Two things plagued artist Georgia O’Keeffe: a heartbreaker of a husband and…well…actual plague(s). O’Keeffe almost lost her life three times with three different illnesses and then turned around and had a full-on nervous breakdown. All O’Keeffe really wanted was to paint the wide open spaces of America’s stark Southwest. But then, when things finally began to work out for her, a mysterious stranger came into her life—and changed everything.
When you think of Wisconsin, you don’t normally think of Kings and Queens. Well, when artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born there in 1887, you could say she was close to royalty. You see, O’Keeffe’s grandfather, when he rolled into the Badger State, had a royal pedigree: He was a Hungarian Count. While her own parents were simple dairy farmers, O’Keeffe got her name from her regal granddad, George Victor Totto.
As it turns out, O’Keeffe would be as far from a princess as you can imagine.
At age 10, O’Keeffe declared she wanted to be an artist. Her hometown of Sun Prairie had less than 1,000 inhabitants, but lucky for O’Keeffe, one was an art teacher. O’Keeffe took private classes in art and also graduated from high school. Staying true to her 10-year-old self, she signed up to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Everything was going great, until 1907, when an unpleasant surprise ruined it all.
O’Keeffe was primed to start her education when she got some devastating news. She’d contracted typhoid fever. She had to leave school immediately to deal with her health. It was a long agonizing period of recovery to get back into shape—a year in total. When O’Keeffe was healthy again, she quickly wanted to resume her education and headed to New York City.
Once there, she faced another setback: her parents were suddenly broke. Not only had they lost their family fortune, but O’Keeffe’s mother also had tuberculosis. Suddenly, there was no family money to keep O’Keeffe studying art in New York.
Yes, O’Keeffe had had her share of training as an artist—maybe more. There was just one problem: most of her training had become useless. You see, O’Keeffe had discovered something in New York: her paintings didn’t have to aspire to realism. Her art classes, until this point, had taught her how to paint things so they looked real. O’Keeffe now wanted to do something different, and for that to happen she needed more instruction.
O’Keeffe decided that if she couldn’t continue studying to be the artist she wanted to be, she wouldn’t paint any more pictures. Since dad had no money—and mom was sick—O’Keeffe decided she had to get a job. She moved to Chicago and became a commercial artist. She worked for two years—but her troubles weren’t over yet.
Another ailment struck her: this time, it was the measles. Once again, O’Keeffe would have to put her career on hold to deal with a devastating illness.
To recover from the measles, O’Keeffe went to stay with her family in Virginia. What O’Keeffe discovered about her family on her return was devastating. The O’Keeffes had gone from rich dairy farmers to living in poverty. When dad’s business went bankrupt, he went on the road looking for work. To make matters even worse, all her siblings had jumped ship and left their mother living alone in a student boarding house in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This was the sad and dismal home that O’Keeffe came back to for her recovery.
Luckily, O’Keeffe made a full recovery and was ready to start painting again. She set up a place to paint, but when she sat down to bring brush to canvas, something disturbing happened. She felt sick. After some trial and error, she realized that it was the smell of turpentine that made her feel physically ill. What was happening? She’d been around the smell of turpentine most of her life. Why was it bothering her now?
Because of the foul smell of turpentine, O’Keeffe could no longer paint. So, what was she going to do? In 1911, O’Keeffe began teaching. She taught in Virginia and also took classes at the same time. It was during this time that her personal artistic style began to develop. Over time, and with the guidance of her instructors, O’Keeffe gave birth: not to a child but to a movement. She started American modernism.
But what about the strange effect that turpentine was having on her body?
Maybe it was to avoid the smell of turpentine, but at this time O’Keeffe started to work with charcoal. When she’d created some pictures she was happy with, she mailed them off to a friend from college who lived in New York City. Her friend also thought the work was amazing, and she hand delivered the drawings over to a gallery in Manhattan. The name of the gallery was 291, and O’Keeffe knew it well.
