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Artist Lee Ver Duft 1910-1985

June 23, 2011

This is a bio of artist Lee Ver Duft that will be added to, subtracted from, updated, and corrected as more information comes in from various sources. It’s a great story, so enjoy!

There are way too many “secrets” in my family, and I find I am increasingly annoyed by this fact as the years go by. First I find out that Marlene Dietrich is my grandfather’s first cousin, a fact that was kept secret because she was a “bad influence” compared to the strictly religious Felsing family my grandfather was raised in. Never mind all the work she did for the American troops in World War II, the movies she made, and her general super-stardom; her lifestyle was a “problem”: she did what she wanted during an era when women generally were not allowed such freedom. She’s a hero as far as I’m concerned! Good for her! (See related tale entitled “Parallel Universe” under “stories.”

Then I discover a few years ago that my father’s cousin, Lee Ver Duft, whom I never met, was a world-traveled artist, poet, and author with friends all over the world and connections to the Chicago Art Institute and

Artist/Poet Lee Ver Duft

various artists and authors in New York. I remember my father going to visit “Lee” now and then when I was a kid, but he never came to our house, and I never actually saw him. “Who is Lee?” I would ask. “Oh, just your Dad’s cousin”, Mom would reply. That was all I ever got out of them.

According to Mary Belle (Coster) Crosby (Dad’s sister and Lee’s first cousin) and my mother, Eleanor Ann (Felsing) Coster, as well as Lee’s own short bio discovered in the special collections at the University of Iowa library, Lee (actually, Leo J. Ver Dught) was born in Prairie City, Iowa, on January 3rd, 1910, to my Dad’s aunt – Bertha (Coster) Ver Dught and her husband John Ver Dught; the spelling of the last name later changed to “Duft” instead of “Dught”. Bertha was one of four Coster sisters; her brother Cornelius was my grandfather. Their parents immigrated from Amsterdam. Mary Belle tells me there was a brother to Lee, Marion J., who was four years older and went by Joie (pronounced “joy”). (Confirmed by Gretchen Spencer from review of the 1920 and 1930 census from Marion Co., Iowa.)

Lee’s mother, Bertha Coster Ver Dught. The Coster’s emigrated from Amsterdam to Iowa around 1870.

Lee at age 5, 1915, with his dog Mike.

The graduate; 1928, age 18. Lee Ver Duft.

After graduating from the Prairie City High School in 1928, Lee attended Simpson College in Indianola, IA, in 1928-’29 and then transferred to Drake University in Des Moines where he majored in Music and minored in Art. After graduation he had summer internships in painting at the Chicago Art Institute and at the University of Iowa. After college he became a travelling showman and played the piano in dance and show bands. Places he called “home” in the 1930’s were St. Louis, Newton (Ia), and Eureka Springs (AK). His father John died in 1938, after which Lee moved to Venice Beach, CA, where he worked as a free-lance writer. He wasn’t there long before he moved on to graduate studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, though he apparently did not finish his advanced degree.

In 1942 Lee enlisted in the Navy and was assigned as an Officer to Panama; he did administrative work. Lee was married twice; first while on leave from his Naval duties in Panama, but that marriage lasted “just one year, one month, and seven days” according to Lee’s own handwritten description of the marriage; he doesn’t even give her name! He was assigned to the Philippines in 1944 and given an honorable discharge at the end of WWII after serving a total of 28 months in the Navy.

Lee on Navy leave at Cafe Zanzibar in New York city circa 1943.

….and at The Three Deuces.

After returning to the United States, Lee moved to New York in 1946 and studied painting with the Parisian Cubist artist Amadee Ozenfant  for seven months, and then with artist Hans Hoffman at the 8th Street Art School and in Provincetown until 1950. During the period from the mid-1930’s through the 1950’s Lee was very prolific, painting in water-color and oil, sculpting, writing literally hundreds of poems, corresponding with authors and editors throughout the United States, and publishing a number of books of poetry as well as individual works in compiled volumes.

Lee’s first showing of his paintings and sculptures was in 1941 at the Des Moines Art Gallery; his second “One Man Exhibit” was there in 1946; the Grand Galleries in Des Moines served as the venue for his shows in 1951, 1956, 1961, and 1966. His final show, entitled “The 7th One-Man Exhibit Mini-Retrospective: Mixed Media painting 1946-1975 by Lee Ver Duft” was February 10th-24th, 1975 at the Younkers Gallery in Des Moines. Based upon Lee’s own written musings, it is clear that he “gave away” a good many paintings during this 30-year period, but he also sold a fair number. His work is described in the Des Moines Register as “avant-garde”, and the Des Moines Register Art Critic George Shane wrote of Lee’s 1967 show: “Over the many years I have come to know Lee Ver Duft’s art work, his paintings have been in the vanguard of his contemporaries.”

