“If I sell them to you, am I writing the death warrant for Storey Rourke?” Jean-Pierre posed the question quietly.
“I don’t … think so,” Jenna said.
Storey Rourke. Born Francis Xavier Rourke in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1937. A high school dropout who joined a street gang specializing in burglary. Called “Storey” because, small and agile, he made an excellent second storey man.
Several juvey convictions had preceded his arrest at 18 in a department store break-in. It was 1955. At that time, a judge could still tell a young hoodlum to join the U. S. Army in lieu of serving a sentence, to “reform the lad.” This judge did just that; and the Honorable Justice Robert Sedgewick III became immortal as a footnote in countless books and articles.
After two years in the Signal Corps, Storey Rourke was, it seemed, a passably solid citizen. He had earned his General Equivalency Degree. He had married in West Germany to a civilian clerk typist named Gladys Carlucci, a fellow New Yorker, who was a foot taller than he and three months pregnant. The newlyweds went home after his discharge. But absent imposed discipline, he soon reverted to old habits. Even his kindest biographers later conceded he had set himself up as a poverty row gigolo, supported by his wife. She found clerical work immediately, and took only a week off after giving birth to a son. Storey, despite his idleness, did not change the boy’s diapers, letting his wife do that when she got home.
His wife demanded he get a job. Having access now to GI Bill money, he apparently figured he could run a “gentleman scholar” scam for a bit; he told his wife that she would only have to work until he got through school. He signed up entirely for art courses his first semester, assuming they would be a breeze.
To everyone’s astonishment, including his own, he found he had a gift.
He took two years of art classes, and towards the end they were mainly an excuse to use the college’s facilities and supplies, because there was soon very little to teach him. He worked hard, now that he’d found something that suited him, and sold his first painting three years after he picked up a brush.
His series of five paintings, Street Scenes 1-5, illustrated the pool halls, switchblade muggings, and crew-cut toughs of his teen years. They became an icon of 1950s art on par with Jasper Johns’ Flag. His trademark style was realistically proportioned human figures topped with floridly colored, almost glowing faces, set against minimal but almost photo-realistic backgrounds. The New Republic called him a “wonderful, anarchic challenge to the saccharine myths of Norman Rockwell” in 1960.
The signature on every painting was always just a scrawled “Storey.”
The boy who had lain in unchanged diapers was named “Brian.”
Jenna had been escorted onto private estates by private security guards in many countries. She had been marched into villas by rough but jovial Italians, herded into dachas by rough but reserved Russians, and guided into chateaus by moussed but crew-cut Frenchmen.
But this was New Jersey. The American guards who quietly walked her through the gates and up to the mansion’s doors were as generic as a McBurger, and as personable.
The door opened. A handsome man in his mid-60s stood there, and she for an instant thought he was the butler, but then recognized, in the flesh rather than on a magazine cover, Brian Rourke.
“Ms. Jenna Northrup to see you sir,” said the guard.
As she stepped into the foyer, unaccompanied, Brian Rourke said, “Thanks for coming.” It was a modest statement, she thought, from a man of his wealth, and power, and good looks.
In 1961, when a truck driver might make $5,500 a year, Storey Rourke sold one of his paintings for $75,000, and it wasn’t the only one he sold. That same year, he moved his wife and son to Houston for unknown reasons. But he, alone, lived in New York.