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    Friday, September 29, 2023

    The Marked Man: Jack Dracula's New London years

    The tattoos on Jack Dracula's face have faded with the years, but he vividly recalls the reaction when he first had them done. "I got tattooed and, boy, that went all over the country: Man Gets Face Tattooed!"

    New London — Two days before Hurricane Carla slammed head-on into Texas, Lillian Devona tried to ram her car into Jack Dracula's tattoo shop.

    Gunning her green-and-cream-colored station wagon down Golden Street, she was plotting a course for No. 64 Bank when two cops forced her to stop.

    Carla struck the United States with a ferocity that made her one of the strongest storms ever, but to hear Jack Dracula tell it, Lillian's was the greater fury.

    "Somebody told me later on she said, 'Well, if I can't have him, nobody can,'" he remembers. "'Thank God for those cops,' I said."

    The front page of the Monday New London Evening Day was filled with news of Carla, Khrushchev and the Berlin Wall, of the Soviets testing nuclear bombs in the Arctic, and of the trustees of the Salem Library voting to shelter the town's children in the library basement.

    But for Jack and Lillian, whose world had already come undone, it wasn't what was on the front page that mattered. It was the item on page 16:

    Lillian Devona, 36, of 41 Willets Ave. was fined $15 in court today after pleading guilty. She was arrested Saturday on Golden Street after, police said, she almost drove her car head-on into another auto. Police also reported she had threatened to drive 70 miles an hour into a store.

    It was Sept. 11, 1961.

    And it was the end, Jack says today, of a romance begun just that summer, "the romance of the century."

    Back then, New London was a different city, alive all day and into the raucous night with the traffic of sailors on leave and women looking for love. Spreading from the nexus of Bank and State streets, from State to the Columbus monument and from the Groton ferry to what is now Eugene O'Neill Drive, there were nearly four dozen bars, restaurants and liquor stores, not to mention a billiards hall, a bowling alley and two tattoo parlors.

    It was the kind of place where a man like Jack Dracula could feel at home.

    He would have been hard to miss. Covered head to foot with somewhere in the vicinity of 400 tattoos, 27 of which were on his face, he was known as "The Marked Man." He would often be seen at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday nights when they showed operas on film. His favorite was Puccini's "Turandot."

    By his own recollection, he had strolled the streets of New London for nearly four years. But the paper never mentioned him until Oct. 18, 1961, when the City Council started talking about banning tattoo parlors. "Tattooed Mr. Dracula Awaits Death Decree on His Dragons and the Like," the headline read.

    Jack's shop was where the South Side Bistro stands today. He shared the building with the Sanitary Barber Shop and rented a furnished room above the Hygienic Restaurant.

    Friends and enemies

    Born Jack Baker in Brooklyn, N.Y., he'd done a stint in the Navy and then gotten a job tattooing folks down by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, all the while adding tattoos to himself. His first? A hinge on the inside of his right elbow, "my drinking arm," he says.

    His tattooed face was a marvel at the time, and so he worked for David Rosen's Wonderland Circus Sideshow on Coney Island and Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus in Times Square.

    He took the name Jack Dracula as his professional name and was friends with Presto the Magician, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, Sealo the Seal Boy and William Durks, a man whose face was so deformed he was known as "The Man from World War Zero."

    "Yeah, he and I were buddies," Jack says. "We used to go to the Horn & Hardart up the street, and we'd look at people having their dinner and make them sick by looking in the window. He married an alligator woman. Her brother was an alligator man. Boy, did they used to make out, those alligator people."

    When he wasn't working the sideshows, Jack was tattooing. He'd just had a falling out with Philadelphia Eddie, and was out of work when his friend Tommy Yeomans invited him up to visit New London.

    As best as he can remember it, that was sometime in 1958, and Yeomans had a tattoo parlor upstairs from the Paramount Barber Shop on State Street.

    "He thought it was going to be for a visit, but I liked the town; it was a really nice town," Jack says. So he decided to stay, and when he opened his own tattoo shop, he "became deadly enemies" with Tommy Yeomans.

    "I made friends with somebody in the radio room at the base, and they would call me up and tell me when the subs were coming in, and I made sure I was open those days," Jack says. "So I did plenty of business."

    Harper's Bazaar pictures

    In the summer of '61, Diane Arbus came up to New London to see him. They'd met back when he worked at Hubert's, where she took a lot of photographs of the freaks. Arbus, now considered one of the most visionary photographers of the 20th century, was just a nuisance to him then.

    "She said she wanted to take pictures," Jack says. "And I don't want people to take pictures of me unless they pay me for it. So she said she couldn't do that, but she'd make copies of the pictures for me. And she wasn't that famous in those days, so I said, 'OK, if you give me copies of the pictures.'

    "So we found a place on Bank Street, and to this day there are people who swear ... they swear it was taken in Central Park. And I keep telling them, 'No, it was Bank Street in New London, Connecticut.'"

    In November of that year, that iconic photograph — of a bare-chested Jack lying in a field of grass — would appear in Harper's Bazaar.

