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Tag: Smithsonian

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

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.