Anthony ‘Tony’ Jackovich: Orphan, Fighter, Sailor, Actor, Designer, and Painter

Anthony 'Tony' Jackovich

Anthony ‘Tony’ Jackovich in Armchair – Photo by Jim Root

Fifteen years ago, back in Maine, I was driving our 1966 Renault 4 up to the general store. We’d recently shipped it from the south of France to our home in Round Pond. At the stop sign, next to a classic village house, I spotted an older man about to climb a rickety ladder with a piece of wood in one hand, a hammer in the other, and some nails clenched between his teeth. He had to be the reclusive artist I’d heard about. His wife, more well-known, managed the Asian crafts shop and art gallery connected to their home.

I stuck my head out the window and offered to lend a hand. I don’t think he heard me. Instead, he put down his tools and walked over, a scowl on his face.

What the hell is this, a Renault?”

He must’ve been in his eighties, probably older, but his dark eyes didn’t miss much as he gave me and the Renault the once over.

Come back at supper time, Sheala’s cooking a chicken. And bring your wife if you’ve got one.”

That was the beginning of my friendship with Anthony ‘Tony’ Jackovich.

Our first dinner, at an old table surrounded by his paintings, was seasoned with one fascinating story after another. Turned out we had one thing in common, a love of France. More dinners followed, and more stories… Stories so good, I used my iPad to record them all.

Tony was born on a dirt-poor farm in Iowa. His parents never made a go of it or anything else. The family split up during the Depression when his father, a coal miner, was sent to prison and his mother was institutionalized. Tony and his younger brother, Joe, were sent to the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna.

Between 1886 and 1945, 10,635 orphaned, abandoned, or abused kids like Tony lived there.

The experience taught him one thing: how to survive.

At Owatonna, he became a welterweight boxing champion and a skilled artist. His early paintings showed promise and earned him a place at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Georgia O’Keeffe had studied. His lessons were cut short by the war when he joined the US Navy and served in the South Pacific. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Chicago.

When our train finally stopped, hell, we were all smiling, a sigh of relief on every face. And then, a quiet word or two between comrades, to make sure this was real. It was. My gods, we were back home.”

Two years later, fed up with the abstract expressionist classes he had to endure at the Art Institute, he got into a brawl with his teacher and quit. Instead, he went to Paris to study impressionism, taking advantage of the new G.I. Bill to study abroad.

He enrolled at the Ecole Superior Nationale des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian where became friends with a tight group of American artists, writers, actors, and musicians like Hilda Simms, Jess Hahn, Billy Beck, Eddie Constantine, Jack Kennedy, Jack Giasullo, and Larry Eisler.

Jack Kennedy, Tony, and Larry Eisler in Paris

Jack Kennedy, Tony, and Larry Eisler in Paris

In the evenings, to supplement his income, Tony ran a small jazz club.

We had Charlie Parker up on our stage, but he would never leave.”

 

Not such a bad thing, I thought, when he first mentioned it at dinner. He also boxed professionally in Paris, under the name of Tony Savoy, but gave it up.

I was tired of hurting another human being.”

Tony continued his art studies and began acting, accepting small parts in gangster films, under the name Tony Jarvis. On his way as an American actor in France, he appeared in films with Kirk Douglas and in La Môme vert-de-gris with Eddie Constantine.

One summer, Tony was sent to southern Italy to play a small role in a new film being produced and directed by John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart playing the lead and Truman Capote as the screenwriter. It was called Beat the Devil.

Well, I got to Rome on the train alright, but I missed my connection.”

He finally arrived two days late on the Amalfi Coast where the film was being shot.

Bogart wasn’t too happy and wanted to know what had happened,” said Tony. “So, I told
him the truth: I got waylaid by a blonde on a Vespa.”

Bogart liked the excuse, but it was too late. Capote had cut Tony’s part, and he was sent back to Paris.

Suddenly I realized that this wasn’t it. I wanted to be a painter, not an actor.”

The G.I. Bill was about to end, and Tony grappled with remaining in Paris, which he loved, or moving on. Most of his friends in Paris had decided to return to the States, except for Jess Hahn who remained in France, as an actor, for the rest of his life.

