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Victoria Olsen Posts

Sunday after Sunday

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884/86). Art Institute of Chicago.

On April 15, 1958 a fire broke out at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One panel of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies was ruined and a Jackson Pollock painting was damaged by smoke, which drove the museum to create a Conservation department. In a bit of bad luck, Georges Seurat’s Sunday at La Grande Jatte was on display on the floor below the fire, on loan from permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Museum curators grabbed artworks off the walls and ran down stairwells with them, though it’s hard to imagine how they managed this particular 7’x10’ canvas. Though Seurat’s painting wasn’t damaged, the Art Institute may have felt burned anyway. The painting hasn’t left Chicago since.

On May 22, 1884 Georges Seurat began what would become his most famous painting, then exhibited it at a Salon des Independents in 1886 to great acclaim, But the painting never sold and at Georges’ death his mother inherited it. Then at her death his brother inherited it. It passed through several hands until 1923 when Frederic Bartlett, art student and heir to a hardware fortune, brought it home with him to Chicago and gave it to the Art Institute in 1926, the year my father was born.

My father, who arrived in New York City from Chicago in 1951 to make it as an Abstract Expressionist, may have seen the painting in New York, but he definitely knew it well from the art classes he took at the Art Institute as a child and later as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 1958 was a good year for him. He was about to have a solo show at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in May. The Whitney Museum, which had bought his pastel “Orange Flowers” in 1955, lent it back to the Borgenicht for the show. Later that year he would have a painting in the Whitney’s annual show for the second time.

Seurat based his painting on afternoons spent on an island out in the Seine, watching families lounge on the grass amid the landscaped gardens. The composition is forced into a rigid pattern by his method of applying individual dots of paint to create forms that appear blended and whole from a distance. Women stand in severe profile, like figures on the prow of a ship. The dark shadow creeping over the grass on the lower right mirrors the pale blue shape of the water at the upper left. Seurat apparently told contemporaries that he wanted to mimic Classical Greek friezes like the Parthenon, and the painting indeed seems more like sculpture than painting. It may be flat like a canvas but its perfect stillness seems statuesque. In 1926, when La Grande Jatte left Paris, art critic Roger Fry wrote that it represented “a world from which life and movement are banished and all is fixed for ever in the rigid frame of its geometry.” The scene itself may be still but Felix Feneon, Seurat’s major champion in the art press, believed the pointillist method made the canvas itself vibrate.

“The sense of motion in immobility.” That’s how novelist E.M. Forster described the painting after seeing it in Chicago in the 1940s. He used it to explain how art creates worlds unto themselves, manifesting their internal order as external form. Unintentionally, La Grande Jatte bridges the growth of modernism and consumer culture in fin-de-siecle Paris with the advertising and design boom in 1920s Chicago. Seurat documented the Parisian pedestrians who strolled along the grand boulevards, window-shopping in the new department stores like Galeries Lafayette and gathering in cafes and cabarets. These pedestrians, like the Sunday visitors in Seurat’s painting, formed a new sort of bourgeois public, who had more leisure time for arts and entertainments.

Early in the twentieth century American collectors travelled to Europe and brought that modern art, and the lifestyle it represented, back home. With its flattened, simple design, La Grande Jatte reads like a gigantic billboard, easily legible from afar, that advertises the very leisure it represents. It displays the figures in ways that anticipate merchandising strategies to come: one at a time and in high contrast for easy recognition. It resembles a page in a catalogue from Montgomery Ward, the world’s oldest mail order business, or a window display in the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store, where my grandmother worked before she married. Like Bartlett in the 1920s, my father had left that commercial world in Chicago behind to study art in Europe in the 1950s. He toured around and lingered in Positano, Italy, which had a well-known American-run art school.

