John Liggett Meigs: Kidnapped Baby Becomes Hawaiian Shirt Designer, Sketches Apollo 11 Launch!

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

The sensationalist title of this post sounds like tabloid fiction, but it’s straight out of the life story of an artist whose work we recently added to our permanent collection. When the museum acquires new works for the collection, one part of the accessioning and cataloguing process is collecting the biographical information of the artist. It’s always interesting to add new artists to the collection and to learn about their lives and work. And, often, these stories are colorful, fascinating, and moving.  Here’s one well worth sharing.

We recently added a lithograph titled Go-Apollo 11 (1969) by John Meigs to our collection of American prints.  He created this work as an artist invited to participate in the NASA Artists Program. Meigs’ convoluted path to this point was both charmed and complicated, to say the least.

A lithograph showing the Apollo 11 rocket as it shoots off from base, a plume of smoke gathering around it.
John Liggett Meigs, American, 1916-2003. Go–Apollo 11. Lithograph, 1969. Museum Purchase, 2019.159. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

James E. Webb, the 2nd administrator of NASA, launched this program to record “the spirit as well as the sights of the space age”. Among the invited artists were James Wyeth, Peter Hurd, Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Meigs.

It would be an understatement to say John Meigs led a colorful life. Meigs was kidnapped as a baby by his stockbroker father, the son of a prominent Boston family. Jack, as the child was called, was snatched from his mother by his dad and carried off in a taxi from the Palmer House hotel in Chicago where his unmarried parents were living.  Jack never saw his birth mother again. His dad assumed a new family name (MacMillan) for himself, his little son, and new girlfriend and moved them around the country, eventually settling in San Antonio, Texas. In the 1920s, San Antonio was still a Wild West town. One of Jack’s best buddies growing up would become a famous woman bullfighter (Portia Porter de Prieto); and his neighbor, Nettie Bringhurst, was the last living daughter of legendary Texan, General Sam Houston.  During his San Antonio childhood, Jack had the great fortune to have two talented art instructors whose insightful teaching influenced him throughout his life: Sister Mary Chrysantha at Saint Mary’s Parochial School and assistant scout master, John Griffith.  It was a happy time for young Jack “MacMillan”.

The “MacMillan” family’s idyllic life in San Antonio was about to change, though. Jack’s father, at the age of 47, suffered a fatal heart attack just before Christmas, 1931. Jack, who still did not know his “mother” was not his mother, moved with her to Oklahoma then to California. Jack, just 17, ended up living alone at the YMCA in Glendale, California, while he attended high school—all this during the Great Depression.  But, diligence, a stroke of good luck, and an act of kindness—the emerging pattern of his life – set him on a new path.  A part-time job at a local church and encouragement from the pastor resulted in a two-year Kiwanis scholarship to the University of Redlands, near San Bernardino, California. He stayed in school as long as the scholarship lasted, engaging less in academics than in social activities and fraternity life, and it was fortuitous that he did!

After a stint as a news service reporter in L.A., Jack struggled to get by as so many Americans did during the Depression. He hocked his few belongings, and, again, found refuge in a church. Without other prospects, he finally reached out to a Pi Chi frat brother who lived in Hawaii. His friend sent a few dollars—enough for Jack to travel by steerage to Honolulu, where his can-do approach and luck once again cleared his way. Jack (now going by “John”) found work at a newspaper and then in the printing trade. He had a cheap “pad” above the print shop that was situated in an old bordello in Chinatown.  In his early 20’s now, John bounced between jobs in the publishing world where his gregarious personality connected him to the creative community of the Island.  In this environment, he began to work earnestly at painting, designing houses and writing for a variety of Hawaiian publications.  In this niche “where everyone knew everyone”, it wasn’t long before he was approached by local textile makers to provide designs for the emerging “Alohawear” garments that were being produced for the tourist trade.  John studied traditional island textiles and patterns at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu which inspired his early shirt designs.  His skills in painting combined with Hawaiian and Samoan motifs resulted in hot sellers for the garment makers.  Jack MacMillan (John Meigs) became known as “the little father” of the classic aloha shirt.  There were several designers of “aloha” shirts, but most remain unknown.  Keoni of Hawaii (Keoni is “John” in Hawaiian) was known for traditional motifs and patterns, native plants, Hawaiian culture, sea life and, later, images inspired by Paul Gauguin.  He designed over 300 shirts worn by everyone from sailors to Presidents. Even gangsters were seen sporting Keoni shirts in the 1930s. They are still treasured for their innovative designs, bright colors, and superior construction.  But, for Keoni, designing shirts would have to be put on hold until after WWII.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, John was working on Palmyra Island 1,100 miles away from Pearl Harbor. He and other civilians were retrieved from the Island after the attack and encountered a Japanese sub on their return to port. According to his biography (Never A Dull Moment, The Life of John Liggett Meigs by Mark S. Fuller), John was a member of the crew that fired on the sub and blew off its conning tower. Upon landing, John immediately enlisted, and, in the process, learned that his mother was not his mother, his name was not his name, and his birthday was not correct, either.  The Navy took him anyway; and during his service as a gunner’s mate during the war he was able to keep painting. His wartime work included four watercolors and some writing for The New York Times war correspondent Foster Hailey, who collected material from service members who were engaged in combat.  Though his ship, the Minneapolis, was badly damaged by Japanese fire near Guadalcanal on November 30, 1942, she was able to return to Pearl Harbor. John’s active duty ended in 1945, his Reserve duty in 1950.

Photograph of John Meigs.
Photograph of John Meigs, courtesy of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University. Meigs assisted Peter Hurd in painting a mural at the university in 1954.

John’s friendly flamboyance took him around the world and into the elevated sphere of known artists, writers, and actors. Here he met Alice B. Toklas, Vincent Price, and many others. His long friendship with Peter Hurd, a member of the extended Wyeth family, put Meigs at Cape Canaveral in July of 1969 for the launch of Apollo 11.  Kidnapped baby, little father of the aloha shirt, sailor, reporter, painter, and friend to many spent his later years in San Patricio, New Mexico where he continued to make and collect art and to develop his rambling desert home, “Fort Meigs”.  John Meigs’ adventurous and colorful life drew to a quiet close in Ruidoso, New Mexico, August 29, 2003.

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