The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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1. How Massive Cuts Have Remade The Denver Post

Robert Sanchez | 5280 Magazine | Sept. 20, 2016 | 24 minutes (6,158 words)

Behind-the-scenes at an award-winning newspaper, gutted by staff cuts and figuring out how to survive with fewer resources.

2. The Novelist Disguised as a Housewife

Ruth Franklin | New York Magazine | Sept. 27, 2016 | 10 minutes (2,664 words)

An excerpt of Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson, the author of seventeen books and many short stories including “The Lottery,” the bulk of which were written while she was immersed in raising—and being influenced by—her four children.

3. The City Born Great: Fiction by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin | Tor | Sept. 30, 2016 | 24 minutes (6,427 words)

“When I relax my hands and open my eyes to see Paulo striding along the bridge toward me with another goddamned cigarette between his lips, I fleetingly see him for what he is again: the sprawling thing from my dream, all sparkling spires and reeking slums and stolen rhythms made over with genteel cruelty. I know that he glimpses what I am, too, all the bright light and bluster of me. Maybe he’s always seen it, but there is admiration in his gaze now, and I like it. He comes to help support me with his shoulder, and he says, ‘Congratulations,’ and I grin. I live the city. It thrives and it is mine. I am its worthy avatar, and together? We will never be afraid again.”

4. Ali Wong’s Radical Raunch

Ariel Levy | The New Yorker | Sept. 26, 2016 | 16 minutes (4,209 words)

A profile of comedian and writer Ali Wong, whose work takes on the last taboos of female sexuality: pregnancy and motherhood.

5. My Son the Prince of Fashion

Michael Chabon | GQ | Sept. 27, 2016 | 20 minutes (5,240 words)

Chabon takes his 13-year-old son to Paris fashion week and gains a greater understanding of who he is.

from Longreads Blog


The City Born Great: Fiction by N.K. Jemisin

This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.

Duh, right? Everyone who’s visited a real city feels that, one way or another. All those rural people who hate cities are afraid of something legit; cities really are different. They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality, like … like black holes, maybe. Yeah. (I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.) As more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others, the tear widens. Eventually it gets so deep that it forms a pocket, connected only by the thinnest thread of … something to … something. Whatever cities are made of.

But the separation starts a process, and in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city … quickens.

At, read The City Born Great, new fiction from N.K. Jemisin, winner of a Hugo award for her novel, The Fifth Season.

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from Longreads Blog

Twilight of the Sawfish

What happens to age-old traditions when the animals on which their symbolism depends all but vanish? At Hakai Magazine, Jori Lewis chronicles her journey along the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau coast looking for sawfish — a creature so venerated it appears on all Senegalese currency, but which few people in the region have actually seen in in recent decades.

Twelve years ago, Marine Robillard began surveying residents in West African coastal communities about the cultural importance of the sawfish. Now an environmental anthropologist at a French consulting firm called AnthropoLinks, Robillard says that most people could not believe the sawfish was gone for good. “When we were in Senegal, they would say, ‘Oh, there were some sawfish here but now they have migrated north. Go north.’ When we arrived in Mauritania, they would say, ‘Oh, there are no more sawfish here, but go south, go south.’ And when we arrived in Guinea Conakry, they said, ‘Oh, no, up north.’ People think that this is true for the sawfish, for sharks, and for fish, too. People don’t think they can disappear; they think that they have only moved.”

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from Longreads Blog

The Surprising History and Ongoing Controversy Behind the True Panama Hat

What North Americans refer to as the Panama Hat is actually a hat that is made in Ecuador. But the hats that are actually worn throughout the country of Panama, known as sombreros pintados, are quite different. On a recent journey to Panama to replace his worn-out Panamanian-made sombrero, travel writer Darrin DuFord met with one of the country’s most renowned hat makers to discover the origins of the infamous controversy and to find out that sombreros pintados are more than merely a simple fashion accessory for rural Panamanians — they are both a symbol of victory over foreign influence and a device for communicating one’s mood.

At Compass Cultura, Darrin DuFord uncovers the history, meaning, and ongoing controversy behind the true “Panama Hat.”

