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Author: Victoria Olsen

Writer, editor, former academic. Author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, editor for tech, business, and academic writing.

Vital Records

My father’s address book, 1990s.

Life stories depend on birth and deaths; they frame the narrative, so to speak, with a start and endpoint. But for genealogists and family historians, they are trickier than you’d think, even in the modern era (in the administrative sense of modern: ie. after governments starting keeping civil records, usually in the nineteenth century).

Here are some examples. My father’s birth date was well known to me and, in fact, hard to forget: he was born on December 26, 1926 and he always made a big deal about both Christmas and his birthday, which were an annual double-header. You wouldn’t know until you looked for his actual birth certificate in Chicago, though, that his parents initially named him Sandford Earle; that was his legal name until they filed for a re-issued birth certificate for Earle Stanton on September 10, 1929. Was he called Sandford for the first three years of his life or was he called Earle all along and then they finally made the change official years later? Why correct it at all since many people go by their middle names? My father knew this story and told it to us: he said that his parents decided that they didn’t want him to be called Sandy and reversed his name to Earle Stanton (still not Sandford!). But think of the confusion this would cause later for genealogists….

Looking for births also unearths surprising other stories, random or significant. A search by my father’s name, for example, also turns up an Earl Olsen (with the same spelling of our last name, and a different and more common spelling of his first name) born in Cook County on November 18, 1926. He was one of two Earl Olsens born within about a month of my father in Illinois, according to Ancestry. com. What are the odds? One of those Earls died in Palm Beach a few years before my father died in upstate New York. Did they live parallel lives all along? They would have been hit by the same historical factors at the same time, like a late drafting for World War II when they turned eighteen at the end of 1944. My father was rare among my friends’ parents for serving in World War II instead of Korea or even Vietnam.

There are of course poignant moments too, like the birth certificate I found among family papers for my father’s sister Margaret Jane, who did not survive infancy. A quick check of FamilySearch.org reveals the length and breadth of her short life: Illinois, Cook County Births 1871-1940 and Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1978-1994 confirm she was born July 22, 1925 and buried August 8th in the family plot at Oakwoods Cemetery. The list of Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947 cites her as “Margaurite Olsen” and states that her burial date was July 10th, which is clearly impossible (unless that was a different child, but again—what are the odds?). Just like family stories, government records are filled with mistakes that lead researchers astray. “Documentary evidence” and certified copies of vital records are more of a hope and a promise than a guaranteed truth.

My father’s sister’s birth certificate
(note the attached pink ribbon)

My mother, who has unearthed a lot of genealogical information about her ancestors in Ireland and Scotland, speculates about anomalies in her family’s record books. A story circulated among her relatives that her great-grandfather William Espie was born in Wales. When she searched the UK databases, though, she could only find a William Espie who died in the right time and place in Ireland but was born in Australia. It seemed unlikely to be the right person: how many American Scots-Irish families included ancestors who emigrated backwards from Australia to Ireland before coming to the U.S.? But then she wondered, could the family story have been referring to New South Wales all along? Such are the random and confusing trails through archives and history—as criss-crossed as the immigrants’ journeys.

Both genealogy and biographical research take a lot of grunt work: like a detective you check out leads and cross them off, which means phone calls and emails and internet searches and library visits and combing through indexes of scholarly volumes etc etc. Most of what I do in a day, when I get to this work around the margins of my other work, is defining the negative space around my father: who never met him? What didn’t influence him? Where wasn’t he?

This is most apparent in the oral histories I’ve been reading, mostly from Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Robert Indiana, who was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) at the same time as my father, didn’t know him. I try other keyword searches for Olsen in a range of SAIC alumni oral histories and archival collections…. Nothing. Robert Kulicke, who employed my father at Kulicke Frames for ten years, says little about his art business at all in his oral history. My father was represented in the mid-1950s by Grace Borgenicht’s gallery, but he is nowhere in her oral history (I’ve already written about the one reference I did find to him in that gallery’s archive). Nor does he come up in the oral history of Grace Mayer, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a friend of my dad’s for decades, though her archive at MoMA apparently has a Christmas card he sent her that I won’t be able to see until the museum’s archives re-open in October 2019. Other generous researchers connect me to other generous colleagues who were part of the New York City art world in the 1950s and 1960s…. Nothing. It’s as if he wasn’t a part of the art world. And maybe, in its recorded version, he wasn’t.

My father does appear in James Harvey’s oral history from 1963: my father and Harvey were both SAIC alums and moved to New York City at the same time. A trail of breadcrumbs led me from Harvey to other random surprises. For example, one of the names that came up over and over again in SAIC oral histories, including Harvey’s, was Kathleen Blackshear, an artist and much admired teacher there from 1926 to 1961. The Kathleen Blackshear and Ethel Spears papers at the Smithsonian include Blackshear’s address book from 1947-57, which they digitized.

Page from Kathleen Blackshear’s address book, 1947-57.
This is the right Earle and the right Olsen, both with an e.

