Rolf Armstrong (1889-1960)
Famous pin-up artist born in Bay City.
By Marvin Kusmierz (Nov. 2002 - Updated April, 2011)
Rolf was born as "John Scott" Armstrong on April 21, 1889, Easter Sunday, in Bay City, Michigan. The fourth child of Richard and Harriet (Scott) Armstrong. When and how he picked up the name "Rolf" isn't known.
The Bay City Times - Monday, April 22, 1889
Capt. Richard Armstrong has been made happy by another addition to his Boy Line. The
captain will think very much more of this one than either the Post Boy, Plow Boy, News Boy or Handy Boy. It is a baby boy weighing just 14 pounds and was presented to him by Mrs. Armstrong yesterday afternoon.
Rolf was the only one of the four Armstrong children to be born in Bay City. His oldest brother, William, and his sister Chula were natives of Michigan (most likely born in St. Clair), but Paul, the youngest child until Rolf's birth two decades later, was born in Missouri according to census information.
His father, born in Canada, moved to St. Clair, Michigan in 1850. He worked as a sailor on the Great Lakes until 1857, at which time he he hired on with the U.S. frigate Powhattan which called on ocean ports around the world. His sailing career was temporarily interupted by the Civil War, enlisting with 103rd Ohio regiment. After being discharge he return to St. Clair where he married Harriet Scott on June 7, 1865.
In 1870 Richard and Harriet along with their three children moved to West Bay City. Richard purchased his first boat with high hopes of being able to tap into some of the wealth being generated by the booming lumbering industry. In 1881 he put in service the first fire tug on the Great Lakes. Four years later he had fleet of fire boats, which he operated under business name of the "Saginaw River Fire Boats", later he added a passenger boat service and renamed the business the "Boy Line and Fire Boat Company."
Ralp was never able to enjoyed the good life of his father's success. By the time he was born the family's most prosperous years were over. Richard's enterprise rapidly declined as the peak years of lumber came to an end and mills began closing. At the same time the railroads were expanding their passenger business at the expense of his boat service. -- Read Richard/s own words as reported in an 1890 newspaper article.
The company's fleet of boats operated out of the city docks in Bay City at the foot of Fifth street, which Richard had part ownership in. A lot of these boats were made at the local shipyards of Frank W. Wheeler and James Davidson. Most of their boats carried the trade mark name of "Boy," such as, the News Boy that provide passenger service between Bay City and the company's East Saginaw office.
-- Pictured above is a copy of a typical contract the company had with sawmill owners on the shores of the Saginaw River. On the right is one of the company's fire tugs that roamed the river each day ready to respond quickly whenever a fire broke out.
Bay City Daily Tribune -- Saturday, February 2, 1890 (Page 5)
HE WANTS TO SELL OUT.
Capt. Richard Armstrong Gives Some Facts.
There is no longer a decent livelihood to be made in river trame." says Capt. Richard Armstrong, "I will neither run a saloon, pander to low elements, or run my boats on Sunday and because of this I see no profit to river service. You may say, then, that my whole outfit, steamboats and all, is for sale. I cannot see a livelihood in this business and want to sell out. If anyone else can he may get my boats cheap. I have not bought the Burt nor am I about to send any of my boats to Port Austin. I will sell out, if I can, failing I shall do the next best thing. Place my boats as advantageously as possible and kepp some of them on the river so long as they will pay expenses. That is exactly the position I am in to-day."
In 1892 Richard finally had some good fortune come his way. He landed a contract to provide passenger boat service for the World's Fair being at Chicago in 1893. However, this reprieve was temporary.
By 1899 all hope of financial recovery had disappeared. The family home which Richard had built in 1892, on the north east corner of Broadway and 29th street near the Fremont school, was lost in foreclosure proceedings. By the year's end, Richard, feeling ill, left Bay City with his family and headed for Detroit.
