He was raised in a Catholic family amongst the pear orchards, artistically inclined and shy. He was a 19-year-old bomber pilot in World War II, a decorated first lieutenant who was shot down over Germany. He once watched a crew member throw himself from the plane after he rejected the young man’s advances.
He was a sought-after commercial artist in 1950s New York, drawing for the likes of department stores and clothiers. He sold artwork not for money, but for interesting experiences – helicopter rides, surfing vacations, lunch with famous personalities. He was friends with Andy Warhol and Dr. Alfred Kinsey. He attended parties with Glenway Wescott, George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and New York’s artistic elite. He was one of the first Marlboro Men in 1956 and, that same year, was commissioned by Sports Illustrated to draw life-sized Olympic athletes. Television stars asked him to sketch their caricatures. He married a beautiful and intelligent career woman and had a child. He generated a body of homoerotic artwork under the pseudonym of Steve Masters. He loved men. He loved women. He broke hearts. His heart broke. He jumped in the Hudson River. He was institutionalized. Released. The end soon came on a Manhattan rooftop, accompanied by pills and alcohol, his clothing folded neatly next to him, body bared to the reeling and dispassionate heavens.
This is my great-uncle, Leo “Mike” Miksche.
He was beautiful and broken, his split-open heart unprotected from the wounding world. He felt everything intensely. And yet he sought out the extremes of existence, a means of tempering his tenderness. As if aware that he was allotted only 39 years, he filled each moment to brimming – with ardor and anger, pleasure and pain, vanity and vulnerability. And he created incessantly, with pencil, ink, charcoal, pastels, and collage.
Perhaps art was his lifeline, and to be saved, he had to draw redemption anew each day. His remaining work now stands as an afterimage, testament to a soul who burned with magnificent fire.
He was a man of extremes: an artist and war hero, adman and madman, bisexual and bipolar. The fates dealt him a life filled with ache, but he endured – to sing at his sister’s wedding, to love and be loved, to draw Olympic heroes, to bring a child into the world.
He was my great-uncle, and he is so much more. To the family he will always be Leo. The homoerotic art world remembers him as Steve Masters. And to everyone encountered in between, he was Mike.
The subject of my next book is this singular man encompassing multitudes.
I recently completed the biography of Bates Wilson, known by many as the “Father of Canyonlands.” Bates served as Superintendent of Arches and Natural Bridges National Monuments from
1949 until 1972. In the interceding years, he also fell madly in love with the unmapped terrain that was to become Canyonlands National Park. He worked tirelessly – and unconventionally – to bring attention to Canyon Country, relying largely upon dutch oven diplomacy, Jim Beam and a contagious smile.
The book is titled Blow Sand in His Soul: Bates Wilson, the Heart of Canyonlands and is due out Summer 2014.