And there, under O, is my father. The color-coded notations after each name seem to refer to the years she sent holiday cards to each person, so she may have kept up with my father for a year after he graduated in 1951. Then nothing. Jim Harvey appears under H and she kept up with him longer, though he died in 1965. There are cards in the collection that she received from students and colleagues as well, but none from Earle. It’s a dead end, but a poignant one. My father was there. His trace exists on paper in a Chicago collection and in pixels on a computer screen. There would have been no way to search for that reference; it wasn’t indexed. I have already quoted Robert Caro’s dictum: one has to turn every page (and I’d add that one has to click every arrow….)

My grandfather’s address book, Florida, 1970s

My father and grandfather left address books too, which sit in my own personal basement archives. My grandfather’s was a battered spiral bound book like you might find in any stationery store, but embossed with his name, as much of his property was. Andrew was a meticulous, cautious man; in her letters my great-aunt Marie called him “sensitive.” His address book lists some friends in alphabetical order (“The Jones,” “The Lutzes”) but many more service providers, from lawn care and barbers to restaurants and camera stores. He made notes in all caps even for the obvious (“ROTO ROOTER FOR DRAINS”) and carefully wrote down every birthday in the back of the book, including his own. He included his wife’s birthday and his wedding anniversary, though by these years in Florida he was long widowed. He had phone numbers to call for the Correct Time and Weather listed under T and W. There are almost no names I recognize because my father had little interest in his father’s friends or even in his own extended family. During the 1970s, my sisters and I visited Grandpa Olsen once a year. He sent us Hallmark holiday cards with a five dollar bill tucked inside, and he paid for our expensive private schools and colleges.

With its reproduction William Morris print, my father’s address book is a familiar paisley-covered hardback, probably from the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s. Inside there are still scraps of paper scribbled over with handwritten names, numbers, and addresses because my extroverted father collected acquaintances everywhere he went. When he died eight years ago it didn’t occur to me to check his address book for people to notify: I had never managed a death in the family before, nor seen anyone else do so up close, and I had no idea of protocols. Later I would find the name Bob Parker there: Robert Andrew Parker was a friend of my father’s from SAIC that I had never heard him mention, but looked up after seeing his name in Harvey’s oral history. His phone number was the same in the 1990s as when I did finally speak to him about my father in 2019.

My father also preserved, randomly, a daily calendar from 1969: one of those small bound notebooks with a page for each day. At the time he was working for Kulicke Frames so the pages are full of measurements as well as sketches, mostly for the geometric paintings he was making on Plexiglas at the time. The brief entries are filled with sales calls with clients like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pace and Martha Jackson galleries, and artists like Saul Steinberg. Like his father, my father often wrote in ALL CAPS. He jotted down phone numbers with their New York exchanges like CO7-, LA4-; in 1970 our phone number on the Upper West Side would begin UN5- for University. Some appointments still have resonance: on June 4th he met his old friend Grace Mayer at MoMA at 12:30. I still have his copy of her photographic history of New York City behind me on a shelf. The dates February 20-March 1, 1970 are held for “Caribbean,” though one of my oldest, vividest memories is of being on the island of St. Vincent’s for my sixth birthday on March 3rd. The historical events of that tumultuous year are all missing: fifty years ago on June 28th, when the Stonewall riots began in Greenwich Village, he sketched another grid in pen.

My father’s appointment book, 1969

My father’s only other surviving appointment book, from 1990, is filled with reminders to “pay Con Ed,” “pay Athens phone”….and a note on February 2 for “Attempted ROBBERY.” The follow up a few days later reads “Called Haim [his landlord] he promised new door.” I don’t remember that particular story, which would have taken place when he lived in an industrial loft in DUMBO, but my father was robbed in his New York City homes several times, including once when he was tied to a chair as the burglar searched for valuables. By 1990 my father was spending much of his time upstate in his second home in Athens, where he would soon retire. That year he framed a lot of art for law firms and travelled to Philadelphia and London. And finally, my sisters and I, all in our twenties by then, appear: “Tina dinner 7:30 Pasta Presto” on February 14 and Margrit’s name next to train times to Portchester on another day. He notes each of our birthdays and “Vicky’s wedding” appears on June 30th. He was present at that wedding; in fact, it was held at his house, which my sisters and I sold after his death. It’s the blank spaces around these brief notes that biographers and memoirists struggle to fill in and interpret—all the absences that define a presence.

My father’s appointment book, 1990

Andy, Rex, and Sailor Jack

Cracker Jack box, ca. 1970

Here’s the family story: my father always said that his father designed the Cracker JackⓇ box and the boy and dog were based on his older brother Andrew Jr. and their dog Rex. He told this story so many times that it even appeared in his friend James Harvey’s oral history for the Archives of American Art back in 1963: Harvey, himself the package designer of an iconic box—for Brillo, repeated the story as an example of successful package design, claiming that it had been honored by the Museum of Modern Art (that’s wrong, though true of Andrew Sr.’s design for yet another box—for Kleenex).

