Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word

Tom Wolfe’s <em>The Painted Word</em>

Margot Metroland


Tom Wolfe
The Painted Word
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. 1975.
(Many editions since.)

Long before he died, Tom Wolfe deeded his archives to the New York Public Library.  When he passed on in 2018, the NYPL put up a little “pop-up” exhibition in commemoration. It would have been bigger, but the Library had just done a slap-up interview and celebration with Wolfe a year and a half earlier, and had mounted another small display of Wolfeiana a year before that. [1]

The scraps and memorabilia in the display cases were an amusing assortment of the sort of stuff you’d expect to find in a Tom Wolfe trunk—the Man in Full, as it were. There was a letter from his custom shoemakers in London, enclosing leather swatches (“Further to your enquiry for pigskin, we are at present endeavouring to obtain the yellow colour you require or alternatively in calfskin…”); some oddball editions of his books, some sheets of elegantly handwritten mss.; and some of Wolfe’s drawings.

These originals were interesting from a technical viewpoint, at least. They were done for a photo-offset process, and were full of yellowing paste-ups and FPO notations (“for position only”—i.e., this is a rough version). Tom Wolfe was an old-fashioned newspaper artist, usually drawing in india ink (easily reproducible), sometimes using even ballpoints (rather less bold and reproducible) with slatherings of titanium white or opaquing fluid to give highlights. Later on, when he was doing a monthly series in Harper’s called “In Our Time” (later compiled into a book), he often got fancy and worked in graphite or crayon, giving a more “finished” and classic feel. But his best work was pen-and-ink, with a scribbly line in the manner of Ronald Searle and Edward Sorel. Instead of working up a drawing from preliminary rough sketches, he went for the immediacy of improvisation. If he started a picture and blew it, he’d just start all over again. Or paste in revisions or additions on bits of paper. You can see these pasties on the originals. But they didn’t hurt the finished product, as the newspaper’s copy camera would photograph the line-drawing’s ink but not the paste-up shadow.

During his journeyman-journalist years at the Springfield  (Mass.) Union and the Washington Post, Wolfe often illustrated his own news and feature pieces, with anything from courtroom sketches to cartoons of teen-boy hairdos. Wolfe usually limited himself to line drawings on sheets or sketchpads measuring about 11×14, just the right size to fit on your lap and permit lots of detail. His satirical drawings appear in many of his books. You see them in the chapter headings for the essays in The Pump House Gang and The Painted Word. He did a whole book of caricatures from a series he ran in Harper’s in the late 1970s, mostly collected in the volume In Our Time (1980). Some of these are the fancy crayon ones, with a line like Honoré Daumier’s. If Wolfe had lived in 1830s Paris that’s what he might have been, another Daumier, remembered for graphic social satire. But as the opportunities for sophisticated visual humor were few and far between in the 1960s and 70s, he mainly put his wit into words.

All of this, I think, is necessary background to understanding Wolfe’s career, and most particularly the satirical anti-modern-art manifesto he published in 1975, The Painted Word.

It’s a little book, no more than about 100 pages (the minimum length for a book to qualify for an ISBN number; or at least it was in those days). And that’s 100 pages of big type and wide leading, with room for Wolfe’s own drawings and many other illustrations and photographs. (“A bulked-out magazine article,” the New York Times‘s John Russell sneered in his review. [2]) At first glance it looks like a breezy survey of trends and fads in Fine Art. It’s perfectly enjoyable when read that way,  but in reality it’s not about art per se at all. Rather it’s a primer, or short survey course, in 20th century art criticism. It tells the story of how art itself was forced to take a back seat to something else, the something else being a written idea of what it was supposed to stand for. Hence, The Painted Word.

Wilmot Robertson at Instauration was so taken by this new book that he made The Painted Word the subject of that magazine’s first cover story in 1975. Granted, he was mainly bemused by the fact that the three main culprits in the art-criticism game—Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg—were outsiders imposing their twisted values on Western art, and forcing the natives to accept their notions of what art should be. Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art; and then Conceptual Art, with all its overblown absurdist, gymnasium-size “installations.” Exactly how did this “Cultureburg” (Wolfe’s term) come to dominate and then replace what was traditionally respected as Fine Art?

Tom Wolfe gives us the answer, but does so with such a smooth and humorous touch it’s easy to mistake The Painted Word as mere satirical social commentary about the faddishness of the 20th century art world. And that answer is, briefly: the  traditional notion of art, plastic and painterly art, did not exist anymore. Art was not there for your visual enjoyment. It existed as an example of some theory, some theory of literary or socio-political criticism. Critical theory. Such theory usually held that art must not be a representation of something else; it had to be only itself, pure and entire. Ergo, we got a movement to remove recognizable objects from paintings, and even to eliminate anything like depth in the paint itself. No impasto! You mustn’t lay the paint on thick—that would three-dimensional.

Wolfe did a cartoon of a painter measuring his paint-stroke depth with an “impastometer,” to make sure the pigment did not rise above the canvas (below, right).

How could this madness take hold? Well, even before Theory took hold in the 1940s and 50s, there had been an undoubted chic attached to modern art. The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929, and for some time there was an expectation that contemporary art be daring, experimental, maybe somewhat inaccessible. But mainly Modern Art meant John Sloan, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, artists whose work was representational, however distorted.

In the 1930s The Container Corporation of America began its series of stark, surreal one-page magazine advertisements, each one featuring an illustration by Herbert Bayer, A. M. Cassandre, or another contemporary artist/designer. These ads stand up very well today, and apparently Tom Wolfe was much impressed by them. For The Painted Word he draws his own parody CCA ad. It’s supposed to be in the style of Picasso (crazy Guernica steed, and unhorsed Don Quixote), though it looks more like something Gahan Wilson would draw while tripping out on psilocybin (below, left).

But as to all this Theory that underlay the absurd extremes of Abstract Expressionism, etc., etc.: Wolfe undoubtedly saw through that and recognized it as warmed-over 1930s Marxian ideology. So he stepped around that, because it was a minefield full of rabbit-holes. Chasing down philosophy and politics would have made for a text that was unreadable and  unentertaining. And so he used a light touch. [3]

In writing about Dwight Macdonald recently, I mentioned how when he was editor of Partisan Review he encouraged Clement Greenberg to take up art criticism and tell the world that most representational art is mere Kitsch, as it is consumerist and easily accessible…as opposed to High Art which in the modern age is of necessity avant-garde…which means obscure…which means it must be understood through some kind of theory. And that was that. Greenberg wrote “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939. Thirty-five years later, Hilton Kramer at the New York Times was doing much the same thing, saying (in Wolfe’s paraphrase), “Frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”

Though taking care to step around his minefield, Tom Wolfe knew exactly what he was doing when he brought out The Painted Word. He was dropping a little stinkbomb upon the art-crit world. And highbrows writing for middlebrow publications reacted accordingly. John Russell’s piece in the New York Times Book Review was tartly titled, “A reputedly clever man, an allegedly dismal book.” Russell dismissed Wolfe as a supercilious philistine, not “a very acute reader,” and someone who knew little of “the entire corpus of modern art-literature [inasmuch as] there is no sign in The Painted Word that he is familiar with it.”

The corpus in question is large, admittedly; but for Mr. Wolfe to confine his studies to critics whose names end in “berg” can fairly be called capricious… I may be prejudiced, but Mr. Wolfe’s record, as stated by himself, seems to be to argue a certain incapacity. If someone who is tone-deaf goes to Carnegie Hall every night of the year he is, of course, entitled to his opinion of what he has listened to, just as a eunuch is entitled to his opinion of sex.

