`I felt the whole pageant was being put on for me'
The following recollections of Don Freeman and his Newsstand were prompted by a recent exhibition of Freeman lithographs at New York's Sylvan Cole Gallery. I don't rightly recall the origins of Don Freeman's Newsstand, if indeed I ever knew them. The magazine had been going for about three years when I arrived on the New York scene in 1939. Don and Lydia Freeman, the publishers of the remarkable quarterly, were close friends of my wife's. After our marriage, the Freemans welcomed me into their lives, and their lives became a part of mine. So did Newsstand. That may sound like a curious statement. And it would be, if applied to most publications. But Newsstand was different. It reflected and transmitted what Don felt about New York. In his own words, he ``fell for each section of the city separately and collectively, personally and objectively.'' Newsstand shared his feelings and embraced us readers.
In an artist's parody of the New York Times slogan ``All the News That's Fit to Print,'' Newsstand offered ``All the News That Fits to Prints.'' More formally, the magazine was subtitled ``One Man's View of Manhattan.'' The view was nothing if not wide-angle and sharply focused.
For the Freemans' friends, Newsstand offered the added pleasure of providing vivid reminders of events of which they had frequently been a part. Events like the Freemans' parties, which were wonderful cross sections of theater people, artists, and writers, the arrived and the aspiring. I remember one such party at which William Saroyan was -- unchallenged and without trying -- the star performer. Saroyan was just as exuberant as advertised. He waxed voluble about everything, including the food and drink Lydia had provided. He was an indefatigable talker, which is not necessarily the same thing as a conversationalist.
But Saroyan could also listen. On one occasion, he arrived at the Freemans' apartment above Columbus Circle, drawn by the sound of Don's trumpet through the open window. Once inside, he insisted that Don continue playing. As a result of the visit, Saroyan cast Don in ``The Beautiful People'' as a prodigal who, nearing home, serenades his family with the tender refrain of ``My Wonderful One.'' As far as I know, Don became the only trumpet-playing artist ever to appear as a character in a Broadway play. But the incident had an appropriate kind of logic. Don, who had come to New York from California in 1929 to study at the Art Students League, financed the expedition with money saved from playing trumpet in small bands around San Diego.
One of the most unforgettable individuals who came into our lives via Newsstand was Beauford Delaney, a black painter of extraordinary serenity and grace. A 1941 issue records a visit to Delaney, then living in an abandoned tenement at 10 Downing Street in Greenwich Village. The sweetly smiling artist is displaying one of his paintings by candlelight, though not for aesthetic reasons. The building was without electricity or heat.
For Don, Beauford was ``the prime minister of Downing Street,'' who weathered battles with a rental agent, monthly notices to vacate, vandals, and a winter so cold that water from leaking pipes froze solid under the flooring. Despite these and other adversities, wrote Freeman, ``Beauford Delaney . . . paints on while he sings and his pictures become songs.'' Thanks to Don and Newsstand, a lyric Delaney painting has traveled with us (and honored mantelpiece walls) from New York to London to Boston and back to New York.
Newsstand displayed a particular affection and regard for the teachers under whom Don studied and for the contemporaries he admired. One issue featured a tribute to John Sloan on the occasion of the silver anniversary exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. In his salute to Sloan, Don wrote: ``Free expression has been the flaring torch of this great Amerian artist and he has devoted his life to its preservation and expression.''
In a lighter vein, the same issue included a lithograph of Adolph Dehn sketching the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, followed on the next page with a reproduction of Dehn's own drawing. The conjunction illustrates the delights and surprises in store for Newsstand's devoted reader-viewership.
Among the eminent writers who passed across the pages of Newsstand was Carl Sandburg, who ``dropped up to my place one night, took off his coat, and stayed till three in the morning.'' Freeman depicted the guitar-playing poet as he improvised a song about Roosevelt and Churchill meeting on the high seas.
Don once remarked that he was ``backstagestruck.'' Beginning in the 1930s, the tall, outgoing Californian became a familiar figure as graphic recorder of the theatrical scene. As a result, Newsstand provided a pictorial footnote to the stage history of an era. Don caught the dramatis personae of playmaking in expected and unexpected ways.
A jaunty Orson Welles surveys the set of ``Native Son,'' the explosive drama based on Richard Wright's novel, which Welles directed. Belying his scary image in ``Arsenic and Old Lace,'' a pensive Boris Karloff awaits his cue backstage (and contributes a Newsstand essay on New York). Freeman records a visit with the benign W. C. Handy, ``the father of the blues,'' in Handy's office overlooking Broadway. Jimmy Savo's alter ego pulls the curtain for onstage Jimmy in the legendary pantomimist's ``Mum's the Word.'' Richard Waring smudges his face with coal dust for his first-act entrance in Emlyn Williams's ``The Corn is Green.'' An enchanting Ed Wynn is seen from the wings putting on a Punch and Judy show.
For us New Yorkers of the 1930s, few favorite characters rated above Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. So it wasn't surprising that Newsstand came to enjoy a special relationship with His Honor. Its beginnings were characteristically Freemanesque. The artist's garbage collector rescued a cartoon of the mayor that had been thrown out with the Freeman trash. Through the offices of the friendly trash collector, the cartoon found its way to the mayor's office.
Freeman was summoned to City Hall, where La Guardia asked for copies of the caricature and in return agreed to let himself be sketched at work. But he warned Freeman: ``I'm apt to leap out of my seat and sail out over the town any second.'' When a fire alarm sounded, that's what he did. Said Freeman: ``I just had to hold my pencil and watch this human dynamo erupt.'' (Artists don't have to worry about mixed metaphors.)
``To See the Mayor'' was one of the Newsstand lithographs that resulted from the La Guardia-Freeman encounters. It depicts a cluster of New Yorkers waiting to bring their complaints personally to New York's great reform politician. A city father affectionately known as ``the Little Flower,'' La Guardia handily won the juvenile vote by reading the funny papers over the municipal radio station when a newspaper strike hit the city.
Don Freeman was a devotee of street theater in its most spontaneous form -- the unrehearsed human drama, whether comic or tragic. Though by no means ignoring a great city's darker side, Newsstand was prevailingly humorous and upbeat. ``Dress Up Day,'' a junior-miss fashion parade in others' finery on Thanksgiving Day in Hell's Kitchen, was the kind of scene that captivated Freeman. In some notes for a 1937 gouache, ``The Night Before Christmas,'' a 14th Street scene of scurrying, last-minute shoppers, he wrote:
``Every face was different . . . each one an original, created from the many nations that contribute to New York's populace. Feeling that the whole pageant was being put on for me, I stood there soaking up the stream of passing history . . . People inventing lives for themselves out of nothing -- they made the streets a feast for the artist.''
Don Freeman spread the feast across the pages of Newsstand. I thank him for sharing it.