Before it became one of the most recognizable works of pop art from the twentieth century, and then a mystery, I was there.
Just a few years short of becoming a teenager, the initial impression I had of being an eyewitness to history, was that history involved a naked woman. That’s the kind of history that would make any pre-teen boy sit up and take notice.
The photo was black-and-white, because dad used this type of film for artistic reasons when photographing models. He had explained to me many times why this approach worked better than the more readily available and popular color film, and I’m sure the explanation went right over my head. Neither then nor now have I ever had a deep passion or classic understanding of art. In this case, at least, the apple fell quite far from the tree.
On this particular day when I stepped into his studio, I likely saw her photo next to his canvas as he worked on the iconic Jaws painting, an image that in a short while would appear on book covers and movie posters and then become a worldwide sensation.
The model he used was a beauty for sure—a high-end New York model by the name of Allison Maher. Despite her naked splendor, there was little erotic about her, looking unnatural as she pantomimed the Australian crawl while lying awkwardly across a stool. But dad had what he wanted: an evocative image that he could use to portray a vulnerable young woman swimming tranquilly across the surface of the water who was oblivious of the giant shark about to devour her.
Such imagery, even at my young age, was already old hat. By then my father had done dozens of book covers of scantily clad buxom women holding tightly to bare-chested, musclebound men. To see a picture of a naked or semi-dressed woman at my father’s work place was a yawn, like when a doctor sees yet another naked patient.
I’m sure I also felt a bit of kinship with Allison Maher, as I had also been a model for several of my father’s paintings. Modeling is a family hazard when your father is an artist. If his painting included a pre-teen boy, chances were I was drafted to help out. A teenage girl? Then it was my sister’s turn. We all got into the act from time to time, including mom, relatives, neighbors, and even my sister’s cat, Buttercup.
I hated being a model, and to this day I still find it odd that people consider it a glamorous occupation. I was an energetic boy who wanted nothing more than to burn off energy outside playing baseball or basketball or whatever sport was in season. Instead, when it was time to model, rule number one was you had to sit still for a long period of time. Then you had to follow instructions, such as “look this way,” “turn that way,” as dad snapped photo after photo. Occasionally you had to wear something that made you look or feel silly. What preadolescent male wouldn’t want to do that?
Mostly my sessions of modeling would end in frustration and acrimony on both of our parts, as dad was irritated by my lack of understanding of what he wanted, and I was annoyed as modeling wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I had sensitive eyes as a child, and when outdoors I would squint unconsciously to adjust to the light. Each of my modeling gambits devolved into episodes of my father exasperatedly directing me to “stop squinting,” and me firing back, “I can’t help it.”
Movie poster illustration for Doc Savage, 1975. Oil on board. INSET: Doc Savage one-sheet movie poster, 1975. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com
The epicenter of all this industry was in the upstairs of a rickety 200-year-old barn in Clove Valley, New York. The bottom part of the barn served as a two-car garage for our family. Up a wobbly flight of stairs was a hayloft. In that area, my dad had a small wooden studio built, a miniature A frame; picture a structure inside a structure. Feet from my father’s studio was a large hayloft door on the second floor that opened to the outside, which was originally built so farmers could pitch hay down when it came time for transport. On warm days, if my father heard the school bus drop us off, he would throw open the hayloft door, towering over my sister and me, and ask how our day at school went.
The outside of the barn had a basketball hoop attached so I could shoot hoops, and the barn wreaked of guano, aka bat excrement. On summer evenings at dusk you could watch hundreds of bats launch from the barn for a night’s work. I know this will sound creepy and disgusting, but it gave the place a certain charm, as the bats with their quick turns and bursts of speed flew as if in an improvised ballet. Frankly, in all the years we lived there, we never bothered the bats and they never bothered us. They were perfect neighbors.
Paperback cover illustration, 1979
Inside, my father’s studio was a bit tamer. Walking in, you were assaulted by the smell of turpentine and bright fluorescent lighting. In his studio he had his easel, chair, he could paint standing or sitting down. There was also a palette full of blobs of multiple paints, a jar to hold dozens of brushes, a projector, and lots of clutter. He had file cabinets and plenty of papers and photos lying around that he would use as an inspiration or model for whatever he was working on. He had a small window to let in the northern light, and he had a wall unit for air conditioning. Dad’s studio was the only airconditioned space we had, so on hot summer days, I’m sure I visited him then as he worked more than any other time of the year, just so I could get out of the oppressive heat. If air conditioning was considered a luxury item for our family, my father paid for it in the winter, as the barn had no central heating. On cold upstate winter days, his hands must have been popsicles in the morning until the space heaters warmed up the place.
Dad loved being an artist. This much was clear to me even as a child. When he quit at night, it was a ritual to watch him painstakingly clean off his palette and brushes. It should have been a dreary by-product of his work. Instead, he would do it with a whistle and vigor, as if it were the perfect ending to the perfect day. He worked hard, but seemed to enjoy it so much it was easy to forget all the hours he put in. He would rise before the rest of the family and be long at work before the school bus came. Then he would take a break for lunch and squeeze in a walk or a jog before getting back to work again. At dinner time, mom would drag him out of his studio so we could have supper as a family. After dinner he would often sneak in a few more hours of painting. This was a seven-day-a-week schedule. Family vacations held no charm for him. Although we always had a family vacation each summer, he would lament the lost week when he wasn’t painting. He would always spend part of our vacation working, taking photos of sites he believed had the potential for being of use in future illustrations.
