Playboy of the (Mid)western World

By: David Bonetti

Cohn copy

Modern Classic: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.
Marjorie B. Cohn
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-1-891771-61-3
450 pages, $45

Joseph Pulitzer Jr. (1913–1993), known as Joe, was born blessed. Endowed with supremely good looks (although perhaps a bit too Semitic for his Episcopalian-passing family), charm, refined taste in art and music, food, and fashion, and an enormous fortune that allowed him to indulge in whatever pleased him, he used his assets, personal and financial, like a character out of Henry James to explore his sensibility. By the time of his death he had assembled a great collection of modern art, ranging from Monet and Cézanne to Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin, the latter three site-specific commissions. Within a year of his 1936 graduation from Harvard, where he had studied with legendary scholar and connoisseur Paul Sachs, he had purchased six Picassos, among them Woman in Yellow (1907), one of Picasso’s most savage works. He made his purchases with his monthly allowance. He gave up the opportunity to buy Demoiselles d’Avignon because his allowance wouldn’t cover it. His gruff, reactionary father was not pleased with his art buying until he learned that they had all turned out to be good investments.

The family fortune came from publishing. Along with his great rival William Randolph Hearst, the first Joseph Pulitzer created yellow journalism in turn-of-the century New York City, introducing the color comic strip to American diets. His genius was to endow a prize in his name for journalistic excellence, which his papers seldom merited. By the time Joe took over the family business it had shrunk back to the Midwest, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch its final stand. (Joe’s widow, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, and his half-brother sold the corporation, killing it in 2005.) If you want to know all about journalism in that boom town turned ghost town under the Pulitzer’s watch, this is not the book for you. This is a book about Joe the art collector, and it is a great read, especially for those on the Harvard/St. Louis axis.

Like most families of great wealth, especially in backwaters like St. Louis, the Pulitzers surrounded themselves with sycophants. Marjorie B. Cohn, Fogg Museum print curator emerita and great friend and former colleague of Emily Rauh, the second Mrs. Pulitzer, does not lower herself to the flattery generally expected of those in their pay. However, this is a book that shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers along the Mississippi: it spins a favorable tale of Joe, the art collector, arts patron, and family man. Still, professional credentials at stake, Cohn can’t give the problematic aspects of Joe’s collecting career a free ride, although the full story is usually told in the footnotes. Even then, there are a few surprising omissions.

Cohn raises the subject of rumors about Joe’s homosexual tendencies, but despite the facts that his father considered him “unmanly” and that most of his close friends, starting with his St. Marks roommate, were gay, dismisses them because there is no evidence. About his miserliness Cohn is more forthcoming. Al-though Joe could be quite generous when it moved him to be, he underpaid those in his employ and he was a lousy tipper. Cohn gives a lot of space to his lengthy negotiations with art dealers. Although Joe prided himself on his personal elegance, he bargained over Picassos and Miròs like a Lower East Side schmatte dealer. Anyone who has ever dealt with art collectors know that such behavior is normal, but it is shocking to read it fully spelled out.

Cohn is more guarded in her discussion of Joe’s greatest moral lapse as a collector: buying art at the infamous 1939 “degenerate art” auction in Lucerne, Switzerland. A young man on his honeymoon with art lust in his heart, he knew that there were modern art treasures to be had at bargain prices, always an attraction. Even less than a year after Kristallnacht, Joe pretended to be confused about the moral implications of buying from the Nazis, and asked dealer Pierre Matisse for advice. Matisse wanted above all for his father’s masterpiece not to be thrown on a pyre in Berlin and encouraged Joe to bid. So young Joe Pulitzer sent $2,400 to the Reich treasury in order to acquire Papa Matisse’s great Bathers with Turtle. It was a huge bargain. Every time I saw that painting in the St. Louis Art Museum, it gave me the creeps for reasons Matisse never intended. (See Stephanie Barron’s catalogue for an exhibition about “degenerate art” at LACMA for the full story.)

The biggest omission is a family matter: the disappearance from Joe’s life of his son and heir apparent, Joseph Pulitzer IV. Evidently, the two did not get along and he was cut off. Upon Joe’s death, Emily got it all—newspaper, art, money, townhouse, and country estate—more than half a billion dollar fortune.

There’s no denying that “Emmy” was a great soulmate for Joe’s elder years. A curator at the Fogg and the St. Louis Art Museum, she was, in her youth, an apparent live wire and was totally plugged into the new and the happening. (In vintage photographs she looks like an escaped groupie from a Rolling Stones tour.) She pushed Joe to extend his collecting activities beyond the School of Paris to abstract expressionism (Pollock, Rothko, Newman), pop art (Warhol, Lichtenstein), and minimalism (Judd, Serra, Kelly, Flavin, Michael Heizer), making him one of the rare collectors to grow with art as he aged. It was a remarkable achievement. Joe supposedly wanted his collection divided between Harvard and St. Louis. Over the years, some works have been donated, primarily for tax benefit, yet they seldom leave the private residences, locked up as if in a very deep dowry chest. One suspects that the widow will conspire to keep them from public view as long as she is able.

David Bonetti was art critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 2003 to 2009. Until 2005 that paper was owned by the Pulitzer Corporation.

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