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from Longreads Blog

A Reading List About Utopias

I recently finished an advance reader’s copy of Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, which debuts in January 2017. Perfect Little World is the story of Isabelle Poole, a fierce but desperate single mom who applies, with success, to be a part of a utopian parenting project in which children will be raised communally by their parents and a team of educators and scientists in near seclusion. I was expecting Perfect Little World to transform from a utopia to a dystopia by its end—and there were certainly disturbing, sad moments throughout the novel—but Wilson resisted sensationalism and apocalyptic tropes. Instead, he’s written something quite genuine and powerful. Unexpectedly, I was moved. I realized my recent exposure to planned societies has been books like The Heart Goes Last and Children of the New World—stories devoted to satire, technology and dark prophesy. In other words, more dystopian than utopian.

Maybe that’s why Perfect Little World moved me. There’s so much evil in the world—racism meets unchecked authority meets gun, say, or a dangerous, dangerous man running for president of the United States—that any degree of optimism feels hard-won. At this point, hopelessness feels easy, logical, intelligent, but I am finding more and more power in a well-crafted happy ending, a redemptive final note. With that in mind, here are five stories about utopian societies.

1. “‘Nonesuch,’ excerpted from Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea.” (Erik Reece, Macmillan, August 2016)

Utopia Drive is me trying to write an optimistic book,” said Erik Reece, who describes himself in his book’s introduction as a “guy with a truck, a gas card, and a few boxes of old books shifting around in the cab.” In Utopia Drive, Reece visits approximately 10 utopian communities originally formed in the late 19th century—some lost to time, others still functioning—spanning Kentucky to New York. Reece is no rambling everyman, though, and thank goodness for that. His background as an accomplished journalist, poet and the writer-in-residence at University of Kentucky at Lexington means his writing—even when he’s dipping into denser histories—remains lyrical, yet sharp. For a closer look at Reece’s journey, read about his visit to the Twin Oaks community at The Atlantic.

2.  “The Illustrated Map of America’s Worst Utopias.” (Lauren Young, Atlas Obscura, September 2016)

It’s not quite long enough to be long-form, but I can’t resist these bizarre stories of orgies, expired food and colonization.

You can read more from Atlas Obscura’s Utopia Week, including first-person essays and short travel guides to utopias all over the world.

3.  “Oneida: The Christian Utopia Where Contraception was King.” (Ellen Wayland-Smith, LARB, August 2016)

The Oneida communists, living in their theocratic cocoon “under the government of God” and breathlessly awaiting the Rapture, didn’t give two hoots about the civil rights of women as they were being debated by Stanton and her comrades in the secular world. What they did care about was releasing women from the assumption that bearing children and darning socks marked the outer limits of her capacities. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Oneida Community undertook a radical restructuring of the traditional nuclear family in the belief that a woman’s biology was definitively not her destiny.

4. “Trouble in Utopia.” (Maddy Crowell, Slate, July 2015)

City of the Dawn. Experimental township. “The world’s largest existing spiritual utopia.” Auroville was founded in 1968 by a ragtag group of hippies following Mira Alfassa, known as “The Mother.” Supported financially by UNESCO and the Indian government, approximately 2,500 people from all over the world live in spiral-shaped Auroville today. Reporter Maddy Crowell is one of the 5,000 visitors to Auroville, where she rents a room from a regular, chats with the locals, and tries to navigate a strange, half-formed bureaucracy.

5. “Feminist Utopia Project.” (Margaret Shultz, LARB, August 2015)

Describe your ideal feminist sex life. What systems comprise a feminist government? Does a feminist healthcare model exist? Janet Mock, Jill Soloway, Melissa Harris-Perry and Sheila Heti are just a handful of the brilliant minds behind The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future. At LARB, Margaret Shultz interviews Alexandra Brodsky, co-editor of the Project. “A Day in the Life of a Teen Mom in Feminist Utopia” by Gloria Malone, an excerpt from the Project, is available at Jezebel.

Looking for even more stories about utopia? You can find more in the Longreads archives, including “Beautiful Nowheres: ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the 500th Anniversary of ‘Utopia’” and “When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman.”

from Longreads Blog


Michael Brick | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,136 words)

In December, two months before cancer killed him, our friend Michael Brick sent a few pals an email.

