Claude Lewis – A Journalist After Your Heart

Last fall – when pre-election angst and anger were at their peak – Dave and I contacted over two dozen Philadelphia artists,  writers and performers,  and asked them to pose for our windows holding upbeat signs with words like create,  collaborate,  envision and,  yes,  VOTE….

17_04_20 1 Tasker Street Windows CM_5602Twenty-eight smiling artists lit up our South Philadelphia windows last October to remind us that we really do have more in common than not.

As you may recall,  participants included everyone from singer Bobby Rydell and comedian Jennifer Childs,  to jazz pianist Alfie Pollitt and sculptor Miguel Antonio Horn.

But there was one window,  front and center,  that was reserved for my earliest role model.


Like today,  the late 1960s were a confusing and complex time to be a teenager and,  three days a week,  I’d rush home from high school,  tear open the Philadelphia Bulletin,  and read Claude Lewis’ column.

17_04_20 2 Claude Lewis Phila BulletinPhiladelphia’s first black newspaper columnist,  Claude Lewis,  during his Philadelphia Bulletin days.  (Photo courtesy of the Lewis Family.)

Lewis had a magical way of taking complex and often scary subjects and bringing them down to human size – to people and ideas that you could relate to and care about – and I longed to write like him.

So when Sister Dolores Donovan named me the new feature editor of the St. Hubert’s High School newspaper,  I screwed up my courage,  called the Bulletin,  and boldly asked to interview him.


And,  yes,  I still remember the thrill of hopping on the Frankford el in my high school uniform and saddle shoes and walking into the Bulletin.

I was a few minutes early,  so Lewis asked me step around the corner and take a seat.   But – being a typical teenager and more than a little nervous – I turned the wrong way and sat down in the first empty office I saw.

Decades later,  my most vivid memory of that day in 1971 is of me standing next to my hero while an angry editor dressed us both down,  demanding to know “Who told this kid she could sit in my office?”

I was mortified,  but I also remember being impressed that  “Wow!  Real newspaper editors are just as grouchy as the ones in the movies….!”

17_04_20 3 Cathy Mellina 1971Cathy  (aka Kate)  Mellina,  girl journalist,  at left,  with St. Hubert’s sports editor Janice H.


Somehow we both survived,  and I got my treasured interview – and I still have family members who talk about the day that  “Catherine”  interviewed Claude Lewis.

When I left for college,  Lewis followed:   Every week,  my mom would include his latest writing in her snail-mail care packages.

But  his influence went way beyond those newspaper clippings:   It was there when I joined the college newspaper and wrote about everything from closeted gay students to women’s liberation.

And it was there 25 years later when I became an Asbury Park, NJ councilwoman and newspaper columnist who wrote about poverty,  crime,  election fraud,  and the good-hearted people who were working to save our sad little town.

17_04_20 4 Claude Lewis National LeaderClaude Lewis in 1982,  shortly after he co-founded The National Leader,  the first national black weekly newspaper.   He later worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer,  wrote biographies,  and produced and/or appeared on a variety of television and radio programs.  (Photo courtesy of the Lewis Family.)

 And his influence was there again last October when we photographed over 300 more Philadelphians holding those same upbeat signs and posted their smiling faces on our blog.


That’s why,  when we started our anti-election-angst photo project,  I knew that the central window overlooking East Passyunk’s  “singing fountain”  belonged to him.

17_04_20 5 Claude Lewis - Vote WindowsLewis joined Bobby Rydell  (top left),  Jennifer Childs  (top center)  and two dozen other Philadelphia artists,  writers and performers in our pre-election windows.

It took me almost five weeks to find him.    And,  yes,  I cheerfully annoyed a whole new generation of newspaper editors and writers before Kate Binzen,  daughter of former Inquirer writer Peter Binzen,  reconnected us.

Lewis had just returned home from several weeks in a rehab hospital and he warned me that he could no longer see,  but he invited Dave and me to visit him and his wife Beverly.


 And so,  on a sunny summer day,  we drove across the Ben Franklin Bridge,  and I felt  like I was 17 years old again:   There was Claude Lewis,  characteristically gracious and kind,  and just as sharp as ever.

And there was me – totally mortified because we’d forgotten to pack the sign he was supposed to hold.

17_04_20 6 Claude Lewis DC_8000Working with Kate?   It pays to have a sense of humor….