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It turned out that the gallery that received O'Keeffe's charcoal drawings was one that she had visited many times when she lived in New York. O’Keeffe’s work was about to bowl over the gallery owner—Albert Stieglitz—who described the drawings as the “purest, finest, sincerest things” that had come into his gallery in ages. O’Keeffe’s art overwhelmed Stieglitz—but that wouldn’t be the only thing that had that effect.
In April of 1916, a friend of O’Keeffe’s was walking down a New York City street, and she looked into a gallery. To her amazement, she saw O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings hanging in the gallery. There were just ten drawings but shockingly, O’Keeffe had no idea that the show existed. Something bizarre was afoot.
Stieglitz had launched the exhibit behind her back. This shifty gallery owner had some serious explaining to do.
After spending two years in Texas painting sunsets and sunrises, O’Keeffe found she was still angry about Stieglitz. In 1918, she returned to New York City and was ready to tell Stieglitz that she didn’t like him exhibiting her work without her permission. Instead of a fight breaking out, Stieglitz made her an offer. He would provide financial support for her work and even get her a place to live and paint. Stieglitz had one demand: stop painting with watercolors. O’Keeffe had spent years perfecting her use of watercolors, so why was Stieglitz asking her to stop?
He said that only amateur women artists used watercolors, and he wanted her to be a professional.
Once again, disease reared its ugly head in O’Keeffe’s life. This time it was the Spanish Flu that had sunk its claws into O’Keeffe. This was a serious pandemic that would eventually take approximately 50 million lives—including O’Keeffe’s contemporary Egon Schiele and his wife. It seemed that every time O’Keeffe got a break, ill health got in her way.
Thankfully, O’Keeffe survived the Spanish Flu and continued to work on her art. Gallery owner Stieglitz was still acting as her benefactor, but O’Keeffe soon realized that his patronage didn’t come without a catch. Stieglitz invited O’Keeffe to his apartment where he wanted to take her picture. It sounded innocent enough, but there were two things that made O’Keeffe question Stieglitz’s motivation.
O’Keeffe had to question her benefactor’s feelings toward her for two reasons. When he wanted to photograph her, he only did it when his wife was out of the apartment—and the other? He wanted O’Keeffe to take off her clothes. O’Keeffe may have questioned Stieglitz’s motivation, but it did nothing to stop her from diving in completely. She had no problem getting into her birthday suit for her benefactor.
A serious problem occurred, however, when someone walked in on their photo session.
One day, Stieglitz’s wife—Emmeline Obermayer—walked innocently into the apartment she shared with her husband. Her innocence was forever tarnished by what she saw. There was her husband, photographing his artist in the nude. Obermayer had a quick and easy solution to their little problem: her husband must stop seeing O’Keeffe.
The tail end of this ultimatum was that he had to decide immediately—or leave her then and there.
Caught in the act, Stieglitz’s reaction was instant and brutal. O’Keeffe had really made an impression on Stieglitz. He knew he’d found his soul mate, and no ultimatum from his wife would make a difference. He and O’Keeffe left his home immediately and found an apartment for them to live in. For some reason the love birds had one condition on their living arrangements: they would not share a bed. That condition lasted about two weeks.
Friends described O’Keeffe and Stieglitz as two teenagers in love. Of course, neither of them was a teenager. In fact, Stieglitz was far from it. When they got together, O’Keeffe was 31 and Stieglitz was 54: that’s a 23-year gap. Besides this, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were also just very different people. Stieglitz was a sophisticated urbanite who loved living in a big city full of culture. O’Keeffe, on the other hand, was born and raised in the countryside. She liked the wide open expanses of nature including places like the Texas Panhandle.
At the start of their relationship, it was these stark differences that created an almost magnetic bond. But could this last?
Remember, O’Keeffe’s love affair started when Stieglitz took nude photos of her. Well, these photos were not just for Stieglitz’s own collection. In 1917, he exhibited the photos and they caused a huge sensation. These certainly weren’t the first nude photos of women. It was, however, in O’Keeffe’s expressions that the art-loving public focused on. People wanted to know who this mysterious woman was. And when they found out she was an artist, they wanted to see her work.
