Who Was That Man?                                                       

There are many stories that have been told about Route 66 as it rambles from Chicago to the west coast. Stories of towns, families and travelers along the highway have been passed down through the generations and many have yet to be told. This story is one more--one that hasn’t been told but should be.

In the early 60’s Route 66 was gradually converted to the new Interstate 44 making it an expressway to the west. The two highways intersect at times and the locals often considered them one and the same. Along with the new highway came new hotels, restaurants and overpasses which offered exciting destinations for travelers and job opportunities for the inhabitants living there. In Springfield Missouri the Holiday Inn hotel chain built a nice new complex with deluxe rooms, a “holidome” indoor pool, and a restaurant. A local bar, the Red Slipper Lounge, was relocated at the Holiday Inn. The hotel was at an overpass two blocks north of the old Highway 66. For folks in Southwest Missouri, it was like a fancy resort and a popular place to stay and to visit both for the community and the visitors.

My friend, Lorinda, and I were both born in the 40’s and raised in towns along highway 66 near Springfield. We both married young which was common in southwest Missouri in those days. My husband and I moved away and she and her husband settled nearby and they and have stayed there. She was a striking young lady that I am sure caught the eye of many. When Lorinda decided she wanted to buy a new car she got at job at the always busy Red Slipper Lounge located at the Holiday Inn. She could get a decent salary and great tips working three days making it enough to pay for her new red car.

What I am about to tell you is what happened and the person she encountered one night at the Red Slipper Lounge. It still is a mystery who it was although we suspect it could have been one very famous person.

                                                        Burnt Plastic

One evening, in the late 1960’s, a short, baldheaded man and a lady companion came into the Red Slipper Lounge and were seated in a booth near the back. He was older and olive complexioned and she was a nice looking redhead. (*see Photos)

Lorinda doesn’t remember a lot of the details about which of the two ordered the drinks. They spent the evening smoking and drinking cocktails and using little red plastic swizzle sticks for stirring the drinks. They seemed to be having a nice time and kept asking for more to drink and more of the swizzle sticks. Lorinda was concerned because her boss didn’t want to waste the swizzle sticks so she tried not paying too much attention to them. That was not a problem as the Red Slipper Lounge was crowded and she was quite busy waiting on the other tables. She did notice a strange smell like burnt plastic coming from the couple’s booth and that was further antagonizing her boss. Taking time to serve them she saw that the man sitting in the booth was melting the end of the swizzle sticks with his cigarettes and then the holding two sticks together with his fingertips until the sticks were attached to each other. At one point they asked Lorinda her name and how to spell it. At the end of the evening the man gave Lorinda the object he had been constructing with approximately twenty swizzle sticks and attached to it was a piece of the Red Slipper Lounge napkin torn into the shape of a little flag with this written on it:

“for Lorinda”      “P”

On the rest of the napkin was a neatly written note also signed with a “P”.
The couple then paid for their drinks and left. Lorinda doesn’t remember if she got a tip or maybe that was the tip?

Being the collector that she is she brought the object with the note home and set it up on a shelf. At that time I didn’t see it but she told me about the incident but it didn’t really interest me or any one else she told. Eventually she put it in a metal cookie box and stored it away. Over the years our visits back home were hurried and the subject didn’t come up. We were more concerned about all our children births, growing up, graduations and other festivities.

One cold January day in 2005, I was in the area and had time for a leisurely visit with Lorinda in her home. As we were chatting and sipping coffee the conversation led to the mystery man and the mystery object. She told me that not too long after the incident she had seen a picture of a man on the Springfield television news which was telling about the recent death and showing a picture of a famous Spanish artist.

She said “it just came flooding back; there was no doubt in my mind, that man on the television news was the same man who was at the Red Slipper”!

She was now beginning to tweak my curiosity enough for me to ask to see what this mystery man gave her. Sure enough, after a quick search in her closet, there it was in the metal box, a little worn over the years but still there was the swizzle stick contraption and the Red Slipper Lounge napkin with the message neatly printed and clearly to be read:

The note, printed in all capitol letters, said:


Just entering the twenty-first century I was anxious to experiment with my new digital camera so I took some snapshots of the object with the note while Lorinda and I continued with our conversation and coffee hour. I told her that this story of hers was very interesting but, by the way, did she happen to remember the name of the now deceased Spanish artist she saw on television?

“Of course I do” she answered “It was Pablo Picasso!”