So my second most vivid Claude Lewis memory is of him posing in the hall of his apartment building – holding two AARP newsletters that Dave then had to Photoshop over with a copy of the sign.

That night I went down to my studio and pulled out a manila envelope that I’ve been carrying around for,  well,  46 years now.   And inside was a 1971 copy of the St. Hubert’s High School “Tally-Ho” newspaper with my Claude Lewis interview.

17_04_20 7 Claude Lewis Interview 1971And, yes, I was so nervous about not misquoting him that I included not a single direct quote.


At a recent memorial service,  a local television journalist noted that some people get your attention by getting in your face,  but Claude Lewis made points by getting into your heart.

To read more about Lewis’ remarkable,  ground-breaking career – from his early friendship with Langston Hughes,  to being beaten by police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention,  to his co-founding of the National Association of Black Journalists,  see journalist Pete Binzen’s 2016 tribute here and the Inquirer’s 2017 memorial here.

So thank you,  Claude Lewis,  for showing this awkward,  blue-collar,  1960s Philadelphia kid – in fact,  a whole generation of us – that we could be so much more than we knew.


17_04_20 8 Claude LewisClaude Lewis (1934-2017)

Artist Lou Hirshman – A Philadelphia Original (Part 2)

(Continued from Wednesday,  March 29.   Click here  to read Part 1…)

While Philadelphia artist Lou Hirshman first became known in the 1930s and 1940s for his witty three-dimensional caricatures of public figures,  his subject matter evolved with the decades.

By the 1960s,  he was using his found-object constructions to comment on social types ranging from psychiatrists and dictators,  to pot smokers and TV viewers.

17_03_30 1 The Duel_Lou Hirshman_1962Hirshman’s 1962 “The Duel” shows two combatants – deftly outlined in long strands of string – locked in eternal combat by the children’s scissors that bind them.   Their matching physiques and identical button faces hint at a different type of duel – an internal one.

Other images wittily conveyed pure,  light-hearted fun.

17_03_30 2 Animal Circus_Lou Hirshman_1964A smiling dog with a water bottle body,  beaded purse head,  and jaunty belt legs supports a bird with an oyster shell body and bottle cap head in 1964’s  “Animal Circus”.   Two tiny creatures made of pennies,  matches,  a metal heel plate and more join the high-wire act.


Hirshman also played with major artistic styles,  producing works that riffed on everything from pointillism to cubism to surrealism.

17_03_30 3 Lady With Cat_Lou Hirshman_1976Reading like an early Picasso,  Hirshman’s  “Lady With Cat” (1976)  sports oyster shell hair,  a toy mouse nose,  and an elegant egg necklace.   The legs and tail of her button-nosed cat are fashioned from two springs and a comb.   And,  yes,  the gold-toned electrical plate adds an unexpected,  witty touch.

17_03_30 4 Triumph of Death_Lou Hirshman_1974Clutching a staff made from real bones and a knife,  Hirshman’s Grim Reaper in  “Triumph of Death” (1974)  rules over a stark kingdom collaged with images of the famous and not-so-famous.


“It’s hard to tell which came first sometimes – the objects or the ideas,”  Bill said about his dad.   “He was somewhat of a self-taught philosopher who recorded the meditations of Eastern philosophers in his daily journal,  and his five-mile walks to Fleisher were a time of meditation.”

And while his dad sometimes encountered  “art objects”  like a found hubcap in his travels,  Hirshman’s family came to expect that certain possessions – Betty’s clothespins and hair curlers,  Debbie’s dolls,  Bill’s toys,  or even the children’s scissors found in the “The Duel” – would mysteriously disappear,  only to resurface in his latest creation.

A young Bill even delighted his mom with a song in which his missing sister was found framed and hanging in the Louvre.

17_03_30 5 Betty Hirshman in StudioBetty Hirshman in her husband’s studio shortly after his 1986 death.   And,  yes,  Hirshman built all his own frames.


With the help of his son-in-law,  Bill recently set up a Lou Hirshman website featuring images of almost 100 works.

“I’m his son and I’m biased,”  he admitted,  “but I think he was a genius.   I don’t want to sell his work,  but I want to be the promoter he never had.”

Part of Bill’s mission is to discover the whereabouts of several dozen missing works which either disappeared over the years or were sold through New York’s  Frank J. Miele Gallery  following Hirshman’s 1986 death.

