Life sets you traps. It’s your job to escape them, if only by means of the imagination
– Renate Druks
In classic gadabout form, Renate Druks is remembered as an ephemeral creature. Like Wallace Berman, she attracted a circle of remarkable people and forged connections between them. On her own, she was a painter, but even more acted as muse for so many others’ work.
The capsule biographies always start, “studied painting in Vienna,” and skip to, “lived in Malibu” with little in between. She was born in Vienna on January 2, 1921 (if you are interested in her horoscope). We know nothing of her mother. Her father was a doctor, perhaps a psychiatrist. Her past is murky, like a smeared charcoal drawing, erased on purpose.
In Portrait she writes:
“Renate’s father treated her like a confidante, a friend. . . He discussed her mother with her as if Renate was a woman, and explained that it was her mother’s constant depression which drove him away from home.”
Nin also writes that Renate’s father told her, “No man will love you as much as I do.” Handicapping her psyche for life.
It’s possible to dig up a few more facts. In 1938 she he married Harry P. Loomer, a psychiatrist 12 years her senior who had studied in Vienna (with Daddy?). The couple was forced out of Europe by the War, census records show that she lived in Brooklyn with Loomer and his parents in 1940.
There are some facts about Harry P. Loomer: he pioneered the use of psychotropic drugs for depression, he has an obituary in the New York Times that does not mention his first wife Renate. They had one son together named Peter in 1943.
Los Angeles County voter registration list Loomer and Mrs. Renee D. living in Compton in 1948. In 1952 he is living at same address alone.
It’s not a stretch to imagine her chaffing in middle-class life, growing up and out of the marriage. Whatever brought about her move to Malibu, she becomes a kind of off-kilter butterfly, alighting in the only-in-LA concentric circles of art and the occult.
Sometime in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s she lived in the Mexico art colony San Miguel de Allende. It is purported that Leonora Carrington, Marjorie Cameron, and Renate were all at there at the same time, painting haunted women and their animal familiars, mostly cats.
There is no doubt that this is where she befriended Marjorie Cameron. And they were friends, despite reports that they were rivals. In the book The Occult Explosion (Nat Freedland, 1972), Renate is quoted, “Cameron stayed with me at my Malibu beach house for six months, pulling herself together after Jack [Parsons] died.” That is, the Jack Parsons of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who blew himself or was blown up by evil spirits, or the government, or anti-Zionists. Take your pick.
Furthermore, Renate says of her occult study, “I was never really a witch, but I did study magic for a while . . . I took it up mostly in self-defense; there were some scary things going on at Malibu Beach in the late fifties.”
During these years she was embroiled in a relationship with Paul Mathison, a gay artist whose only traces today are the titles he designed for two Kenneth Anger films, and some futuristic furniture. They lived together at her Malibu place where they threw infamous and complicated theme parties.
Around 1954 one of these parties proffered the theme, “Come as Your Madness,” in which the bit was to dress as an alter ego of oneself. Kenneth Anger was sparked by the concept, and took the frame to build his Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Guests at the party and their costumes became the cast of the film: Curtis Harrington as Cesare from Cabinet of Caligari, Cameron as the Scarlet Woman, Paul Mathison as Pan, Anais Nin as Astarte, and gadabout incarnate, Samson De Brier, as everyone else.
Druks designed the make-up and was “Lillith.” She is the woman with the red hair and broad laughing face turned skeleton face after ingesting the magic potion. She is the most graceful presence in the film, the only one to truly look as if she is in a heightened state.
No telling why Mathison and she broke up, aside from the obvious.
Here we should mention that her art is extraordinary, like a missing link between Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini. She painted women with their animal familiars and pagan accoutrements, still lifes of twilit tables set with magic objects, all in deep, jeweled colors, full of hidden dream meanings. She should be in the cannon of women surrealists.
But she would choose to sit around, wait tables, and engage in impossible relationships with men who could never truly love her, one after the other.
By the late ‘50s she was through with the occult crowd. Working as a hostess at the Holiday House (an infamous celebrity hangout on Malibu Beach), she took up Vedanta, and the Isherwood gang. She and Don Bachardy were particularly close, each painting the other in turn.
She met Ronnie Knox at The Sportsmen’s Club. She was 38, he was 24, and already a famous football player from UCLA, of which Renate knew nothing. Her 16-year-old son Peter idolized Knox. Peter had long ago tired of his mother’s erratic lifestyle, and admired Knox for his Normal Healthy Americanism.
Both Druks and Knox kept their affair hidden from their friends, equally chagrined by dating outside their own species. Though maybe their species were not so far apart. Knox, in fact, yearned to be free, a bohemian poet, so they married.
Renate indulged Knox in a series of fanciful, half-baked schemes. Knox thought living in Europe would help his writing, that they should also buy and sailboat and live on it, in Europe, which ended with Renate steering the ship as best she could. The disastrous story is told in Nin’s Collages, how Knox did not know how to sail, sinking the boat among other of Renate’s things.
Son Peter declined an invitation to join them, preferring to take a stab at the straight life and start college at UCLA.
Back in LA, Druks supported them by renting out her Malibu home and working as a commercial artist while he drank beer and dallied with other women and other men.
She got wise, they divorced in 1964 and she moved back to Malibu with Peter who had dropped out of UCLA. But in what way did she get wise? Did she grasp that Knox was not just childish, but sick?
Her son Peter died of a heroin overdose that same year, her unwise again, unaware that he was troubled or drug addicted. By all accounts, she was devastated by the loss, hysterical, and never the same.
It’s clear that friends tried to help, offering an oddball assortment of one off jobs. An album cover for composers Louis and Bebe Barron, a painting for Curtis Harrington’s Games, and most incongruously, a forward for an edition of erotic poems by Paul Verlaine. This is not counting the anonymous commercial art and design lost to the ages.
In 1987 circumstances had forced her out of her Malibu home and into a tiny, windowless condo in Hollywood. Writer Tristine Rainer, who befriended her through Anais Nin, describes Druks as uncomfortable in the apartment and looking for any reason to get out and avoid the incessant calls from Ronnie Knox.
Knox had fallen deep into mental illness and was homeless. Probably around this time he began calling Renate in her dumpy Hollywood condo.
In old age she was cared for by a friend from her Malibu Beach days, the friend’s daughter checking in on Renate regularly and taking her abuse.
She had become embittered. By her son’s suicide, by her impossible loves, by her own reflection. Who knows? She was magical and made magic on earth while she was here.
- Renate Druks art website: http://renatedruksart.com/
Overseen by the kind family who cared for her in her last days, they handle her estate and artwork, which is for sale!!
- Copies of Anais Nin’s Portrait in 3 Dimensions also for sale through site. This is a super cool handmade book with the color plates of Druks’ paintings pasted in, should be worth $100 but can be had for $22.
- Los Angeles Times article on Ronnie Knox