Cartoon Blues: The Life of The New Yorker’s Favorite Depressive Is Drawn Out in New Bio

Saul Steinberg was the best-loved nonwriter in the history of The New Yorker. He did cartoons, fake maps, trick diplomas

Saul Steinberg. (Photo by Gjon Mill/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Saul Steinberg. (Photo by Gjon Mill/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Saul Steinberg was the best-loved nonwriter in the history of The New Yorker. He did cartoons, fake maps, trick diplomas and tinkered-with postcards, a sketchbook from behind the Iron Curtain and another on the road with the Milwaukee Braves. Often he just did the doodles (the “spots,” as editors called them) adorning the columns of spotless prose. He even drew some of the advertisements that appeared in the magazine’s margins, until he got so rich he stopped needing the work. The Romanian-born Steinberg did his first New Yorker drawing for Harold Ross in 1941 and his last for David Remnick in 1999, the year of his death. Along the way, he did 90 covers, a number that continues, posthumously, to rise; Steinberg’s ghost most recently had the cover last week. His masterpiece appeared 36 years earlier, on March 29th, 1976: “View of the World From 9th Avenue,” his emblem of New York self-centeredness, in which the expanses of Ninth and 10th Avenues give way to a fat strip of the Hudson, the foreshortened flyover states and the tapered specks of far-off Asia.

Steinberg was an intellectual who made a big deal of not being too intellectual. With William Shawn, his friend and editor, he shared a lighthearted, no-bullshit style. “The true lover of art,” Steinberg once said, goes through a museum “on roller skates and is extremely tired after five minutes.” He could be ironic about his adoptive homeland. His America was a green land of Red Indians, road trips and cliché. His classic drawings—of an ordinary “E” contemplating a jazzed-up “É” in a thought bubble, of a stick-figure knight on horseback tilting his lance at a giant baby, of Santa Claus and Sigmund Freud presiding over a pyramid of Americana—have the character of agreeable riddles. They were existential cartoons for people who thought existentialism was too serious and cartoons not serious enough. Steinberg’s knack for being deep without being difficult made him the darling of gallerists and editors. By the time he died, at age 84, it had long since made him famous. In his obituary for Steinberg, Adam Gopnik proclaimed him the “greatest artist to be associated with [The New Yorker] and the most original man of his time.”

Between the greatness of the artist and the originality of the man, the biographer builds a bridge. Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg: A Biography (Nan A. Talese, 752 pp., $40), a tremendous feat of fact-gathering marred by a lot of bad writing, provides the reader with evidence to construct several versions of its subject. Steinberg was by turns a striver, a genius, a prankster, a victim, a great friend, a bad husband, a self-deluding roué and a grim old man whose “suicidal ideation” was only halted by the pancreatic cancer that killed him. The biography teeters under the weight of these contradictions, and one often wishes that Ms. Bair had tried harder to give her findings the shape of a story.

As for her prose style, one wishes that Ms. Bair had tried harder in general. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a figure as sui generis as Steinberg would be stalely praised for “refreshing originality,” but a sentence like “His contribution to the genre’s evolution was with innovative drawings that departed from the expected and took the viewer into the realm of the surprising and unexpected,” which makes a bland observation and then repeats it three times, is so bad that it casts doubt on both the writer and the editors behind her.

It’s the kind of sloppiness that can sometimes detract from an interesting story. Laid out in full, Steinberg’s life assumes the dimensions of a cautionary tale about the human costs of a career in irony. One of his favorite images was of a “toothpick bird” perched inside the maw of a crocodile: “Nobody in the world is as safe as that bird in the crocodile’s mouth.” It’s easy to see Steinberg, who liked to laugh in the teeth of tragedy, in that bird, but his biography gives one cause to wonder what all the crocodile breath may have done to his soul. It turns out that he was a pretty unpleasant guy who was capable of ugly behavior. One surprise of Ms. Bair’s biography is that Mr. Gopnik, no indifferent parent, would show such personal esteem for a man who, rumored to have a thing for too-young women, once gave a sleeping baby a static shock on purpose. “All he wanted was to create a situation where the child would always remember him,” as Steinberg explained over the baby’s tears to its mother.

The ability to be childlike even in child abuse wasn’t the only one of Steinberg’s paradoxes. He was a depressive who liked to drive sports cars, a perfectionist who preferred his work to appear in the pages of a perishable, general-interest weekly, a self-described “writer who draws.” He preferred the company of art critics like Harold Rosenberg to the crazy artists Rosenberg wrote about. Ms. Bair makes it clear that Steinberg was a man who lived for adultery, yet he could also be improbably loyal: for decades, he funded the lives of parents he didn’t like (he modeled his caricatures of Mussolini on his mother), a half-dozen cousins he hardly knew, a college girlfriend who cheated on him and the guy she cheated on him with. That guy, Aldo Buzzi, was such a close friend that he ended up with the byline on Steinberg’s memoirs; it’s hard to write about Steinberg without recourse to oxymorons of this kind.

