Arman Manookian: Fragile Paradise

A. T. Manookian, "Hawaiian Boy and Girl"
One of a series of mural paintings originally installed in the "Green Mill Grill."

From the Honolulu Advertiser, May 12, 1931:

Brilliant Young Artist is Suicide Arman T. Manookian Takes Poison During Social Affair

"Inquest into the death of Arman T. Manookian, 27, well-known in Honolulu and certain Mainland circles as an artist of distinction will be held some time this week, according to Deputy Sheriff William Hoopai, coroner. Death, according to Dr. Robert Faus, was due to poison.

Manookian died at 10:15 o'clock Sunday evening at the Queen's Hospital where he had been removed after he had taken poison at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Lemmon, ...Black Point Road, where he had been living for several months.

The artist had refused to take part in games being played by a group of guests at the home, and had gone to his room...

No reason for the artist could be offered by his friends. He was said to have been despondent for several days prior to his taking poison."

Arman Manookian

When Arman Tateos Manookian died he was more than 8,000 miles from his birthplace of Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey. Why Manookian chose to die in a place that he found to be a paradise is a secret that he took with him to his grave. What he left instead was a dazzling public legacy: his art. In the five years and eleven months that he lived in Honolulu he produced paintings, magazine illustrations and, most impressively, murals that in the words of Art Historian David Forbes "were completely unlike anything that Honolulu audiences had previously seen."

Manookian was a complex man, a hero of Hawai'i modernism, who himself objected to his work being called "modern." The best way -- indeed the only way -- of understanding him as a man is to consider the fragments of his life, and set them against the background of history. The rediscovery of a cache of lost Manookian drawings from the estate of Maj. Edwin North McClellan, the man who brought Manookian to Hawai'i, has helped bring his development into focus.

Manookian, the eldest of three children, was born on May 15, 1904 in Constantinople, the troubled heart of the collapsed former Ottoman Empire. His given name, which he used until joining the U.S. Marine Corps was Tateos (Tady to his family), which is Armenian for the Apostle Thaddeus, one of the two Apostles credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia. Manookian came from a family of Armenian Apostolic Christians, and his father, Arshag, was a printer and the publisher of an Armenian newspaper.

The Manookian family was one of the Europeanized Armenian families that had held on to their status and affluence despite crippling taxation and the political dominance of the Islamic Turkish Pashas. They were the cultural elite of the Armenian nation, learned, prosperous and proud of their 3,000 year old culture.

The Armenians, the first nation to convert en masse to Christianity in 301 A.D. , were a religious and ethnic minority in Turkey, trying to preserve their language and culture in a hostile environment. For centuries, their Turkish overlords had subjected them to relentless oppression and violence. In 1912, British writer W. Llewellyn Williams recalled that:

"Even at the beginning of the 19th Century, at Constantinople, a Mussulman could very well stop a Christian in the street, and calmly behead him, in order to test that his sword was in good condition."

This random violence, however, was a token compared to the terror that would shatter the lives of Armenians from 1915 to 1918. One million or more Armenians would be murdered during a genodical rampage systematically planned by a group of nationalistic leaders known as the "Young Turks", with German military advisers looking on. Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey from 1913 to 1916, tried unsuccessfully to intervene on the side of the Armenians. He was later to write:

"I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The greatest massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915."

The Armenian genocide remains one of the most chilling moments of the early 20th century, a prototype for other horrors to follow.

The terror came to Constantinople on April 24, 1915, just shy of Manookian's 11th birthday. On that day, 600 Armenian intellectuals, writers, poets, politicians and others were gathered up and murdered. Manookian's father managed to hide himself and his brother-in-law in the family print shop and survived. Within weeks, perhaps 5,000 more men were dead, some killed in death marches into the desert.

At the time of the terror, Tateos was a student at the school of St. Gregory the Illuminator, a branch of the Armenian Mekhitarist Brotherhood of Venice. The 31-year old principal of his school, Daniel Varoujan, was a leader in the Mehian movement, which was an attempt to generate an Armenian cultural renaissance. In late April, 1915, he was arrested and tortured, later to be executed in prison. The death of their school principal must have been one of the countless losses that shattered the lives of Tateos and his classmates that April.