“I’m entrusting to your care these two unpublished works,” he wrote. “I’m proud of them both. My great hope, of course, is to share them with the world someday.”

One was a manuscript for a fantastical picture book called “Natalie Had a Bicycle” that he had written with his son, John-Henry. He said it had been roundly rejected by every agent in America. That’s a damn shame.

The other was a word doc called, simply, “Ruback.”

It’s a long-in-the-making memoir of the failings of newspaper journalism. Or a newspaper journalist. Or, really, of one tiny story: a “Portraits of Grief” dispatch on the life of a New York firefighter. What Brick had written in 123 words, in an effort to efficiently encapsulate the life of a 50-year-old man who died on Sept. 11, came to haunt him. This piece is his effort to correct the record, and maybe find peace.

“All lives end unfinished,” he writes in the story. How true.

“I don’t have any specific instructions for you,” he wrote to his friends. “You may read them, of course.”

Originally slated for Harper’s September issue, the piece never ran. We’re pleased to share it with the world here.

Ben Montgomery

Michael Brick

Michael Brick

* * *

I never met Paul Ruback, but I failed him, so he came to haunt me. Sometimes, when the weather turns a certain way, I picture him rising for work that day in the firehouse on 77th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The morning air felt crisp. The skies looked clear. The sun cast a lambent glow across the brownstones and the parking garages. Rain had fallen overnight, starting in the late afternoon and coming down for hours, enough to force the New York Yankees to cancel the season’s last game against the Boston Red Sox, even with fifty thousand fans waiting in the stands two hours past the scheduled starting time of 7:05 p.m., even with gate receipts of $1.6 million to refund, and even with Roger Clemens, the pitcher known as The Rocket, pacing the home dugout in anticipation of a chance to beat his former team for a twentieth time. The morning papers said so.

Ruback stood six feet six inches, sturdily built, with bushy eyebrows, high cheekbones, a handlebar mustache and a mischievous smile. He played practical jokes and the acoustic guitar. Firefighters called him the Gentle Giant of Ladder 25. His company’s firehouse, shared with Engine 74, belonged to another time, three stories of brick and terra cotta opening onto the street with ornamented bay windows and twin red doors that framed a single flagpole mounted upward at a 45-degree angle. From the sleeping quarters, built for thirty men, a brass pole led down to a limestone floor designed to support the weight of horse-drawn contrivances.

For an even century, since 1901, Ladder 25 had been answering the call of emergencies around the Upper West Side, some of which would have been highly improbable outside New York City. There was the time, for instance, when a mattress caught fire in a five-story tenement on West 69th Street, “in the rooms,” according to an account in The New-York Times, “of an Italian.” Contained to the bed, the fire eventually became a footnote to the full spectacle of the episode. A crowd of children gathered around a nearby hydrant to greet the arriving engine, forcing the fire captain to swerve his team to the middle of the street, through a brick wall and over a sheer drop, where all three horses hung suspended by the weight of the engine thirty feet above the tracks of the New York Central Railroad. The whole situation was eventually straightened out, though not in any manner leaving the horses fit for fire duty.

At 6 a.m., polls for primary elections opened with candidates for mayor, public advocate and city council on the ballot. The name of the incumbent mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, did not appear due to term limits. “It’s a better thing,” he was quoted as saying in the morning papers, “that the city gets a chance to try something different.” The Daily News also carried a photo from the weekend promotion of a fire captain named Timothy Stackpole, hero of a recent Brooklyn row house inferno, “surrounded by love at Randalls Island ceremony. Wife, Tara, and kids (from left) Terence, 6, Brendan, 9, Kaitlin, 15, and Brian, 10, are at his side.”

By 8:35 a.m., the humidity lingered at 73 percent and the temperature at 67 degrees. The TV forecast was calling for a high of 80. A cold front was lifting, Indian summer descending. Five hundred and ten miles to the east, carrying winds of eighty miles an hour across the Atlantic Ocean toward the North American seaboard, a hurricane was beginning to slow. The hurricane was called Erin.

