A wake of shock and sorrow keeps washing over me since I learned of the sudden death of my friend, the publishing enfant terrible J-C. SUARES, a little over a week ago. Nothing in the world could have been more unexpected. The baronial art director/illustrator/teacher
graphic designer/writer/editor was the embodiment of robust passion. No one I know had his appetite for work, life, and athleticism. An intense competitor, he was finally, at the age of 71, winding down his polo career, yet was still regularly at the gym, boxing. He was constantly on a plane to see clients and still working with the ambition of a 25-year-old. J-C had the creative drive of a raging bull. There were always dozens of projects on his plate at any moment, among the most current a book he and I were working on about Marilyn Monroe.
J-C was a connoisseur of art, books, movies, fine food, tailored clothes, good cigars, fancy cars, and objets d'art. He loved amd drew dogs and cats, owned horses (at one time a stable of polo ponies – he was avid about the sport of Kings, a young man’s game he couldn’t forsake), and, in decorative taste, was a devoted Anglophile. He spoke six languages (including Arabic and Mandarin Chinese) and could laugh in each one of them. He could be as sweet as a teddy bear and as impatient and imperious as Napoleon, to whom he bore a resemblance. He was once mistaken for Pavoritti. While walking down Park Avenue, someone called out to him, "Hey Luciano!" "Until that moment, I don't think I had realized my girth," he chuckled.
Besides his wicked sense of humor, what I adored most about J-C was his European sensibility -- his taste for beauty, his signature elegance. They were evident in everything he produced and in the world he created around himself, beginning with his beautiful wife, the artist and equestrian Nina Duran. Lithe and athletic, with long, sun-streaked hair, Nina ran the New York City Marathon several times. "She's going to run with her hair down, flying behind her," J-C confided prior to one of the races, the look on his face conveying his great pleasure at the image. When I visited their art-filled, book-filled, antique-filled Upper East Side apartment, the first thing J-C showed me was the display wall of Nina's equestrian ribbons.
The J-C- stood for Jean-Claude. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, his father a Sephardic Jew (hence the Suares with an s) and his mother a German Jew. The Suares family had been bankers in Egypt for generations. His mother's family had escaped Dresden before the city's destruction in the War. After Egypt, his family emigrated to Italy where he spent part of his teen years. Then came America and, following service as a paratrooper in Viet Nam and a stint on the staff of Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, he embarked on a career that would make him the rock star of late 20th century publishing. Within a year of establishing himself in the New York scene, J-C had made his mark and was successful enough, he told me, to buy his first Rolls Royce. Within ten years, he had paid cash for his Upper East Side apartment.
As his New York Times and Variety obituaries described, his early career was cobbled together from alternative and mainstream publishing ventures. Early on he was art director of underground papers like The New York Free Press and Screw. He was later a design consultant for Scanlan's Monthly, a short-lived muckraking magazine. He became the first art director The New York Times Op Ed Page in 1970, radically altering the way editorial illustration was used there. For decades, the newspaper “refused to hire an editorial cartoonist or have art on the editorial page. But with the blessings of the page's editor, Harrison Salisbury, and The Times's design director, Louis Silverstein, he adopted a daring idea: Rather than restrict artists to illustrating only specific passages of text, J-C pushed to give them license to interpret an entire article. The approach helped guide the paper into a new visual era and influenced other newspapers and magazines.” He explains in a video history commemorating the Op-Ed page's 40th anniversary how, "It was time for a big change. I wanted the art to be well drawn, and I wanted to create some kind of emotional reaction."
Accordingly, he applied his linguistic talents to recruit a small posse of artists from around the world. "He gave us an opportunity to redefine what graphic art could be and do," described Brad Holland, an illustrator whom Mr. Suares helped achieve prominence. “Many of the artists he called were from Soviet bloc countries and fluent in surreal symbolism, which offered thought-provoking concepts instead of editorial cartoon clichés like Uncle Sam and John Q. Public. Captions were rejected. It was a form of visual commentary rarely found in other publications,” the Times obituary reads.
Until this time, the Op-Ed art form was widely overlooked in America. In 1973, J-C arranged an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and edited the catalog, "The Art of the Times." “(The jazz great) Thelonius Monk came up to me,” he told me, “and spread his arm out to the exhibition crowd. ‘All this is here for you,’ he said, and for the first time in my life, I understood that.”
