Black History Month: The secret story behind a Florida museum’s beloved painting
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on Sept. 15, 2004.
She stands alone, bathed in a sunlit glow, her eyes lifted heavenward, her hands gently clasped in front of her pink satin dress. Her hair is cut like a flapper's, short and pert, and her face has the rounded innocence of a cherub.
Her name is Ruby, and she is singing a song to God.
For dozens of years, visitors have trooped through the Norton Museum of Art, on their way to gawk at the famous Gauguin or Picassos or O'Keeffes, when they stop short at a simple oil portrait by James Chapin called Ruby Green Singing.
And just like that, they fall in love.
Ruby may be the most popular portrait in the West Palm Beach museum. She's a real crowd-pleaser. Adults love her. Children love her. Recently, a visitor came all the way from New York because her mother and father had met in front of the painting 40 years ago.
Norton curator Jonathan Stuhlman still remembers the friendly advice of his predecessor: Whatever you do, don't ever take Ruby's picture down.
"It's a very beautiful, very soulful painting," says Stuhlman, who curates the American art collection. "It touches people's hearts."
And not just patrons of the Norton. Type in "Ruby Green Singing" on the Internet, and you'll find prints of her image for sale at more than 20 sites. Her famous fans have ranged from poets Robert Frost and Maya Angelou to singer Rickie Lee Jones.
Ruby's picture graces school textbooks. She's illustrated the contents of a medical journal. Two years ago, in Berkeley, Calif., students dressed up as "living masterpieces" for an arts festival. There was Goya, Degas, Renoir, Monet - and Ruby.
Horace Boyer, a retired professor of African-American music at the University of Massachusetts, remembers prints of Ruby on the walls of black colleagues' homes in the '70s. She was more than just a picture; she was a symbol of pride and spirituality.
"There was something that reached out to me the minute I saw her," Boyer says. "This woman was in communion with God. There is such peace, there is such security, there is such satisfaction in her face. I've seen (gospel great) Mahalia Jackson have that same kind of inner something."
But who was Ruby Green? What was she singing that gave her such a feeling?
And, more important, what happened to her?
The story of Ruby begins with a correction.
Her last name is Greene. Throughout her life, it was misspelled in books, newspapers, even on her portrait at the Norton.
Ruby Greene's career, which spanned six decades, offers a rich, fascinating glimpse into art, music and African-American history in the 20th century.
While she was far from a major star, she intersected with some of the century's most important cultural eras and personalities: the Harlem Renaissance and great black choirs of the 1920s, the American classical composer Virgil Thomson and the British wit Noel Coward.
She worked alongside African-American music pioneers Hall Johnson, Eva Jessye and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She shared a stage with Leontyne Price, James Earl Jones, William Warfield, Lena Horne and Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. She recorded for RCA, appeared in concerts, sang on radio, acted on a soap opera, even made a toothpaste commercial.
And, of course, posed for one stunning painting.
"She is certainly one of the many who have been omitted from histories," notes James V. Hatch, an educator and author on black culture.
Some of her background remains blurry to this day, even to family members. But her story shouldn't be forgotten.
Ruby Mae Greene was born on July 28, 1909, in Savannah, Ga., the eldest child of Edward and Amanda Greene. She had six siblings, including one brother who died young. Her early family life wasn't easy, according to her nephew Harry M. Gould Jr., a former reporter who listened carefully to her stories and loved Aunt Ruby like "a second mother."
Ruby's parents divorced when she was young, and her mother moved the children briefly to Charleston, S.C. In 1916, they headed to Harlem, probably part of the historic northern migration by African-Americans looking for better jobs and opportunity.
Amanda Greene was a domestic who cleaned and maintained houses. Times were tough. "She was struggling to make ends meet," says Gould.
Poverty forced her to make a heart-wrenching decision: For five years, she put Ruby and her sisters Julia and Edrena in the Good Samaritan Orphan Home in nearby Newark, N.J.
But it was there, separated from half of her family, that Ruby found her future.