I remember noticing the Jaws illustration when it was in progress, and I remember liking it. Art is subjective, and some of my father’s work I liked better than others. This one I liked. But of course, I had no idea at the time the impact this work would have. I’m sure dad didn’t either.
What follows is the story of a beautiful man, my father, his creation, the sensation it made, and the legal jeopardy it put him in, and then the painting’s subsequent disappearance and the ongoing mystery of its whereabouts. More than that to me, it is the story of my father’s life and a consequential chapter of my family’s history.
For the record, Roger Kastel was born in White Plains, New York, in 1931 to two German immigrants.
Even before he graduated from high school he would commute into New York City by himself to take art classes. When the Korean War rolled around he signed up for the Navy because this was a better option than being drafted by the Army. My mother met my father on a beach in San Diego when he was still a sailor. He told her he was an artist, and she thought this was the worst pickup line ever, and replied by saying, “Let me guess, you want me to come back to your studio to see your etchings,” something a smooth wolf would ask a single lady in those days.
Not sensing her sarcasm, he sincerely replied, “No, my etchings are in my car.” He then ran to his vehicle and came back with his work to show my mother. What woman wouldn’t be hooked by such earnestness?
After the Navy, they moved back East to Greenwich Village, like many aspiring artists. They lived on a wing and a prayer and a tight budget. Mom worked in Spanish Harlem as a public health nurse, and dad worked as a commercial artist by day and went to the Art Students League at night. This routine went on for years, and my parents would even vacation in Woodstock, New York, so dad could attend art school during the day while on vacation.
Then it was time to make the break. He’d stopped working in the art department of Reddy Kilowatt, where he used to do advertising cartoons and illustrations, so he could branch out on his own. That year my mother became pregnant with my sister and gave up her job, as that is what women did in those days; and for the record, I don’t believe mom would have wanted it any other way. Family lore has always had it that the year my sister was born we had absolutely no money coming in, nothing in the bank, and a baby at home.
Eventually things improved. By the time Jaws rolled around in the mid-’70s, my father was a well-respected illustrator. He was already a veteran of countless book covers and artwork for magazines. He had an exclusive contract with Bantam Books to do book covers, then one of the most-esteemed paperback publishers.
My memories of childhood were that we were always solidly middle class, being neither rich nor poor. I gathered from overhearing my parents’ conversations that we could have been wealthier if dad painted quicker. His usual start to finish time for a book cover was anywhere from 10 days to three weeks. He had artist friends who were wealthier because they could crank out a cover in less time. But dad was more concerned about quality than cash, and he resisted the temptation to speed up the process if it made for lesser results.
What people don’t stop to think about an artist is that, by default, they are also a business. In a sense, my dad was a sole proprietor, and like most artists when it came to business, he was a fish out of water. He was better suited for painting than thinking about tax deductions, investments, whether or not to have an agent or to demand more for his work. Business talk was stressful for him, and at times I sensed it kept him up at night, more so than working on a painting with a tight deadline.
My father also went through a physical metamorphosis of sorts as he approached middle-age in the mid- ’70s. My sister and I would good-naturedly tease him when we came across a photo of him as a young man. He was tall and awkwardly slender with a big schnoz and glasses. He looked like the guy who would be left standing by the wall alone at the school dance.
By the summer of Jaws, he had filled out, grown a mustache that normalized the size of his nose, and had flowing gray hair that screamed he was cooler than other dads in the neighborhood with their corporate hairstyles. He was a middle-aged woman’s dreamboat.
Dad, by nature, is easygoing, enjoys a good laugh or story, and is very attentive when talking to someone. He enjoys people, and although this will read like hyperbole, I have never met anyone who didn’t like him. Myself included.
AND THEN CAME JAWS
In 1969, my father had signed an exclusive contract with Bantam Books to do book covers. From my child’s perspective, it seemed to be a good marriage. They paid him $750 a cover, including Jaws, or the equivalent of less than $3,500 in today’s dollars. The relationship was solid enough that when my parents bought our family home in 1970, Bantam loaned him $1,000, interest-free, to help with the down payment.
One fateful day my father was in Manhattan to deliver one of his paintings to Bantam’s Art Director, Len Leone. Len, who served as Bantam’s Art Director from the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s, was no stranger to terrific art for book covers. He was the Art Director who oversaw many famed artists, including a good friend of my father, James Bama, who did the iconic Doc Savage covers.
Dad had a lot of respect for Len, both as an Art Director and as a person, and believed that he was not only the best Art Director he ever worked with, but that he also produced some of his best art with Len. According to dad, the secret to Len’s prowess at his job was that he “really cared about the art,” and the respect was mutual as Len rarely requested corrections when dad delivered one his paintings.
While in Len’s office, the head of Bantam Books, Oscar Dystel, stopped in. Many credit Oscar with revolutionizing the publishing industry, and today Dystel is remembered for not only bringing the paperback edition of Jaws to market but Catcher in the Rye as well. Although my father thought of Oscar as a “Big Deal,” he would often stop by when my dad was in the office to chat, and he was a very likable man. Dystel, seeing my father, said, “Wait a minute. Don’t leave. I have a great book for you to read.” Dystel came back and gave my father a copy of the hardback version of Jaws. It seems the publisher didn’t think highly of the hardcover version of Jaws and wanted a different look for the paperback.
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