In the vast interwoven city, plans for the day included a reading by Jim Dale, the voice of the “Harry Potter” audio books. The singer Cleo Laine was set to open a two and a half week run at the Regency, accompanied by her husband on piano. It had been announced that the Empire State Building would be illuminated at dusk in a soft white glow. Moon Unit Zappa was scheduled to appear at the Barnes & Noble in Chelsea for a discussion of her first novel, “America the Beautiful.” At 7 p.m., free to the public, the Parsons Dance Company was expected to perform in a series called Evening Stars at One World Trade Center Plaza.

For fifty years, Ruback had lived in this world of men and women, with their histories, predicaments and intentions. He had moved through it, and been a part of its shifting fabric. “Shortly before 9 a.m., American Airline Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and burst into flames,” says a U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act Claim Determination for Case No. 01-911-0190, Paul G. Ruback, Firefighter, New York Fire Department. “Fifteen minutes later, a second plane, United Flight 175, crashed into the south tower. The impact of both crashes caused the World Trade Centers to collapse. It is estimated that approximately four hundred emergency personnel were killed during rescue attempts. Firefighter Paul Ruback died of injuries sustained in the line of duty.”

Six months later, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, quoting Shakespeare at the last of three memorials held for Ruback, told the assembled mourners, “His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all of the world, ‘This was a man.”

* * *

In those final hours, Ruback died as a hero. His legacy became my responsibility on Wednesday, December 5, 2001, at 9:37 a.m., in an email from a clerk at The New York Times, where I was one of many journalists working on a project called the Portraits of Grief, which meant to take measure of the loss suffered by the United States of America in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

When the project began, more than 6,000 people were considered missing, few bodies had been recovered and the true tally of 2,997 remained unknown. We set out to render a glimpse, of no more than two hundred words apiece, into each singular human life. Eventually we would produce more than 2,500 portraits to publish alongside headshot photographs in a special section called A Nation Challenged, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. No one articulated the rationale for this task more eloquently than Rabbi Marc Gellman, who told a crowd gathered to pray at Yankee Stadium, “On that day, 6,000 people did not die. On that day, one person died 6,000 times. We must understand this and all catastrophes in such a way, for big numbers only numb us to the true measure of mass murder.”

Efforts to comprehend death in great numbers often turn to individualization. By the time concepts become designs vetted by diverse constituencies of survivors, relatives and public officials, though, few memorials manage to provide more than nominal individualization. The 9/11 Memorial Museum, which finally opened this year, lists the names of the dead on a wall, without description, following a model set by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In Oklahoma City, 187 empty chairs name the victims of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building acknowledging a single distinction among the dead: Nineteen chairs, smaller than the rest, represent children. In Newtown, Connecticut, a Permanent Memorial Commission now meets monthly to seek an acceptable way to commemorate the murder of twenty children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The commission’s work illustrates the challenge of even the most minimal individualization. Minutes of a meeting this summer, for example, describing a proposal to install twenty-six benches in memory of the victims, report that a commission representative “will reach out to the family members to see if they want names/symbols, etc on them and if they want them placed together or randomly around town.”

Taking the names of the dead as a starting point, the Portraits project sought to elaborate. The work was a blessing. In a time of strickenness, it provided something useful to do; in a time of bewilderment, something meaningful. I lingered in firehouses. I listened to people crying on the phone. I received thank-you notes, which is not usually supposed to happen in journalism. Sometimes the reporting led to questions without right answers. In one Portrait, for example, I had to decide how much to say about a lesbian whose family was in some combination of ignorance and denial about her relationship with her longstanding domestic partner. On the one hand, common journalistic practice suggests outing a person in a news article only if her sexual orientation contributed to her death, such as in a hate crime. On the other, concealing her sexual orientation could send a repressive message. This woman’s death was newsworthy only because it came in a confounding package of simultaneous violent death. But when presenting every last victim as a unique individual worthy of examination in a project intended to heal through knowledge and understanding, whose healing should take precedence? Blood relations? Chosen family? Vital institutions like the Police Department? New Yorkers? Americans? And what if something that might help heal one party might hurt another? To solve the problem, or at least to find a way around it, I pointed my sense of obligation in the direction of the dead. As my thinking on the matter evolved, though, I taped a reminder to my bathroom mirror in Brooklyn. It said, “You have a responsibility to the living, too.”