It’s not like Cracker JackⓇ came up very often: it was an old-fashioned treat and not that popular with me and my sisters as kids in the 1970s. In what I consider the “classic” design (ie. the one I grew up with) Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo face outward and Jack salutes them. Even today the ad copy emphasizes nostalgia and memory, claiming that it tastes “just as good as you remember. And…who can forget the thrill of opening the surprise inside?”

Earle, Andrew Jr, and Rex

Here’s some evidence: in this photo my father is the boy standing on the right in the white sailor boy suit. His brother, curly-topped, holds their black and white dog in a similar position to the pose in the ad, with the dog between his legs. They may be at Pennelwood, a family resort where they spent many summers in cabins on a small lake in Berlin Springs, Michigan. My guess is that it was taken around 1933, when the boys were about six and ten. On the back of the photo is inscribed, cryptically: Merry Christmas Here are two friends of mine that I thought maybe you would like to meet. Don’t you think they’re pretty nice? Claudia

I’ve never heard of any Claudia and don’t know why our family would have this photo if she sent it to someone who didn’t know the boys. Is the inscription an inside joke of some kind? Why does it mention Christmas if the photo is clearly in warm weather? My father’s family took a trip to California in 1932 but he seems older here. My father died eight years ago. His brother has been dead since 1944. There’s no one to ask. And there’s no evidence of any designs for Cracker JackⓇ in the scrapbook my grandfather carefully kept of his work.

Sailor outfits are surprisingly common in Olsen photo albums: in one Andrew Sr. stands on their front lawn with both of his sons in sailor gear. In another young Andrew Jr. stands at attention, saluting in a naval cap. In yet another he (or a similar-looking boy) wears the same kerchief as Sailor Jack, which raises the possibility that the photos themselves were studies of some kind, though this particular album was compiled by Andrew Jr, not his father. In 1942 Andrew Jr would enlist in the Army Air Force, but my grandfather and father served their wars at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago without being deployed abroad.

sample page from Andrew Jr.’s album

Here are the facts: Cracker JackⓇ company lore tells a different story. The company was founded by Frederick William Rueckheim and his brother Louis in Chicago; they sold the candy at the World’s Columbian Exposition there in 1893. They later added Henry Gottlieb Eckstein to the company (his contribution was the wax-coated inner lining that kept the candy popcorn fresh). In 1908, when “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was released, Cracker JackⓇ earned its now indelible association with America’s favorite pastime. The iconic package, still more or less in use today, emerged during World War I and the boy and dog were registered as a trademark in 1919. The company claims that the boy was a grandson of Frederick’s who died at age eight in 1920. The dog was a stray Eckstein adopted.

Cracker Jack ad 1918

You can see already the problems this story poses for my family’s version. Andrew Jr. wasn’t even born until 1923 so how could he have inspired a package design trademarked in 1919? My grandfather Andrew Sr. was indeed active in the Chicago advertising world by the 1920s but the best we could argue for our side is that he could have worked on the package design for the cardboard box in the 1930s, not that he created the figures. Yet the family story was so specific! The dog, the sailor suit, the brother. Why make it up? Besides, the official version seems a little too neat. The fact that the boy died “shortly after the image appeared” is a little too perfect, no? It’s a cliché ending for a sentimental story about a candy swathed in nostalgia, which the baseball anthem reinforces. Even in 1908 the song lay the foundation for an American mythology: sunny days, leisure, and simpler times when all you needed to do was “root, root, root for the home team” and count to three strikes.

My father loved candy (and root beer, incidentally) as much as he loved that Cracker JackⓇ story. When we three were kids we’d all happily sing “The Candy Man” song as we downed our caramel apples or ice cream, bouncing off the leather seats of his vintage cars and stuffing gum wrappers into the ashtrays of their doors. My dad was that candy man, making the sun shine and the world taste good. There were no particular limits on our sugar consumption, or his. No one in my family ever dieted or exercised, though both of my parents eventually stopped smoking in the 1970s. We paid zero attention to our health or nutrition, and that seemed normal to me too. When McDonald’s started appearing on the East Coast we stopped at a drive-thru en route to my dad’s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, getting frosty shakes, several orders of French fries, and apple pies. Sweets were a huge part of any time spent with my father, and a big reason why we loved those party-like weekends with him after the divorce. Sports were for other people. The only sport we ever watched occurred once every four years: Olympics gymnastics and figure skating. When asked as a child what my favorite football team was I said “the Mets” because I thought all New York sports teams were called the Mets.

The 1918 ad, though, makes the argument that Cracker JackⓇ is healthful, full of “vital food elements.” Its “food values” are comparable to potatoes, eggs, steak (the holy trinity of nutrition for American diets), apparently— though it doesn’t say what those values or elements are. It was important in war-time especially to argue for the candy’s healthfulness, and its ability to satisfy “the candy appetite” with abundant calories. Like Planter’s Peanuts, which advertised itself as a “nickel lunch” during the Depression, Cracker JackⓇ was also a cheap meal for those down on their luck. It had a patriotic role to serve: the ad claims eating it actually saved sugar and wheat for the war effort. Sailor Jack kept saluting until well after the war and the package still maintains its red, white, and blue palette.

