On Henry Darger
by Nathan Lerner
I saw Henry Darger every day for about twenty years. A shuffling old man, a recluse who never had visitors except for a rare visit from a priest. He lived in a single, large room that he had rented in 1932. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with the debris of his scavenging. He would take long walks in order to gather his amazing collections, and at great distances from home he could be seen poking through garbage with his cane, looking for his treasures. Crucifixes, broken toys, old magazines, scores of used eyeglasses repaired with tape, dozens of empty bottles of Pepto Bismol, hundreds of balls of twine that he made by tying small pieces together; the list was endless.
Every morning at 7:00 he would come clumping down the stairs on his way to breakfast and early Mass. In the summer he wore old shirts with the sleeves crudely cut off near the shoulders and you could see a long, frayed shoestring tied at one end to a trouser belt-loop and at the other end to a torn wallet in his picket. In the winter, all of this was covered with his World War II army coat that came all the way to his shoe tops. If it was very cold, he would add a kind of fisherman's cap with long ear flaps. He would rarely speak to anyone, but if spoken to, would respond politely always about the weather.
Little did we know that so much of his internal life was taken up by weather phenomenon of catastrophic proportions. I also recall that he wore eyeglasses held intact with lumps of surgical tape; at times, he would go for weeks wearing a single shattered lens.
It was often hard to believe that Henry was alone in his room. He was remarkable mimic and sometimes there would be an animated quarrel going on between a deep gruff voice, which was supposed to be he, and a querulous high-pitched voice, which was supposed to be his superior, a nun, at the hospital where he worked as a menial. Among his mysteries he claimed to be Brazilian; once, at a birthday party I gave for him, he suddenly sang what he said was a Portuguese children's marching song, and he marched as he sang. Nobody there knew Portuguese, but we were all convinced. At other times he would sing strange songs, perhaps in Portuguese, inasmuch as he claimed to be Brazilian.
In the years that passed Henry somehow seemed almost a part of the building. He came and went almost unnoticed. He never had any visitors. His strangeness became familiar and accepted. For his neighbors there grew a feeling of affection and protectiveness for this grumpy old man who never smiled. His paranoia for privacy was respected.
For many years after an accident at the hospital, Henry had suffered with a lame knee, and when he finally became too feeble to climb the stairs he asked me to find a place for him to live in a Catholic old people's home.
This I did. On a freezing cold day, Kiyoko walked Henry on the ice to the Little Sisters of the Poor which was about 3 blocks from our house. After a couple of visits, Henry was accepted. The next day Henry left the room he had lived in for forty years. It touched my heart to watch him as he left the room. He took nothing with him except for his clothes; his long eared cap, his greasy World War 1 army a coat, his shabby shoes. He looked around the chaotic room through his taped glasses with the shattered lens and walked out of what had been his life.
In his childish obscure way, he did sometimes show some feelings of gratitude. On Holidays, he would push a card under the door. It might be a Valentine's card he had found. He had scratched out the valentine and wrote marry X'mas. Once he gave me some cigars that I smoked with great apprehension.
When I visited Henry in his new unfamiliar alien a clean space with its polished tile floor, television and talking people, Henry would be sitting in a corner alone, motionless, his head on his chest. He would barely glance at me. I asked him ---------
Often, I would visit him amidst the alien, clean, polished tile, the television sets, and the talking people. Henry would sit in a corner alone, motionless, his head on his chest, a shrunken figure completely remote and apparently frightened. He would barely glance at me and after a few visits I don't know if he even recognized me. Seemingly, he left his life behind in his room, for he died within a few months.
It is a humbling experience now to have to admit that not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger's life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.
by Kiyoko Lerner
When Henry Darger died on April 13, 1973, alone, unknown and penniless, I could not have imagined that nearly 40 years afterward I would be writing about him, or that his artwork would be featured in museums in Paris and New York.
I moved into 849 West Webster Avenue in Chicago in 1967, when Henry was living in the building next door, 851 West Webster. It was owned by my husband, Nathan Lerner. Henry had moved into the building, 45 years earlier in 1932, and he lived in the same apartment for exactly forty years, until December 1972, when he went into the St. Augustine Home at Sheffield and Fullerton Avenues, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, where his father also spent his last days.
