On 12th September 1999, the Cuban art world was left reeling reeling by the news that one of its brightest stars had fatally shot herself at the age of 32. No note was found, and she had been considered in good spirits by her family and friends. To this day, as her sister Katia has sadly remarked, the reason for Belkis Ayón’s suicide remains a secret that she took with her ‘to the grave.’ Her legacy is a collection of images that are at once terrifying, tragic and haunting, yet exuberant, invigorating and exhilarating. As a visual manifestation of Ayón’s perceptions of her native Cuba, her art is both powerful and valuable; furthermore it speaks not only of her feelings about life, but also her attitude towards death.
Born in Havana on 23rd January 1967, Belkis Ayón Manso was one of two daughters from a relatively affluent Afro-Cuban family. At the age of 6, she began to show an interest in painting, leading her parents to enter her into a school competition, which she won. In 1979, she enrolled at the School of Plastic Arts, and two years later, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” – Cuba’s most prestigious art school, graduating in 1986 before starting a degree in printmaking at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). As she studied for her degree, her work was displayed in over thirty exhibitions across Cuba and Latin America. Continue reading →
Catya Sassoon was born in New York on 3rd September 1968. As the daughter of the world-famous hairdresser, Vidal Sassoon and his actress wife Beverly Adams, she was thrust into the limelight from an early age, destined to follow in the footsteps of her celebrity parents. Their divorce in 1980 was a traumatic experience for Catya, and as a result, she began to rebel against the strong, yet understated hairstyles that were her father’s signature, instead cutting her own hair into a eye-catching multi-coloured mohawk. Abandoning her studies, she instead spent most of her time partying with her older friends, on one occasion causing mayhem at her father’s Hollywood mansion by filling the swimming pool with his own-brand shampoo. But as Catya would always claim, ‘I never listen to what people say. I mean, I don`t care what they say. I’m not living for my dad, I’m not living for my mother. I’m living for me. Me!`
At 14, she moved to Manhatten from California, leaving the prestigious Beverly Hills High School to become a model. With her willowy figure, luxuriant auburn hair and piercing gray eyes, Catya was immediately signed by one of the city’s top agencies, and was soon gracing the covers of magazines like Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. Appearing in Rolling Stone in 1985, the caption beside her photograph declared, ‘Catya Sassoon defines the word nubile.’
Yet as she recalled, in many respects, it was a far from glamorous existence and at times ‘was sheer hell living there with 12 girls fighting for one of the two available showers every morning at 6.’ After hearing his daughter’s complaints about the daily clamour for the bathroom, Vidal Sassoon bought her a penthouse apartment. Continue reading →
Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo was born into a large Italian immigrant family in Camden, New Jersey on 14th January 1908. A musical prodigy, encouraged by his father, a theatre musician, he learned to play the violin at an early age, followed by the guitar, the clarinet and the accordion all by the age of 13, he was also a classically trained pianist. After the Columbo family moved to California’s Napa Valley, Ruggiero began to perform professionally with a number of bands as a violinist and singer. In Hollywood, he found work on film sets, providing what was known as ‘mood music,’ which was intended to aid silent movie stars get into character. It was on one of these sets, that he met Pola Negri, a Polish actress who had previously been romantically involved with Rudolph Valentino, whom Ruggiero strongly resembled. Using her influence, Negri helped him to get minor roles in several films including The Wolf Song(1929) with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, and The Texan (1930) starring Cooper and Fay Wray.
At the same time, Ruggiero, who by then had adopted the name ‘Russ’ Columbo, had been hired as a violinist and vocalist by the bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, providing the lead vocals for many of Arnheim’s hits, such as Sweet and Lovely and I Can’t Do Without You. In 1931, Columbo was offered a radio slot in New York with NBC, with fans calling him the ‘Radio Romeo,’ a recording contract as a solo artist with RCA Victor Records soon followed. Columbo’s manager Con Conrad never doubted that his protégé was destined to become a star, thanks to his remarkable talent and the fact that, as one contemporary critic remarked, ‘while he may have been born of Italian parentage, when he stepped into the spotlight on stage with his glistening black hair, chiselled facial features and athletic physique he looked to all the world like the statue of a Greek god come to life. And with his flashing black eyes and gleaming white teeth, he had a smile that could melt a sphinx.’
Above: Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra with vocals by Russ Columbo – Sweet and Lovely (1931)