Art Director Tom Bentkowski Remembers New York Magazine in the 70s

Art Director Tom Bentkowski Remembers New York Magazine in the 70s Editor's Note: The recent SPD event, For the Love of ...New York Magazine, featured nine former and current design directors and art directors of the magazine. Missing was Tom Bentkowski, who worked as an associate art director in the 1970s under design director Milton Glaser and art director Walter Bernard. For eight months, from June 1977-February 1978, Tom was the New York art director. He was in charge during a period when the magazine was sold, and there were a number of staff changes. Eventually J.C. Suares was hired as design director, and Tom left New York to pursue a very distinguished career at Time Inc, working as the longtime, multi-award winning art director of Life magazine. He continues to design and consult on a myriad of publication projects.

Tom sent us this highly personal and very rich history of his experiences at New York magazine. It's accompanied by a series of covers designed during his time as art director.

(Above): New York, November 14, 1977. Illustration: Ed Sorel.

By now, people might take for granted that the concept and content of New York magazine have always existed, But it was, in its day, a wonderfully fresh and innovative idea. It's longevity is a testament to its intelligence and creativity. The magazine, in its history, not only became the indispensable guide to the difficulties and delights of living in New York, it made an enormous contribution to the world of design and art direction. The ripples and reverberations are felt everywhere.

My own connection with the magazine was, in fact, quite a long one. I happily and gratefully had the most basic, entry-level position during some of the magazine's most exciting times, and I was the art director (for a very short time) through some of the magazine's most turbulent days.

03 Robert_Grossman.pngNew York, June 27, 1977. Illustration: Robert Grossman.

New York was my first job out of college.
I was the scruffy-haired kid in the corner, wearing velvet bell bottoms, brightly colored shirts with ridiculously long collars, and flashy neckties the width of lobster bibs. Because most of the magazine's activities took place in two very tightly packed (but loosely organized) rooms, to simply be present there was to be exposed to an intense post-graduate course in art and music and politics and food and architecture and sociology. The most critical strategy sessions, the most heated intellectual discussions, or the most revealing personal interactions--all of which might have taken place privately in other organizations--were part of the constant, open, and loud exchange of ideas in which everyone was a participant. (Whether they wished to be or not.)  For a kid not long removed from a Catholic High School in Buffalo, it was pretty heady stuff. Thinking back to those days, it doesn't seem possible that so much time has passed. And it doesn't seem possible that the world has changed so completely.  

New York magazine's offices, in those days, were located at the top of four flights of stairs. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, my first vision upon walking through the door on my first day of work: It was Randolph the Cat, scrunched up and sleeping inside of a plexiglass cube. He was resting up, evidently, for his late-night activities. (In addition to his main duty of--hopefully--ridding the building of mice.) In those days, most of the walls were covered with those self-stick panels of dark brown, foul-smelling, pressed cork. Notes and pictures and posters and clippings and artists' cards were affixed with multicolored push pins. Randolph waited until everyone went home each evening, then in the dead of night, pulled all of the pushpins out of the walls. Our morning routine usually began with pinning our stuff back up.

In the art department, each of us had a wooden drafting table from Sam Flax, covered with a 30x40 sheet of illustration board, carefully taped down around the perimeter (I mitered the corners of the tape on mine) and anchored at one end with a metal t-square. Next to each desk sat a metal can topped by a plastic cone pressed into a frightening excrescence of dried rubber cement. There was also a red oil can with an angled brass spout containing thinner. (Substances which, we now know, were highly toxic and dangerously flammable.) We each had a heavy, bronze-colored tape dispenser, and a plastic carousel whose compartments were filled with ossified Rapidograph points and rusty X-Acto blades. We were issued bright orange telephones provided by some mysterious discount service provider. (The indiscreet color seemed appropriate, since everyone's conversations were heard by everyone else).

And everyone had plants. Plants which now seem to have disappeared from the botanical taxonomy, or worse, faded from popularity. Swedish Ivy seemed to be growing everywhere, as well as multicolored Coleus. There were lots of purple-and-green vines called Wandering Jews, spilling out of the macrame hanging plant holders that adorned the windows. There were delicate cascades of Burros' Tails, which fell apart if you so much as breathed hard on them. The windowsills held rows of glass jars of water above which hovered toothpick-pierced avocado pits. On cold days in winter, because the building was not heated on weekends, we often spent parts of our Mondays working in our hats and coats and gloves, until the boiler finally kicked in. There were two tiny, semi-sectarian bathrooms. Sometimes both were in working order. Sometimes. The men's one had a lot of clever graffiti on the wall, which we suspected was the work of Ruth Gilbert. It could only have been she who wrote: "Clay Felker has a big magazine."

