“it’s hard to know where to start…”
I came home late one evening to find a blog comment waiting for approval. Comments of any kind, praise or scorn, make me happy. Sometimes I’m just glad that someone found our long-neglected site and was compelled to write. To my immediate surprise and joy, a line cut through my beer-muddled haze and immediately shook me to life: “…we are both artists who bought our house in SF from Albert in 1995.”
The story of Albert Beauparlant, grown cold before reaching a satisfying conclusion, was suddenly alive again. After years of searching for clues about the man whose childhood drawings captured my imagination, I was in contact with people who might be able to shade in the missing details of his adult life. Was he an active member of his community? Did he continue to illustrate or peruse other artistic endeavors? And ultimately, what kind of man did this imaginative boy become?
Both Greg, who had made the initial contact, and his wife Lauren we both in their middle-age and also both actively involved in the art world. After an exchange of emails containing briefs asides of some of the most revealing anecdotes, the couple, offered a penny-tour of the last house that Albert would call home. This was the house from which Bruce, the flea-marketeer who first purchased the the collection of Albert’s childhood artwork after Albert was deemed unstable by local authorities and sent away to the East Coast to be cared for.
On a Sunday afternoon I drove deep into the Sunset, a neighborhood where grey skies are oblivious to season and stuccoed homes slouch towards the ocean in neat approximation of post-war suburbia. There are sandy front yards and sandy back yards, and fittingly for any outlying neighborhood in any given city, a school known (at least locally) for its troubled boys in this case Edgewood home for boys.
At the door Lauren and her pack of small terriers invited me in, leading me into a sparse living room clearly stripped of most belongings as they were looking to sell the house. We sat down and began to exchange stories, all surprisingly intimate, about a man none of us had personally met.
As it turns out, Albert purchased the house in 1966 after retiring from the Merchant Marines and moving west from Chicago. In 1995, a niece responsible for his care moved Albert back to a nursing facility in Connecticut where he spent the majority of his remaining years, until his death in 1993. At some point after the move an estate sale was held, and neighbors remember it as an opportunity to trade stories about the house’s reclusive resident.
As I was told, when Lauren and Greg moved in most of Albert’s personal effects had been removed. However, a few artifacts remained. The living room windows were framed by dust-covered red flocked drapes and the original translucent amber window panes were enhanced with diagonal strips of duct tape to resemble the diamond-paned Tudor widows from the 16th-17th century European homes. Greg said the windows allowed on yellowish, diffused light in and the silhouette of the faux tudor windows gave the room a creepy, gothic feel. He suggested the desired effect was also to offer privacy as Albert kept a very low-profile in his community.
(A basement window remains as an example of the faux Tudoresque panes)
(The livingroom windows today)
Above the doorway leading into the dining room a protruding nail marked the spot where neighbors claimed Albert kept a display of guns.
As my tour moved further into the house, Greg pointed out a central patio where Albert was said to have gathered military supplies and back-issues of Guns and Ammo in waist-high piles.
The bathroom was also the setting of some very peculiar design choices. Lauren said the entire bathroom was painstakenly adorned with white, half-inch square tiles. His wash closet also housed an enormous Bidet and was convienently outfitted with a wall-mounted phone above the toilet. Lauren recalled imagined Albert sitting on the toilet, smoking a cigar in his great sanctuary of modern opulence.
(The shower ceiling is the only remaining look at the tile work that covered every surface of the bathroom)
In addition to his enduring fascination with guns and military paraphernalia, Albert evidently suffered from extreme paranoia. Greg pointed out the house’s interior doors, fortified with double-bolt locks and custom-drilled peepholes, as well as a two-way mirror built into the bedroom wall that looked down on the kitchen stairs leading to the basement and garage. After moving in, the couple discovered the passage was rigged with elaborate motion detectors and removed them.
(Looking through one of Albert’s many peepers on the door to the basement)
(The view of the 2-way mirror from above the basement stairs)
I followed Greg down to the garage and basement where he immediately pointed out the first of what he said was once a great number of adhesive DYMO labels that Albert had affixed to various items throughout the house. Apparently, Albert used the labels to document the date of every addition or alteration to the house. While most of them were removed upstairs, a few labels remained in the basement on items such as the radiator and a few other various objects as testament to the house’s history.
