I first met George Valentine Dureau when he walked into my mother’s Downtown Gallery in 1961.
The gallery had opened in 1959 at 521 St. Ann Street, facing Jackson Square in the lower Pontalba Building. It boasted a stable of artists that included celebrated Southern Regionalist John McCrady; Paul Ninas; Noel Rockmore; Ida Kohlmeyer’s Hans-Hofmann-trained sister, Millie Wohl; Leonard Flettrich (husband of WDSU personality Terry Flettrich); Zella Funck; sculptors Enrique Alferez and Juan Jose Calandria; portraitist Challis Walker Calandria and enamelist Pauly D’Orlando.
At the time, George was designing windows at fashionable Canal Street ladies emporium Kreeger’s — not, as sometimes stated, Maison Blanche — and he walked into the gallery with a portfolio of oil sketches on paper, mainly still-lifes of fruit on a table, or sketches of his fashionable Aunt Lillie leaning on a bentwood chair.
His first-ever gallery exhibition, held at the Downtown Gallery in the spring of 1962, was a sellout. Smaller still-lifes, wrapped in acetate in the gallery’s print rack, were reasonably priced. The piece (above) that I acquired at auction several years ago for $1,200, still bore the original Downtown Gallery label: “Table Top with Fruits,” oil on paper, $40.” I’m sure I held it in my hands as an 18-year-old during that inaugural one-man show.
In those days, George wore a green woolen three-piece suit, even in summer. He dressed that way when Mother finagled him into being a judge for the Miss New Orleans Pageant held at Pontchartrain Beach that year.
Egging George on were Vickie Taylor Bassetti (of photo-gallery fame) and Helaine Tuite Crespo, former wife of Painter and LSU teacher Michael Crespo — two Baton Rouge transplants who worked at the gallery. Joined by Dureau’s roommate, landscape architect Chris Friedrichs, the quartet made multiple trips to Mexico as Dureau’s focus moved from tabletops to physiques.
At the same time, Mother rented elegant but deserted rooms on the third floor of Gallier Hall after the city government moved to Duncan Plaza. Gallery artist Enrique Alferez taught a class in the 25-foot-ceilinged rooms, and my brother Don and I joined George as a student, using each other as models for portrait busts.
Years later, on a Friday evening in 2000, I received a frantic call from Andres Calandria, son of Juan and Challis Calandria. His mother had died, and the family had asked George to deliver the eulogy at her funeral, to be held at St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church the next day. But there was a problem. George couldn’t remember a thing about his one-time fellow gallery artist.
Would I stop by George’s French Quarter studio that evening for a glass of wine and coach him for the event? Of course.
The first thing I noticed on the grand piano that dominated the room was the bust that George had created under Alferez’s tutelage so many years before. The second was, as George confided in a whisper, that he truly could not remember a thing about the deceased. Over several glasses of wine, I crafted a storyline for George. It was agreed that I should accompany him to the funeral the following afternoon.
Saturday. No George. Anywhere. Finally, a figure appeared at the studio door, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
George insisted on slipping his arm into mine as we walked down the church aisle, surprising many guests as we strolled leisurely toward the front row with George waving and speaking to friends seated close to the aisle. Once in our pew, he kept whispering in my ear, assuring me that he was going to do spectacularly well.
Then he was at the podium, staring at me with a cry for help blazing from his flaming eyes. I shrugged, and he hesitatingly began.
“What can you say about Challis Calandria?” he boomed — then silence as he stared out over the assemblage. Clearly, he’d forgotten the previous evening’s coaching.
But showman that he was, George pulled right out of the air every artistic platitude, the most stunning generalities, and humorous anecdotes about his appreciation of other artists.
Everyone was charmed.
Relieved, and basking in his unexpected success, George collapsed next to me in the pew and rolled his eyes in that familiar, “Good God, I got through that!” expression that I’d seen after his first public show at the Downtown Gallery.
Who will now eulogize the always-accessible-yet-ultimately-guarded George Valentine Dureau?
Whoever you are, don’t forget: I coach for wine.