Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.

For the May 13 centennial of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.’s birth, Marjorie B. Cohn, author of Classic Modern, the first biography of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. to focus on his art collecting—arguably his greatest passion—and his role in bringing modernism to the American Midwestwrites here about one of the pleasures of writing the biography of a man whose life ended only twenty years before: interviews with his friends.

Marjorie B. Cohn—

The widow of Joseph Pulitzer Jr. (1913-1993), Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who had been my friend for many years before her marriage, knew of my scholarly interest in the history of collecting, and so after Joe’s death she asked me to write his cultural biography.  Eventually I agreed, she took the pledge not to be a “torch-bearing widow” – that is, to offer me her cooperation and no interference – and we began a partnership in the endeavor.  One of Emmy’s first essential acts: she prepared a list of persons I should interview, beginning with his oldest surviving friends.  As I learned more about Joe, I formed my own list of other interviewees who were only his acquaintances or perhaps even not that, just other actors on the same stages on which he had moved through a long life with multiple roles in art culture.

But this reminiscence is about those interviews with friends.  I immediately went to visit the very oldest – a few men and many women – some so frail they were already housebound.  I decided, given their age, that I should take handwritten notes.  A tape recorder or laptop would be obtrusive, even intimidating to many, especially, I realized, to several women from the same social caste into which Joe had been born, more than ninety years before.  A machine would have lacked gentility, it would have suggested somehow that their words could appear on a witness stand.  Yet the memories of two of these women provided essential, unimpeachable testimony.

Cohn 14-9-12Joe was a handsome man, elegant and attentive to women with whom he had been a friend.  It seemed – and several of them admitted as much to me – that they had all been a little in love with him, although their romantic lives had taken other paths.  And so they were all delighted to reminisce about what had been a wholly positive association, perhaps among the most glamorous of their entire lives.  Each of them had long and detailed impressions and experiences to relate, often with exact dialogue of the conversations of a half-century and more before.

After his return from college, Joe lived in a room above the garage in his parents’ house.  One of my interviewees, in her nineties and living in a St. Louis retirement home, remembered he had given a party there, which must have occurred after October 1936, because Joe had already acquired his great “Negro Period” Picasso, Woman in Yellow.  He had hung it in his room, and she remembered sitting on his bed and asking him, “How can you wake up in the morning and see a woman as ugly as that!”  Later she thought he should have dismissed her with “You silly woman…” but instead he replied, “Some day you’ll understand.”

The other interviewee was an equally elderly woman living near Chicago who in the early 1940s was studying with the conservative regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.  Joe, who was at that time married and living in a house of his own, had brought home from the Nazi “degenerate art” auction of 1939 Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle, which was filled with evidence of the artist’s starts and stops in the course of execution of this great early modernist canvas.  “Why,” she asked Joe, “did he show such a struggle he had in painting it?”  This was not the technique that she was being taught.  “Some day,” Joe replied, “you’ll understand.”

Neither woman knew the other’s report of their conversations.  I was so lucky to have caught their enduring memories, to learn verbatim not only about my biographical subject’s precocious understanding of the European breakthrough to painterly abstraction, but also his patience, unlikely in so young an advocate for the modern, with St. Louis contemporaries whose artistic sensibility differed from his own.

Marjorie B. Cohn is Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita, at the Harvard Art Museums.

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