Gould says she met a music teacher in the orphanage, and learned to develop her voice and play piano. When she left the home around age 14, her distinctive singing immediately became noticed in the tightknit circle of black churches in Harlem. She was a contralto, the lowest register of female voices, a type of vocal style popularized by the famous Marian Anderson.
Ruby became the youngest contralto soloist at St. Mark's Church in Harlem and was soon in demand at other churches. Instructed by her mother, Ruby was deeply religious from an early age.
"She had a very definite moral outlook," says Gould. "She was a straight and narrow girl. She was not a party girl. She was raised in a strict, traditional black church by the Scriptures."
In 1928, the year her life changed forever, Ruby was 19. The stock market was a year away from crashing. The cultural party known as the Harlem Renaissance was still in swing. Ruby was a member of the Hall Johnson Choir, a spirituals group led by a pioneering black violinist and Broadway musician who had migrated north from Georgia like the Greenes.
One day, an up-and-coming New Jersey painter saw Johnson and his chorus performing. He was impressed, calling them "perhaps the finest group of Spiritual singers we have."
He was the man who would make Ruby famous.
James Ormsbee Chapin first gained prominence for illustrating a poetry book by his friend Robert Frost. As his career progressed, he became known for so-called Regionalist scenes of landscapes and rural life. Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame) praised Chapin's work as "among the best things in American art, strong and solid as boulders."
Over the years, Chapin painted Frost and Katharine Hepburn. In the '50s, for the cover of Time, he painted artist Edward Hopper and the presidential ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
But Chapin also liked to paint black Americans - later subjects included actress Ethel Waters - and he was quoted as saying Ruby's picture was meant to depict "the beauty of Negro music and the Negro people."
Gould thinks that Chapin, then in his early 40s, met Ruby in a church. "He inquired who she was and asked Ruby if she would mind having her portrait done," he says.
Ruby talked little about the creation of the painting. (Chapin's family and representatives also have no information.) So many tantalizing questions must go unanswered: Where was it painted? How long did it take? How did Chapin capture that spiritual pose? What was she singing?
It's not even known if she saw the finished product in person.
In later years, she never made a fuss about it. "She'd say, 'This portrait was done of me when I was 19 years old,' " recalls Gould. "I was impressed. But she wasn't the kind of woman who used to brag on herself."
By October 1930, at age 21, Ruby had moved on, enrolling in the Institute of Musical Art, later known as the famed Juilliard School of Music, in New York City. Records show that she had a high school degree upon entering and that she received a diploma in singing on June 2, 1933.
While Ruby was preparing for Juilliard, her portrait was making waves on the New York art scene. In 1928, the painting went to Chapin's New York dealer Frank Rehn, who quickly sold it to Paul Sachs, the director of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, for his personal collection.
Sachs allowed it to be displayed in some shows, where New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell admired it, saying it was "poignantly simple." In Chicago, a steel executive and burgeoning art collector named Ralph Norton also admired Ruby, but the picture was off the market.
Luckily for Norton, one person didn't like Ruby: Sachs' wife.
As Chapin explained to Norton later, "Mrs. Sachs conceived a violent antipathy to Ruby and wouldn't allow her in the house." Rehn "gladly" bought the portrait back from Sachs, and sold it to Norton in 1930.
And from 1930 to 1953, when Norton donated it to the West Palm Beach museum he opened in 1941, Ruby's picture was out of circulation. But not unappreciated. Norton "obviously liked it because some of his paintings had come to the museum much earlier," says curator Stuhlman.
After Juilliard, Ruby worked with another groundbreaker. Eva Jessye came out of Kansas, toppling barriers of being both black and female to form the internationally regarded Eva Jessye Choir. Like Hall Johnson, she eventually expanded into radio, stage and movies, from King Vidor's classic film Hallelujah to the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess.
Pittsburg State University in Kansas, which has some of Jessye's papers, holds an intriguing picture circa 1938. It shows Ruby, identified as a Jessye Choir member, and Lenore Gershwin, the wife of Porgy lyricist Ira Gershwin, sitting on a lawn in flowing dresses and chatting.
