By Mary L. Bryant
As told to the NYCHS webmaster

On one level, this story is about Sing Sing guard Frank Bryant, my father, and inmate Joe Bendix in the 1930s/1940s. But in a larger sense, it is also about two fine arts -- painting and friendship -- behind and despite prison bars.

NYCHS appreciates Mary L. Bryant's scanning and making available for use here the photo and painting images. All rights thereto are retained and reserved by her.

My father Frank was born on March 21, 1906, on the outskirts of Auburn, a few miles from the prison. His mother passed away when he was only 4; he missed her dearly all of his life. His father was a farmer and a trolley operator who drove the first trolley from Auburn to Syracuse.


Sing Sing Prison guard 1933 - 1968

Frank and a partner had a movie theater for a while. But the theatre had bad timing. It made its debut during the Depression. The business soon went under.

Also for a while, Frank worked with the Post Office as a substitute carrier for special deliveries only. But he had to pay for his own gas. Thus, as he recalled years later, some weeks he actually owed the Post Office gas money.

Obviously he had to find something better.

Dad and my mom, Elizabeth Pinckney, married in 1925, had three children at the time he took the exam. George, the oldest was 6; June was 5 and John was only a few months old. By then, Dad also had a brother-in-law who worked at Auburn prison. But it was Frank's father who suggested he take the exam to become a prison guard. My father had hoped to work at Auburn Prison so he could stay in his hometown area, but the opening that happened soonest was in Ossining. So he took it. Age 27, he had to leave his family behind in Auburn for the first three months until he had saved enough money to move them down to Ossining.

I came along later, much later: 1952. Mom's pregnancy with me was difficult.


Portrait of Sing Sing Guard Frank Bryant's wife, painted by inmate Joe Bendix from photo provided by Bryant. Portrait now hangs on living room wall in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Bryant's daughter, Mary L. Bryant.
At one point concerns that she might be having a miscarriage prompted a call being placed to my dad working at Sing Sing. That summons home came to him when he was playing handball with Julius Rosenberg. Frank's guard duties then included seeing that Julius had opportunity to exercise, as required by law, while the convicted spy awaited outcome of appeals of his and his wife Ethel's death sentences.

That was 18 years after Frank had moved from Auburn and begun working at Sing Sing Prison in 1933.

Although Frank had more than enough credits to graduate high school, he refused to take a bookkeeping course. When he was in his 40s, he got a letter from the State of N. Y. saying that requirement had been dropped and that he could get his diploma. But he wrote back, saying "No, thanks." (He was a character!)

My father's two great passions were the movies and art. Movie theaters had been his home away from home growing up. As an adult, he had a small theater in our basement. He loved every aspect of movie making and was a walking encyclopedia on the subject. He also loved art and admired artists. He took me to the Ringling Museum of Art when I was in high school. He knew so much about the paintings and their artists that we bypassed the tour guides.

My father was a guard at Sing Sing from 1933 through 1968. He settled into his job with the philosophy that the inmates were people who had made mistakes but that they were people first. He treated them with respect and, for the most part, received back respect in kind. During his career there he was always looking for ways to help the inmates, by guiding them toward education opportunities and in many other small ways.

One inmate who touched him deeply was a man name Joseph Victor Bendix. Joe told my father that he was very concerned about his family and about how they could financially survive his incarceration.


Painted by inmate Joe Bendix on postcard size pieces of window shade canvas and given to his friend, prison guard Frank Bryant, for helping him sell hundreds of such paintings to support his family during his imprisonment.

Joe said that he could not bear the thought that they were going to suffer for his mistake. My father could relate to Joe’s concerns because he too, as a father, had worried about his own family as he struggled to find work, eventually landing the prison guard position.

Joe went on to tell my father that he was an artist and asked if there was any way that his paintings could be sold to help support his family.

Joe’s plan was to use window shade canvas which he could cut into 3 inch by 4 inches pieces. With these small canvases, he would able to make several paintings at one time by laying these pieces out in groups on a table and moving from one to another with each color of paint he was using. He knew he would have very little free time in which to do the paintings and he wanted to make every minute count.


Painted by inmate Joe Bendix on postcard size pieces of window shade canvas and given to his friend, prison guard Frank Bryant, for helping him sell hundreds of such paintings to support his family during his imprisonment.

My father went to the warden and asked for permission to make some kind of arrangements for Joe.

The warden of Sing Sing from Jan. 1, 1920 to July 7, 1941 was Lewis E. Lawes, known for being firm but fair and humane in his treatment of inmates.

