New York United States

Ben & Jerry’s to the Big Apple, Steven Heller & Sonny Mehta

Literary Tourist in New York City: Day 1

Throw together some Fall foliage and a few vats of ice-cream and you’re bound to attract a crowd. I was lucky that my daughters had arrived at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont before I did. I missed having to stand in the lineup.

Just had to spot them at the front of it and put in my order. $10 Cdn per cone though, thanks to the exchange rate. Still, they tasted good and it was great to see the girls. We strolled past where they keep the sugar

and sat down at some picnic tables to catch up. Then daughter #2, Dorothy and I hopped in the car and headed for Poughkeepsie leaving daughter #1 with her boyfriend to scale a few more mountains and enjoy each other’s company. 

The sun set the leaves alight. 

We stopped in this little town for a coffee. Turns out there was even a bookstore. Recycled Reading of Vermont

What luck! Though the thrill was short-lived. Damned place had just closed. Still, we did get to see a Bob Cat.  

After some good conversation, podcasts on Nixon’s impeachment and the Stonewall riots, and a screen filling sunset we arrived in Poughskeepsie and hit the hay. 

Next morning we headed downtown and breakfasted at The Poughkeepsie Grind. The place was spotless and the food was excellent (notice how skillfully the avocados are sliced?)

plus it was close to the train station. We parked the car in the covered garage next to it, and got on the train trying to guess which way it would head out of the station. After it started to move we changed our seats accordingly to face forward. We made it into Grand Central Station in a little over an hour, in time for my 11 am interview with Steven Heller. I have several books by him about book and dust jacket design ( this isn’t surprising – he’s written something like 160 in total over his impressive career). The one I like most –  of the ones I own that is – I’d probably like his monographs on Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand more, but they don’t at this point sit on my shelves – is called Jackets Required (seen upside down with the avocados above) a survey of U.S. jacket design from 1920-1950. There’s a similar one I have by Martin Salisbury with more of a British focus called The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970 (Thames & Hudson, 2017). It’s lovely too. I’ll have to wait till I hit the U.K. again to interview him. Still, as I say, both books are excellent. It’s great fun looking through all of the various covers, figuring out which you like most, then pondering why. It’s also fun to browse the stacks in search of works by your favourite designers. Trick is to go for the books authored by unknowns, that way you get the design without the price tag. 

Anyhow, I left Dorth weighed down with our luggage in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library – the branch with the lions Patience & Fortitude in front of it. She was happy enough to have a coffee and take in the vibe: jugglers and other animation. The weather was fine. I was only scheduled to be gone for an hour. So I jumped in a taxi and headed uptown to the New York University, School of Visual Arts where Steve teaches. As you can see

he collects more than just books and magazines. 

I was particularly taken by a paragraph on the flap of Jackets Required. Spare and succinct, here it is: 

The evolution of the book jacket during this period coincided with the Art Deco era and the commercialization of modern art as a universal graphic style. Book jacket artists were inspired by the European art movements – futurism, Bauhaus, de Stijl, and constructivism – as well as by artifacts garnered from antiquity. Typography and hand lettering styles were eclectic and varied. JACKETS REQUIRED reveals how book jacket styles evolved in response to each period’s aesthetics.

We proceeded to peel off a few layers, getting to what I hope are some tentative truths about the practice. We also run through some definitions of the various schools of design, plus some bios and defining features of the work of various important practitioners.  I don’t have the rapport with Steve that Debbie Millman has, but I think we get into a pretty good groove. You decide. Listen here:


Concerned about Dorothy getting fed up with the scenery, I rushed back to Bryant Park and we flagged a yellow cab over to the Boro Hotel in Long Island City, just across the East River, roughly parallel to the bottom of Central Park. I’d booked through Hotwire and tried to make it crystal clear that I wanted two separate beds. Of course we got one. The second would cost an additional $40 a night. I ate it, and we went upstairs to luxuriate on our pricey new beds for a while.

Refreshed, we headed out to Manhattan again. The ‘subway’, was actually several flights of stairs up. The line took us steps away from 55th and Broadway, just around the corner from Random House HQ, and Knopf’s offices, where Sonny Mehta and I had planned to meet. After hiking the subway stairs up to 55th we came face to face with La Esquina, a Mexican restaurant that, conveniently, happened to sell margaritas.

We ordered a pair. I remember them being mango. Dorothy insists they were guava. We settled on passion fruit. Regardless of the flavour, it was dee-licious. A slushie with a kick. We ordered a second, then walked over to Random House. The doors opened out onto a large, high ceilinged lobby with substantial built-in bookshelves on either side. Looked like much of Random House’s 20th century output was here, placed in no particular order.

We checked in at reception and were invited to go up to the 14th (I think) floor through the turnstiles. The receptionist up top led us into Sonny’s corner office. We had been exchanging emails for the past six months. Me trying to coax him into sitting down for an interview, he protesting that, despite his being a fan, he wasn’t interesting enough to share his experiences. We’d reached an impasse, and he suggested we get together for a drink. I told him I’d be with Dorothy. “Bring her along” he insisted.

I’d been warned that Sonny enjoyed and employed silence as part of his conversational repertoire. Although difficult, I’ve learned that keeping my mouth shut at crucial stages during interviews I’ve conducted over the years is important, and so have grown comfortable with dead air, hence I was ready for any blank space that might insinuate itself into our exchange. I’d also briefed Dorothy.

His office was a forest of out-turned books. I could tell that design was important to him. In fact, Chip Kidd told me ( see next post) that he often offered up deft, informed artistic suggestions, After ten minutes of smallish, but interesting, book talk, we left for a restaurant across the street.

Sonny ordered a glass of red wine. Keeping the drive alive, Dorothy and I went with tequila-based beverages. He chose a table near the front door. As a result a few people stopped to say hello during out conversation, including the restaurant’s owner. Dorothy filled Sonny in on the particulars of her international development/indigenous studies program. He wanted to know if she ” read her old man’s stuff.”

We talked a bit about Brazilian music – Sonny had a habit of listening to it at various clubs around town; about his son and grandchild in Hong Kong, I think it was – I got the impression he didn’t see them all that often. I admired the patterned tile floor as the three of us waited with anticipation. Sonny had been checking his phone for news of the Booker Prize. The winner was due to be announced any minute. “It’s a tie,” he finally exclaimed. What a pathetic verdict I opined. Abdication of responsibility. Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo? Really, what’s the criteria?

Walking down Broadway towards Times Square with Dorothy, after saying our goodbyes, I tried to impress upon her just what a big deal it was for me to have met Sonny. You gotta Google him. Like meeting Sting or the Queen, or someone. The Backstreet Boys. I looked forward to employing my charms. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d get him behind the mic.

Tragically this turned out not to be true. The first time I met Sonny was to be the last. He died two months later.

I felt the loss keenly. Sonny had paid attention to what I was doing. It felt affirming, especially during a time when it seemed like few were noticing. I was so pleased to know that he was part of my audience – that I was writing and performing for him. Now he was gone.

I’d have to pretend he was still listening.

The last thing I recall him saying to me was that he was keen to help in any way he could. A week or two later when I told him I was heading to Boston he suggested I interview his former colleague George Andreou, now Director of Harvard University Press (stay tuned for the Biblio File podcast episode).

As Dorothy and I strolled toward the light and noise I spotted a billboard for Oklahoma. This would be good to take her to see. Classic Broadway. The last time I was in New York I went to Porgy & Bess and it was fantastic. I’d be happy if this was half as good.

To be continued – stay tuned for Day 2.

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