Updated: Mar 18
The ARTnews Magazine Editor-in-Chief for 42 years.
I first met Milt Esterow when I was a kid. My cousin married his daughter 40+ years ago. I grew up in LA, in a Jewish family where I was the only creative type in the bunch. No one else in my family was remotely interested in art like me. Then via my cousins marriage, along came the injection of art into the family with the presence of Milton Esterow and ARTnews Magazine. I got to visit with Milt on my latest trip to New York a couple of weeks ago, and I can honestly say that he remains to be one of my favorite people on the planet and also one of the sharpest people I know, even at his young age of 94.
If you are not yet familiar with the name Milton Esterow let me explain...Milton Esterow is an art journalist. He began writing for the NY Times when he was 19 years old, (in 1947) and he still writes for them today. Then in 1966 Milt wrote a book called, The Art Stealers. It was an important milestone in his professional development. It's about art thieves. Esterow tells the entertaining and provocative story of this illicit trade in stolen masterpieces, including such sensational incidents as the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, the questioning of Picasso and Apollinaire in the theft of statuettes from the Louvre and the amazing robbery of a Goya portrait from London's National Gallery. It's fascinating true crime copy at the hands of a skilled and knowledgeable writer.
Then, from 1972 until 2014 Milton and his family owned America's oldest continually published art magazine ARTnews. Milton Esterow developed investigative journalism in the art world and doubled the magazine's circulation. He is considered to be an innovator in this field. Milton Esterow worked as a writer, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the periodical for 42 years; his life's work was to make the periodical the world’s largest circulated magazine. He aimed to "humanize" the art world and offer writing that was accessible to a wider audience. He's known and interviewed artists such as Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ansel Adams. ARTnews covers have featured Jasper Johns, and Pablo Picasso, and even Paul McCartney was on a cover in February of 1982 with Willem DeKooning. One year Milt even had his art department make a mock cover with my mother on it as they always had a very special relationship. She would make his favorite dish, noodle kugel and when she went to visit, she even brought them to him on the plane! And when he came to my familys' house for dinner, of course she'd make his best loved dishes. He was always one of her favorite people as well. They had a mutual admiration for each other for sure.
On a Sunday morning this last February, my cousins and I picked up a weekly supply of bagels, smoked salmon and other yummy foods from my childhood, on our way to the Esterow apartment in Manhattan. I haven't seen Milt or his lovely wife Jackie for a handful of years and I was looking forward to our visit. Although a few years had passed, upon opening the door I saw the same glimmer in his eye that had always been there. We all gathered round the kitchen table for a wonderful brunch along with his wife of 72 years, Jackie. After brunch, Milt showed me around and narrated the stories attached to the photos and miscellaneous art on the walls including his new great grandchildren who I had the pleasure of meeting the day before. One of the framed photos that he showed me was a photo that looked familiar, as I had shot it the night before of his great grand daughters and he had printed and framed it within hours of receiving it via email. As wonderful as the art and photos were....any fool could tell what Milt would be taking with him in case there was a fire and it wasn't the art...it would definitley be the photos of his two beautiful great grand daughters!
Milt eventually took me into his office to sit and chat. Whilst he sat next to his vintage typewriter which he uses to this day to compose his articles for the NY Times, Vanity Fair and other publications. I got to ask him a bunch of questions. I'll share this informal interview with you below. But first I want to share one of my memorable experiences with Milt. When I was a teen I went to a private oil painting school and lived with art and music being the center of my universe most of my life. Never really interested in math or science, but art and music...yes! I'd go to museums by myself if I couldn't find anyone to go with and that was fine with me. When Milt and Jackie would visit California they would usually go to my folks house for dinner and I would be there. This one visit, Milt was the special guest speaker at the Getty Museum and he brought me as his guest! To many others that may not be a big deal but to me, that was a very cherished memory.
Whilst in New York, my cousins and I went to Madison Square Garden to see Billy Joel. On the way there we stopped in at Keens Steakhouse. A landmark restaurant that's been there since 1885. Back then, smoking was encouraged at restaurants and bars, and Keens became known for its pipes. Over time, some 90,000 pipes were displayed all over the restaurant, many hanging from the ceilings. Each one autographed with important signatures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, JP Morgan, Stephen King, Herbert Hoover and Milton Esterow! When we went in, the maitre d' called upstairs to ask in what location amongst the 90,000 pipes was Milt Esterows' pipe and sure enough it was brought to us, (Photos below).
Milt is one these special people on the planet with such a lovely spirit, a real sparkle. He is loving and kind and always wears a huge smile. By far one of the easiest people to talk to and that we did. Below is some of our conversation and a few photos from our visit.
