Art: All the President’s Men
I once made a painting disappear. There one day, gone the next. But I was no magician. I didn’t know how to bring it back. I still don’t.
This happened in the late fall of 1999, not long after I moved to Portland. I was twenty-six, fresh out of a graduate writing program with a degree that kept my parents up at night, wondering if they’d go on supporting me forever. I was determined to prove their doubts wrong, show them I could make a living in my chosen field, though at first I did little more than lie on the couch in my new apartment reading short stories by forgotten European writers, most of whom had died on battlefields or in the ovens, or else survived only to languish in post-war poverty and political oppression. I needed to recover, I told myself, to recharge after three years of stretching my imagination to its limits. Imagining a productive use for myself was far more challenging, it turned out, than conjuring characters and contemplating dramatic situations with which to shake them out of their dreamy reveries.
But after a month of recovery, followed by several monotonous temporary gigs, I was hired by the local Jewish newspaper to write arts briefs and edit the calendar of events. The job paid me for thirty hours a week, but I could usually finish my work in twenty. Then I’d make an excuse to be out of the office, conducting interviews or viewing exhibits, though often I’d just wander the streets downtown until the little art house theater showing foreign films began its first screening of the day. I wasn’t bored so much as biding my time, believing at any moment my life would really begin.
The paper’s editor-in-chief was a gruff, seasoned journalist named Phil Markin. His office wall was hung with framed clips from his days at the Cleveland Plain Dealer—stories of crime, political corruption, urban decay—along with awards from the National Press Association. How he’d ended up at the Portland Jewish Sentinel I had no idea, though I guessed it was the bottom of a downward trajectory. Until hiring me he’d been the paper’s only employee, and he still did almost everything himself, from writing front page stories to selling advertising space. He was in his early fifties but looked ten years older, his hair white, grooves cutting from the corners of his mouth down to his jawbone. His forehead was permanently knit, in consternation, it seemed, as he scanned the wire service for printable news, or worked over his spreads, which he still pasted up by hand, with scissors and tape, before loading them into the layout software.
Everything about the job was a compromise for him. The articles he had to write, the people he had to work for. When one of the local rabbis called to pitch a story about a new daycare in his shul’s basement, he’d grumble to no one, “If they want a promotional pamphlet, that’s what they should print.” His boss, executive director of the local Jewish Federation, did think of the paper as a promotional pamphlet, and every year he bullied Phil into running a full-page feature on the Federation’s annual gala, which, he reminded Phil, raised funds that kept the paper in print and paid our salaries. This set Phil pacing and muttering about journalistic ethics and conflicts of interest and the decline of print journalism. Whenever he was in a mood like this, I’d take the opportunity to say I had an interview to conduct—with a composer in Lake Oswego, say—and book it out of the office. I’d sit through a two-hour Nepalese epic about yak-herders crossing the Himalayas and come back prepared to tell Phil the interview had gone long. But he never asked.
Maybe I, too, would have had issues with writing promotional pieces if I weren’t more concerned with other ethical boundaries. Before now the closest I’d come to journalism was writing sketches of local eccentrics for my undergraduate literary magazine, and in those I’d taken generous liberties. I rewrote dialogue or made it up, exaggerated body language and facial expressions, took lines out of context to cast my subjects in the oddest, most delusional light. I’d gotten away with it only because the other staff members considered such transgressions radical and subversive and because no one but us read the magazine.
Now, to keep from inventing—an urge that cropped up every time I conducted an interview and tried to record a subject’s painfully incoherent speech—I hardly talked to anyone, instead rewriting press releases verbatim, supplementing only with thrilling leads like, “Congregation Beth Israel hosts a lecture by a prominent scholar of Yiddish literature on Sunday October 2, at 7:30 p.m.” Or else I’d view an exhibit of antique menorahs, copy down information from display cards, and fill out the review with trite platitudes about the miracle of Hanukkah: “Here at the JCC, we see that the lights have lasted far more than eight days. They’ve been burning for more than two thousand years and will go on burning for many more.” I’d once found art mesmerizing, but now I couldn’t imagine anything more dreary.
