The Tomb of Rockmore
“I was selling my pictures in Pirate’s Alley,” says Gypsy Lou Webb, ninety-four, a former French Quarter artist and frequent subject of Rockmore’s paintings. “I remember my husband meeting him. Jon was going down Pirate’s Alley in one direction and Noel was coming in the other, and Jon gave him hell. He said, ‘Don’t you touch my wife, Rockmore. You won’t be here long,’ and he meant it. Noel never touched me.”
The restless Rockmore moved from one dilapidated French Quarter apartment to another, renting only when he couldn’t stay for free. “Noel was kicked out of every apartment he ever stayed in,” says Andy Antippas, one of his friends. “He’d end up trashing them, and he’d give paintings in payment for the rent. Usually he was content to have electricity and running water and a mattress on the floor.”
Antippas once let Rockmore live for six months in a vacant upstairs apartment at his home on Esplanade Avenue. Antippas, a gallery owner and former English professor, grew accustomed to the strange, miscellaneous noises coming from the ceiling, but one day he heard a sound that he couldn’t place. And Rockmore, he knew, had left the house earlier in the day. Antippas decided to investigate. “There was a girl—I remember her as being Korean—manacled to the stove handle,” says Antippas. “She was attached with a chain and handcuffs, and she was wearing clothing. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ She answered, ‘Oh, he really cares. He really likes me. And I like him. You know Noel. He hates being alone.’”
Wild Days in New Orleans
For years Rockmore kept a studio in the First Skyscraper, an architectural landmark at the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets. With its scabbed stucco facade and tall shutters painted a dull verdigris, the four-story structure looks as if it belongs on the Left Bank of Paris, home to a colony of starving, beret-clad artists. The building stood catty-corner to an A&P grocery, popular with both Quarter residents and tourists. One day Rockmore, then thirty-eight, spotted a girl there.
“I remember there was a street sign, St. Peter and Royal,” says the artist’s former lover, who asked that her name not be used in this story. “And I twisted around the sign pole and as I came out of my twist he said, ‘Are you from the Quarter?’ I turned around. ‘No, I’m not.’ I’m a nervous person now but I wasn’t nervous then. He said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘River Ridge.’
“I think he said, ‘I’m an artist.’ And I said, ‘Good.’ He said, ‘Would you like to model for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’”