The Mystery Model

One of my goals in creating posts about artist’s models like Chuck Howard, Randy Jack, and Ted Starkowski is to clear up misinformation posted online by galleries and auction houses. Whether the inaccuracies are intentionally deceptive or the result of laziness, the errors spread across the internet, with subjects misidentified and photo dates sometimes off by decades.

Recently, a series of nearly 30 nude model study photos were auctioned off in lots labeled “Jared French Nude Study of Tennessee Williams” or “Studio di nudo Tennessee Williams.” One set of two 8×10 photos sold for over $650. These should have been credited to the PaJaMa collective, which Jared French was a part of, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the lean muscularly defined model is certainly not writer Tennessee Williams.

Tennessee Williams was the subject of several PaJaMa photos in Provincetown and at Jared French’s New York City studio at 5 St. Luke’s Place. In one of these photos, Williams strikes the same pose in the same place as our mystery model.

So who was the thin young chap with the low-hangers?

In another corner of the internet, I found two of these photos in PaJaMa exhibit, dated 1943 and identifying the subject as dancer/choreographer John Butler (1918-1993). In the early 1940’s, he earned money working as an art model while studying dance with both Martha Graham and George Balanchine.

He was also photographed by George Platt Lynes:

AP article (1955)

Butler danced on Broadway as Dream Curly in the original production of Oklahoma! He appeared in a string of Broadway musicals throughout the 1940’s including Hollywood Pinafore, Inside U.S.A. and On The Town, where he dated cast mate Cris Alexander.

He began to transition into choreography in the late 1940’s. The combined influences of Balanchine and Graham gave his work unique elements of classical ballet as well as modern dance. He was one of the first to create works specifically for television, which was still considered a new and inferior medium. He choreographed variety show segments (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Kate Smith Show) as well as for Omnibus and full-length ballets and operas. His 1951 staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors was recreated annually for the following nine NBC holiday specials.

Butler performs as one of the Three Dancers in this 1955 broadcast.

Life Magazine profiled Butler in the April 25, 1955 issue:

In addition to his work choreographing for Broadway and television, Butler founded The John Butler Dance Company in 1955. It was later renamed American Dance Theater and toured Europe until it disbanded in 1961.

John Butler & Carmen de Lavallade rehearse Portrait of Billie, his dance meditation on Billie Holliday (ca 1960)
John Butler & Melvin Dwork (1963)

His most celebrated work was the staging of Carmina Burana (1959) for New York City Opera, which has been revived with over 30 companies.

In 1961 he met celebrated interior designer Melvin Dwork, who has called Butler “the love of my life.” They remained companions and friends until Butler’s death in 1993. Dwork was instrumental in preserving Butler’s dance legacy.

As he matured, Butler’s voluminous eyebrows became something of a trademark of his appearance. He appears to have embraced this with a level of zeal that surely inspired George Whipple.

Over the next several decades, Butler continued to choreograph throughout the U.S. and around the world. The Hague, Munich, Sydney, Spoleto, Montreal, and Warsaw were part of his regular rotation with occasional work in Italy and South America. Back in New York City he choreographed Medea, the first dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov after his defection to the West.

John Butler photographed in April of 1993. He died of lung cancer later that year at the age of 74.

In 1993, author Camille Hardy interviewed John Butler for Dance Magazine shortly before his death. As they sat in his Upper East Side apartment, surrounded by his artwork collection and the walls lined with the works of Warhol, Avedon and Lynes, he said “I’ve done everything in my life I ever wanted to do.”

New York Times Obituary (12/13/93)

See also:
Fire Island PaJaMa Party
Artist’s Muse: Chuck Howard
Artist’s Muse: Randy Jack
Artist’s Muse: Ted Starkowski
Buddy & Johnny: A Historic Photo Shoot