Phil would glance over my pieces and hand them back without a word, the grooves around his mouth deepening, the consternation in his brow drooping, I guessed, toward despair. A part of me wanted to impress him, to have him see me as someone who took writing as seriously as he did, but because I knew how far I was from doing so, I began to screw around instead. I purposely seeded my drafts with egregious typos and then made bets with myself whether or not Phil would catch them before laying out the next issue. In the events calendar, I’d write, “Sunday, September 20. The Oregon Jewish Environmental Coalition leads a five-mile kike in the Columbia Gorge,” and then grow giddier each time Phil scanned the page without noticing the mistake.
I told myself I did such things just for my own amusement, to keep boredom at bay, but I can see now that I was really trying to sabotage myself. This was my default mode for dealing with shortcomings then, making distance from desire and the disappointment that so often followed. If Phil was eventually going to decide I was incompetent, that he’d be better off doing the job himself, I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. The closer we came to publication day, the more tempted I was to leave the typo in. Only on the very last proof did I panic, circling the error and feigning surprise. “Close one,” I said, and let out a phony laugh of relief. “Can you imagine if it went out like that?”
Phil didn’t crack a smile.
The only thing he found entertaining, it turned out, was controversy. When he got wind of a neighborhood association trying to block a planned Holocaust memorial in Washington Park, claiming it would increase traffic at a crucial intersection, he came alive. For a week he was rushing in and out of the office, interviewing survivors and their families, rabbis and scholars, the head of the parks department, who seemed only vaguely aware that such a memorial was in the works. In his initial article, he made the president of the neighborhood association sound like an unabashed bigot, quickly turning the other members against her. Within a few days, the association dropped its objections, and the construction crew broke ground a month later.
By the time the memorial was finally unveiled the following spring, he’d lost interest in the subject, and sent me to cover it instead. I cobbled together seven hundred words from the press release, adding a few quotes from the sculptor who’d made the casts—a pair of bronze tablets inscribed with the names of victims whose families now lived in Oregon, along with bronze artifacts that appear to have been left behind in a deserted courtyard: a battered suitcase, a pair of glasses, a child’s shoe. Traffic at all nearby intersections was light.
When Phil couldn’t find any controversy in the local landscape, he cooked it up on the Sentinel’s opinion page, writing columns about foreign policy under two pseudonyms. The first, Ernest Teitelbaum, was a right-wing hawk who advocated for a second invasion of Iraq, for harsher sanctions against Iran, for more settlements in the West Bank. He called anyone who promoted Middle East peace efforts an appeaser, soft on Palestinian terrorists. He questioned whether Ethiopian Jews were really Jews at all.
Phil’s second alter-ego was Ida B. Singer—in tribute to Isaac Bashevis—a seventy-year-old retiree in Multnomah Village, who faithfully dedicated ten percent of her monthly social security check to the Tzedakah box. She was pedantic where Teitelbaum was hot-headed, emotional where Teitelbaum was overly rational. The gist of her column was usually along the lines of, “Can’t we all just get along?” She often referred to a Muslim neighbor, Marjana—named after the heroic servant in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”—a kind-hearted girl who’d never hurt a soul, even if she did bow toward Mecca five times a day and wear a headscarf whenever she left the house. I almost always agreed with Ida’s politics, but her simpering tone made me wish Teitelbaum would storm her house with a team of Israeli commandos and make her promise, at gunpoint, never to write another word.
When I wondered out loud whether there was anything ethically questionable about presenting these columns as authentic, Phil only squinted at me as if I were a moron. “It’s the opinion page,” he said, and nothing more.
The columns did generate a good bit of response from the paper’s readership, and it was my job to filter through letters to the editor and choose one or two worth printing each week. Most were rants, some completely unhinged, including regular hand-written missives from one of our apocalyptic Christian readers—to my surprise, we had quite a number of these—who quoted extensively from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Saracens from the Holy Land. I tried to convince Phil to print one of them—aren’t all opinions valid? I asked—but he ignored me. The letters we usually chose were those that called out Teitelbaum or Singer for a factual flub—an incorrect date or a sloppy paraphrase of the Constitution—or else ones that matched Phil’s own moderate tendencies, rational but humane, pragmatic but principled.
