Merton D. Simpson’s storied life began in Charleston, where he played in the Jenkins Orphanage Band, learned to doodle in the hospital while fighting deadly fevers, and eventually went on to become a celebrated painter with a New York gallery stocked with art worth millions.
But more than two weeks after his death at 84, Simpson’s body is still in Charleston awaiting burial while family and friends feud over his assets.
Last week, his son, Merton Simpson Jr., sent an email asking for contributions to pay for a funeral.
“While my father had considerable assets, they are illiquid, and the family needs immediate financial assistance for a proper funeral,” the email said, according to a story Monday by The New York Times. “He deserves no less.”
Family members, friends and scholars are heartbroken over the split, which cast shadows over the legacy of a man whose works were featured in the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“My God he was a wonderful and generous man,” said Luna Devin Crystal, a friend in New York who once helped run Simpson’s Manhattan gallery. “That’s why I’m so sick over this. He’s not even buried yet.”
Simpson’s body is at Fielding Home for Funerals on Logan Street. Herbert Fielding, funeral director and childhood friend, recalled how Simpson grew up a few blocks away.
“The Jenkins Orphanage used to be around the corner on Franklin Street, and he used to go around there and practice with them,” he said, adding that he didn’t know when Simpson would be buried. “All we can do is wait and let the family get together and decide what to do.”
Simpson’s health had been decline for several years, family and friends said. His son, Merton Jr., told The Boston Globe that his father had diabetes, dementia and had had several strokes.
It’s unclear who is responsible for the family split. After his death on March 9, lawyers filed a will dated April 7, 2011, that names his son, Merton Jr., as executor and divides most of the assets among his two sons, brother and a nephew.
Merton Jr., a member of New York’s state legislature, did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment, nor did Alaina Simone, director of Simpson’s gallery. Ann Pinciss Berman, a New York attorney appointed last year to be Simpson’s guardian, was ill and unavailable for comment.
Berman told The Times that she authorized $3,000 to be spent in Charleston, and that other funds were not available. “I can’t spend money that I don’t have,” she told the newspaper. “The guardianship has been operating hand to mouth.”
More clear is Simpson’s place in the art world. “He was a wonderful artist,” said Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art.
In an oral history in 1968, Simpson said he learned how to sketch when he was hospitalized for diphtheria and rheumatic fever between the ages of 6 and 9. As a teen he learned techniques from William Halsey, a noted Charleston artist, and eventually went to college in New York.
While working as a framer in New York, he made connections with abstract expressionists, Mack said. He sought inspiration from his African heritage for his art, and in the process, “he became one of the foremost African art dealers in the country,” she said. The Gibbes held a major show of his work in the mid-1990s and currently has five of his paintings.
Mark Sloan, director of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, said he frequently visited Simpson in New York. He recalled how William Halsey once referred to his protege as a “bridge.”
“Then I remember sitting in Merton’s office and hearing him speak four languages, English, French and two African dialects, and I realized that he was a bridge to many worlds, to black and white America, a bridge between Africa and America, musicians and artists, and a bridge between museums and African art.”
The college awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2011.
“So few people know who he was in Charleston, and to me that’s a crime,” Sloan said. “It’s so important for young people to know that they can come from this place and make a name for themselves throughout the world. I’m really saddened by this. I think it’s terrible about what’s happening to this man’s legacy.”