Daniel Varoujan

The next years in Constantinople were a hell of whispered threats and public executions, set against the spectacle of destitute Armenians streaming in from the countryside. The Manookians held on in Turkey as long as they could, and Tateos later told friends that he had spent some of this time in Egypt. His father, Arshag, was forced to leave the family and make his way to safety in France.

Ironically, Arshag Manookian escaped the genocide in Armenia only to die in France. In 1917, he caught the Spanish flu, one more victim in an epidemic spread by returning soldiers, that killed more than 20 million people worldwide. Tateos, a strong-minded teenager whose relationship with his mother was strained by grief, felt the heavy weight of taking over his father's place in the family business resting on his shoulders. His mother, who managed to sell the family business, made the extraordinary gesture of giving her eldest teenage son a large amount of money, allowing him the chance to live out his dream of leaving for the United States.

The Re d'Italia

When he arrived on April 20th, 1920, disembarking from the Re d'Italia at Ellis Island, Manookian's sense of being foreign and lost in a Diaspora may have been intense. In 1918 alone, more than 50,000 Armenians had flooded into Ellis Island, many of them orphans. The sufferings of the Armenians were well known in the United States. President Herbert Hoover wrote in his memoirs:

"Probably Armenia was known to the American school child in 1919 only a little less than England ... of the staunch Christians who were massacred periodically by the Mohammedian Turk, and the Sunday School collections of over fifty years for alleviating their miseries. . . ."

Tateos went to live with a relative of his mother's, an umbrella repairman named Leo Stepanian who had a shop at 456 Washington Street in West Providence, Rhode Island. Providence at that time had a population of nearly 8,000 Armenians, many of them working under hazardous conditions at local foundries and the Hood Rubber Plant. Tateos had arrived during a post-war economic slump that lasted from 1919 to 1924 and Armenians were competing for jobs against a the background of a general resentment of immigrants.

The Rhode Island School of Design

"Tateos Manookian" appears as a night student at the Rhode Island College of Design in September of 1920, and he continued as student through the 1921-22 term. Manookian's talent must have been already apparent, as his tuition to take classes in "Freehand Drawing" was paid by a state scholarship. During his second year at RISD he took instruction in "Commercial Illustration" passing with high marks. By 1923 he had moved out (his address in the 1923 Providence Directory is the address of the YMCA) and was advertising his skills as a lithographer.

On October 8, 1923 he enlisted in the Marine Corps as "Arman Theodore Manookian" claiming U.S. citizenship which he did not in fact have. Although he did write to his sister that he had joined the "Army of the Navy." At just under five and a half feet tall, 132 pounds, with a newly shaved head that accentuated his ears, Manookian was not an imposing new Marine, but he had achieved a new identity as an American.

Private A. T. Manookian, from a Boot Camp photo, c. 1923

Major Edwin N. McClellan, Marine Historian, drawn by A. T. Manookian

Published in "Paradise of the Pacific" Magazine, December, 1927

On Nov 7, 1924 Private A. T. Manookian was assigned as a clerk to the office of Edwin North McClellan, an active Marine historian. When Private Manookian entered his office, McClellan, aged 43, had already served nearly seventeen years in the Marine Corps. For the past five years he had worked in the Historical Division of the Marine Corps, preparing a history of the Corps during World War I. The young illustrator had walked into the life of a man would publish more than 100 articles on Marine history, and, eventually, complete an epic history of the Corps, with 1,063 pages of text, (not to mention 836 pages of notes) and over a hundred illustrations, all carrying Manookian's monogram "ATM" .

As a young man, McClellan's military assignments had taken him all over the world, including a remarkable tour on the USS Wisconsin as part of the "Great White Fleet" that Teddy Roosevelt used to display American Naval prestige from 1908 to 1909. During that tour, McClellan got his first glimpse of Honolulu, along with ports in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, China and Egypt, traveling more than 29,000 nautical miles. His writing talents emerged in an unlikely context. While juggling military service and his studies at George Washington University Law School, McClellan wrote for both the "Index-Digest of Court Martial Orders" and the "Naval Digest".