After a few weeks, I took a stab at a letter of my own. I adopted the measured, thoughtful tone I knew Phil would go for, pleading for sanity, gently chastising the paper for giving voice to a loudmouth like Teitelbaum and a whiner like Singer. I typed it out on an old manual Remington I’d found in a junk store, scuffed up the envelope, and mailed it from a post office in West Linn. The smell of correction liquid was still strong when it arrived. I did my best to sound nonchalant as I handed it to Phil, saying only, “This one looks promising.”
And then I sat quietly in the outer office as he read it, imagining him nodding along with my castigation of those trying to undermine the Oslo Accords, being stirred by the heartfelt call to action with which I closed: “Those of us who dream of a democratic homeland, existing in peace and security with its neighbors, must speak from our conscience. Write to your representatives, write to your senators, write to the President. Above all, write for yourself, for your own peace of mind.” I signed off, “Thank you for your patience,” and then couldn’t help adding a name with my own initials: Sam Niedenthal. I registered Sam for an email account and left the address, in case Phil wanted to respond personally.
I was unreasonably proud of the letter, and when two days went by without Phil mentioning it, I found myself growing furious. What was the point of working hard to please him when nothing ever would? I snuck a few typos into the events calendar, said I had an interview with a drama teacher in Beaverton, and went to the movies. When the paper’s next issue included two letters to the editor but not mine, I told myself I was ready to quit.
But one afternoon around this time, instead of stopping at the theater, I wandered into the art museum, hoping to reconnect with a passion that seemed long lost, that I couldn’t entirely believe was real. Had I ever cared about these splotches of paint on canvas, these threadbare tapestries, these hunks of chiseled marble? Nothing much caught my interest until I made it to the top floor of the museum’s annex building, a former Masonic temple with an imposing yellow-brick façade and few windows. There, in a small gallery featuring new acquisitions, I came upon a painting by an artist I’d never heard of, a Frenchman named Gilbert Prasquier, who’d died a decade earlier. According to a nearby placard, he was a major post-war European figure, though his reputation had suffered unfairly due to his political leanings. It offered no other explanation of those leanings, except to mention that he’d fought with the Resistance during the German occupation and helped smuggle Jewish artists out of Paris; some sources, it said, claimed he was the one to deliver the forged visa allowing Chagall to leave for New York before being arrested by the Gestapo. But then the author of the placard added, cryptically, that such heroic acts weren’t enough to save his reputation and concluded by saying he’d ended his career in the obscurity toward which he believed all artists should strive.
The painting, made between 1948 and 1951, was titled Maginot. It depicted the inside of what appeared to be a cramped wooden hut, with a small window giving view onto a field of grain, the stalks dried up, it seemed, before they’d reached full height. In one corner was a shape that might have been a hoe or a rifle, though it was out of focus, as if the painter could see it only in his periphery. In the panel beside the window words had been scratched into the wood, in three or four different sets of handwriting. The only phrase I understood was “merde, merde, merde.”
I lingered in front of it for a good ten minutes, aware the entire time of unpleasant sounds—the whir of a cooling fan, the arrhythmic rattle of a loose pipe in the wall, the insistent beeping of a delivery truck backing up on an adjacent street—and walked away from it unsettled for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. There was a haunted quality to that vacant hut and the empty field beyond, and I recalled something of the confusion that had first drawn me to read a story with enough attention to try to make sense of its construction.
But this feeling gave way to a simpler one of plain excitement as I drew closer to the Sentinel office. Not only was this the first artwork that had moved me for as long as I could remember, it was something I could write about at length in the paper, without plagiarizing a press release. An obscure modern painter who’d rescued Jewish artists, among them Chagall, whose work was now featured in our provincial museum? How could Phil resist such a story? I was so charged by the idea that as soon as I returned to the office, I looked up the museum’s number, and without agonizing about it ahead of time, called the curatorial office and asked for the person responsible for new acquisitions to the modern collection. After a while I was put through to the voice mail of a woman named Annalisa Sacks—Jewish? Even better, I thought—and left an urgent message asking her to call me back as soon as possible.
I stared at my phone for the rest of the afternoon, but when it didn’t ring by four o’clock, I couldn’t resist going into Phil’s office to pitch the story. Nor could I help embellishing just the slightest bit, saying definitively that Prasquier had rescued Chagall, that the Jewish curator who’d acquired the painting was an up-and-coming star on the national art scene. We could profile her as well as the painting, I said. It could be the start of a series about local innovators in the arts. We’d call it Culture Makers, or something along those lines. What did he think?
