An Interview with Elisabeth Stevens
by Laura Schleussner
When organizing your drawings for this book, I noticed that most of them are from the first half of the 1960s. Why?
In the early 1960s I was living in a fifth-floor, walk-up apartment on York Avenue in New York City. I was working on my PhD in English Literature at Columbia and also writing a novel and teaching, and I needed money. You could get ten dollars apiece for these drawings, if they were published.
I mostly worked for three magazines: The New Leader, a liberal magazine, The National Review, a right-wing magazine, and Challenge, a business magazine. I would do sample drawings and then go around to different magazines with my big portfolio — you had to leave you portfolio with the editors. I would take the subway, and it was always hard to get through the turnstiles with the portfolio. My rent at the time was sixty-five dollars, so ten dollars for an ink drawing was something.
In 1965 I moved to Washington and started working for The Washington Post, eventually as a full-time journalist. Although I still did drawings of people I interviewed, I was very busy writing. I worked from 4:30 pm to midnight at the Post, and then I would get up at 9:00 am to write for art magazines, such as Arts.
The 1960s was a turbulent decade. This book begins with the wonderful drawing, almost a caricature, of Richard Nixon from his 1960 presidential campaign, which he lost to John F. Kennedy. Your drawings also feature the riots following James Meredith’s enrollment as the first black student of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. Where you personally invested in these issues? Did you witness these events first hand?
The images definitely reflected my opinion, even if I am not primarily a political writer or artist. To some extent my views were influenced by my first husband, Farrell Grehan, a journalistic photographer for The National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post. Of course, working for different publications, I tried to capture current events. I certainly felt a bit funny working for the National Review, which was very slanted to the right. In my opinion, their articles were not always truthful.
The assassination of Kennedy was a terrible shock. In a way he represented America and hope to people in third world countries. People living in a shack in India would have a picture of him. He gave his famous speech at the Berlin Wall. What he represented was maybe greater than who he was. But fact that he had been cut down so mysteriously, so inexplicably, so young shook the entire country. On impulse I went down to Washington and stood in line for hours in front of the Capitol, where his body was laid out in state, lines going all the way down the street. The drawings of the funeral I did on this trip.
For my drawings about the horrible riots at “Old Miss”—I probably got them from the newspaper or my imagination. Another source of images was the Picture Collec-tion at the New York Public Library. You could go there and ask for pictures on any topic, and they would show them to you.
Did you have a TV?
We listened to the radio. My first husband and I loved Pacifica Radio from California, Sunday morning with Alan Watts. I didn’t get a television until I lived in Washington, in 1964 or 1965.
Your main interests and aims were literary, but how did you get started doing drawings and earning money that way?
After graduating from college in 1951 I got a government job in Washington, but after a while I told them I was leaving to go study painting in New York. In the 1950s that was like being a communist or something. I then enrolled at the Art Students League and studied with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a Japanese artist who was also a printmaker. He was not very supportive — he was battling cancer and died in 1953 — but he told me that I was a graphic artist, and that I should paint more, but I liked the black and white ink drawings that I saw in a lot of magazines. There was not so much color in magazines at the time. But after a year I had to give up going to the League, since I could not afford it. I hated giving it up! I was working at Barnes and Noble on Lower Fifth Avenue for twenty-five dollars a week. My room cost fifteen dollars a week for rent and board. The remaining ten dollars a week was just not enough …
So I was stuck in these awful, little secretarial jobs that were hateful. Then my uncle, Elihu Root, Jr., helped me get a job at the in the slide collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for sixty dollars a week. There the woman who was my boss kept telling me that I had to wear high heels to work, to stand around and catalogue slides, but I couldn’t because my feet were so narrow — I couldn’t find shoes that fit me! That’s how things were in the 1950s.
Later, my uncle offered to send me to graduate school. This opportunity to go to graduate school changed my life. It meant a choice between being a writer or an artist. I applied and was accepted at Cooper Union for art and Columbia University for English. I chose Columbia. My reasoning was that there had not been many great women artists, but there had been a number of great women writers. Not until the 1960s did art historians begin paying attention to women.
Given this choice, it’s interesting that your drawings seemed to have provided an entry into your professional writing career—as a journalist.
You could say that, because the first article I ever published, anywhere, was a portrait of Dola, West Virginia after a mine disaster in 1963. I read about the accident in The New York Times, and I found the situation so agonizing, that I bought a plane ticket and went there by myself. I got off the plane and talked to people, and they let me go down in the mines — I’ll never forget that — and I also made drawings down there and all over the little town. I sold the article, with my drawings, to The New Leader in 1965. Before that, I did write short reviews for Art News, which paid three dollars per review. I was also doing book reviews. Around the time I wrote the Dola article, I also wrote reviews for The New Republic magazine.
