Writer Eva Hagberg and I have known each other for a long time. Way back, in a year I can’t remember, I assigned her one of her first magazine assignments. Literally dozens of other assignments followed. So it was with some anticipation, and a bit of surprise, that I received her new book, When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect (Princeton University Press), an intriguing hybrid text, one part Aline and Eero biography, one part memoir of Hagberg’s experiences as a design writer and publicist. (I am briefly mentioned in the book.) The book’s main argument is that Aline Saarinen largely invented the role of the architectural publicist. Recently I traveled out to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to talk to a very pregnant Eva about the impetus for her new book, its dual structure, and the journalistic ethics of Aline Saarinen.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
EH: Eva Hagberg
So I knew of the thesis, but I didn’t know of the book. Tell me about the backstory and how that happened.
So I want to say up front: The book is not my dissertation, though it departs from research I did as part of my dissertation. The project started as an interest that I developed while I was writing a thesis about Angelo Dongia in the architecture department. I was killing time and it was February, around Valentine’s Day. And I saw something on the internet: look at the love letters between Eero Saarinen and Aline Saarinen. I had vaguely heard of Eero Saarinen, and I had never heard of Aline Saarinen. I started reading these love letters and thought, “This would be so fun to think about. Unfortunately, I’m gonna do a Ph.D. about science fiction movies and dystopia, too bad.” Anyway, I just followed a little bit of the trail and saw that the Smithsonian Archives of American Art had the full Eero and Aline Saarinen papers, fully digitized, just waiting to be read by somebody.
And when was this?
This was 2012. So I was in the architecture department at UC Berkeley, and eventually realized that I wanted to leave the department and do my own self-directed interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. To qualify, I needed a project that would be interdisciplinary. I went back to these letters. So the letters were occupying one part of my brain. And then in the other part, I noticed that all these architectural historians were taking the media, I thought, as an inaccurate archive. They were treating the media as though it had just emerged from nowhere and was an impenetrable monolith that had nothing to do with personal relationships. I remember so clearly in an architectural history seminar, this colleague gave a presentation about the Ambani residence in Mumbai, the most expensive private house ever designed. She made this entire presentation on the fact that there was only one image that she could find. Everybody in the room was buying that the release of one image was indicative of some complicated thing. I knew that it was just embargoed, and then sure enough, it was published in the New Yorker or the New York Times a couple weeks later.
A fairly simple explanation, if you know how these things work.
Right. And I thought: Does no one know how this works? And then I started paying attention to how historians treated the media. It seemed to me that there was no understanding of the fact that it was an ecosystem, in which publicists played a pivotal and creative role. I began reading deeper and saw that Aline, then Aline Louchheim, was actually inventing this position and pitching it to Eero, and to paraphrase: “If we get married, I can move to Bloomfield Hills and I can manage your press. I can really help you.”
The book evolved out of those two simultaneous interests. One, the relationship between them, how people organize themselves and love, how people organize themselves and work, the intimate scale of the story. And then the other track is an exploration into what it’s like to be in the design media industry. I worked as a journalist and as a publicist, as you may know.
I didn’t know the extent of your PR work.
Which was on purpose.
It was like you had a secret life, with actual employees and a payroll.
It’s funny because one of my friends just thought I had a trust fund because I would publish a story in a magazine once every six months. And actually I’m sitting here juggling two full-time employees, plus me, 11 clients, placing stories all over the world.
You had 11 clients.
At one harrowing point, I had 11 clients.
And what’s the right number for a firm that size?
Four. That’s what I have now, and that feels good. I don’t have employees anymore, it’s just me. So I have a handle on everybody. I know where everybody is. By the end of my V1 publicist career, I had hired somebody solely to tell me what to do and then make me do it.
OK, so the argument you make in the book is: Aline is almost the founder of architectural PR.
Yes. I trace a little bit of the history of publicity, which many say started with Edward Bernays in the 1920s, where he was promoting industry. Publicity already existed as a field.
But not for that long—20 or 30 years.
Exactly. Artists had publicists, but architects really didn’t. They also weren’t allowed to advertise. What was so interesting about looking at this period when Aline was working—the 1950s—was that the big architectural magazines were changing how they did their business, which kind of opened up the need for somebody to manage this stuff: who’s going to get the exclusive, who’s going to pick the photographer. This was an ideal circumstance for Aline, who was able to use her experiences as a journalist and easily transform it into being a publicist. So, yes, she was the first, I argue.
What was it about the letters that struck you the first time?
A big part of it was where I was in my life. I think I was on my fourth serious romantic relationship in my life and was really hype about it. I had been with an artist a few years earlier, where I sort of tried to do a little bit of what Aline had done, but very unsuccessfully. So I was really interested at the time in questions like: How do we tell somebody that we’re interested in them? What are the mechanisms of romantic progress? I was really interested in the difference between having a romantic experience and romantic conversation and then writing down ways that you feel. How writing about a relationship could become in a way having the relationship.
They were writing the letters, in part, because they weren’t in the same place. And they were courting heavily.
Pretty much almost exclusively via the letters. They make references to phone calls that they had, they saw each other, but it was really in letters. What was so enthralling about them was how direct they were about what they were codifying. They have all these language games. They had this phrase called the clauses of caution. He was married. But they would have these conversations and she would say something like, “Within the clauses of caution when we’re married,” so they developed this parallel internal future that they would describe in language, but then they would put formal brackets around it and say “brackets on, brackets off” to indicate if they were talking about something they weren’t maybe supposed to be talking about. I just thought that level of linguistic play, while creating this romantic relationship together solely in writing, was fascinating.