17_03_30 6 Beatles_Lou Hirshman_1964Among the missing:  In 1964,  Hirshman brilliantly portrayed the Fab Four with such simple objects as sneakers,  gloves,  a frying pan,  a fried egg,  and sausages.

And,  yes,  the siblings would love an opportunity to exhibit his work.


Have a story about Lou Hirshman,  or know the location of a missing piece?    Contact Bill and Debbie here.

It’s time to honor another Philadelphia original.

17_03_30 7 Louis Hirshman Circa 1980Louis P. Hirshman,  circa 1980



Artist Lou Hirshman – A Philadelphia Original (Part 1)

A major perk of writing our  Unexpected Philadelphia  blog and website is the connections we make with intriguing Philadelphians,  past and present.

In October,  2016,  we led you on a photo tour through the art-filled home and garden of Philadelphia Dumpster Diver Randy Dalton and former Inquirer editor Michael Martin Mills.   Among their treasures was this 1963 portrait of then-President John F. Kennedy by the late Philadelphia artist Lou Hirshman….

17_03_29 1 JFK Louis Hirshman CM_4950Artist Lou Hirshman transformed coconut and peanut shells,  matzo,  peas and Chiclets into this witty caricature of JFK.   Note the fish-shaped tie.


Which is what led us last week to a fun phone conversation with Hirshman’s son and daughter,  William  (Bill)  Hirshman and Deborah Donnelly.

Louis Hirshman was born in western Russia around 1904 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1909.   A lifelong Philadelphian,  he left school in the 10th grade and was creating art professionally by 1920.

17_03_29 2 Louis P Hirshman_Circa 1938Louis P. Hirshman,  circa 1938

His early endeavors included oil paintings,   commercial art,  and even avant-garde filmmaking,  but by the mid-1930s he began experimenting with “constructions”,  his witty and often biting,  three-dimensional framed caricatures of notorious public figures like Hitler,  Mussolini and Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and of more beloved icons like Groucho Marx,  Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein.

17_03_29 3 Groucho Marx_Lou Hirshman_1937Hirshman’s 1937 Groucho caricature uses a wooden box with a sliding lid for his face and shirt, and features spool and button eyes,  glove hair,  a pincushion boutonniere,  a bow tie mustache and a shoehorn nose,  among other readily identifiable objects.

17_03_29 4 Einstein by Lou Hirshman 1940A  (literally)  mop-topped Albert Einstein sports a brush nose and mustache,  an abacus chest,  and a pencil-and-paper collar affirming that 2+2=2+2.   This 1940 work is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


By 1938,  Hirshman’s three-dimensional caricatures earned him a two-page spread in Look magazine,  and his work appeared in publications like Vanity Fair.

But Hirshman – who joined the art faculty of Philadelphia’s famed Fleisher Art Memorial after a World War II Army stint,  and who served as the faculty director of the evening art school from 1960 to 1977 – was an intensely private man who never felt the desire to sell his artwork at a gallery during his lifetime.

17_03_29 5 Lou Hirshman Self Portrait 1985Hirshman in 1985 with a 1949 self-caricature featuring a pancake face,  lemon slice ears,  and metal nails for hair.   He stands on an artist’s palette with two crossed paintbrushes rising like good-natured devil horns from his head.

Hirshman’s studio lay in a back bedroom of his Regent Square row home in Philadelphia’s University City section,  positioned to catch the northern light.

“Dad’s studio was his sanctuary,  and it was pretty much off-limits,”  recalls son Bill.   “We didn’t go in while he was working.”

17_03_29 6 Lou Hirshman StudioAn undated photo of Lou Hirshman’s studio,  which his son described as “a neatly arranged collage in itself.”

Fourteen years older than his wife Betty,  and considerably older than his two children,  Hirshman rose at 6 a.m. to do yoga and often emerged from his studio only to eat.   Following an early dinner,  he would take a meditative,  five-mile walk to his job at Fleisher,  rarely arriving home before 10 p.m.

“Art was his life,  but he was rarely published and never publicized himself” in later years,  recalls Bill,  who has made it his mission to see that his dad’s work is not forgotten.

17_03_29 6 Louis Hirshman Deborah WilliamLou Hirshman poses with his daughter Debbie in 1948 and his son Bill in 1980.

(Click here to read Part 2….)