This advertising logic seems crude or transparent now, but it was an industry still in its infancy and would get more sophisticated during my grandfather’s career. Andrew Sr. started out in graphic design, working in the advertising department of a magazine until he was drafted in 1918. At around the same time, the newly-formed Cracker JackⓇ Company started packing their caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts in “patented wax-sealed packages,” as the ad copy above mentions. Before then peanuts were typically bought from street vendors, wrapped in cellophane papers and intended to be eaten right away, not saved or stored on a shelf. As the marketing and sale of food shifted from niche vendors to grocery stores, the cardboard box was a key innovation (as Walter Paepcke realized in founding the Container Corporation of America, another Chicago company, in 1926, the year my father was born there).

My grandfather rode that shift, moving from designing and illustrating print ads (including Planters Peanuts) to package design for Kleenex, the star of Kimberly-Clark’s paper products empire. A comparison of the 1918 Cracker Jack adⓇ and my grandfather’s KleenexⓇ box from the 1950s (below) is a lesson in advertising and art history: the representational figures of boy and dog, drawn like a loose sketch on top of a realistic photograph of the candy itself, couldn’t be more different than the modern “streamlined” and abstract design of the tissue box. If Cracker JackⓇ wanted to evoke the past, this KleenexⓇ design was all about being modern and looking forward.

Kleenex tissue box designed by my grandfather and framed by my father

Cracker JackⓇ still has an avid fan base: a Cracker JackⓇ Collectors Association, for example, tracks and catalogues its prizes across the decades. When the New York Yankees tried to replace Cracker JackⓇ at Yankee Stadium with a different popcorn, there was an uproar until they switched back. A simple Google search reveals many customer complaints about how much better Cracker JackⓇ “used to be”: more peanuts, better toys…. In other words, the candy is virtually synonymous with nostalgia: for an American past but perhaps more specifically for childhood, for that boy and dog frozen in time.

The fact that the models died may be necessary to holding them there in the suspension of memory—and since Andrew Jr. too died young (though much later, in the second World War at age 21) the story was bound up for my father (and perhaps for my sisters and me) with an idealized past. In fact, maybe that’s still visible in my description above…. Andrew Jr.’s photo album displays the same poignancy toward Rex, with one of the many photos of the dog inscribed “REX. He left us on July 21, 1939. We gave him away.” Why did they do that? If my father ever said, I’ve forgotten. Another image in that album shows my father as a boy on their front lawn, holding a baseball bat as if to swing it; Andrew Jr. labelled it “Years ago.” There’s a similar one of Andrew himself, just labelled “Watch Out!!! About 1937.” Associated with the games and play times of youth, Cracker JackⓇ became a potent symbol of good times lost—a prequel to the poignant evocation of “putting away childish things” by a much-later Andy in Toy Story.

(But is that interpretation too simple, like the nostalgia itself? Where’s the surprise in this box? It may be buried in my father’s relationships to his father, to James Harvey, and to the complicated intermingling of commercial and fine art in his life. And that’s a post for another day.)

In the Archives

On the way home from Washington, D.C. it’s hard to type on the swaying train, with a laptop on my lap. I’ve spent two days at the Smithsonian Museum’s Archives of American Art, where I had a great time but found little of value among the saved records of my father’s friends and associates in the New York City art world of the 1950s and 1960s. I searched five boxes of records from Grace Borgenicht’s gallery for references to my father, who showed there in 1958. I found exactly one line item: the sale of his drawing “Orange Flowers” to the Whitney in 1956 for $100. Listed on a ledger page of sales to the Whitney from 1953-68, it was the lowest price of any of them. His friend Randall Morgan sold two works to the Whitney for $247.50 and $427.50. The highest price on that page was for a Leonard Baskin at $9,000. Of course, these were only the sales to one museum, from one gallery, for these specific years so how to generalize about the art market—or any one career— from that? But it looks bad. In retrospect, that sale was the peak of my father’s art career: he could ever-afterwards claim he was in the Whitney’s permanent collection but he never topped that. He mentioned it occasionally but not as often or as proudly as some of the other stories I heard growing up—like the one about his brother being the model on the iconic Cracker Jack box, for example. Maybe my father knew it was a mixed achievement, that his high would have been someone else’s low. The Borgenicht gallery’s stars at the time were Jimmy Ernst (son of Max), Milton Avery, Edward Corbett, Wolf Kahn, and Baskin…. Not household names, maybe, but they sold work consistently from the 50s to the 70s.

ledger page from Grace Borgenicht Gallery's sales to the Whitney Museum, 1953-68.