In 1945 Lee was living on Rock City Road in Woodstock, New York, from whence he dedicated an advance copy of his 1946 book of poetry “Ho! Watchman of the Night Ho!” to Miss Peggy Guggenheim at Art of This Century, 30 W. 47th St. New York, NY, with the following inscription: “Dear Peggy, how about lunch this year? Out of this, my night, and this, your century, ‘we are those who could be’. Most Regardfully, Lee Ver Duft; December, 1945. The publisher – Gemor Press – was owned and operated by Anais Nin, the infamous avant-garde New York author who titillated the country with her erotic writings; as Lee spent much time in New York City in the ’40’s hanging out at clubs such as Club 66 at 66 West 3rd St in Greenwich Village, Club 181 at 181 Second Ave., a hopping gay/lesbian club with famous drag shows; the Three Deuces, a club sponsoring the best in African American jazz musicians; and Cafe Zanzibar, atop the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, the place to see and be seen and to listen to famous musicians. There is no doubt he was acquainted with many in the avant-garde art and writer crowd there in that decade. Other books published in this time period include: “The Double Heart & Other Poems,” Panama Publishers, New York, 1948; and “Inner Course in Time, Flesh, & Eidolon,” Decker Press, Prairie City, IL, 1948. There are unpublished poems from this period almost too numerous to count in the special collection’s archives at the University of Iowa.

The cover of a photo book holding a picture of Lee Ver Duft at Club 181 in New York.

Lee in the Club 181 photo-book. This famous gay club closed in 1953.

One of Lee’s books of Poetry.

…and another book of poetry by Lee.

Lee’s second marriage was to Agnes Morrison Clausen on December 12th, 1953; she was a native of southern

Lee Ver Duft’s second wife, Agnes.

California and of “Scottish descent.” The two of them spent a great deal of time in Venice and Palm Springs, CA. Though they remained close, this marriage too apparently ended in divorce within a couple of years, according to Eleanor Coster and Gretchen Spencer.

Lee’s late poetry publications include “Ballad of the Bally Daredevil,” Zeno Publications, Des Moines, 1968; “Five Longer Older Poems & Two Recent Short 1946-1976, 1976; and “Bicentennial Enthropy and Dust” (A single poem on page 40 of a multiple author collection of poetry called “Panorama – A Bicentennial Anthology,” by Max S. Barker, Bifco Press, Marshalltown, IA.

Lee seemed to have a lot of friends and acquaintances, but he seemed to have been particularly close to the Iowa poet Frederick Bock, and the well-known artist/photographer Donald Jones who painted the fresco in the Des Moines public library in 1934 and who died on April 14th, 1984, of a heart attack in a hospital near his home in San Francisco at age 80.

Lee lived in Des Moines, Iowa for the majority of his late life. Addresses included 2417 Woodland Ave, #2 in 1975; and 1112 27th St., #3, unknown dates. He died in April of 1985 at the age of 75 of a brain tumor, possibly metastatic from a breast cancer for which he had a mastectomy around 1982, about which he sent a letter to my dad. Dad and Mom and Mary Belle went to his place to sort out his things after his death because he had no other family remaining to take care of it; Joie had died in 1977. A lot of his stuff was put in Mom’s basement – which wasn’t dry – and it was destroyed over time due to the conditions down there. Other items went to Mary Belle, most of which she took to Des Moines to the Iowa State Historical Museum; his remaining papers from there were transferred to the University of Iowa special archives in 2008. A couple of his paintings Mom kept and hung in the living room, one of which I now have, along with a beautiful side-table of Lee’s.

A few years ago when I was visiting Mom and she was thinking of moving out of the old house I came upon a pile of Lee’s stuff in the basement, nearly all ruined. There I found a small, rusted metal box, and in it a sheaf of letters to and from his boyfriend in Cuba, with whom he was clearly very much in love. “So THIS is why I was never allowed to meet this man!” I thought to myself. In truth, however, Mom says she never knew that Lee was gay but suspected it only for the first time when going through his things after his death, though Dad probably always did; it was not something ever discussed back then. Mary Belle says she knew it though.

