Often some of the most charming snippets of a ‘known’ person’s life are the little things that never get put into the official record; here are two accidentally-unearthed bits regarding Boleslaw Cybis.
Sometimes it’s easy to assume that an artist would always design things for their own use, and often that’s true…but not always. The bookplate below was used by Boleslaw Cybis for his personal library; despite having worked in almost every other medium, this may have been one of the few exceptions.
This bookplate is from a woodcut by the Polish artist Stanislaw Ostoja-Chrostowski, who was about the same age as Boleslaw Cybis. In 1923 Cybis enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and may have met Ostoja-Chrostowski there if they were not acquainted previously. Cybis graduated from the Academy two years later. Ostoja-Chrostowski was already known for his work in graphic design, especially woodcuts, and his particular specialty was bookplates and illustrations for books.
It’s likely that the bookplate was designed for Cybis before he came to the United States. Ostoja-Chrostowski remained in Poland until his death in 1947.
It’s not known what happened to the books owned by Boleslaw and Marja Cybis after their deaths in the late 1950s; perhaps they are still on a shelf or in a storage box in the warehouse of the present Cybis studio?
Quite by chance I happened upon an article that appeared in the February 5, 1940 issue of the Syracuse [NY] Herald-Journal; it had been picked up by them via the United Press wire service fron New York. The headline was “Three Polish Exiles Join to Run Cabaret” with the subhead “Steward, Muralist and Musician Brought Together by War”. The following excerpts tell a fascinating story:
“The music echoed off the muraled walls of an elaborate plush-glass-and-chromium restaurant at 151 East 57th Street, and a hundred people danced, laughed and chatted gaily. It was a typical Manhattan East Side scene. … Outside, the elaborate illuminated sign said, simply, ‘Polish Restaurant.‘
“The dark, serious man was the manager, Antoni Gordon. The blond man leading the orchestra was Francisczek Witkowski. The shy little man, author of the beautiful murals, was Boleslaw Cybis. They had known each other only a few weeks, although they had been born, almost at the same time, only a few miles apart.
“Last spring, when the New York Worlds Fair opened, Gordon was sent over as director of the restaurant on the grounds….. [Witkowski] too headed for New York to play at the Worlds Fair. Cybis was born in Wilno, also in a musical family. He went to the Warsaw Academy and while still in his youth became one of Poland’s outstanding artists. … Cybis soon built up the remarkable fortune, for an artist, of a half million dollars. He came to the United States to paint the murals at the Polish fair building.
“Then the holocaust of war overwhelmed their homeland. On November 26 the liner Pilsudski, Poland’s ocean pride, was sent to the bottom by a mine in the North Sea. Gordon had been her chief steward, Cybis had painted her murals, and Witkowski’s orchestra had been a feature of her maiden voyage.”
That final line is how the article ends but I was intrigued enough to see if I could find out more about the restaurant and Cybis’ partners. Another 1940 news clipping, this time in the July 21, 1940 Cincinnati Enquirer, shed some light. The article was about Polish cuisine in general but included this about the Polish Restaurant that was at the 1939 Worlds Fair (and run by Gordon):
It was the Polish meat packers, with headquarters in New York City, who backed the restaurant last summer and brought over ninety Poles to run it in genuine Polish fashion….On September 1, 1939, while the Polish restaurant was still doing a rush business at the Fair, Poland was invaded, and the ninety Poles working at the restaurant were cut off indefinitely from their people, their homes and their country. “We felt a moral responsibility for these people,” says Richard Rokicki, who represents both the meat packers and the restaurant. “So, when the Fair closed, the Union of Polish Meat Packers put. up the money to enable us to open a model Polish restaurant in New York City. We took over the old Embassy Club, and redecorated it in the Polish tradition. “The murals there were done by Boleslaw Cybis, one of our best Polish artists, now a refugee. The orchestra, under the direction of Franciszek Witkowski, was the one brought over for the World’s Fair Restaurant, and had been Poland’s outstanding dance orchestra. We staffed the restaurant with our World’s Fair employees, though the present head chef is a later refugee to this country.” Meanwhile, this particular little group of Poles is carrying on at both restaurants.
