An art mystery, a heart’s history

Well, friends, it’s our first February of Covid – more than 11 months since our initial shutdown here in San Francisco. Of course, this is the month of Valentine’s candy and cards, so I wanted to share some discoveries about love echoing in faded words and forgotten names. But this is not your Hallmark card valentine – so it will take a while to get to the heart of our tale; over a century, in fact.  In “real time”, not “reading time”!  Come to think of it, it has taken me 20 years to write these words.

Aunt Monie was the crazy relative.  Of course, that’s probably what some of my family say about me – they have a point.  But Aunt Monie – technically my great aunt, being my paternal grandmothers younger sister – she did it with gusto.  The youngest of 3 surviving sisters, born in Nogales, Arizona in 1902, where her father worked with Santa Fe.  Not long after, the Grey family moved to Needles, California and her oldest sister Dora was one of the famous “Harvey Girls” there.   

Crazy Aunt Monie as I remember her, under her portrait

Monie was the only one of the 3 sisters that I have actual memories of – my grandmother Bela, the middle sister, passed when I was quite young, and there are fragments of moments, feelings really, that remain – probably inspired by the handful of photos.  But Monie lived into my young adulthood – showing up occasionally, sometimes without notice, and always full of life.  Perhaps a bit like “Auntie Mame” but only popping into my life every 5 years or so. 

She was a personal care nurse, and a single mother – having married 3 times – and from what everyone says, being very comfortable in intimate relationships (short term and long) well into her 70s.  At one point in her life, she operated a kind of roadhouse/bar in the Fortana/Rialto area of Southern California’s “Inland Empire” with an illegal “one armed bandit” slot machine in the back room.  And yes, she loved to drink! 

Monie and her second husband had a son – Bill – who I saw rarely.  I knew from comments my Dad and stepmother made that he was different- not realizing what that meant, as a teen in the 70’s – Bill was a homosexual (this was before “gay” was in common use, and the other words were far less polite).  I just knew that everything was a little different on those few occasions we visited – and, in time, both Monie and Bill moved to Hawaii, so I didn’t see them for several years. 

Bill Rennie as a child in California

Then, shortly after I graduated college and began my professional career, I was selected for an assignment in Hawaii.  I had actually never flown in a plane until I got out of college.  My assignment was on Maui, so I spent a few days ahead in Oahu – my only visit there, now nearly 40 years ago.  As it turned out, that remains my most vivid memory of our visits before her passing at age 93.  Monie drove me around, meeting a friend who was well known in the indigenous people community and famous for her ukulele singing, but her son Bill was not there – and I was a bit relieved.  By this time I knew he was “gay” – and so was I – but there was nothing I wanted to do with him, or that part of myself. 

Of course, as I have shared in other posts, life had a plan other than the one I sought to cling to – and in the process of exploring my family history, I learned Bill, “Cousin Bill” as my Dad called him, had actually moved to Palm Springs from Hawaii.  Anxious to quiz him about some of the family lore, I convinced my stepmother to drive out to see him – more than 30 years after my last encounter with him as a teen.  Over the 4-5 years since that visit, I learned a lot about him and my family – and in time, I became involved in his care. Sadly, my father, bitter from disappointing memories of encounters with his aunt and cousin over the years, refused my request to bring Bill to visit for Thanksgiving 2005. He pass in October 2006, preceded that year by my mother and stepmother, and followed the following year by my father.  It was a time of loss and learning, slowly, to journey through grief. 

As I dealt with Bill’s estate and personal effects, being greatly helped by his neighbors Jim and Niles who cared so lovingly for his needs in his last years, there were many possessions in his ramshackle mobile home and storage unit.  He had lived a flamboyant life, and was for many years a very sought after hairdresser, in California and Hawaii – even taking care of Betty Ford’s styling when she and the President would visit Honolulu.  One painting he had always told me had been a gift to his mother, Monie – an oil painting, of what he said was the old harbor there before the hotels starting getting tall.  In fact, supposedly this was the very site of the hotel made famous in the TV credits for “Hawaii Five O” where the camera zoomed in on Jack Lord weekly to that famous theme music. 

You can see the hotel, and the yacht club, in this famous TV opening.

Bill, and Monie before him, had a reputation with my Dad and family of … exaggerating, to be polite.  Dad called her Phony Aunt Monie! So it didn’t entirely surprise me when I looked into the history of that hotel – the Illikai – opened in 1964. Back then, it was the first “high rise” hotel in Honolulu –  Which wouldn’t really be relevant, except – he had said this was the boat harbor, before the skyline was altered by construction.  and as near as I can determine this would have been the Ala Wai yacht harbor, also the site of the Waikiki yacht club.  But ….. the mystery arises from inscription on the back of this painting.  

