On his 90th birthday last month, Chesley Bonestell was encouraged to reflect upon a particularly memorable night in April 1906. He had caroused around San Francisco’s Barbary Coast until 2 a.m. “At 5:15,” he recalls, “I was thrown out of bed. The whole room was rocking and shaking.” It was no hangover; San Francisco was being destroyed by the famous earthquake.
That brush with death was a harbinger of a long and eventful life. Today the lively nonagenarian is a highly regarded artist, best known for his precise paintings of space travel and the planets. Bonestell is not shy about critiquing his artistic colleagues and competitors. “Modern painting, so-called, gives every faker a chance to put a dash of color here and a splotch there,” he grumbles. “Then the boob public falls for it.”
Bonestell’s talent as an artist overshadows his earlier accomplishments as an architect. As a young man nicknamed “Bones,” he relished a good time. “It was five cocktails before lunch and another five before dinner,” he chuckles. “Then we’d go out drinking.” Nevertheless, his work was serious. He designed the famed Seventeen-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge, New York’s Chrysler Building and the Supreme Court in Washington.
Tiring of architecture (“It was a bore”), Bonestell went to Hollywood in 1939 and used his skill at perspective to paint trick sets that photographed as real scenery. He developed into the industry’s highest-paid artist, working on films like Citizen Kane and The War of the Worlds for fees up to $1,500 a week. After becoming financially independent, he left to devote himself to space. “I was an astronomer to my architect friends and an architect to my astronomer friends,” he explains.
Bonestell lives in Carmel with his third wife and still accepts commissions—if the subject appeals to him. He is currently finishing a rendering of Halley’s comet in rendezvous with a 1986 spacecraft. “Anybody who has talent,” he insists, “ought to keep on using it.”