The Early YearsRitter was born Julian Stawski on September 19, 1909 in Hamburg, Germany, the only child of an aspiring Polish actress. His mother, Angela Stawska, claimed that his father was a Count but never revealed his identity. Angela's acting ambitions left little time to raise a child so Julian was raised by Angela's half-sister, Clara Bock, whom Julian called "Ciocia", the Polish word for "aunt". Julian was very close to Ciocia and she engendered his "bohemian" spirit.
Ciocia was over-protective and did not allow Julian to attend school, leaving him well-behind the rest of his class. Ritter grew up in Hamburg, Germany and was a solitary youth who enjoyed wandering the docks of Hamburg and dreaming of distant lands. He enjoyed sketching ships in Hamburg's harbor which kindled his interest in art.
Julian Ritter recalling his lonely childhoodCiocia didn't let me out playing with the kids in the neighborhood. Never. Some children would come to play but very seldom. Ciocia spoke mostly Polish to me, and she spoke German with a very think Polish accent, so i couldn't talk with other kids. I didn't associate much with other kids until later on, when I moved back with my mother and started going to school. Ciocia watched over me like a hawk.
Once he entered school, he was encouraged to pursue his art by both his teacher at school and also by Hugo Schnars-Alquist, a recognized seascape and ship painter who lived nearby. These interests turned to his two lifelong passions - art and the sea.
Angela married a handsome man from an intellectual family named Walther Fromm. Fromm was an engineer who started a ship-building company. Julian had a close relationship with Fromm who was the father he never had before and with whom he shared an interest in boats and the sea. Fromm was an accomplished cellist and Julian was surrounded by the music of Bach and Beethoven - the music that would later serve as background ambiance for his painting. Angela was fifteen years younger than Fromm and her immaturity and wild ways eventually led to divorce.
After her divorce, Angela and Julian suffered the same deprivation of most Germans in the aftermath of of World War I and the punitive reparations imposed upon Germany. Angela determined that there was better opportunity for her and Julian in the United States and so they immigrated in 1924. Angela arranged for the two to be brought aboard as crew members on the Norddeutcher Lloyd steamship ''Albert Ballin'' - she as a housekeeper using the name Angela Frahm and Julian as a cabin boy using the name Julian Fromm - traveling from Hamburg to New York City. When they reached New York, the two illegal aliens jumped ship with only $27.50 and knowing little English but both Julian and his mother adjusted well to their lives in the US.
Angela had met Karl and Dorothy Lindeman in Germany and they now operated a temporary shelter for immigrants in New York City. They provided housing and got Angela and Julian jobs as a maid and a grocery stock boy, respectively. The two learned English by reading newspapers and listening to people talk. Julian later enrolled in night school to improve his English.
About a year after they first arrived, Julian applied for a job at Childs Restaurant in Times Square. Julian worked up he courage to approach the cashier and stuttered "How do you do? My name is Julian Fromm." The cashier shot back, "Oh, yeah? From where". During Julian's early days struggling to learn English, he repeatedly heard the joke, "Julian Fromm where". Annoyed and tired of the joke, Julian started calling himself Julian Ritter. Angela, too, adopted the name. Both of their U.S. Naturalization records reflect the name change.
Julian got the job at Childs Restaurant, first as a busboy and dishwasher and later as the pancake flipper in the display window. Julian worked twelve-hour days for 30 dollars a week plus meals.
Angela and Julian saved money for a year and moved uptown to an Eighty-Second Street apartment building. Seeing the opportunity to make quick money during Prohibition, Angela opened a speakeasy in the basement of the building. She bought a phonograph and hired a dancer named Tuti who slept in the speakeasy after it closed. Julian would come downstairs to the speakeasy and it was there that he was first exposed to sensuality and eroticism.
Julian and Angela were arguing often. Julian still wanted to become a sailor and Angela was resolute in her opposition of the idea. Knowing that Angela would not relent, Julian ran away, leaving a note telling her he was going to become a sailor. Julian took his fifty dollars and headed for Grand Central Station where he boarded a train for Philadelphia. Julian was taken in by a stranger named Gonzalo to whom Julian confided his desire to work on a boat.
Julian moved in with Gonzalo and his friends - all Latinos. When Gonzalo and his friends tried finding a job aboard a ship, Julian was constantly turned down because of his age. He ended up working at Ramona's Cafe along with Gonzalo making fifteen dollars a week - half of what he made in New York.
Julian developed a bad case of acne for which numerous suggestions were offered by the patrons at Ramona's. Eventually, a German man named Karl Scheit proposed taking Julian to a brothel. Julian was nervous at the whore house but was taken care of by the madame who announced to one of her girls "We have a cherry boy for you." Like an avid student, Julian learned the ways of pleasuring a woman and he would return to see the same girl at each payday. Julian also noted the female form and the way the light emphasized its curves. A few months later, the brothel was raided.
After this, Julian came across The Casino Theatre where Julian was introduced to burlesque. He loved the juxtaposition of the comedy against the sexuality of the strippers. He was a frequent customer at vaudeville and burlesque theaters where the bawdy humor of slapstick comedians and strippers provided insight into the satire of the human condition. These experiences also provided the appreciation of dignity in the most common man which imbued his work as much as the formal schooling he would later achieve. Both served him well in informing his future paintings.