But there is some dispute whether Jessye brought Ruby into the cast of what author Eileen Southern calls, along with Porgy, one of the "milestones in the history of black music" - the 1934 Broadway opera Four Saints in Three Acts.
With bright American melodies by Virgil Thomson and a libretto by expatriate author Gertrude Stein, Four Saints broke all the operatic rules. Today, it's considered a classic. Typical for Stein, there wasn't much of a plot - it's about the everyday lives of two 16th-century saints from Spain. It's so avant-garde that even the stage directions are sung. Southern, in her book The History of Black Musicians, quotes an expert as saying it's "an unlogical landscape of words and music."
"But the biggest shock of all," adds Southern, "was the idea that an all-black cast should perform an opera about European saints."
Ruby is listed by Southern as in the show's cast, although Anthony Tommasini, author of a definitive biography of Thomson, says she was not. Betty Allen, the renowned mezzo-soprano and Thomson colleague, said in an interview from New York that she believes Greene was part of the 1934 ensemble, but not the main cast.
(In 1947, Ruby definitely sang one of the principal roles - St. Teresa II - on a recording of Four Saints under Thomson's direction on RCA. When it was reissued on CD in 1996, an Amazon.com reviewer noted: "The all-black cast is excellent, particularly a contralto named Ruby Greene.")
Gould never heard of his aunt's connection to Four Saints, and it's not on a later resume of hers.
In fact, she told Gould that her "big break" in the 1930s came from the British writer-performer Noel Coward.
Ruby's small part in Coward's 1939 revue Set To Music would be considered highly scandalous today. The skit-and-music show starred Beatrice Lillie and was notable for introducing Coward's famous song, I've Been To A Marvelous Party.
Ruby was cast for comic relief: one of three black women who sashay onstage dressed in the "dainty" clothes of white debutantes.
"What Noel Coward was doing was getting a laugh out of white audiences," says Gould. But Ruby didn't care, even later, about the racial politics of the role, says her nephew. "To her last day, she spoke fondly of it. She was eternally grateful."
The 1940s. That was the decade Ruby did not speak fondly of. There were highs personally, lows professionally.
The good news: She got married.
Ruby Greene met Stephen "Dutch" Aspinall in 1929, when they were both counselors at a New York camp. Ruby was elegant, Dutch was rumpled. Ruby was very religious, Dutch not so much. But they were both sticklers for doing things the right way, being prompt, being proper.
Aspinall must have really loved Ruby, because it wasn't until 1942 that they wed.
"Nobody could sweep Ruby off her feet," Gould recalls. "She refused him for 13 years."
One reason for Ruby's heel-dragging was her career. "She was also suspicious of men and their motives," Gould explains.
Aspinall somehow prevailed, and maybe it didn't hurt that it was soon after Pearl Harbor, and he was shipping out for the Pacific. Gould speculates that Ruby was one of many wartime brides.
Nevertheless, it was a love affair that lasted more than 30 years. Ruby and Dutch rented the second floor of a row house in a working-class section of the Bronx, he became an administrator at a juvenile detention facility, and they lived together happily, with no children, although they were close to Gould and his sister, Beverly.
When Ruby wasn't working, she'd stay home, play the piano and sing her beloved hymns. And Dutch seems unusually enlightened. In that era, it wasn't every husband who let his wife traipse off with a bunch of show-business gypsies.
"What she always said she loved about her husband is that he would allow her to do anything she wanted to," says Gould.
But she felt stymied professionally in the '40s.
Gould says she mostly performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the world-renowned black choral group founded at Tennessee's Fisk University in the late 1800s. The Fisk Singers were the first to bring spirituals and slave songs to American and European audiences without a hint of the minstrel act. A 1945 program with the Singers shows Ruby performing everything from Strauss to the old spiritual Nobody Knows De Trouble I See.
