Painting X – Neal Hirschfeld

The tale of the Ornsteins and the Levines and the beautiful painting of early 20th-century Paris was a tale of three cities — New York, Paris and San Juan. It was also a story of several generations of family and four decades of friendship. And it had an O. Henry-style ending that left all the principals reeling. 

The story begins in 1942, on West 90th Street near Broadway, where my uncle, Herman Hirschfeld, and his wife, Ruth, settled into their new apartment after marrying. With a keen eye for the finer things of life, Ruth began to accumulate antiques and artworks, among them small paintings depicting a shepherd and his sheep, cows crossing a stream and a couple standing by a door, and watercolor seascapes by a mid-20th-century artist from New Jersey named Henry Gasser. 

Most notably there was a large oil depicting a tree-lined Parisian street during a springtime rain shower, an image replete with stately homes, horse-drawn carriages and old-fashioned newspaper kiosks. Elegantly dressed women, escorted by men wearing top hats and carrying walking sticks, took shelter under their umbrellas. A little girl dressed in red hopscotched through the puddles.

The work, entitled “Paris Boulevard” and enclosed in an ornately carved wood frame, was signed by an early 20th-century French artist identifying himself as V. Lebot.

For several years, the work hung prominently over the Hirschfelds’ living room sofa. Although Louise, the couple’s only child, did not have special affection for the picture, she was, however, particularly taken with its unusual frame. In 1954, when the Hirschfelds moved to a larger apartment on East 94th Street, the painting occupied a similarly lofty station.

There it remained until 1985, when Herman, by now a widower and in his 80s, moved in with Louise, who by then was married and raising two daughters in a three-bedroom apartment on York Avenue. 

Unable to accommodate all her parents’ possessions, Louise and her husband, Robert Ornstein, made the difficult decision to ask Doyle New York, the East Side auction house, to remove some of the items, among them the Lebot painting, so they could be resold.

Now, for a brief moment, the story flashes backward in time, to the more exotic locale of San Juan, Puerto Rico, circa 1972. It was there, while on vacation at the Hotel San Juan, that Louise and Robert first met Bunny and Paul Levine, who were then living on the Upper West Side. One night the two couples went out for dinner, at which point their growing friendship was bolstered by two happy coincidences. First, both women were pregnant. Second, both were wearing identical three-piece black-and-white outfits purchased from the same boutique in Rego Park, Queens.

Having begun their relationship on such an auspicious note, the couples went on to maintain a close friendship over the next four decades, spending many of their most treasured moments together — New Year’s Eves, theater club nights, Jewish holidays, the bar and bat mitzvahs of their children and, when the children got older, their respective weddings.

Most important of all, however, were the two wives’ birthdays. Born two days apart — Bunny on Nov. 29, Louise on Dec. 1 — the couples made a point of celebrating together every year.

During this period, Bunny and Paul also traveled to Paris and fell in love with that city — the gardens, the museums, the cafes, the cuisine. Over the years, they returned many times.

For various reasons, the 2012 joint birthday celebration for Bunny and Louise was held belatedly, in February. The event began with wine and cheese at the Levines’ East Side apartment.

Louise came solo this time since by now she was separated from Robert. But remembering that Louise had once worked as a fine arts appraiser for Christie’s East, the Manhattan auction house, Bunny suggested that she step into the den to take a look at the Hanukah gift she had given to Paul while she and Paul dressed for dinner.

Louise complied, and then suddenly Bunny and Paul heard anguished cries from the den.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

Rushing into the den, the couple found Louise staring at the wall in utter disbelief.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pointed to the large framed oil behind the sofa. It was all she could do to get out the words.

“This hung in my parents’ living room!”

It was, of course, the Lebot, now hanging from the wall of her very dearest friends’ den, a work she had not seen for a quarter of a century.

In the smallest of small worlds, it turned out that Bunny was a regular visitor to Doyle New York and, in search of a gift that would please her mate and fellow Francophile, she had bought the Lebot at auction for $500.

Contacted for comment, Doyle was unable to provide any further history about the painting since it had left Louise’s household in 1985. But, for the principals, the coincidence has been so startling that single words seemed to serve best in summing up their reactions.

“Haunting,” said Louise.

“Incredulous,” said Bunny (who has since passed away).

“Serendipitous,” said Robert.

“Bashert,” said Paul, using a Yiddish expression that may have captured the situation best. In English, the word means, “It was meant to be.”