Alan S Wood-Thomas
CPL in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co C
Born 1920 in France, Died 1976
County of residence at enlistment: New York County, NY
Other residence(s): Paris, France; New York, NY; Clinton, CT; Westbrook, CT
United States Army, European Theatre of Operations
Occupation before the war: artists, sculptors, and teachers of art
College education before the war: Sorbonne 4 years
Alan Wood-Thomas was born on January 12, 1920 in Paris, France, the second oldest of five children. His father, Cyrus Wood-Thomas, was an illustrator, architect, and city planner, and his mother, Victoria Marie Ange Dauriac, was a French sculptor (and the youngest woman to be admitted to study sculpture at Les Beaux-Arts de Paris).
Alan and his family spent time in both Paris and the states—his younger siblings, a pair of twins, were born in Chicago in 1921. But he was educated largely in Paris. He earned his Eagle Scout badge with the French Boy Scouts, and received a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. He also studied architecture with his father. He was accepted for study at Princeton, but chose instead to move to New York and pursue an artistic career.
There he met his future wife Annabelle Foster, an artist's model. Alan operated elevators at Radio City Music Hall and spent his evenings drawing Annabelle at home.
Alan registered for the draft on July 19, 1941 and enlisted on January 7, 1942. Along with many other New York City artists, he was recruited into the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. His younger brother, Gilles, also became a member of the unit and they both went overseas with the Ghost Army. Their fluency in French was a plus! Their sister Eveline also served in the war; she was stationed in Africa as a lieutenant in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
In one of his letters home, fellow Ghost Army soldier Art Singer told this story about Alan. “Did I tell you that Alan Wood-Thomas was one of the lucky ones to get a pass to Paris? He had a swell time there. He met a composer (one of France’s best) while making a phone call. It turned out that this man was an old friend of Picasso! So – Alan went up to Picasso’s studio with him! Unfortunately he wasn’t in but Alan saw some swell paintings up there. The composer told him to come up next night and he’d let Picasso know in advance but Woody had to return to camp.” Eventually Alan was able to meet with Pablo Picasso in Paris, and was influenced by his style. Like other Ghost Army artists, he spent much of his down time during the war drawing the men in his unit as they went about their daily activities.
Alan was discharged from the Army on August 2, 1945. He returned to New York where he married Annabelle, spent his time painting, and hung out with Jack Kerouac (whom he met in 1948). According to Joyce Johnson, in her 2013 biography of Kerouac, "Jack had been immediately drawn to Wood-Thomas, who had grown up and studied art in France, and to the down-at-heels charm of his Yorkville version of la vie bohème."
He held his first one-man show at the Carlebach Gallery in New York in 1948 when he was only 28.
Later, Alan and Annabelle moved to Clinton, CT and became the parents of three children: Liane, Diane, and Cyrus. Alan worked as an art teacher at Morgan High School in Clinton and at Bill Hahn's Resort in Westbrook. He was also a member of the Clinton Art Society.
According to his daughter-in-law, Lori Wood-Thomas, Alan found extra work to help support his family. He "colored old engravings with watercolors for $5/hour. From time to time, someone would come by their house in Connecticut, go out to the studio and a sale might be made. There was the occasional show in NYC where someone famous would buy his work."
In the 1960s and 1970s, Alan had his work exhibited a number of times at the Catherine Hood Gallery in Guilford.
In 1968 he received his most famous commission; he was asked to paint the official Justice Department portrait of Nicholas Katzenbach, former Attorney General. They had met in New York City early in Alan's career and become friends. Over the years, Katzenbach became a prominent collector of his work.
Alan painted a total of six portraits of Katzenbach, and let them ripen in his studio for a month. He then destroyed three of them and showed the others to Katzenbach. The former AG selected one to hang in the Justice Department and one for his private collection. The portrait hanging in the Justice Department was the first avant-garde portrait of a government official. The painting was roundly criticized for breaking with traditional portraiture style, but Katzenbach loved it.
Alan painted in many styles, including impressionism, surrealism, cubism, realism, and abstraction. During his too-short career, Alan created thousands of pen and ink drawings (mostly nudes), over 700 paintings on both paper and canvas (portraits and countryside landscapes in Connecticut and Spain), and hundreds of etchings (many of which were studies for his "Burial of Picasso" series which represented Picasso's art and life).
Besides Katzenbach, others who purchased Alan's work included Nelson Rockefeller, Ethel Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Robert McNamara, and the Ghost Army's Ellsworth Kelly and Fred Fox. His work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME.
Alan was getting ready to start his own art school in Connecticut when he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1975. He died on July 1, 1976 in Westbrook, CT.
1941 draft card
1942 enlistment record
1943 article in The Baltimore Sun (MD) re his presence with his brother in the 603rd
1963 city directory for Guilford, CT
1965 article in the Bristol Daily Courier (PA) re his conversation with Princess Margaret
1970 article in The Bridgeport Post (CT) about an art exhibit of his
1976 VA death record
1976 obituary in Hartford Courant (CT)
1976 article in the Miami Herald (FL) about the 1968 Katzenbach portrait
2013, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson
2019, The Art and Life of Alan Wood-Thomas by Lori Wood-Thomas
Website: The Fine Art of Alan Wood-Thomas (includes biographical info and art images)