She kind of moves around within the letters, trying out different roles, from dutiful wife to PR guru to soulmate.
The shifting between the personal, the professional, the romantic, and the collaborative, was so interesting. She would go from basically overt sexting, to “here’s what you should say about your chapel project,” to “I really think that you should divorce your wife as soon as possible.” She fluidly switches among them.
How long was the process of reading all of the letters?
All the letters? Oh, god. Years. I started reading them in 2012 and was still reading them when I was putting the finishing touches on the book in 2021. So I remember at one point I had just moved back to New York, and the book had just been contracted by the press, and it was a snowy night, and there was some fast-moving traffic. And I thought: If I get hit by a car, this knowledge dies with me. I’m the one person on the planet who knows more about these letters than anybody else, which now hopefully is no longer true.
Obviously you took parts of your dissertation, but how did you come by the blend of your story and a readable version of your dissertation?
Well, I’m glad it’s readable. There’s a nice compliment in your question. I know whenever people hear “dissertation,” they think it’s going to be a nightmare. But I was a writer before I was a scholar. And so even the dissertation version was pretty readable.
Probably too readable.
I had to find a very supportive committee who were OK with my interest in narrative and storytelling. And the word that I heard most frequently in grad school was that my work was “refreshing.” And I would think: It doesn’t have to be boring to be serious. So it was already readable, but I massively rewrote it for publication, especially the historical sections. There was a whole chapter that was just so in the weeds, and it was cut in the process of peer review. At first I missed it, and I think now that was the right decision. I read it recently, and my eyes were bleeding with the specificity of this analysis, which was appropriate for a scholarly project, but not for a book like this.
And the personal parts came in because early in the project I had this preface, which said: Some of my evidence will appear a little bit circumstantial, but I hope that I’ve done a good job in painting a portrait; I worked as a design journalist and as a publicist, so I have some familiarity with this field. … So trust me. One of my readers said, “I would like to hear more about this work that you did as a publicist.” But I’d been so trained in grad school that writing about myself was just inappropriate.
You had a draft where you weren’t part of the story?
I wasn’t in there at all.
It was just a straight Aline biography?
Straight Eero and Aline for hundreds of pages. I talked to my editor, Michelle Komie, a phenomenal editor. I’d just gotten my reader’s reports. The first report said, this is great. The second one was a “revise and resubmit.” They thought it would be interesting if I incorporated more of my experiences. But I just didn’t know if Princeton University Press would let me do that. I remember having this call with Michelle, and she asked me, “What book would you write if you were completely free, totally unshackled?” I said, “Oh, I would write this hybrid project. I would definitely write about myself.” She said, “Great. Write the book that you really want to write, without any fear.” She gave me total license, and then I wasn’t sure how to structure it. Should it be half and half? And then I realized that these themes would emerge in every chapter about Aline, that were reflected in some way in my own life. So my chapters are shorter. They’re interstitial, like sorbet courses between dinner. But there’s a lot in them.
I wanted more.
Yeah? That’s good to know. I don’t know why there isn’t more. I think I was sensitive to the fact that I was writing about people who are real, who are still alive. I felt like the majority of the story was really about Aline and Eero. And I also learned so much by copying her methods.
That’s a theme in the book that comes through clearly.
That’s how it became personal. It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the inclusion of the personal and how there are some people that have a devotion to this idea of “pure” ideas in some way, or something being a “pure” work of history. And as I said at my launch event, my position is that you can be a historian of 19th century sheep enclosures in France and you’re still writing about your mom.
You’re writing about your interpretation of 19th century sheep enclosures.
Exactly. This was my great struggle in academia, feeling surrounded by people who were all sharing what I thought was a fiction, which is that there’s some way of engaging with ideas, as almost pure abstractions. I don’t think that’s possible. So I’m writing about myself and about my love life and about my fuckups and hiccups and successes, because that is how history is created, by individuals acting out of a combination of self-interest, fear, and delusions of grandeur. And Aline very helpfully wrote all of that down for us. And so did Eero.
Let me put a different hat on. I’m gonna play a journalistic ethicist. At what point was Aline way too far in with Eero to write a profile in the New York Times?
The day she met him.
To set the scene: The year is 1953. He’s living in Bloomfield Hills, she’s living in New York. Her editor at the New York Times Magazine offers the assignment to John McAndrew, who had been her professor at Vassar. For some reason, McAndrew doesn’t do it. The assignment goes to Aline. She flies to Bloomfield Hills. She gets there and the archive of letters written later show that they pretty quickly hooked up, for want of a better term. She flies back to New York and drafts the piece and sends it to him for comment, which if you’re a journalist, it makes your blood cold. And if you’ve ever written for the New York Times, it makes your blood even colder, because the Times is very particular about influence.
He has multiple comments for revision, which are interspersed with very flirtatious talk. At one point he tells her she’s got something wrong, and that’s going to cost her “two spanks.” Which was just delightful. So they’re openly flirting and he’s correcting things. Not even correcting facts, but instead indicating, “Oh, I’d rather you position me like this.” There’s a line in the final published New York Times profile where she describes his wife, Lily Swann Saarinen, a brilliant sculptor, and Aline very subtly reinforces that Eero is really devoted to his art, not to his family. The implication is that he has a wife, but is she really the best wife for him? It’s kind of cold. She stayed at the Times for another year or so. Then someone asked her to write about Saarinen again, and she wrote back something to the effect of, “Well, we are to be married on Tuesday. I don’t think I should write about him.” So she came around.
Featured image: TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, now JFK Airport, New York, NY. Architect: Eero Saarinen. Photo by Wayne Andrews/Esto.