Wednesday, October 31, 2018


PEB Illustrated: Final Chapter--Never Forgotten, Never Will


Before I left PEB’s beautiful back porch, feeling the sweat on the back of my shirt from having sat outside for the better part of three hours, we agreed to do this again next week, same time, same coffee.

A week later, that Wednesday morning, I figured I’d call to give him a heads up. I never had too much success reaching him on the phone. The back porch and gardens have a way of suppressing the gentle vibrations of an iPhone.

My call went to voicemail and I hoped he would hear it, or call me back. I wondered if I should head over anyway. We did agree on the time, but I also didn’t want to spring in, just in case he’d forgotten, an innocent mistake.

After considering the pros and cons I decided to make the drive at the risk of arriving “unannounced.” I grabbed coffees from Starbucks and drove to Princeton. I parked in his tiny driveway near the French and Haitian flags, France for PEB, Haiti for his wife, Marie-Denise.

I walked around the gravel path around the right side of the house to see if he was outside on his back porch. There he was, eyes cast down on his newspaper, an empty plate on the table.


I rapped hard on the front door because if he was in the back he might not hear me. My notebook under my arms and palming two cups of coffee that were, by this point, virtually burning the skin off my palms,

I walked up the steps and by this point he had heard me and gave me a frightened look. I said hello and he said hello, with that slight quiver in the voice of having been unexpectedly interrupted. He moved papers around and stuttered a bit.

I said I had called and when he didn’t pick up, I figured that maybe he merely hadn’t heard his phone. It was laying facedown on the table. If he hadn’t heard it, he certainly didn’t see the missed call and the subsequent voicemail. I had, though unintentionally, popped in unannounced. I felt like I’d invaded his privacy.

“Tell you what, PEB,” I said. “Here’s your coffee. Why don’t we do this again next week?” I could tell he was trying to apologize and come up with a viable excuse, the way my mother might if suddenly caught in a situation she didn’t know how to navigate.

“I’m feeling a little under the weather,” he told me. I knew my leaving would restore the previous calm. He said okay to a meeting in a week and appeared relieved.

I drove away, went to pick up some items for my dogs: treats, food, a squeaky toy. As I clicked my seatbelt into place, I noticed the phone vibrating and I’ll be damned it was PEB. “Are you far away?” he asked.

“No, no, just running a couple of errands,” but the fact is if he wanted me to come back and I was halfway to North Carolina I would’ve turned back. “Come back, come back,” he said. “I’m sorry about earlier.”

“I understand. If you’re feeling like next week is a better time, let’s do next week. It’s totally up to you.”

“If it’s not too much, come back.”

And so I did. I returned and the welcoming, cartoonishly happy face was there to greet me. In the short time I had been away he brought out a series of sketches and memorabilia, the “Hilter actuel,” a beautiful parody of Picasso’s Guernica, which PEB redrew with several cows renaming it “Guernicow.” His neighbors, Princetonian elites, thought it was disgusting, at which PEB flicked his hands at them, dismissing them as too uptight.

Also scattered before him were pictures of his brother, Louis Bellocq, aboard horses. PEB showed me the notebook, Louis’ “ride book,” he kept of his brother’s races. “I was his supporter No. 1,” PEB told me.

“I was so into his career from the very beginning, so you know I kept a book, with every single ride, like a newspaper. I made a copy because I gave the original to his son, who died. That was something I kept every day.”

As any artist can attest, the ones who have the most satisfying careers are the ones who identify who they are and what they’re about. With so much talent, how does one stand out? In a sense, the horse world PEB grew up in gave him a chance to be different. He understood that his abilities belonged behind a drafting board or before an easel, whereas his brother was best in the saddle.

Though the father deeply wanted both sons to be riders, PEB knew where his true talents were. He rode a few races in his time in France, but his hands were made for drafting and drawing. He knew who he was.