Julian became homesick and recognized he had taken a pay cut in Philadelphia so he decided to return to New York. Angela was so relieved to see her son and Julian moved back in with his mother. Julian continued to sneak down to his mother's speakeasy and would later end up sleeping with Tuti, the dancer, when Angela was in the hospital with a fever and bad cough.
After Angela's release from the hospital, Julian again tried to persuade her to allow him to go to sea which she adamantly refused. Julian ran away again - this time taking the subway as far as Brooklyn hoping he could sign on to some ship there. He met some Puerto Ricans who said they might be able to help him sign on but no captain was willing to take on an underage boy without his mother's permission. Julian lived with these Puerto Ricans who happened to also be boxers. They introduced him to a trainer who told Julian that he could make a boxer out of him. Apparently that did not go so well.
Julian Ritter recalls about learning to boxThe boss - the trainer - was a black man who had been a professional boxer. I was pretty strong and pretty tough, so when he said he could make a boxer out of me, I agreed. He showed me some tricks and he kept trying to teach me, but I was too stupid to learn. One punch and I'd see red and forget everything, swinging wildly. I knocked out one of the Puerto Ricans one time with a lucky punch but they knocked me out a few times - mostly they just made a mess of me. After about a month, I'd had enough.
Julian was not completely alienated from his mother while living in Brooklyn. His poor living circumstances sometimes had Julian taking the subway back to Angela's to get a good meal. On one of these visits, Julian arrived only to see the speakeasy being raided by police who
gave Angela an ultimatum: leave town or face arrest. This was an especially scary threat since Angela and Julian were in the country illegally.
Julian left for Chicago immediately and Angela followed about a month later. Angela again found work as a hotel maid and Julian landed the job of "order boy" at Montgomery Wards after a brief stint as a busboy. Encouraged by his foreman to pursue his art, Julian came across an artist painting canvasses in a store window. Julian returned to watch the painter and learn his craft with the artist sharing information about choosing and trimming brushes and other tricks of the trade. The artist - the "Buckeye painter" - saw Julian's talent and hired him to paint - five dollars for each completed painting. Julian then started painting for other stores and earning more than five dollars for a painting; an attorney bought one painting called "Homeward Bound" for seventy-five dollars. It's interesting to note that Julian's first painting job was painting required quick execution painting shlock. These skills served him well many years laters when his execution was still fast but the paintings were no longer schlock.
Julian had met a friend in Chicago named Metberry who he worked with at Montgomery Wards. Metberry introduced him to his friends who teased Julian that his name was too feminine, so Julian started calling himself Max Ritter. Angela decided she would move to Hollywood, hoping to find work in the movies. Julian, with his new friends, determined to stay in Chicago. Angela secured him an apartment and some roommates to share the expenses and set off on her quest for recognition in Hollywood.
Metberry was in the Illinois National Guard and convinced Julian that he should join, sharing stories of how they learned to ride and shoot. He had to lie about his age and tell them he was born in New York hoping they would not find out he was an illegal alien. Julian joined the 122nd Field Artillery and was assigned a job as a clerk - a rather humorous assignment given his broken English and poor spelling. Somehow he managed to avoid clerk duty and had the opportunity to live his adventure learning to ride and shoot.
Julian was developing an increasing interest in art and visiting the Chicago Museum of Art every Sunday. He got a job at the Kaplan Manufacturing Company where he made a comfortable living painting fishing boats onto lampshades. He met Eugene Schwartz, another lampshade painter, who was studying at the "Academy" (the Art Institute of Chicago) and encouraged Julian to study drawing so Julian audited the night classes of Dr. Schroeder at the Chicago Art Institute. Schwartz invited Julian to share a studio loft on North Street with him and some other artists. Julian agreed and was soon sharing living quarters with these older artists and, for the first time in his life, living a "bohemian" lifestyle - surrounded by art and the partying that such a place brings about. Julian was making $50-$75 a week and spending it on women and booze. When he wasn't working, painting or partying, he went to art galleries on Sunday to study the techniques of the masters. On one of the visits, Julian was inspired by a painting dome by Hieronymus Bosch. Julian decided at this point that he wanted to be a painter.
Julian was enjoying his education in decadence. Between painting lampshades, studying at the Chicago Art Institute and painting in the studio, he was getting a lot of practice and helpful criticism and he was growing rapidly as an artist. About a month after moving into the loft Julian met a girl names Evelyn and fell in love for the first time. Evelyn was happy to sit for him and Julian painted Evelyn again and again, always striving to do better.
By the fall of 1928, the core group of painters at the North Avenue studio was beginning to break up with people going their own ways. In November, Julian received his honorable discharge from the Illinois National Guard. Julian was feeling restless and thinking of visiting his mother in Hollywood. But Julian was enjoying his life of debauchery and couldn't tear himself away. When Schwartz announced that he was getting married, Julian decided to head to California and boarded a train in August, 1929.