    Meanwhile, the wild life in New London hurtled on.

    "Girls came from out of town just to be barmaids," Jack recalls. "You could recognize where they came from by their accents. It was funny. There was two girls from Philadelphia ... the ships spent a lot of time there and when they pulled out and went up to New London, the girls followed them."

    It was a city of romance and intrigue.

    "People had their connections," he says. "Certain girls went with certain guys. There were sailors' wives that were busy cheatin' on their husbands. Boy, there was two sisters, I'll never forget 'em. Edie and Kathy. They were both cheatin' on their husbands.

    "So Edie was cheatin' on her husband with this guy, Barnes, and everybody called him Barney. So he comes in one day and says, 'Whatever you do, don't say the word Barney. Her husband's looking for somebody named Barney.'

    "Oh, we had some good times in those days. That's one thing that would convince you not to get married."

    Business was brisk and kept the cops busy. So busy that the newspaper ran a list each Monday of all the arrests over the weekend.

    That's where the item on Lillian trying to smash her car into Jack's shop showed up on that September day in 1961.

    But it was hardly her first appearance in the paper. After the announcement of her wedding to John Sweeney on Jan. 17, 1948, she would show up again on April 24, 1952: Mrs. Lillian Sweeney, the paper said, pleaded guilty to driving without a license after striking a parked patrol car. The car she was driving, the paper noted, was owned by a Nathan J. Devona.

    On Nov. 25, 1953, she was facing charges of passing a bad check at Lee's Toyland. And on Jan. 22, 1954, the paper noted that Sweeney was seeking a divorce and "custody of four minor children." On May 28, his petition was granted, the paper noting, "He charged cruelty since Jan. 20, 1948."

    On June 17, two and a half weeks after the divorce, Lillian married Nate Devona.

    She next appeared in the paper on Oct. 2, 1957, after she struck a sailor's car on Bank Street, hitting it so hard she pushed it 23 feet up the street.

    The following spring, on May 27, she was suing Devona for divorce. Two months later, on July 30, 1958, the paper reported that her daughter, 21-month-old Marie Devona, had flown out the open window of Lillian's car as she took a sharp turn off Bank onto Ocean Avenue. The baby, the paper noted, was treated and released at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital.

    Enter — in the spring of 1961 — Jack Dracula.

    "Somebody told me, 'If you like older women, you'll like this one. She's workin' in Pop's Restaurant,'" says Jack, who was 26 at the time.

    Lillian was the counter girl at Pop's Sandwich Shop, open 24 hours a day at 23 State St., about where the corner of The Parade is today.

    "And they said, 'This Lillian's a real firecracker,' and they said, 'but she's 36; you wouldn't want her.' So I went over there. We just stood there and looked at each other. It was like sparks flew between us," he says.

    "And people noticed it, and they started accusing us of having an affair. So this one night, after a couple of months went by, I went in there, and she was getting ready to end her shift, and I said, 'Lil,' I says, 'We got the name, whaddaya say we play the game?'

    "She says, 'I'm with you, babe.' So we hopped in her car, and we went up to Bates Woods, and that was where it all began."

    It was a romance of such passionate intensity, Jack says today, that they couldn't keep their hands off each other. It wasn't, he says, that she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

    "She was too small up here," he says, patting his chest, "and too broad down here," patting his hips, "but that first time that I looked at her, I just knew if we ever got together, we were gonna have one heck of a good time. And we did. Wow, we did."

    They made love in the back of her station wagon, in Bates Woods, at the drive-in, in his shop and in his furnished room above the Hygienic.

    She used to come into his shop after closing time, and they'd go out and close the bars.

    "And the cops, the cops used to station themselves in front of every bar to make sure that everybody got out of there at 1 o'clock. So we'd be going over to my shop, and the cops would be saying" — he adopts the sing-song of a schoolyard taunt — 'We know where you're going. We know what you're gonna do.'"

    But along with Lillian came her children: Sheila, 9, Nate Jr., 7, and Marie, 5.

    They were, Jack says, "in my shop half the time," something Marie Briggs remembers vividly.

    "I remember I was a real young girl, and when I first met him, I was scared to death of him," she says. "I was like afraid of him because of all the tattoos. ... There wasn't one part of him where there was skin showing."

    Sheila Babor, who had a much more fraught relationship with her mother, also remembers visiting the shop.

    "I remember one time," she says, "he showed me a picture of himself without tattoos, and I remember thinking, 'Why'd he go and get all those tattoos? He was such a good looking guy ... .'"

    Jack remembers buying Nate a cap gun and holster and that Nate used to sing "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bed Post Overnight?" The movie "101 Dalmatians" was out, because Marie was always talking about "Cruella di di."

    Looking back today, Jack admits he thought of marrying Lillian.

    "I didn't even think about how I was going to support the family," he says. "All I knew was that I wanted to marry her, and she wanted to marry me. It would have been the battle of the century."

    That was because there was another side — a dark side — to Lillian Devona.

    It was that side that Sheila Babor remembers.

