"A Fateful Romance Begins in a Manhattan Coffee Shop"

Bryant Park and the surrounding neighborhood were important to the artist Joseph Cornell.  He used the New York Public Library for reference work, to the point that he developed friendships with some of the reference staff.  In 1957, he and Rudy Burckhardt, the noted photographer and filmmaker, collaborated on a 9-minute film, “Nymphlight”, which was set in Bryant Park. It was one of many films the two did together.

Joseph Cornell, Nymphlight (1957)

In this work, a young girl in a white diaphanous gown, carrying a broken parasol, steals into the park on a sunny day, passing the fountain and disturbing the pigeons.  The young girl was Gwen Thomas, daughter of an artist friend, and she looks like a young Grace Kelly when filmed in profile, gazing at the pigeons perched in the tree branches.  Burckhardt’s influence in the work is seen in the scenes of workaday New Yorkers taking a respite on the park benches.

A few years later, Burckhardt helped his friend Cornell in another, more personal, endeavor.  Cornell had developed a romantic attachment to a teenaged waitress, Joyce Hunter, who worked at the Strand Food Shop on Sixth Avenue, just across from Bryant Park.  Cornell made a collage for Joyce as a Valentine gift; too shy to give it to her himself, he watched as Burckhardt made the presentation on a day in 1963 when Joyce was at work in the diner.

From this unlikely beginning arose a brief but intense relationship between Cornell and Joyce Hunter, one that would ultimately involve an art theft, and the murder of this young girl.

Cornell, Untitled (The Hotel Eden), c. 1945. Photo by Mark Harden.

Cornell frequented coffee shops, five-and-dime stores, and the used book shops of Fourth Avenue in lower Manhattan.  He acquired a vast amount of works on paper, as well as mundane objects, and many of these ended up in the interiors of the shadow boxes for which he is now famous, and which are seen in museums around the world.

The young girls observed during his travels in Manhattan, and his home town of Flushing, are detailed in his journal writings.  Some examples included “profile of Polish-type blondish girl on escalator”, “blue skirt white blouse graceful simplicity” and “playfulness of counter girl”.  Bickford’s, Nedick’s and Woolworth’s were favorite haunts.  He was equally obsessed with the pastries he consumed, which are dutifully logged as well:  the jelly doughnuts, Danish, chocolate éclairs and the mysterious but alluring “icinged rum ring treat.”

But it was Joyce who became the object of his desire, and who seemed to reciprocate his advances.  He invited her to visit him at his home on Utopia Parkway, a home he shared with his widowed mother and his handicapped younger brother Robert.  There he created his art in a basement workshop, his refuge from the frequent domestic turmoil present as he struggled for independence from his domineering and disapproving mother.

Cornell, Defense d'Afficher Object, 1939. Photograph by Mark Harden.

Joyce Hunter became a frequent visitor to the home, which alarmed the suspicions of Mrs. Cornell.  Their relationship allowed for a fascinating examination of Cornell’s ambivalence toward his own art.  On the one hand he agonized over the creation of his boxes, investing in them great depths of emotion and meaning.  He fussed over each one and struggled over which to include in shows as his popularity grew.  He took pride in their value, but was reluctant to sell them, and refused to sell to certain individuals he saw as collectors.

Most of the boxes he considered unfinished.  In his journals he quoted Debussy:  “To complete a work is like being present at the death of someone you love.”

Yet, these boxes, lovingly created and reworked, were stacked in piles in the unlocked garage of his house.  Joyce Hunter, needing money and knowing the value of his work, would end up stealing nine boxes from Cornell’s garage.  The theft only came to light when Joyce tried to sell them.

Cornell was reluctant to press charges, but ultimately she and her two accomplices were arrested. Cornell, in perhaps the ultimate act of forgiveness, hired and paid for a lawyer to post her bail, and in the end he dropped all the charges. Their unique relationship resumed, with Cornell giving her money to get a new start in life. But it ended months later, in December, 1964, with Joyce Hunter's murder in her room at the Hotel Bretton Hall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Cornell, Nymphlight (1957)

Cornell was not unique among artists in having unusual sources of inspiration, and strange muses.  Like the young girl that runs through Bryant Park in “Nymphlight” and then disappears, Joyce Hunter appeared and disappeared in a short time, but stayed with him for the rest of his life, appearing in his dreams and then in the dream log that was a large part of his journal writing.

A list of Cornell’s correspondents and visitors reads like a “Who’s Who” of mid-20th century New York, including writers, artists, theater folks, dancers and celebrities (Tony Curtis, John Lennon and Yoko Ono).   He appreciated ballerinas and opera singers as well as film stars and television actresses like Patty Duke.   Much of his art from the 1940’s and 1950’s is echoed in the work of the next generation of artists; many of these artists knew him, or made the pilgrimage to Utopia Parkway.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

His life, like his art, incorporated elements of high art and great beauty as well as simple and humble elements, the kind commonly seen in the coffee shops and used book stores and five-and-dimes of New York in the early 1960's. Cornell and the New York he knew so intimately have passed but the boxes remain to inspire and delight.