Monday, December 3, 2012

Jill Krementz covers Saul Steinberg

View of the World From 9th Avenue, 1976.
Deirdre Bair's new biography of Saul Steinberg (Nan A.Talese/Doubleday; $40) has just been published. Cited by the New York Times as one of the 100 Best Books of the Year, it was reviewed by Deborah Solomon in the paper's Sunday Book Review on November 25th and in The New Yorker issue of December 3rd by Peter Schjeldahl.

Bair has written an intimate, and very troubling, portrait of the illustrator and artist who created some of the defining images of the 20th century.

He was perhaps best known as "the man who did that poster," dubbed by the critic Peter Plagens as "the most iconic image in American art since Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Born in Romania, Steinberg, an illustrator of soaring wit had a wife he never divorced (artist, Hedda Sterne), a coterie of mistresses and lovers, and a depression which in the end could only be treated with electric shock therapy, antidepressants, and by his being institutionalized.
My husband Kurt Vonnegut and I were friends of Saul's and and we saw him from time to time, starting in 1973, in both the Hamptons and in Manhattan.

Kurt and Saul are standing in Saul's studio beside the desk where he worked and constructed wooden objects such as ridiculous rulers with out-of-whack units of measurement.
Inscribed ruler given to us by Saul Steinberg the day we visited him and Gigi at his house in the Springs.
Saul on the outside terrace at his home in the Springs.
Saul Steinberg with Sigrid Spaeth ("Gigi"), the young woman who was his girlfriend for 35 years and who jumped to her death on September 24, 1996 from the roof of her 14th floor apartment building on Riverside Drive. She was 60. Saul would never recover.

This photograph was taken in happier times at one of George Plimpton's annual 4th of July parties in Amagansett. Gigi was born in Baumhelder, Germany on August 9, 1936, which made her 22 years younger than Saul. She met Steinberg when she was just one month short of her 24th birthday.

Although Steinberg never divorced his wife and had many liaisons with other women, Saul and Gigi were always together on the numerous occasions when my husband and I socialized with them.
In the foreground, Gigi is on the sand with Polly and Joe Kraft and Barbara Epstein (with head scarf).

Saul is seated at table on far left with Miriam Ungerer.
On April 13th, 1978 Saul Steinberg's retrospective at the Whitney Museum opened following a black tie dinner with everyone from Jackie Onassis to Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol.
The sold-out catalogue from The Whitney Exhibition.
Inscribed catalogue.
Jann Wenner, Diana Vreeland, and Andy Warhol.
Woody Allen and Diana Vreeland.
Tom Armstrong, the Director of the Whitney, with Saul Steinberg. Playwright Arthur Miller can be seen in the background on the left.
Saul Steinberg with Gigi.
SS and Conde Nast's Alexander Liberman.
Harold Rosenberg and his wife May Tabac, with Saul Steinberg.

Bair writes:
"Steinberg's art captured what his friend Harold Rosenberg called 'the problem of identity as central to his work.' Rosenberg the scholar and critic with a larger-than-life personality, placed Steinberg among the American artists who began to dominate the scene in the 1940s and 1950s, among them de Kooning, Rothko and Hans Hofmann, all of whom emigrated to America themselves or whose parents brought them as children, giving them roots in the immigrant experience. For these artists, Rosenberg wrote, The issue 'Who am I?' was sharpened by 'Where am I?'"
Harold Rosenberg and SS.
Two great art critics, Harold Rosenberg and Robert Hughes, reach out to one another while Steinberg looks on. Hughes died this year while in hospice care.
Behind Harold Rosenberg's back, Saul Steinberg plants a big kiss on the cheek of Robert Hughes.
Woody Allen, Saul Steinberg, and Jean Stein.

In the summer of 1965, Stein did a series of interviews with SS for Life Magazine. Bair credits Stein's conversations with Steinberg as being extraordinary .

"It was uncharacteristic for him to speak so freely. Steinberg spent so much of his life using casual evasion or outright deception to lead astray critics, art historians and especially would-be biographers. Now he made the conscious decision that he was willing to lift his curtain of privacy in the quest for, at the very least, recognition and at the most, fame."
Jann Wenner, Woody Allen, and Jean Stein walking through the exhibition.
Saul Steinberg with Marion and Donald Barthelme.

Steinberg had known his New Yorker colleague for a decade but it wasn't until Don married Mimi that he was a frequent visitor to their apartment on 11th Street where they had great dinner parties.

Barthelme would later return to his hometown of Houston, Texas (1980) with Mimi and it was there that he died of lung cancer in 1989.
SS and artist Christo. Christo's wife Jean-Claude is on on right.

Steinberg once told Christo "that it was better to retain one's memories in the mind than to revisit them in person."
SS with Charles Addams and Drue Heinz. Drue and her husband Jack were collectors of Steinberg's work and had hosted a glamorous dinner party for Saul when he exhibited his work at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Of all the artists at The New Yorker, Steinberg was the closest to Charles Addams with whom he exchanged puns, and practical jokes, along with naughty postcards and witticisms.

