Marie H. Tilyou (1897-1977) was the daughter of the legendary Coney Island showman, George C. Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park. She showed an early talent for drawing, winning gold and silver prizes for paintings as a student at Adelphi College in 1915-1916. Encouraged by Reginald Marsh, who later painted scenes of Steeplechase, she studied painting with George Luks (1867-1933), one of Ashcan School artists who rejected the academic formalism of the American Renaissance and chose to paint instead scenes of quotidian life on the streets of New York City.
Luks was a colorful character himself. He was born in Williamsport and studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Europe, later working as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press and the New York World. In Philadelphia he became part of an small group of artists–including William Glackens and John Sloan–mentored by Robert Henri, all of whom later moved to New York City and formed the core of the urban-realist Ashcan School. A Falstaffian figure, “Lusty Luks” claimed to be a prizefighter and football player. He drank copious amounts of beer, and was said to have covered the Spanish American War from a barstool in Havana. Luks ended his days in a manner tragically fitting for a chronicler of the streets–he died in a doorway after being beaten in a barroom brawl.
This work by Tilyou, titled “Chloe,” is strongly evocative of both the style of the Ashcan School and its penchant for depicting ordinary folk subjects. The painting was evidently part of a group show decades ago at the Brooklyn Museum, exactly when I am not yet sure. The identity of the subject, perhaps a West Indian market girl, is equally a mystery. Works of any kind by Marie Tilyou are exceedingly rare; my extensive searches on the Internet have revealed no traces of any other painting or drawing by her. I recently acquired “Chloe” from Timothy Cobb in Milwaukee. I am glad she and her portraitist are back home after so many years.
Unfortunately, Marie Tilyou never pursued her budding art career. Instead she took over the helm of the family business, working closely with my uncle, Jimmy Onorato, on the daily management and operation of Steeplechase Park. She lived in an extraordinary apartment at 35 Prospect Park West, an Emery Roth building erected in 1929 on the site of George C. Tilyou’s old Romanesque mansion.
Marie Tilyou later raised the ire of many in Brooklyn when she decided to permanently close the park in 1964. She sold the grounds to Fred C. Trump, father of “The Donald” and a real-estate mogul in his own right. Trump erected some 27,000 homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn during his career. In the 1960s he set his sights on Coney Island, opening 3,800-apartment Trump Village in 1963 and acquiring the Tilyou property two years later.
In an effort to ward off an attempt by the city to landmark the Victorian glass-and-steel Pavilion of Fun, Trump hosted a “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony” on September 21, 1966. At it, bikini-clad models led guests in heaving bricks through the windows of the historic structure. A few weeks later Trump razed the entire building, an act of vandalism that—along with the demolition of Ebbet’s Field and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard—seemed to herald the end of Brooklyn’s golden age. Only the parachute jump remained, today a beloved a symbol of Brooklyn–our Eiffel Tower. The Steeplechase site remained empty and windswept until a stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones opened on in 2001, bringing laughter back to this storied stretch of sand.