***

Remi Bellocq harps on his father to take notes. “He’ll forget stuff so quick, so I tell him to get a pen and write it down,” Remi told me. “You have to preserve.”
The mind losing its grasp is perilous and slow, and especially painful for family and friends.

Joe Harper remembers his mother slowly slipping away from Alzheimer’s. “What does the mind look like?” he asked me. “Good things, bad things? Have you gone into that instead of in the moment that you’re in? I like to think that when I was holding my mother’s hand, who had no idea outwardly who I was, I hope she was having fun somewhere in her mind. PEB, with his amazing memory of faces and colors, if he fades outwardly, hopefully the inside is so vivid, like his drawings.”

It should be said that PEB hasn’t been, to the best of my knowledge, diagnosed with dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but memory gets slippery at ninety years.

What really eats away at PEB is that he feels forgotten. After all, he is an artist and artists need validation; to get validation you need to be visible and the work needs to be seen. Obscurity remains an artist’s greatest foe.

Charles Hayward, president and publisher of Thoroughbred Racing Commentary and a former CEO and President of the New York Racing Association, told me, “PEB had a presence throughout the industry driven by the live-track experience, many people seeing his work.

"As we know, with the advent of simulcasting of the 80s and 90s, the on-track experience is not as significant. There’s less demand for his work at Churchill Downs or Del Mar.”

Even the ever-changing ownership of Daily Racing Form threw PEB’s visibility of doing covers into flux. But, as Hayward told me, “If you go to many racetracks in America, there’s PEB’s work. We should all live to be 90 and successful and be adored as he is.”

Thanks to an agreement between Keeneland Race Course and Daily Racing Form, most of PEB’s original works are housed at the Keeneland Library where a long-term effort is now underway to digitize them so anyone around the world can access his work.

Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation, echoed Hayward, saying, “I would think that the one thing that works against him having a feeling of being in the forefront of people’s mind–the mural at Churchill Downs is wonderful—but you have to go there to see it.

Every time I go to Belmont I love to see that [mural]. Again, you have to be at the track. The opportunity to be on people’s mind is limited.”

PEB’s life, his appearance as a public figure and artist, reflects that inner struggle to pull tight the unstitching seams of memory. People remember his work from long ago, but of late what is there? Some commissioned work, yes, still as sharp as ever with his acrylics.

How is it that he remembers the yellow sweater his brother wore during the Exodus of Paris, but not something more recent? Mind and memory have such finite stamina.

As PEB forgets more—and scolds himself for it—and as people forget him—and he scolds them for it!—he feels rudderless, which is why Remi flew from Kentucky to New Jersey, rented a car, and picked up his dad.

They drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York because the Jockey Club planned on honoring PEB for his work in horse racing, awarding him the Jockey Club Medal for exceptional contributions to the thoroughbred racing and breeding industry.

Stuart S. Janney III, the chairman of the Jockey Club, said, “PEB’s artwork has been revered in the horse racing industry for more than 50 years. He has brought color and humor to our sport through his ingenious cartoons, and we are pleased to honor him for his dedication.”

Remi stood up at the lectern addressing members of The Jockey Club and began, “There are quite a few very powerful people in this room. Leaders industry, breeders, owners, tycoons. But if you want to talk about power in this sport, real power? That’s it right here. My dad. Because when I was a kid, he brought me to Aqueduct and I remember like it was yesterday.

:He said, ‘Watch this!’ and he pulled out his pad and his pencil and he looked at this woman with her pearls, very Madison Avenue. He saw her and she saw him. Without even touching his pencil to the paper she got up and ran away. She was so vain she didn’t want her caricature done. I said, “That’s power.’”

The room burst into applause.

Because no one forgets PEB. We never did. We never will.

Brendan O’Meara is a freelance writer and author of Six Weeks in Saratoga. His feature on Smarty Jones for HRI earned honorable mention for the Eclipse Award in Feature Writing in 2015. He hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast where he speaks with the best artists about the craft of telling true stories. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara or shoot him an email brendan at brendanomeara dot com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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