The two artists shared a mutual love of automobiles and Addams helped Steinberg buy his first car, a 1947 gray Packard convertible with a red leather interior. Steinberg was, according to those who accompanied him, "a bad driver who specialized in losing his way."
Woody Allen and SS looking like they had the same optometrist.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Charles Addams. Jann Wenner and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Saul Steinberg with his New Yorker colleague Brendan Gill. Gill proposed Steinberg for membership into the Century Association.

It was Brendan's idea that Saul collaborate on a book with John Hollander (whom Steinberg had known since the '60s) that would be privately printed as a gift for the select list of donors to the Whitney, known as the Library Fellows.

Gill advised Steinberg not to die on a Friday or a weekend, because "it was poor timing for obits in the Times." Steinberg must have listened. He died on a Wednesday.
Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Steinberg.

My husband and I had both been invited to the dinner and the reception.
Art critics Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes.
Lily and Douglas Auchincloss.
Renata Adler, Richard Avedon, and the Whitney's Tom Armstrong.

My contact sheets from the evening show that everyone was not only drinking in the Whitney galleries, but they were smoking cigarettes as well. Those days are long gone.
April 13, 1978: Saul Steinberg with SJ Perelman, who was one of SS's closest friends. According to Bair's bio, Perelman "always made Saul weep with laughter."

In 1984 Saul would meet Prudence Crowther, a close friend of Perelman's when she contacted SS regarding the collection of Sid's letters that she was preparing for Viking Press. In the 1990s Steinberg and Crowther became very close and would spend holidays together in Key West where they rented Alison Lurie's house.

Prudence and Sandy Frazier would remain Steinberg's closest friends in his final years.
Saul Steinberg, Sid Perelman, and Gigi. The Bair bio mentions that Steinberg's "wife," Hedda Sterne, was at the Whitney, but my photographs show an affectionate Gigi by Saul's side throughout the evening.
Saul and Gigi in front of the Whitney at the end of the evening.
August 27, 1979: Saul Steinberg, KV, photographer Evelyn Hofer, and Gigi in front of our house in Sagaponack.
Evelyn and Saul were very close friends. She photographed him many times over the years and was a confidante of Gigi's.
August 27, 1982: Saul Steinberg signs a Guild Hall poster for us which is still framed and hanging in our house.
Saul and Kurt in our backyard in Sag, August 20, 1982:

Kurt would later write in a self interview by Kilgore Trout:

Trout: You ever meet anybody who was really smart?

KV: Only one: Saul Steinberg, the graphic artist who’s dead now. Everybody I know is dead now, present company excepted. I could ask Saul anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer. He growled a perfect answer. He was born in Rumania, and, according to him, he was born into a house where “the geese peeked in the windows.”

TROUT: Like what kind of questions?
KV: I said, “Saul, what should I think about Picasso?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.” I said, “Saul, I’m a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists, but I can’t help feeling that some of them are in a very different business from mine, even though I like their books a lot. What would make me feel that way?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “It is very simple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”

I said, “Saul, are you gifted?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “No. But what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
August 20, 1982: I photographed Saul Steinberg in our back yard while he was working on a drawing of Kurt, me, and Pumpkin. Our Steinberg portrait.
Kurt's silk screen print inspired by his friendship with Saul Steinberg.
Annual Bastille Day luncheon hosted by Liz Fondaras at her East Hampton House overlooking the ocean.

Guests included Shana Alexander, Craig Claiborne,Betty Comden, Betty Friedan, William Gaddis, Joe Heller, Adolph Green (in his ubiquitous sailor hat) and Phyllis Newman, Joe Heller, Joe and Polly Kraft, Swifty Lazar, Senator Eugene McCarthy, Prince Alexander Romanof, Budd and Betsy Schulberg, Gail Sheehy, Kay Meehan, and Steve and Jean Smith.

There would be a lavish buffet served by the pool on which floated a wide assortment of oversized red, white and blue balloons celebrating le Quatorze Juillet.

It was always one of the best summer parties but then, Ça va sans dire. Liz Fondaras died this past summer and her memorial service was held last week in New York.
July 9, 1983: Saul has donned his hat to keep shaded from the noonday sun.

During the summers in the Hamptons Saul kept himself busy with long bike rides decked out in a helmet, goggles, black spandex tights, leather riding gloves and a professional red-and-black jersey like those worn by champion Italian riders.

Other activities included Zen yoga, cooking simple meals, and swimming. In the evenings he enjoyed listening to music, reading, and drawing. He also liked dining with friends at their houses providing he could be the center of attention.
July 9, 1983: Steinberg's close friend, writer William Gaddis, whom he met through Muriel Oxenberg Murphy.

"When Steinberg moved to 75th Street, Murphy welcomed him with a 'block-busting warming party' and made him a regular dinner guest at her New York salons and her house in Wainscott."