Well! That puts you in your place, Master Tom! John Russell, a venerable critic and journalist (1918-2008) in London and New York, may not be much remembered these days, but that review remains a classic. Wolfe the young popinjay expected to be denounced for his imposture, and so it didn’t bother him when he was. His crime wasn’t so much in what he said as his audacity in saying it. He had no professional background in modern art criticism, you see; not a highbrow art writer or even a tenured art professor. He was just a wiseguy journalist who wore a white suit and sometimes drew wispy cartoons. He dared to mock theories and schools he did not, could not, possibly understand. Wolfe was not, as boring people like to say nowadays, peer-reviewed. He was not part of the Art Priesthood.

Another highbrow art critic who dissed Wolfe in much the same manner was Robert Hughes in Time (June 23, 1975) who really did the dozens on him in his review of The Painted Word, and then came back for more, when he and Wolfe threw spitballs at each other in a Time letter column. A mere stripling of 44, the Man in the White Suit was not someone Robert Hughes could yet take seriously:

Over the past ten years, Tom Wolfe has set himself up as the Bugs Bunny of American journalism—a squeaky, impudent dandy with a glib eye for the lumbering victim…

Wolfe’s eye for social foible was mean and exact; his sense of ideas almost nonexistent…. [The Painted Word] was meant to be a scathing indictment of modern art in general and of American painting and its social milieu in particular. Instead, it emerges as a curious document of frustration: the dandy as Archie Bunker… Wolfe tries to come across as the little boy looking at the Emperor’s new clothes. In fact, his account of the art world reads more like an eleven-year-old’s written report on a pornographic movie. The lad is spry and attentive at first. He can see things moving up and down and in and out, buttocks heaving, breasts jiggling. He has heard about sex but never had any.

And there we go again—heard about sex, but never had any!

But Tom Wolfe got his own back a few weeks later. Hughes had slammed Wolfe for writing that Franz Kline, before he went super-abstract,

“was dutifully cranking out paintings of unemployed Negroes, crippled war veterans and the ubiquitous workers with open blue workshirts and necks wider than their heads.” In fact, [Kline] never painted such pictures.

Replied Wolfe (Time, July 21, 1975):

Robert Hughes says that Tom Wolfe’s book, The Painted Word [June 23], contains so many “elementary howlers” there’s not room enough to list them; but, he assures your readers, “one example will do for all.” … Hughes says, “In fact, he never painted such pictures. Either Wolfe is making them up or he cannot distinguish between Franz Kline and Ben Shahn.”

A look at Kline’s work suggests a third possibility: namely, that the museum mail-order art survey course your man Hughes took included only one line about Kline (probably “Franz Kline —20th-cent. Am. abstract expressionist”). It’s no doubt news to Hughes, but Kline went through a period of realism, including social realism. This is a painting by Franz Kline (not Ben Shahn) called Ex-Servicemen and the Unemployed (1941). As your man says, “One example will do for all.” I’m afraid that leaves us with just one elementary howler: the one named Robert Hughes.

Tom Wolfe
New York City

Hughes, that bruising old cobber, was not going to give up just yet. Somewhat irrelevantly he now responded that the Kline painting Wolfe provided was just one painting, and anyway it was really sort of expressionist and so not real social realism.

Such arguments could get very granular very quickly, with Wolfe typically bowing out while getting the last laugh.

In later years Tom Wolfe gave interviews in which he revealed that he took his own efforts at illustration quite seriously. He had much more respect for working illustrators than for “fine artists” who often enough can’t draw at all. Was he thereby contemptuous of such successful, critically acclaimed “artists,” artists who could make stuff but it really art? And did it bias him when writing The Painted Word? How could it not?

In an interview with illustrator Chris Payne about 20 years back, he told the story of friend at a California university that had ten tenured conceptual artists in their Art department. But all these tenured faculty did was work on their big installations. The students clamored for classes in life-drawing. And so—

“They had to bring in, on a temporary basis, artists who knew anatomy, who knew perspective, who knew what colors were all about. A friend of mine was hired for that very reason. And it was made very clear that he was merely a temp.”


[1] “Deeded” is not precisely true. The archives were handed over well before Wolfe’s death. The NYPL’s trustees had eagerly sought the Wolfe trove and approved a $2.15 million price, mostly provided by a private donor, in 2013: perhaps the most expensive single-author acquisition the Library has ever made. The Wolfe archives are also open to the public—within the normal security restraints, of course!

[2] Most of the text had in fact first appeared as a article in the April 1975 Harper’s, shortly before The Painted Word was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in June 1975.

[3] Many decades ago there was a fellow named Theodore L. Shaw who would take out full-page ads in Saturday Review or Commentary to promote his self-published books and pamphlets slamming the art-criticism racket. The most notable of his works was something called Don’t Get Taught Art This Way! As So Many People Do. Shaw’s insights were sound enough, but his polemical technique consisted mainly of quoting vacuous-sounding passages of art commentary and going ha ha ha! (I think he’d once had a bad run-in with an art history professor at Harvard.) Another pitfall Wolfe tried to avoid.

Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult Revisited

Dwight Macdonald

Masscult and Midcult
Essays Against the American Grain

New York Review Books, 2011



Long before Paul Fussell’s Class, or Jilly Cooper’s Class, or such dubious offerings of social criticism as The Preppie Handbook and The Yuppie Handbook, we had Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult, a long essay originally written for Partisan Review and published as a slight volume in 1961. More recently (2011) it was republished as a New York Review Books (NYRB) Classics title, bound together with and introduction by Louis Menand and a collection of pointed and frothy Macdonald writings from the same era, originally published as Against the American Grain.

If Masscult and Midcult (hereinafter M&M) does not stick in popular memory like Fussell’s Class, it’s probably because it doesn’t have any cartoons or other illustrations. There are funny bits, to be sure (such as his description of Life magazine, see below), because Macdonald was a funny guy himself and appreciated snarky wit in others. One of his best books, assembled around the time he was writing M&M, is his fat collection, Parodies (1960). If Macdonald had been like Fussell, and written M&M as an openly biased, satirical denunciation of trends he didn’t like in modern culture—and perhaps dressed it up with some satirical drawings by Charles Addams or Robert Osborn?—he might have produced a comic classic indeed. Unfortunately here he is in dead earnest, valiantly pushing on a string as he struggles to explain his Great Unifying Theory of art and culture.

Dwight Macdonald had once aspired to be a Marxian or socialist political theorist, but unlike his friends James Burnham and George Orwell (for a few years they were all writing for Partisan Review, where Macdonald was an editor 1937-43), he never completely shook himself free of that ambition. And so, when he drafted M&M in 1960, he hitched himself back into the traces of an old and familiar ideology. He’d been refining a pet theory over and over again since the 1930s. It went sort of like: there is High Art and there is Low Art. Once our Low Art was mainly folk art (not many examples at hand, though he does mention the poetry of Robert Burns) but that’s gone by the wayside, thanks to mass-production and universal literacy and all that. For the last couple hundred years, Low Art has increasingly consisted of manufactured kitsch. That includes most movies, drama, fiction, music, popular periodicals, etc.; even though some of these may have aspirations for something finer, thus producing pretentious art that is neither High nor Low. Middlebrow entertainment, in other words: the Midcult. That need to seem profound and highbrow is one of the earmarks of Midcult, but such ambition tends to be thwarted by the other Midcult characteristic: instead of actively engaging our intellect and emotions, Midcult tells us what we should be thinking and feeling.

