Memories of JC (Jean-Claude Suares)

Death dredges up memories. Memories trigger sadness for a past that is just a memory — a vicious cycle of remembrance and remorse. I hope that somewhere memories actually live on and death is just an earthly delusion. On July 30, Jean-Claude (JC) Suares died suddenly from a rare bacterial infection, his wife Nina Duran told me. It is a tragedy that a vibrant and commanding 71-year-old could be struck down by something so random yet sinister as a rogue microbe. His doctors said no one will ever know how he contracted it.

Brad Holland was the first person I emailed upon learning the news. We were both impacted by Suares’ life. Holland was given the most important outlet of his career in the fabled New York Times on the OpEd page that Suares art directed. To understand how incredible this was, the Times barely used illustration and all of a sudden one of “us” was art director with the vision and power to engage “our” generation’s illustrators. Beside Holland (I can still recall how excited I was by his premiere illo), others who worked for underground papers like Screw,The East Village Other and more, were appearing regularly on the OpEd.  This was like a musician getting a hit record after working countless Bar Mitzvahs and weddings – well almost.

JC Suares by Brad Holland

JC Suares by Brad Holland in my office at The New York Review of Sex.

A couple of years before Suares became art director of the OpEd and Book Review, he gave me my first job doing mechanicals for The New York Free Press. You see, when I was 17 and about to graduate high school, I whipped up a folder of autobiographical cartoons I had done and took them around to every periodical from The New Yorker to Evergreen Review to The Freep and other NYC undergrounds. I was published in the Rat and The Avatar, was interviewed by the art director at Evergreen (which I much later art directed), and I got a call back from a Mr. Suares, who my parents’ housekeeper said called from The New York Times. I returned the call. It was, obviously, the Free Press, not the Times. He asked to meet me the next afternoon.

JC was a bit stout, a little squat yet an imposing figure back then, with a slight indefinable accent. When he came to greet me he was wearing an ascot. That was not the hippie look I had become used to seeing at the underground papers where I dropped off my folio. He looked at my work far more quickly than I would have liked, and gave me some pointers about drafting inks and dyes. All I really wanted was to get his approval, have him see my innate genius and publish my introspective scribbles.

Instead, JC asked if I could do mechanicals.  I said “yes” without thinking. I knew nothing whatsoever. So when I left his office, I  called around furiously to anyone I knew who was artsy, though no one could tell me what a mechanical was. When I arrived for work the next day, he showed me what to do with a glue pot and wax, sat me down next to another mechanical artist and said “watch him!” After a week, that person, dour by any standard, disappeared, leaving me alone and untrained. I stayed, believing this was my destiny. A week later, JC told me that he was going to show my batch of drawings to the editor, Sam Edwards. The next day, I was assigned to do a weekly drawing under the banner “A Heller,” and over time, a couple of covers — all assigned by JC. By then I was nicknamed “the kid.”

One day, not too long into the job, I heard JC on the phone in the office we both shared with Sue Graham, Charlie Mingus’s future wife, talking to Seymour Chwast about doing a poster for a new magazine called Inkling that JC was co-founding as its art director. JC was boasting to Chwast, who’s name I kind of heard about as part of something called Push Pin, how it was going to be the greatest humor magazine ever, based on a cross between the English Private Eye and French Charlie Hebdo but American. They had funds, offices in the Empire State Building and lots of great contributors. JC cursed often and regularly during the course of a day, but on this call I didn’t hear one fuck or shit. He was on his best, most persuasive behavior.

A week later, he announced he was leaving the Freep to start Inkling. I would be art director of the Freep with all the rights and privileges hereto bestowed — which meant $50 a week (if there was money in the till, which wasn’t too often) and at least two all-nighters a week, and man the phones on Saturdays. After Inkling got started, he promised to hire me. I won’t go into how little skill I had. But I did have JC’s confidence and best wishes. That was enough.

