“There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” — Lawrence Durrell, 1957
Though it is only a painting of a woman, the reverent sentiment survives just the same.
In Telluride in the early 1960s, the legal fight and war of words over a life-sized nude called attention to the painting “The Lady Known as Who?”
“As for the painting itself, it probably wouldn’t make the grade at the Metropolitan Museum. Female it is, the proportions of shoulders and arms leave much to be desired though her hips have never been found wanting by generations of hard rock miners. They are wide and spacious, having the same sweeping curves which characterize the rump of another important and cherished inhabitant of Colorado mining towns, the durable mine mule,” wrote Barron Beshoar in the Denver Westerner’s Monthly Roundup in August of 1961.
The painting’s origin, identity, and ownership all were the subjects of Telluride discussions for years, according to Beshoar.
“The most popular story of the her origin revolves around an impecunious young artist and a girl who worked “On the Line” on Pacific Avenue just a block off Colorado Avenue. According to this oft-repeated tale, the artist, suffering from a severe case of gold fever, drifted into Telluride when the camp was at the height of its boom. Such mines as the Alta, the Black Bear, the Tomboy, the Liberty Bell and the Smuggler, were pouring out millions in gold, copper, lead, and zinc. Hundreds of men crawled over the mountains looking for new properties. But the poor artist couldn’t get together enough money for a grubstake because of a fatal flaw in his physical make-up — his hands were callous free and lily white so naturally no one would trust him.
When he ran completely out of funds, according to the story, he wound up “On the Line’ where one of the girls took pity on him.
“She was a beautiful and good-hearted Erskine Caldwell sort of girl. She provided the artist with meals and various comforts of life, and finally posed for the painting, which he sold for enough money to provide the needed grubstake, and he removed her, via the bonds of holy matrimony, from her life of degradation and shame.”
According to the stories, the couple lived happily ever after when his grubstake was transformed by luck into paying claims. Also, it was rumored that grateful miners continued to bring the now faithful wife rich samples of high-grade ore which the couple processed in their house.
The picture never hung in the bawdy houses on Pacific Avenue of the likes of The Pick and Gad, The Idle Hour, The Gold Belt, The Silver Bell, The White House and the Cozy Corner, but instead made it over to the more respectable climes of Colorado Avenue where it hung on the wall of the National Saloon and the Cosmopolitan.
“Certainly it was traveling between the two saloons fifty years ago as it is clearly remembered by a number of local citizens who were also traveling between the two saloons at that time,” noted Beshoar in 1961.
During prohibition, it ended up over at The Diamond, a gambling and drinking joint run by Harry Counterman.
“After Counterman and his girl, Bessie Young, who ran The Idle hour, went out of business and went off somewhere and committed suicide, Thurston “Slim” Parsons came into possession of the gambling equipment and the painting by paying $300 back taxes to the San Miguel County Treasurer,” said Beshoar.
Parsons kept the painting in several of his businesses over the years including (only briefly) The Roma Bar and Café. But his wife wouldn’t stand for it there, and it was banished to a beer garden up the street, next door to Frank Wilson’s Busy Corner Drug Store. The beer garden closed it doors in the ‘30s and it traveled from there to a private gambling club called The Telluride Club in rooms rented to Parsons by Wilson, above the Drug Store, where it watched over poker games until that club closed in 1948. Parsons left it the rooms when he closed the business.
“From that point on, the stories about the gal in painting begin to differ,” wrote Beshoer.
“Slim Parsons says he asked Druggist Wilson for the picture after the latter had it taken downstairs and put in back on the wall in the beer garden room and is using the one-time beer garden as a gift shop in the summer and storage space for some of his excess from the drugstore.”
According to Parsons quoted by Beshoar, “ I told him I wanted the picture, but he could have some of the chairs and tables and stuff upstairs if he wanted them. I don’t have any sentimental attachment to that picture, but it is my property and I want it. In fact, I don’t really care for it very much, but want to hang it in the Elk’s Club.”
Parsons attributes the paintings origin to a dance hall girl in Telluride of times past but doesn’t think Wilson’s correct in the specific identity.
“There were two such paintings, if the woman Wilson talks about was painted, I think she was the model for the other one,” Parsons told Beshoar back in 1961. “Last I heard, that one was hanging in the Stockman’s Café in Montrose.”
Druggist Wilson had a much different view. He insisted it was not just another nude.
“Why, one day an old miner came in here and squinted up at that picture and said, ‘Why Frank, I see you got a picture of Audrey,’ I said. ‘How do you know that’s Audrey?’ The old fellow said, ‘Why, I would recognize her anywhere.’”
Wilson said he told Parsons that he might want to rent the upstairs rooms and he needed to get his stuff out there. Parsons came by and took some stuff, but left the painting.
“People had drawn all over it. I was going to send out to the dump in the trash, but my son Bob worked on it for about four days cleaning it. He is a history major and he said he would like to have it.”
The cleaned-up painting was hung on the wall downstairs in the former beer garden again, in 1949, but Parsons returned to claim it more than decade later.
“He got right up on the player piano and was going to take it right off the wall,” said Wilson.
Wilson, who according Beshoar had holsters nailed to the underside of his counters in his drugstore and kept several pistols in readiness for possible trouble, cried, “I would not let anyone take this painting and I wouldn’t sell it to anyone.”
Wilson who had a reputation for caution in money matters, added however, “... Course I wouldn’t give a nickel for it, either.”