Henry was born in 1892 near the corner of South Desplaines and West Adams Streets in Chicago, just a block from where the busy Dan Ryan Expressway now runs through the city's South Side. Close by is Old Saint Patrick's Church, a landmark for immigrants, which had survived the great Chicago Fire. When Henry was four years old, his mother died in childbirth; he and his father, a tailor, lived together in their little apartment until he was nine years old.
Henry was a problem child, and his father had to send him to a Catholic boys home. From there, he was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, when he was twelve. At the age of sixteen he learned that his father died, and he tried to run away from the asylum. He tried twice more, and succeeded on his third attempt. This was in the summer and Henry walked to Chicago, a distance of 160 miles. As he walked, he witnessed various kinds of weather—tornadoes, rains, sunny days, and different kinds of storms. The extraordinary skies in his paintings may be inspired by what he saw during that long walk back to Chicago.
During his lifetime, he worked only at Catholic hospitals: St. Joseph's Hospital, the Alexian Brothers Hospital, Augustana Hospital, and Grant Hospital—all close to the neighborhood where he lived. Henry was alone, and he seemed to want to be left alone. Sometimes we would see him on the street. But when we tried to say "hello," he would turn his head in the other direction as if by doing that we did not exist and he did not have to acknowledge us.
Since there was no cooking facility in his room, he used to eat at a restaurant called Roma across the street from the church, St. Vincent de Paul that he used to attend every day. This was a very simple restaurant run by Italian twin brothers; many students from De Paul University used to go there as well; it was an affordable, simple place. I learned much later that they used to feed Henry once in a while as they knew that he was poor. After Henry started to be known, the restaurant put up a placard, "Henry Darger's Room". Now it is a McDonald's.
There was another restaurant on the corner of Halsted and Fullerton (three blocks away) called Seminary and run by a Greek family. They also used to give Henry food. I remember seeing him perched at the counter eating in this restaurant. Henry also used to buy cooked pork, chicken, or beef kept warm under red heat lamps in a neighborhood Mexican grocery store. In the 1950s and '60s, the neighborhood was still an economically mixed area with many Mexican and Italian blue-collar families. Now this same neighborhood, called Lincoln Park, is one of the most exclusive areas in Chicago, filled with young professionals. Henry often used to bring leftover meat to Yuki.
Our dog Yuki was a real jumper. She was a pretty small dog, weighing about twenty pounds. Yuki started to associate Henry with the meat and every time she saw him in front of the house, she jumped up and licked his nose with delight. Henry was very touched. I saw a smile on his face, and he asked me her name, patting her head. One day, he asked me how much it would cost to keep a dog. I told him it would be about 10 dollars a month. He shook his head, saying that it was too much for him to pay. This is the only time I can remember Henry relating personally to any living thing.
One afternoon he knocked on the door and asked to talk to Mr. Leonard. (He decided to call Nathan "Leonard" as Lerner was too Jewish; he preferred to call Nathan a more Catholic-sounding name.) When I told him that Mr. Leonard would be back at 5:30 p.m., he came back at 5:30 p.m. sharp. Nathan saw him.
He said, "Mr. Leonard, I have a good idea."
Nathan said, "What is it, Henry?"
"You should give me a Christmas present."
Nathan said, "That sounds like a good idea. What do you want?"
"A Christmas present."
"What do you want?"
Henry said, "A week's rent."
Nathan said, "OK."
Then came New Year's Day—he took 10 dollars off. For Valentine's Day he took 10 dollars off. Then comes St. Patrick's Day—he took 10 dollars off. From that time on, he took ten dollars off every month, out of 40 dollars a month rent. One evening, Nathan said to me, "We are lucky that he is not Jewish; otherwise, we will end up paying him rent."
Henry was like a little child. He never said "thank you" whenever I helped him; however, in his own way, he wanted to show his gratitude to Nathan. He gave Nathan a used birthday card; "Happy Birthday" was scratched out. He wrote "Happy Valentine, Mr. Leonard" above it. Along with this card, he gave him a cigar after asking me if Nathan smoked.
Henry came another day, knocking on the front door excitedly, asking to speak with Mr. Leonard. Nathan asked him what he could do for him.