The letters were barely legible due to water damage, but I eventually made out the story of a long-distance love relationship. With letters from each over a period of about five years, it became clear what was going to happen as the discourse became more and more pained over time. The story made me feel very badly for the two of them, in love but unable to be together for social and distance reasons, and eventually they went their separate ways. There was a lot of anguish in the last few letters. I was unable to preserve the documents due to the damage done to them and the continued self-destruction.

I remembered, in retrospect, hearing shortly after Lee died, Mom and Dad whispering in the kitchen about some of the things they found at Lee’s apartment, including some male nudes and some campy photos of Lee wrapped in a boa. I asked to see them, but they said they and Mary Belle had destroyed them all. “It’s not the sort of thing you need to see!” they exclaimed. Apparently, there was nothing at all about Lee they wanted me to see. But his letters to his Cuban boyfriend gave me a glimpse of what I didn’t get to see: the complex hidden and public life of a gay artist in mid-20th century America.

Gretchen Spencer of central Iowa remembers, as a teenager, meeting Lee at an old Victorian house in the Drake University neighborhood in Des Moines in 1956. In his 40’s, Lee was apparently back home living with his mother, out of money, out of work, and just back from New York. He had an exhibition of his work at the Des Moines Art Center at the time, and he was “dating” (?) a friend of Gretchen’s mother, a recent divorcee named Francesca, who lived at the house. Lee played Stardust and Rhapsody in Blue on the piano from memory that evening, after mixing martinis, and before he went out with Fran and Gretchen’s mother for dinner at Babe’s restaurant in downtown Des Moines, the most famous night spot in Des Moines – dressed in white bib overalls, a tuxedo shirt and tie, and a sport-coat, as Gretchen recalls! He was tall, slender, courtly, and a gentleman. He made a tremendous impression on her that night, and she has never forgotten him.

Following is a series of photos of actual paintings, along with digital photos of old pictures of paintings found in Lee’s effects after his death. I know there are more out there in the world – probably quite a few. So, if anyone reading this article happens to have one, please take a good digital photograph and send it to me, along with any information you have about the piece, @, so I may include it in this bio.

Farmers Exchange; 1940 oil on wood, by Lee Ver Duft. Painted from the Prairie City town square.

Waterbury Circle Windmill, 1941 oil on wood by lee Ver Duft.

Untitled 1950 (c) cubist-style watercolor on textured paper by Lee Ver Duft.

Unknown title, date, and medium. Lee Ver Duft, from photo files.

Abstract Lee VerDuft, unknown date, title, and medium.

A cubist-style Ver Duft, unknown details.

“Our Macule—A Meditation Piece” by Lee Ver Duft

Unknown Title, 1981 Lee Ver Duft

A 1979 Lee Ver Duft portrait of a man.

A 1974 Ver Duft.

This photo was found in the Iowa City archives and misidentified as a Lee Ver Duft. In fact, it is a painting by artist Mark Tobey called “Shamanic Dancers” that was in Lee’s personal collection. It is crayon and gouache on paper. It is up for sale by Swann Auction Galleries in New York on March 23rd, 2023, with an estimated value of $3,000 to $5,000. (Information from Meagan Gandolpho at Swann Auction Galleries, email, 3-3-2-23.)

“Maitre’D”. A 20×24 Lee Ver Duft oil that was stolen on August 16, 1965, and never recovered. This photo is badly out of focus, but it’s a very interesting work.

“Christmas Tree” A 25×30 Ver Duft oil that was stolen in its frame on August 16, 1965, and never recovered.

Lee Ver Duft’s original wood block personal letterhead stamp.

A nearly completed Lee Ver Duft oil self=portrait. 1940.


The photo of the above painting, “Nazis Invade Holland,” was recently provided (May, 2018) by my cousin Paul Crosby. The painting is owned by Mary Belle (Coster) Crosby, Paul’s mother (my father John Coster’s sister) and the 1st cousin of Lee Ver Duft. I think this is a great painting, not just for its content and the way it depicts the feeling of the time, but the overall style. Wonderful!

Personal History from MaryBelle (Coster) Crosby of Fremont, Iowa (cousin of Lee Ver Duft).
Personal History from Eleanor Coster of New Sharon, Iowa (cousin-in-law of Lee Ver Duft).
Personal papers, newspaper articles, letters, photographs, yearbooks, and memorabilia.
Personal History from Gretchen Spencer of Des Moines, Iowa.
Special Thanks to:
The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa, Special Archives.
Iowa Authors Manuscripts Collection, MsC 869, Box 20 (Lee Ver Duft papers and photographs)

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