The warden agreed with the proposed plan but stipulated that Joe could not sign any of the paintings and that all money had to be sent directly to Joe’s family.

My father then enlisted the aid of his uncle and namesake, Frank Bryant, who lived and worked in New York City. My granduncle agreed to help and found a small shop in the city that was willing to sell the paintings for 50 cents each, on consignment.

Granduncle Frank also found a supplier of window shade canvas that he was willing to purchase to help. My father purchased the oil paint and brushes for Joe and the process was started.

The paintings were done sometime in the 1930s and 1940s. The paintings were unframed and just a bit smaller than a postcard. My dad said it was just amazing to watch him paint them because he would just zip right through them.



I don't know how many he sold altogether but my dad said it was enough to provide a living wage for his family and that Joe's dedication to it was inspiring. The inmate was trying to make some amends for what he had put his family through.

Joe was also able to inspire and encourage my father to begin painting himself.

As a thank-you to my father, Joe painted a beautiful portrait of my mother which I have today.

It hangs near a painting my father did a few years before he passed away. The painting my dad did was of silent film star Priscilla Dean. I think you can see the influence that Joe had.

That painting has its own funny story too. The eyes on the painting my dad did look just like my mom's eyes instead of Priscilla's eyes. My dad couldn't figure out what was wrong with "Priscilla Dean's eyes" until I pointed out to him that they were "Elizabeth Bryant's eyes." Then we both laughed.


The Bendix paintings signature.

Another thank-you gift from Joe to my father was a very small collection of the tiny paintings he had done on the window canvas. Two of them, made especially for my father, are signed: one depicting puppies and the other showing a home aglow with light on a snowy night.

I wish there was a way to locate someone in his family to whom I could pass the unsigned paintings and the story behind them.


One of the unsigned paintings by inmate Joe Bendix on postcard size pieces of window shade canvas given to his friend, prison guard Frank Bryant whose daughter would like to give it and others to the Bendix family.

I realize tracking down the Bendix family is particularly difficult because of the special circumstances in his criminal background: his testimony helped bring down crime boss Lucky Luciano.

I want to acknowledge the help of crusading journalist and author Scott Christianson in obtaining some information about Joe Bendix's criminal background. My dad had never gone into much detail with me about it. But Joe must have been quite a complex character. I know that he had to have something special about him for my dad to strike up a friendship with him. My dad always took the opportunity to discuss how it was never too late for someone to change if receptive to the idea of doing so.

On May 21, 1936, Joe was then Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewy's star witness testifying that Charles Luciano had "personally hired" him as a "collector" for a prostitution ring in New York. Bendix was the first witness in that trial to give testimony of face-to-face contact with Luciano, directly linking the mobster to the vice syndicate.

Joe's testimony seemed to indicate his meeting with Luciano came about accidentally but that his being hired, with Lucky's specific approval, as a "collector' for the ring was not accidental.

The Nevada State Journal reported May 22, 1936, that according to Bendix,"They just happened to meet in a night club . . . Bendix, a thin, melancholy man, said he struggled to live by his art but the only jobs he could get were painting murals in small-time night clubs. He went from art to petty thievery . . . to stick-up jobs . . . to robbing hotels and from there to Sing Sing.


Prosecutor and later Governor.

"Somewhere along the line, he said, there was the interlude when he contracted to work for Luciano for $40 a week. His job was to tour the houses of prostitution every week, collect the combination's 'cut' and carry these staggering sums of money back to the dark-haired, surly-faced man [Luciano] who was waiting high up in the Waldorf-Astoria."

The United Press May 21, 1936 Q&A of the Bendix testimony, printed in the Syracuse Herald, included Joe explaining that "Luciano . . . said he couldn't understand why I wanted to be a collector because he understood I was too high hat for the job and what was the idea of my taking a job for $35 or $40 a week. I said I was afraid of being picked up again (for thievery), that I was liable under the Baumes law, and that's why I wanted the job. Then he said, 'If you want that job, it's okay with me.'"

The Baumes Laws cited by Bendix in the conversation he testified as having had with Luciano was a New York statute, known variously also as the Fourth Felony Offender Act and the Habitual Criminal Act.


State Senator, Crime Panel Chairman

Enacted in 1926 on the recommendation of the State Crime Commission headed by State Senator Caleb H. Baumes, it mandated automatic life imprisonment sentences upon a fourth felony conviction.

Convicted third-felony offenders were said to have been in such panic of getting caught a fourth time in New York that they fled to states without such a law. Their hurried flight was referred to as the "Baumes Rush," a play on the lawmaker's last name sounding similar to "bums."