Phil squinted at his computer screen as I spoke. He was working on the layout of the next issue, and he’d zoomed in on a headline to adjust its spacing, so all that was visible on his screen were the words GALA and FETES, neither of which sounded real to me, just childish sounds void of meaning. When I finished he swiveled in his chair to face me. “This curator,” he said. “You know her?”
I didn’t want to admit how flimsy my story was, how full of holes, so instead of telling him I was waiting for her to return my call, I said, “I just came from a meeting with her.”
“And she’s young?”
“Not yet thirty,” I said.
“And attractive? Maybe single?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Phil swiveled back to the screen. “Promoting the work of someone you want to sleep with is not journalism.”
“Right,” I said, and then spent three minutes outside his office, making enraged faces, before opening the new issue’s calendar of events and inserting typos into every other entry. Afterward I wrote another letter to the editor. Today Sam Niedenthal was seething—off his meds, maybe—as he called for both the Israeli concession of the occupied territories and the assassination of Yasser Arafat. This one I refrained from sending.
Annalisa Sacks didn’t return my call that day or the next. But while I waited, I researched Gilbert Prasquier on my own. There wasn’t much on the internet, or else I didn’t yet know how to search properly, so I spent two afternoons in the library instead. He was mentioned in several books surveying twentieth-century art, usually as a minor figure who helped bridge European surrealism with post-war abstract expressionism. If any image accompanied his name it was always an early painting titled Widow Under Siege, a small canvas completed in 1938, which featured a crowded arrangement of vaguely bird-like shapes around a vaguely feminine head, in muted yellows and browns. It wasn’t an attractive painting, nor as alluring as Maginot, but its significance—according to one critic, it prefigured de Kooning ten years before the latter began Woman I—made it all the more curious that he wasn’t better known.
Only two of the surveys went into biographical detail, one alluding to Prasquier’s involvement in the Resistance, neither mentioning Chagall. Both, however, claimed that his career was derailed by remarks he’d made shortly after the war. Anti-Semitic remarks, that is, though neither author quoted or even paraphrased them. When I came across such a claim the first time, I was sure it must have been a mistake, but when I read the second, I felt such an acute disappointment that I punched my pencil down onto my notepad, snapping the tip. My story crumbled, just like that. Until then I didn’t even realize how desperate I was for something weightier than briefs about Israeli folk dance classes to occupy my mind. I closed the book, shoved it away, and got up to leave. But then I pictured the cluttered office of the Sentinel—Phil’s layout tacked to one wall, his clips from the Plain Dealer hung like a challenge or a taunt from another, the sheaf of flyers waiting to be typed into the events calendar—and stayed where I was. If I gave up on this, I decided, I was giving up not only on the job but on all hopes for a productive life. I hurried back into the stacks.
Eventually I turned up more details, and they all confirmed what those first two books had glossed over. For a brief time, Prasquier was a figure to watch in the post-war art world, one of the few Europeans to attract the attention of younger American artists. He divided his time between Paris and New York, showed his work in the most prestigious avant-garde galleries on both sides of the Atlantic, caused a scandal by luring a married socialite away from her husband—a major collector—for a short-lived affair. And then, in 1954, for an article celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the liberation of Paris, he made his unfortunate remarks to a journalist from Life magazine. I expected to find them abominable, full of hatred and ignorance, but instead they simply baffled me.
“There is no such thing as a French Jew,” he told the reporter, who’d asked him a softball question about his courageous work with the Resistance. The reporter was obviously stunned by the answer, but he kept his head enough to record Prasquier’s closed-lip smirk, his offhand, indifferent shrug. “There are Jews, and there are the French. And now that the Jews are gone, France has gone back to being for the French, as it was meant to be.”
