Books: The writer who drew

An enthralling tale of the life, loves, pain and art of New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg.

New Yorker Cartoonist Saul Steinberg 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
New Yorker Cartoonist Saul Steinberg 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some Jewish men too easily blame their persistent malaise upon mistakes made by their overbearing mothers. But in Deirdre Bair’s beautifully wrought biography of The New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, perhaps a case can be made.
In 1914, Steinberg was born into a turbulent Romanian family filled with unidentified toxic currents that damaged young Steinberg and his beloved older sister, Lica. The siblings bonded together against the nervous chaos of their mother, who wreaked havoc upon all of them. Bair writes, “Rosa was strong and outspoken and, depending on the mood of the moment, did not hesitate to erupt in joy or rage. The household was dominated by her swift mood changes.”
There is a telling photograph in the book that shows a skinny 12-year-old Steinberg at the Black Sea with his family in 1925. His body language speaks volumes about the inner torment that was already brewing. His arms are crossed and he stands somewhat apart from the rest of his family, as if he already knows that his later life will not include them.
But geographical distance and success was never enough to quell the void that encapsulated him. Bair sadly surmises that “Saul hated himself for what he called his ‘radar with mother.’ A lovehate affinity that dominated the household and created distance and formality between him and his gentle father, who learned to fear his stern adult son almost as much as he feared his formidable wife.”
Yet Steinberg recalls with great delight how his early fascination with freehand drawing was energized by exposure to his father’s business in Bucharest.
Moritz Steinberg’s factory manufactured cardboard boxes of every shape and size. Young Saul recalls his father’s workspace as a wonderland of “embossed paper, colored cardboard, and rubber stamps.” Saul loved most the large wooden blocks of type used to create letters for posters. He spoke Romanian and French at school, and Yiddish with his parents at home, and although they were not an observant family, he recalls a perpetual anxiety about the Jewish outsider status that shadowed him everywhere.
Steinberg studied architecture in Milan in 1933 until he was forced to flee. During his time in Italy he forged one of his closest friendships with a fellow student at the Regio Politechnico.
Although he had trouble connecting with people and could often be cold and abrupt and even cruel, he felt a special kinship with Aldo Buzzi. They would remain lifelong friends. Steinberg describes having wonderfully intense philosophical talks with Buzzi about “what would happen if an artist drew a single line and allowed it to evolve into a drawing.” It was in Milan that Steinberg developed his signature style, which involved drawing life on the streets with his own unique and sometimes perplexing take; images filled with whimsy and irreverent imagination.
Many have had difficulty categorizing Steinberg’s work, since it seems to defy classification. His wife, the artist Hedda Sterne, thought his talent was magical in that it had the ability to bring “a tender smile upon things one never looks twice at.” He was consumed by American culture and society and his work chronicles the drastic changes that took place in America from the early 1950s through the late 1970s. His New Yorker cartoons drove readers to the brink of madness in their quest to understand his vision. He enjoyed making readers uncomfortable and wanted to provoke thought. For example, in 1962, a cover of The New Yorker featured his work; a meditation on the numbers “5” and “2.” The cartoon shows a trim and tailored “5” sitting confidently in a chair on the left with a thought balloon above its head brimming over with complicated mathematical equations and symbols. On the chair opposite, a “2” sits, looking dejected, with no balloon above it to express any thoughts.
When interviewed about the meaning of this piece, he impishly explained that he felt a five to be a more solid number than a two, since two felt womanly to Steinberg and therefore lacking in strength.
Other symbols that frequently appear in his work are a man on horseback, all types of passports and legal documents, question marks, letters of the alphabet, rubber stamps and the words “yes” and “no.” Critics have compared Steinberg to Picasso and Paul Klee, but Bair is impressed with his ability to hold on to an almost primitive, childlike wonder which infuses his drawings. He worked feverishly and with great pride for The New Yorker for over five decades and still devoted a good portion of every year to commercial pursuits. He drew murals on the walls of new buildings, designed catalogues, created greeting cards and gift wrap, designed wallpaper and produced books of artwork that focused on various themes. He liked to consider himself “a writer who draws.” He never stopped.
Neither did the pain. Bair reveals that Steinberg filled his life with nonstop activity but still often barely managed to cover the fragility that lay beneath it.
His relationship with his parents remained very strained. He left his wife for a younger German girl named Sigrid Spaeth, with whom he seems to have had a most disturbing attachment. The two of them remained locked in a ferocious battle of wills and various humiliations that ended with her suicide after many torturous decades. He had countless affairs. He traveled extensively and extravagantly. Although his calendar was filled with decades of dinner parties with some of the most interesting people of his time, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Willem de Kooning, Saul Bellow and Harold Rosenberg, he seems to have only been able to summon strong feelings in his heart for his cat, Papoose, and for the acclaim poured upon him by his fans. His mind was truly at war with itself. He spurned all attempts to help him and looked down upon psychotherapy.
He had no interest in children.
All of his relationships seemed to center around his own needs and desires, and he dismissed people easily when he tired of them, with little thought for their suffering.
Something about this biography is unnervingly alive; almost pulsing with a steady stream of low-level pathos – one Deirdre Bair seems familiar with.
Bair has received great praise for her biographies of Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Carl Jung and Anais Nin.
Her portrait of Steinberg is unusually penetrating and one can sense an almost visceral connection between herself and her troubled subject. It’s not difficult to imagine that if Bair and Steinberg had actually known one another, they might have been lovers or friends, or perhaps rivals – or maybe all three. And that’s what will keep you enthralled throughout this terrific work.