Macdonald’s classic example of Midcult drama is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with its folksy Stage Manager who not only explains the action on stage, but lets us know how to react to it. (Macdonald liked Wilder, and thought this cornpone, Norman Rockwellish play was a wonderfully ironic joke at the expense of Midcult rubes.) Other Midcult examples are late-career Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea takes a particular lashing), Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, and Oscar Hammerstein II’s vapid, unctuous lyrics in Oklahoma and South Pacific. Macdonald belongs to that legion of Broadway-song connoisseurs who regard Rodgers & Hart as True Art, while ritually despising Rodgers & Hammerstein. He ridicules a New York Times obituary praising Hammerstein’s maudlin lyrics, noting that the paper had barely noticed when Larry Hart passed on many years earlier.

As a theory the Masscult/Midcult thing is gossamer-thin, and not equal to the freight Macdonald wants to load into it. But that’s all right, because Macdonald wasn’t a philosopher, he was a scribbler, a captious critic observing the passing scene. Paradoxically he was himself the Midcult Man incarnate. Workaday journalism and reviews: that’s where he shone. The one really lasting effect Macdonald had on big-think cultural criticism was a short-term success and arguably a long-term disaster. In the late 1930s he encouraged a neophyte critic named Clement Greenberg to write art criticism for Partisan Review, and to promote avant-garde painting—that is, painting that wasn’t about people or trees, but about painting: what would soon become known as Abstract Expressionism. As it was unique, unfamiliar, and inimical to mass production, this was to become the preferred high-culture form of painterly art. Greenberg, and Partisan Review, set about this task with a will, beginning in 1939 with “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” In that essay we find enunciated most of the notions that Dwight Macdonald would later rework, in friendlier prose, for Masscult and Midcult.

In 1951, many years after leaving Luce and Fortune, Macdonald went to work at The New Yorker. For years, sneering at the Time-Fortune-Life combine and H. R. Luce the “baby tycoon” (Harold Ross’s phrase) was very much the done thing at The New Yorker. Back at Partisan Review he knew the difference between Avant-garde and Kitsch, between High Art and Masscult. But The New Yorker might be where Macdonald first formulated his notion of “Midcult,” exemplified by magazines that thought they were aimed at smart, modern, aware people, but were really just pandering to that audience and flattering their prejudices. Like Time, you know. [1]

Now, an obvious irony here is that Macdonald’s beloved New Yorker itself was and is the preeminent Midcult periodical, far more than Time, which was basically just a weekly newspaper which, like all newspapers, have clear editorial biases. But The New Yorker was positioned as something different, not a mere provider of news and entertainment. It was prosperous rag that survived in style by running advertisements of upscale hats and shoes and eateries, advertisements that were themselves a big draw, all tastefully separated from each other by grey text-blocks of bien-pensant opinion and froth…opinion and froth that managed never to challenge the magazine’s very narrow, self-imposed version of the Overton Window.

To the young Tom Wolfe this was the funniest thing about The New Yorker. He earned Macdonald’s everlasting wrath by ridiculing The New Yorker‘s Midcultiness, something Macdonald recognized but did not like to admit, because of his loyalty to the magazine and especially to its editor William Shawn. But we’ll come to that shortly.

He had no such ambiguity in his attitude toward Life, the vast picture magazine launched by Luce in 1936, which seemed to go so far down the Masscult road that Macdonald took it to be it as emblematic of the whole Masscult style:

Its contents are as thoroughly homogenized as its circulation. The same issue will present a serious exposition of atomic energy followed by a disquisition on Rita Hayworth’s love life; photos of starving children picking garbage in Calcutta and of sleek models wearing adhesive brassières; an editorial hailing Bertrand Russell’s eightieth birthday (A GREAT MIND IS STILL ANNOYING AND ADORNING OUR AGE) across from a full-page photo of a matron arguing with a baseball umpire (MOM GETS THUMB); nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse; a cover announcing in the same size type two features: A NEW FOREIGN POLICY , BY JOHN FOSTER DULLES, AND KERIMA: HER MARATHON KISS IS A MOVIE SENSATION. Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous… [T]hat roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.
(pp. 11-12)

But is it truly Masscult? Or was the Life tongue here merely inside the Life cheek?

The examples described above are actually from an issue of Life from May 1952, from back in the days when Life was a mostly a showcase of black-and-white Rolleiflex photography. By the early 1960s, it was mostly color, overly jolly, and difficult to mistake as anything but full-blown farce. Life liked to mock its “serious” features by juxtaposing a silly visual with a deeply solemn headline. For a series on “Democracy Around the World” in 1960, Life showed us the Speaker of the House of Ghana wearing a full-bottomed horsehair wig, with the headline “GHANA’S LEAP FROM STONE AGE TO EAGER NEW NATIONHOOD.” During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis we got a cover of a smug Jackie Gleason while his wife (a scantily clad showgirl) poses underneath a headline for grim forbodings BY CLARE BOOTHE LUCE (“CUBA: Let’s Have the Whole Truth”). The unspeakable deformities from THE DRUG THALIDOMIDE appear to be illustrated by a gleeful Janet Leigh wearing a stack of seven or eight Shriner fezzes.

Masscult, Midcult, or just preppish humor? You be the judge.

This is not Masscult at all, then, but rather Macdonald’s old specialty: college humor, spoofing the solemn and the pompous. He slipped up badly when he relegated Life‘s juxtaposition of Bertrand Russell and the rollerskating horse to the depths of Masscult.

Which brings us back to Tom Wolfe, who by rights was Macdonald’s successor in the grand tradition of pomposity-lancing. Too much alike, and inevitably they came to lows. This first happened in the mid-1960s when Wolfe was writing for the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday supplement, a little rag called New York, edited by onetime Esquire editor Clay Felker.

Wolfe wrote a pair of hyperbolic, cruelly speculative, takedowns of The New Yorker, the first of which was called “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead.” The New Yorker‘s editor William Shawn wrote Tribune owner John Hay Whitney, demanding that he spike this blasphemous piece. However, as the Tribune was then on its last legs financially, Whitney and Felker figured they had nothing to lose. So the article ran, and—ZOOM!—became perhaps Tom Wolfe’s first really big attention-getter, at least in the Sunday supplement calling itself New York. It was 1965. And it didn’t really matter that the Herald-Tribune went under a year or two later, because Felker and Wolfe and their merry band of New Journalists regrouped and relaunched New York as a standalone weekly magazine that soon earned more money every year than the Herald-Tribune ever made (or lost?) in its dotage.

And thus ensued the most elegant, hilarious literary feud of the era. Macdonald answered Wolfe’s attacks on The New Yorker with two long essays in The New York Review of Books (together, rather longer than Wolfe’s original articles) and denounced his style of writing as “parajournalism,” the para- meaning parody. Wolfe was absolutely delighted, and wrote a letter to the editor, calling Macdonald “that testy but lovable old Boswell who annotates my laundry slips. Please print this letter up front so that he can respond at length…” [2]

In his marvelous introduction to this 2011 edition of Masscult and Midcult (etc.), Louis Menand notes that there was a very good reason why Wolfe got under Macdonald’s skin this way. Macdonald was the decrier of Kitsch, of mass entertainment, of lowlife culture. And here was Wolfe, actually celebrating those things Macdonald at least pretended ritually to abhor:

custom cars, beehive hairdos, Las Vegas signage, rock-‘n’-roll dance styles, and so on. This was territory that Macdonald and his generation of literary intellectuals had marked out as beneath critical consideration—and here was a journalist, with a doctorate from Yale, who had written a best-seller about the stuff. [3]

Finding his way on his own, unhobbled by any need to pander to faddish theory or Frankfurt School obscurantism, Wolfe was basically doing the same thing Macdonald did, or thought he was doing: being an honest critic, describing (or making fun of) what was in front of his nose—as George Orwell would say. The moral to all this, it seems to me, is: don’t overthink things! Don’t be like Dwight Macdonald! Be like Tom Wolfe—or George Orwell! Tell us about bawdy cartoon postcards or topless dancers, and don’t go scratching around for obscure Marxian or structuralist lessons. Often enough, things mean just what it looks like they mean.

That was a plan Orwell himself consciously followed most of the time, and when he got tiresome and went off the rails, it’s usually because he was pulling a Macdonald, injecting Marxian cant for the benefit of Partisan Review types. In fact, the “off the rails” instance that sticks in my mind is an essay Orwell did for PR in July 1947, “Toward European Unity,” in which he parrots some gawd-awful commonplaces about the USA and “capitalism” that look to have come from the mouth of Molotov. [4]

They were good friends, Macdonald and Orwell. As tight as friends can be when they’re three thousand miles apart, not in precise agreement politically, and never actually get to meet in person because one suddenly chokes to death from a hemorrhaged lung before that meeting could ever happen. It’s a friendship that that’s usually scanted or overlooked entirely in Orwell biographies. Orwell’s “London Letters” in Partisan Review, 1941-1946, were written largely at Macdonald’s behest, and when Macdonald left PR to found his own journal, Politics, in 1944, he urged Orwell to contribute. Orwell’s first appearance in Politics was the famous essay on detective stories now usually titled “Raffles and Miss Blandish”; he’d agreed to write for Politics so long as he didn’t have to do any political stuff.

Before moving from Islington to the wind-swept Isle of Jura in 1947, where he intended to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, he complained of needing a new pair of stout walking shoes or “boots.” He had very large feet, nearly impossible to find shoes for in those postwar days, and shoe leather was scarce anyway. So now there followed a correspondence in which Macdonald buys Orwell a pair of walking shoes so sturdy “you could walk to Scotland in them,” size 12 as Orwell requested. Macdonald scuffs them up and proposes to package them with old sweaters with the label “old clothes,” so they don’t get backed up at Customs…or stolen. Orwell tells him to send the shoes one at a time, since only a one-legged man would be interested in stealing a single shoe. Macdonald decides to send them together because what good would it be if one shoe arrived and not the other? In the end, the shoes turn out to be too small and Orwell lucks into another pair when some other big-footed man at the local shoemaker fails to pick up his order. He sends the Macdonald pair off to Germany, in aid of some other needy soul.

While getting through his tuberculosis convalescence after finishing the Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell and Macdonald discuss a visit to America, a year or two down the road. Perhaps even a speaking tour? One now knows that such a tour would be a landmark event, something like the speaking tours of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. The celebrated author of Animal Farm and the recent bestseller Nineteen Eighty-Four! We’re talking 1950, ’51, ’52; so of course it would take on a Cold War coloration, and the tour would be denounced by the Left as a series of anti-Communist rallies. Which, Lord knows it would become, inevitably, however much those two Men of the Left, Macdonald and Orwell, might protest. Orwell would find himself invited to sit on a dais with General Douglas MacArthur, and Senator Joseph McCarthy would try to arrange things so that Orwell could address a joint session of Congress, just like Churchill in 1941! Orwell would appear on the cover of Time, and a timely Orwell essay would run in Life, alongside an explanatory, unsigned sidebar penned by Whittaker Chambers. This would change our present-day perception of George Orwell enormously. Or maybe it wouldn’t.

Macdonald and Orwell were not at all on the same wavelength at all politically. Macdonald forever trying to comprehend current events through the changing prism of his ideology, which remained far more literally Trotskyist and Marxian than Orwell; Orwell being sui generis, a non-Marxist, never-Marxist who called himself merely a socialist or “a man of the Left,” because he thought that was the decent place to be. Macdonald read Orwell’s independence as being “dense” politically; meanwhile “Orwell found Macdonald’s analytical frameworks so rigid that he sometimes was forced to defend indefensible positions.” [5]

Inevitably Macdonald has often been called the American Orwell, though Orwell is unlikely ever to have been called the English Macdonald. Macdonald never did an Animal Farm or a Nineteen Eighty-Four, and most people would be hard-pressed to name a Dwight Macdonald book today. Orwell probably diagnosed the problem aptly: it was those “analytical frameworks so rigid.” Macdonald sought an ideology that could be written down in columns and rows—today we’d say “laid out in a PowerPoint Presentation”—and readily explained and adhered to. Someone always in search of a system is not inclined to let loose with free-form creativity.

Beyond that, though, they certainly did have parallels and points in common. Orwell famously went to Eton, as a “Colleger” (i.e., a scholarship boy who lived in the central buildings of the College; that is, one of those for whom Eton College was founded) but later couldn’t go to Oxford with Cyril Connolly and his other friends because he’d screwed around for six years at Eton, hence no scholarships on offer for young Eric Blair. Dwight Macdonald, three years younger, meanwhile went to Phillips Exeter and then Yale, where he mainly screwed around at the soi-disant “Oldest College Daily,” chaired the “Oldest College Humor Magazine,” and supposedly got himself almost expelled for ridiculing an much honored, jolly old windbag named William Lyon Phelps. [6]

After his school years, Orwell put on a Sam Browne belt and spent five years in Burma as an officer of the Indian Police, before ditching it all to become some kind of freelance writer. Macdonald’s initial career post-Yale seems even more unlikely. He didn’t go straight to Harry Luce and Time Inc. Unbelievably he joined the executive training program at Macy’s department store. A year or so of that may or may not have given him the interest and insight to hop aboard Luce’s next venture, that splendiferous celebration of big business, Fortune magazine. Birthed in late 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, Fortune was aggressively priced at one dollar a copy. Lavish in design and production, it was printed on heavy, coated, cream paper, measuring measured 11″ x 14″ and was perhaps 3/4″ thick. Early issues nowadays go for, well, a fortune.

Orwell published far more books than Macdonald in the 1930s and 40s (Macdonald didn’t publish any, actually, other than a book-length tract against Henry Wallace), yet he also struggled more and frequently put himself at risk. Thus died in 1950; Macdonald lived on to 1982. And Macdonald mostly lived in the lap of luxury, relatively speaking, and never had to beg anyone to buy him some sturdy walking shoes. In 1934 he married a wealthy young woman named Nancy Gardiner Rodman, whose brother, (Cary) Selden Rodman (Jr.), was a prolific poet, critic and champion of primitive folk art. [7]

It was the Rodman money, more than anything else, that enabled Macdonald to get by during his years of editing/writing for Partisan Review and Politics. Surely, between the time he left Fortune in 1936 and whenever exactly he went on staff at The New Yorker in the early 1950s, he never earned enough from his journalism to support himself and his family (two sons; eventually two wives). The rather dilettantish aspect of Macdonald’s oeuvre may well be the result of never having to try too hard, never having the wolf at one’s door, always having the leisure to spin vague castles of Masscult-Midcult ideology in the air.


[1] A famous, deathless comment on Time‘s Midcultiness occurs in Edward Albee’s early one-scene play, “The Zoo Story.” Two characters who meet on a park bench and one of them, who proves to be semi-lunatic, gravely accepts a piece of information from Time magazine, because “Well, Time magazine isn’t for blockheads!”