I had hoped to find correspondence between the gallery and my father—or correspondence with others about his work. But there was none of that. I also looked through eight boxes of material in the Barbara Kulicke collection and a reel of microfilm of Robert Kulicke’s papers because my father worked for Kulicke Frames for some fifteen years and was friends with the couple. I remember get togethers with them and their son Michael, who was older than me. Apparently we visited their house on the Jersey shore at least once (I don’t remember that). I do remember that we all went on a family vacation to St. Vincent’s in 1970, when I had a memorable sixth birthday. But there is no mention of my father in either Kulicke collection. Perhaps that’s because my father’s relationship with them was volatile: he quit and rejoined the company many times and later in life rarely referred to them. He had a tendency to drop people and he dropped the Kulickes (or was dropped) when he left to form his own picture-framing business in 1979. They may well have ended on bad terms (my father claimed co-credit for some of Kulicke Frames innovative designs on at least one resume and in his oral history at the Smithsonian Bob Kulicke mentioned the lawsuits he deployed to protect his patents).

It’s also maybe not surprising that my father doesn’t appear in these public records. People filter their papers before donating them and self-select for the “important” bits, the correspondence (however small) with the Robert Motherwells, Barnett Newmans, and Franz Klines, not the Earle Olsens. There is no mention of Michael Kulicke in his parents’ archives either and that hardly means he wasn’t important to them (or that he didn’t play an outsized role somewhere beyond theses archives). These absences may only remind us that archives are a kind of public performance, where donors represent their own histories for future scholars and make assumptions about what those scholars will want to study. Surely no one anticipated me coming to read through all these boxes over two spring days in D.C., as Robert Mueller’s redacted report was being released to the public. These days who cares about a minor figure in an art world elsewhere six decades ago?

But as journalists combed through the 400+ page report from the special commission into Russian interference in the 2016 election, I combed through a box of photographs by Hans Namuth, hoping to find a clue about how, when, and where he had photographed my father. Those images of the art world of the 1950s were carefully preserved with tissue paper between each print and multiple copies of each, stamped on the back with the address of Namuth’s E. 72nd Street studio. Spread out over the paper and contact prints were lively parties ranging from galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to crowded gallery openings. There were society folks in black tie at the Met and slouchy figures in shorts and cardigans at the galleries; everyone smoked. A few pictures showed women artists working or installing their work, bent over in head scarves and sneakers. I skimmed through, thinking that maybe my father’s face would jump out at me among the crowd, like a Where’s Waldo game. But it didn’t. I couldn’t recognize anyone else either, except for Pollock, whom Namuth had made into a visible celebrity.

My only other catch of the trip was an unlabelled reproduction of one of my father’s paintings, found amongst the collection of Thomas Hess, editor and art critic for Art News in the 1950s. In series 4: artist/subject files ca 1946-1978, box 8, in a folder marked “O c. 1960s,” there he was, abstractly. The painting was not one I recognized (would I have recognized my father’s work on the walls of one of Namuth’s photos either? probably not) but it was clearly related to the one I reproduced here last month and compared to a Franz Kline. This one is signed E. Olsen ’61 so it’s a year later and the black and white reproduction disguises the palette. What is it doing in this collection? I don’t know and there’s no clue. Perhaps Hess reviewed a show of my father’s so that’s the next lead to pursue.

reproduction of a painting by Earle Olsen, found in Thomas Hess archives

As much as I love archives, the detective work of following leads and stumbling on clues, the process of handling files carefully saved and sorted, this trip ended up disappointing. When the helpful manager of the manuscript room at the archives asked me if I had found what I needed, I tried to explain what was missing. He sighed. “I wish people would just give us everything and let us decide what’s important. Researchers do want all the personal stuff that some people edit out,” he said. But then he caught himself: “on the other hand, some collectors provide only the personal….” And that’s the problem. No one can control what donors do with their material upstream, before it reaches the archive. And one can only guess what researchers will want in the future, not only because their daughters aren’t expected to ask these questions decades later, but because what’s important shifts and changes. In my women biographer’s group we talk often about the profound shift in the last few decades toward valuing women’s experiences, and how long it will take for archives and public records to catch up to preserving and valuing them.

But that’s not even the case here (though Robert Kulicke’s collection is better organized than Barbara’s). Here what happened is not explicitly gendered  but a deep (and gender-inflected) devaluation of personal life: the family, the day-to-day, and social lives. Of the many oral histories with artists the Archives of American Art commissioned that I’ve read (and thank goodness they had the prescience to do that since 1958!) precious few mentioned the usual master narratives of biography, like marriages, family relations, feelings. They tended to be chronicles of professional achievements, detailed resumes told by one artist to another. The one that swerved the most from that template was in fact Grace Borgenicht, interviewed in 1963 by art historian Dorothy Seckler. The two women spoke more frankly than anyone else I read about the impact of mothering on artistic careers and the emotional contexts of their work. Borgenicht even mentioned her youngest daughter by name, Lois.

In an excerpt in The New Yorker of his new book on writing biographies, Robert Caro repeats the advice given him early on in his career as an investigative journalist: “turn every page.” This principle has already stood me in good stead too, though some of the pages I turned were clumsily done with the knobs of a microfilm reader. By turning every page, the research process becomes a treasure hunt, where you never know what interesting and irrelevant tidbit you’ll come across next—like the note Grace Hartigan wrote in 1957 on pink stationery to Audrey Hess, wife of the aforementioned Thomas Hess. Her note bypasses Thomas to write directly to her, but ends up in his archive at the Smithsonian anyway, digitized so I can read it from my home sixty years later. It would take Mary Gabriel’s in depth knowledge of those women artists and their circle in Ninth Street Women to unravel the context, the relationships, and the significance of that one pink note. For me, it was just one treat along the long road I’m just starting.

