Robert Lee Alderson was born on August 4th 1931, second son to a very pretty lady and a Cherokee. The hard times he was born in, filed his soul with hunger. When he was 8 years old his father, who could no longer deal with the blatant racism he was subjected to, drank acid and died a horrible self-inflicted death. The 4 children where placed in an Indian orphanage: Laurence Hall for Boys in Chicago for Tony and his older brother. There Father Bennet saw that he was a special child and had him tested. It turned out he had an uncanny sense of visual balance. As a result he got a grant to the Chicago Art Institute where he followed the drawing classes with the grown ups. Also a second year till the priest discovered that the students had progressed to do nude studies and he deemed this unfit for a small boy of 9.
At the age of 14 he ran away from the orphanage and hitchhiked, worked his way to San Francisco where his mother was then married to Mario Mafai. This Sicilian ‘ran the money for the pony’s’ to Las Vegas. So the name got turned into Mario Mafia. Tony wanting to get out of the constraints and red neck mentality and realities of all that was connected to his birthname chose to be Tony Mafia. His stepfather's Italian friends took to Tony and taught him to make a mean Bolognese sauce. At the age of 16 he asked a ‘hooker’ to pose as his mother and to give him permission to become an able bodied seaman for the merchant marine. He definitely didn’t want to become a cowboy or work in the bottle factory he worked in anyway a bit later. He kind of finished high school while being a sailor and missed a boat in 1947 in Antwerp Belgium. It took him six month to find a ship out. He always said: there I learned that air has light and color. He tried to get into the Academy but was not accepted. That doesn’t mean a thing since Van Gogh hadn’t been accepted either… He kept coming back to Antwerp where we met in 1968.
He married young, had a daughter, got divorced, married again and had another daughter. On a drunken night a group of friends all got married in Mexico and found out the wedding counted, so after 5 weeks the third marriage was canceled. I met this lady in 2004 and told her, she was the only one of his ex-wives he had never said a bad word about… Somewhere in between the second and third marriage he thought he had joined the Foreign Legion, but it turned out the Air force just had new uniforms and he only found out in boot camp where he actually was. He was stationed in Germany, where after some tribulations they let him restore the old churches that had been damaged during the war. Therefore he needed to learn the old techniques. He always spoke with respect of the German schools where they ‘didn’t mess with your head, but just showed you what you could do’. He has a sculpting of Roy Rodger in the Pentagon and among others did a portrait in Korea of General Mc Arthur. During his leave he would always go to Paris where later he lived ‘on the fourth floor in a chambre the bonne’ after having stayed in Hotel Belgique for a while. He had a good period there meeting a lot of people like Jacques Brel and some of the Hollywood stars. He also spent 6 month in Casares in Spain, painting for an exhibition in the Gallerie Françoise Besnard in Paris and selling out. Tony never could or would give exact indications of years. He must have been back in California during that period too. Anyway in the early sixties he was put in prison in Denmark for selling a drawing without a license and having insufficient funds: Six month of solitary confinement. They let him sell his good old banjo to the guard to pay the fine… He went straight to Paris where he met a Danish lady whom he later married. He had a period of hard work and sometimes lots of money, sometimes spending it all in one night. He was a typical rebel with tons of charisma so that the others would project their longing into his life. Men saw him as what they wanted to be and women wanted to be with him to become an Indian, or an artist, or more vital or more depressed… In his fourth marriage to Anne Mors he had two children, still living in Los Angeles. Early seventies they split up.
Because of his health situation (a bad heart) he had to cancel all contracts with the galleries. The Veterans Administration would only take care of him if he had no income. The decision did keep him alive but ruined is artistic career. After that he only did smaller shows in Europe for fear of being found out by the VA.
He played music, acted a bit, even was in a musical as a chorus boy…
Many have collected his work. I think the most honest assessment is that ‘he had a cult status in an inner circle’. He also had quiet a temper, so made enemies in a second and friends in half a second.
We met first in Antwerp while he was playing folk and folk rock and flamenco. In August 1968 I saw the first drawings and walked home with a few. Only in 1991 Tony and I became an item and got married. He did do a few bigger good shows and worked very hard and intensely during these last years of his life.
I haven’t mentioned his Far East experiences, but they are gruesome. He arrived in Shanghai, when Shanghai fell and saw how 10.000 people were executed in the streets. He carried the fear of death deep within himself.
Over the years he also wrote strange poetic parables and songs. Some of those I collected and translated in ‘My book, my life’.
Of course, he lived regularly in Las Vegas: as a young man when his mother was a dancer there and regularly in the seventies and eighties when he had a gallery for a while. He knew some of the celebrities coming though Vegas.
Tony’s life was the stuff of myths and I try not to proclaim the ultimate truth but to let everybody hang on to their own version of Tony Mafia…