J-C worked with everyone from fashion illustrators to authors, from artists and photographers to publishers and academics, and from socialites and movie stars to national icons. Every once in a while he’d email me a photograph he’d come across in what must be a vast archive, and there he was: watching the U.S. Open with Kurt Vonnegut, escorting Martha Stewart to a dinner party, or.... tah dah -- working on the Michael Jackson autobiography "Moonwalk" with Jackie Onassis at Doubleday. While researching the Marilyn Monroe project, I happened to ask J-C if he knew the photographer Inge Morath who documented the making of Marilyn’s final movie The Misfits and who later married Arthur Miller. “Oh sure,” he said. “I used to have lunch with the two of them on weekends in the country.” When I sent him a photo of a very young Lauren Bacall taken in her mother’s kitchen in the Bronx, he wrote back, “She was a nice girl until she became a pain in the tuchus.”
There was no beating around the bush with J-C. He was forthright, concise, as ribald as he was refined, and, not surprisingly, temperamental. I heard tales of his explosiveness, but I never witnessed it except to see him to curse out a cab driver with the virulence of an Egyptian camel driver.
Every encounter with J-C was indelible, whether it was a brief meeting at his apartment where he worked at the dining room table in front of a Zuber scenic wallpaper or a glimpse of him in full riding gear, walking his bear of an Akita, George, down Lexington Avenue. (Where is Cartier-Bresson when you need him?) He once took me on a magazine assignment to Malmaison, the Upper East Side antique store christened in honor of Josephine Bonaparte’s country house near Paris, to meet its owner, the eminent French fashion photographer and Napoleonic aesthete Roger Prigent, (who J-C and Nina treated like family). Prigent taught his followers to believe, as he did, that everything is “chic or not chic.” During that visit, I caught sight of J-C paused beside a stupendous marble bust of the Emperor. Where was my camera when I needed it!
An autodidact, J-C read voraciously (“Autodidacts are the best educated,” he believed.) In fact, the idea for the Marilyn book arose from an article he sent me from the “London Review of Books” by the feminist academic Jacqueline Rose. He consumed histories, biographies and books on movies. Unsurprisingly, J-C himself was a beautiful writer. In his introduction to his book City Dogs he describes the marauding packs of feral dogs that terrorized the streets of Alexandria. The image has never left my mind. He co-authored "Uncommon Grace: Reminiscences and Photographs of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis" with J. Spencer Beck and wrote numerous magazine pieces. He taught for years at Parsons School of Design. Here are his words from the City Dogs intro: “A pack of wild dogs running down the Corniche, the fifteen-mile promenade along the Mediterranean, was not an uncommon sight in the Alexandria of the early 1950s. The dogs looked like the painted wooden likenesses found in tombs of the later dynasties: lithe greyhound bodies, large jackal ears, long snouts dripping with foam. Hungry and sick, they moved like a swarm of crazed bees. They overturned trash cans and stole from food carts. And Hanem, my Bedouin nanny, warned that they were known to attack children. The wild dogs came from the desert. They had followed caravans and were now trapped. Perhaps they would find their way back to the desert where they could certainly survive on small mammals, but here they were doomed.”
In 1976, the release of "The Illustrated Cat: A Poster Book" by J-C and Seymour Chwast started a craze for cat-themed books. J-C produced several more, including "Cats in Love," "Hollywood Cats," "City Cats" and "Sexy Cats." "His timing was great," Seymour said, "He always knew what was going to be big."
J-C put his imprint on more than 100 books, magazines, and newspapers and drew cover illustrations for the New Yorker, Atlantic. Publishers Weekly, and numerous others. He also designed or redesigned publications including New York Magazine, Broadcasting & Cable, Connoisseur, Buzz, Inc. and Fast Company. He was the founding creative director of Poz and 7 Days and design director of Columbia College Today (for 25 years) and Connoisseur. He also oversaw redesigns for Publishers Weekly, Military History, and Variety where he was recruited in 1989 by editor-in- chief Peter Bart, whose mandate was to revitalize the paper. “Bart felt a sophisticated graphic redesign was crucial,” reads the Variety obituary. Accordingly, J-C departed from the 85-year tradition of strictly black and white and a crowd of stories on the front page. He used a different typeface and paper stock and changed the always-in-black Variety logo to red. He designed the front page with multiple photos (which had been rarely used in the paper), fewer stories, and “one or two of his own trademark sketches, often comical drawings that included film cans, showbiz logos on human legs, people carrying suitcases, and, most frequently, cats.”
