Steven Heller’s latest book, Growing Up Underground, is a departure. The graphic design historian and critic, arguably the preeminent one and certainly the most prolific (he’s written or co-written more than 200 books), has now created a memoir of his early days as a fledgling, teenage art director for a slew of New York underground newspapers: New York Review of Sex, Interview: Andy Warhol’s Film Magazine, the New York Free Press (aka the Freep), even the infamous Screw. Heller was an art director at the New York Times for 33 years, originally on the Op-Ed page and for almost 30 years with the book review. But a large part of his design education was done prior to that, working on the underground press, and his new book tells that colorful story. In addition to his books, Heller is co-chair of the MFA Design/Designer as Entrepreneur program at the School of Visual Arts in New York and writes Printmag.com’s Daily Heller column. Recently I talked to him about the new book, its unique visual format, and his singular education.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
SH: Steven Heller
Tell me the background on the book. It’s got a hybrid format.
I’ve been writing short autobiographical things for a while, usually based on incidents in my life that I could relate to graphic design, since everything I write is more or less about graphic design or popular culture, where visuals are the centerpiece. Years ago I wrote something about my connection to the mob when I was at Screw. I also wrote something for the Times about Screw and Al Goldstein. I’d written a few pieces here and there. Some of them I published, some of them I didn’t. And at a certain point, I was always joking about making it into a memoir of a particular period of time. And then I came up with the title, Growing Up Underground—and if I come up with a title, I have to come up with a book.
Talk about the approach of the book. It’s not a straight memoir, but almost a hybrid visual memoir, narrated in prose. How did you come up with that idea?
Well, since it’s all about leading a visual life, I felt it was important to have enough visual material in there that I had not really shown to the public, and I wanted the images to be as significant as the text. I knew there were going to be chapters on my direct experiences in the underground press; whether they were going to be a collective or separate was another story, and that I had to figure out. But I knew those chapters would need visuals, and I knew that the visuals would have to be large enough so that you could see them, could read the headlines. That was a given. Having read a few books about writing memoirs, I also figured that this was not going to be the typical memoir, nor would it be a monograph.
Paula Scher did a terrific book about her work for the Public Theater. I contributed an essay to that. But Paula wrote the basic narrative piece, which took each aspect of her work and carried the reader along with it. But you wouldn’t call it a memoir. You’d call it a monograph, with narration. I wasn’t gonna do a monograph. There was no precise definition for it, it wasn’t a diary or a journal. It’s memories, basically. And part of that memory bank are the images. I did it partially in a chronological way and partially in a thematic way, which meant that I started with things I did in high school. Actually, I started with documents: my draft card, my SVA ID, the letter from my doctor to the draft board. And then I wasn’t gonna put a lot of personal photographs in except to set a stage for who I became. And I wasn’t going to put in an index. Or a bibliography. One thing I didn’t want this to be was a résumé.
Had you even looked at some of this stuff for years? What was that experience like?
Well, I knew what boxes they were in, in part because we moved seven years ago and I had to put everything away in boxes and had to figure out what I was gonna do with them. So seven years ago, I kind of instinctively knew I was gonna need them, whether it was for the memoir or for something else. I knew I would be digging back into some of my documents, my artifacts, before they went off to the SVA Archive.
And did relooking at those things clarify memories, spur memories? What was that experience like?
No, actually the memories I retained came pretty easily. They weren’t very associative. They were just things that have stuck in my brain and I have told other people as stories over the years. After I finished the manuscript, other memories started coming back, but they were memories that I didn’t feel I could actually make stories out of. One thing I wanted to make sure of was that each chapter had an integrity, that it led into the next chapter, but ultimately all led into the underground part. So I knew I needed a chapter that talked about my traumatic experience at school, getting my head shaved and how that affected me. I also wanted to make it somewhat light. I didn’t want it to be a revenge book. I didn’t want to name names. The few people that I talk about, who are well known, just felt comic to me.