                                                        Looking for Clues

Later, at home, I remembered to load the pictures into my new computer and they turned out quite good (for an amateur) but still I felt rather foolish thinking that Picasso had traveled through Missouri on Route 66, or by then I-44, perhaps spending the night at the Holiday Inn and visiting the Red Slipper Lounge. But what could it hurt if I did some research in libraries and art books or even better with my new found friend …“Google”?

Thus began my quest to learn about Pablo Picasso and to try to solve the mystery of the man at the Red Slipper Lounge. An interesting description of the Pablo Picasso persona and of his art began to emerge. He was an eccentric man who liked to travel incognito (he made a secret trip to Paris in 1966). He liked to tip barbers and waiters with a quickly drawn doodle and signature on paper bags or whatever was handy and he delighted in making art out of scraps. The famous photographer and friend of Picasso, Edward Quinn, quoted Picasso as saying:

“The most everyday object is a vessel; a vehicle of my thoughts”.

Quinn has published several books about Picasso and one in particular is called “Picasso, the Objects”. The book shows many ways Picasso made art from scraps of paper, lumber and pipes.

Interestingly Picasso had also been good friends with Mexico’s famous artist Frida Kahlo. I will tell you more about her later.

Could what I was learning about Picasso make any connection to the incident at the Red Slipper? My first logical step would be to take cues from the mystery note to see if he had any bronze sculptures on exhibit at the Chicago Institute of Art 1965-1969. Through the internet I located and purchased a catalog published by the Chicago Institute of Art about an exhibition at the art museum entitled:

“Sculptures since 1945- A GENERATION OF INNOVATION”.

The book pictures sculptures of various medium, including bronze, by famous artists as Von Schlegell, Richier, Paolozzi, Cesar and Picasso!
Only one of his sculptures was pictured in the book. The reference library at the Institute lists twelve bronze sculptures by Picasso on display at the event. The dates for the exhibition were June 23 through August 27, 1967. Yes, there were bronze sculptures by Pablo Picasso at the Art Institute during the late sixties!

During that time on August 15, 1967, was the unveiling of the “Tete de femme” at the Chicago Civic Center. It was an acclaimed gift, one of many gifts from Picasso to the City of Chicago. It sits several stories high on the front lawn of the civic center.

Chicago continued it’s fascination of Picasso with the exhibition “Picasso in Chicago” at the Chicago Institute of Art February 3-March 31 1968.
Featured was his famous sculpture “La Grue”. It is bird like image with a small body and long skinny legs and neck.

Throughout all of my research I never read of Picasso visiting the United States of America. It seems hard to imagine that a man of such fame and wealth not wanting to visit his exhibitions at the Chicago Institute of Art or to see his gigantic modernistic sculpture, “Tete de femme” perched on the lawn at the Civic Center in Chicago.

Art experts have stated emphatically that Picasso never came to the United States. However at the Chicago Institute of Art we learned that Picasso had applied for a visa for the United States. An archivist at the Chicago Institute of Art researched the Chicago News Tribune and the New York Times for us and found nothing about a visit. If Picasso visited the United States, it was indeed a secret!

Interestingly we heard rumors that “someone” visited a Picasso exhibit at a museum in the United States and not liking how the art was arranged, tore it off the wall and threw it on the floor. This, of course cannot be verified, and for privacy, I cannot quote the person who told me this.

Finding some of Picasso’s hand writing on the internet was possibly a way to find clues by the comparing his printing to that on the note. To my untrained eyes there seem to be similarities but when I contacted hand writing specialists they wanted nothing to do with the project. They cited such reasons as they only do criminal cases or that Picasso’s family would not approve even if we could find a logical connection.

To describe the contraption that was made by the mystery man is simply that it is abstract connections forming different angles and crisscrossing throughout. It closely resembles drawings Picasso made early in his career as well as some of his sculptures. It is also intriguing to examine the back of the napkin to see a doodle drawn there with a different kind of pen. The doodle resembles some of Picasso’s own ink drawings. The doodle shows through to the front and can be easily seen upon closer examination.

As I explained earlier, the mystery man made the swizzle stick “sculpture” by melting the tips and pressing the ends together. It is amazing to me that by using a magnifying glass and looking at the ends of broken pieces of the swizzle sticks, several perfectly preserved partial fingerprints magically appear! Little did the mystery man, who signed only a “P”, know that he was leaving behind his fingerprints (and DNA?) which can still be seen almost forty years later?

