the full and unbelievable life of Florence Ada Howard

I was practicing some freehand lettering, and decided to illustrate this quotation. It got me thinking that it would be interesting to do a write-up on the fascinating life of Florence Ada Howard. She was an artist, essayist, bon-vivant, occasional con-artist, and many other things, but as she is most well-known for her art, I’ve filed this under the “art” tab.

Florence Ada Howard was born in 1917 Orono, Maine as the first and only offspring of James and Ada Howard. She was a precocious child and displayed great academic and musical talent at an early age, learning to play both the piano and guitar before she was six years old, as well as mastering French and Spanish (though this may have been helped by her mother, who was originally from France). Her early childhood is mostly uneventful, so we’ll skip ahead a few years to 1930, when she was briefly detained by the police for successfully impersonating the wife of a local bank manager and convincing a teller to let her into the vault. She was released after agreeing to write a formal apology.

Skip ahead a few more years to 1935, when Florence decides she wants to study in Europe, much to the chagrin of her father, a professor at the University of Maine. However, by this time, she had already shown great artistic promise, having won several awards for a series of paintings she did in high school and through her mother’s cousin’s connections she is offered a place in the Grande École Beaux-Arts in Paris. During the next two years, she rarely attended courses and was, by all accounts, a terrible student. Instead, she would practice painting on her own in the parks of the city, carry on romantic affairs with both men and women (at least once simultaneously), and party with the artistic crowd of the time where she, allegedly, won a drinking contest with Pablo Picasso (though this has never been verified). Most of the record of her activities in this time comes from her own autobiography and letters between her and her various romantic partners. It was also during this time that she painted her famous ‘Pie de Dios’ (‘Foot of God’) piece that was later recovered from Hitler’s summer home in the alps.

A couple of years later, in 1937, Florence had joined a socialist art collective in Paris but was disillusioned with their “damn lack of substance [sic]“. At the same time, the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and volunteers from around the world are joining the fight in the International Brigades. Florence manages to be sent to Spain as a reporter for the socialist newspaper run by the Paris collective. This only lasts a short while, as five months after joining the fight, she is wounded by shrapnel and sent to a medical camp in Asturias. However, shortly after she arrives there, Franco’s forces launched an attack on the area. According to her own account, she escaped by the skin of her teeth on a fishing boat in the early hours before the offensive, with the help of a pair of anarchists.

"We left in the far early morning and were well on the water by the time the sun came up. I don't think the Nationalists knew we had left, but we laid low in the boat just the same. For a while until we got clear of the shore, we would hear the occasional bullet whiz through the mist above our heads. That was the closest I ever came to praying in my life."

After a brief stint once more in France to fully recover from the shrapnel, she returned to the United States, where she taught art at a high-school in New York City for the next ten years. During this time, she was a frequent contributor to the underground anarchist newspaper Forward under the pseudonym “S. Black”. While in New York, she also wrote the essay collection “Songs of Human Art and Endeavor” (which would be widely banned later during the era of McCarthyism, go figure). In the summer of 1949, she had a nervous breakdown and spent a year and a half convalescing at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. It was during her convalescence that she created the bulk of her artistic work, sometimes completing five paintings in a week.

In the spring of 1951, she returned to her parent’s home in Orono, where she told them about her plan for a “grand experiment” in which she would travel to California and live in disguise as a man for one year and write about her experiences. Her parents were opposed and attempted to forbid her from the undertaking, but she had managed to secure the support of a newspaper publisher in Boston, who wanted to publish her written account of the experiment. In 1952, she arrived in San Francisco under the name “Howard Collier” and took a job as a university librarian. Unfortunately, most of her written account of the experiment was lost in an apartment fire, but from her memoir we have this quote:

"I never felt more at home as a man than [as] a woman, but it was a special thing to me, to be able to change between them as a snake sheds its skin. It was like walking in different worlds."

At this time, her parents were convinced that she had lost her mind and needed to return to Orono for her health. In 1954, having had no contact from their daughter since she left Maine, they hired a private detective named Samson Grosjean (what a name!) to track her down and convince her to return to the east coast. Samson successfully located Florence but was unable (or unwilling) to convince her to return to her parents. Instead, Florence and he commenced a romantic affair that ended with the two of them getting married and moving to New Orleans.

After nearly ten more years in New Orleans, during which time she completed only a single painting but wrote the bulk of what would become her autobiography, Florence suffered a stroke during a flying lesson and was hospitalized. For the next several years, she is bedridden and only able to move a single finger and half of her facial muscles. She eventually learns to paint again by holding the brush in her mouth and in 1968, she completes the painting ‘Filles de Mort‘ (‘Daughters of Death’). This would be her final work, as she later died in January of 1969; the official cause of death being “complications from fever”. Shortly after her death, her widowed husband, Samson, was killed in a traffic collision in Baton Rouge. The remaining collection of her work, having never been widely displayed in her lifetime, was thought to be lost until 2006, when it was discovered in an abandoned storage facility during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Florence Ada Howard had a full life, and will continue to live on in our imaginations. In fact, that is the only place she will have ever lived. The person and life I have described above never existed, except as my own fictional invention. Does that mean she was any less real to you as you read? Perhaps none of us are ever real until we are thought about by someone else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: