Ur New York

Back in 1971, the New York Times hired Jean-Claude Suares, who goes by "J.C.," as a freelance art editor for its op-ed pages. For seven months, he suggested various images, and the Powers-That-Were rejected them all. Then one day an op-ed piece compared living in New York to living on the moon, and Suares immediately thought of a perfect image to accompany it: a drawing by the artist Roland Topor of a man hanging from the moon.

Suares had the drawing made into a lead engraving and sent it to the composing room, but the editors found it too daring. They replaced it with a photo of New York, and Suares assumed his career at the Times was over. Piqued, and with nothing to lose, he waited until late in the day, then went to the composing room and announced that the muckety-mucks had changed their minds. He watched as a compositor put Topor's drawing on the op-ed page. For good measure, Suares took the engraving of the photo and smashed it with his boot heel, so it could not go back on the page. Then he went to clean out his desk.

But that's not the end of the story, as Jerelle Kraus recounts in her gutsy, gossipy, gorgeously illustrated new book, All the Art That's Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn't): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page. The publisher loved the page that day, and so did the Times's new op-ed editor, Harrison Salisbury. Kraus describes Salisbury as the page's "Ur editor" and Suares as its "Ur-art director." Their collaboration made the page a showcase for drawings by first-rate artists from around the world, including Jean-Jacques Sempe, Rafal Olbinski and Eugene Mihaesco (who has also done many New Yorker covers).

Some readers love those drawings, and some find them irksome -- confusing, unexplained and, sometimes, absolutely unexplainable. Kraus, who spent 13 years as the page's art director, explains how many of them came to be. And she tells lots of tales out of school. Take the falling-out between Suares and Milton Glaser, former art designer of both New York and L'Express. They lunched regularly together until one day when Glaser asked Suares: "What is design?" and Suares answered: "Design is a way to kill time between meals." Apparently, Glaser did not like Suares's irreverence, and the two men haven't spoken since, Kraus writes.

But that's not the end of the story, either. According to Kraus, Suares later heard from a friend that Glaser gave a lecture in which he made an absolutely "brilliant" remark: "Design is a way to kill time between meals." For his part, Kraus reports, Glaser said he has no memory of the incident and that it's "the last reason he'd break a friendship."

These are conversations you can easily imagine taking place in midtown Manhattan -- and probably no where but midtown Manhattan. Kraus's book perfectly channels it all.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  February 13, 2009; 7:01 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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