Pre-story, a family memoir in art and artifacts

photo of babies, 1920s, water damaged
1920s baby photos, after the flood

The making of meaning starts with evidence, the data points that stretch like beads along a thread of thinking. In this metaphor pieces of evidence are like shells on the beach: three-dimensional objects of various shapes and sizes and origins that one might look for actively or come across by accident. But evidence can also be abstract, like a memory or a sensation, an experience that becomes a poem for an artist or an insight for a psychologist, a bodily symptom that leads to a medical diagnosis. It can be a story, a song, a smell, or a taste, like Proust’s madeleine. It’s easy to believe that when evidence is strung together into an interpretation—a theory of relativity or a version of history, for example—that the thinking, the thread, is the subjective part. After all, another thinker could take the same pieces of evidence and assemble a different necklace altogether, though the beads are the same. Evidence does not work like a jigsaw puzzle then, where the pieces only fit together in one way and produce one true picture, one solution to “whodunit.” The thinker who does the work of inferring, organizing, and assembling the pieces is doing creative work, even if it’s in a legal or scientific domain.

But pieces of evidence are not exactly like beads or shells either— or if they are, they don’t hold their shape. The decisive apples that Eve bit into and fell on Isaac Newton’s head are not around to re-examine. The bones of one epoch become fossils in another. A fertility figure once handled in a ceremony can become a statue behind a glass vitrine in a distant museum. Time, location, and context don’t just affect the interpretation of physical evidence (we know that), they affect the objects themselves (we can see that with our own eyes). Which makes it difficult to distinguish evidence from interpretation, the dancer from the dance from the audience.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a new research project, which attempts to make sense of evidence in front of me, whether I sought it out or it was thrust upon me, whether it was found in a library or a battered briefcase monogrammed APO. This pre-story provides a brief rationale for my method, which is both academic and personal. In short, this potential family memoir will be my attempt to make a coherent story out of certain artifacts relating to art and advertising that I inherited (from my father and his father) or stumbled across (in my research into nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual culture). It centers on those two men—Earle Olsen, artist, and Andrew P. Olsen, graphic designer—to investigate their particular relationship and more general cultural assumptions about art. It spans Europe and Chicago, as well as New York City in between. It enters department stores in 1920 and visits art galleries the 1960s, but begins with me in a basement in present-day Brooklyn.

I do laundry every week but I never noticed the drip before. So it was too late when I realized there was water seeping over and under the piles of papers on the table in my basement. Those papers included:

    • four photo albums of my father’s family in Chicago, ca. 1920-40.
    • a random assortment of prints and drawings my father had collected over his years as a picture framer in New York City, from 1980 to his death in 2011.
    • a scrapbook of advertisements designed by my grandfather, a graphic designer in Chicago for products like Kleenex, Allstate car insurance, and Planter’s Peanuts from the 1920s to 1960s.
    • loose photos of family members that didn’t fit into the scrapbook or folders, like the 9×12 close up of my father’s brother as a cadet at the Citadel, before he was killed training to become a combat pilot during World War II.

Now that I noticed the water I also noticed the smell— rank as dead leaves.

I threw away my father’s collection of prints and took photos with my phone of the ruined photos, their age newly on display in the mold creeping in from the corners. My father’s brother, Andrew P. Olsen Jr., was alive with green and black spots. The series of four smiling baby photos (was it my father or his brother?), taken in Chicago in the 1920s and carefully preserved for almost one hundred years, curled into itself as it dried. I tried to save the Indonesian puppet my father moved from his Brooklyn loft to upstate New York, tacked to a wall of his painting studio. Its moveable arms akimbo, it survived better than the photos.

photo of Andrew P Olsen Jr, water damaged
Andrew Jr cadet photo, water damaged

How stupid to leave all that paper in that vulnerable spot, exposed beneath the pipes pulling water through the house. But it was January and I had a new idea: to write a history of my father’s family, a story of art and advertising in America as my grandfather’s design career rose with consumer culture and as my father defined himself as an artist just as modern art discovered popular culture in the early 1960s, when I was born. It would be a story of a father and a son, American consumerism, Chicago business, and the New York art world. It would explain my grandfather’s and father’s successes and failures, and enable me to write another book after a fifteen year gap, though I still call myself a biographer. Somehow I’d link it to the project I told people I was writing: a biography of the dancer Jane Avril, dancer of the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1890s and model for Toulouse-Lautrec. After all, she was a poster girl for art and advertising, wasn’t she? Somehow it would explain how that project had inexplicably stalled and why I didn’t write “for myself” at all any more.

That’s why the photos and papers were all left out on that table. Because I was “working on them.” But now they were soaked through. As pieces of evidence they were changing (and disappearing) before my eyes.