Called to serve on the USS Arizona in February of 1917, McClellan was awarded the rank of Major and finished his World War I service on the USS Minnesota, briefly visiting France to begin collecting historical data on the War. Upon his return to Washington, McClellan completed and published his first "concise history" of the Marines in World War I, remarkably short on illustrations, at just about the same time that Tateos Manookian began his drawing classes in Rhode Island.

Manookian showed McClellan recent sketches he had made during a military exercise on the Puerto Rican Island of Culebra. McClellan must have appreciated those sketches as several of them remained in his estate at the time of his death. Perhaps McClellan, needing an illustrator, had also seen the decorative sketches that Manookian had contributed to the August 1924 issue of "Leatherneck" magazine, in which McClellan had first published an article titled "With the Marines in China" on January 30th.

For Manookian, it was a lucky break to have a military assignment that would let him use his artistic skills. McClellan, with his literary and historical interests, would also prove to be a mentor and father figure for the young Armenian.

Manookian was busy right away, developing pen and ink sketches for his superior's historical articles. Many of these survive at the Marine Historical Center in Washington D.C. They are penned on Royal-Crest Illustration board, touched up with white corrections, and labeled "sketched by PFC Arman Theodore Manookian".

Soon Manookian's work was appearing on the cover of "Leatherneck", first on October 18, 1924, and again for the May 16, 1925 issue, for which he created a multi-paneled design of graphics and historical vignettes. Around the same time, he painted an oil portrait of McClellan's young son Donald (now lost) and sketched an ink portrait of McClellan from a photo.

Manookian decorations from Leatherneck, August 1924

Manookian Self-Portrait Sketch from Leatherneck, October 1924

"Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore"

48 x 68 inches

Mural from the Green Mill Grill", circa 1928

"The Water! Bright Blue! Deep purple! Varying Green! The suddy fringe draped over the reef's dark teeth-virgin white like the peeking lace on milady's lingerie. The reef's sharp fangs-the guardian bulwark of Waikiki. Fair, for as it bares its tusks up flares the warning white froth and foam."

From "Waikiki at Noon" by Edwin Mc Clellan, Published in "Leatherneck", October 1926

When McClellan was dispatched to Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i , on June 1, 1925, he took his talented clerk/illustrator with him. As Manookian prepared to leave the East Coast for Pearl Harbor, he was conscious of just how far he was about to travel from his past and from his Armenian friends and identity. He ended a May 23, 1925 letter to Menou Tufankjian, a childhood friend who was now also in the U.S:

" Who knows, perhaps I'll never see you again. Yours, A. T. Manookian"

It was a prophecy that would come true.

Manookian and McClellan may have been from tremendously different backgrounds, but the paradise of Hawai'i fired the creativity in both. Hawai'i was a long voyage from anywhere, and the ambience was magical. It was in Hawai'i that Manookian would transform himself from an illustrator to an artist, and McClellan the historian would be inspired to poeticize and mysticize his writing.

To be stationed at exotic Pearl Harbor must have been a dream, both artistically and socially. In describing Marine life there, McClellan told Leatherneck in 1926 that:

" is but a short trip to Honolulu, with its show-houses, its beaches, its well lighted streets with their cosmopolitan throngs...the worst grouch of all cannot but succumb to the soothing magic of a few hours spent with congenial companions under the glory of Hawaii's wondrous moon."

For young Marines like Manookian, there was more than the moon to appeal to the senses. Despite prohibition, there was sake being served in Japanese "teahouses" and Hawaii's own homebrew, Okolehao, made from ti leaves and compared by some to the best French brandy, was a prohibition era staple. Prostitution was officially illegal, but the red light district on Honolulu's River Street flourished, and the Army made health inspections. The young Armenian was in a landscape he found fantastic, living near a city bustling with growth and vice.

Manookian's cover for "Pearl Harbor Weekly," December 1926

Madge Tennent, the doyenne of Hawaiian art, once stated that she envisioned the Hawaiian kings and queens as "having descended from gods of heroic proportion, intelligent and brave, bearing a strong affinity to the Greeks in their legends and persons." This statement also perfectly expresses Manookian's approach to Hawaiian culture. This lofty idealization soon became apparent in the historical and mythological images of Hawai'i that he created to accompany McClellan's pieces, which were soon being published in Paradise of the Pacific.

