© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take Five: Author Marjorie Cohn examines Joseph Pulitzer Jr.'s life in art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2012 - St. Louisans are well aware of Joseph Pulitzer Jr. as a newspaper publisher and art collector. But did you know about his World War II stealth photography mission and the fact that he held onto reams of old notes, lists and letters?

The latter made the job of chronicling Pulitzer’s life in art a less daunting task, as did the open-access policy of his widow, philanthropist Emily Rauh Pulitzer, a former curator of the St. Louis Art Museum. Even so, it took retired Harvard art museums curator and Pulitzer family friend Marjorie Cohn six years of research and writing to complete "Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.”

Cohn talked with the Beacon about the discoveries she made and the mysteries that remain.

St. Louis Beacon: How did this book come about?

Marjorie Cohn: Emmy Pulitzer suggested to me the day Joe died that I had to write it. I already had a long history of writing books about collectors and collecting. That’s my scholarly speciality.

I told her, in 1993 when Joe died, “Don’t be silly, I have a job. I can’t sit down and write a book like this.” And nothing happened until I retired and then she told me again and I said, “I’ll think about it.”

And I went to St. Louis to see what the materials were and I discovered Joe had never thrown away a piece of paper in his life. Over the years, I’d go to St. Louis every three months or so for a  week and read through his files, and it got more and more interesting as I read.

What is one of the little-known facets of his life you uncovered?

Cohn: During World War II, he was the author of an extremely influential intelligence report on the Japanese defenses at Iwo Jima. It was all photographs, no text. And since all of these reports were published anonymously, nobody had any idea he’d done all that photography.

He left in his files basically a summary of what he did during the war. And he said he had prepared and published report number so and so. So, of course, being the good researcher, I had to go look up report number so and so, and it turned out to be this report.

There are more than 100 pages with sometimes four to six pictures on a page of foxholes, caves, gun mountings, everything the Japanese used to defend the island. At this point they still thought they’d have to invade Japan so the knowledge of what the Japanese were doing on their islands was very important.

Where did he get his knack for collecting?

Cohn: That is really the great mystery. As a young teenager at boarding school, he had color reproductions of Matisses and Van Goghs up in his room. Nowadays that would not be strange but color reproduction itself was very rare in 1928. That he had sought out and put those up shows he had a taste for it.

And when he got to Harvard, he was a terrible student in his first year because he was taking courses his father made him take. He was on academic probation and he was failing out. He discovered art history and became an art history concentrator and ended up being a scholarship eligible.

So somewhere -- and believe me, there wasn’t anything at home that would have predisposed him to modern art -- it just struck a chord with him and he found professors at Harvard and he just blossomed. And, frankly, he had enough money that he could indulge his tastes, and he bought a Modigliani before he was out of school and hung it up in his college room. Your question is the right question, but I have no answer. It’s just that he had an eye for it and it excited him.

Could you talk about his evolution as a collector in his mid to later life?

Cohn: He made some really bold moves in commissioning contemporary sculpture. It’s bold to commission anything if you’re a collector because you’re not not buying something you can already see. So you’re really stepping out into the unknown.

The three most important ones were Don Judd, Richard Serra and Dan Flavin. These were also critically important to the artists themselves because these were the first site-specific outdoor sculptures any of these artists did, and all three of these artists went on to make their name for making site-specific sculpture.

Who do you think will likely read this book?

Cohn: I think that people who are interested in the development of a sensibility for modern art in America will be interested in it. When Joe brought his first pictures back from Europe to the Midwest, there really were not, except for in Chicago, collectors of Picasso and Matisse and so forth in the Midwest, and what he brought back was quite shocking.

After Perry Rathbone came to be director of the St. Louis Art Museum in 1940, he and Joe together warmed the city and the general area up to the idea of modern art but then the war happened and it took a while.

I think people even outside the Midwest will be fascinated because, for one thing -- and Emmy was very generous, she never said I couldn’t publish anything -- she let me publish, for instance, the prices he paid, the bickering he did with dealers and with museums and so forth.

So it kind of lays bare the nitty gritty about how he went about collecting. Most people don’t talk about that much, and there are a lot of insider stories.

Editor's note: Emily Rauh Pulitzer is a supporter of the St. Louis Beacon.