I have a daughter who loves jigsaw puzzles and she and I have spent many hours during summers on Cape Cod fitting together pieces of a Simpson’s version of Seurat’s Grande Jatte. (It has become a consumer object after all, and a piece of pop culture.) Cut into irregular pieces of cardboard, the image dissolves into its dots again, then is reconstituted over and over, though with great effort. Like most jigsaw puzzles, the key to success is matching colors rather than shapes. The process requires close observation, patience, and a large flat surface. It brings surprises to the foreground — like the mysterious white figure of a girl near the center, the only one to face the viewer. She is a bit of blank canvas to be writ upon as only a young girl can be.

scene from John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

This girl plays a key role in John Hughes’s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: when Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his friend Cameron cut school one day in Chicago one of their stops is the Art Institute. After a striking montage of still shots of various paintings from the collection the film lingers on Cameron studying La Grande Jatte. Hughes’s camera cuts back and forth between Cameron and the painting, getting ever closer to each until we see only Cameron’s eyes and the girl in white, who has become an unrecognizable patch of multicolored paint. It’s a coy statement about pointillism (those dots!) and human vision (the perception of color and light!) but it’s also a psychological turning point of some kind.

In some ways the film is really Cameron’s story more than Ferris’s. Ferris is a readymade character, sprung fully-formed from the beginning of the film, but Cameron is in crisis and changes over the course of the film’s single day. Crippled by anxiety about his future, he learns from Ferris and Sloane first to relax and then to assert himself. The movie makes that transformation the cumulative effect of “the best day of his life” but the one place where Cameron has his own separate experience from the others is in the museum, in contemplating that painting. It’s a surprising testament to the impact art, even in its abstract representations of life, can have on “real” life and “real” people, even those merely represented in a more realistic medium like film. The meta levels are dizzying.

Paris-Chicago-New York. 1884-1926-1958-1986. Sunday after Sunday in perpetuity. George-Frederic-Earle-Cameron, and an unnamed girl in white, threaded together by a painting that almost went up in smoke.

Mixed Signals

QSL postcard sent by Earle Olsen, April 1936

It’s been about a year since I last updated my blog. What a year, huh? I finished drafting the family memoir detailed on these pages, wrote case studies for tech companies, trained and coached product managers, and sheltered in place. No more research trips! But there is still much to find—or stumble upon—online.
For example, last week I was looking for a 1955 print by my father that a fellow alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was selling on eBay, when I came across this unfamiliar postcard with my father’s name on it. At first I thought it must be something related to his military service because I didn’t recognize the acronyms, but the date was clearly 1936, when my father would have been nine years old. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it had my father’s name on it so I bought it for $8.
My first stab at research clarified that it was actually a QSL card, which amateur radio enthusiasts (“hams”) sent to each other to confirm conversations. From the 1920s on ham operators mailed these postcards after every contact, often as a point of pride to verify a particularly long-distance connection. I scrolled through pages and pages of examples, many for sale on eBay and other hobbyist sites, and discovered such cards from all over the globe. Some were simple typed lists, but some were individually designed, with visual images relating to the location or personality of the sender.
This card, with the personal radio call number W9VXK, came from Oak Park, Illinois, near where my father grew up, though the address wasn’t his family home. But the name had his less-common spelling, with the e at the end of Earle. And I had a vague memory of my father saying he had a ham radio as a child, though no one else could confirm it. I also knew my father had been a radio technician in World War II. Perhaps he had a history of tinkering with radios, an early interest or expertise? His family was well off and would have encouraged such a hobby, perhaps. It seemed plausible, even though he was only nine when this was sent to another hobbyist in Baltimore.
QSL is an abbreviation based on the Q Code developed for international maritime and telegraph communications in the early twentieth century. These brief three-letter codes could convey a wealth of information across languages and distances: from QRA? (what ship or station are you?) to QRN? (Is the atmospheric interference to this signal strong?). Receivers could respond with formal Q codes or invent their own language of abbreviations, like the C.U.L. for “see you later” on the card shown above. I could picture my father as a somewhat lonely child, a stutterer who liked to draw, enjoying this private and remote kind of intimacy, a closeness that bridged distances. But how could I prove it? I could find other such cards from my father in old archives. I could examine old family photos from the 1930s and look for ham radio sets in the backgrounds. I could search published directories of amateur radio callers from the 1930s…. The W9 prefix was assigned to callers in the midwest and members could list their names, call numbers, and addresses in published directories for one dollar a year.
However, I soon ran into trouble in making this case. First, the card’s seller told me that radio operators were rarely that young. Then it turned out that those five digit radio call numbers (the QRAs) were assigned by individual licenses, which seemed unlikely for a child to own. Finally, I scrolled endlessly through the archived pages of the Fall 1937 Radio Amateur Call book Directory, from the W9A___s to the W9V___s, through name after name until I confirmed that W9VXF was indeed assigned to a different Earle Olsen, nested between Homer G. Kuiper and L.W. Preston. This radio-operator Earle had the exact same spelling as my father and lived near him in Chicago but at the unfamiliar address of 531 Belleforte Avenue, Oak Park. I had speculated that perhaps that had been the location of a school or radio club, but nope.
That Earle Olsen’s QSL card is still in the air, so to speak. It was mailed from Chicago to Baltimore in April 1936 and is now winging its way on invisible communication paths from Baltimore to Truro, Massachusetts. I don’t know where else it’s been for the last 80+ years, or what other conversations it has witnessed. As a researcher, I appreciate randomness, which means I must allow and encourage it in all directions, including failures. Null experiments or failed signals are indeed evidence too, like the negative space Joshua Rothman described in his wonderful New Yorker essay on unlived lives. Rothman opens by suggesting a life he could have led, had things gone even a little differently, and then broadens his piece to consider all the paths not taken, the people we didn’t become. He asks, “isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real.”
Could my father have experimented with a ham radio as a boy? Sure. Could he have stayed a radio technician after the war instead of going to art school? No way. But it’s an alternate reality that, in its gaps, lends some shadow and highlight to the man I knew.

