Title: Saul Steinberg
Author: Deirdre Bair
Bair, Deirdre (2012). Saul Steinberg: A Biography. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Date Posted: April 20, 2016
In its early years, the New Yorker magazine did not have a table of contents, and loyal readers paged through each issue to see what was offered. Its unique cartoons soon became a popular feature. In 1942, Romanian artist Saul Steinberg joined the New Yorker. Except for a period of service during the war, he never left, and he went on to draw many of the journal’s cartoons and 90 covers.
Steinberg was born in 1914. He studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest before going to Italy, where he earned a degree in architecture in 1940. When Italy passed anti-Semitic laws, he began a circuitous journey to the United States. With the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the New Yorker, Steinberg was granted resident alien status in the United States in 1942. While waiting to be drafted, Steinberg came to the attention of a friend of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Colonel William Donovan, who was searching for artists to serve in the Morale Operations Branch of the OSS.
Donovan sent a naval officer to interview Steinberg in New York. The officer’s report lists Steinberg’s principal strengths: he was fluent in Romanian and Italian, with good German and French; he had traveled widely; and he could draw. His weaknesses were equally dramatic. Steinberg’s English was poor, and the doctors diagnosed a mild “psychoneurosis,” a heart murmur, and heart disease. Plus, he was an alien, and his qualifications for a commission in the Navy were nil. Donovan was nonetheless interested, and had Steinberg “reexamined.” On 19 February 1943, he became a citizen and an ensign in the US Navy.
In her engaging biography, author Deirdre Bair devotes two chapters to Steinberg’s OSS service. He served first with the Sino-American Cooperative Organization in the Pacific under Admiral Milton Miles, who wrote him a glowing fitness report. (p. 128) His job was to prepare drawings to convey allied propaganda to those who could not read English. Later he was assigned to an Army unit in Italy and served as an interpreter in the Psychological Warfare Branch. During his exit interview before returning to the states, Steinberg noted that “he found very little tangible value in the work he did as a morale officer . . . there is no way of measuring effectiveness.” (p. 127) But he added, he enjoyed his OSS experience.
Bair has provided a glimpse into the life of an OSS officer whose contribution, while not well known, is characteristic of OSS service.