But wasn’t O’Keeffe supposed to be an artist in her own right? Why was she posing at all?
O’Keeffe had taken over Stieglitz’s work—she was officially his muse. But what about their relationship? Of course, they wanted to get married, but Stieglitz needed a divorce first. His wife, who had been so clear with her demand that he not see O’Keeffe anymore, was reconsidering. She thought they had a chance of reconciliation. Stieglitz didn’t see himself leaving O’Keeffe and getting back with Obermayer.
Obermayer had one way to try and stop O’Keeffe from taking her husband.
For six years, Stieglitz’s ex-wife refused to give him a divorce. Ultimately, when it happened, he was quick to tie the knot with O’Keeffe. They wed in 1924. The love-crazed artists had what they’d wanted for so long. They had a charmed life, split between New York City and Stieglitz’s father’s home in upstate New York. O’Keeffe finally had exactly what she wanted. So, why did everything go so wrong?
O’Keeffe soon had a new passion: America’s picturesque Southwest, and she often left Stieglitz while she worked on her art there. During one of these periods of separation, artist Paul Strand and his new wife came to visit Stieglitz. After some time, Stieglitz asked Strand’s wife if he could take photographs of her. Before you knew it, Stieglitz had talked his friend’s wife, Beck Strand into removing her clothes. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next.
O’Keeffe returned from the South and could immediately tell that something wasn’t right. She just knew that her husband had cheated with Strand. Her reaction was surprising. O’Keeffe knew the awful truth, but she decided to ignore it. In fact, this became a typical feature in the rather odd relationship between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. They preferred to let problems fester.
A relationship with festering problems sounds—to me anyway—like a recipe for disaster.
By 1927, O’Keeffe was spending a lot of her time in New Mexico, and Stieglitz preferred to stay in New York. O’Keeffe later said that she thought she’d married a hypochondriac: he was so paranoid about his health that he couldn’t live in a place where there was no hospital within a few blocks. This separation, however, was hard on their already difficult marriage. Things started to look worse when a beautiful young woman came to volunteer at Stieglitz’s gallery.
While O’Keeffe was in New Mexico, Stieglitz was doing what he did best—seducing women by photographing them. Stieglitz and the gallery volunteer Dorothy Norman were soon in the middle of a torrid affair. In 1928, two things happened to O’Keeffe. She found out that Radio City Music Hall had rejected her proposal for a mural, and that her husband was deeply in love with another woman. Neither of these surprises was any good for O’Keeffe’s mental health.
She was soon in the hospital suffering from depression.
O’Keeffe needed a way out of her depression and the solution came in a studio in Taos, New Mexico—and she had unexpected company. O’Keeffe had become friends with Beck Strand, the woman her husband had his first affair with. The two women went to Taos and, through the generosity of friends, ended up with a studio to work in. O’Keeffe’s plan was to try and forget that her husband was back in New York in the arms of Dorothy Norman.
The time spent with Beck Strand in Taos was just what O’Keeffe needed—or was it? The two women had become close—some writers believe they were intimate. But think about this: O’Keeffe was getting involved with a woman who’d been her husband’s lover. Not only that, her husband had taken this woman from his best friend.
This love triangle was becoming something more than a simple three-sided figure. O’Keeffe was with her husband’s ex, and Stieglitz was with Dorothy Norman. What good could come from this?
Even though O’Keeffe was in beautiful New Mexico working on her art, her mental health was deteriorating. In 1933, O’Keeffe had a nervous breakdown and ended up in hospital. Many people believe the breakdown was due to Stieglitz’s affair. O’Keeffe also stopped making art at this time, and it would be a year before she took it up again. O’Keeffe was quickly spiraling downward, and she needed to take charge of her life.
O’Keeffe eventually got herself out of the hospital and got a hold of her life. She took a trip to Bermuda to relax and then thought about where to set up her life. O’Keeffe had heard naturalist Arthur Pack talk about “the best place in the world”. He was referring to Ghost Ranch, which was in New Mexico just north of Abiquiu. O’Keeffe quickly went there, found a house, and moved right in.
