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PRINT January 2013

books

Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg: A Biography, by Deirdre Bair. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012. 732 pages.

BIOGRAPHY IS A FORM OF INDENTURED SERVITUDE. The writer devotes years of his or her life worrying the details of someone else’s—a life deemed to be, in most instances, of greater import than the writer’s own. In the case of the biographical subject known as Saul Steinberg, the Romanian-born artist best known for his trenchantly philosophical drawings and covers for the New Yorker—among them View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1976, more commonly called “The New Yorker’s View of the World”—this is painfully so.

Deirdre Bair, the author of Saul Steinberg: A Biography, seems a sporting servant. She obviously enjoys writing biographies, and all her chosen subjects, including Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Carl Jung, and Samuel Beckett—Bair’s take on the latter garnered her a National Book Award in 1981—are tough nuts to crack. But in her latest biography, the slavishness is excruciating. Bair has chained herself to every jot and tittle of this endlessly philandering and self-pitying life. And for what?

Certainly, Steinberg’s graphic works are worthy of devotion, whether it’s one of his phony diplomas with fancy signatures, a sea of businessmen made out of inky fingerprints, a paper-bag mask, or a colorful dialogue among the phrases I do, I have, and I am. His works are almost always oddly virtuosic and funny.

His words too. He described Picasso, an artist he considered his equal (they once did a cadavre exquis together), as “an old Jewish man in the Florida sun—all torso and shorts.” In a wartime letter from Africa, Steinberg complained, “This war is a war of pants sometimes, pants destroyed by sitting down on hard chairs and waiting.” When asked about his homeland, he replied: “I have many backhomes.” He saw Mickey Mouse as black. Cyrillic looked like sneezes to him. He admired the way Jackson Pollock painted “in cahoots with the law of gravity,” but believed that the first “large scale American painter” was Tom Sawyer. He judged 4 the only “perfectly designed” numeral. And he declared, “Beauty is crocodilian.”

It’s easy to see why Bertoldo, the Italian humor magazine, bought Steinberg’s first cartoons in the 1930s; why the editors of the New Yorker, who discovered Steinberg in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (where he was a refugee from Fascist Italy and Romania), jumped in to help secure his American passage in 1942; and why “Wild Bill” Donovan of the OSS pulled strings to see that the weakhearted, nearsighted, mildly “psychoneurotic” Steinberg, who barely spoke English, would become a navy officer (Steinberg was assigned to create demoralizing drawings that would be dropped on Axis territory). It’s also no wonder that when Steinberg finally settled in New York, he was a huge hit, bagging a berth in a Museum of Modern Art show (“Fourteen Americans”), numerous commissions, and top rank among the_ New Yorker_’s artists.

But the details of Steinberg’s life, oy! Even his most devoted companion, his wife, the painter Hedda Sterne, who endured sixteen years of infidelity with Steinberg, then became his best friend—she called their marriage license “the first of Saul’s phony documents, maybe”—once sent him a note, as Bair describes it, “telling him that every time she talked to him it upset her so much that she had to pull out some of his past drawings and study them intently before she could get over her distress at what he had become.”

For readers of Saul Steinberg, relieving the distress of Steinberg-the-person with Steinberg-the-artist isn’t easy. In this lengthy biography, which chronicles even his mother’s complaints about a refrigerator and his dithering about studio renovations, there is a surprisingly slight selection of images of Steinberg’s works, and the images that do appear are often not keyed to the text. Where drawings should be are descriptions of drawings. Long descriptions. Here is Steinberg’s first published drawing, in Bertoldo, in Bair’s words:

. . . a dandy who wears a top hat, carries a cane, and sports an enormous black beard is leaning against a Corinthian column. Behind him is a similar male figure, disproportionately large compared to the small horse on which he is riding. Behind the rider are two barren twiglike trees (or perhaps flowers), stuck in urns in the middle of a small plot of grass. . . .

And it goes on.

It’s disconcerting that an artist’s biography would be so bereft of art, especially art put in the context of the life. But in Steinberg’s case, it’s a killer. His drawings were the filter for his life. They made him bearable and memorable and fun, made him him. Without them, his life is just a pileup of publications, dinner parties with famous friends (S. J. Perelman, Bellow, Cartier-Bresson), travelogues (Vermont, Moscow, Africa), lucrative commissions (a mural here, a Hallmark card there), aches (tooth, heart), mood swings (down, down, down), maps, menus, and, above all, women. (Even at his wedding dinner, he was playing footsie under the table with another woman.)

As the ever-acute Sterne put it, Steinberg’s problem was that “he knew how to add, not subtract.” He loved what he termed “the luxury of women” (he had codes for keeping track of them) and shopping for “junck.” His saving grace was that he put a lot of what he accumulated (except the women) to use. Because of his economy, the first quarter of the biography is fascinating; you see the sources of the Steinberg essentials: the female martinets, the rubber stamps, the fancy military uniforms. Nothing in his life, it seems, went to waste, whether it was a traumatic immigration experience, a beloved cat named Papoose, or the sight of a “toothpick bird” in a crocodile’s open mouth.

