Reclusive janitor Henry Darger spent more than 40 years in a tiny one-room apartment in Lincoln Park, writing, painting, sketching, collecting and fantasizing.
It was only after his death in 1973 that his works, discovered by his owners, spread across the Chicago art scene, with his whimsical stories and sometimes violent imagery eventually gaining worldwide appreciation – and a skyrocketing value.
Now, nearly half a century later, a legal battle over Darger’s inheritance rights has landed in federal court in Chicago, where a lawsuit was filed this week by his estate accusing the owners of copyright infringement.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court names Kiyoko Lerner and the estate of her husband, Nathan, who together rented the third-floor bedroom of their walk-up on West Webster Avenue in Darger from the 1930s.
According to the lawsuit, the Lerners have been illegally profiting from Darger’s works for nearly five decades, including his enormous 15,000-page illustrated manuscript “In the Realms of the Unreal,” despite having no claim as heirs. Nathan Lerner, photographer and industrial designer who first promoted Darger’s work, died in 1997.
The lawsuit comes six months after several of Darger’s alleged relatives, all first cousins several times removed, filed suits in Cook County probate court seeking to be declared heirs to his estate. This lawsuit is still pending.
The Lerners have long maintained that Darger was clear before his death that he didn’t care what happened to his job. A lawyer representing Kiyoko Lerner in the probate case did not return calls seeking comment.
Darger’s story as a lonely, unknown artist who rose to posthumous fame bears a striking resemblance to Vivian Maier, the Chicago-area nanny who became one of the world’s most acclaimed street photographers. after his discarded pictures were discovered in an old storage locker.
As in the case of Darger, Maier, who died in 2009, was a pack rat and a recluse who never sought to publish her work during her lifetime. But the accidental discovery of tens of thousands of negatives of Maier led to a messy legal wrangle over his suddenly lucrative estate, including an exhaustive search for a rightful heir.
The Cook County public administrator eventually took over Maier’s business and filed a similar copyright action in Dirksen’s US courthouse against some of those who profited from the photographs.
Meanwhile, the copyright fight over Darger’s estate has ties to the same Chicago collector, Ron Slattery, who was one of the first to buy Maier’s photo negatives. Slattery told the New York Times in February that he took it upon himself to track down some of Darger’s relatives and showed them a 2019 article in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property that questioned the rights to Darger’s estate. Darger.
“After all the research, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Slattery told The Times. “How can you let this sit there?”
Slattery did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.
By now, the story of Darger’s unlikely rise to world fame is well known. After he was born in Chicago in 1892, his mother died when he was 4 years old. Her father, a tailor, had health problems. After Darger had behavioral problems at school, he was sent to what was then known as the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in upstate Lincoln.
Darger would later incorporate many of his experiences at the asylum, including children subjected to forced child labor and harsh punishment, into his art. After his father’s death in 1908, Darger escaped from the facility and walked 160 miles to Chicago, where he found work as a janitor at a Catholic hospital. Aside from a brief stint in the military during World War I, this would remain his profession for the next 50 years.
In 1930, Darger began renting a large third-floor room in a brick house at 851 W. Webster Ave. He had lived there for almost 30 years when Nathan Lerner purchased the building in the late 1950s. In the 2004 documentary “The Realms of the Unreal”, Kiyoko Lerner and others who had contact with Darger in his later years remember him as calm and idiosyncratic, detached from reality in many ways but not dangerous.
He was obsessed with the weather and was a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines, according to the documentary. He wore the same worn military coat and could often be seen prowling the alleys near the apartment, looking for collectibles in the trash. At night, when he came home from work, the neighbors would hear voices coming from his room, like a large group of people having a loud discussion. It was Darger, immersed in his world, talking to himself.
By the mid-1960s, after being forced out of his job due to declining health, Darger spent virtually his entire life in the play. There he continues to work on the opus of his life, the fantastic story of the Vivian Girls, seven Christian princesses who join a bloody rebellion against child slavers. The work, which eventually filled some 15,145 typed pages, is illustrated with hundreds of painted scenes, drawings and stencils of peaceful landscapes and mystical creatures, combined with terrifying images of tortured and murdered young children.
By early 1973, Darger was too ill to live on his own and was transferred to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, the same institution where his father had died. When the Lerners and a few neighbors entered her room to start packing her things, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“I vividly remember going up that narrow staircase and entering a totally new world,” then-neighbor and art student Lynne Warren told the Tribune in 2000. to have entered Henry’s mind.”
Resting on a bed of iron were the volumes constituting “In the realms of the unreal”. Also found were Darger’s detailed memoirs, a meticulously kept weather diary, and decades-old newspaper clippings of disasters and missing or killed children hanging on the wall.
“We were stunned,” Kiyoko Lerner told the Tribune. “We didn’t know what to do with it.”
David Berglund, a tenant in the building, said he remembered visiting Darger in hospital before he died and praising his former neighbor’s work.
“He looked at me like I had punched him,” Berglund recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘It’s too late now. It belongs to Mr. Lerner.
Darger died on April 13, 1973. He is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, where his headstone bears the words “Protector of Children”.
Nathan Lerner saw potential in Darger’s work and used his connections in the Chicago art world to try to generate interest. They preserve Darger’s bedroom and invite artists and students to immerse themselves in dense and mysterious creations.
Four years after Darger’s death, his work was first featured in an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, but international fame would not come until the 1990s with an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Since then, Darger has been hailed as one of the world’s finest “foreign” artists, and his work has inspired poems, an opera, and even a rock band called the Vivian Girls.
With notoriety, of course, came the inevitable dollar signs, and Darger’s works, especially illustrations, began to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at art auctions.
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The value continues today. According to the lawsuit, auction house Christie’s estimated the selling price for a page of “In the Realms of the Unreal” at between $200,000 and $400,000. The painting sold for $675,000.
The lawsuit alleged that over the years, the Lerners “have generated tens of hundreds of millions of dollars through the unauthorized exploitation of Darger’s works.”
But even if the Lerners are found to have broken the law, how much could be recovered for Darger’s estate — and who would share the proceeds — remains a very murky picture. In Cook County probate court, Judge Kent Delgado granted the petitioners an extension to prove their claim as rightful heirs to Darger, which can be a lengthy process.
Meanwhile, much of the contents of Darger’s former bedroom on West Webster Avenue, which had been kept by the Lerners, is now on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art on Chicago’s Near West Side.
But the coin itself is long gone. In 2000, Kiyoko Lerner’s stepson, Michael, told the Tribune that he was rehabilitating the building, with Darger’s bedroom serving as the master suite.
The building was sold in 2006 for $2 million, records show.