On March 29, 1976, Saul Steinberg's map of the world as seen from Manhattan appeared on the cover of the New Yorker, delighting the magazine's readers with its satire—and ratification—of the Big Apple's extravagantly chauvinistic self-image. The broad pavements of Ninth and Tenth avenues give way to an expanse of blue representing the Hudson River, on whose distant shore one espies New Jersey and such haphazardly labeled landmarks as Kansas City, Texas and Las Vegas—while the Pacific Ocean, Japan, Russia and China crowd the far horizon. The image capped Steinberg's reputation as the droll philosopher-poet of the drawn line, a purveyor of wry insight into the predicaments, foibles and limitations of the cultural elite.
By Deirdre Bair
Doubleday, 732 pages, $40
One might expect a biography of Steinberg to possess all the qualities of a glass of champagne—delightful, effervescent and not terribly deep. Most writing on the cartoonist consists of facile praise for his visual wit, supplemented by society-page chatter about the glittering parties he attended with famous friends, from Uta Hagen to Salvador Dalí. Deirdre Bair has produced something altogether superior in "Saul Steinberg," a meticulously researched and soberly written portrait revealing an artist whose personality was both more troubled and more troubling than his fans would have ever imagined.
Born outside Bucharest, Romania, in 1914, Steinberg was "a spindly boy, thoughtful, introspective and plagued by childhood diseases and vague illnesses," Ms. Bair writes. He delighted in the workmanship of his paternal grandfather, a military haberdasher, whose creations found their way into the cartoon dreamscape of Steinberg's adulthood, where outlandishly attired admirals doff their plumed hats to passing generals and viceroys. Steinberg's beleaguered father—married to a shrew, according to his son—eked out a living as a fabricator of cardboard containers, laboring, as Ms. Bair tells us, "in an alley where rats prowled like cats and horses struggled to pull carts perilously overloaded with boxes up a steep hill through what seemed a never-ending tunnel of wind." The block letters and rubber stamps that Steinberg's father used for labeling became the lad's earliest playthings. When asked in later life about the anthropomorphized words, numbers and punctuation marks that dance, prance and stroll through his drawings, Steinberg replied that it was "not such a great invention—it was something always known to me."
A pronounced strain of melancholy ran through Steinberg's childhood. As he realized "how restricted daily life was for Romanian Jews," art became an escape. Eager to flee, he went abroad in 1933 to study architecture in Milan, where he discovered that women found his boyish charm irresistible; he neglected his schoolwork to flirt at the Gran Caffè Biffi. He began to publish cartoons—many subtly mocking the Mussolini regime—in the satirical magazine Bertoldo. He later recalled the sweet pleasure of "making money out of something I enjoyed doing and then spending it as soon as I made it." This happy state of affairs ended in 1938, when Italy's first anti-Semitic decrees were passed, making it impossible for Jews to publish openly. With war clouds gathering and Jews facing the prospect of internment, the time had come to leave Europe.
In 1940, Steinberg found his way to the United States, where some of his work had been published in major magazines, including Vogue and Life. (Editors, along with family members already resident in the States, sponsored Steinberg's visa application.) In New York, Steinberg began his long association with the New Yorker, where he immediately found an eager audience for his manner of visual wit. He fell in love with the married artist Hedda Sterne, a sophisticated Romanian émigré who worked in an Abstract Expressionist style and counted Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner among her many friends. After two years' service in the U.S. Navy, designing propaganda leaflets to be dropped behind enemy lines, Steinberg returned to New York and persuaded Sterne to divorce her husband.
Sterne and Steinberg married, but Steinberg's idea of marriage, as Sterne would later put it, "was that he should be free, free, free, and not one bit guilty because of a girlfriend, or actually, a lot of girlfriends." His philandering was obvious to the long-suffering Sterne and everyone in their circle. In 1961, after "16 years of infidelity" (Sterne's phrase), they finally separated—but did not divorce. Steinberg promptly moved in with Sigrid Spaeth, a beautiful 24-year-old.
By this time, Steinberg was doing well financially, thanks not only to his cartoons but to commercial commissions. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he received $10,000 annually to design greeting cards for Hallmark, turned out high-priced advertising work for Madison Avenue firms, and created murals for restaurants, office buildings and ocean liners. The income allowed him to support Spaeth—and himself—in high style.
Yet if Steinberg's treatment of Sterne had been unkind, his arrangement with Spaeth reeked of exploitation: on one side, Steinberg's vanity and elaborate sexual desires; on the other, Spaeth's destitution, dependency and emotional fragility. Ms. Bair's harrowing account of this 35-year love-hate relationship, which ended with Spaeth's suicide in 1996, draws upon a multitude of unpublished diaries, journals and letters. A tour de force of biographical craftsmanship, it makes for very disturbing reading.
While with Spaeth, Steinberg continued his extracurricular lechery. He pursued affairs and even propositioned the teenage daughters of acquaintances, for which he was reprimanded by outraged parents. On one occasion, according to Ms. Bair, he invited a friend's 19-year-old daughter—a girl he had known since she was in diapers—to spend a weekend in the Hamptons in order, he said, to enjoy some time in the country. Drawing upon her interview with the girl—now an adult—Ms. Bair informs us that "in the middle of the night, she woke up, 'petrified with fear,' to find him in her bed. He embraced her, but she 'froze and wouldn't budge,' until he eventually 'just sort of gave up and went to his own bed.'"
Was this a moment of weakness or a typical evening for Steinberg? Sorting out the good and the bad, the laudable and the monstrous, is no easy task with any individual. Ms. Bair must be commended for the scrupulous fairness with which she portrays Steinberg. While giving a clear picture of his shortcomings, she stresses his extraordinary financial generosity, particularly with his parents, whom he spirited out of communist-bloc Romania and continued to assist for decades thereafter.
Ms. Bair draws a poignant image of Steinberg as a prisoner in a gilded cage. He apparently resented the corporate work that sustained his sumptuous lifestyle. When at last he was rich enough to turn such assignments down, he resolved to redouble his dedication to true art—but found himself at a loss. He attempted painting in oils and produced a series of undistinguished pictures of clouds; then he tried his hand at still life but got stuck in a derivative Cubist style. Steinberg was a man accustomed to lavish praise in the media circus of New York, and confronting the limits of his own talent cannot have been pleasant.
According to Ms. Bair, Steinberg once claimed "that he and Picasso were the two greatest artists of the twentieth century," an assertion interesting only because it is so arrantly delusional. Steinberg was a bona fide creative force, but his rightful place in art history lies somewhere on the level of Russian surrealist bon vivant Pavel Tchelitchew or quirky American modernist Florine Stettheimer. If he is better known than they are, it is simply because his work was published in high-profile venues—not because he was a superior artist.
Yet even if Steinberg was not an epochal figure, Ms. Bair's close attention proves amply worthwhile, for it captures the all-too-human tragedy of the minor genius.—Mr. Lopez is editor-at-large
of Art & Antiques.