He never elaborated on the remarks in subsequent interviews, but he repeated them as often as people asked. Galleries soon abandoned him, and though he went on painting for the rest of his life, he never had another major show, not in his home country or abroad. Through interlibrary loan I was able to track down a single video recording of him, an interview he gave to a TV station in Arizona, of all places, not long before his death. There was no anger in his words, no detectable emotion of any kind, except for maybe a touch of amusement at the interviewer’s frustration. He was tall and slender and mostly bald, and he had the manner of a charming simpleton, an ironic child. “This is what I have said, yes,” Prasquier replied on the fuzzy videotape, smirking at the miffed interviewer. “Would you like for me to say it backwards? Or, perhaps, standing on my head?” I couldn’t help but admire his placid demeanor, his detachment, and the way he made the interviewer look blustery and full of rage.
I watched the tape about a week and a half after I visited the museum, and by then I had no hope of hearing back from Annalisa Sacks. By then, too, I was glad not to hear from her. Here was my story, one full of controversy and intrigue. I typed it up in a frantic, sweating rush, more than fifteen hundred words, with nothing invented or embellished, except maybe for the final sentence: “Representatives from the museum have declined to comment, despite repeated attempts to contact them.” I was still writing when Phil left for the day. I stayed late finishing, then printed the story and placed it on his keyboard, where he couldn’t miss it.
He was waiting for me the next morning, perched on the edge of my desk, tapping a tight roll of paper on his knee. His expression was no less grim than ordinary, but his eyebrows lifted when I walked in, his chin tilting up. I tried to brace myself for him to trash the story, to tell me I was wasting my time and his. But the truth is, I expected him to praise it, and already swelling with pride, I had to work hard not to smile before he spoke. “I don’t understand this constant use of the present participle,” he said. “The museum is exhibiting? Why not, The museum exhibits?” I suppose I nodded or muttered agreement, but mostly I was conscious of waiting for the compliments I knew I deserved. “You’ve got all your sources straight?” he asked. “Everything’s verifiable?” Again I nodded or muttered and waited. “I’ll need your notes,” he said, and it struck me then that he was playing a role—Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, I guessed—and that I, too, was supposed to act my part: stoic, dignified, confident but humble. I handed him my notepad and told him to ask if he had any questions. He tapped the article on his knee again, and said, “Let’s see what I can do with it.” And then as he turned into his office, he called over his shoulder, “I think you’re onto something.”
For the next hour I scoured the events calendar for typos, intentional and otherwise, and reworked the lead of a review of a zydeco-klezmer fusion album five or six times until I had something more dynamic than what was on the press release. Then I called the director of a new play about crypto-Jews in sixteenth-century Spain to set up an interview, promising myself to record his words exactly as he spoke them. At the end of the day, Phil came out of his office with a new layout spread. He had a pencil in his mouth, pushpins clamped between knuckles. He’d cut my piece down to six hundred words, and now the article was fierce, accusatory, relentless. And the headline he’d added had the suddenness and sting of a sucker punch. “ART MUSEUM FEATURES NOTORIOUS ANTI-SEMITE.”
Just underneath it was my byline. I read it with a moment’s joy before going cold. There was no one else I could blame for these words, no one who’d answer for them but me.
Phil finished tacking up the spread, stepped back, and took the pencil out of his mouth. After a moment he tapped its end on my shoulder, the most affectionate gesture I could imagine him offering. “This is where it gets interesting,” he said, and the smile he gave—showing chipped front teeth and silver fillings—was so genuinely gleeful and contagious I laughed out loud. “Let’s get this beauty printed,” he said.
The day after the issue hit the streets, there was a message on my voicemail from Annalisa Sacks. She was outraged, she said. There was no call for such a hurtful, deceptive piece, especially without giving her a chance to defend the museum’s curatorial decisions. I clearly knew nothing about modern art and its context in twentieth-century history. She expected an apology and full retraction in the next issue. “We have no intention of taking the painting down,” she finished. “It’s here to stay.”
This was the quote Phil suggested as the lead of our follow-up article, which we published in lieu of a retraction or apology. I had him listen to the message, after playing it over three times, suffering waves of guilt and nausea as Annalisa’s voice—silky in its anger, trembling as it rose—chastised me again and again. “Hit a nerve,” Phil said. “Now we go for the gut.” The headline of the second article read, MUSEUM STANDS BY ANTI-SEMITIC ARTIST.
