It may seem like serendipity that Jerelle Kraus got a job with the New York Times in 1976 as art editor of the new Living section. Certainly she had experience — a year with the leftist Ramparts magazine and two years with City magazine in San Francisco, and about six months with Time magazine in New York — but not that much. And she had no East Coast connections. Yet she had the drive, humor, creativity, and basic smarts to nudge open that daunting door, and, once inside, to stay for 30 years.
Two years into her job, she spent two weeks subbing for the Op-Ed page (which sits “opposite” the editorial page) and was invited to be its art editor and spent 10 years and later another three in that position. The Op-Ed page is the subject of her new book, “All the Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t): Inside The New York Times Op-Ed Page.”
Kraus will talk about her book on December 3, at 7:30 p.m. in Room 101 of McCormick Hall, at Princeton University, under the auspices of the Friends of Firestone Library.
In her book Kraus pays homage to the pathbreaking Op-Ed page, weaving personal and editorial history to reveal not just the story of the page but, more important, the role played by art in defining its personality. “Its pictures were revolutionary,” writes Kraus. “Unlike anything ever seen in a newspaper. Op-Ed art became a fertile, globally influential idiom that reached beyond narrative for metaphor and changed the very purpose and potential of illustration.”
The rocky road to creating a workable aesthetic meant taking imaginative leaps, fighting with stodgy editors who saw sexuality in surprising places, bringing in new artists, and turning down famous ones whose pictures didn’t work (the book includes beautiful visuals of both what got in and what did not). But Kraus also had many strong supporters along the way.
Kraus spent her childhood primarily with a very young mother who still had a lot of growing up to do; her terribly unconventional father was mostly absent from the lives of his two daughters.
Her mother was 15 and her father 38 when they met. When Kraus’s Virginia-born mother visited her older sister, she met her favorite teacher, a Viennese philosophy professor. The two wrote to each other, then ran away together to California. “He seduced her through these brilliant letters,” she says. “Here was this wonderful creature, and she was this virginal young thing.”
The two stayed together for seven years, but never married. Her mother, a part-time nursery school teacher, did marry again at 30, when Kraus was 12, but divorced about five years later. It was not always easy growing up with a very young mother who needed to sow her wild oats, recalls Kraus. She remembers, for example, rehearsing her mother regarding appropriate behavior when a date came to pick up her daughter. “But when Johnny came to the door, she would not only completely forget my instructions and not say a word, but she would be flirting with Johnny,” says Kraus.
Although her mother may have been young and inexperienced, her father was over the top. Kraus lists the basics: He liked only three people — Jesus, Goethe, and Rudolf Steiner — all dead. He believed you have to live in the spiritual world and forego the material world. He didn’t use money, but got food from behind supermarkets and mowed the lawn in front of his building to pay for his basement hovel. He had no phone, but had books everywhere, including in the refrigerator. “He wore a hair shirt, figuratively,” says his daughter.
But he was brilliant, and Kraus was in awe of him. Although she saw him only on rare occasions, he wrote to her regularly. “It was only because I would occasionally write him back,” she says. “My mother and sister didn’t, which was smarter. It was painful for me to receive them.”
The letters were usually about 10 pages, she recalls, closely written on both sides of the paper. They ranted about the world’s hypocrisy and his spiritual-focused philosophy. But she could never find the way into a personal dialogue with him. “Even when I went to Calcutta alone — no matter what I did and no matter what happened in my life — it was all material and didn’t mean anything to him.”
She likens her father metaphorically to the Unabomber, who wrote letter bombs. “My father’s were similar but didn’t have physical bombs; they were verbal bombs and hard to receive,” says Kraus. Yet she felt obligated to respond every once in a while.
The last communication regarding her father was about 10 years ago in the form of a phone call from the executive director of Care in California. The organization had inherited her father’s $300,000 estate, which he had received from a younger woman who had lived with him for a year. The woman’s parents were upset, as was Kraus, who wanted to get some money for her sister, who was a single parent. They contested the will in court, but California law gave the money to Care.