She also made the Four Saints recording and had a six-month stint as Lynn Fontanne's maid in the Broadway comedy The Pirate. But she was frustrated by a lack of steady employment. And efforts to strengthen her voice faltered.
"She was struggling to find work," Gould says. "She complained that she was victimized by a series of bad voice teachers. She felt her potential was cut short."
Did race hold her back? "I think she was conscious as an African-American woman that she didn't have the opportunities that white actresses did," says Gould. But reflecting in old age, "she refused to complain or be bitter about it. Who knows what she really thought when she was home with Uncle Dutch. We always wondered about that."
In the '50s, Ruby rebounded. From 1951 to '55, she reached what Gould calls her "professional pinnacle" in Porgy and Bess, the famous George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward-Ira Gershwin folk opera about the denizens of Catfish Row in Charleston, the town she lived in briefly as a child.
Ruby appeared as an ensemble player in the musical's nearly yearlong run on Broadway in 1953. Cab Calloway played Sportin' Life, and a young Leontyne Price was Bess. Eva Jessye was the choral director.
More significantly, Ruby traveled with the show throughout Africa, Europe and South America, including its debut as the first American opera at Italy's renowned La Scala. The show was a smash. It got 21 curtain calls in Vienna. In Berlin, the applause lasted a half-hour.
Among the cast was a young singer-dancer named Maya Angelou, not yet the famous poet and author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
In an interview last week from New York, Angelou recalled Ruby's strong religious beliefs and "beautiful" voice fondly. "She had a wonderful sense of humor," Angelou says. But "she didn't appreciate people's rudeness and wouldn't stand for vulgarity of any sort. Her face would show you that in a second."
In her memoir, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, Angelou described Ruby as one of those "quiet, self-effacing women who looked and acted more like pillars of a religious order than singing members of a flamboyant opera company."
Ruby might have been proud of that description. While she loved her artistry, she didn't care too much for some of her fellow artists.
"Without naming any names, she had a general low regard for the moral (fiber) of folks in show business," says Gould. "She saw show business as a bastion of partiers and carousers."
But she loved to perform and travel, and Porgy was her ticket to the world. Just one problem: She didn't care to fly. In her memoir, Angelou describes sitting next to Ruby on a flight. "When the plane took off, she grabbed the seat arms, tensed her body and, by will alone, lifted the carrier safely into the air."
In 1955, when Angelou was singing at the exclusive Mars Club in Paris, Ruby, who didn't usually frequent nightspots, came to support her. "Which told me she cared. Imagine my surprise, knowing all she was going to order was a Coca-Cola," says Angelou with a small laugh.
A decade later, Angelou saw Ruby again. She happened to purchase a striking print of a young girl singing. "I loved it without knowing who it was. When I read it was Ruby Green Singing, that just impressed me to no end. That was her. Spiritually gorgeous."
On the day of the interview, her copy of Ruby's picture had just arrived at Angelou's new brownstone in Harlem. It is part of her "serious collection of art," she says, which includes the original works of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Another poet was equally impressed by Ruby.
In October 1958, Robert Frost was the country's consultant in poetry (the precursor to Poet Laureate). He needed, as The New York Times put it, to create "a discriminating atmosphere in his Federal office." To do so, Frost wanted four paintings - by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakin, Andrew Wyeth and James Chapin.
He didn't know the title of Chapin's work; he described it as "that Negress of his, that girl singing."
Unfortunately for him, Ruby was busy hanging in West Palm Beach.
In the 1960s, Ruby kept busy with Porgy in America and Israel. She appeared in tours of Kiss Me, Kate and Showboat.
Between 1968 and 1970, she had a small role in the Broadway play The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.
Gould remembers that role as the sole time he saw her on stage, among a group of women chiding Jones' boxer character.
She had short runs in the early 1970s in a musical and operetta. At some point in the '70s, or perhaps earlier, she also guested on the TV soap As The World Turns, and did a Gleem toothpaste commercial. But Ruby's career was winding down.