He said, "I was raped by a beautiful 17-year-old Italian girl just now."
You must imagine what he looked like: wearing a greasy long World War One Army coat, reaching to his ankle, with a fedora hat (also dirty and greasy) covering his ears.
He said, "I was just raped in the vestibule of the building by a beautiful 17-year-old Italian girl who took my wallet while she was raping me. I can't pay the rent or food. Mr. Leonard, you must give me some money."
Nathan understood him and gave him the amount he asked for.
He said, I will pay you the whole amount on such and such a date. He did pay us the entire amount on the day he promised.
Henry used to take walks every day, at least twice a day. He knew he was supposed to take walks for his health. One day, when we were driving on Belmont Avenue, approaching the Belmont ‘L' station, we saw Henry searching for some treasures in a garbage can. The Belmont station is about one mile from where we lived. We realized how far he went on his daily walks. At that time we had no idea what he was doing in his room, but when we started to clean up his room with his permission, we knew where those things came from; they were the treasures he used for his creative process.
He claimed that he was born in Brazil. On the first page of each manuscript, he wrote "written by Henry Joseph Dargarius." He said he was born in Brazil and his parents came to the US when he was two years old. Our tenant who lived on the second floor complained to Nathan that there was bathtub overflow from the third-floor bathroom. This was during the winter. Nathan went to talk to Henry and asked him if he took a bath the previous day because Mary downstairs complained about the water coming down directly below his bathroom. Henry replied very proudly, "I never take a bath in winter time. I was born in Brazil!!!!"
Before Henry went into the nursing home, we and David Berglund, who lived in the front part of the third floor, gave Henry a birthday party in our back yard. I brought some food and David brought a birthday cake. Henry, after eating the cake, said, "I want to sing a Brazilian children's marching song," and he proceeded to march around the table, singing a march. We had no idea whether he was really singing in Portuguese. I wish, in retrospect, we had made a recording, just to verify the language. To my ears, it certainly sounded like a march. We repeated this birthday party the following year and he again sang the Brazilian Children's March after the cake.
David told me later when he visited me that he and his girlfriend Betzy used to take care of Henry by cooking two meals a day for him for 15 dollars a month, since Henry no longer could go out to buy his own food or go to restaurants. David and Betzy used to go on camping trips often. For one long weekend, they left on a Thursday night and asked Mary, who lived downstairs, to take care of feeding Henry while they were gone. Mary promised to do that, but completely forgot.
When they came back early Monday morning, they thought they were seeing the ghost of a rabbit. Henry heard their footsteps on the stairs, and he came out of his room into a dark corridor in a rabbit costume with wide stripes and with two big ears sticking out in bright orange and white stripes, which Betzy made for her Halloween party the previous year. She gave this costume to Henry to sleep in. Henry appeared out of the darkness saying to them, in his guttural baritone voice, "Did you forget about me?"
Henry was very religious. He created an altar on the mantelpiece over his fireplace, which he called "Sacred Image." Among other things there were a Christ on the Cross, Mary with Jesus in her arms, a statue of a dog, and a framed portrait of one of the Vivian Girls. He made balls of twine out of the string he picked up out on streets. He would tie short strings together in order to make longer ones, from which he made balls of twine. As his eyesight grew worse, he had problems in making the balls of twine. According to his daily journal, he threatened to throw his balls of twine at the Sacred Image, his altar, cursing God, but he stopped himself. Next day he went to mass four or five times.
Henry was a fantastic mimic. Sometime I had to go to the building next door, where Henry lived, to do something. I used to hear several different voices coming out of his room, mostly him talking to some nuns who were his superiors at the hospitals. He was arguing with them—saying things he could not say to them during the day at work. And sometimes I heard voices of girls shouting at men—he was living his story. One summer, when the front flat on the third floor was vacant, my brother-in-law stayed there with his wife. They felt it was very weird and strange to hear all kinds of voices coming out of his room.
As these stories of my experiences with Henry were streaming through my mind, I realized more and more that he was truly living a life in his fiction In the Realms of the Unreal. When mumbling to himself in his room, or on the streets, he was living in his imagined world. On the surface, he looked alone and lonely, but in reality he was surrounded by the millions of people in that world, interacting with them, living with them every moment of his life; perhaps he lived one of the richest lives I have ever known about.