O’Keeffe had just arrived for her summer in New Mexico, when she got a distressing message. Stieglitz had had a stroke. O’Keeffe headed straight back to New York just in time for Stieglitz’s death. As per his request, O’Keeffe had the sad job of burying his ashes at the estate in Lake George. After that sorrowful task, O’Keeffe had another one: settling her husband’s estate.
Even though O’Keeffe yearned to be back in New Mexico, she was stuck in another place that was quite the opposite: New York City. She had to painstakingly go through Stieglitz’s possessions and accounts. Somehow this took her a whopping, and I’d guess agonizing, three years. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, O’Keeffe’s home—and art practice—was just collecting dust.
After three excruciating years of going through her husband’s stuff, O’Keeffe was finally free to return to where she wanted to be: Ghost Ranch. With her husband gone, she had no ties to New York, so she made the move permanent. She’d made a clean break and she was ready to live out her life making art in a place that she loved. The only thing missing was a companion.
When O’Keeffe was 84 years old, she had to hire a plumber to fix something in her house. When the plumber arrived with a friend to help, O’Keeffe, not known for being particularly social, lost it. She certainly did not want anyone in her home that she didn’t know. She never could have predicted how this moment would change her life.
The uninvited guest was John Bruce Hamilton, and he was so affected by O’Keeffe’s presence that, despite the chilly reception, he planned to visit her again.
Hamilton made another visit to O’Keeffe to install a stove, and she was just as cold as the first visit. A little while later, O’Keeffe heard her cook talking to someone at the door. When she approached her cook, she saw Hamilton again and heard that he was asking for work. O’Keeffe told Hamilton in no uncertain terms that there was no work for him at her home. Hamilton had gotten his third strike and was about to leave. It was then that O’Keeffe stopped him.
O’Keeffe had just one question for Hamilton: “Can you pack a shipping crate?” When Hamilton said that he could, he had himself a job. It turned out, however, to be much more than just a job. Soon Hamilton was providing several services for O’Keeffe. He was her gardener, assistant, driver, travel companion, and, most surprisingly, her closest friend. Hamilton was 53 years younger than O’Keeffe. What exactly was he after?
People from the outside looking in were suspicious of Hamilton and questioned if he was after something from O’Keeffe. Soon, they started to notice unsettling changes in O’Keeffe’s life. There were some firings: mostly of household staff, but also some art dealers. Some friends also seemed to be getting the boot. Of course, everyone wanted to know if this was O’Keeffe’s doing—or was it Hamilton taking over her life.
Neighbors of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico ranch were more than a little suspicious of Hamilton. They thought he drove too fast with O’Keeffe in the car, and so they called the authorities anonymously to report him. O’Keeffe’s cook was also unimpressed with Hamilton. In fact, even though O'Keeffe was her boss, she refused to cook any food for him or clean up his “carpet of beer cans”.
It seemed clear that O’Keeffe was in trouble, but no one seemed able to help her.
Soon enough, her friends’ suspicions came to a disturbing head. O’Keeffe fired her longtime Manhattan art dealer Doris Bry. Adding to their suspicions was the fact that Bry had been the executor of O’Keeffe’s estate. Once O’Keeffe fired Bry, O’Keeffe immediately sued her to get her paintings and any money owed to her. Of course, what everyone was thinking was that Hamilton was behind it all and was after her money. Bry and to act, and she had to act fast.
Bry wasn’t about to let Hamilton take over O’Keeffe’s life, so she turned around and started a lawsuit of her own. She wasn’t, however, about to sue her most prolific artist, instead, she sued Hamilton. Her claim against Hamilton was that he was engaging in malicious interference in O’Keeffe’s affairs. O’Keeffe, Hamilton and Bry all settled these lawsuits out of court—and have kept the terms under wraps.