At the end of her long list of acknowledgments in her new book, Kraus captures the impact of both parents on her own development. “For our shared eccentricity, which caused me to rebel and embrace the Times establishment, I thank my free-spirited mother — Joyce Robinson Kraus — for passing on her Dionysian passion and artistic gifts. And I acknowledge an Appollonian, otherworldy hermit — the absent Dr. Otto Kraus — for handing down a genetic love of language and languages.”
Kraus herself knows four languages: French from high school and a junior year abroad in Paris, Spanish from being married for 12 years to an Argentinian, and German from a Fulbright year, hoping to cross the father-daughter divide. “I wanted to be able to speak to my father in his native language,” she says. “I already knew French, his second language, and English, his third. I decided I would learn German and maybe then he would get personal with me — but he was the same in all three of those languages.”
Art has always been a part of Kraus’s life, and while in high school, she won a “Saturday scholarship” to the Chouinard Art Institute. After three years at Pomona (which included a semester at Swarthmore and the junior year abroad where she studied fine art at L’ecole des Beaux-Arts), Kraus moved to University of California, Berkeley, for her senior year, although Pomona still awarded her a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
Arriving in Berkeley during the “summer of love,” Kraus’s other, political side began to flesh out, alongside her drawing and painting. She was very active politically, heard Mario Savio speak on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1975, stood with John Reed on the Berkeley train tracks that would take troops to Vietnam, and became close friends with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman.
After receiving a master’s degree in art history from Berkeley and having returned from her Fulbright year, Kraus says she came as close as she had ever been to being a “kept woman.” Living with a boyfriend in Oakland, in a chapel that had been relocated from a church to a large garden, she was teaching French at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
That was when Kraus got a call from Ramparts magazine, inviting her to become its art director. “I didn’t even know what a portfolio was,” she says. “I had never worked for publication, but I was too proud and nervy to let them know that.” She quickly pulled together a makeshift portfolio, which included a national advertisement she had designed for a computer program on astrology created by her systems analyst boyfriend as well as “funky things I had done graphically but never for a publication.”
She was hired and learned on the job through the printers, plate makers, and the paste-up assistant, who helped her out the last three days of the month. She was particularly proud of illustrations by a Cuban artist she discovered, a cover on the Black Panthers, and one on a fire set in front of the Bank of America building.
After a year with Ramparts, Kraus got a call from City magazine, newly founded by Francis Ford Coppola, asking her to be the art and creative director. She accepted, but after two years ditched the West coast for New York City, the center of magazine publishing in the United States.
A California conceptual artist, Lynne Hirschfeld, had invited Kraus to be the single live-in element of a conceptual piece to be installed in Manhattan at the Plaza Hotel, the YWCA, and the Chelsea Hotel, with a bus shuttling people between the locations. Kraus was to stay in a small room at the Chelsea and be available 24/7 to show visitors the installation.
By then it was 1976 and Kraus had a portfolio. Although she had no contacts in New York, she decided to “be nervy,” and having seen Time magazine on stands all over Europe, she decided to try it first and was hired as an art director.
But Kraus’s style was not a good fit with the buttoned-down Time magazine. Tired of constantly toning down her work, she decided in 1976 to apply to the New York Times after hearing it was about to add lifestyle sections, and the paper hired her to start Wednesday’s Living section. Luckily, Kraus had finally found her niche. “The New York Times was much more funky and to my taste, and more intellectual,” she says, adding that she also felt freer and was having more fun. In her little fiefdom she got to do the kinds of conceptual covers she loved, for example, a sandwich posed atop a piece of sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and a map of Italy in spaghetti.
In 1978 Kraus subbed for the then-eight-year-old Op-Ed page for a couple weeks under Charlotte Curtis. Not long after, Curtis asked her twice to art direct the page, but Kraus said no twice (because she was concerned about handling a daily page) and then accepted. “I started thinking about how exciting it was,” she says. “I love politics, and I love art, and they are really combined in this page. But the thing that got me was when she told me that when I substituted, they got more mail about the art than they had ever gotten before.”
