Reviewers have been noticing a certain resonance about the fiery-tressed femme fatale portrayed on the cover of Maureen Dowd’s new book, Are Men Necessary?.
Is the “bombshell in a clinging red dress” or the “flame-haired bombshell in a clingy crimson dress and matching pumps,” described by Katherine Harrison and Joy Press in The New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice, respectively, meant as a stand-in for the author herself? Dowd’s vampy hose-and-heels full-page portrait accompanying a recent New York Times Magazine excerpt from the book—and her portrayal in the noirishly headlined New York magazine cover story The Redhead and the Gray Lady—reinforced the notion that the two redheads are one and the same.
But there’s another reason Dowd’s cover girl looks so familiar: She’s virtually identical to the woman gracing the cover of the June 26, 1995 ‘Fiction Issue’ of The New Yorker
The two paintings, both by 40-year-old East Bay, CA illustrator Owen Smith, are near mirror images. The earlier woman has slightly lighter hair and a slightly less clingy dress, but both women are reading a book with one hand and straphanging with the other—while a fellow passenger in the foreground looks up and studies her curves with what undergrads might call “the male gaze.”
“She wanted me to do this woman I’d done, this archetypal 40s dame,” Smith said by phone. The woman was never meant to specifically reference Dowd, he said, but the two share some qualities: “She’s a redhead and she’s attractive… She’s a strong woman, but she’s comfortable dressing like a woman in a traditional sense.”
Initially, Dowd had wanted to buy the New Yorker cover outright, but Smith offered to update it for her. “We did a lot of sketches. It was weeks of sketches. [Dowd] had a lot of input and it was a back and forth. She was a little more hands on.”
Earlier versions of the cover depicted the redhead in different locations, sometimes reading, sometimes writing. After twenty versions faxed back and forth, the cover of Are Men Necessary? wound up resembling the original New Yorker one—albeit, in reverse.
According to Smith, the original illustration prompted a some letters to then-editor Tina Brown “from little old ladies in New Jersey” complaining that “This isn’t Playboy magazine. I expect more from The New Yorker.” (In hindsight, one is tempted to ask these writers, “Still? Under Tina Brown? Really?”)
The artist, whose retro work has adorned everything from Aimee Mann’s recent concept album The Forgotten Arm to a mosaic in the 36th Street subway station in Brooklyn, knew that some might see his illustration as a portrait of the author: “I think she was worried that it would look like she was showing off. But I think it needs to look like her a little bit. That was just a concern: We’re not illustrating her, but we’re illustrating a type.”
After all the back and forth with Dowd and her publisher, that ‘type’ coalesced: “They want to make sure she didn’t look just like a streetwalker. They wanted her to look like a working girl of the time. That kind of 40s ‘getting out in the world’ woman: she’s got a brain but she’s also attractive, she’s got a job, she’s going some place. Maybe she’s a writer.”