Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004

Bresci Thompson, painter, Chelsea icon, dies at 96

By Albert Amateau

Bresci Thompson, a lifelong Chelsea resident and member of the Hudson Guild since he was 4 years old, died on Oct. 2 at home in the Penn South co-op at the age of 96.

A painter who learned his art at the Guild where he served for many years as a member of the board of trustees, he was a protégé of John Lovejoy Elliott, founder of the Hudson Guild.

“Bresci was one of the Guild’s greatest champions,” said Janice McGuire, Hudson Guild executive director. “He never missed the opportunity to sing its praises in private or in public.”

Born in poverty and a committed pacifist, he was a community activist who never forgot the struggles of his youth. In interviews he gave 10 years ago to Studs Terkel for his book “Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It” and 15 years ago to Jeff Kisseloff for his book “You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from 1890 to World War II, ” Thompson spoke about his heritage and his life.

His grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Argentina as a bridge builder and married an Indian woman. His father jumped ship in New York to escape military service in Argentina and found work in a Patterson, N.J., silk mill at the side of an Italian anarchist, Gaetano Bresci.

“Gaetano was saving money each week to send for his sister who was a silk worker in Italy. But they had a strike there and the king sent out the soldiers to disperse the strikers and in that melee, his sister was killed,” Thompson told Kisseloff.

Gaetano Bresci went to Italy and in Monza, outside of Milan, “he approached the carriage of Humbert the First, Umberto Primo, and he shot and killed him. That was in 1900. He was imprisoned for life and it was ruled that the name Bresci, which was a surname, should not exist anymore. My father said, ‘If I ever have a child, I’m going to name him Bresci,’ and that’s how I got my name,” Thompson said.

Bresci Thompson was born in 1908 on 49th St. and 10th Ave. in Hell’s Kitchen and moved with his family when he was 4 to 27th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves. in Chelsea. The Hudson Guild settlement house was nearby and Thompson was enrolled in the Guild kindergarten.

His father found work on the docks but was beaten when he resisted the kickback system. “He came home with black eyes. He couldn’t really get work after that, so he had to leave the docks,” Thompson said. “My father played the guitar. He liked to sing Argentine songs and folklore…. But when he didn’t have a job the guitar was in the pawnshop, so we knew that was bad times. But when we heard the guitar playing again, good times came to the house because my father had a job again.”

Thompson recalled his first day at the Guild. “It was traumatic because I didn’t speak English, I spoke Spanish. I was left there with all those people and I was an outcast. Then Miss Bergen brought over this man with black hair and a black mustache. He spoke to me in Spanish. That opened up my world to me and from then on I was in love with the place. That man was Dr. Elliott,” Thompson told Kisseloff.

Thompson’s sister, Liberta, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 at the age of 11 months. At P.S. 33, students earned thrift stamps for collecting tinfoil and peach pits that were ground into a material for gasmasks for the World War I war effort. “But my father was a pacifist and I had a very difficult time because he would not let me collect peach pits or tinfoil,” Thompson recalled.
A German family who ran a grocery store on 31st St. and Ninth Ave. and lived in the back of the store would give credit to most of the neighbors. “Then somebody broke the windows and the store was all boarded up,” said Thompson, who recalled his father saying, “Look what happens. There was a nice man. He trusted us, he trusted everybody. But he was forced out by the rah-rah-rah of the war.”

Thompson’s father eventually got work as a fireman at the National Biscuit Company plant (now the Chelsea Market complex) on 16th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves. but died a year later at the age of 45.

Bresci Thompson married Margaret Fox, who taught at the Hudson Guild and later in the city school system. He was working as a display designer for Abraham & Strauss, the Brooklyn department store, when he was called up for the draft at the beginning of World War II.

“I told them I was a conscientious objector,” he told Kisseloff, but he had a bad time because he didn’t belong to a church. A judge asked him if he would serve in the medical corps and he said he would. “But they never called me,” he said.

“The F.B.I. came to the Hudson Guild and to Abraham & Strauss, they even went to some of my teachers. They asked my wife’s aunt, who was living with us, if I was a Communist,” Thompson said. “One thing I’ll never forget was when Mr. Michellini, the head of the local [draft] board, saw my name and said to me, ‘This is ironic. You’re a pacifist and you have the name of an assassin.’”

Thompson retired from the department store in 1968 and his wife, who also appears in Kisseloff’s book, died in 1986.

He was a lifelong painter; his first show was in 1947 when the Guild’s Lowe Gallery opened. Thompson went on to solo exhibits at the gallery in 1974 and 1989. A retrospective exhibit in 2000 set a record for Lowe Gallery sales. Ro Gallery in Long Island City also handles his paintings.

Thompson was a founding member of the Guild’s first community theater group, The Cellar Players, in the 1920s and performed in the Guild’s first building on W. 27th St. He began a second career as an actor in film, television and commercials and as a model in print ads. He was also an enthusiastic ballroom dancer.

“Dancing is for me,” he told Terkel. “I’m a good ballroom dancer and they’re in great demand at senior centers. When the women find out I’m a dancer — that’s it!” he said.

Thompson is survived by his daughter, Nancy, a founder of Hudson Guild’s Book Fair, a grandson Michael Cooper, a reporter on the New York Times, and a great-grandson.

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