Near the garage door there was a side entrance with a mail slot and a ship’s porthole for a window. Near the window, about chest-high, was a handle where a short man could brace himself as he stood on the door sill to peer at passers-by. Greg recounted a story told by the neighborhood mailman in which Albert, routinely dressed in camouflage, would sit in a lawn chair in the driveway with a gun hidden under his jacket, waiting for his Social Security check to arrive.
A string of dates written on a wooden beam in the garage caught my eye. As the dates were all roughly six to seven months apart, Greg assumed they were Albert’s record of service on his prized possession, a 1960s Ford Mustang Albert affectionately called Nenette. According to neighbors, Nenette played a crucial part in what would become Albert’s last stand. After falling asleep at the wheel, Albert crashed Nenette into the barrier of a neighborhood cul-de-sac. When police arrived at the scene of the accident they found a loaded 9mm pistol on Albert and immediately took him into custody.
This was one in a long series of strange events and inappropriate behavior that had come to characterize Albert. Greg and Lauren recalled that when they moved into Albert’s former home people came to see the house and to share stories about the strange man who had inhabited it. Albert’s next door neighbor, a 911 dispatch operator, told of a strange fascination Albert developed and the little wrapped perfume samples and department store trinkets he left on her doorstep. At the time, she was dating a police sergeant, who she finally asked to speak with Albert about his unsolicited gifts. Following his visit to Albert’s home, the sergeant described a reoccurring unease every time he passed the Beauparlant residence, as though someone behind the tape-covered windows was aiming a gun at his head.
Intruders and home invasions remain a central theme in Albert’s adult life. In addition to stories of him firing pistols in his unkempt and overgrown yard (a yard surrounded by homes on all four sides), he’s said to have once called the local precinct station to report that a group of Hindu women had entered his home and were dancing seductively around his bed. Lauren shared an equally strange story: three years after the couple moved in (and according to records, one year after Albert’s death), a dinner party was interrupted by a pair of police officers responding to a call from a man named Albert who reported a burglary in progress at the same address.
Back in the living room with Greg and Lauren I shared a collection of Albert’s childhood art I’d brought with me. Looking through it we were struck by the way the drawings approximated a blueprint of Albert’s adult life. From his fascination with the military to his compulsive need to protect and order all aspects of his life, we were able to trace latent themes in Albert’s early artwork and the way they matured into the obsessions and behaviors that came to define him in his mature life.
Later, Greg wrote to me about a theory regarding Albert’s art, citing a parallel between Albert’s drawings of highly decorated soldiers and a photo in an early psychiatric text depicting a bipolar subject outfitted in a handmade uniform decorated with fanciful patches and medals. The caption identified the man as being in an “exalted” phase of the disorder.
Through further reading I discovered that the symptoms of the manic period associated with bipolar episodes comfortably matched the accounts of Albert’s adult behavior: sometimes delusional, occasionally paranoid, and often exhibiting a flare for the grandiose. Interesting then that Albert’s early drawings exhibit similar traits, although reduced by time and distance and the physical margins that define them. Or maybe these parameters only magnify everything above. Like I said, it’s hard to know where to start.
After an enjoyable evening discussing Albert and his drawings, I thanked Greg and Lauren, who not only welcomed me into their home but insisted that I leave with Albert’s engraved mailbox for my collection. After years of chasing a ghost, I felt like I finally stood in his shadow. Albert was no longer a mystery. He’d become something familiar: a story with a hopeful beginning, an unremarkable middle, and an unpleasant end. And as I searched for a way to rationalize the time spent trying to reassemble a life from scraps of paper I realized that the undertaking was as much about me as Albert; because in the face of our occasional unpleasantness, insignificance, and irrelevance, we all harbor a hope that someone somewhere will take up the things we leave behind with a curiosity that makes the rebuilding of our stories worthwhile.