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Saul Steinberg: A Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 20, 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; First Edition edition (November 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038552448X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385524483
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 7.2 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this lavishly researched, pointillistic, and revealing biography, National Book Award–winning biographer Bair seeks to decode the “pleasure and puzzle” of Steinberg’s witty and profound creations and the paradoxes of his life. She finds clues to Steinberg’s instantly recognizable visual lexicon in his childhood as a “thoughtful, introspective” Jewish boy in anti-Semitic Romania. A passionate reader and “first-class noticer,” his “major preoccupations” then and always were “girls and drawing,” and his approach to both was complicated and contradictory. Steinberg’s nightmarish exodus from Nazi Europe was followed by a bizarre, world-roaming stint as a U.S. Navy “psychological warfare artist.” Once established in New York, and on the pages and covers of the New Yorker, Steinberg, with his keen eye for absurdity and injustice, perpetual drive to create, “questing intelligence,” metaphysical imagination, and sharp sense of humor, became one of the world’s most industrious, successful, and conflicted artists. A self-described “writer who draws,” he was torn between commercial and fine art, his hunger for attention and fame and his need for privacy. As Bair chronicles Steinberg’s complicated marriage to painter Hedda Sterne and tragic 35-year relationship with a much younger mistress, and richly illuminates each creative leap and fall into depression, Steinberg emerges as a philosopher-cartoonist-artist of prodigious talent, vision, and duality. --Donna Seaman


A New York Times Notable Book of 2012

"Gripping and revelatory ... There is much that is new in Bair’s book, and Steinberg emerges from her account as a paradigmatic 20th-century exile and traveler, crossing and recrossing fixed boundary lines in both his life and his work ... Steinberg certainly produced his share of classics, and in the process he helped pave the way for a culture of boundary-blurrers ... He showed that literature can be created without using a single sentence."
—Deborah Solomon, The New York Times Book Review

"A meticulously researched and soberly written portrait revealing an artist whose personality was both more troubled and more troubling than his fans would have ever imagined ... A tour de force of biographical craftsmanship."
The Wall Street Journal

"The pre-eminent New Yorker cartoonist leads a life worthy of his own ironic art in this scintillating biography ... Steinberg emerges as a tangle of neurotic contradictions ... Bair's long and amply researched biography unfolds in a graceful prose that's stocked with absurdist scenes and colorful characters ... Her breezy writing works subtly and slyly to unearth psychological depths beneath that amusing surface of the Steinbergian picaresque."
Publishers Weekly, starred and boxed review

"With this enthralling and exhaustive biography, Deirdre Bair traces the first complete portrait of the private, astringent (and now formerly) inscrutable artist/cartoonist in a nonjudgmental manner, all the while gaping at the famous friendships, expansive career, and, most surprisingly, messy affairs that Steinberg so peripatetically and painfully inhabited. Steinberg was not only the most ‘twentieth century’ of twentieth century artists, but also one of the most flabbergasting."
—Chris Ware, cartoonist
"Does his reading Huck Finn in an Italian concentration camp, his belief that Cyrillic ‘looks like sneezes,’ his TV commercial for Jell-O, or the hunch that Mickey Mouse was black explain Saul Steinberg?  Not entirely, but Deirdre Bair does the rest, in her sensitive, stylish portrait of an American original.  A rich, sparkling joy of a book."
—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra

"The definitive portrait of an illustrator, an artist, who created some of the defining images of the 20th Century. Bair has written the enchanting and illuminating biography that Steinberg always deserved."
—Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Van Gogh: The Life
"I thought I knew Saul Steinberg, yet in Deirdre Bair’s biography I learned of the extraordinary life, replete with his most intimate musings, this guardedly private man lived.  It brought back the unique wit and humanism that make Steinberg one of the towering creative forces of the 20th Century."
—Françoise Mouly, Art Editor, The New Yorker 

"[Full of] fresh revelations ... A comprehensive and engaging biography."
The Boston Globe

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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This is a very well well written biography.
Steven E. Frenkel
Steinberg was known as "a writer who draws" and most of his pieces require extensive study to comprehend them fully.
John Montgomery
I highly recommend this biography to any and all Steinberg fans.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Landes on March 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I picked up Saul Steinberg after seeing it on the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 and I really am glad I did as I didn't know much about Steinberg other than he was the famous cartoonist for The New Yorker but after reading this very comprehensive biography, I now have much grater insight into who he was and the impact he had on the world of art, cartooning, and graphics. One thing I will say about this book however--it is loooong. Very long. And there are parts that might just make you say "wow why do we need this level of detail." That said, it is a biography and it does take you through every aspect of Steinberg's life-the good, bad, and totally weird.