When I think of J-C, it is always with a pen in hand. He drew as fluidly as he spoke – sweet and lovely dog and cat cartoons, piercing political cartoons, comic art, layout designs, illustrations. The whimsicality of the dog and cat pictures could have been a surprising counterpoint to the acid bite of the political drawings, but the contrast mirrored his persona. One of his most famous political cartoons, which appeared in the Nation during the Viet Nam years, is of a slaphappy, bronco busting LBJ riding a missle. J-C and the magazine’s publisher, Victor Navasky, remained close friends from that time on.
J-C was not only a faithful friend, but a generous benefactor of assignments. "He made you feel you were working on something really important when he called you," Milton Glaser, the renowned graphic designer recalls. When I first met J-C, in the late 1980s, not long after I had moved back to New York to accelerate my writing career, he had recently been named art director of Simon and Schuster. A mutual acquaintance - a magazine editor - had passed along my name to him and he phoned: "I hear we're doing a book together on Russian Imperial art." “We are?!” rang the shocked voice in my head. “It would be my pleasure,” spilled my disbelieving voice into the phone. The book, Russian Impeprial Style, would be shot partially in St. Petersberg. Most of the research would be done at A La Vielle Russie, the Fifth Avenue gallery, established in 1851, that specializes in Russian art and antiques. (The goldsmith and jeweler to the Czars Peter Carl Faberge had been a client.) J-C explained that, with the exception of Jackie Onassis’ primarily black-and-white book, In the Russian Style, published in 1977, there existed no other book (lavishly illustrated and in color) purely focused on the imperial art (architecture, decorative arts, fashion and jewelry) of the era between the 17th and early 20thcenturies. The assignment gave me the opportunity to travel to Russia, immerse myself in the A La Vielle Russie library, and savor the opportunities to hold in my own hands there examples from rare collections of enameled presentation boxes, personal jewelry from the Imperial family, and figurines carved in precious and semi-precious stones. Whatever images for the book weren’t shot on location in Russia, J-C photo styled himself in the store and in his own apartment where pieces he had acquired –porcelain clocks, a 19th century mahogany, ebony, and gilt table with a bucolic scene painted in tempera -- were interspersed among the other fine antiques he collected.
From the moment I met J-C, I wanted to hear his life story, and I continuously prodded him to assemble an autobiography. I even offered to write it for him, “like Alice B. Toklas did for Gertrude Stein,” I said. “You talk, I’ll write, you’ll edit.” “I’m not ready yet,” he’d always answer, but he must have been thinking about it recently because he told me he’d put out a call over the internet to locate his acquaintances from Alexandria. “Within half an hour, I had a dozen replies,” he reported. Only a month ago I composed an outline for how I thought his memoir might unfold. I thought it could begin with his introduction to City Dogs.
J-C lived through and influenced so many eras of design evolution that his reflections on publishing alone could have filled a book, not to mention his take on the luminaries he worked with. Who wouldn’t want to know what it was like working with Jackie, or earlier, with the genius fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez who brought Grace Jones, Jessica Lange, and Jerry Hall, to name a few, into the spotlight. Then there would have to be stories about his experience as an Army paratrooper during Viet Nam, and chapters on horses, cars, and polo.
J-C lived with such vigor that it’s impossible to believe that he could have been felled at such a relatively young age, let alone by something so fast – a bacterial infection that raced to his heart. Of course the heart is where genius is typically most vulnerable. The infection brought him down in days.
The digital revolution in publishing must have shocked J-C, as it has many of us, with its sudden pervasiveness and impact on graphic design. I can only speculate as to how he regarded its portent as he observed standards of taste and quality decline and long-time clients and significant income fall away. Of course, he kept doing what he did best – working harder than ever.
LINKS TO THE OBITUARIES IN THE NEW YORK TIMES AND VARIETY
AND A SHORT GALLERY OF J-C's ART: