Milton Glaser’s Film Debut

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published May 29, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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MILTON GLASER — A MANY-SPLENDORED GRAPHIC DESIGNER WHO LIVES TO CREATE

Glaser: The renowned graphic designer is the subject of a new documentary. Luncheon and her memories
Karen Leon
Glaser: The renowned graphic designer is the subject of a new documentary. Luncheon and her memories

During the question-and-answer session following the May 14 premiere of Wendy Keys’s film “Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight” — about the graphic designer extraordinaire — author and critic Steven Heller, co-chair of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design Department, blurted out to both Glaser and the audience: “I didn’t know you were Jewish!” In the film, Glaser recalls the East Bronx enclave in which he grew up as “Little Moscow… whose residents hoped to invent a better life,” as well as his family’s “dining table used once a year for Passover.” His retort to Heller: “Everybody in the design field is Jewish!” Co-founder of New York magazine, Glaser has creative output that includes the Rainbow Room, Windows on the World, Trattoria Dell’Arte, the Rubin Museum of Art, the iconic poster of Bob Dylan (with multicolored undulating hair) and the now world-famous “I ♥ NY” logo. “I love this place!” he said. “In the 1970s, when New York collapsed, I created [that] logo. It was a pro bono project, and Glaser said he was “proud to have taken part in this shift of consciousness.” Perched in a director’s chair, his straw fedora on the floor at his feet, world-renowned Glaser held court at the SVA Theater as he expounded art, cooperative creativity and his angst at his impending 80th birthday, on June 26. “I fear that day… the idea of losing my curiosity, of not being able to put two forms together, fills me with abject horror. I hope to die at my desk.”

On May 21, I visited Glaser at his East 32nd Street studio-cum-gallery. “My mother and father used to read the Forward,” said Glaser, whose parents came to the United States from Hungary. “They spoke Yiddish, but when they didn’t want me to understand, they spoke Hungarian.” His father was a tailor who, for economic reasons, opened a cleaning store. Expanding on the story of his mother’s spaghetti recipe, which provides fodder for one of the funniest moments in the film, Glaser said, “She took Mueller’s spaghetti, boiled it, then basted it with Velveeta cheese and Heinz ketchup, sliced it, then fried it in chicken fat.” He continued: “I did not want to sell art to put in homes. I wanted to be seen by the public.” Glaser’s creative arts curriculum vitae includes prints, lithographs, paintings, books, architectural design (including the interior of the SVA Theater) and supermarket design. Trying to process his comments was akin to following the trajectory of a dragonfly — hover a moment, then another observation, but always in the service of his perception of art in its infinite permutations. “I like diversity, the peculiarities of form… to see how far I could go,” Glaser said. According to him, “People are divided into hedgehogs and foxes.”  Not quite sure how to parse that one. Pigeonholing artists at random, he pronounced: “Picasso wanted everything, Georgio Morandi [with whom Glaser studied] wanted nothing; I’m an omnivore — Lautrec, Caravaggio… how can anyone be confined to one influence? Diversity!”

The film is the result of five years’ worth of filming by Keys, who used to be a programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and is currently co-producer of the society’s annual tributes to film artists. One can only wonder at the Glaser celluloid gems that ended up on the cutting floor.

In the film, Heller labels Glaser’s multifaceted talent for design as a “kind of Esperanto” that “Milton speaks well.” About to leave, I commented on Heller comparing his multifaceted creativity with a variant of the world’s most successful international language, Esperanto. I told Glaser that as a child in prewar Warsaw, I would walk with my mother along Zamenhof Street, named in honor of Esperanto’s founder — Bialystok-born (in 1859) Ludvig Lazarus Zamenhof, who grew up speaking litvishn (Lithuanian Yiddish). In 1879, Zamenhof wrote the first Yiddish grammar. He is buried in Warsaw’s Okopowa Jewish cemetery.