Maui Snaring the Sun, pen and ink, circa 1927

In a stunning illustration commissioned by McClellan, but never published, the Hawaiian myth of "Maui Snaring the Sun" is presented in these ideal terms. The almost Grecian figure of Maui, set against a vista of Olympian clouds, reflects a new artistic grace that Manookian would characterize his Hawaiian paintings.

In a short profile of the artist, published in "Paradise of the Pacific" Magazine in 1927, Manookian states grandly that "in all his travels he has come upon no more intriguing artists' paradise than these mid-Pacific gardens of the Gods". Identifying himself as having come from "Byzantium... the eastern capital of the Roman Empire", Manookian states that he "fails to understand why the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands are not thick with the easels...of at least half the artists or would-be artists of the world."

By the time Manookian was discharged from the Marines in 1927, he had made up his mind to stay in Honolulu. He had not been given a recommended promotion to Sargent that had been dangled in January of 1927, but he did leave the service as a Corporal, and the recipient of a "Medal of Good Conduct." On September 5 he filed a Waiver of Transportation stating that would not be returning to the Mainland. In his waiver application he referred to a "lucrative" job as an illustrator that he had taken with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, whose art director at the time was the artist John M. Kelly.

As Manookian settled into his new life as a civilian, several changes took place. His mentor, Edwin Mc Clellan was called to the Pacific Coast in November of 1927, and then to Nicaragua. He managed to keep up his duties as Editor of "Paradise", even though it would be nearly ten years before he actually returned to Hawai'i as its editor.

As McClellan and the Marines faded as influences in Manookian's life, tremendous new ideas and opportunities were appearing. In April of 1927 The Honolulu Academy of the Arts opened, and with its opening came lectures and programs. Did Manookian hear Madge Tennant give her series of November 1927 lectures on art, drawing and the use of color? If he didn't, its hard to believe, given his next artistic projects, that he would have missed a lecture by Madame Claude Riviere from Tahiti on the work of Gaugain, held the same month.

By 1928 he had moved to Makiki, less than a mile from the Academy. Becoming a member of the Honolulu Artist's Association, he attended meetings with Madge Tennent, Lionel Walden, D. Howard Hitchcock and other important Hawaiian painters.

Socially, Manookian may have found Honolulu similar to Constantinople: both were port cities where immigrant groups clustered with people of their own culture, hanging on to familiar lanuage and customs as best they could. In the islands, Manookian became friends with a Greek, George Geracimos, who owned the "Green Mill Grill" on Bethel Street, across from the Hawai'i Theatre. Bethel Street at the time was a kind of Bohemian transition between the bustle of Chinatown to the west and the dignity of the Iolani Palace district to the east. Restaurants like the "Green Mill", and its neighbors "Chez Parisien" and the "Monte Carlo" modeled themselves on Parisien brasseries, even if the alcohol had to be kept under the counter.

Trading work for meals and booze, it was for the "Green Mill" that Manookian made some of his most famous works, a series of oils that depicted Hawaii in the era of Captain Cook. Many of the restaurants patrons came in late after leaving the Hawaii theater. They would have just watched a show beneath Hawaii's most ambitious mural, the 35 foot wide "Glorification of Drama" completed by Lionel Walden in 1922.

What a shock the Manookian paintings must have been when compared with the pastel, Neo-Classical composure of Walden's work. In fact, the eventual buyers of the Green Mill Grill paintings were two Honolulu society women who first saw them when they dropped in after leaving the theater.

A. T. Manookian, "Red Sails", Collection of John and Patsy Dilks

The five Manookian canvasses presented a world of striking color. In "Red Sails", for example, scarlet sails are set against lapis blue skies. Hawai'i had unleashed the artist's perfect pitch as a colorist. Equally striking was the way that Manookian, who previously had used mainly tempera paint to apply color, employed oil paint in bold, flat areas, without the use of varnish or subtle gradations. Although the vivid hues struck most viewers as Modern, Manookian's color sense actually reflected a Byzantine world of color re-emerging from his adolescent and childhood memories. He was also trying out ideas about form, color and design that would later cause him to be called "Hawai'i's most scientific artist."