At first, my main contribution to the proceedings was to paste up the classified section. In those days, classified ads were typed up in the order they were received, regardless of category, and sent for typesetting that way. Once a week, Sterling Graphics sent over what seemed like miles of galleys, all set in a single, endless, spirit-deflating column. The first step in dealing with this mass of text was to take it all into the back stairwell, and spray the proofs with Crystal-Clear. (Otherwise the ink, which on its own took several centuries to dry, would smudge upon contact.) Then the classified ad manager came upstairs, sat down next to me, and dictated the order in which she wanted the ads organized and categorized and arranged. Each and every ad had to be cut away from its neighbors, and individually pasted into the page templates. When the ads contained incorrect numbers or misspelled words, the offending items were surgically excised with an X-Acto knife, and corrections were made or new words were built--sometimes letter by letter, using bits of type from extra galleys and Elmer's glue. That endless, painstaking, rigorous, process must have had some sort of character-building value. The classified manager sitting next to me, orchestrating the content of her section so carefully and demandingly, eventually turned out to be Cathy Black.

Working at New York back then meant that we had many many Christmases each year. In those days book publishers and record companies sent out review copies of everything. Everything. Some days Alan Rich, the renowned music critic, seemed to spend as much time opening packages as writing. (Though he was so preternaturally adroit that he could write with one hand and open packages with the other.) The books and records that were not good enough for the critics to actually keep (approximately 92%) were put onto big giveaway piles. The pasteup kids and editorial assistants could take the excess home, if for no other reason than to fill the milk crates in our studio apartments with them, and create the illusion of being better-read and more culturally informed than we actually were.

When Mary-Margaret Goodrich succeeded Judy Daniels as art department secretary and picture researcher, she renamed the position "Photo-Za-Za." When there would be some occasion for an official lunch or office celebration. it would always be at Limerick's Irish Restaurant on Second Avenue.  Mary Margaret, who was as fit and thin as an adolescent-gymnast, would never allow anyone's plate to be removed from the table until she had polished off every last morsel of food on it. On occasion she'd chase an overanxious, plate-removing server back to the kitchen. I've never since had such delicious Irish soda bread. Our lunches were often brought from home, and eaten at our desks.  But the neighborhood had no shortage of culinary delights. There was the Todaro Brothers Italian Market, and there was Chili Charlie's. The pizza at Rocky Graziano's Pizza Ring was probably not as good as I remember it to be.  But the Baskin-Robbins on Second Avenue did have 31 flavors. Once, for Walter Bernard's birthday, Carol March bought a scoop of each flavor, and tried to construct an ice-cream-ball pyramid in lieu of a cake. Walter walked into the art department just in time to see the whole thing slide apart and onto the floor.

New York, September 5, 1977. Photograph: Matthew Klein, assembly: Fred Greller.

A constant presence at 32nd Street was Cosmos.
A gaunt, mysterious, gray-bearded man in a heavy wool army-surplus overcoat (winter or summer) he was a musician, photographer, conceptual artist.  He idolized Milton, attended his class at SVA for years, and when hired as a messenger, moved the mountain of shopping bags that contained his possessions into the PushPin conference room. Perhaps he was an apparition, a figment of our collective imagination. Or not.  Much much later, (after the Murdoch era had begun) I was asked to write a short Intelligencer item about Cosmos. Twelve hours of taped interviews and 48 manuscript pages later, it became a six-page article in the magazine. Cosmos insisted that the article be titled: "The Strangest Genius In The World." The editor countered with: "The Strange Universe Of Cosmos." Cosmos was furious. He called the printer (in Buffalo) in the middle of the night, claiming to be me, and demanding that the presses be stopped and a new title inserted. Little did he know that I happened to have a cousin who worked at the printing plant, and who knew my voice. He recognized the ruse. The offending headline ran, and Cosmos threatened to destroy all the negatives in which my image might have appeared. He had always believed in a mystical connection between a real person and their captured image. Cosmos would "Photo-Arrest" people he found smoking in prohibited areas, and make documentary indictments of accident locations that had inadequate traffic regulations.