Biographers are used to the historical record’s gaps; working in archives, we are used to pages that crumble as you turn them, as well as signs of mold and decay. But historical evidence is not only in libraries and not only on paper. The end of the nineteenth century saw the burgeoning of a collector’s culture. Wealthy art patrons like Isabella Stewart Gardner or Henry Frick began to amass the collections that bear their names today in the mansions transformed into museums. Successful industrialists like Henry Ford bought up furniture, farm equipment, even outmoded machinery, creating a three-dimensional archive of Americana. Mass production allowed even average Americans to collect ephemera like baseball cards, postage stamps, or vintage toys. For most of us this vast heap of stuff may seem random, but historians can see a pattern in it. They can read all the beads and shells, the photographs and scrapbooks as well as the collectibles, for the signs of an individual’s values, a culture’s obsessions, a society’s priorities. They can read what’s there and what’s not there. My father’s house overflowed with stuff he picked up at yard sales and antique stores, in trips to Europe in the 1950s and on Saturday nights at the country auctions in upstate New York through the 2000s. He left very few letters, the biographer’s usual gold. His ashes were dispersed years ago but his material self is still, weirdly, buried in my basement.

My basement is both a physical place and a metaphor, of course. It is the basement too, an imaginary place for repressed memories and emotions one would rather avoid or deny. There is evidence there that I still haven’t confronted— like the lists Andrew Sr. kept of the money he gifted his son through the 1970s, supporting my father after my parents’ divorce. During that decade my father turned fifty, bought a summer house on Long Island, and regularly reneged on his childcare payments. Inevitably, the basement leads to other basements, creating a trail of connections forged from a single mention in a newspaper article or a first name dropped into a letter. My father’s letters have led me to “Fred” and “Flora,” who presumably have basements of their own. A conventional studio portrait of my father in 1952 is a slim connection to the artist Walter Pach; another photo links him to Hans Namuth, who famously filmed Jackson Pollock painting in Springs.

My father lived on the peripheries of abstract expressionism, which is back in the news with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City: he was there in the rooms, in New York City, but never central to the movement. Wandering through that show yesterday, I felt the echoes of all the times I went to the Met with my dad (did I actually see that Clyfford Still retrospective with him there in 1979? I would have been fifteen and it’s possible.) My father’s abstract canvas from 1960 (shown below as it hangs in my bedroom, reflecting the window near my desk and crooked like all my snapshots) resembles the Franz Kline in the Met’s exhibit (“Black, White, and Gray,” 1959), but the implication that his work was derivative would have stung my father. He exhibited in the 1950s, then stopped painting in the 1960s when my sisters and I were born, then started again after divorcing my mother in 1972. He continued painting until his death in 2011, leaving behind hundreds of early canvases and thousands of foam core boards that he produced nearly every day after his early retirement. (“Early” a pun on Earle!)

abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960)
abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960), photographed by the daughter who is not a photographer

When we emptied and sold his house my sisters and I threw many of those late works away— there were too many! We stored others at the art center in his small town in upstate New York. We kept some in our basements in Brooklyn and Williamstown, Massachusetts; we displayed a few on our walls in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Saint Ambroix, France. The archive was frankly overwhelming and stayed pretty much unexamined for the past eight years. Maybe once a year I’d unearth my grandmother’s jewelry and the abundance of females in the family would look over the diamond rings and paste brooches, wondering how to divide them up, then put them away again (where they remain still).

Then last summer I renovated my basement and pulled everything out, then put everything back— forcing a certain confrontation, I suppose. Now, as I write, I regularly run downstairs in search of… something. The folder of exhibit flyers from the 60s (found! marked “Stuff for Earle” in my mother’s handwriting) or that Namuth portrait to insert here.

portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth
portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth

When I look at this today my father looks wary, a little hunched. He’s so familiar (family) but this was before my time. One can’t tell the blue of his eyes, a grayish shade my youngest sister inherited. This photo too is damaged, as you see from the tears and folds. I carried it upstairs just now with a load of clean laundry, tucking it under my chin because my hands were full, and snapped a photo of it with my phone. As an image it’s crooked and the layers are visually confusing— my father peering at us from behind his own plexiglas artwork, itself at an angle to the table it rests on. The photo curves off the white desk I lay it on, and that sliver at the bottom edge reveals the gray carpet and wood floor beneath, which mimics the slivers within the photo: the geometries formed by the diagonal arc, like my father’s right shoulder…. Which is when I realize that this is *not* a photograph of my father sitting behind a spray-painted piece of clear plexiglas but a portrait of my father in the mirror of his own artwork. Because otherwise my father’s shoulder would reach to the edge of the black background, right? On my left the sun streams through the window across a stack of folders. If I’m literally bringing the past into the light, reflecting on reflections, it’s all too obvious.