Pulled in several directions, Tony trusted fate and, with the knowledge of seamanship he’d learned in the Navy, worked his way back to the States as a deckhand on a freighter. He met his future wife, Sheala, on a stopover in Durban, South Africa. They were married in 1957 and lived briefly in London where Tony designed handbags for Mary Quant.

Tony and Sheala

Tony and Sheala

They finally settled in New York City, home to many of Tony’s old friends from Paris. Once a month, they gathered in Sheala and Tony’s apartment on the Lower East Side to reminisce about their days in Paris. I dubbed them, Tony’s Cronies.

A year later, with their three children in tow, Tony drove the family up to Maine where he wanted to paint the lighthouses that dot the coast.

Passing through the small village of Round Pond, they fell in love with an old house that had once been a hotel in the 1800s. It was empty, so they went in. Sheala found a travel brochure for South Africa on the floor of what would become Tony’s studio. She said it was a sign and they bought the house in 1971.

Anthony 'Tony' Jackovich painting and self made frame. Tony was not religious but loved the costumes

Anthony ‘Tony’ Jackovich painting and self-made frame. Tony was not religious but loved religious costumes

Not long after, Tony was invited to exhibit at the prestigious 147th Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York.

Anthony 'Tony' Jackovich watercolorsAnthony 'Tony' Jackovich water color

Today, his paintings are in many well-known collections, and he has exhibited in several important shows throughout America. His favorite show was held in 1977 when he returned to the old orphanage in Owatonna where he’d spent his childhood. The site was being converted into a Fine Art Center and Museum to preserve the memory of the school, and the first event was a
month-long exhibition of his work. When he arrived, a huge sign at the top of the stairs read,

Welcome Home Tony.” He blinked back the tears and then laughed.

“This was where we had our meals back then. I scrubbed these tile floors on my hands and knees.”

It’s near the end of the road for Tony, but he always wondered if he’d made the right decision to leave France. “

You’re lucky to still be there,” he’d repeat at our dinners together. “What’s the exchange rate now?”

He’s outlived all his old cronies from Paris. At one of our last dinners, he told this story:

I went down to New York last year to visit the last of ‘em, Larry Eisler. We had a nice visit in his apartment and after, he came down to the street with me to say goodbye. I stopped at the corner and turned around; he’d done the same. I’ll never forget that moment. He died later that year.”

Tony celebrates his 100th birthday this month; Sheala is in her mid-nineties. They’ve spent the last ten years wintering in Bangkok. With the challenges of old age, it looks like this time they’ll be staying. His construction project completed a few years ago, was a replica of an old French windmill that he was building on his own the first time we met.

It was his last project. Today, their old house, windmill, Asian gift shop, and art gallery are empty, with a For Sale sign out front and Tony’s old French flag flying by the front door.

But his stories will live on.

The Jackovich home, gallery, and shop in Round Pond, Maine


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About the Contributor

Mark & Kim Jespersen

Born in San Francisco and raised in Chicago, I fled Minnesota and landed on the coast of New England (as far as I could go at the time). There I met my wife, Kim, in a used bookshop. Fifteen years ago, we set sail for France. Creating – from music to writing to photography to art — keeps us busy. https://www.mark-jespersen.com/

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5 Comments

  1. Miche Jan 21, 2024 at 5:46 AM - Reply

    What a terrific story and fantastic way to start my day. Thanks!

  2. Juanita Dugdale Jan 21, 2024 at 9:21 AM - Reply

    Mark, lovely tribute to Tony and Sheala! Thanks so much for sharing it. I am in touch with Sheala which is some contact at least. Enjoy 2024, all best wishes to you both.

  3. Heather Jan 23, 2024 at 6:51 AM - Reply

    Tony and Sheala’s passion for living a life filled with adventure, art and love is inspiring—thank you for the uplifting read.

  4. Catherine Madison Jan 23, 2024 at 10:30 AM - Reply

    What a great story. I loved the art as well. I was also intrigued to learn about the school in Owatonna, a piece of Minnesota history I never knew. Good job, Mark!

  5. John Wall Feb 17, 2024 at 3:24 AM - Reply

    I believe he’s also something of a mathematician judging by his library full of books on the subject at Round Pond. Coming down the stairs one morning while visiting in June 2018 (he is my wife’s Uncle Tony), I was still rubbing sleep from my eyes when I found him sitting in a chair with a computer open on his lap. He was watching a YouTube video on vector analysis. Happy birthday, Tony!

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