Cosmos claimed to have an enormous collection of discarded brassieres that he would find in the street. Twice a year, during Bloomingdale's white sales, he would purchase a set of bed linens, and tear them rhythmically while standing outside the store. He called it "Sheet Music." One of his never-performed symphonies involved the marching band from the college with the number-one rated football team playing Beethoven's First Symphony as they marched up First Avenue. Simultaneously, the second rated college's marching band would be playing the Second Symphony while marching down Second Avenue. And the Third, and the Fourth, and the rest of the Nine Symphonies. He would constantly scribble thoughts and ideas into standard grammar-school notebooks. He claimed to have a six-foot high stack of them at his apartment in Westbeth.  He also claimed that when a notebook was full, he never opened the cover and looked into it ever again. He amassed a vast collection of LPs--not one of which ever had its outer cellophane seal broken. When he suffered one of his innumerable illnesses, the doctors at Bellevue fitted him with device that monitored his vital signs 24 hours a day, and captured the information on a tape that Cosmos took to the hospital for analysis once a week. He kept the tapes, believing that they revealed how he felt about every person with whom he came into contact.

06 Carl_Fischer.pngNew York, September 12, 1977. Photograph: Carl Fischer.

There aren't enough keys in the keyboard to even begin to talk about Ruth Gilbert.
She was the magazine's resident psychologist, grandmother, matchmaker, gossip monger, confessor, counselor, guru, From behind teetering piles of old publicity photos and press releases, she worked at her official job--which was to construct each week's "In And Around Town" section--and at her unofficial job, which was to keep the staff's heads spinning. Ruth had the uncanny ability to extract everyone's most personal revelations, delighting in the outpouring of those deepest secrets, and swearing discretion all the way. Somehow, by the time you got back to your desk, everyone on the staff knew every detail of your most secret peccadillos. 

Everything of any significance that happened at the magazine was documented by Ruth in what she called her "Minutes" of the event. These colorful chronicles were full of exquisite detail, bawdy language, and melodramatic narrative. It might be pointed out that Ruth was not actually in attendance at many of the events she was describing. It didn't matter. She unfailingly described what was really going on. Ruth regularly took interesting vacations. She carefully chronicled everything that took place on these trips, and left orders that a description of each day's events be posted on the office bulletin board while she was away. These diaries were written, of course, before she had even left for her trip. When Ruth and an editor named Debbie Harkins went to Agadir in Morocco, for example, Ruth's diaries described how the two of them were abducted by Bedouins who were so mesmerized by their incandescent beauty that they spirited them away to the desert where they were glorified at a huge banquet under billowing tents, and where they feasted on a camel stuffed with a goat stuffed with a rabbit stuffed with a partridge. Determined to keep their chastity intact, however, they ultimately escaped in the dead of night, and made their way back to Club Med.

Another set of "Minutes" described how, when Ruth sent the cremated remains of her husband Ragnar to his sister in Norway, she had forgotten to mark the package "Perishable". When the sister opened the package in the back of a taxicab, the contents blew out the window. Ruth's understated summary of the situation was simply: "She didn't speak to me after that."

Ruth attended the ballet virtually every night, and held court in the pressroom at intermission where the most prominent directors and choreographers and impresarios came to pay homage and collect snippets of juicy gossip (some of which may even have been true.) (Or perhaps not.) The back seat of her gold '62 Chevy, stationed most of the time at the NYP spot in front of the building at 32nd Street, seemed to hold several decades worth of Playbills and press kits. Determined to correct the inadequacy of my parochial upbringing, Ruth took me under her wing. She would organize trips (with other staff members whose well-being she monitored) to see X-rated movies in Times Square. She insisted that several days a week I spend my lunch hour at her desk where she taught me Chinese. She called everyone "Darling" with enough different pronunciations and inflections to give that one word twenty different meanings.

For some years, Ruth lived in a spare bedroom at the top of Alan Rich's house in Grand View on Hudson. There were grand parties and dinners there, featuring Alan's culinary extravaganzas and many bottles of wine, Classical music poured from speakers on every floor, and there were singalongs around the harpsichord (which Alan had built himself). Those parties lasted deep into the night, and ended up with much of the staff sleeping on couches and in the hallways and on the floor. (It was a tiny house.) I was invited to one of these country soirees just after I began working at New York. I walked through the front door, and was overcome by an eerie familiarity, a feeling that I had been there before.

Many years and several lifetimes later, I still own that house.