Rabbit Hole #1

page from David Herbert’s gallery sales and address book, 1952. David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When I’m not sure what I’m doing with my family history project I can always do more research. Mostly that means chasing down names in the endless stream of associations that veer further and further from my father. One person (from his school, from his gallery, from an exhibit he was in) knows another person who knew another person. It’s a rabbit hole, yes, and more fun than productive, usually. Except that it can circle back or show patterns. You never know. Here’s one example from the last few days.
I keep a list of names to research, adding them as they come up in sources and annotating them with bits of biographical information. David Herbert, a New York City gallery owner in the late 1950s, came up often in my constellation of sources. Herbert knew Richard Brown Baker, whose diaries I had skimmed at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago. Those diaries had turned up James Harvey, which made sense because Baker interviewed Harvey for a 1963 oral history and later donated several of Harvey’s works to the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. My father didn’t appear anywhere in Baker’s excerpted diaries at MoMA (the originals at Yale, Baker’s alma mater, are still on my To Do list). But Herbert circled around Baker and Harvey, so maybe following that trail would lead back to my father? Since Herbert had papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art they were worth skimming.
So I spent a few hours online looking through the finding aids, first, to evaluate what might be worth traveling back to D.C. to see in person. Born David Herbert Schmerer in 1920, Herbert served in World War II in Japan, and spent the 1950s in New York working at the prestigious Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries. From 1959 to 1962 he ran his own gallery on East 69th Street. His collection at the Smithsonian stretches to nearly six linear feet of business records, correspondence, and notebooks. Some of the material was digitized so I clicked and waited for pages and pages of handwritten scrawls to load on my screen in Brooklyn. Someone had bundled and boxed these papers, transporting them from New York City to D.C. and sifting through them to organize and scan each one— in anticipation of my virtual arrival. It was humbling, and time consuming.
I found nothing on my father in the exhibition records, nothing indexed in the artist or subject files. And then, again!, the score: there was my father in Herbert’s address book. Proof…of something. The address book was an accretion of names and numbers and notes that Herbert kept for his own records, adding to them over many years and jotting down what a certain collector was interested in. The abbreviation next to my father’s name “N.F.L.” appeared elsewhere, but I couldn’t easily guess what it meant.