Ms. Bair describes Saul Steinberg’s life as “a parallel to the history of the twentieth century,” and it’s true that he lived on a grand scale. Steinberg was raised by lower-class Jewish parents in the Bucharest of the 1920s. In 1933, he moved to Milan to study architecture, where he got his start cartooning for a satirical weekly called Bertoldo. Soon, the precarious expat with the “X-ray” physique had a fan base, a few girlfriends and enough spare cash to stand drinks for friends. Success stories are always a little opaque, but Ms. Bair still might have done a better job explaining the ease with which Steinberg transformed doodling into a living. He continued to draw for Bertoldo until 1938, when Mussolini began enacting a raft of anti-Semitic legislation and work dried up for “the foreign Jew.” By 1940, he had surrendered himself under pressure to his local police chief, who remanded him to the Italian concentration camp at Tortoreto.

This disaster set the stage for five decades of professional windfalls. Steinberg’s term in Tortoreto only lasted a month, as Romanian relatives living in America successfully intervened to get him out of Europe. He ended up in Santo Domingo, a city he found “vulgar.” He surfaced on the radar of New Yorker founder Harold Ross. “I’m told he’s in his twenties, and a man of ideas,” Jim Geraghty, The New Yorker’s art director, told Ross, and by late June of 1942 he had helped Steinberg immigrate to the United States. He’d hardly arrived when, in 1943, he was packed off to China by “Wild” Bill Donovan’s OSS. “God knows how your knowledge of the Italian people will benefit you in China,” commented Geraghty, “but perhaps the Navy knows best.” By the time he returned, Steinberg was engaged to the Romanian-American painter Hedda Sterne. He was already endeared to New Yorker readers, for whom he’d done a series of well-liked drawings about his forays in the Orient.

Settling in America involved Steinberg in a lot of traveling beyond America. He was a frequent flier when flight was glamorous, haring around the globe to meet deadlines, arrange exhibitions, have sex with women Ms. Bair leaves unnamed and dine with friends whose celebrated surnames are searchable in her index. Ms. Bair works hard to untangle these itineraries, and though the researcher in her is clearly game, the writer can seem overwhelmed. I lost count of the number of times that she described Steinberg’s lifestyle as “frenetic.”

It’s true that with his trademark big glasses and bald head, Steinberg could seem omnipresent. He was popular, promiscuous and lucky. Typical was his trip to Russia, where The New Yorker dispatched him in 1956. On the flight over, he was seated next to Graham Greene. It was their only meeting, and they got drunk together. Greene told Steinberg what kind of coat to take to the tundra. This cameo kicks off one of the biography’s funnier sequences, in which Steinberg, bored by Soviet hosts who repeatedly send him to pompous cultural events (“Once again he had to sit through Don Quixote”), starts ducking away between arias for quickies with strangers (“Girl from Swedish Embassy”). Though Steinberg, like his biographer, was mostly discreet enough not to name names, he wasn’t above itemizing his trysts in a diary he knew his wife was bound to read. “Do you want to live with such a monster?” he once asked her.

Sterne left Steinberg in 1960. To the extent that Ms. Bair has given her material dramatic shape, it’s as a tragedy culminating in the suicide of Sigrid Spaeth, Steinberg’s chief girlfriend for the next 35 years, with Steinberg’s personal coldness in the role of nemesis. (He “deflavorized” emotions, according to Sterne.) Spaeth was a German woman 20 years Steinberg’s junior whom Steinberg met at a party. She became his sexual obsession. She used to joke about her parents’ role in Kristallnacht at dinners on the Upper East Side. Ms. Bair theorizes that Steinberg, who donated to Jewish charities, found this exciting. Though he paid her expenses, Steinberg couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, do much for her career as a designer of book jackets. Spaeth depended on his stipends even when they weren’t speaking. She was always high-strung, but it’s possible that Steinberg’s combination of munificence and neglect drove her insane. “I hope I am not dying,” she wrote of one failed suicide attempt—“despite the interesting side effects it would have on Saul.”

When, in 1996, Spaeth fatally jumped off the roof of her apartment building on Riverside Drive, Steinberg mailed photocopies of her suicide note to friends. This seems to have been his way of grieving for her. Though he had given her nearly everything she owned, Spaeth willed the bulk of her assets to her analyst, a Jungian whom Steinberg had placed on retainer. Steinberg fell into a melancholy, and when he became suicidal, he was persuaded to try electroshock therapy, which damaged his memory but didn’t work. He died in 1999, his self-loathing, to all appearances, intact. “Mr. Steinberg, you don’t know how to be close, only in the mind,” Spaeth wrote him in 1970. “But I am human not an idea and the caress of a bum at the right moment when I needed it was more assuring than all your words.”

The opposition of life and art—of “the caress of a bum” and the “brooding of the hand,” as Steinberg once described doodling—is a heavy subject; yet the Steinberg-Spaeth psychodrama doesn’t carry the weight it should. This might be because Ms. Bair has so little to say about Steinberg’s work. “By putting his own particular spin on what he drew,” she writes, “he could turn his subjects into an ‘aha!’ moment for those who beheld his work.” Discussion of “aha!” moments is about as epiphanic as her art criticism gets, and it’s a shame. A biographer who saw more in the art might have seen more to like, or understand, in its maker. For this “sweetest of cruel men” was well aware of the tax he paid on his devastating gifts. “I have tried so hard to break through the asbestos that coats me,” he said. “Inside, deep inside, I am soft.” Whether the softness within would excuse the asbestos without was a question for which Steinberg didn’t have an answer. He knew that “work was … the only form of altruism the artist has.” Did he work hard enough?

Cartoon Blues: The Life of The New Yorker’s Favorite Depressive Is Drawn Out in New Bio