Looking back, it now seems clear that the magazine's extraordinary energy and innovation were a consequence of the fact that it was--then--the antithesis of a polished, professional organization. It wasn't simply the constant feeling--and thrill--of participating in an idea-in-progress. There was a sense that we were, each day, inventing not only the magazine, but ourselves, and that our as-yet-unperfected skills, or our as-yet-unrealized talents were exactly what were called for. I don't know that it could all have happened, at that point, in fancier offices, with nicer chairs, and larger bathrooms and more generous salaries. Those things might have created the idea of some fixed institutional concept that needed to be preserved and perfected. The offices were a mess.  There were covers and stories and whole issues that missed pretty badly. But the magazine, and its staff, were like energetic, idealistic--and cocky--adolescents. Though New York was a professional, and increasingly influential magazine, it functioned a bit like a schoolyard.

For a number of those years, I attended Milton Glaser's "Design And Personality" class at SVA. There was a palpable sense of competition among his students, each wanting to outdo the others and create projects that would win Milton's approval and admiration. And many of them did. There was a lot of imagination on display there every week.  And more than a little brilliance.  And loads of desperation. One week I poured everything I had into my homework. I don't think I slept that week at all. I dragged myself sleepily into class, and put my work up on the wall. It was pretty good, I thought. Finally. The evening went on, and Milton critiqued all the projects. He made no reference to mine. I encouraged myself by believing he was saving comments about the best one for the end. Then class was almost over. He looked at my project, then looked at me. "Is this yours?" he said. "Yes", I said. He looked over at the work and sighed. "You knew you knew how to do this, and I knew you knew how to do this, so why'd you bother?"

Class was over.  And had just begun.

There's an anecdote that illustrates the chasm between then and now. At an editorial meeting, someone in charge of marketing suggested that the magazine prepare a number of possible covers, and arrange for focus groups to evaluate them. The editor in chief, Clay Felker looked perplexed. "Why?" he asked. The marketeer explained that by doing so, the magazine could determine what sorts of topics the audience was interested in, and their input would determine what should go on the cover. "You've got it backwards," Clay said. Impatiently. "When I put something on the cover, then that's what the audience will be interested in." Many years later, at Life magazine, I was once sent a memo informing me that extensive test-marketing had determined that the ideal number of words to put onto a cover was 17.2.

10 Matthew_Klein_photo.pngNew York, January 23, 1978. Photograph: Matthew Klein.

Something happened when New York moved to Fortieth Street.
Clay Felker's office was no longer a tiny, ramshackle, cork-covered cubicle. It was now a decorator-designed corner office, with a grid of mullions applied to the standard-issue office windows, elegant Georgian panelling, lush leather Chesterfields, an exquisite Persian rug, and a private bathroom. There was a matching private dining room. And a full-time executive chef. When we moved to those new offices, it took less than a day for Clay to abandon his sumptuous compartment, and have his desk set out among the hoi-polloi. And that bathroom's exclusivity was not, shall we say, rigorously observed.  But things were, clearly, different. We thought, hoped, assumed, we'd adapt. Somehow.

Then Clay's attention and ambition turned to California. New West was on its way. Offices in Beverly Hills. Furniture bought from the set of All The President's Men. Standing blocks of rooms at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for visiting staff from New York. Leased Fiats and Alfa Romeos. Billboards on Sunset. Breakfast at the Polo Lounge. Lunch at Mr.Chow. Dinner at Chasens. Validated parking.

The company was morphing from a quirky obsession into a valuable--and desirable--property.

The truth be told though, my tenure as art director came just after the tumultuous ownership change from Clay Felker to Rupert Murdoch. I've never in my life been in the middle of such emotional turbulence. At any given moment, any number of staffers could be found at their desks crying uncontrollably. Walter and Milton resigned immediately. Shelley Zalaznick and Byron Dobell who had infused New York with the best attributes of the Herald-Tribune and Esquire left as well. Many in the cadre of artists whose work defined the magazine--Robert Grossman, David Levine, Ed Sorel, et al.--refused to ever contribute again. It was a given that most of the staff would leave.

