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The Loves of Saul Steinberg

The noise, the dirt, and the confusion suited him fine. He regretted in later years that he only sketched and did not make large paintings of the kind of America he believed he discovered with its diners, girls, cars, and the feeling of an amusement park that defined even New York skyscrapers. His relatives and friends eased his entry by having a room waiting for him in a hotel on the corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, which he remembered as lined mostly with brownstones, cheap jewelry shops, army and navy stores, used bookstores, pawnshops with guitars and cameras in their windows, and joke stores with rubber fried eggs.

In the summer light, the avenue, he thought, had the look of a Canaletto, with the pink, gold, and brown of the houses bordering the Grand Canal in Venice. Steinberg made many friends among local artists, musicians, actors, and writers, among them Alexander Calder and Philip Guston, the violinist Alexander Schneider, and the critic Harold Rosenberg. One Sunday, the Romanian painter Hedda Sterne, whom he would soon marry, “invited him to lunch and he stayed six weeks.”

What worried him was that he was still a stateless immigrant. The quickest route to becoming a citizen was to join the military, but there was a danger that he might be rejected because of his nearsightedness. Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s editor, got in touch with influential friends in Washington, chief among them William J. Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), who had already spoken to him about the military’s need for skilled artists and cartoonists who could draw simple pictures to explain military life to soldiers who could not read well. In a single day, February 19, 1943, Steinberg “took the oath to become a US citizen, was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve, was assigned to the Morale Operations Branch [Propaganda] of the OSS, and received orders to report for duty at the landlocked naval base in Chungking, China.”

His wartime impressions of the daily GI life in China, India, North Africa, and Italy that he sent from his various postings were turned into a series of very popular drawing-essays in The New Yorker. It turns out, as Bair informs us, that many of the images were originally illustrations for naval information and propaganda pamphlets. In the past, Steinberg said, he could only work in solitude. During the war, he learned to sketch in the midst of crowds that thronged to look over his shoulder, ignoring their jostling and touching.

The small paperback book All in Line, in which many of these wartime drawings were collected, was published in 1945, six months after he returned to the United States, and amazingly sold 20,000 copies over the summer, becoming a best seller for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Even more amazing is how quickly Steinberg became a member of the sophisticated magazine and art world in New York. His first one-man exhibition was held in 1943 at the Wakefield Gallery in New York. Three years later, he was in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, “Fourteen Americans,” that included Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, and Mark Tobey. Yet even back then, the question that plagued Steinberg all his life was asked. Returning to his work, the critic reviewing the show for The New York Times wrote: “What’s that stuff got to do with art?” This uncertainty regarding his place in the history of American art has remained unresolved to this day.

What made it even more complicated to classify him is that in addition to being a well-known cartoonist, Steinberg was also a phenomenally successful commercial artist. Unlike De Kooning, who gave up commercial art to concentrate on his painting, Steinberg was suspicious of artists who devoted themselves to “the nobility of art.” Already in 1945, he signed on to do an annual series of Christmas cards for the Museum of Modern Art, an agreement he terminated for a more lucrative commission by Hallmark to do Christmas cards, calendars, and other seasonal items.

He also did drawings for the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, dust jackets for books and records, promotional booklets for electric shavers, wallpaper and fabric design, and ads for companies that made everything from copper tubing and sheet metal to Noilly Prat vermouth and Smirnoff vodka. His drawings appeared in Life, Flair, Fortune, Harper’s, and Town & Country. Vogue sent him to Washington to draw the political life of the city and Harper’s Bazaar sent him to cover the fashions in Paris. “If his own work did not actually take a back seat to commercial projects,” Bair writes, “it was certainly coequal with it until the early 1960s.”

It wasn’t just that Steinberg craved riches and success, which he did; he also needed large sums of money in order to support his parents, his sister, and her family, all of whom he had succeeded in having immigrate to France, plus his numerous cousins in Israel and his old girlfriend and oldest friend in Milan. Steinberg emerges from Bair’s biography as a remarkably generous man and a good friend. Much of the comic relief in the book comes from the shocking ungratefulness of his mother, who always found reasons to complain. After he settled her in Nice in a new apartment, she badgered him with requests for a fur coat, a new television, and a trip to a spa with a refined clientele, in addition to countless other demands. Not that his cousins were any better. One of them wanted enough money to buy a taxi or twelve washing machines, so he could open a laundromat, while another one, who was actually quite well-off but didn’t want to touch the money he had deposited in high- interest European accounts, asked Steinberg to send him “a donut maker, a refrigerator, and some radios.” Hard as it is to believe, he honored every one of their requests.