Those who first viewed Manookian's new colored works were struck not only by the use of color, but by the emotions that his work could stir up. Artist/Writer Don Blanding, reviewing the 1928 Academy show, told readers of the Star-Bulletin:

"If I were away from Hawaii and I chanced to see the exhibition of paintings which I have just finished viewing, I know that I should be overwhelmed with homesickness."

Anna Balakian, an Armenian American art critic who was also a survivor of the genocide, once described the "mythological concept of Byzantium" as "a place of beauty and impending downfall." To the Honolulu public, the Marine from Turkey had remade himself as an exotic and a true island artist. Hawai'i had become his Byzantium.

It has often been said that Modernism was the creation of exiles, and Manookian's life sadly fits this profile. His intantaneous and miraculous bond with Hawa'ii suggests a deep longing to be connected to a place and culture, perhaps as a replacement for what had been lost. Ultimately, Manookian's portrayal of Hawaii, like Gaugain's of Tahiti, is an idealized fantasy of a place that had never existed except in the Colonial imagination. That of course, was a fantasy of Eden that the world and its travel agents needed badly in the in the late 20's, and which it still needs now.

The glowing colors of Manookian's work reflected the ecstatic vision of an artist who was also coming to know dreadful lows. Manookian, whose closest friends often found him a "puzzle" often kept to himself. The Armenian writer Zarian, who had also grown up in Constantinople, may help explain Manookian's reserve with his statement, "Our generation has more friends in the next world than in this one."

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 took its toll on the Hawaiian economy as tourism began to decline, and building began to slow down. Manookian's last employment was to create mural decorations for the Waipahu Theater, which opened on December 21, 1930. The Waipahu, now the "City of Refuge" Church, was designed by Louis Davis and had a lavish building budget of over $100,000.00. In addition to Manookian's artwork, it featured painted Art Deco ceilings and a screen set in "a series of receding concentric planes covered in silver leaf." There are no photos in existence of the theater's original interior, and the murals apparently vanished long before the Waipahu became an adult theater in the 1960's.

Around this same time, Manookian met Cyril Lemmon, a young architect who was dabbling in painting. They began to paint together, and by late 1930 Arman was living downstairs in Lemmon's Black Point home. Anne Simms Stubenberg, the daughter of next door neighbor Arthur Simms, still remembers taking an art lesson from Manookian as a seven year old. He patiently spent hours assisting her with a painting of a red blossomed tree, and gave her a tin painting box. He also, on another occasion, picked her up by the hair, something that even a child could understand as a hint that something was wrong with the artist.

The Lemmon's living room was filled with paintings, salon style, including a Diego Rivera. At Black Point, in the last months of his life, Manookian was experimenting with a more modern style of painting, adding hints of cubist distortion borrowed from Rivera. It didn't always go well, and he apparently destroyed a number of his own artworks along the way. A meticulous artist, he still planned each work on a grid, but he was blending his paint more, softening colors, and attempting to emulate the greater distortions of Modernism. He also attempted, in a 1930 painting of a woman weaving a mat, to move away from the world of myth into the depiction of the contemporary.

A. T. Manookian, "Untitled (Hawaiian Genre Scene)", 1930, The Honolulu Academy

As Arman struggled in Hawai'i, his brother, Vahe, had become a student in a seminary in Geneva, learning French. Two years younger, he had taken on the responsibility of earning enough money to bring his mother and sister out of Turkey. Eight thousand miles away, Arman was unable to help.

His sister Adrienne wrote to a friend in a 1975 letter recounting Manookian's fate: "He did not write too often and we worried a lot."

She was right to worry, as her brother was emotionally fragile. His obituary in the Star-Bulletin reported that:

"On one occasion he took down a group of paintings that were on exhibition, tore them across and threw them into a waste basket."

A. T. Manookian, "Hawaiian Figure", 1930, private collection
Torn in half by the artist.

He also apparently once turned down a mural commission because he was busy and "could not be bothered."

He delivered his last painting, "Flamingos in Flight," on Thursday, May 7, 1931, to the home of Charles Mackintosh. Three days later he was dead.