I don’t recall if an issue of Inkling ever was printed. I doubt it. But JC turned up again a year or so later with his own design studio called DADA. He was doing various publications, including Changes, a poor cousin of Rolling Stone. Coincidentally, DADA Studio was located at 80 Fifth Avenue, the same building, on the same floor where I, now going on 18, was the “co-publisher” and art director of The New York Review of Sex. I had just parted company with Screw, which started in the Freep office. Now a veteran of over a year on the boards, I was racking up publication credits. JC had just been hired, in turn, to design Screw, which he did much better than I had done. I frequently drifted by JC’s office to see how he and his partner did what they did more professionally than me. That period is somewhat vague in my addled mind, but I do recall on one of the two occasions when I was arrested by the NYPD vice squad for publishing pornography, I walked by JC’s office in handcuffs. Standing in his doorway, he smiled — chucked actually — and gave me a thumb’s up. He was either amused, relieved or secretly wanted to be busted too.

After the Review of Sex folded, I worked as art director at Rock magazine for a while, before returning to Screw as art director. Around that time, Screw was designed by Brill and Waldstein, because Suares went on to work on the muckracking Scanlan’s Monthly and other projects. Soon after, though I don’t recall the dates, while I was working on Screw, and hiring artists like Brad Holland and Philipe Weisbecker, Suares was settling in as art director of the Times OpEd page, revolutionizing illustration with, among others Holland, Weisbecker, Roland Topor, Hans Georg Rauch, Michael Matthias Prechtl, Tomi Ungerer, R.O. Blechman, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser and Eugene Mihaesco. Man, I was envioius.

By then JC and I didn’t have much direct contact. But by the greatest of coincidences, I met Ruth Ansel, the Times Sunday Magazine art director, and she brought my portfolio to show Louis Silverstein, the legendary Times design director. It was Ansel’s idea that I work for the Magazine as a designer, which suited me just fine, it was Silverstein’s idea that “I help out,” as he put it, as OpEd art director, which flattered me even more. I was just 23.

Apparently, and I had only heard rumors at the time, JC had been fired (he told me he quit) because he had stepped on big toes. It was during a torturous transition, involving putting another art director temporarily in his place, that my appointment was broached by Silverstein with the OpEd editors. When JC heard I was being considered, he laid the groundwork for my assumption of what frankly was the only job in the world I wanted. Ansel brought me to Silverstein; Silverstein hired me; JC made it possible.

Our relationship after that was, however, complicated. I hired him often as an illustrator. If I didn’t, he would have been hired anyway — the OpEd was his baby — I knew it and the editors insisted on it. That caused a certain textbook “mentee — mentor” resentment. Partly because I wanted his approval, but also because I didn’t want his overarching influence getting in the way of my own ideas. When I left the OpEd two years later for The New York Times Book Review, our relationship ostensibly ended. Sadly, human relationships often work out that way. Many years passed before we spoke again. I can’t recall when we last saw each other. He did appear in the 40th anniversary video that I wrote and narrated, directed by Aviva Michaelov, which gave him some of his due.

When I learned of his untimely passing this week, the same year that both my parents died (in their 90s), after the initial shock I realized how just a few people make huge differences in one’s life. When I read Holland’s tribute to JC, it reaffirmed that my life would be radically different today without JC being there for me when I most needed him. Fortunately, I was assigned to write his obituary in the Times — it is something I would never imagined when I met him for the first time those many decades ago. It was a small form of payback. Still, an obit is a news story not a remembrance, so I couldn’t say one very import last word: THANK YOU JC for launching my professional life!

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  1. Thank you for such a great article! Really enjoy reading about Jean-Claude Suares, what an amazing illustrator. I really liked his quote “I wanted the art to be well drawn, and I wanted to create some kind of emotional reaction”. Really well said. I strongly think that the best art and writing comes out through emotions.
    thank you,

    Natalya Rolbin