It’s faded, understandably – partly in English, partly in French.  On one side, the words are printed “The Yatch (sp) Club”, Honolulu, September 60 and the artists name – seemingly, Giordani.  The style of signature matches that on the lower left of the oil painting itself, but for years I had been unable to find any reference to an artist by that name.  On the left reverse of the frame, in French – “A ma tres cheri ami Mona, en hommage et sincere amitie j’ai de tout coeur”.   Now my junior high spanish was 50 years ago, but with slight uncertainties about the handwriting, that basically says – To my dear friend Mona, in homage to the singer friendship I carry in my heart”.   Signed, seemingly, as on the front – Giordany? Or … Giordani;  and dated May 19th, 1965, Honolulu Hawaii.   

Or is it September 66?  Hard to say, but by then, the artist would have to be painting from memory if in fact this was near the site of that famous Jack Lord hotel shot seen for many years.  The Yacht club still exists – but is not in proximity to the hotel – and so, it would seem, the story about this being the the “site” of that hotel before construction is, like perhaps many of Bill’s stories … exaggerated.  

Still it is, I think, a lovely painting – of a time gone by – and I had always been curious about the identity of the artist.  Not being a student of art personally, I cannot say that it is particularly remarkable, although certainly well beyond anything I could ever produce.  And having seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow where seemingly common items turn out to be worth untold amounts of riches, well, one has dreams.  But I could never be sure of the spelling of the name – not knowing if it was a first, last, or other kind of signature.  My google searches turned up nothing;  when I recently took it to get reframed, as it is, other than photos and letters, the last piece of the legacy of Monie and Bill that I have – I decided to try again to see if, somehow, this work of art was by a well known artist. 

But my initial 2021 web searches did not turn up any results that seemed to match any artist working in Hawaii in that era;  and there were many names with life spans that did not correlate.  That is, until I decided to search images and … eureka.  A photo of a painting by an Aldo Giordani, with the same unmistakeable signature and similar style.  Was he famous? Was I going to be rich?  How to find out more?  I realized my subscription to might shed some light, having used it to find out some amazing, sometimes shocking, stories about family events – and, indeed, there were some articles that finally gave me some insight into the artist behind the painting. 

Aldo was born in 1914, from a family of generations of artists, including his father, Italo Giordani.  According to one article from the Austin Texas American Statesman in 1974, he studied at the Eclose des Beaux Arts in Paris, working in both oil and sculpture.  He traveled extensively, and according to that same article (pictured – screen shot) he was captured by French forces while serving in the Italian military in Algeria – and served 3 years in prison.  From there, somehow, he made his way to Polynesia; then to Hawaii;  from there, at some point after his dedication to Monie,  to Canada, Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  A 1972 Billings Montana article quotes him as saying, explaining that he never married – “I can’t deny I’m attracted by women.  But I look for something besides the physical, the sex. I look in a woman’s face, her eyes.  That tells much. Women are very emotional”.   Ah, Italians.  Apparently, he also loved to cook, and hosted parties and receptions with international cuisine from his many travels.   But after the several articles from all these locations, Aldo seems to have, like so many, trailed off in time.  I found a reference to him passing in 1980, and another to a lawsuit in Taos for unknown cause, as well as a notice to auction off an unpaid storage unit in Hawaii.  

1972 article about another Giordani artwork – I wonder if it still is on display?

So, like Monie, and to a degree Bill, Aldo was a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a showman, and perhaps a scoundrel – a colorful man with colorful art, who enjoyed life.  What their story was together, is lost.  You may well ask why I would put time into researching something so seemingly obscure and meaningless, but as I have written in the past – there is something about these moments in time, these artifacts of mostly forgotten lives, that speaks to something more timeless.  Love, intimacy, yearning;  hope, inspiration and the quiet corners of our hearts that we sometimes turn off the lights and shut the doors to, forgetting they existed.  Monie touched many lives with her caring for patients, Bill with his lovers, friends, and styling conquests, Aldo and his apparently profuse creations of art, now probably mostly gone.  I cannot hear the ocean when I see this painting, but I remember Monie and Bill, as do my brothers – and probably few, if any, others.  But I feel the colors, of the caked oil strokes, and of their energy, their laughter and their love.  

Bill was always gracious, loving – and mostly, outrageous. He was, himself.

Whether we all pass into something once we leave this earth, the reality is, most of us, our lives and our longings – will fade and be forgotten.  Walk through any old cemetery and reflect on the struggles and triumphs of all those lives, now for the ages, and the immediacy of our seemingly insurmountable crises will possibly feel a little less weighty.  I am glad I have this painting and hope one of my nieces or nephews will one day ask me about it, and when the time comes, hang in in their home.  Like many who will pass without children, I wonder what they will remember of me.  For you, dear readers – if any – think about, in this digital age when so many pictures and films, thoughts and hopes, songs and tears have no long term physical existence – what pieces of your life will survive your time on this earth?  And, answering that question – what can each of us do with the days ahead, whose number is unknown, whose opportunities to feel the sun and the ocean breeze, or the touch of a loved ones hand, will not always be ours to treasure anew, only to remember. 

Mahalo, Aldo Giordani; Aloha, Monie and Bill – until we meet again. I treasure your love, and am reminded the love we receive is mean not to hold within our hearts forever, but to give anew.

Thanks for visiting, friends. You all stay safe, and keep on keeping on.