[2] Nearly six decades later, it’s hard to see what the hilarity was all about. As a taste-setter The New Yorker was indeed dead in the water. Tom Wolfe was beating a dead horse, and he knew it, but he and Clay Felker wanted to bring eyeballs and ads to the foundering Trib, so he gleefully embellished all sort of nonsense. Some of his inventions and hyperboles are virtually inaccessible to the modern reader. For example, Wolfe’s theorizes that New Yorker editor William Shawn was a quirky, retiring fellow because once upon a time, when he was a youngster in 1924 Chicago, he came close to being the victim of Leopold and Loeb’s “perfect murder.” In the end of course they settled on Loeb’s neighbor and cousin, forever afterwards to be known as “fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks,” whom they beat to death and hid in a culvert pipe. Shawn and Franks attended the same secondary school; that’s the only connection between them. Macdonald, infuriated, spends a lot of ink taking Wolfe to task for this. For those interested, his two New York Review of Books articles can be found online at

[3] Introduction by Louis Menand to Dwight Macdonald, Masscult and Midcult / Essays Against the American Grain. Edited by John Summers. New York: New York Review Books, 2011. It is not to take anything away from the Macdonald pieces to mention that Menand’s Introduction is the clearest and most entertaining essay in the book.

[4] And probably did, though Orwell wouldn’t have realized it at the time. Molotov and Stalin had just come out against Soviet participation in the Marshall Plan, dismissing it as an American effort to stave off economic depression and “the crisis of capitalism” by expanding its export markets and dumping its surplus goods on Europe. This notion even found its way into Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Orwell was writing at the time. Except there the solution to surplus production was continual war rather than new export markets.

[5] David R. Costello, “My Kind of Guy”: George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, 1941-49.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 40, No. 1, January 2005. Searchable online at JSTOR.

[6] The story is almost certainly an exaggeration that Macdonald liked to tell on himself. In one version, he was about to publish an opinion column in the Yale Daily News, stating that “Billy” Phelps was too incompetent to be teaching Shakespeare, however the dean learned about this and stopped him. In another rendition, the college newspaper rejected the piece, whereupon Macdonald proposed to print it up as denunciatory leaflets and distribute it all over campus. This would have happened in or about that year of wonderful nonsense, 1927.

[7] While at Yale in the early 30s, Selden Rodman founded an ambitious, iconoclastic little magazine called The Harkness Hoot. The Hoot initially drew national attention for its mockery of Yale’s ceaseless building of neo-Gothic structures. Frank Lloyd Wright congratulated the magazine for its bold strike in favor of modern architecture, and asked Rodman and company to send a stack of issues to the University of Wisconsin (his alma mater). Later on, before it folded in 1934, the Hoot published an on-the-ground report from the “new Germany,” including a description of prison camps and an explanation of why political prisoners were being rounded up. “What would have happened if you didn’t imprison these Communists?” the young reporter asks, to which the reply comes: “We’d all be dead!” (I seem to recall this report was somehow arranged with the help of young Franz Frederich von Papen, son of the vice-chancellor.) Shortly after this article appeared, a sophomore named S. H. Ireland dropped out of Yale to go to Europe for a while and check out this new Germany. It never occurred to me to ask Wilmot Robertson (for it was he) if he’d been a fan of The Harkness Hoot.

Preppy Handbooks—or, The Hidden History of the P-Word

Lisa Birnbach, Editor
The Official Preppy Handbook
New York: Workman Publishing, 1980

The Official Preppy Handbook was originally published in late 1980. It spawned many imitators and at least one quasi-sequel (True Prep, 2010), as well as various updated and deluxe editions. It also helped to launch a genre of humor books that mixed faux sociology and sartorial fun. I touched on that trend a year ago in my supercilious takedown of 1984’s The Yuppie Handbook.

But Preppy Handbook had much more influence and staying power than the other gag books. For a long while anti-hipsters took it seriously as a guide for living—a combo of Dress for Success and The Status Seekers. Clothing designers and retailers let the so-called “preppy” look dominate their product for years and years. In the 1980s, J. Crew appeared as a mail-order and shopping-mall chain, its whole purpose seemingly that of providing an endless, ready source of mid-priced “classic” clothing that you wouldn’t have to hunt around for in department stores.

The book itself wasn’t enormously funny but its promotion was hilarious. The lead author/editor, Lisa Birnbach, was herself no “preppy” by education or background, being a product of an Ethical Culture (secular Jewish) day school in the Bronx, followed by Brown University. But someone at Workman Publishing decided she was close enough; and thus she was drafted “to hold the reigns [sic] of a book we see as The Preppy Catalogue.” In addition she would play the morning talk-show circuit and explain “preppy” traditions and lifestyle.

And so there she was on The TODAY Show—early 1981, I think it was—promoting The Official Preppy Handbook, and explaining the style of Quality Folks to Bryant Gumbel. But she was a trouper, played it for laughs, and seemed to be enjoying it all. I don’t have a video of that TODAY segment, so like Captain Queeg I can only cover these things roughly, from memory. I believe it was about 8 o’clock in the morning and I was getting dressed for work. But I was riveted by the high irony on the tube: a Sportscaster-of-Color (Gumbel) in suit and tie, interviewing a young Ms. Birnbach who was all togged out in clothes that would have been perfectly at home in a 1964 advertisement for the Villager Collection in Seventeen magazine. Birnbach opened by explaining her own special “layered” outfit: Fair Isle sweater with Henley-neck collar, unbuttoned to show a single string of pearls worn over thin white turtleneck. That, she said, was “preppy.” Another “preppy” thing, supposedly, was anything in tartan or plaid design, like the red-blue-white cover pattern which the book tells us is supposed to be madras fabric. (Madras—truly? These writers thought madras was traditional and high-class? Old slides and snapshots tell me that madras was mainly for loud summer sportscoats and Bermuda shorts, circa 1964.)

In the book, affected dowdiness is the recommended fashion. The Talbots chain scored very high in the Preppy Handbook‘s estimation. In those days, at least, The Talbots specialized in overpriced, over-upholstered business suits and A-line dresses for suburban women in their fifties, not girls in secondary school and college. Preppy Handbook also informed us that the “duck motif” is a sacred emblem among preppy families. So aspiring preppy-wannabes should acquire plenty of duck-bedecked wastebaskets, keychains, toilet kits, weathervanes, etc., etc.

My takeaway to all this was that the class being described is actually just people who spend a lot of time at yard sales, thrift shops, and antique barns.

The book supplies lists of secondary schools, day and boarding; and universities where preppy style is best maintained, supposedly. It’s notable that most of the colleges are party schools, often in the South, with modest SAT needs. You are warned against setting your sights on MIT, Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, University of Chicago, or Columbia, because they are too hard and/or too weird. When interviewed for secondary school, don’t wear a LaCoste shirt or sneakers (if you’re a boy) or a short skirt with platform shoes (if a girl). Boys at interviews should wear blue blazers; girls, plaid skirts. Loafers recommended for both. If you wish to dress weird, please wait until after you’re admitted.

As this suggests, the book often drags a bit and falls down in the humor department. Its half-dozen main contributors (there are also untold dozens of other friends & helpers in Acknowledgements) all often seem to be going off in different directions. So the university listings are full of snark, while that prep-school interview advice leans toward earnest, helpful hints. Much of the book is padded with commemorations of debutantes and prep role models. Their relevance is elusive, other than being rich and/or famous. (1938 Debutante of the Year Brenda Frazier? Gloria Vanderbilt? Dick Cavett? Where did he prep?)

There are many paradoxes in this flummery, but the biggest is that the p-word was really a derogatory term. This goes unacknowledged today because in pop consciousness the word “preppy,” noun and adjective, is mainly associated with clothing style. Its earlier, sneering connotation has been lost to memory.

