"The Great God Gumby" > The Gumby Book Studio
Though originally conceived as a space where Gumby could curate his collections, Gumby's love of intellectual and artistic pursuits and his irrepressible nature as a social butterfly quickly led him to use his ample space to draw in people as well as books. As the Baltimore Afro-American recalled in 1931 not long after the studio closed, during the late 1920s "the writers and artists [had] found [Gumby] out, and his studio became a center." More extravagantly, the paper claimed that "one really didn't know Harlem till one knew Gumby." As the proprietor of a meeting place and focal point for artistic New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the article indicated that Gumby was the supreme guide to this unique place in time. He was somehow both a facilitator and a participant in the scene, as the article concluded with a description of Gumby and his studio in its heyday: "when one knew [Gumby] one didn't forget the tall figure lying back on the divan in an exotic dressing gown, nursing along the imagination of his guests till the air was full of philosophy, aesthetics and love, while somewhere in the background a hidden disk revolved to a Chopin nocturne."
Exhibiting a characteristic mix of passion and a sense of self-promotion, Gumby once described this eponymous studio as "the first unpremeditated interracial movement in Harlem," and such a statement had at least the veneer of plausibility. As the author Maxwell Bodenheim's inscription (see at right: "Gumby Book Studio: Guest Book," p. 63 [verso]) in the studio's guest book claimed for his visit: "When you mix black and white, the result is gray--the color of unassuming meditation." And such a mix did find its way through Gumby's doors: for about six years starting in 1925, the Gumby Book Studio saw a parade of artists and intellectuals mingle in its rooms. As the studio's guest book and coverage in the society and arts pages of black-owned newspapers like New York's Amsterdam News indicated, these included figures prominent in the Harlem Renaissance such as Countee Cullen, Caska Bonds, and Langston Hughes, among many others. The writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent was a particularly close friend of Gumby's; one of his ink drawings saved by Gumby appears at right (see: "Miscellaneous," p. ). Yet the studio also drew in cultural figures of the era more generally. For example, the famed newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken visited Gumby's space for several days in late 1930 as he sat for a portrait by the painter O. Richard Reid. Along with Bodenheim, the cartoonist Haile T. Hendrix was a fixture in Greenwich Village but made his way to 131st street. Hendrix in particular was a close friend of the studio's proprietor--his caricature of Gumby appears at right (see: "Greenwich Village," p. 37.)
While Gumby sometimes gathered such figures for unstructured conversation and entertainment, he also frequently organized or lent his space to more formal gatherings. The poster for one such event--a 1929 exhibition of paintings and drawings given by a group of young artists--is reproduced here at right (see: "Art, Negro," p. 55). As the Amsterdam News reported, the exhibition's opening was attended by more than 100 people. When the painter William H. Johnson returned to the US after three years in Europe, Gumby mounted a temporary exhibit of his recent works at the studio; he similarly hosted a welcoming reception for Countee Cullen when the poet returned in 1930 from two years' stay in Paris. (This reception is memorialized in one of the guest book pages reproduced at right; see: "Gumby Book Studio: Guest Book," p. 75 [recto]. While the creator of the illustration is unknown, Cullen had published in 1929 a volume entitled "The Black Christ and Other Poems.") A 1928 concert recital given at the Gumby Book Studio by the tenor John Perry and pianist Andrew Perkins earned coverage in the Amsterdam News, Baltimore Afro-American, and Chicago Defender, suggesting the prominence of an event hosted by Gumby. In addition to these and many other artistic or intellectual pursuits, several fraternities and at least one "debutante club" hosted teas and similar gatherings at the studio as well.
Such was the modest but palpable fame of the Gumby Book Studio by the point of its fifth anniversary in early 1930 that Gumby and several of its most active visitors even attempted to publish a literary and arts review called the Gumby Studio Quarterly. While the Quarterly's first issue featured essays, short stories, and poems from an impressive array of authors--including George Schuyler, Isobel Stone, T. Thomas Fortune Fletcher, and Arthur Schomburg--the first issue's timing in November 1930 was inauspicious. The Gumby Book Studio began to run into financial trouble in 1929 when Gumby's main patron faced significant financial losses in the stock market crash of that year, and without any source of income apart from Gumby's day job the studio could barely survive. When Gumby was forced to enter a hospital for treatment of his tuberculosis in 1931, the Gumby Book Studio finally closed for good. Nevertheless, the status that Gumby achieved amongst a certain circle of cultural figures through his operation of the studio is reflected in the list of patrons who lent their names to a benefit gala organized to raise money for his hospital treatment in 1931, which comprised a veritable "who's who" of the Harlem Renaissance (see at right: "Gumby's Book Studio, pt. 2," p. 52 [open]). And even though the Gumby Book Studio failed to survive the 1930s, many of the scrapbooks that Gumby compiled and displayed there did, allowing him to create and refine the pursuit that would define Gumby's legacy in a far more lasting way than the studio ever could have done.