Steinberg, with the help of Saul Bellow, was largely responsible for Gaddis's membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Joe Heller, Jean and Steve Smith, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Tout le monde porte un chapeau. Swifty Lazar and Adolph Green.
Betty Comden.
Kurt Vonnegut.
Liz Fondaras.
Jean Smith.
Jerry Zipkin. Gail Sheehy. Brendan Gill.
Liz at the entrance to her driveway saying "Adieu et à bientôt."
Ada Louise Huxtable and Saul Steinberg at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, May 20, 1992.

Deidre Bair: "Steinberg was always proud of his membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters ('only 200 members, ' his said), but he was inordinately proud when he was inducted into the smaller, elite American Academy, boasting that he was now one of 'the créme de la créme, numbering only 45.'

"Being elected to the seat held by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer filled him with 'surprising, unexpected and innocent enough pleasure,' but he still managed to put a morbid twist onto the 'affection' the members showed by his election, claiming that nowadays 'fear' was the only emotion he routinely inspired."
My husband Kurt Vonnegut was also inducted into the Academy on the same day as Saul.

You can see Steinberg seated in the front row over on the right, sandwiched between artist David Levine and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable.

On the left, front row: Alice Munroe, Mark Strand, Louis Auchincloss, and Jack Levine.

Can you find Edward Albee and Allen Ginsberg?
Saul Steinberg photographed by Jill Krementz on November 11, 1993 at Kurt's 71st Birthday party.

Steinberg was often seen wearing this deerstalker hat.
And soon it was summer again.
Saul Steinberg in summer finery for an evening picnic on Sag Beach, August 4, 1994. Photographer Annie Leibovitz and Salman Rushdie.
John Eastman and Maria Matthiessen. Kurt Vonnegut and me.
Saul Steinberg died of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital on May 12, 1999. His ashes were buried next to Sigrid Spaeth's in the small wooded plot behind his house in the Springs. Also interred with them were the ashes of their beloved cat Papoose.
A memorial service was held six months later at The Metropolitan Museum. The photograph of Seinberg on the front of the program was taken by his close friend Evelyn Hofer. He is wearing one of his trademark tweed caps, and posing in front of one of the antique postcards in his collection, a Russian street scene that he had enlarged to poster size.

He wanted to be remembered thus: "I am the writer who draws."
Writer Ian Frazier, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, was one of SS's closest friends and was with him when he died.

Known as "Sandy," Mr. Frazier met SS after Steinberg wrote him a fan letter complimenting him on his comic essay, "Dating Your Mom" that appeared in The New Yorker.

Fraser thought that being with Steinberg was "totally magical" and they would later collaborate on a book, "Canal Street."
Romanian novelist Norman Manea and his wife, Cella.

Steinberg demanded that they always speak English around him saying it would be the only way they would ever learn the language.

Bair tells us that Saul's refusal to speak Romanian was because SS's "vocabulary remained that of an unsophisticated schoolboy, and he did not want to put himself in the position where he could be corrected or embarrassed. Instead he chose to feel very sorry for Manea, 'the poor guy, obliged to write in the despised Romanian and have his work translated.'"
Saul Bellow and his wife, Janis. The Bellows were very excited because Janis was pregnant with their baby daughter.
Writer Renata Adler. Keith Botsford, a pal of Bellow's and co-editor with him of the Republic of Letters, where Bellow later published his SS eulogy.
Playwright Arthur Miller and scholar/poet John Hollander, two very close friends of SS.

Sandy Frazier can be seen standing behind them.

John Hollander is one of the executors of Steinberg's estate and is on the board of Yale's Beinecke Library, which houses the SS collection. In his eulogy, Hollander compared Steinberg's work to that of William Blake, for like Blake, he was a "visionary intellectual satirist," unlike the narrowly politIcal Daumier.

According to Deidre Bair, the Foundation was not generous in permitting her to reproduce his art, constraining her to 35 examples. It was because of the generosity of Lisa de Kooning that Bair was able to secure the permissions she needed. Lisa de Kooning, a lifelong friend of Saul's, died a few weeks ago.

The Saul Steinberg Foundation has recently gone on line with a lengthy list of what they feel to be errors of facts and of interpretation of Steinberg's letters as referenced in Bair's book.
Art critic Leo Steinberg, Nobel laureate Dr. Torsten Wiesel, and playwright Arthur Miller.

When Steinberg had been hospitalized at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in 1999 for a series of 10-12 electroshock treatments, Dr. Weisel came to visit on a day that Prudence was there. Saul's short-term memory, according to Bair, had been somewhat affected but he joked that even with no memory he could make a bon mot.

Introducing his two friends, the ever-courteous Saul said: "This is Prudence, and this is' — forgetting Torsten's name — 'Virtue."
This Steinberg drawing has been reproduced as a greeting card, appropriate for almost any holiday of the year.

Inasmuch as it's now December, you can celebrate Santa AND the new Spielberg movie, "Lincoln, " starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.