.
I was an inexperienced researcher, a neophyte collector, a country boy in the city. Was it too late to panic now?
The petite widow answered the doorbell rather formally and invited me in through the ancient black enameled front doorway, the spacious foyer, the mysteriously dark dining room, and into the bright, cluttered kitchen. Two little spaces opposite each other at the end of the breakfast booth were the only available places to tuck ourselves.
We chatted of this-and-that and I can’t say that we got into much detail about Mr. Blaine. I think she was intent on getting my measure. As for me, I was on her turf so I followed her cues and her comments.
Underneath it all I remember her sadness. I was still unclear about how long ago Joseph had passed on, and I couldn’t ask her outright. The longer we talked, the more recent it seemed. We were both getting bummed out.
Finally, as I felt the conversation coming to a close she paused for a minute, seemed to reach a decision, asked me to wait, and excused herself through the dining room doorway. She was gone quite a while, perhaps to a distant corner of the mansion, and returned with a large book – a huge leather-bound monster of a book.
In gold leaf, the spine held the magical words “Mahlon Blaine Originals.”
Although I cannot describe for you here all of its contents, I am fortunate to finally own that book. Upon rare occasions I open it to browse among the 50-odd sketches, drawings and small paintings, and I relive the kitchen moments of our first meeting almost forty years ago. I still get a little bummed out.
But the painting that landed on my own book cover? That was among other wonderful Dunninger treasures that she revealed to me gradually, periodically, as years rolled by.
At each visit, Billie liked to have several of Mahlon’s drawings and paintings gathered into a stack that I drooled over as I paged through. She’d ask which ones I might like best, and she’d price each one while I mentally spent down my pocketful of traveler’s cheques. There was no haggling. If she decided a drawing was worth “X” then I paid “X.” And I never came home with leftover spending money. She always had more than enough to impoverish me.
A couple years after our last visit I heard of Billie’s death. Later I discovered that the Dunninger Mansion had been bought by a developer, torn down, and replaced by condos.
I certainly never acquired all the Mahlon Blaine artwork that Billie had always promised to “save for my next visit,” and several vaguely familiar MB paintings and drawings continued to surface at auction, over the twenty years since.
I guess I’ve almost resigned myself to the idea that I can’t own everything Mahlon Blaine.
But the metaphorical self-portrait has found its new home.