The Most Interesting Man in Smithville,
Marilyn Monroe Once Took Out His Garbage
By John Troesser
of the death of Tom Tierney in the obits of the Clearwater Times this
morning. I had just written to a friend last week that I was about
to publish an interview I had had with Tom a few years before. All
I needed was a phone call to Smithville
to verify a few facts. The less than 50 words of that Florida obituary
only mentioned he had “accidentally” found fame and fortune by “dressing
- and undressing notables from Greta Garbo to George Washington.”
As is often the case, Mr. Tierney, who was 85, was worthy of a far
more expansive obit. Fortunately one was provided by the New
York Times. – Editor
| I was introduced
to Tom Tierney by Adina Lewis, the head of the Smithville
chamber of commerce at the time. She had also introduced me to the
late L.D. Clark, The Most Interesting
Man in Smithville
(Academic Division). Ms. Lewis knew everyone in Smithville
and she also recognized the important qualities of candor and character.
who was originally from Beaumont,
started his art career when he was a boy – making sketches from newspaper
fashion ads for local department stores on the living room floor.
Of the many anecdotes he shared, one was how he finally got to meet
his (unknown to her) mentor. She had been a fashion illustrator for
the Beaumont Enterprise and Master Tom admired her work greatly. He
had even made attempts to meet her, but her work schedule wouldn’t
allow it. Many years later, after an artistic seminar. she came up
to Tom to tell him how much she admired his work. She was surprised
that Tom knew her by name but even more surprised to learn he had
learned figure drawing and fashion from her work. The ultimate complement.
On the day I arrived to interview Tom, I was greeted by his niece
Kathy and her husband who asked “Are you going to ‘hang out' with
Tom?” The warmth and casualness of this pair was a warm-up for the
charm that was about to be unleashed. The anecdotes of Tom’s life
seemed to amuse him as well. It was as if they were pre-written and
he was merely playing out his role. For a Texan, he was remarkably
|His studio was
on the second floor of what was once a specialty / dry goods store
Main Street. A beautiful oak staircase ascended into Tom’s studio
– filled with a variety of antiques and oil paintings, drawing boards
family portrait with Tom upper left and Niece Kathy on the tricycle
|A 300 year-old
Italian artist’s mannequin (made from Olivewood) stood next to an
early 19th century music box that played impossibly large metal discs.
The paintings were mostly portraits and one of the figures in a group
portrait had the same bemused and mischievous expression as my host.
Indeed, it was a portrait of the artist with family. One of the babies
crawling on the floor – I had just met downstairs.
Our conversation started with Beaumont
and before I knew it I was hearing of his adventurous aunt – who had
read about flying and decided to give it a try. She ordered a crated
plane delivered to the railroad siding nearest her home and hired
some men to assemble it. After reading the instruction booklet, she
followed Horace Greely’s advice and headed West – eventually landing
in a pasture in Brenham.
If I remember correctly, she took a train home and sent for the plane.
Evidently, the Tierneys are not a timid clan.
few of the many Tom Tierney's Dover Titles
unmistakable artistic talent was soon recognized and he began getting
assignments from stores in San
Antonio and Houston,
drawing beautiful clothes and the equally beautiful people who wore
them. His advantage he said, was that while most fashion artists had
a specialty of either men, women or children, Tom was a “triple threat,”
drawing all three with equal skill.
He soon found his way to New York, the Olympus of fashion illustration.
Was he paid handsomely? Indeed, he was. He bought a three story brownstone
in Manhattan and rented a downstairs floor to two magazine editors
– one of whom was a good friend of (a then relatively unknown) Marilyn
Monroe. One day, as he was taking his garbage down an outside staircase,
he met Marilyn going up. Stuck halfway, the two couldn’t pass, so
Marilyn took one of his bags from his arms and walked it back down
to the garbage cans.
I’m not clear on the dates, but Tom also sang. As relief from his
day job, he sang at a Manhattan bar. Between acts he would sit between
two up-and-coming friends – Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. Tom didn’t
sing on the day of the interview, but as a raconteur, he would’ve
become a household word had Jack Parr not gone off the air. He knew
how to tell a story to make it sound as if it was being told for the
Another friend once asked him (on very short notice) to make breakfast
for Tennessee Williams who was visiting. Williams liked Tom’s breakfast
(including a strawberry in the champagne) so much that every time
he was in NYC, Tom was asked to come over for an encore.
|Tom has manners
from a bygone era but it would be a mistake to think he’s not culturally
astute. He showed me the book he was then currently working on. It
was of Sherlock Holmes and Watson and every actor who had ever played
those roles – from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey, Jr. At the time
the book was shown to me, the movie hadn’t yet been released. When
I asked why Robert Downey, Jr. was included – he winked. No telling
what contacts the man had in Hollywood.
|Tom’s keen sense
of whimsy is very evident in a book of presidential paper dolls. If
you’ve ever wondered what Andrew Jackson wore to bed or what sort
of pantaloons Mrs. Lincoln favored, they’re all there in historical
|When asked about
the switch from fashion illustration to paper dolls, the answer was
as short as it was matter-of-fact. When newspapers switched from hand-drawn
images to cheaper photography in the 1960s. Tom was well prepared
for the change. Although it wouldn’t have occurred to most artists
(who would’ve seen paper dolls as a comedown), Tom took to the medium
and, as one paper wrote; “he practically re-invented paper dolls.”
of the artist in NYC
| I’m sure that
it’s much more fun to draw specific faces than generic fashion plates
but Tom could do it with such ease that it stopped being challenging
long ago. Tom may have sold his brownstone in Manhattan, but the traffic
is lighter in Smithville.
He’s working with family and he still has great passion for his art
– nearly 80 years after he started sketching in front of the fireplace.
Tom Tierney’s candor, his positive outlook and his goodwill was inspirational
and infectious. His approach to his art was dutiful, even though he
had worked countless hours to perfect it. He may not have been able
to parallel-park a train, but then again, no one had thought to ask
He was a Texas original and we’re not likely to see his likes again.
- John Troesser
July 27, 2014