* * *

“Hi Michael,” the clerk’s email began. “Here are some r’s to chew on.”

This was my fourth or fifth batch of names. I had been at it for about two months. On the morning of the attacks, I had woken up on vacation in the home of friends in San Francisco. We had taken turns entertaining their young daughter so the other adults could make telephone calls and watch the news coverage on television. My girlfriend and I had taken the child to a petting zoo, which seemed to be open on that impossible day only because the alternative, closing the petting zoo, would not have made any more or less sense. When it had become clear the airports would not reopen anytime soon, I had driven my rental car twenty-nine hundred miles back to Manhattan, eliciting a memorable look from the clerk at the midtown Avis. Since returning to the newsroom, my writing duties had included the daily stock market report, articles about downtown business recovery and Portraits of Grief. Work had been interrupted for a morning when the woman across from me opened an envelope full of white powder thought to be anthrax and we were quarantined in the lobby and eventually given vials of Cipro. I had mentally prepared to die standing by the elevator next to a finance reporter who would go on to write popular spy novels. Now winter was coming. Much of the country’s attention was shifting to Christmas and the war in Afghanistan and the spectacular bankruptcy filing by Enron. In New York, though, we were living in a state of suspension. We lived, conspicuously, among the dead.

The R’s were in reverse alphabetical order. For reasons unexplained, they included one M. Like nearly all the names, they had been augmented with leads from the newspaper’s research staff. Most names included an address, a phone number and contact information for people who might be relatives. On the lists, finance men from the city appeared alongside dishwashers from the outer boroughs. There were rescue workers from the suburbs to the north and east, office workers from the Jersey side, and airline passengers from Massachusetts or California. The second name on that day’s list came with little useful information.

Ruback, Paul G.; No tel. for Paul Ruback, of Newburgh. He lived with companion Debbie Macielag. The two people below are somehow related to them, although it’s possible that they are former spouses of the two, who were apparently each divorced; there were ‘step-children’ on both sides of this union.

In Newsday, the hometown paper for people who sleep in suburban beds after putting out the fires and arresting the murderers and fixing the pipes and teaching the children of New York City, I found notice of a memorial service for Paul Ruback. It had been held October 2 at the Assembly of God Church in Newburgh. A short article, published the following day, took its information from Debbie Macielag. It noted: “The couple had a 2-year-old son, Paul Christopher Ruback. The firefighter is also survived by two stepchildren, Jack, 15, and Charlene, 11, and three children from his previous marriage, David, 18, Gina, 17, and Shannon, 11.”

His previous marriage. By definition: The marriage that ended before his current marriage. Those words did not seem idly chosen.

Searching archives of the Times Herald-Record of Hudson Valley, I found notice of another memorial service for Paul Ruback. It had been held November 3 at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Newburgh. The obituary, noting his education and occupation, said that “survivors include his wife, Lynne Ruback, at home; three children, David, age 18; Gina, age 17; and Shannon, age 11, all at home; also a stepson, Danny Marino; and a stepdaughter, Denyse Betcher; two grandchildren, Ryan and Justen Betcher; and a son, Paul, age two, from another relationship.”

His wife. At home. All at home. Those words seemed no less deliberate.

A standard obituary addresses three questions. One may be politely skirted: How did he die? Two are mandatory: What did he do, and who cared?

How did he die? Heroically, while attempting to rescue strangers at the World Trade Center. It was not only unnecessary to say so; it was out of order. The Portraits of Grief, by design, assumed as much concerning firefighters and other emergency workers.

What did he do, and who cared? From the available evidence, the answer to both questions was that, aside from an honorable career in public service, he had devoted his life to two separate families, each of which acknowledged the other as minimally as possible. But the Portraits of Grief, also by design, did not attempt to comprehensively answer even the two basic questions mandatory for a standard obituary.

So a different question set the task: Who was he?

Who, in two hundred words, was he? Was he most who he was in the last part of his life or in some earlier part? Was he the sum of his actions, his words, his inactions? Did who he was belong to others, or to himself, or somehow to both?

