Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Biography
from Independent Book Publishing Association, 2022
LEETEG: BABES, BARS, BEACHES, AND BLACK VELVET ART
Edgar Leeteg once described himself as a “fornicating, gin-soaked, dope-head.” This wasn’t far off the mark. As a result, all the major artists and writers of the South Pacific knew of him — not to mention, the wider public. The talented iconoclast took on the Hawaiian art establishment, also challenging the Honolulu Academy of Arts, with his oversized antics and antiauthoritarian attitude. Leeteg’s insatiable lust for life led the author James Michener to label him “Leeteg the Legend” in his book, Rascals in Paradise (1957).
This is a story of a most memorable rascal from the South Pacific.
256 pages and more than 510 photographs.
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Genesis of a Genre
What follows is the story of the “American Gauguin,” Edgar Leeteg. Leaving California in 1933, with oil paints and a few paintbrushes, he conquered the South Pacific art scene, and of course, its nightlife. Hard-drinking, constantly womanizing, and endlessly painting, Leeteg, the original “Tiki Man,” started the black velvet craze linked to South Pacific-themed restaurants.
Read this sensational story of Leeteg, black velvet artist and party man of Tahiti, who painted sumptuous vahines in his tropical paradise Villa Velour on the island of Moorea between 1933-1953.
Throughout his life, shrewd promoter and creative genius Edgar Leeteg possessed many titles, astonishing fans, and antagonizing critics. Once memorialized by James Michener as an original “Rascal in Paradise,” he
redefined artistic success by pioneering a form of painting in the South Pacific that would forever change the world.
His home in Tahiti allowed him to paint nudes, drink, and party with sensual vahines from the beaches to the bars of Tahiti (Captain Louis Bougainville’s birthplace of the Venus, goddess of love).
Leeteg described himself as a “fornicating, gin-soaked, dope head,” and all
the artists and writers of the South Pacific knew of him. He took on the elite
of the art establishment of the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1938 and shamed them in the press. He painted murals in fine establishments in Honolulu and Tahiti. He sheltered himself and his family on the neighboring island of Moorea. However, his self-promotional newspaper “letters to the editor” and drinking bouts in the bars of Papeete, especially Quinn’s Tahitian Hut, made him a most famous scoundrel in the South Seas. He was a wealthy artist and legend in his lifetime and a goal few artists can achieve. Tourists visiting Tahiti would seek him out for his generosity of wine, women, and song on his Shangri-la-like estate called Villa Velour on his quiet isle. He was the father of black velvet art and the genesis of a genre continuing today with the tiki and Polynesian pop art movement
nearly 70 years later.
Instead of viewing Leeteg as a relic of some unenlightened period, we should ask ourselves, what can this genius teach us about what it means to create and fearlessly love? When we look back at Leeteg, we encounter our reflection, forcing us to reckon with our existence. When this occurs, a question leaps to us: Did we live as much as we could?
When it comes to Leeteg, we know the answer.
People Who Bought This Book Had This to Say
5.0 out of 5 stars
Entertaining and Inspiring Read of a Rebel
The story of Edgar Leeteg reads like a novel with vivid scenes and gripping dialogue that is frequently comical and often suspenseful reflecting the unpredictability of the rebellious artist.
It's tough not to be entertained and inspired Edgar’s success story, even if he sometimes makes you wince or shake your head. He struggled in life, and for a time made a living painting signs in Tahiti, then asking local women to model for paintings that he sold to tourists. This turned into an amazing career, as he became the godfather of sorts for painting on black velvet.
He at times seemed like a rock star—living a wild life, partying hard, drinking, gambling, and engaging in bar fights. He even described himself as "fornicating, gin-soaked, dope head."
On flip side, he cared for his mother, who lived with him on the island. Leeteg comes from a line of artists, though his father was a butcher. His father died when Edgar was just 12 in, leaving his mother to care for him—and they forged a very close relationship. Needless to say, Edgar veered closer to the legacy of his grandfather—a German sculptor—than his father the Illinois butcher.
The book also gives a crash course in Tahiti and its history that encouraged rascal behavior from Leeteg and others who visited or lived there. Leeteg was never exactly accepted in the highbrow art world and didn’t really want to be, generally raging against the establishment.
That’s perhaps why this book is so enjoyable for those that might not be interested in art or art history.
Anyone who likes disruptors in the world of business, academia, government or anywhere else will really be able to identify with this. It’s really a story of a rebel, a very colorful rogue, that drives the story of an unlikely success story that left a lasting impact. Great writing and wonderful storytelling.
"This book is so much more than I expected. It’s not just about Leeteg, but all the detail and “science” behind who (and why) the man was. This book is rich with interesting facts that I never pieced together before. I think I’ll have to start over and read it again!! I shared the copy with my 96-year-old mother, and she finished it before me. She absolutely loved it too! Congratulations CJ. You created a work of art. Seriously.”
“Art, booze, brawls, women, parties and late-night escapades. This story has it all. Little was really known about Leeteg till now. C J Cook has unearthed the people, places, stories and bare facts on renowned artist and party man Edger Leeteg. One of the Pacific's legendary characters, a master of his craft, Leeteg's life story finally wrapped up inside this rich historical read brimming with stunning art and imagery. A story waiting to be told and delighted to see it finally has and one I can’t seem to put down. I’m hooked.”
“Hey this book is amazing and overwhelming... for Leeteg wannabees, a slice of life most wished they were a part of...”
"CJ Cook draws Leeteg out of the velvet shadow created by myth, making him the ‘American Gauguin’."