“Crime, it seems, sometimes does pay”

Actor Edward G. Robinson is often remembered for playing gangsters and wise guys, or, my person favorite role, as Dathan in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments (1956). What most people do not know is that Robinson was an art collector.

Edward G. Robinson as a gangster in Little Caesar (1931). Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

That is not exactly true. According to Robinson, at the time of the exhibition Forty Paintings from the Edward G. Robinson Collection at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, “I am not a collector. I’m just an innocent bystander who has been taken over by a collection . . . I am just a lover of paintings. I do what I do for the sheer joy of it!”

Robinson continues, “If I hadn’t become a movie gangster, it is highly probable that not one of my paintings would have had the chance to collect me. Here is a paradox: Turn killer and you have the means to satisfy your thirst for beauty . . . Crime, it seems, sometimes does pay.”

Edward G. Robinson’s home. View of living room, October 3, 1944. Dorothy Liebes papers, circa 1850-1973. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Unfortunately, in February 1957, Robison was forced to sell his art collection as part of the divorce settlement with his first wife Gladys Lloyd Cassell Robinson. Immediately after, he began to collect again. This second collection would be even bigger than the first.

Unlike film moguls or actors who pay experts to place a couple of easily recognizable masterpieces above their fireplaces, Robinson selected his artworks himself. He bought on instinct and impulse, guided by what he loved. As he said, “You don’t collect paintings – they collect you.”

You may say, this is all very interesting, but what is the Cranbrook connection?

In December 1957, Robinson was in a play “Middle of the Night” at Cass Theatre in Detroit. According to the Sunday, December 15, 1957, Detroit Free Press, “A distinguished art lover, Edward G. Robinson, the actor, dropped in at Cranbrook Academy of Art Tuesday to chat with an old friend, Zolton (sic) Sepeshy, director of the Academy.”

Cranbrook Archives holds the “proof” of this visit, by way of wonderful images from our campus photographer, Harvey Croze.

I did some digging, and Robinson’s personal archives at Boston University have no mention of Cranbrook or Sepeshy. I also could not confirm if Robinson had any of Sepeshy’s art in his collection; none appear in the 1953 exhibition or in the coffee table book about his second collection, Edward G. Robinson’s World of Art (1971).

I imagine it was simply his love of art that brought Robinson out to Cranbrook in 1957, the same reason so many of us are drawn to campus today.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

4 thoughts on ““Crime, it seems, sometimes does pay”

  1. Maybe we should check Sepeshy’s papers and see if he sold or mentioned a sale to Robinson. I wonder how they became friends. Does Robinson have children who may inherited the artwork their father owned….

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  2. Fascinating. How enchanting it is to be exposed to such a wonder as Cranbrook, which, thanks to you and your team, enlarges our lives. Thank you, Karen Street

    Sent from my iPhone

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