The next time Annalisa called, Phil answered. He spoke to her for twenty minutes before transferring the call to me. That is, for twenty minutes I stood outside his door, listening to his occasional inflectionless murmur followed by long stretches of silence. When I finally picked up, I could hear the strain in Annalisa’s voice—she’d been shouting, I guessed, or crying, or both—which she now struggled to keep calm as she requested a meeting. Just the two of us, off the record at first, and then, if she found she could trust me, she’d make an official statement we could print. Still picturing her as I’d described her to Phil, an up-and-coming star of the national art scene, as passionate and fiery in her profession as she was in the bedroom, I did my best to respond coolly—“I’d be happy to hear your thoughts,” I said—and imagined myself a young Dustin Hoffman to Phil’s Robards: sharp, determined, unruffled. In the end, though, after she’d named a time and place, I couldn’t help adding, “I’m sorry for the trouble this caused you. I’m just trying to report the facts.” She hung up without replying.
I was waiting in the café near the museum twenty minutes before she arrived, and though she looked nothing like I’d imagined, I knew it was her from the harried way she pushed through the door and squinted in the dimness, trying to spot me. She was a small, stocky woman with honey-colored hair piled in a bun on top of her head. Nothing I’d told Phil was true: she was easily over forty, with a wide gold band on her left ring finger. Whether or not she was Jewish I had no idea, but aside from the last name there were no features to suggest it. Her eyes, ringed by puffy skin, passed over me, then passed a second time, and then came back and lingered. It was clear she was expecting someone else—someone older, probably, and weathered like Phil, or else someone better dressed. If I signaled to her, I’m sure she would have accepted that I was the person she was looking for. But I didn’t. I glanced down at the book open on my lap, and Annalisa took a table in the opposite corner.
I snuck glances at her as she turned pages of a notepad back and forth, reading over the same notes, it seemed, her head jerking up every time the door opened. Eventually she went to the counter and came back with a steaming mug, foam mounding over the rim. When one distinguished-looking guy came in, wearing slacks and a dress shirt open at the collar, she half-stood, hand rising. But then he joined a table of similarly dressed men across the café, and she moved the hand across her bangs and lowered herself into her seat. Did she really imagine the part-time editor of a local Jewish newspaper looked like him, square-jawed and slick-haired, with pressed cuffs and a big gold watch? She sipped her coffee and drummed a thumb against the mug’s handle.
I don’t know why I let her sit there, without announcing myself. At first I reasoned that she deserved to stew for a minute, and that soon enough I’d approach and say I only just realized it must be her. I was expecting someone younger, I’d say, to get back at her for not recognizing me. But a minute passed, and then another. After ten, I told myself I was almost ready. But by then I knew I had no intention of talking to her. For one, I couldn’t go up to her now without serious embarrassment for both of us. Also, I didn’t want her to scold me again. I didn’t want to defend myself or apologize. I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep.
But even more, I didn’t speak to her because I thought I knew exactly what she would say: that a work of art should be valued for its own sake, that it transcended the personality of its maker. Just because Prasquier had made some absurd statements forty-five years ago didn’t undermine the strange power of his painting, its haunted beauty, the skill with which it had been painted.
In fact, I heard her words so clearly that I pulled out my own notepad and wrote them down as if she were sitting across from me. Her defense was passionate and articulate and easily convinced me to take a stance in favor of aesthetics over politics—a stance I suppose I would have taken anyway. The woman who spoke in my imagination was young, fierce, dark-haired, and unquestionably Jewish, and she made eyes at me, and maybe grabbed my hand, as she reached her ecstatic conclusion: “Don’t you understand? If we censor voices we don’t like, they won’t go away, they’ll just go underground. They’ll speak with the power of the forbidden, seducing those inclined not only to speak but to act.” And only when I was wrapping up her argument did I picture the Maginot, really picture it for the first time since I’d seen it in the museum, and recalled the unnerving shiver it sent through me as I read the words “merde, merde, merde.” I finished writing and glanced up just as the real Annalisa Sacks—stout, middle-aged, with thick calves and sunburned neck—balanced her empty mug in a tub full of dirty dishes and left.
The first two articles I’d written had received a slew of responses, so many, in fact, that Phil had no room on the opinion page for Teitelbaum and Singer. The letters mostly commended the paper—me, that is—for its astute reporting. Among our readership were several big donors to the museum, including a major corporate sponsor who threatened to withdraw support. The same day I was supposed to meet with Annalisa Sacks, I got a call from the museum’s communications director, a man with a meek, nasal voice, who told me the board of directors was looking into the matter and would soon make a decision as to the best way to proceed.