TMS: What was your favorite interview?
Milt Esterow: There was more than one. Jackie and I met Robert Rauschenberg at his studio near Ft Myers in Florida. He bought the house many years ago. We were sitting in the house along with Daryl Pottorf, his companion and assistant and Rauschenberg was talking about when he first came to New York with his friend Jasper Johns, and between them they didn't have $10 to pay the rent. And here he was sitting in this magnificint house worth millions of dollars and his paintings are worth millions, and the decency and humanity of the guy was fabulous.
TMS: Did you like his art?
Milt Esterow: Yes
TMS: Did you like the art out of everyone you interviewed?
Milt Esterow: No.
TMS: Who is your personal favorite artist or piece?
Milt Esterow: If I had to pick one painting it would be the Renoir in the Phillipe Collection in Washington D.C., called "The Luncheon of the Boating Party". And the joy of life in this painting is something that I just love. So about Rauschenberg....Daryl Pottorf, his companion, is talking and he said, "Milt do you want to hear a funny story" and of course I said "sure"....He said, "About six months ago, he was at his secretary's' desk, and saw a few pieces of mail. He doesnt usually open his own mail but he opened one and it was a check for sixteen hundred dollars. He thought it was sixteen hundred dollars. What's sixteen hundred dollars to him now...so he put it in the drawer ajacent to the secretary's desk...4 or 5 months go by and the secretary randomly opened up that drawer and opened the envelope and it's a check for one million six hundred thousand dollars! So Rauschenberg is smiling at me and he says, "Milt...I have trouble with zeros."
So that was Rauschenberg. We saw each other between 6-12 times. I liked him. He was always self deprecating. Another favorite was Ansel Adams. We had a great time. He lived in Carmel California. A few weeks later we spoke on the phone because I was writing an article about the interview. He called and asked when would I would be coming out again...I said I hope very soon. Then a couple weeks later he died of a heart attack.
TMS: How about Pablo Picasso?
Milt Esterow: I never met him. But I met Jacqueline Picasso. It was at their home in Mougins. A huge house. We had lunch on the patio and then she took me in the house and there was a ten foot high photo of Pablo on the wall. As we passed it she bowed slightly and said "Bonjour Pablo". And then we sat in the living room. In fact, she said she didn't want an article but we talked. She told me stories about Pablo. Then I asked if I could see some of his work and she said go upstairs to a large room. The table in the center of the room had thousands of drawings on paper, drawings by Pablo, my hands were shaking. I saw different styles, abstract, classical and so on.
TMS: How bout Andy Warhol? Or my favorite, Salvador Dali?
Milt Esterow: I only met Warhol once at a dinner party and that was the end of it. And Dali...I never met him.
TMS: Regarding the cover of ARTnews with the photo of Paul McCartney and Wiliem DeKooning Feb 1982...Did you interview McCartney? No...but Linda Eastman took that photo so it's on the cover.
Milt Esterow: One of my favorites was Henry Moore....I called him one afternoon in London and said Mr Moore I'm coming to London and would like to meet you. He said, "I'm eighty years old and I have nothing to say". "I said "Mr Moore I'd appreciate it if I could spend 45 minutes with you"...He said yes so I went to his house in Much Haddam, (a small village in the UK). We ended up really getting along well and we spent a total of six hours together over two days. So I spent the night at a local Inn near Henry Moore....he drew a map for me and he signed it. (As Milt showed me the map). One of the best things he told me, "Years ago when we had a cottage, I used to carve in a field, and a person that lived nearby was watching said", "Hey Mr Moore, what use is what you're doing?" So I said, "Do you have a garden?" He said "yes". I said "What are you growing?" He said, "I'm growing turnips and other vegetables". I said "Are you growing any flowers?" He said "yes." I said "What use are they?" He replied, "Well my wife likes them and puts them in our house." I said "Well that's what art is all about, if you put flowers in the house then you may look at a sculpture." I said "Henry how would you define art." He said, "Art is a way of making people getting a fuller enjoyment out of life than they would otherwise. It's more than pleasure, it's wonderment. That's what it's all about." And that was Henry Moore.
He went on to tell more stories about meeting more artists and photographers. All fascinating, all enchanting, said in true Milt Esterow manner. Throughout my life, being in the presence of Milt has always been a pleasure and always memorable. Hoping to share a part two from next time we have a visit, hopefully, in the not too distant future. Truly a wonderful, intelligent, family loving human, I feel honoured to know him all these years and proud that he has been part of my family.