I stayed on for a few months, until the other members of the art department could settle themselves in other jobs, and that page could finally be turned. I never saw my tenure as art director as more than a temporary, transitional one. But it was a difficult time nonetheless. I looked around, and the people who had been more like my family than a corps of coworkers were soon mostly gone. I didn't know if I was a useful font of knowledge about how things had been done, or just an impediment to the creation of something different. I didn't have the experience or confidence or skill, at that point, to propose some new vision of my own.  I had lunch with George Lois one day, and in a packed restaurant he screamed at the top of his lungs that the magazine had turned into a piece of garbage, and it was my fault. After calming down, George agreed to come over to the office, to assess the situation and offer any insights that might be useful.  After a few days, he beckoned me over to a quiet corner. There, in almost a whisper, he apologized, and said he now realized that the magazine's problems had nothing to do with me. "Thanks", I said, "now let's go over to The Palm, and you can yell that out." He laughed, gave me a good-natured punch in the shoulder, and went away. (Years later, the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. sent me a copy of a letter he had gotten from George. I had recently designed a cover for Time about the historical facts surrounding the life of Jesus. Though, by then, George would certainly have had no memory of me or our "conversations," his letter pointed out that it was the first magazine cover he'd seen in years that was as good as he would have done himself.)
The magazine struggled for months after the ownership change. It became clear that it could not simply continue to be the old magazine produced by a new group of people. The old formula did not so easily and automatically dictate new content. Editor James Brady could not, somehow, come back from Elaine's with his pockets full of wonderful story ideas (as Clay Felker seemed to be able to do). It became increasingly difficult to simply fill the pages. And to make it to the printer.
For a while, there was no deadline that wasn't missed. Covers were scheduled to be sent out for engraving on Monday. I don't think there was ever a Monday, in my time, that the cover story had even been decided upon.  When someone would finally propose "Elevators" or "Chocolate-Chip Cookies" there would be a frenzied attempt to expand that thin premise into (the illusion of) a magazine. I would call Carl Fischer on a Tuesday morning, and he (and his staff) would, somehow, hire models, build sets, and complete a cover shooting by five o'clock. At least he had the best coffee and most delicious pastries at his studio. It was, sadly but happily, time to start over. My short tenure as art director was not one that represented any significant or unique chapter in the magazine's creative history.  Before long I would be spending my days (and nights) in the Time-Life Building, working for an exponentially bigger company. There would be a new and much larger group of colorful (but less lovable) characters to deal with. And bigger expense accounts.

02 Bill_Cadge2.pngNew York, October 24, 1977. Photograph: Bill Cadge.

And finally . . .
With all the well-deserved praise that will be heaped on all the well-deserving people who went on from New York to other wonderful accomplishments, I hope that there might be a moment for someone to say a few words about Paul Richer, who passed away not too long ago. Paul worked in the art department for several years. He was quiet and thoughtful and reliable. He seemed to be totally untouched by cynicism or ego. He was a talented designer, and possessed of exceptional powers of concentration. When the most complicated pages needed constructing, or the most involved graphics needed creating, Paul (a victim of his own competence) always was called on to do the job. He would fill his pipe with some aromatic tobacco, open a bottle of beer and a tin of sardines, and set his mind unwaveringly to the job at hand. He would barely look up until it was finished. When it was, it was solved perfectly.

He was like the cherished uncle who could fix anything that went wrong. In his daily uniform of plaid shirt and jeans, in his round wire-rimmed glasses, and with his center-parted long hair and beard, he looked like the prototypical Woodstock-generation artist/intellectual. That cool exterior disguised the real core interior of modesty and warmth, And Paul would roar with laughter and appreciation at even the lamest joke. He was a gifted illustrator, and delighted in the fact that he could work in a number of styles. Once, Milton Glaser was away in Paris or Italy, and he had forgotten to leave behind a drawing for his "Underground Gourmet" column. "Don't worry Walter, I'll do it" Paul casually volunteered. And so he did. Some time later, Milton was being honored at a university somewhere in the Midwest, and they printed an elaborate program for the occasion.  On the first page, there was a reproduction of Milton's Dylan poster, and a huge headline that said "Milton Glaser Did This." On the next page, there was another of Milton's works, and a headline that said: "And Then He Did This." And the same thing on the next page. And on the next and the next and the next. Finally, some pages later, under the "And Then He Did This" headline, they printed an Underground Gourmet illustration. It was the one done by Paul.
Among his exceptional abilities, he was the world's best parallel parker. Back then, Paul, Carol March, and I all lived in Brooklyn. Every morning Paul would pick us up, and drive to the office in his orange Chevy Vega. He'd always, magically, find a parking place a block or two from the building. He pull a little ahead of the space, then slide smoothly backward into it, and pull forward to make the final tiny position adjustment, centering himself perfectly in the space.  We'd get out of the car, and discover that there were about two inches between Paul's car and the ones in front and back. I don't know how he did it.

He was a truly nice man. And a joy to be around.

Further Reading:
From the SPD Archives: Gold Medal Winners, SPD Gala 25, 1990

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