Al Goldstein, principally. A part of the book is your work with Goldstein on Screw, the infamous sex journal. You did this work as a teenager and at one point end up in jail on pornography charges, which were later dropped. Talk about that bizarre period and how you were essentially training yourself as a designer.
I stumbled into meeting Al when I was thrust, at 17, into the role of art director at the New York Free Press. He was pitching an article he’d written about being an industrial spy for the Bendix Corporation. This was a confessional and whistleblowing piece. I illustrated the cover of the issue. During the editing, Jim Buckley, the Freep’s managing editor and typesetter, and Al became friendly and hatched up an idea to start an underground sex paper, Screw. They asked me if I’d lay out the first issue. It was a big, ugly mess, but I continued for four or five subsequent issues. Again, not my best work, but I didn’t know any better.
We all knew, however, that the logo or masthead Goldstein had someone make for the first issue was not very good. First, he asked me to devise a new one. I was painfully trying to draw one when I got a call from Al one evening—remember, I was 17 and lived at home—telling me he had selected a new logo already. When I saw it, I got very upset. It was ugly and amateur psychedelicized lettering. I refused to use it, he refused to budge. I told him I was quitting! He said good riddance!
A week later, the publisher, editor-in-chief of the Freep, and I decided to publish the New York Review of Sex to compete with Screw. Buckley left the Freep and moved into an office with Goldstein, and Screw took off. We did OK for the first few issues, but none of us on the NYRS had the stomach for hardcore porn. There was an article in a magazine called New York Scenes, by now-former Times journalist Claudia Dreifus, about the four sex papers (published by the political underground press, RAT and East Village Other) and how, along with the Freep, the undergrounds could only support themselves when nudes and sex were exploited. Consequently, after a few issues of publishing the Freep and NYRS, we folded the Freep.
I saw the NYRS as a way to learn how to be a better designer. I had met the great illustrator Brad Holland, who taught me about typography and gave me a college education in a month of working together. I hired a few well-known illustrators, including Rick Meyerowitz. So for me, the experience was kindergarten, college, grad school, and art school rolled into one. I also felt part of something, which I had not really felt as a kid. We always hear about the outsider that does something “radical” to get attention and be invited into a club. Well, the underground sex press was all that for me. At least I didn’t get into drugs or become a serial killer.
The other thing that was fun about the book was the portrait of New York—obviously, a vanished world. What was it like reflecting on that, because you’re sort of a consummate New Yorker? You’ve seen the city change over several decades.
It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I tend to use the book as a jumping off point. I’ve done a bunch of interviews now, and people will always ask, “So what was New York like? You write about it and you were part of it.” And there are things that I didn’t write in the book about New York that I love talking about. I gradually became a NYC buff. All the undergrounds had offices in the East Village—the center of which was St. Marks Place—except for the Freep. I loved the gritty history of that place and time, and in my spare time learned more about the area, past and present. It was the heart of the Yiddish Theatre. Further east, in Alphabet City, was where Alan Ginzburg and other Beats lived. Ed Sanders’s Peace Eye bookstore was there. Charlie Mingus, who I later met at the Freep, lived around Tompkins Square Park. There were tranny bars that shocked me at the time. EVO, where I hung out after working on the Freep and NYRS, was in the building a floor above the Fillmore East, so I went to as many concerts for free as I wanted. I had front row seats for Jimi, Janis, Jim, and Joan [Baez]. It was an historic yet totally happening youth culture area. I couldn’t get enough of it.
The book would make a fun film. A coming-of-age comedy, sort of like My Favorite Year, but for underground newspapers.
A few people have said that. I wish Bob Downey Sr., a great indie film director of Putney Swope, Pound fame, who I got to know, was alive to do it. But as long as Brad Pitt plays me, I’m OK with it.
All images from Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York by Steven Heller, published by Princeton Architectural Press.