It’s funny how you believe something for so many years and are devastated when the cold, cruel truth of the matter is finally revealed by happenstance, and from the mouth of an artist’s own brother, no less.
Everybody loved Anthony “Tony” Springer, a former lawyer who earned a well-deserved reputation as the Painter of Greenwich Village until his unexpected death in 1995 at the early age of 67. Tony was a wonderful, quietly mysterious kind of guy, who played poker all night long, slept until the late morning, and then grabbed his half-box French easel and 16x20 inch stretched linen canvas to go paint the narrow side streets of the Village in the dusty afternoon light, a habit he kept up for 20 years or more. His plein air work also took him to the nearby streets of Soho and Chinatown, and the markets of Chelsea and Tribeca. To conserve energy, he took a cab to work, but he walked home after the painting was finished.
You couldn’t miss him. He always wore a hat, the same dark gray sharkskin suit jacket, and, if I remember correctly, always had a cigar or a cigarette in his mouth while painting his moody, atmospheric paintings of the old, low-rise buildings and curbside vehicles in the various out-of-the-way cul de sacs he preferred. His tonalist paintings were all very easy on the eyes, and he made tons of them, selling quite a few through two gallery connections and from his home studio.
Tony lived around the corner from one of the main streets closed off for the venerable Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in Greenwich Village in the spring and fall. He would just drag his paintings down to the sidewalk in front of his old pre-war apartment building to get the spillover from the natives and tourists who were looking to buy art. During one of those outdoor art shows, Tony gave me the key to his one-bedroom apartment so I could take a look at his studio. There was hardly any place to put your feet down. He had no shelves for his canvases, so he just stacked them one behind the other on the floor and on seating throughout the apartment. It was an incredible sight, even for this space-challenged painter. He ordered his pre-stretched canvases, by the gross, it seemed, from a canvas preparer in Brooklyn who was well-known to many New York artists. A guy in the Bronx now prepares those hand-primed linen and cotton canvases for local artists and a few art stores in the region.
Tony was out painting in all kinds of weather, only taking a break in cold December to enroll in Frank Mason’s class at The Art Students League, where he first began to paint at the age of 40 and learned how to create pictures with a strong atmospheric effect. He always put a cityscape in the League’s annual Christmas show and sale that month.
While out painting, Tony was unflappable in dealings with those inevitable and annoying sidewalk art superintendents, who say things like, “I have a cousin who paints,” “I don’t see it that way,” “What colors are you using,” “You should use more red.” My all-time favorite was directed at the back of my friend Richard B., who was painting in Central Park on a balmy summer day some years ago. He said a couple was watching him for awhile, and when they turned to leave, he heard the man say, “All the good painters are out of town for the summer.”
But Tony, a native New Yorker and seasoned poker play, took it all in stride, meekly agreeing with all suggestions because he wanted to paint, not argue. Painting those cityscapes was his passion, although he did occasionally hire models privately. He sometimes placed a classified ad on the back page of the “Village Voice” newspaper, seeking models to pose for him. An actress I know, who was Tony’s girlfriend for awhile when she moved to New York from Hollywood, said she posed nude for him once, but only because he agreed to her demand to let her just lie on her stomach for the painting.
I only saw Tony flustered and out of sorts on one occasion. I was walking with a girl through Washington Square Park in the Village in the early evening, and there was Tony playing speed chess with a loud-mouthed hustler at one of the chess tables. The hustler was winning, and from the look of annoyance on Tony’s face, I could tell he wasn’t interested in a warm and fuzzy greeting from yours truly. So we sauntered away, leaving Tony to reflect alone on this particular error of his ways.
Tony had one other skill that made all his friends proud to know him. He was a songwriter. We learned that he had co-written the Christmas classic “Santa Baby,” with his brother Philip, a Los Angeles-based songwriter. It turns out there was a third co-writer, Joan Javits, the niece of New York’s Sen. Jacob K. Javits. Every Christmas season for years I sat through endless repetitions of the top 100 Christmas classics on WCBS-FM radio to hear Eartha Kitt sing her iconic version of that famous song. I’d get all teary-eyed because I personally knew the great guy who had written that song in 1953 when he was still working as a lawyer.
When Tony died he left hundreds of his beautiful, moody gray cityscapes to be dealt with by his mother and sister. His sister arranged to have Tony’s work shown at the David Findlay Jr. Fine Art Gallery at 41 East 57th Street. In a press release for the gallery’s third solo exhibition of Tony’s work, which opened on Sept. 2, 1999, the gallery wrote, “A musician as well, Springer wrote and published the song, ‘Santa Baby.’” So there it was.
Then last year, feeling a bit nostalgic around Christmas time, as I always do, I looked on the Internet to refresh my feelings of pride and joy for Tony’s Yuletide accomplishment. But to my great surprise, I found instead that the “Tony Springer” credited with co-writing “Santa Baby” was a “legal fiction” created to get the song published. Tony had no part in writing the song. His brother Philip explained it all in a fascinating “true confessions” interview in 2008 with the digital sheet music supplier Musicnotes: http://blog.musicnotes.com/2008/11/26/interview-with-santa-baby-songwriter-philip-springer.
Philip said that he and Joan, who both worked for ASCAP publishing, had checked into the song title with the publishers from a company called Trinity Music, owned by BMI. At the time, BMI and ASCAP were entrenched in a “war,” as Philip described it, so, in order to get “Santa Baby” published and settle their differences, they had to create a fictional BMI songwriter. Tony, who was associated with BMI at the time, became that songwriter. I may be wrong, but I think Tony publicly endorsed his fictional role over the years to aid his brother’s long and difficult struggles over legal and other matters regarding the Christmas classic.
I was astounded by this bizarre, convoluted revelation. All the added enjoyment I got from hearing Eartha Kitt sing “Santa Baby” over the years was due to a “legal fiction.” Our good friend Tony was in on this from the beginning to the end. Well, he was a poker player, so I guess he knew how to play his hand, and nobody ever called his bluff.