A. T. Manookian, "Flamingos in Flight", 1931, private collection
The artist's last painting.

On the evening of Sunday, May 10, the Lemmons and a few friends were playing the parlor game "Murder," while Manookian, who had been depressed for days, sulked in his room. It is hard to believe that the artist had told his friends many of the details of his early life, or they might never have played "Murder" so lightly.

Members of the Lemmon family have stated that he was in love with Belinda, the flirtatious first wife of his friend Cyril. It will never be known for certain if this was true, or whether there were any other personal complications that drove him over the edge. Admirers of his Hawaiian figures have noticed his sensual treatment of men's bodies and suggested that he might have been gay or bisexual, but there are no anecdotes to substantiate this idea. The records of a police inquest into the death by Detective John Cluney vanished years ago.

While the game went on in the living room, the distraught artist drank poison. He may have taken arsenic, but more likely he took cyanide. Cyanide had been in the news a few months before, as the agent of death in the suicide of Lewers and Cooke heir Will Lewers. Manookian's friends heard him cry out as he stumbled into Lemmon's kitchen, never to regain consciousness.

The last known photo of Manookian

Manookian's art had celebrated adventure and heroic myths, yet he killed himself pointlessly and created a world of pain for those he left in the present.

A simple way of explaining Manookian today would be to say he was manic-depressive. That would be too simple, as it ignores the terror that Tateos had to comprehend as a boy. Perhaps the words of the Armenian poet Daniel Varoujan, the martyred principal of Manookian's boyhood school echoed in Arman's soul:

"The Armenian nation wept and roared in me."

In April of 1931, Manookian's mother, sister and brother were shocked when they received letters of condolence from artists Verna Tallman and Cyril Lemmon. They read and re-read copies of the headlines about his death, which his brother Vahe, a photoengraver, carefully copied onto plates in his grief. They petitioned the American Embassy to retrieve his belongings, but were told that Arman had left nothing behind.

Their main consolation, since they could not afford to go to Honolulu, was a visit by Manookian's friend Cyril Lemmon who came to Paris in 1932, separated from his wife, and making a stab at being a painter. They also received a painting and a few drawings sent by Verna Tallman which his sister-in-law Andree still treasures. The family did not have the financial means to attend the Memorial Exhibit for Manookian which was held at the Honolulu Academy in the Fall of 1933.

Mc Clellan was away from Hawaii at the time of his friend's death, and no article or mention of Manookian's death was ever to appear in "Leatherneck" where his career had started. Had Manookian lived he would have had to cope with the disappointment of knowing that the massive history he illustrated for McClellan was never published. The Depression made publication of such a large book unfeasible, and McClellan resorted to mimeographing sections, chapter by chapter. The only complete record of the "History of U. S. Marines and Origin of Sea Soldiers" by Edwin North McClellan, illustrated by A. T. Manookian, exists on microfilm as recorded by the New York Public Library in 1954.

Mc Clellan retired from the Marines in 1936, continuing to edit "Paradise of the Pacific" until his departure from Hawaii not long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It must have been wrenching for him to hear of the carnage at Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the Arizona on which he had served as a young man. Like all Americans, at the War's end he must have also been stunned by the emerging details of the Holocaust. Had Manookian lived, he, like all Armenians would have known that his family had lived through the rehearsal for the genocide in Germany.

While Manookian never lived to know the full impact of his work, McClellan was able to have his achievements recognized during his lifetime. In 1968 he was honored at a ceremony at the Philadelphia Naval Base where General Leonard Chapman called his history "the essential starting point for any meaningful research into our past."

One has to wonder if Major McClellan ever looked through the box of Manookian illustrations in his office and remembered the young clerk with big ears he had met in 1924. When Mc Clellan died in 1971 at the age of eighty-nine, it had been decades since the proud young artist who had blossomed in Hawaii told a reporter, in a 1928 interview, that the underlying principles of his work were "those adapted by every earnest painter since (Michel)Angelo and Rubens."

Manookian, when he gave that interview in 1928, had only three years left to live. He was already carefully aligning himself with the past and its rose-colored myths. His broken childhood had taught him not to trust the future, even in paradise.

From "Paradise of the Pacific": "A fancy of ancient Hawaii, decorative of the tale of some noble warrior's shell being borne afloat to sanctified repository" by A. T. Manookian