FOODS THAT CAN KILL — HOPE AT THE FOOD ALLERGY INITIATIVE LUNCHEON

Co-chaired by Abbey Braverman, Roxanne Palin and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the April 22 Food Allergy Initiative Spring Luncheon, held at Cipriani 42nd Street, opened with film clips of children — often several siblings in a family — who described the vigilance required to keep them alive in a world where the enemy can be a peanut, a tree nut, a sesame seed, even something as benign as the smell of cooking eggs! Their comments: “I feel different, left out, makes me feel sad, I can’t eat what they eat… I want to know what all that stuff tastes like… I only eat cake when my mom says it’s okay.” The event’s master of ceremonies, WABC-TV anchor Lori Stokes (whose own 14-year-old daughter is dealing with allergies), touted the $60 million spent on research to date, and noted that hope was on the horizon.

In a video message, 18-year-old Sarah Geffen, who has multiple-food allergies, described her upcoming four-month pre-college backpacking project through 28 countries. “Negatives can shape your life. Food allergies got me involved in public advocacy,” said Geffen, who noted that she will be traveling with parental approval. Guest speaker Dr. Hugh Sampson, a professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, described several new therapeutic approaches currently in trials. A Chinese herbal therapy shows promise. A shocking revelation was that until recently, only one-third of the ambulances in New York City had EpiPens on board! “Calling an ambulance was akin to playing Russian Roulette,” Sampson said. There is also a plan to have an allergy poster distributed to some 20,000 New York City restaurants, similar to the Heimlich maneuver poster that shows how to respond to someone who is choking.

Almost everyone at the luncheon had a family member who was allergic to one or several foods, or was himself or herself a potential victim of an “ambush” by a food — hidden or visible — to which he or she was allergic. Wolkoff described the panic she felt when her son developed hives due to “oil from nut dust from shells” and had to be rushed to the emergency room. Ingeborg Rennert, whose daughter Nina Rennert Davison was a co-chair, told me that recently in Israel, her 4-year-old grandchild was rushed to the hospital. “The first time we discovered she was allergic to nuts. There were cashews in a chicken dish she tasted,” Rennert told me.


PAJAMA PROGRAM HONORS TV STAR LUCCI AND ROSE ROCK, CHRIS ROCK’S MOTHER

“Our lives are made out of memories,” said Sharon Marantz Walsh, chair of the May 8 Pajama Program Awards Luncheon at The Pierre. Now in its seventh year, the program has evolved from an “Aha!” moment — when its founder Genevieve Piturro, discovered that children in shelters never owned pajamas or knew what they were — to a structure that to date has distributed 350,000 pairs of pajamas and 140,000 books in more than 23 countries, including Israel. Walsh noted that this year, United States soldiers stationed in Iraq requested “pj’s they could hand out to local children.” “Mother of the Year” honoree Rose Rock — the mother of 10 children (including actor Chris Rock) and 17 foster children — accepted the award from daughter-in-law Malaak Rock, Chris’s wife.

“Woman of the Year” honoree Susan Lucci, who plays Erica Kane on ABC-TV’s soap opera “All My Children,” received the award from Sherri Shepherd, co-host of the same station’s talk show “The View.” Shepherd could not resist an aside: “How many times can she come out of prison looking great?!” Among the luncheon guests was real estate maven and past honoree Jacky Tepliltzky, a Chile-born former Israeli soldier and board member, as well as representatives from some of the 73 chapters now active in 40 American states! Piturro recalled: “At the start of the program, I visited a center for children with no fathers whose mothers were in prison. I brought 12 pairs of pajamas that had been donated…. One little girl asked, ‘Where do I wear these?’ ‘To bed at night,’ I replied. She looked puzzled. [I asked her] ‘What do you wear to bed?’ She replied, ‘My pants.’” A director of the largest shelter in Philadelphia touted the program: “Children come in with garbage bags with all their possessions. When I give them pj’s, their faces change — it changes their lives.” Every speaker, presenter and honoree essentially said the same thing, including “Humanitarian of the Year” Derrick Mayes — Super Bowl champion, Green Bay Packers, All-American wide receiver, Notre Dame . The warmest, most consistent loving memory is of being tucked into bed in warm pajamas and having someone — a parent or loved one — read you to sleep.

