Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about art on the New York Times’s Op-Ed page, the short life of The Chicagoan, and hoaxes in the news.

All the Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t): Inside The New York Times Op-Ed Page

By Jerelle Kraus

Columbia University Press

260 pages, $34.95

On September 21, 1970, The New York Times unveiled a new kind of page called the “op-ed,” displacing the obituaries that had long been printed opposite the editorials. This novel forum was open to nonstaff writers—and to freelance artists, who have since supplied thirty thousand or so pictures for the page and for the adjacent letters column. Jerelle Kraus, a Times veteran of three decades, served as art director for the page from 1979 to 1993. And in this generously illustrated volume, she shares the work of 134 of those artists. She also provides an intensely personal history of the page as it weathered tempests and tinpot tyrannies at the Times. Her deepest loyalty, of course, is to her artists, who set the tone of seeming ferocity: headless figures, rude caricatures, grotesque animals. These images gave the op-ed page its air of radicalism, although, as Kraus observes, “since no one knew for sure what [the art] meant, it couldn’t be proved controversial.” Most of the drawings that were censored—and Kraus offers an assortment of them—were killed on grounds of taste. Male editors were given to seeing faux breasts and phalluses, or took politically correct offense at innocent drawings. Meanwhile, a female editor, Charlotte Curtis, vetoed David Levine’s nude Kissinger because it made the globetrotting diplomat look too fat. In any case, a glance at the current, slicker version of the Times op-ed page shows that those rampant days are gone. “No cultural movement,” Kraus concludes, “survives long beyond its initial impetus.”

The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age

By Neil Harris, with the assistance of Teri J. Edelstein

The University of Chicago Press

385 pages, $65

The New Yorker began publication in February 1925. Less than a year and a half later, there appeared a very similar magazine called The Chicagoan, which made its debut with the issue of June 14, 1926. The New Yorker remains with us; its Midwestern cousin wobbled along until 1935 and vanished (almost literally, since only two files of the magazine remain intact). Now The Chicagoan has been resurrected in a big, heavy, glossily handsome volume assembled by the art historian Neil Harris of the University of Chicago. It includes Harris’s adroit history of the magazine, assiduously reconstructed despite the lack of any surviving records. Readers are also treated to one complete issue; an array of brilliantly drawn, semi-abstract four-color covers; specimens of the magazine’s none-too-stylish prose; a sampling of photographs (notably shots of the unemployed sleeping in Grant Park); and cartoons, which are no match for The New Yorker’s. Yet the magazine had at least one worthy piece of wit in its quiver, a drawing called “The New Yorker’s Map of the United States.” It identifies New York, Atlantic City, Palm Beach, and Hollywood; every other place is labeled “Dubuque.”

Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders

By Paul Maliszewski

The New Press

245 pages, $23.95

In The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville has one character ask another whether a story is true. The answer: “Of course not; it is a story I told with the purpose of every story-teller—to amuse.” Or perhaps, as Paul Maliszewski might add, to enhance the teller’s pocketbook or sense of importance. The author begins Fakers with a confession: while working at a business journal, he submitted a string of pseudonymous articles mocking the politics of that very publication. Subsequently, he became an investigator of fakes, and this book collects his writings on the subject. Less interesting than his explication of fakes long past—for example, the New York Sun’s 1835 lunar hoax—is his pursuit of present-day fakers. What should we make of Joey Skaggs, who created Final Curtain, a pseudo-business plan for cemeteries built as theme parks? In an interview with Maliszewski, Skaggs declares that the journalists he hoodwinked were, like most of their breed, perpetually seeking novelty within the realm of the familiar. The author’s most dramatic encounter is with the novelist Michael Chabon, who has repeatedly delivered a lecture that appears to give him a false personal link to the Holocaust. Maliszewski complains that Chabon has “appropriated the Holocaust for the gravity it exerts and then portrayed it in ways an audience would find comfortable and wholly familiar.” For his critique of Chabon, Maliszewski has received scant thanks. He shouldn’t be surprised by this ingratitude. After all, wasn’t the object (as Melville wrote) to amuse?

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.