                                                       Pure Conjecture

 If Picasso did make a secret trip to the United States he certainly would have needed a traveling companion as he would have been in his later years. In 1955, he married a French woman, Jacqueline Roque and they were together until his death in 1973. Could she have been the woman at the Red Slipper Lounge who was traveling with the mystery man? Perhaps she even convinced him to make the secret trip to Paris in 1966; after all, she was from France. There were many women in Picasso’s life, including those in his immediate family. Was one of them a red head who spoke English? It seems logical that the artist, Picasso, after his trip to Paris in 1966, would have been further enticed to travel to the United States to see his works on display there knowing that he may be soon reaching the end of his life and might never have another chance to do that.

Driving west on Route 66 from Chicago one could drive through Missouri and as far as Oklahoma City, leave Route 66 and travel south through San Antonio, Texas, and across the border to Mexico City. That was a popular drive in beginning early in the twentieth century continuing on to today. Many families and Route 66 fans from around the world drive that route to Mexico. They can also continue on Route 66 through Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the west coast. In my teenage days I heard whispers about unnamed locals taking trips to Mexico for illegal contraband and even today Interstate 44 though Missouri is a number one location where many smugglers are caught by the Missouri Highway Patrol on routine traffic stops. In addition if a celebrity or star from Hollywood was stopped for speeding it made the local news and the attendants at gas stations and waitresses at restaurants along Route 66 often would often boast of a “sighting” of a famous person or fugitive.

One could conjecture that Picasso also traveled that far south and west of Chicago to pay homage to his deceased friend and Mexico’s famous artist,
Frida Kahlo (whom I mentioned earlier). Picasso had once given her a pair of silver earrings that he hand crafted and they are shown in her ears in a self portrait by Kahlo. She was a surrealist, with a passion for painting, who was injured in a serious accident at eighteen years of age forcing her to spend most of her short life confined to her bed in the home where she was born. She died in 1955, at the young age of forty-seven, in that same house. Four years after her death the house was made into a museum named the Museo Frida Kahlo. It is located in Coyoacan near Mexico City, Mexico. Its doors have been open since 1959 to travelers and fans of Kahlo around the world. Pablo Picasso could have been one more of its visitors in the 1960’s. Frida Kahlo’s life and death in 1955 was a tragedy but it is also intriguing to note that Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque were married that same year, 1955.

Who is to say absolutely that Picasso and a companion did not make a secret trip to Chicago and then proceeded with a leisurely drive on Route 66 and on south to Mexico City in memory of his dear deceased friend and fellow artist Frida Kahlo at her memorial museum? After visiting his exhibits in Chicago they could have driven all day to Springfield, Missouri, and possibly relaxed that evening at the Holiday Inn. They could even visit the museum there or others along the way. Perhaps they had already been to Mexico and were on their way back? My friend, Lorinda certainly thinks he was there in Springfield Missouri and that in his efforts to remain anonymous he left her one big clue!

                                              Never Ending Highway

Even though the mystery has not been solved, Lorinda and I consider this not only educational but also a fun experience. While we were expanding our knowledge of the world of art we also had a few comical things happen.

You remember my telling about visiting with the archivist at the Chicago Institute of Art? Well, we made a special trip to Chicago on I-44 to meet the
archivist and to explore the museum. Lorinda’s husband drove us in his Ford pickup and the three of us rode six to nine hours one day and back the
next in the only seat of the pickup with her “piece of art” in the camper shell bouncing along with us on I-44 and at times on old Route 66.

Then there was the conversation with the art expert, who told me on the phone, in no uncertain terms,

“Lady you are wasting your time. You might as well throw that thing away. Just forget about it and do something else”.

He didn’t realize that he had just told two stubborn women from the hills of southwest Missouri to not to give up because as Lorinda would say

“I just want to know, who was that man?”

We have a difficult time envisioning an ordinary man who would have the time, patience and reason to form an abstract object out of ordinary swizzle sticks and then the intelligence to write the perfectly lettered note about a bronze sculpture at the Chicago Institute of Art, all the while passing the time at the Red Slipper Lounge.

My journey down Route 66 exploring the mystery man at the Red Slipper Lounge has been exciting and frustrating. Everything I have discovered about Picasso doesn’t even “scratch the surface” of the life and art of a very complex man whom I found to be an adventurous soul with an eccentric streak. I can imagine him taking one more secret trip in his last years thinking he wished to remain anonymous but at the same time not able to resist the urge to leave a hint that would further down the road tweak some unknown person’s curiosity.

Possibly this story will be read by other people who are on  journeys of memories and mysteries, inspiring them to explore their past adventures on the road map through life. I would say to not give up or to grow discouraged when reaching dead ends with questions unanswered. I am continuing to search for answers to our mystery. Route 66 meanders across hills and valleys stopping here and there at dead ends, but then continues on waiting for someone’s discovery of stories to be told.

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