From its beginning seven years ago, the Pajama Program has resonated on a visceral memory level. After fleeing Nazi-occupied Warsaw and finally arriving in Vilnius (then known as Vilna or Vilno) all I had was the clothing I had worn for weeks. In order to earn money, my mother managed to get a hand-operated table model Singer sewing machine. The first item of clothing she made for me was a pair of flannel pajamas. Soon she was sewing pajamas for the other refugee children, as well as for their parents. To this day, the smell of a bolt of real cotton flannel elicits warm memories of safety.


REMEMBERING SALAMO AROUCH, WHO SURVIVED 200 BOXING BOUTS IN AUSCHWITZ

In the 1990 film “Triumph of the Spirit,” the Greek-Jewish boxer Salamo Arouch — who survived 200 bouts in Auschwitz — was portrayed by a lean Willem Dafoe (whose then-recent role was as Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ.”) The real Arouch, who, I was saddened to learn, died at 86 in Israel on April 26, was physically unlike the actor who portrayed him in the film. The man I met at the Mayfair Hotel — nearly 50 years after the camp experience — was a “bull” of a man: short, stocky and solid as a tree trunk. He had been a dockworker, a stevedore in Thesalonika (also known as Salonika), Greece, where his family settled after fleeing Spain. Arouch told me that 80% of the dockworkers were Jews, and there had been three boxing clubs — the Maccabees, Betar and Nesdered Israel. “The Jewish influence in Thesalonika was so strong that the port was closed from 2 p.m. on Friday before the Jewish Sabbath until Monday morning,” he said. I noted, “Like Rome used to be.” Though he spoke some Yiddish and English, in our interview he opted for Hebrew, with an Israeli consulate translator as intermediary. He did not want to talk about the roundup of the Jews of Thesalonika or the indifference of the local population, but punctuated his narrative with the curse Yemakh sh’moy! Arouch opted to remember the “good old times” before the war, “when I was the Balkan [boxing] champion as a young man.” To describe his Auschwitz experience, he let the film do the talking. Suddenly, Arouch began to dance around the room, as if in a ring. He stopped, then described being a special guest in Las Vegas for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fights, at which he met Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Donald Trump. Switching back to the camp experience, I asked him how many prisoners took revenge. “First of all, the survivors were so weak that even if they wanted to, they were not able,” he said. “Maybe there were Jews who took revenge, but I don’t know of this. I did see Russian and Ukrainian prisoners take revenge.”

The translator suggested we talk about his wife, Marta. “She had a chance in Birkenau to shoot the officer who almost beat her to death,” he said. “A week before she was liberated, she stole a pot of food from the kitchen and the German officer ran her around the camp, caught her and started to whip her. He tore her back open and the back of her head, eventually crushing her head into the mud with his boot. Marta played dead, and when she no longer saw his boots, crawled away…. When the liberators came, they asked her, ‘Who did this to you?’ The British gave her a gun and told her to shoot the guy. They had gathered all the officers as prisoners, and she saw him… ‘I cannot do it.’ She gave the gun to a friend of hers, and she, too, could not shoot.”

Arouch said the film was a 99% accurate portrayal of his experience as a boxer who, if he won, lived. If not, this was the loser’s final bout with life. Arouch also fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

He kept veering the conversation to the present. “I have a big storage company. I have 70 trucks and two sons and two sons-in-law working for me. I have 30 workers all together. I came to Israel in a pair of shorts and what you Americans call a T-shirt, actually an undershirt.” According to his New York Times obit, he is survived by 12 grandchildren.






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