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Tom Tierney

The Most Interesting Man in Smithville, Texas
(Artistic Division)

Marilyn Monroe Once Took Out His Garbage

By John Troesser

I learned 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

Tom Tierney portrait
Tom Tierney

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.

Tom, 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 humble.

Tom Tierney Mannequin
TE Photo

His studio was on the second floor of what was once a specialty / dry goods store on Smithville’s Main Street. A beautiful oak staircase ascended into Tom’s studio – filled with a variety of antiques and oil paintings, drawing boards and works-in-progress.

Tom Tierney family portrait

Tierney family portrait with Tom upper left and Niece Kathy on the tricycle
TE Photo

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.

Tom Tierney' Dover Books
A few of the many Tom Tierney's Dover Titles
TE Photo

His 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 first time.

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 Tierney
TE Photo

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 Tierney' LBJ paper dolls

LBJ in his BVDs
TE Photo

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 detail.

Tom Tierney Andrew Jackson paper dolls
TE Photo

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.”

Tom Tierney in NYC, Self Portrait
Self-Portrait of the artist in NYC
TE Photo

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 him.

He was a Texas original and we’re not likely to see his likes again.

- John Troesser July 27, 2014

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