page from David Herbert’s digitized address book in the David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

So what was my father’s connection to Herbert? Clearly they were in the same circles in the 1950s and early 1960s, but was there more to find out? When Herbert died in 1995 his estate went to Jaime Andrade, an Ecuadorean artist who also worked in New York City galleries. It was Andrade who later donated Herbert’s papers to the Smithsonian. A Google search led me down another rabbit hole: Andrade and Herbert played a role in the forgery scandal that brought down the long-esteemed Knoedler Gallery in 2011. It was Andrade who introduced Ann Freedman, director of the Knoedler through the 1990s and early 2000s, to the so-called “David Herbert Collection” of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. Andrade introduced Freedman to Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art patron who claimed to be the mediator between an anonymous private collector who had inherited these previously-unknown works from his father, a wealthy Filipino (or maybe Mexican or Swiss?) businessman. The father, they said, had bought them directly from the artists back in the fifties, which is why there were no bills of sale and they appeared in no catalogues.
At first, Rosales claimed Albert Ossorio, a well-connected painter with a home in East Hampton, had been the conduit for these back-door sales. But later, when that story showed its holes, Rosales (and Freedman) claimed it had been David Herbert who had been having a secret affair with the married Filipino/Mexican/Swiss businessman and had arranged for the access to the artists. Rosales put the paintings by Pollock and Motherwell, among others, on commission with Knoedler, which ultimately sold forty paintings from this collection for some $80 million. Over the next fifteen years doubts arose about these new Diebenkorns, Motherwells, and Rothkos, but Knoedler continued to sell them. In 2001 Knoedler sold a Pollock for over two million dollars and when the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) refused to authenticate it the gallery was forced to refund the money. A few years later the FBI subpoenaed Knoedler to investigate fraud, which initiated a downward spiral of lawsuits and criminal investigations, with Freedman continuing to insist that the works were authentic.
In 2013 a couple who had purchased a supposed Rothko from Knoedler for $8.4 million dollars sued the gallery and several of its employees for racketeering, arguing that the gallery participated knowingly in a conspiracy to defraud buyers. Andrade was named as a defendant, and Herbert’s papers, by then in the Smithsonian collection, were examined for any evidence for any of the earlier stories. Nothing was found. The lawsuit transcripts describe the “Rothko” in quotes and claim the mystery collector acquired the work through Herbert, who was “so critical to many of the seminal artist and collectors of the 1950s.” In fact, Herbert seems a relatively minor figure in the art world of the time, though that address book speaks to the breadth of his connections.
Finally, in 2013 Rosales confessed that some sixty works she sold through Knoedler and another gallery were forgeries painted by “an individual residing in Queens,” according to her plea statement. The controversy, which brought up deeper questions about how art is authenticated and what responsibilities galleries have to their buyers, shone a spotlight on that world’s darker corners but also on one neglected figure among so many. What role did gallery assistants or go-betweens actually play in the production and distribution of art works, then or now, there or elsewhere? It’s not often asked and even less often revealed.
Herbert was a convenient fall guy for this plot: he died in 1995, as Rosales was first launching this scheme, and he was relatively unknown. Unlike Ossorio, who had surviving friends and associates to defend him, Herbert had only Andrade, his long-term companion who had also spent forty years working at Knoedler. The other reason Herbert was a good fall guy was the fact that he was gay, which made all this supposed secrecy plausible. The shame of gayness was conveyed through several details: the collector who was married, had children, and lived in Mexico (or the Philippines or Switzerland…). All of these factors contributed to the believability of the cover story, which fed on assumptions about homosexuality that may or may not have been true. How closeted were gay men in the art world anyway? How damaging would discovery have been? Now that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole, those seem like important questions to pursue.
This day-long detour also reveals how much posthumous reputations depend on so many factors outside one’s control: the name “David Herbert” is now a search term associated with a major scandal and criminal conspiracy. It pops up over and over in the very legal transcripts that confirm he had nothing to do with it: the “David Herbert Collection” they cite never actually existed. Likewise, the “Earle Olsen” entry in the address book makes my father one dot in a long-ago orbit. Again, an address book functions as a visual representation of a fluid and expansive network, even if it raises more questions than it answers.