The move must have been upsetting for the 10 year-old Rolf to leave his friends and the comfort of familiar surrounding and venture off to a new environment of uncertainty. But, it was only the first of a number of moves Rolf would deal with during his youthful years.
Only four years after making the moved to Detroit, Rolf's father died in 1903. By now Harriet's children, with the exception of Rolf, were adults, and had their own life to live. William, the oldest, who had developed an interest in mining while in Bay City, decided to move to Seattle, WA, where he could be closer to his gold mine interests in Alaska. Chula married her Bay City sweet heart, John C. Streng. Paul who had ambitions of becoming a playwright, moved to New York City. The year after Richard's death, Harriet and Rolf left Detroit to join William at Seattle.
Rolf, now 15 years-old, apparently opted out on schooling, as he took a jobs as a clerk for an ocean steamship agent. I suspected the decision wasn't so much desires to skip school as to help his mother financially.
By then Rolf's emerging artist talent must have been more than an enjoyable pass time for him, and he was likely formulating thoughts of turning his talent into a career. After living only four years in Seattle and with nothing more than pocket change, he hopped aboard a train in 1908 and headed for Chicago. There, he must have worked and was able save some money, as he enrolled in the Arts Institute of Chicago. Interesting, is one of the Rolf's jobs was as a boxing instructor, suggesting he at an earlier point in time had some experience in the ring. He also did some tutoring, teaching youngsters the finer points of art.
The beautiful Jewel Flowers began posing for Rolf during WWII to the delight of GI's. Jewel continued to work posing for Rolf for another two decades. During that span she appeared on over 50 calendars. Jewel, s a native of North Carolina, moved to North Mytle Beach, South Carolina in 1861, where she lived the rest of her life. She was married twice, first to Frank Welch in 1946, and to Jon Wesley Evans in 1965. Jewel died on Febrary 6, 2006. [Obituary]
With some formal education in hand, Rolf headed for New York, where his brother Paul was a playwright, and where he would have the greatest opportunity to establish himself as a commerical artist. He apparently found enough free lance work to survive as he was able to rent a studio in Manhattan. Later, his business was properous enough to purchase a home in Little Neck Bay at Bay Side, N.Y., and maintain the Manhattan studio for business purposes.
Many of Rolf's early paintings typically depicted macho figures, such as; boxers, sailors, cowboys, etc. That tendancy towards the male dominate figure took a twist in 1912. He land a commission with Judge Magazine to the artwork on their cover page. Suddenly, pretty young woman became the vogue for Rolf's paintings, a twist that would launch him towards an amazing career as a top-knotch pin-up artist.
Perhaps his biggest break came in 1919. Brown and Bigelow, one of the largest suppliers of calendars at that time, hired Rolf to do the artwork. His first painting for them, call "Dream Girl," became Rolf's signature piece. Calendars with his artwork hung from walls of homes and business throughout the country, which quickly made his name and talent well known.
In the subsequent years Rolf's paintings would adorn the cover pages of Life Magazine, Shrine Magazine, College Humor Magazine and others. Rolf also did artwork for postcards and advertisements. He had a nice contract for ads sell the products of Onieda Silverware.
Even the rich and famous began calling on Rolf to their portrait, including Hollywood stars, like Constance Bennett, whose painting is feature on the right. The Hollywood connection Rolf evolved into close relationships with the likes of James Gagny, Boris Karloff, Henry Fonda, and other great movie actors.
His work was recognized by experts who proclaimed him "the best American pin-up artist" of his era. His unique use of the pastel medium of colors set a standard that many subsequent artists followed. His mastery of pastels, turned out painting as beautiful as the models who posed for them. The only limiting factor in representation was size of the canvas, which typical measured 39 x 26 inches. Some of the youngest artist that emulated Rolf's techniques included Billy De Vorss, Earl Morand and Zoe Mozert, each became famous in their own rights as pin-up artists. Not bad for a kid who had such a humble beginning.