Steinberg was born in Romania and like others of his time was subjected to punishing oppression and anti-Semitism. He persevered and got out of Romania right on time. He went through his schooling, ended up in a variety of camps where he also seemed to escape what could have been a much worse situation and ended up in the US where he began his career as an artist and a cartoonist. The book goes on to talk about his marriage to another artist Hette, his separation from her and long-time romance with another woman for a period of 35 years, his constant stream of girlfriends and dalliances, and his eventual death. One thing I learned about Steinberg from this book is that he was in many ways not a super nice guy. He constantly berated people whom he felt were beneath him, he treated women mostly horribly, and he was extremely self-centered. That said, he also supported many relatives, friends, and his parents in Romania for almost his entire life. He sent constant streams of money and bought appliances for them. There was hardly a Jewish or Israeli charity he did not support.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Isabella Stone on April 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The main flaw in this biography is that, despite its great length and detailed approach, it just does not bring its subject to life, nor does it make an attempt to describe Romania and its influence on Steinberg's early development and personality. It is a chronicle of facts and dates, and is awkwardly presented, in that there is no list of illustrations--a glaring omission for a book about an artist!--nor is there a list of sources, and one wonders if the author had access to the decades-long correspondence between Steinberg and his best friend, Aldo Buzzi. These letters must have been fairly revealing and it would be nice to know if they were part of the research process. There is a voluminous "Notes" section but after wading through almost 600 pages of text containing much material that could be in an appendix, one is not compelled to look at yet more unimportant details. For comparison, other more successful biographies which come to mind might be Van Gogh: The Life by Naifeh and Smith, Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage about Maria Callas, Diana by Tina Brown, Cheever by Blake Bailey, or Seabiscuit by Lauren Hillenbrand (about a horse!). Each of these authors does an excellent job of "setting the stage" and outlining influences on the books' subjects. In the end, one feels better acquainted with Van Gogh, Callas, Diana, Cheever, and Seabiscuit and what "made them tick." This is not the case with Saul Steinberg, sadly.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The first part of this story is historically very interesting and I followed this journey of talent and survival around Europe and Asia, all based on his drawings which touched cerebral persons everywhere. Once in the USA, the author mostly lists all his accomplishments week in and out and after a while, we get it. I lost interest and never finished. But the first part is worth the reading.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By kip on April 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An excellent biography of one of my favorite cartoonists/artists. The biography is well-written and engrossing, with many photos of Steinberg and many reproductions of his wonderful work. I highly recommend this biography to any and all Steinberg fans.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By disco75 on April 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A mammoth read that covers everything factual pertaining to Steinberg, this bio conveys the timeline of the talented and frustrating man. His life contained a good deal of drama, both the sort that stems from his living through the European years he did, the US military experiences, NY during its ascendance as world art capital; and also the drama wrought by his contradictory personality and the wild characters he drew into his orbit. The outrageous events and behaviors (too many to list here) are on display, albeit tactfully so in Bair's lucid prose. She drew on extensive sources, particularly the diaries of the principals, extensive domestic caches and letter collections, and the archives of the Steinberg and Sterne foundations.

In dealing with so much source material and so many, ahem, colorful behaviors, a biographer faces numerous choices in putting some sort of order to the vignettes and facts. Bair's book straddles the line between general biography (readability) and historian's record (completeness). At 600 pages of narrative and 130 pages of notes, perhaps it errs on the side of excessive inclusiveness. She avoids character analysis and most art analysis, sticking to a neutral, descriptive tone. This is both a strength and, for me, a weakness. We're left with unanswered ideas about Steinberg and about his art. Many times important habits are brought up well after their commencement, categorically mentioned romances, friendships, or work undertakings that have a reader reconsidering what went by prior in the book. As an example, Steinberg is described as a talented gambler who could have been a professional-- a remark made by the author when she is depicting him in his mid60s.

Readers will want this as a paperback or ebook.
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