    "I remember going to school many times with bruises," she says. "She would have been in jail today. ... She drank like a fish. I remember we kids would spend a lot of time in bars ... out at Soundview ... doing the go-go dances. Dinner would be Slim Jims, chips and a soda."

    All her life, she says, her mother tormented her by telling her that, on the one hand, she was John Sweeney's daughter and, on the other, that she was Nate Devona's child. To this day, she says, she doesn't know for certain which man was her father.

    And then there was Lillian's fierce and adamant jealousy.

    "Whatever woman I looked at, she'd be jealous," Jack says.

    It was, in the end, that overweening jealousy that drove them apart.

    She tries to make Jack jealous

    Jack remembers the day Diane Arbus came up to New London to bring him copies of the pictures she had taken. He was having lunch with Lillian "and her friend, Helen, a big fat waitress" at the Hygienic when "I looked out the window and there was Diane Arbus. I said, 'Hold on a minute, that's Diane Arbus. I've got to go talk to her.'"

    He went out and talked to Arbus for a few minutes, and she gave him copies of her photographs. Then she said she had to catch the train back to New York. But when he walked back into the Hygienic, Lillian was furious.

    "She said, 'What are you doing? Taking it out in trade?' I says, 'What?' I says, 'No, she promised free copies of them if I let her take my picture.' And the rest of the afternoon was ruined."

    He could never make her believe, Jack says, that she was "the one," the only woman he had ever truly loved.

    "I said, 'Lillian, you are the spark that lights my fire. I don't care for anybody but you ...' We were to the point where if she had said, 'Kill my husband and marry me,' I would have done it, because we were that passionate for each other."

    But she never asked him that. Instead, she tried to make Jack jealous.

    "She was at the bar up on Golden Street with her kids one day, and she called me up and told me to come on up," Jack recalls. "And she's with this cab driver. So he kept buttin' into our conversation, and I says, 'Why don't you get out of here?' He says, 'Why don't you? I was here first.'

    "So Lillian is sitting there with a grin of anticipation like, 'Oh, boy, two men are going to fight over me.' I said, 'Yeah, how would that look in court in the morning? Two guys fightin' over a married woman.' So I says, 'OK, I will.' I got up and walked out. Her face just fell."

    Then came the Friday night at The Harbor Restaurant, where he walked in to find her hugging and kissing the cabbie.

    Jack looked at her and laughed, and he walked out.

    The next day, Lillian got in her car and aimed it at his shop.

    A few days later, the New London City Council started debating a resolution to ban tattooing. The council passed the ordinance in January of 1962, and Jack Dracula headed back to Hubert's and, ultimately, to Philadelphia, where he set up a new tattoo parlor.

    He never saw Lillian again.

    Lillian got arrested a few more times after that for breach of peace. She divorced Nate Devona and married Frank Don Brosky, who was the head chef at the Hygienic. And she died 20 years ago this month of lung and bone cancer.

    As for Jack, he is a ward of the Park Pleasant Nursing Home in Philadelphia. A great whale of a man, he is imprisoned in his bed by diabetes, having lost both legs to the disease. He has one request of those who come to visit: Bring him two one-dollar cheeseburgers from McDonald's, contraband he devours with gusto.

    Of course, The Marked Man is still tattooed, but the sharp black outlines have grown soft and the colors have faded and run.

    Asked why he became The Marked Man, he says, "The real reason was I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to live my own life, do what I wanted to do, and don't have anybody telling me what to do."

    And alone he has become. He has never married, has no family, and his visitors are few. He spends many of his days alone with his memories of Lillian.

    He remembers that after a night of lovemaking, "she'd be getting ready to go home and get the kids ready for school, and somebody would touch somebody's hand or arm, and we were ready to go again ... Oh, man. We would get in each other's arms, and we just didn't want to let go."

    The black spectacles tattooed around his gray-blue eyes are partly obscured by a real pair of glasses now. Those eyes fill with tears when he speaks of Lillian's death. For love has marked Jack Dracula more deeply and indelibly than any tattoo ever could.

    He will be 74 years old on Christmas Day.

    The road to Jack Dracula

    Last spring, a young man named Dan Pierce was thinking of opening a tattoo shop in New London. It would be the first one in town since the City Council banned them in 1962.

    Pierce had heard rumors about a man named Jack Dracula, but the rumors were so vague that he doubted they were true.

    "I had heard people talking about him, and I didn't find any hard evidence of it," he says. And then one day he found an article titled "Dracula's Bite" in an industry magazine. "And I said, 'Oh, this is the guy they've been talking about.'"

    Soon after that, Joe Macrino, a friend of his, found an address for Jack on the Web, and they made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to meet him.

    "I felt like I needed to research a bit of the history," Pierce says. "I figured I owed him that much."

    Pierce came back and opened up The Whaling City Tattoo Museum on Green Street, right across from the Dutch Tavern, in April. And as a sort of homage to the man, Pierce has hung a blown-up copy of Jack's business card, with his famous bat-shaped Dracula logo, on his wall.

    It was Dan Pierce who first told The Day about Jack Dracula, a man all but forgotten by the city of New London.

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