The third article I wrote was measured and calm. I asserted that the museum was taking people’s concerns very seriously and considering how to balance competing needs—to present important cultural artifacts while acknowledging the complexities of art’s place in our often ugly recent history. I quoted the communications director and a representative of the outraged sponsor and then gave a lot of space to Annalisa’s argument—my argument—about the dangers of censorship and denial, claiming that if the museum removed Prasquier’s painting, the Nazis won. How did I convince myself it wasn’t wrong to present these words as Annalisa’s? Because I was sure I’d argued her point far more eloquently than she would have, given her anger and defensiveness. I was doing her a favor, I thought, and whether I really believed this or not, the notion was enough to get me to the end of the draft. Only then did I consider what legal action she might take against me and decided to strike her name and attribute the quotes to an expert who chose to remain anonymous.
“This isn’t the Washington Post,” Phil said after he read it. For the first time since I’d written about Prasquier, his disgruntled look had returned, the scrunching of his brows so severe I thought for sure he’d give himself a headache just by studying me. “We don’t do anonymous sources. What happened to the curator you wanted to sleep with? Didn’t she make a statement?”
I didn’t tell him Annalisa was at least forty-five and married and tired-looking. I didn’t tell him I’d watched her in the café for more than half an hour without talking to her. All I said was that she wouldn’t go on the record.
He cut the article down to a three-hundred word brief but still stretched it across two columns, with an oversized headline: CURATOR ALONE IN DEFENDING ANTI-SEMITIC PAINTING.
The day the article came out, I waited to get another call from Annalisa Sacks, this one accusing me of ruining her life. I stayed out of the office as much as I could, and when I was there, pretended to be too busy to answer the phone, letting it ring until Phil picked up. But when she didn’t call—not that day, not the next—I found myself less relieved than uneasy, distracted by a growing sense of dread.
On the third day I went back to the museum. I took my time moving through the galleries in the main building, now lingering before each painting and sculpture, gazing for several minutes at one of the medieval tapestries, amazed at the intricacy of its weaving, at the richness of the colors five centuries after the wool had been dyed. How had I failed to notice these things before? The tapestry was far more worthy of my attention than Prasquier’s painting, I told myself, and so were all these other minor works from artists long dead by the time the Frenchman made his career-ending remarks. Though most of them, born during the Renaissance or Reformation, would have agreed with them and harbored views even more troubling than his.
Fear had settled into something closer to resignation as I finally entered the small gallery in the former Masonic Temple, where the absence of natural light made everything dingy. The air tasted stale. Where Maginot had been was a lumpy abstraction by a contemporary Portland painter, with the uninspiring title Bridge #14. It stirred nothing in me but a dull dissatisfaction with everything in my life. I tried to step back and imagine Prasquier’s painting in its place, but I could no longer quite picture how large it was, what sort of frame had held it, what color the sky had been through the hut’s open window. It was as if it had never been there, removed not only from the wall but from my memory. What I could picture instead was Prasquier’s little smirk, long finger tapping chin. Merde, merde, merde, I thought. A few words on flimsy paper, and the painting was smoke. But whose words were more to blame, his or mine?
When I told Phil the painting was gone, he gave only a quick, disinterested nod, as if to say, of course it was. There was no surprise in his face, no satisfaction, nothing left to celebrate now that we’d won. He looked morose, drained, as he went back to working on a feature article about a remodel of the Jewish Academy’s gymnasium. And I felt just as deflated as I opened up the events calendar and added entries about next week’s Talmud study session and the Sisterhood’s coffee klatch and then tinkered with a review of a book of soup recipes.
In the next issue we ran a tiny follow-up, a single column on the second-to-last page, with a small, unsensational headline: MUSEUM REMOVES ANTI-SEMITIC PAINTING. I sent it to my parents along with the first three clips, and on the phone they told me how impressed they were, how pleased that my training was paying off after all. And then they asked how many more months I expected them to send a check to supplement my rent. For the next four days I skipped out of work early to go to the movies, watching nothing but big American blockbusters and eating tubs of buttered popcorn.