Steinberg’s first object was his kvetchy, sadistic mother-from-hell, Rosa. And he made hilarious hay of her, as Bair recounts: “Saul’s earliest published drawings began to feature a character called Zia Elena, a huge battle-ax of a woman with a body like Rosa’s and a face like Mussolini’s.” He also made verbal fun of her, long harboring a private definition of what the words sub rosa meant. That’s funny and poignant. Great biography, too.

Unfortunately, Bair repeats almost this exact description of Zia Elena forty-two pages later. And, what’s worse, whenever Rosa comes back into the picture—which she often does, until she finally drops dead (yay!) in 1961—Bair seems bent on having us, her readers, suffer what Steinberg suffered and what she herself suffered as an enslaved biographer plowing through Steinberg’s junck-yard. Allow me to pass on a pinch of the pain, a sample of Rosa’s epistolary wailing about the house Saul bought for his parents in Cachan, a suburb of Paris: “Is this suitable for our age? [. . .] It must be very pleasant in the summer but it must also be very gloomy in the winter. [. . .] Is it a village or a little town? . . . We’ll move there and won’t find any Jews. We’ll be the only Jews among Christians. Of course it would have been better in Paris [. . .].” Okay, so it’s funny in little doses. Believe me, it’s tedious in big ones.

Anyway, what’s the point? To explain something about Steinberg’s art? Or perhaps his wild ambivalence about women? It could have been both, but in Bair’s hands, it’s neither. What Bair communicates is merely the suffering of being close to Steinberg, and being Steinberg.

You see, Steinberg wasn’t only the man he wanted to be, “the writer who draws,” but also, it appears, a miserable man with a pathological fear of family. He rarely met a woman he didn’t try to bed (yes, even the teenage daughters of friends). But the main women in his life he held at arm’s length by turning them into whining dependents, including his sister, Lica, his first girlfriend, Ada Cassola, and his last one, the tall German Sigrid Spaeth, twenty-two years his junior, who “was reputed to have deliberately vomited on a society hostess’s dinner table because she was bored by the company,” and who, after thirty-five years under the deadly pressure of Saul’s checkbook, ended her life by jumping off the roof of an apartment building (where Steinberg had bought her a home).

As far as I can tell, only one woman close to him escaped this cold dependency, and that was his wife of six decades, the Romanian-born Sterne, now best known as the only woman in “The Irascibles,” the group of Abstract Expressionists famously photographed for Life magazine in 1951. Unlike others, Sterne didn’t depend on Steinberg for money or contacts (she introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim and her cadre of emigré artists). She was his equal, especially in wit. When he asked her, “Why do I feel the need to talk to you every single day?” she replied, “Oh, that’s easy. . . . It’s because we are the two people in the world who love you most.”

Through a blizzard of Steinberg’s one-night stands and full-blown affairs (including ones with her close friends), Sterne retained her cool and her painting career. She managed his business and cooked his dinners (earning herself a fake cooking diploma from her husband). And both before and after they separated, in 1960, they were such great friends that Steinberg, as Sterne noted, “always brought his girlfriends home” for her approval. She was also, by Steinberg’s request, the one holding his hands when he died, in 1999: “I am still thinking. Can you hear me?” he asked.

Apparently Sterne gave Steinberg something no one else could—full protection from becoming anyone else’s husband or anyone’s father, ever. By joint agreement, Saul was effectively the child produced by the marriage of Sterne and Steinberg. And whenever another child threatened to take his spot, he took action. For instance, as Bair notes, “when the proud mother of a newborn took them into the nursery during a dinner party . . . Saul rubbed his shoe back and forth on the carpet, then touched his finger to the baby’s nose to produce an electric shock.”

Clearly Baby Steinberg had his charms. Everywhere he went—and he went everywhere—he had women, supporters, and dinner invitations. He loved being the darling child at the center of it all. At one dinner party, “when Saul could not hear what Sandy [Calder, the sculptor] was telling him, he sat on his knee to hear him better.” He recalled, “I thought afterwards that I had not sat on a man’s knee in sixty years!”

Bair, after noting practically every Steinberg mood swing over eighty-four years and bristling, it seems, at her subject’s mind-numbing narcissism, nonetheless skirts any real interpretation. She observes that Steinberg believed his consuming problem was his “fear of the definite,” which he blamed on his childhood as a Jew in Romania—that “fucking patria who murdered millions, who never accepted me.” What does the biographer make of that? Bair, by this point a grudging servant, shackled to her subject and buried in the junck of his life, is strangely mum.

Sarah Boxer is the author of a graphic novel, In the Floyd Archives, the editor of an anthology, Ultimate Blogs, and a critic.