One thing that the people suspicious of Hamilton had to notice, however, were the good things that Hamilton was doing for O’Keeffe. With Hamilton at her side, O’Keeffe had a book of her work published, a documentary of her life on public television, and even a show of the portraits her late husband had taken of her so many years before. There was, however, something even more amazing that Hamilton had his hand in.
O’Keeffe had gotten older and her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, due to a burst artery. Because of this, O’Keeffe no longer found it possible to paint. Somehow, Hamilton got her painting again. She worked in watercolors and in charcoal—maybe she was still averse to using turpentine. If it weren’t for Hamilton, one of the greatest painters in American history would not have continued her legacy.
But, as the saying goes, haters still gonna hate.
In spite of these positive changes, people still suspected Hamilton of having ulterior motives. What happened next didn't help Hamilton at all. It turned out that O’Keeffe had signed over power of attorney to Hamilton—but did she know what she was signing? Remember, O’Keeffe’s eyesight was poor and it was quite clear she was unable to read the details of the contract she was signing.
To clarify, she wrote at the bottom of the document: “I have this this (sic) read to me Georgia O’Keeffe.” Now that Hamilton had power of attorney, what would he do?
The suspicious document that said that Hamilton was O’Keeffe’s power of attorney didn’t come into public knowledge until Hamilton tried to use it to buy a house. He said the house was for O’Keeffe...but didn’t she already have two houses? What was he up to? To explain his actions, Hamilton said that, due to O’Keeffe’s declining health, she needed a house near the hospital.
What Hamilton did next, however, made him look even more suspicious.
So, O’Keeffe moved into this new house—called Sol y Sombra—and she kept the first floor in the usual sparse condition of her other homes. Upstairs, however, was a totally different story. Hamilton moved his ex-wife and their two kids in and fixed it up fancy style—with top-quality furnishings. Fancy house? Done. But what about vehicles? O’Keeffe already had two cars, but Hamilton used her money to buy three new cars: all Mercedes.
On August 8, 1984, O’Keeffe, who was basically blind and deaf at this point, woke up and dressed herself in white. When the staff at the house asked her why she was wearing white, her answer was chilling. She said she was getting married. When staff asked who she was marrying, the 96-year-old woman said she was marrying Hamilton.
This was it, they must have assumed. This was how Hamilton was going to get O’Keeffe’s complete fortune.
Downstairs there were flowers everywhere and old friends started to arrive. Was there really going to be a wedding between 96-year-old O’Keeffe and her young friend? In actual fact it was worse than a wedding: Hamilton was going to get O’Keeffe to update her will and sign over the rest of her fortune to him. Eventually, O’Keeffe’s frail hand signed the document: Hamilton and his wife were instant millionaires.
Only one thing stood in their way.
Of course, Hamilton had to wait for O’Keeffe to die before her could get her money. Suspiciously, he kept the updated will a complete secret to everyone until that happened. O’Keeffe died on March 6, 1986, and they spread her ashes at Ghost Ranch—at her request. It was only four days later that Hamilton filed the will. He didn’t waste any time.
O’Keeffe’s family wasn’t about to let a stranger walk away with this huge fortune. They contested the will and waited for Hamilton to show his true colors. He did show them, but they were not what the haters expected.
Hamilton gave up the cash and took, instead some art, some personal items, and the house at Ghost Ranch. Hamilton said he didn’t want to fight the O’Keeffe family, saying that he had his career as an artist to worry about.
In the days before the settlement, Hamilton seemed intent on one thing: keeping everything secret. He claimed that this was because he was trying to preserve O’Keeffe’s privacy—which everyone knew was important to her. Of course, there’s another theory: Hamilton was trying to cover his tracks. If he was really a gold digger in search of an easy fortune, the paper trail would be in documents that he has now sealed away forever.
In 2020, when Hamilton reached the age of 74, he did something odd. He took the things O’Keeffe had left him and went to Sotheby’s. His intent was to sell them all off. Was he broke? Was he heartbroken? Some people did imply that his relationship with O’Keeffe had been more than just friendship. Hamilton simply said it was time to “bid farewell” to the mementos.
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