Addendum, March 2017: I have discovered an additional newspaper mention of the restaurant, this one dated January 21, 1940 in the NY Times under the byline News of Night Clubs and commenting that
Taking over the premises of the one-time Embassy Club, Sapphire Room and more recently the Central Park Casino on East 57th Street, they have hired Boleslaw Cybis to convert the room into one of the town’s most charming retreats and Franciszek Witkowski to lead a native orchestra for the dances and interludes of Polish mazurkas and ballads. The food is just as good as it was at the Polish Pavilion, and the impeccable service is still presided over by gentlemen of impossible names. Not that you’ll need to know. The hors d’oeuvre is in the center of the room in plain sight – and a beautiful sight it is too.
Addendum, May 2019: A newly discovered May 1940 syndicated newspaper column in the Endicott [NY] News describes the murals painted on the restaurant walls:
Boleslaw Cybis, the distinguished Polish painter who did the murals, has turned back the clock to the 14th century in his highly stylized and decorative but definitely thematic paintings. There is ‘St. John’s Night’ depicting the celebration when young women set lighted candles afloat on the river. The girl whose candle burns longest has the most devoted swain. There is ‘Harvest Day’, also the age-old tale of the faithless wife, her lover, and the returning husband; and Polish heroes and historic scapes. Mr. Cybis has cleverly contrived an effect of gilt mosaic which greatly enhances the medieval suggestion.
Another restaurant review piece, this time in the NY Sun in February 1940, also mentions the origin of the restaurant and details about the wall art:
The mural on the right wall as one enters the dining room represents ‘St. John’s Night’, a popular Polish celebration which takes place on June 24th. ‘Harvest Day’, August 15th, may be seen on the left wall, showing the ceremonial gathering of fruits and grains of Poland. Among these decorative figures are painted the seals of six Polish cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdynia, Wilno, Lubin, Lywow.
Addendum, January 2020: from a 1940 restaurant review by Edwin C. Hill:
The Polish restaurant on East 67th Street, New York City, was organized and is staffed and managed by the operating personnel of the World’s Fair Polish Pavilion restaurant. They made a brave showing at the World of Tomorrow, but the world of today was too much for them and they had no country to return to. They were strangers in a strange land, knowing little of the language, of dubious status under our immigration laws, and in dreadful anxiety over their relations at home. …
Boleslaw Cybis, distinguished Polish painter, has turned back the clock to the 14th century in his highly stylized and decorative but definitely thematic paintings. There is “St. John’s Night” depicting the celebration when young women set lighted candles afloat on the river. The girl whose candle burns longest has the most devoted swain. There is “Harvest Day”, also the age old tale of the faithless wife, her lover, and the returning husband; and Polish heroes and historic scenes. Mr. Cybis has cleverly contrived an effect of gilt mosaic which greatly enhances the medieval suggestion.
The cloistered calm of the restaurant, augmented by its medieval décor, is essentially European and induces a sense of changeless order and security. Only when one talks with a soft spoken waiter, speaking English haltingly, does he realize that here is a candle set adrift on a river of change, like that of the girl in the mural.
The menu for the Worlds Fair Polish Restaurant is shown below It’s likely that the restaurant described in the 1940 newspaper articles offered some of the same dishes.
So what ultimately happened to “Boleslaw’s Restaurant”? It lasted less than two years after these newspaper articles were written, most likely closing in late 1941 (either when or just before Boleslaw and Marja Cybis relocated to Trenton.) In 1942 it reopened as the Riobamba supper club, and no doubt completely redecorated. By 1943 the club was struggling until they happened to book an unknown but fresh-faced young singer named Frank Sinatra for $750 a week. The rest is music history, although the club itself was shut down by the government the next year for nonpayment of taxes and pretty much everything else. It was subsequently sold again, completely renovated and reopened in 1945 as the “resurrected” Embassy Club. And believe it or not, there’s still a restaurant there: it’s French-American fusion in the current incarnation!
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