The origin of the term is touched on only obliquely in the Preppy Handbook. It’s unlikely to have begun as direct reference to prep schools per se. Such institutions generally don’t call themselves that; they usually have names like “The Hill School” or “Milton Academy.” More likely “preppy” was derived from the “prep shops” that one used to see in the better department stores or menswear retailers. Usually on the third floor for whatever reason, they involved displays of snooty-looking mannequins of teenage males, dressed in ties and blazers and polo shirts, occasionally even little snap-brim fedoras—though assuredly not all in combination. (There was no female prep shop; equivalent departments would be called something like “Young Misses,” or, later on, “Juniors.” Female “preppies” would thus be a contradiction in terms, even after the leading schools went coed in the 1970s.)

Some people found the name and layout of prep shops distinctly irritating, particularly those who got suited out at Robert Hall or Barney’s Boys Town.

I recall the p-word entering popular parlance about 1970, beginning with a popular novelette called Love Story, which almost immediately became a treacly film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. To be precise, Love Story had actually begun life as a movie script by a Yale classics teacher, Erich Segal. After Segal sold his script, he was asked to reprocess it into a little novel—a gift storybook for Valentine’s Day, 1970, and a smash bestseller for the rest of the year. Come Christmas season, the film version was out and about, with a ready-made fanbase. It was everywhere, along with its mawkish, meaningless tagline (“Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry”) and a theme song sung by Andy Williams and a million others.

Early in the film we have a blond, bland Ryan O’Neal (rich Harvard hockey player) going to the Radcliffe College library to find a laughably ubiquitous book. [1] He immediately runs into dark, snappish Ali MacGraw. It’s oil and water. She chews him out for poaching on the little Radcliffe library instead of Harvard’s much vaster collection. She sneers and calls him “Preppie” [sic]—a studied insult, though it later becomes an affectionate nickname. Her character was softened a little for the final movie script, but when we meet her in the book, she’s a nasty, argumentative piece of work:

“Wouldja please watch your profanity, Preppie?”

“What makes you so sure I went to prep school?”

“You look stupid and rich,” she said, removing her glasses.

“You’re wrong,” I protested. “I’m actually smart and poor.”

“Oh no, Preppie. I’m smart and poor.” [2]

Wow, meet cute!

Like Lisa Birnbach and author Erich Segal, this Ali MacGraw character was originally Jewish. Segal altered that, in book and movie, possibly because of concerns that a mixed marriage of an upper-class Yankee to a lowly Brooklyn Jew would offend a great many people. So he turned the character into Jenny Cavilleri, an “Italian” from Cranston, Rhode Island. We never see her do anything Italian, unless you count listening to classical music. Her father meanwhile is the very Jewish actor John Marley, lovingly remembered today for his 1972 role in The Godfather, as Hollywood producer and horse fancier Jack Woltz. At one point in the film, the Ryan O’Neal character, Oliver, refers to Jenny as “Catholic,” but the script is emphatic that Jenny is not and never was. (Religious distinctions are such minefields for scriptwriters!) Unsurprisingly, Segal turns out to have based the character on a Jewish girlfriend of his who—we might safely infer—liked to sneer at “preppies.” [3]

So was the p-word basically a slur used by Jews of a certain type to categorize and decry Heritage Americans of a particular caste? It would certainly seem that way. I was thinking of that a few years when I reviewed Steven Brill’s Tailspin (book excerpt here). Growing up lower-middle-class in Far Rockaway, Queens, and first reading about the world of “prep schools” when he was 14, young Steven decided this was an exotic world he wanted to rise to; and so he soon headed up to the Deerfield Academy on scholarship. Brill himself doesn’t use the p-word; that would be sneering at a club he feels lucky to have joined. If he’d learned about “prep schools” a few years later, say when he got to college, the story might be different. If you can’t join ’em…you can always beat up on ’em!

Which puts me in mind of the late Éva Balogh, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee from 1956 who was a professor of Central European history at Yale in the 1970s. For a while she was master of Morse College (a residential college, what is called a “house” at Harvard or Andover, or a “college” at Oxford or Cambridge). Eccentric, opinionated, and sharp-tongued, she was popular with many of her charges. One story about Éva was her denunciation of the “roommate preference” card, traditionally sent out to incoming freshmen in their matriculation packs. The idea with these was that you wrote down one or two names of secondary-school friends you want to share your freshman suite with. She wanted to get rid of the cards entirely. “Why are they still doing that? That stuff’s only for preppies.”

Voilà—naked animosity, slouching toward us on all fours. Éva didn’t want preppies, with their social traditions, old-school ties and cliques of friends from St. Grottlesex.  No, she wanted the admissions committee to replace them with a mass of atomized souls—scoured from state high schools hither and yon—ready to be inculcated into your favorite ideologies. You know…Diversity! Which pretty much describes the continuing admissions scam of the last half-century and more.

So there you are. The p-word was/is a slur, a word of derision for well-born, “privileged” goyim, whom you are asked to hold in contempt. I don’t believe I ever heard an actual prep-school alumnus or student refer to himself, unironically or otherwise, as a preppy. Or herself—though as I said, the term was seldom applied to females. I sometimes saw the word preppish used to describe to dress style or personal attitude (Gore Vidal used it on Jack Kennedy) but when “preppy/preppie” arrived on the scene it was clearly derogatory. Erich Segal himself admits as much in the Preppy Handbook. One of the book’s contributors asks him the etymology of the word. He says it’s short for—preposterous! And there we have it again, folks: an object of mockery, a figure of fun. [3]

  1. Notes
[1] The book is The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, originally published in the 1920s and readily available in any used-book store for 40 cents, or the Harvard Coop, or a dorm suite down the hall. The joke here is that a Harvard jock would journey over to the women’s college because he’s taking this big “gut” survey course in history, hasn’t touched the reading list, but now it’s late in the semester, and he can’t find a copy anywhere.

[2] Erich Segal, Love Story. Signet Books, 1970.

[3] Segal himself was said to be anti-Catholic, at least according to prospective Yale students and aspiring Classics majors he interviewed and rejected. But this could possibly be the result of turf rivalries among Classics teachers.


Ask the Family Doctor: Should I Get Rid of My Monkeys?

with Ferenc Molmar, M.D.

Q. With this new monkeypox scare going around, all my neighbors are on my case to get rid of the three monkeys I keep in my living room. They are very dear to me, as I bought them all from a comic book ad when I was quite young (I had birthday money) so they’ve lived with me almost all my life (I am 59 years old). They are very old and wise in monkey years and it seems a shame to have them put down when they themselves haven’t got that long to live.

I also want to say that I am disabled and wheelchair-bound, and depend upon these support animals for my household chores. They know how to load and empty the dishwasher, though we don’t have that many dishes as we all mainly subsist on Hungry-Man TV dinners. They also know how to turn on the Roomba and do some light dusting.

Is there any danger of them spreading monkeypox to me and the neighbors?

A. As I’ve said many times before, I am not an animal doctor, let alone a monkey psychiatrist, and I wish people would stop bringing me their animal problems. In your case your real problem is your neighbors, who evidently are using the monkeypox scare to shame you out of your companions.

Dr. Molmar

Perhaps their real complaint is that your house is filthy and stinky. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust squirrel monkeys (if that’s what they are) to maintain their own hygiene, let alone yours. Because you don’t get out of house, you probably don’t notice the smell the way your neighbors do. I am merely speculating, of course. When my grandmother was housebound she had a cleaning woman come in once a week, and she really needed that, as her two great danes could really make a mess. I suspect your house smells a lot like hers.

