The Magazine

Man With a Line

The gimlet eye of Saul Steinberg.

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Deirdre Bair’s well-researched biography is less a work of interpretation than of reporting. Bair chronicles the year-by-year facts of her subject’s quotidian life. Her book records an odyssey of success played in counterpoint to an iliad of woe. As she builds up her details, in pointillist fashion, patterns emerge. Hedda Sterne claimed that “the mystery over [Steinberg’s] work was always ‘where did it come from?’ ” Deirdre Bair’s biography does not finally solve the mystery but, in helpful ways, greatly lessens it.

As for Steinberg’s success, along with artistic honors and critical approval, he made a vast amount of money. This came not through sales to magazines, where his drawings were much in demand, but from Hallmark, Ford Motors, Neiman Marcus, Noilly Prat vermouth, and other companies for which he made drawings to accompany their ads; he also designed wallpaper and fabrics, and created dust jackets for books and murals for restaurants. The demand for Steinberg’s work was always greater than the supply—though the supply itself never ran out, for his facility as a draftsman was unremitting and his production prodigious. 

Yet artistic and commercial success could not stay Steinberg’s depression. He blamed much of his gloomy outlook on Romania and his family. His mother, the implacable Rosa, was one of those women for whom no act of generosity, no accomplishment on her son’s part, was ever satisfactory. She drove her husband, Moritz, into psychological retreat and her son to early desertion, though a highly qualified desertion it was. Little as he could bear to be in his mother’s presence, listening to her cacophony of nagging and complaint, witnessing its shriveling effect on his father, Steinberg nonetheless supported his parents and his sister Lica and her family until their deaths. He also sent money to relatives who had emigrated from Romania to Israel, and who always had a fresh list of requests for him to fulfill. He kept his first lover, a married Italian woman, on his payroll for much of her life. 

If Steinberg’s generosity seemed more dutiful than heartfelt, it was because expansive emotions were not in his psychic portfolio. He tended to be in business for himself, emotionally as well as artistically. In conversation, he was a monologist, offended if not given the floor at dinner parties. “I am not a listener,” he acknowledged. “I am a talker.” In relationships, things had to be weighted in his favor. “We are the two people in the world who love you most,” Hedda Sterne told him, and, in their almost daily phone conversations after their separation, she claimed that “we talked only about him.” 

Steinberg was a relentless woman chaser. A small man, bald, with thick glasses and a chosen nose, he must have made up for what he lacked in animal magnetism through the aphrodisiac of his artistic fame. As he grew older, he chased younger and younger women. Friends could not leave him alone with their attractive adolescent daughters. At one point, he seduced the babysitter of painter Ad Reinhardt’s children. While still living with his wife, he began a love affair with the wife of a couple with whom he and Hedda Sterne were friendly and whose child he liked, and so he proposed, in all seriousness, a ménage à cinq

“In a way,” Hedda Sterne said, “sex was [Steinberg’s] life. He deprived himself of a true union because he was not ever in love.” His friend the art critic Dore Ashton seconded the motion, telling him, “Saul, you do not love women. What you love is your reaction to them. .  .  . I well know that deep sentiment is alien to you, that somewhere you are lamed, and that secretly you are afraid of and despise love.” Had there been an attractive woman in the room when Ashton said this, Steinberg wouldn’t have heard a word of it.