But it’s a start. So here’s what to expect from this project: there will be too many Andrews and Andys and ands. It will take pieces of evidence, seemingly fixed in place, and move them around into new configurations, adding photographs, sketchbooks, school records and army discharge papers, signet rings and costume jewelry. It will chase down dead ends and long-dead relatives. And it will try to make a personal story into something historical. Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing bits of writing here and on Medium as well as images on Instagram as victoria_c_olsen.

A Life in Books

For Henry.

When my father-in-law passed away in January he left behind a life in books: written, read, collected. There were stacks of psychology studies in his office, sea yarns in the living room of the beach house, and poetry anthologies in the guest bedroom. But most were in the built-in bookcases in the family room on the second floor of the house he lived in for forty years, sequentially and topically arranged to span his interests as he crisscrossed literary borders. It was this room that I was indirectly put in charge of processing when my mother-in-law decided to move out of that house. “Thank goodness you’re here,” she’d say whenever I arrived on a weekend to help clear. “You can deal with the books.”

books on a shelf

Over the course of the next few months we gradually dismantled the room, sorting everything into piles of Keep, Sell, Donate. There were classics I’d read in familiar and unfamiliar editions: that high school Signet Classic Wuthering Heights (50 cents) with the brooding Heathcliff emerging from a dark tree in the background, in contrast to the simple orange Penguin edition with its British price tag of 2/6. George Orwell’s 1984 (35 cents) turned up with a lurid cartoonish cover boasting a tale of “Forbidden love…Fear…Betrayal.” We sold a few first editions to the Strand Bookstore but we gave away hundreds of well-loved volumes: to friends, to professional colleagues, to our community book swap, and many more in weekly stops at Goodwill. They left in clear recycling bags, cardboard banker boxes, and paper bags from Trader Joe’s, hauled by hand.

cover of Wuthering Heights

The earliest books, at the far left of the room, were hardbound volumes inherited from his parents and parents-in-law (his mother-in-law had annotated hers with notes like “very good!” on the flyleaf). Here were the multi-volume Library of America classics, the histories of the Jews, the Anchor Bible, and the Tao Te Ching. It was a corner little used, I think, but foundational: like a rock upon which the rest of the collection was built, with gifts inscribed from early teachers or saved from courses at City College. There were books like these scattered throughout the room, familiar to me from the home I grew up in and those I visited as a child. Everyone I knew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had some of these same books: Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its own slipcase, and important relics of the 1970s, like All the President’s Men and Silent Spring. And, somewhere, you’d find the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud (the classic Strachey translation in 24 volumes) along with Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, its gilt numerals bright against the rigid spines.

cover of 1984

Those were books to be owned and displayed more than read, although the psychologists in my circles (including my father-in-law) knew Freud deeply and could quote him like a Bible. But these were the common elements of a generational identity. The distinct chapters of my father-in-law’s life appeared in the waves of books as you turned the corner of that family room: the fat, yellowing Russian novels bleeding into rows upon rows of contemporary fiction from Roth to Lahiri. His life path could be traced careening through the multi-shelf section on Shakespeare, which his mother used to teach, on an eclectic route through Homer and Herodotus, Beowulf, and Don Quixote. He read at a breakneck pace—to learn and to travel vicariously through Ireland, African deserts, South Sea islands. And he read to write, writing books and professional papers in his field as well as essays on metaphor in poetry and psychology. He self-published his own volumes of poetry, as well as transcribing and editing his immigrant grandfather’s journal.  All of that output seemed to require a massive input of raw material. Or maybe it was the other way around. His appetite for words filling him up until it overflowed onto his own pages.

Books were a bond between us, though sometimes a vexed one. He had strong opinions before I could frame my own, and I often hid mine from him. But I recognized the way his reading had shaped him, how much he had invested himself in them, because I did the same. Sorting the books became a way of continuing and deepening a conversation that had always been somewhat indirect and also a way of processing his loss, as the books moved through my hands and disappeared. It enacted a metaphor he would have loved to have talked over, thought through, written about. “What do your books say about you?” I might have asked, wondering whether there was a book or an essay there. And he would have replied with an example and a quote from something I hadn’t read, urging me to write something on “library as metaphor.” He would have smiled at the ironies of turning this lens on himself, a little abashed.

It’s no surprise that books are always physical objects as well as abstract representations of something bigger and baggier. They create the volume (or volumes over time, in my father-in-law’s case) of a life, shaping the inner contours of the mind as well as the walls of a living room. The life visible in this collection was both a particular generation’s (Abba Eban and Arthur Schlesinger) and his own, inflected by authors he knew (Gerald Stern and William Zinsser): it was thoughtful, engaged, and endlessly curious. He would have been pleased to be part of another kind of reading—his books read to reveal their reader—in a context he hadn’t foreseen.

When the sale of that house finally closed my mother-in-law instinctively returned to the connection between houses and lives and books and how they live on in memory: “It’s more like a book is closing than a chapter,” she emailed. “But what a memorable book!” That closing had been long delayed and evoked all the poignant associations with “closure”—along with the reassuring reminder that “to close” can mean both to end and to bring nearer (a paradox my father-in-law would have enjoyed). It’s an adjective for proximity and connection, here kept alive in memory and on the page.