That’s not to say I gave up on Prasquier altogether. I tried to dig up more material by finding out what had happened to the painting. Had the museum put it in storage? Had they sold it? If so, who’d bought it? I left messages for the nasal-voiced communications director, but he didn’t call me back. Nor did Annalisa Sacks, even after I apologized on her voice mail—not for my articles but for missing our meeting. Something had come up, I muttered, a family emergency, but did she want to make a statement now, about the museum’s decision to take the painting down, maybe, or about the importance of valuing a work of art for its own sake?
I even tried to find evidence that Prasquier’s statements were an elaborate practical joke, an early foray into performance art. What if, for example, he were actually half-Jewish? Hadn’t he, after all, lived part of the year in the States? Perhaps he was talking about his own conflicted relationship with his country of origin. But unless Phil sent me to Paris to dig up his birth records, I couldn’t prove anything.
For the next fifteen years I kept my eye out for Maginot in any new book on modern art, and in museums, too, whenever I traveled. Now that search engines are more thorough and I know how to use them, I look it up from time to time, but I’ve yet to get a glimpse of it, or find a single mention. Even my own articles about it have disappeared from the internet, the Sentinel shuttered by the Federation a few years ago, replaced by a slick promotional magazine with lots of holiday recipes and advertisements, edited by a woman my age or younger. Whether Phil retired or found a position with another paper—one even more provincial and ethically challenged—I don’t know.
For a brief time, he, too, tried to milk the Prasquier story for more controversy, having both Teitelbaum and Singer weigh in—Teitelbaum demanding the immediate defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, Singer pleading for people to donate paint and brushes to public schools. In response, I pulled out my old Remington and typed a letter from Sam Niedenthal. He made a long, complicated defense of the museum and its staff, an argument similar to the one I’d imagined for Annalisa, only now inflected with religious faith. To see artwork only through the lens of an artist’s biography, he claimed, fails to acknowledge its spiritual qualities, to recognize the imprint of God’s presence in the work of an individual. He suggested that Prasquier’s act of rescuing Jews from German occupiers far outweighed his statement that Jews didn’t belong in France. And if he’d really saved Chagall? Wasn’t that enough to excuse him a few misguided thoughts, which, Sam went on, he doubted the man actually believed? “After considering further,” he ended, “I’ve come to the conclusion that Prasquier—and through him, HaShem—was testing us, to see if we could distinguish between what’s dangerous and what’s simply unsavory. And we failed, miserably.”
To my surprise, Phil printed the letter in its entirety. “Fairly well written,” he said when we looked over the spread, “if a bit oversimplified.” I did my best to take it as a compliment.
We both anticipated some further response, hoping for more controversy, and for a day or so after it came out we walked through the office buoyantly expectant, not chatting exactly but sharing a few disgruntled words about the absurd stories we were working on, the onslaught of outrageous requests from the Federation. But after a couple of days without angry phone calls, we settled into the sullen silence we’d maintain for the rest of the year I worked at the paper.
Sam’s letter did receive one reply, though not the one from Annalisa Sacks I wished for, praising him for standing up to our new cultural McCarthyism, for rejecting the paper’s witch-hunt. “Dear Editors,” it began, in a looping cursive, the ink frequently smeared. “In response to Mr. Niedenthal’s letter date 9 November 1999, I would like to call your attention to the Book of Revelation, chapter 1, verse 12: ‘And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks. And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle…”
When Phil went out for lunch, I left it on his desk, with a note: “An astute rebuttal. Worth considering?”
I wanted it to make him smile, just briefly, as my story once had—an occurrence more magical, I think now, than making a painting vanish. But when he came back, he shut his office door and kept it that way for the rest of the afternoon. I watched the dark wood grain and tarnished brass handle and wondered what kept him going in there day after day, what made all his effort worth the trouble. At one point I considered knocking, even rose from my chair and took a step in his direction. But by then it was almost five o’clock, the windows already dark, the year quickly winding down, and I had the nagging feeling I’d miss out on something if I stayed inside any longer. Before the door opened, I left.
Scott Nadelson is the author of five books, most recently the novel Between You and Me. Winner of the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, and an Oregon Book Award, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.