Apparently Bendix had sought the low-level "collector" job because he perceived it risked only a misdemeanor charge. Nevertheless, later Joe evidently elected to engage in more risky pursuits; that is, felonies. In December 1931, his arrest with a set of hotel keys and a gun, neither which he was supposed to have as an ex-con, generated these heads, sub-heads, and sub-sub-heads in the New York Times:

Man Caught in Hotel With Keys and Pistol
Has Long Record of Arrests and Aliases.
Joseph Bendix's Two Careers,
Art and Larceny,
Will Be at an End
If He Is Convicted Now

In October 1932, Bendix figured prominently in another story headlined by the New York Times and other major newspapers -- a fatal riot in the New York City Department of Correction Penitentiary on Welfare Island, formerly known as Blackwell's Island and later to be renamed Roosevelt Island.


NYC DOC Penitentiary Warden
(Sketch based on NYT photo)

In an attempt to head off a battle between Irish and Italian gangs among the inmates, Penitentiary Warden Joseph A. McCann held a meeting in his office between leaders of the rival groups. The Times report of Oct. 23 stated:

"According to stories pieced together by prison authorities, Joseph Bendix, another inmate, had formerly been counted among the trusted in the Irish group, but lately had switched his allegiance to [Joe] Rao [believed to be leader of the Italian faction] and his henchmen.

"On Wednesday George Holshoe, the prisoner who was killed [in the riot] yesterday, together with some members of the Irish clique, are believed to have attacked Bendix in the doctor's quarters in the prison and given him a terrific beating. Bendix went to the prison hospital with two badly blackened eyes but insisted he had fallen downstairs."

The Times reported that Warden McCann's attempts at peace-making floundered when Holshoe alleged that Bendix, who was not in the meeting, was a "'snooper' . . . carrying tales from the one faction to the other as well as to the prison authorities."

Rao, well known associate of Dutch Schultz, took exception to the allegation against Bendix as did another Italian inmate faction leader Frank (Bosco) Mazzio who was quoted as declaring: "I never had no trouble with him [Bendix]."


Painted by inmate Joe Bendix on postcard size pieces of window shade canvas and given to his friend, prison guard Frank Bryant, for helping him sell such paintings to support his family during his imprisonment.

Holshoe reportedly leaped to his feet and swung a fist at Mazzio and then at Rao who had leaped to Mazzio's defense. Holshoe fled the room pursued by Mazzio and Rao. Order was restored relatively quickly, but when keepers were able to disperse a crowd of inmates who surrounded Holshoe, fallen to the floor of the city penitentiary's administration hall, he was found stabbed front and back. He died in the prison hospital.

About four years later, testimony by Sing Sing inmate Bendix and by others led to Lucky's conviction that sent the gangster to Dannemora to serve a 30-to-50 sentence. But Luciano lived up to his nickname Lucky by gaining a parole and deportation in 1945 as part of a deal for his help in keeping the docks secure from sabotage during War II.

Thomas E. Dewey, who had prosecuted Luciano in 1936, also presided as governor over the 1945 follow-througb on the WW II "keep peace on the docks" deal with Lucky. Two years earlier Dewey, perhaps anticipating that he would have to effect the release of Luciano at the end of the war, commuted Bendix's life sentence as a fourth felony offender.


Painted by inmate Joe Bendix on postcard size pieces of window shade canvas and given to his friend, prison guard Frank Bryant, for helping him sell such paintings to support his family during his imprisonment.

Joe Bendix's commutation was one of 6 announced by the governor's office Aug. 16, 1943.

Apparently, Joseph Victor Bendix's name has not surfaced again in newsprint.

Joe received his 15-to-life term in 1931. This happened before my dad started working at Sing Sing (1933). The 1943 date for Joe's clemency narrows the window of opportunity of the Bendix window shade paintings from 1933 to 1943 inclusive.

Given his role in the Luciano trial, one could well imagine Joe might have thought a change of name and a severing of ties with past associates would be the wisest course for his own safety and that of his family at the time.

This later consideration compounds what ordinarily would be a difficult enough problem to track down relatives of a former inmate with whom a Sing Sing guard, my father, had been friends more than 60 years ago.

But if an appropriately safe and secure way can be found to get to them this story about Joe Bendix and Frank Bryant's fine arts of painting and friendship behind bars, I think that family would appreciate it. Especially if the same arrangements could get the window shade paintings to them as well.

Perhaps sharing the story and a few of those paintings' images here will help achieve that goal. Indeed, perhaps this web presentation may turn out to be the best way of getting the story and these images to the family without any actual direct contact.

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