Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Four

Sophie Gurvitch (1903-1936)

Richard Shaver's first wife, Sophie Gurvitch, was born on May 2, 1903, in the Russian Empire. The city of her birth is pretty well certain. It's the spelling that's the problem. Her death certificate says Mirgorov. AskArt spells it Mirograd. The closest thing to that spelling in Wikipedia is the Ukrainian city of Myrhorod, but there is also a reference to Mirgoroda collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol named for "the Ukrainian city of the same name." So Mirgorod it is, I guess.

Sophie Gurvitch's father was Benjamin Gurvitch, a coppersmith born in December 1874 in Russia. Gurvitch came to the United States in 1904 to escape the infamous pogroms of 1903-1906. He sent back for his wife Anna and daughter Sophie, who arrived here in 1905. The Gurvitch family settled in Detroit, and that's where they seem to have lived for the rest of their lives. Benjamin Gurvitch eventually opened a paint and hardware business. AskArt gives it a name, Star Hardware and Paints.

Sophie's mother was Anna Mintz Gurvitch, nicknamed Annie. Born on October 28, 1878 (her headstone says Oct. 20, 1870), she bore three daughters, Sophie (1903-1936), Evelyn or Eva (Aug. 16, 1908-Aug. 17, 1990), and Rose (Dec. 5, 1919-Jan. 17, 1986). Sophie was of course an artist, while Evelyn was a well-known concert pianist. Rose Gurvitch married Saul Holzel in Detroit in 1942. 

The Gurvitches were Jewish and spoke Yiddish. Benjamin Gurvitch died on June 14, 1949, at age sixty-four and was buried in Workmens Circle Cemetery, a Jewish burial ground in Detroit. Anna Mintz Gurvitch died on April 8, 1980, at age 101 (or 109 according to her headstone) and was buried in the same place. Anna Gurvitch's death announcement in the Detroit Free Press (Apr. 10, 1980, p. 44) gives another daughter named Mrs. Evelyn Bryant of Israel. We'll figure out who she is after a while.

Sophie Gurvitch attended schools in Detroit and studied at the Wicker School of Fine Arts, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Art Students League of New York. She was a commercial artist, fine artist, muralist, graphic artist, and illustrator who worked in oil, watercolor, and other media. A list of her accomplishments as an artist:
  • December 1928-Exhibited with the Jewish Centers Association, Melbourne Avenue, Detroit
  • 1928-Executed the painting "Night" (see below)
  • January 1929-Exhibited at the Michigan Artists' annual exhibition, Detroit Institute of Arts, where she won the Boulevardier Prize of $50 for "best picture exemplifying modern tendencies in art" for her painting "Morning" (1)
  • November 1930-One-woman show of thirty watercolors, 250 Warren Avenue East, Detroit
  • January 1931-One-woman show, Detroit Civic Theater
  • December 1932-Exhibit of Detroit Jewish artists, Temple Beth El Social Hall, Detroit
  • 1933-"Farewell exhibition" at the Phoenix Club, Detroit, before leaving for New York City to embark on a career in illustration (2)
  • April 1934-Exhibit with the Society of Independent Artists, of which she was one of the directors, J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit
  • November 1935-Dedication of murals completed (with Harry Long) at the kindergarten of William Ford School, Dearborn, Michigan; this was a CERA (County Emergency Relief Administration) project under the direction of Mrs. Nora Crump
  • Date unknown-Completed murals at the Visual Education Museum, Lumkin Avenue, Hamtramck, with Frank Gray, Florian Rokita, and Afrem Simon, all of the Michigan Art Project
Then, in January 1937, a memorial exhibition at the Jewish Community Center in Detroit, for Sophie Gurvitch, a young, up-and-coming artist and her parents' oldest child, had died in the last week of 1936.

* * *

Sophie Gurvitch studied and taught at the Wicker School of Fine Arts in Detroit. Presumably that's where she met a young art student from Pennsylvania, Richard Sharpe Shaver. He started at the Wicker school in 1930 and eventually became an instructor as well. The two were married on June 29, 1932, in Detroit. He was twenty-four. She had just turned twenty-nine. Neither was employed at the time. Sophie Gurvitch Shaver bore a daughter in 1933 or 1934. She was named Evelyn Ann, presumably after Sophie's younger sister. At about the same time, Richard Shaver found work so that he might support his new family. Fred Nadis, biographer of Raymond A. Palmer, quotes Shaver regarding this period in his life: "I had studied writing and science and art, was married, almost owned a seven thousand dollar home and was well pleased with myself and the world." (3) Considering the things that happened over the next couple of years, no one could have blamed Shaver for believing that malign forces were at work against him.

* * *

Richard Shaver was not at home when his young wife died, nor was their daughter. Sophie's body was instead found by two men who had come to see her about a commercial art job. No one knows exactly how she was electrocuted, but it was apparent that she had handled an electric heater while she was in the bathtub. The place was a house, no longer standing, at 3009 Holcomb Street in Detroit. The date was December 29, 1936. "Illness had brought misfortune to Mrs. Shaver's family in recent years," wrote the Detroit Daily News the next day. "Her husband, Richard Shaver, also an artist, was stricken with sunstroke three years ago, and never fully recovered. Her only child, Evelyn Ann, 2 years old, is in Herman Kiefer Hospital with scarlet fever." (4) Shaver probably didn't know about either event at the time, his wife's death nor his daughter's hospitalization, for he was hospitalized, too, and had been since suffering what the newspaper--and later he himself--euphemistically called "sunstroke." The newspaper probably just got that story from the Gurvitch family. Evelyn Ann Shaver didn't know what had happened to her father, either. She was told by the grandparents who reared her that he had died. I wonder now if he ever again saw her or any member of the Gurvitch family, or if he ever knew anything about his daughter or his wife's family. Her grandparents took custody of her in 1937, and Evelyn Ann Shaver grew up as Evelyn Ann Gurvitch. She evidently married a man named Bryant and moved to Israel, for it was Evelyn Ann Bryant who was listed in Anna Gurvitch's death announcement as the third living Gurvitch daughter. By that late date, Richard Shaver was gone, too. His first wife, Sophie Gurvitch Shaver, who died so tragically at age thirty-three, was buried at Workmens Circle Cemetery like her parents. Her epitaph reads: "Her character was her finest work of art."

To be continued . . . 

Notes
(1) "Make Awards for Artwork," Detroit Free Press, Jan. 3, 1929, p. 5.
(2) "Shock Victim," Detroit Daily News, Dec. 30, 1936.
(3) From The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis (2013), p. 64.
(4) "Shock Victim," Detroit Daily News, Dec. 30, 1936.

"Night," a painting by Sophie Gurvitch from 1928. It reminds me of the work of another Russian-born Jewish artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Could it be a self-portrait? A dream-portrait?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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