At one point, Nathan became very concerned about Henry climbing three flights of stairs everyday, and Nathan asked him if he wanted to move into a home for old people recently built by the city of Chicago, since this complex was just around the corner from us and it is only four stories high, with elevators. Nathan had already talked to the priest of the church, Father Wanger, about the possibility of Henry being admitted, since getting into one of those apartments was difficult. Father Wanger told Nathan not to worry about getting him in as the city's mayor at the time, Richard Daley, was a personal friend of his at Loyola University, and he would talk to the mayor personally.
When Nathan told Henry about going to live there, Henry refused to go, saying, "No, Mr. Leonard, I would rather die there in my room." Nathan told Father Wanger what Henry said. Father Wanger replied, "Don't worry, Mr. Lerner. That room is a firetrap. We will call the fire department. He will be forced to move out." But Nathan refused to have him call the fire department because he knew that Henry's entire life was in that room, and if he was forced to move out, Henry would die. So Henry stayed until a few years later when he himself realized that he could no longer climb those stairs himself and asked Nathan to find a Catholic nursing home for him.
Nathan talked with Father Wanger, who suggested the Little Sisters of the Poor home, which was just three blocks away from us. Nathan took care of all the necessary paper work for him to be admitted according to their requirements. They suggested a try-out stay over the long Thanksgiving weekend of 1972. It was a very cold winter day, and the streets were already icy. I took his hand and walked him to the home. He held me with one hand and his cane with the other as the streets were dangerous for walking. I dropped him off at the door and the nuns took him inside. He had no expression on his face as usual.
I went to pick him up the Monday morning after the weekend. The sisters brought him out and I could barely recognize him, as they gave him a bath, clothed him in a brand new suit, tie, new hat, new coat, new shoes, new socks—I had never seen him so clean before. Again, we walked back home together, Henry holding onto me with one hand and his cane with the other. The next morning he came out of his apartment with the same old clothes: greasy World War One Army coat, the fedora hat, old shoes, broken eyeglasses mended with masking tape. Only his face looked clean from the bath they had given him the day before.
I used to visit Henry's room on average once a week to help him with whatever it was that he needed to have done. After all, it was my job to do so as I was his landlord. Many times, the help he needed was in replacing light bulbs: three in his room, two in the hallway, one at the staircase, and one in the entryway to the building. As I was teaching piano back then, I practiced playing when I returned home. If Henry needed something, he would come knocking as soon as he heard my piano music.
Henry's room was on the third floor. It was filled with STUFF from floor to ceiling. It appeared as though every single thing he had brought into the room in the forty years he had lived there had never left the room. There was hardly any space left to walk around. All of it he picked up from the street or out of garbage cans on the walks he took at least twice every day.
As I have mentioned, Henry moved out of our house in order to go to the Catholic nursing home in December 1972. The St. Augustine Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor was about three blocks away from us, across the street from the Fullerton station of the ‘L,' Chicago's rapid transit system. We used to take the elevated train every time we went downtown, which was about two miles away. After Henry moved to the Home, we almost always used to stop by there when we used the train.
We did not realize how often we went, until one day one of the sisters asked us if we were his relatives because we would come by at least once a week. As we walked into the building, there was a large living room. He was always sitting alone in a corner, away from the rest of the people who were watching a large TV, his head down on his chest. As we approached him, when we first visited, he lifted his head and seemed to recognize us, but as time went by, he rarely lifted his head or hardly recognized us.
Nathan asked him at one point if he needed anything from his room because Nathan wanted to clean up the room in order to remodel the third floor as one apartment for a better income. He replied, "I have nothing I need in the room. It is all yours. You can throw everything away." With this permission, we started to clean up his room.
He seemed to have all the newspapers (morning and evening) ever published in Chicago. There were more than 80 bottles of Pepto Bismol (he died of stomach cancer); at least 50 pairs of eyeglasses, all of them broken but mended by him with Scotch Tape or masking tape; National Geographic magazines from 1932 until 1972; and telephone directories with comic strips cut out of newspapers and pasted on both sides of the pages. Now we know that it was from them that he would select images for his drawings, often having enlargements made which he could then trace. There was broken furniture including a wooden chaise with arms missing. There were old record players with horns and a large (27-inch diameter) aluminum disk with pinholes, to be played in a music box. All of the papers, magazines, and telephone directories were tied in bundles with string he picked up during his walks.