“I lost twenty years,” he said about having to sacrifice creativity so he could make money. He lost more than that, because of other obligations that arose in his hectic life of constant infatuations, lengthy affairs, and one-night stands. Although he was still married to Hedda Sterne and in almost daily contact with her, they lived apart. “Sex was his life,” she said after his death. “Saul thought he had the obligation to seduce every woman he met, no matter whose wife or girl friend she was.” She believed that the most important reason they never divorced was that she was “Saul’s Elaine [de Kooning, the legal wife], who protected Bill from ever having to marry any of his women.” “I already have a wife,” Steinberg replied whenever his longtime girlfriend wanted to get married.

He met Sigrid “Gigi” Spaeth, a stunningly beautiful German girl, at a party at Larry Rivers’s house on July 2, 1960. She was twenty-three years old, born in Baumhelder, Germany, and had first left home to hitchhike to Avignon and Spain “looking for love,” as she said. After living in Paris and working as an au pair, she hitchhiked to Lapland; then after the money ran out went back to her parents to study photography, for which it appears she had a genuine talent. One day on the spur of the moment, she took a plane to New York. She never explained how she supported herself before she met Steinberg, but she had a brief affair with Rivers’s son, an abortion, and was raped by several men in El Paso, Texas, while hitchhiking back from California. She and Steinberg were lovers for the rest of her life, but lived mostly separately. He seldom included her in his busy social life, because she embarrassed him by her manners and her talk. Once, supposedly, she deliberately vomited on a society hostess’s dinner table because the company bored her.

While they fought incessantly, he supported her generously with an apartment, a car, and first-class accommodations on her frequent trips to Europe and Africa. Even when things were fine with Sigrid, Steinberg indulged in ongoing long-term liaisons (some of which lasted from twenty to forty years) with several married women in New York, two in Paris, two in Milan, and another one in Turin. Sigrid knew about them, but assumed that he would eventually divorce Hedda, marry her, and let her have children. In the meantime, when he was away, she spent her time making rounds of the bars where she liked to drink and pick up men.

One is tempted to say that he ruined her life, though she was certainly capable of finding another, more suitable man. Instead, they spent thirty-five years tormenting one another without being able to break away, while enjoying an intense physical relationship. To people who knew her, Sigrid gave the impression of “terrible loneliness.” Because he paid for all her needs, she had nothing she could call her own and felt helpless. There’s no doubt that he felt guilty about what he had done to her and blamed himself, once even writing her a letter from Paris filled with more sentiment than he had expressed in all the years they were together, telling her that he was leaving her his house and studio in Springs, Long Island, after his death. That, alas, is not how things turned out. He could leave nothing to Sigrid because she committed suicide on September 24, 1996, by jumping from the roof of her building on Riverside Drive.

Steinberg’s last years were marked by bouts of severe depression, which grew progressively worse and began even before Sigrid’s suicide. He tried to distract himself by collecting stamps, taking flying and violin lessons, studying German, traveling a great deal, and trying to cure himself with antidepressants and electric shocks. Like any thinking human being, and Steinberg was extremely intelligent, he could not help taking stock of his life as he grew older, feeling remorse about the suffering he had caused people, and worrying about how much he had really accomplished as an artist. His vision of the United States had also darkened considerably following the days of the Vietnam War and street protests. He ended up, one might say, as much a displaced person as he had been in his youth, poring over his collection of Romanian memorabilia, drawing his aunts and uncles from old photographs, seeing them for the first time not only as real people, but as parts of himself.

Deirdre Bair, who has written biographies of Carl Jung, Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, and Samuel Beckett, had a formidable task to piece together the story of a secretive man with a busy social life and more double lives than any artist or writer of his time. Her book is frank about his shortcomings, but given the evidence, fair enough—though I would not be surprised if there were objections to her interpretations of particular events by participants who may recall them differently. The problem for her was that Steinberg himself wasn’t quite sure what he had become. As Bair says, he had three identities: a Romanian boy who was ashamed of his country of birth, a stateless Jew in Italy, and an American who loved his adopted country. A solution to the mystery of his identity undoubtedly lies in his cartoons, drawings, and paintings, which reveal his rich inner life and his sense of humor. If one still has trouble placing him as an artist, a look at the writings of Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, and Mark Twain may provide a better answer than a visit to an art museum.

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