She retired for good in 1974, one year after her beloved husband, the man she called "my Steve," died. She moved to a 14th-floor apartment in the Bronx's sprawling Co-Op City, with views of Long Island Sound. Her walls were covered with mementos of her show-biz years.
One year later, the man who painted her portrait, James Chapin, died in Toronto at age 88. Opposed to the war in Vietnam, he had moved to Canada in 1968. While Ruby's portrait is seen as iconic, Chapin's other work seems unjustly overlooked.
"That is the story of hundreds and hundreds of finely trained artists who worked in a realistic style," explains Woodstock, N.Y., art dealer James Cox, who represents Chapin's estate. "After World War II, the art world shunned them. If you weren't one of the 'isms' - abstract expressionism, etc. - forget it. You were out." Today, Chapin may be best-known to Boomer generations as the grandfather of the late pop-folk singer Harry Chapin (Cat's In The Cradle).
In her retirement years, Ruby became a devout Jehovah's Witness. She met her "constant companion" Mary J. Johnson, a neighbor in Co-Op City, at a Kingdom Hall more than 20 years ago. They would attend church two days a week, and Mary would drive her to big Jehovah's events at Yankee Stadium, where they would sit in the stands and sing hymns before the main services began.
Ruby would reminisce about the stars she knew, but it was never boastful, never egotistical.
"She always maintained her sense of dignity," says Johnson. "She was gracious. I liked her outlook on life. I think about her all the time."
About the same time Ruby met Johnson, Gould wandered into a Philadelphia frame shop and found a reproduction of Ruby's portrait on the wall. "My jaw dropped," he says.
In all those years, Ruby never had a copy of it, just a frayed picture from a newspaper clipping. So her nephew and niece bought it on the spot, and framed it for her birthday present. Ruby proudly hung it in her apartment under a light.
Three years ago, Ruby was in Einstein Hospital in the Bronx, recovering from breast cancer surgery. Gould wandered into a picture gallery on the floor where her aunt was staying, and there was another copy of Ruby singing.
"I said to one of the nurses, 'I bet you won't believe the woman in that picture is the same woman sitting in this wheelchair.' They were all flabbergasted. She (Ruby) said, 'Yep, that's me.' "
On Sept.10, 2001, one day before the planes hit New York, Gould moved his increasingly frail aunt to a retirement home in Philadelphia, where he works as a systems analyst for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Mary Johnson visited her a few months later, just before Christmas. Ruby couldn't sing anymore, so Mary sang to her.
Nine days later, on Dec. 31, Ruby Mae Greene Aspinall died in her bed at age 92 of cancer. After a funeral service in the Bronx, attended by many of her fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, she was buried beside her husband at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.
And in death, as in life, her name somehow got misspelled on her tombstone. But Gould says she always had her eye on more important things.
"She loved her life, she loved her family, she was enormously proud of it. She said she had a wonderful life and wouldn't have traded it for anything. That was a mantra for her," says Gould, who still misses his Aunt Ruby, just like her friend Mary does.
Gould's wife, Sandra, remembers how vital Ruby was in her final years. "Even at 90, 91, she would sit at the piano and entertain us. She would always say, 'Ah, life, it's veeeery interesting.' "
Ruby never got to see Ruby Green Singing at the Norton. But she might like what happens there nearly every day.
School children and grown-ups crowd around her portrait or sit in circles at her feet. At the urging of tour guides, they throw out words like religious and beautiful and edifying to describe the effect of Chapin's moving creation.
What song was Ruby singing back in 1928? We'll never know. But she had a favorite hymn, one that her friends and family often heard.
It was sung at her funeral. It's Hymn No. 15 in Mary Johnson's Jehovah's songbook, and seems perfectly scripted for a woman who dwelled in both the houses of show business and the Lord:
Sorrow has passed. Peace at last! Life without tears and pain.
Sing out with joy of heart. You, too, can have a part.
Live for the day when you'll say: 'Life without end, at last!'
Palm Beach Post Researcher Melanie Mena, former staff researcher Krista Pegnetter and former staff writers Sharon McDaniel and Charles Passy contributed to this story.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.