The Tomb of Rockmore
“I think one of the things you’ll find about Rockmore is this tragic dimension,” Cameron says. “He never actually realized his full potential as an artist, and you can probably take that one step further and say he did it to himself: It was Rockmore who destroyed his own possibilities.”
Shirley’s failure to pay $750 in storage fees nearly cost her a million-dollar collection. Worse still, it almost cost the world the world of Rockmore.
The first time Shirley Marvin met Noel Rockmore was on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The date is hard to pinpoint, but it was likely 1962. Shirley had bought one of his paintings a few weeks before from a shopkeeper who’d placed the canvas outside on the sidewalk leaning back against the storefront. It showed a child in an abandoned car parked in the courtyard of a housing project. When Shirley first saw the painting, it was bathed in light, as if generating its own heat source, and it seemed to beckon her. She didn’t flinch at the thirty-dollar price tag.
Shirley asked the shopkeeper who the artist was, and he described Rockmore as an eccentric who until recently had lived above the store. The artist was now painting portraits of the musicians who played at Preservation Hall, a club that featured live jazz performances by the likes of Kid Thomas, Sweet Emma, Danny Barker, and Chicken Henry. A local real-estate investor named Larry Borenstein had commissioned Rockmore to produce the portraits. Borenstein had a gallery only a block away. Shirley walked over and introduced herself. “Then one day soon after, this rather attractive fellow walked up to me on the street and said he was Rockmore,” says Shirley. “I guess Larry had told him about me and what to look for. He talked and talked and when he finished he propositioned me. He said he had a lot of married women friends who just came in and visited with him and things were very pleasant and it didn’t interfere with their marriages.”
Shirley had a husband and three children, and they were living then in a quiet middle-class and largely scandal-free Baton Rouge neighborhood. Although she’d grown up in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended Wellesley College, her liberal inclinations were generally limited to politics. “I said, ‘Well, thanks a lot, Noel, but I would prefer that we just be friends,’” she says. “And he said, ‘Okay.’ And so we were friends.”