I wouldn’t recommend monkeys as support animals, myself, as they are inclined to commit bestiality and other forms of sex perversion that cannot be discussed in a family newspaper. But I’m not here to tell you how to live, and if you’ve done well with these critters for fifty years or whatever, you may as well ride to the last trolley stop with them, and to hell with your neighbors.

Matisse/Picasso at Tate Modern: 20 Years On

The Picasso-Matisse (or Matisse Picasso) exhibition opened at the Tate Modern twenty years ago, running for three months before traveling to Paris, finally making it to New York’s MOMA in early 2003.

It was a landmark event in many ways, a massive installation that set the pace for other comparative exhibits in the years to come. About half the shows put up in the new Whitney, I’ve noticed, are not for individual names but for the works of two, three, four, five artists who are ostensibly of the same school or sensibility. This actually follows the Whitney’s own long experience in maintaining a friendly and familiar Permanent Exhibition of 20th Century American art. Which was the only consistently good exhibit.

At least they used to maintain it up on East 74th Street, where it took up a whole floor. When I visit their new digs in the Meat Market, they always seem to have most of their nice pieces put away in storage, to make way for yet another fingerpainting show by savage pygmies.

I attended the Tate Modern show in its press preview days, and brought back the press kit, and the PR blurb which I’ve scarcely looked at (see below), and a souvenir pin-back button.

Also bought a mug at the gift shop. The mug soon lost its handle, but still sits on the shelf there, full of pencils and brushes and implements of destruction.

A couple of snippets from the Tate’s opening press release:

Matisse and Picasso are the acknowledged twin giants of modern art, between them having originated many of the most significant innovations of twentieth-century painting and sculpture. This major exhibition explores their relationship, which is revealed as much closer and more complex than has been thought. In spite of their initial rivalry, each came to acknowledge the other as his only true equal. In old age they became increasingly close personally, and increasingly important to each other artistically.

*   *   *

From 1906 to 1917 there was open rivalry between the artists. This was a time of intense innovation, when between them they produced some of the greatest art of the twentieth century. This period forms the densest part of the exhibition. Among the revelatory pairings are Picasso’s monumental Boy Leading a Horse of 1906 and Matisse’s Le Luxe l of 1907; Matisse’s celebrated Blue Nude and Picasso’s relatively little known, aggressively primitivist Nude with Raised Arms, both of 1907; and, in a stunning sequence of paintings of women, Matisse’s great portrait of his wife of 1913 and Picasso’s majestic Woman with a Fan of 1908. Other sections are devoted to still life and landscape. A key section shows Matisse responding to synthetic Cubism in his Moroccans, 1915-16, and Piano Lesson, 1916. Picasso in turn responded to Matisse’s interpretation of Cubism by producing a new, more decorative Cubism of his own, as for example in Three Musicians of 1921.

Big Monet Sale at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s May 17 auction of modern masters brought in a total of $423 million, led by a Picasso painting of a starfish ($67.5 million), and a fuzzy late-Impressionist oil of the Grand Canal, by Monet ($56.6m).

Nicer still was the Cezanne that sold for $41.7m. I mean, you could hang this one anywhere and feel no shame:

For further details, check out our friends at The Art Wolf, over here.

Sotheby’s Orientalist Auction, London

“The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths” by David Roberts (1842) sold for £403,200 on March 29, although Sotheby’s estimate going in was £60k – £80k, writes G. Fernandez at The suggestion here is that “Orientalist” art is out of vogue and does not sell well, or a least hasn’t been expected to sell well.

When I look at such paintings, my mind casts itself back to Gustave Flaubert’s famous trip to the Near East, specifically Cairo, where he had a rollicking time in 1849. Reviewing Francis Steegmuller’s book in 2013, author Guy Portman suggests the trip gave a serious tilt to the ol’ Flaubert creative engine:

Flaubert’s eye for scatological detail can be seen later in his brilliant classical epic Salaambo.  No doubt this trip was a major inspiration.  A visit to a hospital provides ample material, such as, not wishing to be too graphic, the anal chancres of a group of syphilitic Mamelukes.  Perhaps, that was too graphic.


Why They Closed All the Art Supply Shoppes


(A version of this column originally appeared at our sister site,

Pearl Paint on Canal Street in NYC was the artists’ Mecca for eighty years, with its assemblage of tumbledown warehouses and 1820s townhouses, selling every sort of paint and brush and picture album and canvas-stretching doodad in the Known World.

When it closed in 2014, people were  left bereft. Where now to buy your non-repro blue pencils and comic-strip boards and Prat portfolio books?

It’s a good bet you won’t find them at the Art Students League’s dinky shop, which is just past their main entrance hall on West 57th Street. That place is about as big as a suburban bathroom, and it satisfies that immortal precept of Paul Fussell in Class: If everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it!

This wasn’t much of a worry when Pearl closed, way downtown. For we still had, right there, across the street, the sumptuous and eternal emporium called Lee’s.

Lee’s Art Shop lived in a late-1800s building with Art Nouveau ornamentation, a structure that was originally designed as a companion piece to the Art Students League across the street. When it went up, West 57th Street was artist-land, full of new blocks of luxury flats designed with high windows for painters’ and sculptors’ needs. You can still see some of these, in the older buildings, on 57th between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.

Lee’s Art Shop was a veritable Empire of Creativity. If you didn’t have any idea of what you wanted to do, a stroll through Lee’s might give you a dozen. Eddie Salveri would tell you about lightboxes and airbrushes and hi-fashion lighting, and Hector the Chilean Board-Master in the back of the store would advise you on the finer points of FomCor and basswood and cold-press vs. hot-press illustration board.


Then there was the tall guy in the frame section out in front. He looked like Christopher Walken. I once saw him in an animated conversation with seated comedian Al Franken, who was getting something framed (I guess), and suddenly asked, as in a non sequitur, “Anyone ever tell you, uh, you look like Christopher Walken?”

And the frame man went, “Naaooo!”

For a while Lee’s spread out to other buildings in the neighborhoods, with retail shops dedicated to lighting and furniture. Then the chill came, the extremities dropped off, only the main store was left, and it had fewer and fewer and fewer seasoned experts. I’d show my 20% off discount card, the one I’d been carrying about for 30 years, and the wench at the cash register would be totally baffled, having never seen such a thing before. Well, she’d been there less than a year, what do you expect?

I’d go visit Hector in the back, and he was curt and glum, implying I was trying to butter him up to get some freebies. I think the word had just come down that Lee’s was going to close.

As Lee’s did, sometime in 2016. As with Pearl, I stocked up heartily on discounted drawing pads, inks, paints, brushes and other supplies that mainly remain unopened in the drawers of my armoire.

As of today, the Lee’s building is still untenanted. To which I say: Karma is a bitch.

TIME: Where Young & Rubicam Outdoor Trade Advertising Totally Disappears

A seldom-remembered detail of the commuter-railroad experience back in the 60s is the prevalence of ‘trade advertising.’ These were posters and car-cards and billboards that you passed but barely noticed in the train car and on the platform.

They didn’t advertise a product per se; they advertised advertising space where you could sell your product.

Catching the train in Bronxville or Cos Cob or New Haven you’d see these ads, often mystifying and surrealistic, lining the station platform alongside the enticements to Broadway plays and musicals:

Gilroy IS Here! The Subject Was Roses. Pulitzer Prize Something.

What? You Haven’t Seen Man of La Mancha (“The Impossible Dream”) Even Once?

