The paint was barely dry before the first prank. In 1980, a “struggling artist” presented Bob Margett with a portrait copied from his official headshot as mayor of Arcadia. It shows him at his desk in a late 1970s era suit, posing behind a oversized name plate.
“There was something weird about the eyes and the wide lapels that amused me,” Margett said. “It wasn’t a professional job, but that’s OK. Her heart was in the right place.”
A professional job, of course, would have sat on a wall and garnered an occasional “Nice portrait.” This picture went on to travel the world and be coveted in the halls of power.
Margett estimates that the painting has been hung in over 100 places–including stints in Greece and a Capitol ladies room. It’s appeal also lies in it’s odd perspective–one staffer said it looks as if Margett is about to fall flat on his face–and the fact that Margett was “just as bald and gray-haired” back then as he is now.
The portrait’s travels began “three or four days” after Margett received it, when he snuck it onto the office wall of friend George Fasching, owner of Fasching’s Carwash and later mayor of Arcadia himself.
Margett had no way of knowing it at the time, but he was setting the painting on a path that would land it closer to our state’s center of power than the real Margett ever would get. For the past three months or so, the painting has worked it’s way around the horseshoe, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inner sanctum.
It started with deputy chief of staff Cynthia Bryant and moved on to the office of legislative secretary Chris Kahn–who credits it with magical powers.
“I had a full head of hair until I got the picture,” joked Kahn, who like Margett is mostly bald.
The picture is rumored to have spent a few hours in the governor’s famed smoking tent. As of press time, it’s hanging on the wall in communications director Adam Mendelsohn’s office. When asked whether the portrait’s new place of honor signaled a thawing of the sometimes tense relationship between the governor and the Republican Caucus, Mendelsohn gave a measured answer.
“This is post-partisanship,” he said. “We’d be more than happy to have a portrait of [Senator] Joe Simitian [D-Palo Alto].”
But then there’s the matter of a whitish stain that starts in the upper part of the picture and runs down over Margett’s left shoulder.
“It was there when I got it,” Mendelsohn said.
“Me too,” Kahn added.
The stain is rumored to be beer, but no one seems to know where it came from. The last legislative Republican to have the painting was reportedly Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, who “won” the picture a few years ago in a charity raffle he hadn’t entered. In March, he had it set up with a shrine for a birthday party for Senator Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, and several other senators in the Ken Maddy members’ lounge just off the Senate floor.
“I heard [Margett] was having a glass of wine with John Wayne,” said Ackerman of the stain. When informed that the stain was new and did not resemble red wine, Ackerman said he was speaking of a smaller, older stain. Wayne, incidentally, died in 1979, the year before the painting was finished.
The new stain was not there at the March birthday party, according to both Ackerman and several Republican staffers. But given how long it’s been in politics, some say it’s surprising it hasn’t accumulated more mud.
The painting was profiled in 2004 in the Orange County Register, the main paper in Margett’s district. That piece led with a description of how then-Mayor Margett traveled to meet with the mayor of their sister city Tripolis, Greece. When he arrived in the mayor’s office, Margett found the portrait hanging on the wall, courtesy of some very expensive shipping by Fasching.
Much like John Travolta, the painting suffered some down years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It mainly “sat in the garage,” Margett said, after his wife, Beverly, pre-emptively banished it from the house. But the portrait had it’s equivalent of landing a role in Pulp Fiction when Margett won a special election to the Assembly in 1995.
In the years since, Margett has passed few bills as an opposition party legislator. But the painting probably rivals Jerry Brown’s modern-artsy governor’s portrait as the most talked about piece of art in the Capitol. It’s made multiple ceremonial appearances on the Senate floor. But it’s main mode of travel is the sudden, anonymous appearance on an office wall–often in place of valued picture that then goes temporarily missing.
Some of the portrait’s main benefactors have been fellow Southern California Republicans like Ackerman, Ashburn and now-termed out Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher. It was Daucher who had it hung in a women’s bathroom in the Capitol, where it was soon seen by then-Assemblywoman Carole Migden. Migden “lost it,” according to a 2003 piece in the Capitol Morning Report.
Oddly, we could find no one who had talked to the artist about her famous painting. According to Republican staffers who have looked, her name appears neither on Google nor LexisNexis–aside from references to the portrait itself.
Then there’s the matter of the portrait’s future. Margett terms out next year.
He and his wife recently bought a house where they plan to spend their retirement, but it appears unlikely the picture will be joining them.
“Maybe I can convince my wife that it should go in the library,” Margett said. “But I will probably lose that battle.”
Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at