My critical review of Susan Sontag’s popular Against Interpretation in The New Republic caused a lot of controversy. It’s important to learn that if you write something as a critic, some people are not going to like it. But, yes, writing the Dola article was really the beginning of my journalistic path, and soon after I quit the PhD program and moved to Washington.
So did you have any kind of training in journalism?
When I realized that I really did not want to become an English professor, I spent two weeks reading on journalism at the library at Columbia, and then I decided I needed to leave New York. I sublet my apartment and got a job in DC at a little local weekly, The Georgetowner. Then I learned that The Washington Post was looking for a part-time art critic. Nobody wanted the job. The pay was seventy-five dollars a week. My editor at Art News in New York said, “What do you want that job for? There is no art in Washington.” Well, I thought there was, and I wrote some of the first articles — first for the Post and later a long article for Art Magazine — on a group of abstract painters, including Morris Louis and Gene Davis, which later became known as the Washington Color School. Later, as a general reporter, I did two major investigative series, one on abortion, which was published, and one on prostitution, which was not — too many potential libel problems.
When did you do the New Orleans drawings?
I did those on a short vacation from the Post in New Orleans. I loved going to hear the jazz concerts at Preservation Hall, where the old jazz musicians were playing the old songs. I had a very good time.
And the ink drawings from the Cuban Missile Crisis?
This is a trip that I took on my own. I flew to Miami and rented a little red Dodge Dart, and went down to Homestead, the airbase where the U.S. was preparing for a potential invasion of Cuba in 1962. I did not have clearance and was not allowed in, but I made a lot of drawings, which I unfortunately was not able to sell.
When and where did you do all the drawings of industrial plants and buildings?
If I saw something I liked while driving, I would stop and make a drawing. When I went to visit a friend’s family in West Texas, I had never seen oil wells before — so I had to stop an draw them.
Your drawings from various writers’ and academic conferences capture a very different world.
There was a certain pretentiousness in academia at the time. These drawings are meant to be funny and have a bit of satire. I like the image of the serious professor, and behind him is a giant female nude. I felt extremely privileged to be able to continue my studies. The big stars were men, like Lionel Trilling and Gilbert Highet. I can only think of one women professor, a 17th-century expert. My favorite professor was in the art department, Meyer Schapiro. He had a different approach to art history. I felt his approach was much broader and more interesting and freer.
After becoming an art critic, every year I went to the meeting of the College Art Association. In the 1960s and after knew a lot of the historians who started to open this world to women. I remember the CAA meeting in 1971 in California with Judy Chicago. The Feminist Art Program presented Womanhouse, a house installed with environments by women artists that only women could enter. I met Judy Chicago and interviewed all these people. There were academic papers about women artists, such as Artemisia Gentileschi. Hayden Herrera was working on her book about Frida Kahlo. Later, in the 1980s came the Guerilla Girls. They were quite effective!
I gave a paper at the CAA once myself, after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study inner city arts organizations in 1966. This led to a five-part series for The Washington Post on inner city arts councils and the networks be-tween artists working in ghettos. I visited and documented a lot of murals in bleak inner city neighborhoods, talking with some of the wonderful people doing this work. The series ran on the front page of second section of the Post. You think the only good art is in New York, when you live in New York. There is good art all around the country.
Would you say that your biography — as a woman with professional goals who had children late — ran counter to of the expectations of women from your generation and background?
In the 1950s being a nice woman was kind of a prison. I did not want to be “nice,” not that I wanted to be bad. I just didn’t agree with how things were. I did not want to be a sheltered housewife, like most of my friends from my class at Wellesley. Coming from a very protected background, I had a hunger for new experience. I had relatives who had very lovely lives, but I wanted see the other side, and I think journalism was a door in that direction.
In the 1960s, there were a handful of women at The Washington Post. The highest paid and most successful woman was the gossip editor, with a private office and telephone line, for obvious reasons. And what is now the “Style Section” was called the “Women’s Section.” But the male journalists at the Post were very supportive. There I never felt put down because I was a woman.
As an individualist, not really a joiner, I never really could identify with the group mentality of the feminist movement. I think I was always just driven to learn, and that pushed me to do things.
It isn’t enough to be rich. It isn’t enough to be famous. You have to know. You have to understand. You have to see, and that can be a very hard lesson.