Now, those theatrical posters were straightforward. They were clearly selling something, and you knew what they were selling. Trade ads were different. Unless you were in the business, you might not know what a trade ad was up to. If it was plugging WNEW Radio, you’d probably vaguely imagine it was instructing you, the innocent commuter, to listen to WNEW Radio . . . when actually it was telling ad buyers to buy time at WNEW Radio.

One baffling but long-lived trade series was a Young & Rubicam campaign for TIME magazine.  There might be eight or ten of these in a single location.

Imagine you’re walking down a long station platform or concourse, and every few yards you see a mockup of a Time magazine cover. There’s a stark, simple image, and one short line of copy mentioning a Time advertiser. For example, you might see the arm of a chalk-stripe suit surrounded by Time‘s red-bordered branding, and the copy would go:


Where Brooks Brothers buttonholes the Madison Ave man.


That example is made up; Brooks Bros. didn’t advertise in Time, and they weren’t featured in this outdoor campaign. The fact is, I can’t remember any specific copy at all from this Y&R trade campaign for Time.

This forgettability was sort of intentional. The agency was trying to get Mr Advertising Man to buy space in Time right now, this week, in 1968 . . . they weren’t hoping consumers would go around mouthing a brilliant tagline for the next fifty years.

Because that would be tragic. Nothing fails worse than a clever campaign that doesn’t hit the right target. “You don’t have to be Jewish . . . to love Levy’s . . .Real Jewish Rye” is a Y&R line from the era everyone remembers now, though almost no one today eats Levy’s rye bread. I’ve had it recently, so I know it’s still being made.

I suspect the Levy’s campaign was like the Bob and Ray cartoon ads for Piel’s Beer a decade before. They were popular with young and old, and memorable. But they didn’t move beer sales.

But while we remember the Levy’s ads, the Y&R poster campaign for Time does not stick in the public imagination at all. They have in effect been dropped down the memory hole. I’ve been Googling and otherwise researching Advertising Age and Young & Rubicam histories to see if there’s any mention, any image of the Time campaign. Not a chance.

I can’t even find online photographs of station platforms where these ads appeared. I guess no amateur archivist ever thought to snap them. It’s almost impossible even to find photos of Broadway posters online. That’s why I show an ad from a train schedule above, instead of the actual 1964 theatrical poster for The Subject Was Roses.

What does stick in my recollection is that the Time campaign was resolutely upscale.  A place to advertise quality products for quality readers.

This all seems laughable today, when Time is popularly reputed to have been a middlebrow book, and now survives in a scrawny print edition filled with ugly pharma advertising. It’s subscribed to mostly by 85-year-olds, because they got in the habit of reading it around 1957, back in the days when Time ran real news and half its display ads were for top-shelf gin and scotch.

It’s a repellent little rag now, but in advertising demographics Time was the class act for decades, far outshining the ad-stuffed Life and Look, which were perceived as picture books that subscribers thumbed through while moving their lips. Readers read Time. Readers read the ads in Time.

Trade campaigns for other magazines imitated the Time model to a certain extent—e.g., the endless variants of “Forbes: Capitalist Tool,” which made a subtle pitch to the advertisers by flattering the readers. This series, which ran in and around commuter trains in the 1970s and 80s,  looked vaguely like a subscription promotion aimed at ambitious young commuters.

But of course the ads were reminding posh advertisers on the train that if they bought space in Forbes they could reach those ambitious young commuters. The kind of people who would read Forbes do not need a train poster to tell them to read Forbes.

The Sunday Giant

The most pervasive and long-lived of the trade-ad campaigns was probably for the downscale, big-circulation Sunday supplement called Parade. “Parade is the Sunday Giant!” went the slogan, generally on a poster or car-card showing a line-drawing cartoon of a towering figure looming over lilliputian newspaper supplements (New York Times Magazine, perhaps?).

Having mass nationwide circulation was, and still is, Parade’s big selling point. But advertisers needed to be reminded of this. Parade was easy to overlook. It was and is a one-of-a-kind publication: a bland, friendly downmarket supplement, with content kept so generic it can never seem out of place in Salt Lake City, Sarasota, or St. Louis. This is a difficult trick for a Sunday supplement and Parade’s done it for, what, 70 years or something?

Back in the 60s and 70s, every town worth mentioning had at least a couple of big Sunday newspapers, and one of them—generally the one with the better funnies and the shorter editorials—carried Parade. In such locales you’d actually see people in stores and newsstands on weekends, thumbing through the hefty Sunday paper to make sure the sports section and Parade were there! The same way parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena in Greenwich used to head for the newsstand after Mass, full of beady-eyed intent to ensure that their Herald-Tribune or New York Times wasn’t missing its book review section.

Parade emphasized its mass-market, downscale orientation in a dozen ways. In the 50s and 60s, when newspapers boasted of their sturdy newsprint stock and excellent rotogravure processes, Parade went in the other direction and made itself as shoddy as it possibly could. Tabloid-sized and unstapled, its pages were all different sizes, some with rag edges, others cut sharp or with extra dog-ear flaps at the corner.

Even on the cover, their color printing was often out of registration, like a 3-D comic book. Parade left a spot on its nameplate where the local newspaper could print its name or logo, and this just added to the cheap feel: the newspaper’s name was often printed crooked or looked like a rubber stamp.

The editorial matter was mostly filler, dealing with celebrities and fads, the sort of stuff you’d see in a popular Hearst newspaper from the 1920s to 1960s. Advice columns and celebrity gossip figured large. The writing went down easy. The words weren’t too big, and the sentences weren’t too long. And the attitude was relentlessly chipper. The main rule seemed to be that if you mentioned a celebrity, it had to be someone recognizable to 95% of the readership.

That was the secret of “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” an inside-cover feature that started around 1971 and still runs today, although Walter Scott himself has no more corporeal reality than Betty Crocker.

The Walter Scott column was a brilliant addition to Parade, because it ensured that there would be at least one feature that everyone would read. It’s still the first thing you see on the inside: pithy queries and answers about stars and politicians that everybody’s heard of, usually with bland but upbeat answers.

One I remember from circa 1974: “Does Elton John always wear a hat because he’s ‘bisexual’? No, actually he just likes hats! Also he’s having hair transplants!

Parade’s advertising mechanism I never figured out. Its low-budget, rec-room-floor style could never have been a good fit for most advertisers. (Toothpaste, yes;  Tanqueray, no.) Since the same edition was distributed across the country, there was no way it could pick up lavish display ads from retailers or car dealers. Parade survived mainly on cheap ‘n’ cheerful national ads for five-dollar muumuus and anti-itch powder for dogs.

Their perennial full-page advertisers mostly sold stuff you might never see advertised anywhere else, or at least outside a Sunday supplement. There was Zoysia grass, a magical kind of turf that evidently never needed watering or weeding. (It did turn brown in the winter, but they never told you that.)

And there was a weight-loss candy that had the merry name of Ayds. The latter’s ads were always disguised to look like editorial matter, with a first-person narrative, “As told to Ruth L. McCarthy,” related by a former fat-lady. (Rumors flew that Ayds contained dexedrine or methamphetamine, but that alas was never the case, and it’s a marvel that the product survived as long as it did. In the 1980s it lost half its business, reportedly because potential customers were scared off by a name that sounded like a killer virus. The manufacturer tried changing the name to Diet Ayds, but that didn’t seem to help.)

One hears sometimes that Parade is a family-run, closely held, business. I find that easy to believe. There’s just enough work here, and just enough money, to support one extended family.