Melville “Ernest” Fox

Melville “Ernest” Fox (Feb 13, 1898-Oct 1981) was a New York restaurateur, print collector, and longtime close friend of James E. Allen. He bought Allen’s prints, as well as receiving them as gifts from Allen. In the 1940s he deliberately continued to buy prints as Allen’s health declined, as a means to support his friend.

Ernest, seen here c1944 with his wife Herta and five children [1], was the son of German immigrants who came to America in the late 1800s and settled in San Francisco. They died shortly after the birth of their son, and Ernest was sent back to Germany to be raised by an aunt and uncle. He returned to the United States, arriving in New York on Dec 18 1916 -- perhaps a young man seeking his fortune after coming of age.

Though heading to San Francisco, Ernest first needed money, so he took a dishwasher job. A family story tells us he couldn’t speak English well enough to understand when asked his name, so the manager decided to call him “Ernie” because that was the name of the previous dishwasher. The nickname stuck, and from then on he was called Ernest or Ernie by his friends.

The choice of entry-level restaurant work was fortuitous. Ernest didn’t make it to San Francisco but became a waiter at Broeker’s Restaurant in Elizabeth New Jersey [2], and by his early 20s had a job at one of the Waldorf-Astoria’s restaurants (per family), at Delmonicos [3], and a stint as manager of Van Axen’s Restaurant [4]. In the mid-thirties, Ernest became the proprietor of Rolfe’s Chop House, a New York institution since 1848.

The family believes Ernest met Allen in the 20s after returning from Paris, but whether it was over art or food is unknown. Allen’s New York studio and the publishing houses he illustrated for were midtown, too far north for Allen to be a regular at Ernest’s restaurants, and Allen had moved to Larchmont by the end of the decade. Art may have played a role if Ernest was a nascent print collector.

What we do know is this. In 1937, Allen created a lithograph of Ernest Fox preparing a salad table-side at Rolfe’s Chop House. It may have been a commission since it was used on the cover of the menu, but Ernest also includes a reproduction of Allen’s Boothbay Harbor on the inside.

Allen’s print not only showcases the “Ernest Special Salad” (“Made to order at the table”) but craftily includes prominent clientele to illustrate the prominence of the restaurant. That’s FDR behind Ernest’s shoulder, with Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera opposite. The other guests have not yet been identified.

Ernest liked his print so much that he used it on “place mats, sugar cube wrappers, and stationary”, as well as calling cards and even ash trays.[4]

The lithograph was likely based on a photo like the ones below, a familiar sight at Rolfe's for two decades.

Years later Ernest would continue to prepare salads for his guests, a chance to foster both professional and personal relationships. This photo shows Ernest possibly with then New York mayor John F. Wagner, or a prominent insurance broker Stewart Smith who had offices in the same building (per family recollection).

The common element of interest is of course the Allen prints in the background, displayed prominently throughout the restaurant. They were passed onto Ernest’s children and remain with grandsons Alex and Graham Fox.

Letters show the friendship between Allen and Ernest was still strong when Allen was institutionalized for Huntington’s Chorea. A 1951 letter from Allen (likely penned by his wife Grace), says “we think of you and your great kindness at a time when it was so much needed. We shall be eternally grateful to you”. [6]

Photo coutesy the Sharon Historical Society, used with permission

Rolfe’s closed its doors in 1967-1968. Ernest moved upstate to Cherry Valley where he had a vacation home, and managed a restaurant called Twin Pines and an attached liquor store in Sharon Springs from 1968 to 1978.

A resident of Sharon Springs recalls that Mr. and Mrs. Fox were always extremely well dressed - every day at the restaurant. They were a German couple. Mr. Fox had really deep pockets in his trousers that went almost down to his ankles and they used to tease him about how deep his pockets were. [7]

It appears Melville carried on his tradition of table-side salads as still proudly illustrated by his Allen print used to advertise the restaurant.


References:

[1] Family photo: Back: Lillian, Dolores, Eddie; Front: Ernest/Melville, Donald, Herta, Thomas

[2] As entered on his 1918 draft registration card

[3] According to a brief history of Rolfe’s by Robery W. Sheehan, June 5, 1941, reprinted in their menu, Ernest “learned the first principles of his craft from the house of Delmonico”.

[4]

[5] "Among the numerous private collectors of Alien's prints is Mr. "Ernest" Melvilie Fox, proprietor of Rolfe's Chop House, 90 Fulton Street, New York City. Mr. Fox, possessor of one of the largest collection of privately owned etchings in New York City is distinguished among other collectors of Allen's works in that he was actually the subject of one of the etchings, “The Salad Maker” (one of the many prints displayed at the Smithsonian Institution). Allen made an etching of Mr. Fox who was preparing salads at the table of his customers (the salad being the noted dish at Rolfe's Chop House). Mr. Fox still uses this etching as a trademark for his restaurant, having reproductions of it printed on all his place mats, sugar cube wrappers, and stationary. Many of Allen's works are decorating the walls of both the lower and upper level of the Fulton Street Restaurant. This display is of special significance as it gives the viewer a general tone for all the artist's works, being inclusive of etchings, lithographs, and paintings while showing the diversification of hi subject matter. A lover of nature and animals, Allen made many prints of wild life in its natural setting, such as pheasants in bushes and several mountain animals in quest for food. The simplicity, natural tone, and detailed workmanship of these prints show the expansive sensitivity of the artist, perhaps reflecting his earlier boyhood days in Montana. Allen's more religious tones, such as "Prayer for Rain" (winner of the Isidor Prize at the Salamagundi Club, 1938) and the "Plower" (man working in quest of his daily bread) [The Plowman] can also be seen by the viewing diner.”

-- unpublished “Biography and Appreciation”, author unknown

[6]

[7] Email from Ron Ketelsen, President, Sharon Springs Chamber of Commerce: "I did speak to an older gentleman today who lives in Sharon Springs. He remembers Mr. and Mrs. Fox quite well. He said they lived in Cherry Valley and ran both the restaurant and liquor store. He recalls Mr. and Mrs. Fox were always extremely well dressed - every day at the restaurant. They were a German couple. He said Mr. Fox had really deep pockets in his trousers that went almost down to his ankles. They used to tease him about how deep his pockets were. He said he thinks the years you quoted were correct for them running the Twin Pines.

The Twin Pines met an ill fate in a terrible accident that killed three people. The restaurant was on the corner of two Highway intersections. A semi ran through a red light, hit a car that killed three people, and smashed into the front of the restaurant. It was torn down shortly after that. The Foxes had sold it many years before that time and lived on the Main Street of Cherry Valley for many years afterward. They moved away many years later."


-- Lynn McRae (lmcrae@stanford.edu) with photos, artifacts, and critical input from Graham and Alex Fox.