Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the upcoming Dream Palace, a history of the Chelsea Hotel, continues her series on the lives and struggles of the Chelsea's great social activists with a portrait of painter and hotel resident John Sloan:
In 1905, the painter John Sloan was sufficiently captivated by the look of the Chelsea cooperative to paint it in half-silhouette against the New York sunset. Having arrived in New York only recently from Philadelphia, Sloan knew nothing about the Chelsea or the philosophical ideas behind its creation. Nevertheless, the painting communicates a sense of longing as the working-class woman in the foreground--Sloan's wife, Dolly--pauses in the midst of her dreary domestic chores to take in the beauty of the building and the sky.
It would be thirty years before Sloan and Dolly themselves moved into the Chelsea. Now, in 1905, they lived in obscurity in a shabby, unheated top-floor loft at 165 W. 23rd Street--the same loft, about a block from the Chelsea, that Stephen Crane and his friends had occupied a decade before.
In those days, Sloan was drawn to paint the city's factory workers, immigrants, and unemployed people merely by instinct--and because as a poor man himself, married to an alcoholic and former prostitute, the working-class life was all he knew. He didn't realize that paintings of bread lines and tenement children conveyed a political message until a critic referred in print to the "socialist" content of his paintings. To figure out what the critic meant, Sloan started reading the Socialist newspaper, The Call--and grew increasingly excited as he found credible explanations there for so much of the unfairness and cruelty he had only intuited as an artist. By 1910, he and Dolly had joined the Socialist Party, and Sloan began contributing scathing political cartoons to the Call and the Coming Nation.
In 1912, during the groundbreaking I.W.W. strike at the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Dolly helped temporarily transfer the half-starved strikers' children to the homes of sympathetic New Yorkers, while a few months later Sloan became art director of The Masses, helping Max Eastman make the case for the working class through powerful images and sharp, often satirical captions.
In 1913, when the I.W.W. organized another millworkers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey, Sloan joined with "Wobbly princess" Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and playwright Percy MacKaye (son of Steele MacKaye, the first director of Chelsea architect Philip Hubert's Lyceum Theater), Big Bill Haywood, John Reed, and others to stage a giant pageant in Madison Square Garden depicting the millworkers' desperate struggle to secure fair working conditions.
Flynn had learned the value of a dramatic presentation as a teenager giving soapbox speeches on 125th Street; she had seen the power of Joe Hill's and others' working-class songs while touring the mining and logging towns of America. She and Haywood were experts by now at grabbing press attention by turning politics into theater. While they helped the millworkers create such scenes as "The Mills Alive, The Workers Dead" and "The Workers Begin to Think," and John Reed composed songs for the strikers to sing, Sloan painted a giant backdrop for the Madison Square stage--an enormous image of the silk factory where the strikers had spent most of their adult lives. On June 7th, 1,200 millworkers marched across the bridge over the Hudson River and through Manhattan to Madison Square Garden to perform their show to an audience of more than 15,000. The pageant succeeded in helping the workers feel the spirit of community action, even though the strike itself failed shortly afterwards. (Paterson Pageant poster attributed to John Sloan)
Sloan would continue to agitate in support of New York's working poor for the rest of his life, though he would drop out of the Socialist Party for its refusal to "strike" against the First World War. He joined the ACLU and signed petitions against the "disgrace to the nation," the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he moved to the Chelsea in 1935, he found a kindred spirit in the poet Edgar Lee Masters, who had passionately supported the populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and had personally berated Theodore Roosevelt for his imperialist leanings. The two aging curmudgeons liked to get together to drink cocktails, play old gospel and fiddle tunes on Masters' Victrola, and talk politics.
By 1950, Sloan's outspoken resistance to the HUAC hearings and other activities had caused the FBI to reactivate his file. Plans were made to include him in the next wave of attacks in Congress on "communistic" artists who were "corrupting" American life--but Sloan died before he could be summoned. "It's a fight, isn't it?" he said to his wife on his deathbed in a Delaware hospital in 1951. For Sloan, it had been--but he eagerly fought every battle, motivated by the human goodness he had observed in ordinary New Yorkers as he had painted them throughout his life. (Photo: "Sunbathers on the Roof" John SLoan, 1941)