The two women were very different but worked well together. Kraus describes herself as “more of an outspoken, politically left, bohemian type of person” and Curtis as “a very elegant person” who knew office politics and who skewered high society with her iconoclastic prose. The two got on famously, because they respected each other.
The job itself was a perfect fit for Kraus. “I had a great time doing Op-Ed, but it was very demanding,” she says. “If a war starts on a Sunday, or if a major dictator or a president dies, you have to come in on the weekend and change the page. It was thrilling and very addictive, and I loved it.”
Kraus shepherded the page’s art through the 1980s, as the Cold War played itself out under Reagan and various Russian dictators.
Under Bob Semple, the page’s next editor and the one Kraus worked with the longest, the page received an article from President Richard Nixon urging Ronald Reagan, who had dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” to meet with his Soviet counterpart in a summit, as insurance against nuclear war. It was 1983, after Nixon had left office. “The letter should have been addressed to Reagan,” says Kraus, “but he sent it to the New York Times — of all places — which he had hated.”
Thus Kraus had to decide on an appropriate drawing. Even though Op-Ed style was not to picture an article’s author, but rather its subject, Kraus brooked convention and decided in this case on a drawing of Nixon himself in a summit with Brezhnev. “I hated Nixon like everyone else,” she remembers, “but I decided it should be a neutral drawing.”
She guessed that artists who had created the biting drawings of Nixon during Watergate, several of which appear in her book, would not create what she wanted. “I thought I was making it ugly,” she recalls, “but apparently it wasn’t as ugly as I thought.” At least President Nixon didn’t think so.
The day that Nixon’s article and Kraus’s accompanying drawing were published, the phone rang as she walked in to her office. It was the President’s press secretary, who quickly put Nixon on the phone. Their conversation went something like this:
Nixon: “I love the drawing you did for my article today, and I’d like to have the original.”
Kraus. “An original is valuable; what are you offering me?” (Often, she notes, authors would think the art accompanying an article belonged to them.)
Nixon: “I’d like to give you an autographed copy of my memoirs.”
Kraus (joking): “Brezhnev made me a much better offer.”
Nixon: Silence (Brezhnev was dead, says Kraus, but Nixon didn’t laugh.).
Kraus decided to accept Nixon’s offer, despite the dismay of friends and acquaintances who deemed Nixon totally off limits for a meeting. The next morning she met with Nixon for two-and-a-half hours, in a “Spy versus Spy” adventure complete with a secret knock, which she describes in her book.
Kraus’s next editor was Leslie Gelb, with whom she did not get along. He eventually fired her from the Op-Ed page, not from the Times. “I’m not a good heel licker, which is what he wanted,” says Kraus. He was the editorial expert, she says, but felt his decisions should stand on the art as well. “I was stubborn because he didn’t understand the art and what it said. He killed a lot of art that should have run.”
And now it is running, in Kraus’s book. She returned to the Op-Ed page again in 1993, only to meet another nemesis — not the Op-Ed editor, Mike Levitas, but Howell Raines, his boss. Raines was the first editorial page editor to interfere with the Op-Ed page. “Many of the killed pieces of art in the book were during his reign,” says Kraus, and she gives Raines his due in the form of three chapter titles: “Howell’s Reign,” “Rains Howl,” and “Reins Retracted.” Last year Kraus left the Times, which has become a little too corporate for her, to write her book.
Op-Ed art has been shown in two exhibits over the page’s life, the first in the Louvre in 1974, and then earlier this year in the “Art of the Times” exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery. And now Kraus’s book is here to document the entire Op-Ed phenomenon, but especially its art.
Author Event, Wednesday, December 3, 7:30 p.m, 101 McCormick Hall, Princeton University. Jerelle Krauss, former art director of the New York Times op-ed page, and author of “All the Art That’s Fit to Print (and Some That Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page.” 609-258-3155. .