Photograph of David Herbert (right), Jaime Andrade (center), and William Draper from the David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The case transcripts I read and downloaded from the internet a few hours ago end with a discussion of the term “scienter,” which I had never encountered before. Apparently it is a legal term key to fraud cases that describes a “mental state embracing the intent to deceive, manipulate, or defraud.” In other words, the case depended on whether the defendants, including Andrade and Knoedler’s owner and director and other employees, were aware of the forgeries and sold them anyway. Intention, though, as literary scholars and biographers have long known as well, is extremely difficult to prove. Here the case relied on established norms: did the defendants follow customary procedures for authenticating art works? Did they take the usual precautions to review and check information? The prosecutors produced experts who demurred, saying that in this case Knoedler’s procedures were fishy, even by the notoriously unregulated and loosey-goosey art world. The defendants countered with a “buyer beware” argument that the buyers did not do their own due diligence about the work (Note: it seems a risky strategy to simultaneously want the buyer to trust the gallery’s authority and doubt it at the same time).
Finally, Freedman, Knoedler’s director through this decade of sketchy sales and lawsuits, argued that she bought some of these works herself; therefore she could not have been aware of the forgeries. The judge at the trial concluded that the jury would decide Freedman’s motives, but “it is undisputed that she used the fact that she owned Rosales Paintings as a promotional device.” In fact, Freedman’s “state of mind” (or scienter) was a major factor in the judge’s decision to let this go to trial instead of issuing a summary judgment for or against them. Subjective states of mind are hard to evaluate and demand a “full exposition of the facts,” he concluded.
Although the term came up in this criminal context, scienter seems a notion well adapted for all kinds of double-thinking that may not be nefarious. Being closeted in a homophobic environment, for example, could well necessitate a “mental state embracing an intent to deceive.” Just as Freedman and her co-defendants struggled to distinguish between what they knew and didn’t know about Rosales’s scheme, gayness in those pre-liberation days was both known and not known, communicated and obscured.
In the end, the judge concluded that Andrade, for example, was duped too: there was no evidence that he knew what had happened after he introduced Rosales to Freedman and the Knoedler. He never made any money from the sales and he only speculated about Herbert’s association with Ossorio, not with the mysterious collector himself. The judge dismissed this as “guilt by association.” It was Freedman, he implies, who latched onto Herbert as a “significant and largely unsung hero of the art world” as a means to support Rosales’s cover story.
The trial of the remaining defendants, Freedman and Knoedler, began in January 2016 and was settled out of court one month later. Some of the articles published in the aftermath focus on the buyers’ pursuit of justice for its own sake, their insistence on airing their grievance “in public.” It is that definition of “public” that seems at stake: what does it mean to conduct business (or lawsuits) in public versus in private? What does it mean to be gay in public or private? And finally, how does the public sphere represent private lives? As a biographer, that question is especially important because I am making another such representation right now, even as I sift through evidence of others. I too am making something public that may never have been intended to see the light of day.


Stay tuned for Rabbit Hole #2: about a museum of art that disappeared from the Upper East Side of Manhattan but once owned a painting by my father…. Also note that this rabbit hole ended in me finding a New Yorker article on the evolving history of the phrase “rabbit hole,” which no longer means Lewis Carroll’s alternate reality (ha, I managed to get Victoriana in here!) but any old time-suck of distractions. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the article, describes my kind of rabbit hole as “associative” and argues that the internet “breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.” She concludes that they are a guilty pleasure but also paradoxically productive, “an end in itself.” As a metaphor, the term conveys an appropriate sense of time passing and lack of control. I would also add that it conveys a sense of secrecy, the digging that explores a darkness underneath.

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 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.)