What was the first racecar on a Saturday Evening Post cover? Would you believe October 23, 1909? An artist, known to us only as Fousey, created the intriguing cover complete with billowing smoke behind old “Number 6,” no doubt doing a breakneck 60 miles an hour or more.
We know little about this illustrator; however, in honor of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500, the Post is pleased to highlight another “auto” artist, Ivan Dimitri (1900-1968). Dimitri’s May 29, 1937 Post cover illustrates a racecar driver preparing for the race with a sense of determination upon his face. The average speed at the Indy 500 in the year 1937 was 113 miles per hour, and auto racing was becoming a serious competition.
Born Levon West, the famous artist later changed his name to Ivan Dimitri for the purpose of distinguishing his artistic talents. West grew up in North Dakota but moved throughout the state because of his father’s work as a congregational minister. After high school he taught for one year before enlisting in the United States Navy. He earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota where he wished to enroll in art courses; however, his father pressed him to major in business administration. He earned his degree in 1924 and studied at the Art Students League the following year.
During the Depression of the 1930s, West was a “celebrated etcher,” according to the Post, but found it difficult to “etch” out a living. “So I went into photography. I took a strange-sounding Russian name, pledged my friends to secrecy, gritted my teeth, and went to work,” he said.
A strange thing happened. “In spite of my dislike for my new work, other people seemed to like it. At first I thought this was due to their bad taste. And then gradually I started to enjoy myself. I took my camera everywhere and snapped everything I saw. In two years I took over 20,000 pictures. In the meantime I was making a living.”
West gained recognition through his etchings. The Spirit of St. Louis, which portrayed Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, became one of his most famous. He also gained respect from his work as a photographer. Due to the high demand of his work, he felt the need to separate his two artistic fields, hence the name change. In 1959, Dimitri founded Photography in the Fine Arts under the “strange-sounding Russian name,” as he put it.
Ivan Dimitri received the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the most prestige honor in 1962. He was the third person to be honored with this award. West was presented the award in its former form as an honorary Colonel in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment. But possibly his greatest accomplishment was in proving, as much to himself as to others, the artistry in the photograph and the artist in the photographer.