We rented dumpsters to empty out of his room. Our tenant David Berglund was helping. It was only after two dumpsters were hauled away that Nathan and David came across a large cardboard-bound booklet of paintings piled on Henry's hospital-size steel bed. This was the first collection of his paintings that we found. On the cardboard cover was a collage made out of his paintings, magazine cutouts, and photographs from newspapers and National Geographic magazines. The enormous piece of work rested on top of his bed, buried under other bundles of papers. Being an artist himself, Nathan knew the paintings were something very special but didn't know quite what to make of them. At that point he stopped hauling any more stuff out into the dumpsters.
Then Nathan started opening trunks. There he found many volumes of hand-bound, typewritten books. On the cover of of several volumes was the title "In the Realms of the Unreal," lovingly painted in a golden hue. It was at that time that Nathan realized that the cardboard-bound watercolor paintings must be illustrations that accompanied the story of thousands of pages. We never counted how many volumes Henry had written but much later we found out that there were about 15,000 pages in 15 volumes, typed single-spaced on legal-sized paper. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nathan felt that Henry's soul was still in the room and he could not destroy it—the room remained as Henry had left it for the next thirty years, until the Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago asked me if they could recreate the room, and so it was dismantled and the fireplace, Henry's chair, and many of his books and art materials are now in a reconstruction of his room in their museum.
Henry looked like a street person. As I mentioned, he was very shy and never looked at you if you saw him on street and said "hello." Everybody in the neighborhood found him strange. More than one neighbor had suggested to Nathan that we evict him from the house; however, Nathan considered Henry totally harmless and told them to leave him alone. In retrospect, I cannot blame these neighbors because Henry did look very dirty and uncared-for, not to mention the strange look in his eyes.
Whoever could have imagined that once he entered his room, this dirty, shuffling old man wrote and painted another world into being? In the fantastically rich world he created—of which our world, the earth, is only a moon—millions of Catholics coexist alongside creatures with tails 3,000 feet long that could whip and kill evil people instantly. In Henry's world, a single war would kill millions. And while the humorously named General Toothache may be found on one page, on others young girls are captured and then forced into concentration camps unclothed.
If one were to see Henry foraging through garbage on the streets, such scenes are certainly not something one would imagine going through Henry's mind. But there on the streets, Henry went through the garbage and collected used greeting cards, magazines, pieces of string (which he tied together to create an ever bigger ball of string), family portraits, old newspapers, and any kind of photograph he could find. Out of these he created his immense world. Nathan and I were totally overwhelmed by what we had uncovered. David Berglund, who helped Nathan clean Henry's room, used to talk about this strange find and how none of us could make heads or tails of all this "junk" and the great mystery that we uncovered in Henry's room.
Nathan had a lot of visitors from all over the world—curators from museums, writers, art students, and so on—and he would often share Henry's art with them. Eventually word of mouth spread in the art world and people became very interested in Henry's work. We never made any efforts to promote Henry's paintings, but we responded to those who showed an interest in his work.
The first show of Henry's art was at the Hyde Park Arts Center in Chicago in 1977. It was intended to display just the paintings, but at Nathan's insistence, the exhibition ended up showing many aspects of Henry's life in order to put everything into context. The exhibition displayed some personal effects from the room, including his chair, his typewriter, diaries, The Realms of the Unreal volumes, and many of Henry's source materials such as the enlargement stats and cutout comic strips.
As far as storage and conservation are concerned, Henry's paintings remained in the room until around 1990 when Nathan put the paintings into protective sleeves. Now the majority of the works are stored in Mylar sleeves so they can be handled without causing damage. Henry's paintings are spread throughout museums around the world, mostly through donations. Much of Henry's work is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. They have writings, source materials, and the collection of books from his room as well as many paintings. There are also many paintings in private collections. As in the past, I am not making any efforts to promote the paintings to the public, but I always help when people come to me with ideas for projects. The exposure to Henry's life's work has inspired many other artists to create visual art, music, theater, and dance.