Besides a passion for art, Rolf was an avid sailor, a desired he may have inherited from his father who sailed on the Great Lakes. For Rolf, putting the sail to the wind was something he did as often he could. He seldom was seen without his captain's hat, which he wore during his painting sessions. Nothing was more enticing, nor inviting, than competitive sailing for him. Rolf enter the Canoe Championship of America races held in 1000 Islands, New York whenever he could. He won the championship "Mab Trophy" in his sleek sail canoe named, "Mannikin". Over the years he had many sailing compansions who were prominent personalities. But, none more often than his friend James Cagney of movie fame.
During the 1850s, Rolf retired from the rigors and demanding schedule required in a running a business as full-time commercial artist. He moved to Hawaii in 1959, which was his home for the balance of his life -- unfortunately, his time to enjoy years his retirement was short. John Scott "Rolf" Anderson died in February of 1960.
The appeal of Rolf's paintings is timeless. Much like Rockwell and other artist of this era, the popularity his renderings will live beyond his generation. One has only observe his life-like paintings to understand and appreicate why he is considered amoung the best artist of the 20th Century. Two book have been written about and his name in many other books written about great artists -- Rolf is usually mentioned at or near the top of the list.
Armstrong Family Genealogy.
West Bay City, MI.
Armstrong, Richard, age 40, born in Can., sailor.
Armstrong, Harriet, wife, age 33, born in MI.
Armstrong, William, age 14, born in MI.
Armstrong, Cholula: age 12, born in MI.
Armstrong, Paul, age 10, born in MO.
Richard Armstrong: b. 1839 Canada - d. 1903 Detroit, MI.
Married: Harriet Scott of St. Clair, MI: b. 1847 - d. 1927.
.....William: b. 1866 MI - d. 1921.
.........Married Minnie A. Lahman
.....Chula: b. 1867 Mi. - d. 1945.
.........Married John C. Streng.
.....Paul: b. 1869 MO. - d. 1915.
.........Married Catherine Calvert.
....John Scott (Rolf): b. Apr. 21, 1889 Bay City, MI - d. Feb. 1960 Hawaii.
........Married Claire Frisbie.
Pictorial: The Art of Rolf Armstrong
(Viewer courtesy of www.kitykity.com)
1888 - Michigan Births: Bay City, Bay, Mich.
John Scott Armstrong was born April 21, 1889, son of Richard and Harriet Armstrong.
1894 - Census: Bay City, Bay, Mich.
Armstrong, Richard - age 55
Harriet, wife - age 48
John, son - age 5
1900 - Census: Detroit, Wayne, Mich.
Armstrong, Richard, b. Feb. 1840, Canada
Harriet E., wife - b. Feb. 1847, Mich.
John S., son - b. Apr. 1889
Keathing, Eliza J., niece - b. Mar. 1848, Canada
1917-18 - US WWI Draft Registration Cards.
Rolf Armstrong, b. 21 Apr. 1889
Place: New York City, No 154, N.Y.
1920 - Census: Manhatten, Distict 10, New York, N.Y.
Armstrong, Rolf - b. 1890, Mich. - married
1930 - Census: Queens, Districts 0251-0500, Queens, N.Y.
Armstrong, Ralf - b. 1890, MIch. - married
Clair or Louise, wife - b. 1894, NY
1940 - Census: Manhattan, New York City, New York.
Armstrong, Rolf - b. 1889, Mich.
Beale, Phelan - b. 1890, NY, partner
Heilberg, Esther - 1895, Sweden - lodger
Death: Honolulu County, Hawaii.
Rolf Armstrong died February 22, 1960. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered from the overlook at Nuuanu Pail, near Honolulu.
Only a few citizens in the city of Rolf's birth have any awareness about their community's association with one of the great artists of the 20th Century. Yet, his name and work is appreciated all around the world by people who clamour for and appreciate art, culture and have an eye for pretty girls.
If you agree with me, that many of our fellow citizens might find Rolf's life story and legacy interesting, please let them know who he is and where they can learn more.