All lives end unfinished. The field of probate law exists to balance the final intentions of the dead against the rights of their survivors. For those killed on September 11, aside from the pensions and insurance policies and emergency responder death benefits, the government was also assembling a victim compensation fund that would eventually pay the families an average of more than $2 million. These were not insignificant practical concerns. And they paled beside the emotional grief of the surviving families.

But individually commemorating the dead raised the stakes even higher. Defining the loss became part of the nation’s response process, which also included examining the security flaws, the attackers and the sources of their animosity. In those emotionally charged days, many of us found it difficult to ask probing questions. Our country’s flawed inquiries were following strands from Windows on the World to Tora Bora, from Florida to Tikrit. The historical passage would give rise to more than its share of manufactured heroes and boogeyman. Jessica Lynch, we would learn, did not really fight Iraqi soldiers until her ammunition was gone. Pat Tillman, we would learn, did not really die at the hands of enemy combatants in Afghanistan. Many of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, we would learn, were swept up for no good reason. Saddam Hussein, we would learn, did not have weapons of mass destruction. Even with the best intentions, half-truths can be more harmful than lies.

If Rabbi Gellman was right, and if there was any validity to the premise of the Portraits, the loss of each human being demanded honest scrutiny. Cast in two different lights by two families in two memorial services, various newspaper accounts and even more various tribute web sites, who was Paul Ruback? I asked my editor for thirty-six hours.

* * *

Newburgh, an hour’s drive north of the city, had a tough reputation. George Washington had made camp there, and industrial-age riches had produced fine architecture overlooking the majestic Hudson River, but an ill-advised urban renewal program had begotten a thriving drug trade, street shootouts and the rise to power of the Bloods and the Latin Kings. Snow was deep on the ground. Rubacks had lived in the county for generations. Paul’s remains had not yet been found. Two homes awaited his return.

Among the pines on Brewer Road, in a musty five-bedroom Colonial, I found Lynne Ruback. We spoke for a while, and she gave me a copy of her written memories of the life of Paul G. Ruback. They had met in 1977, both working at Xerox. He had helped the few women on the staff navigate office politics. In January 1979, they went to dinner; they married later that year. They kept horses, dogs, cats, a rabbit, and a rooster. He joined the Fire Department in 1982. “One of the happiest moments of His life.” He played soccer and basketball. They hiked and swam. They raised her children, adopted three others and provided foster care for many more. “Paul’s tall 6 foot 6 stature never frightened any of them because he was so soft-spoken and gentle. He loved the children and had the patience of a saint.”

The next morning, I sat with in a sunlit kitchen with Debbie Macielag, listening to her description of the life of Paul G. Ruback. Their two-year-old son, Paul Christopher Ruback, was playing on the floor. A fire helmet rested on the armoire. Debbie described an unsuccessful struggle of four years with the state’s divorce laws. She and Paul had exchanged vows and rings and lived together, by her well-documented account, under significant harassment from Lynne. Their latest plan had been to wait six months until his retirement from the Fire Department, so he could establish an address in a state with more lenient divorce laws. She handed me a photograph. The little boy, reaching for the frame, said, “I want to have my daddy.” Debbie started to cry. When she was done, I left them alone.

Both women were genuinely grieving, if perhaps for losses of different vintage. Both also depended on Ruback to support their families, and both were successfully seeking financial compensation. I gathered relevant records from the courthouse and other places. Then I drove to the Assembly of God Church, where Rev. Ronald Conti, who had hosted the first memorial at Debbie’s request, told me about the protest letter he had received from Lynne. “I’m in the middle,” he said, “and I was afraid to use Debbie’s name. All I said was, ‘family members and friends.’”

On the new machines that connect us all forever, the bitterly conflicting postmortem accounts seemed destined to become the terribly undeserved permanent record of Paul G. Ruback. As I drove home to New York, I became convinced the missing man’s true self existed somewhere in the space where he had gotten stuck in life, the space between those two houses, those two families, those two perspectives. Was it somehow shameful, as the partial accounts seemed to imply, that Ruback struggled in life, that he failed to make clean transitions, that he sometimes hurt the ones he loved? Or was it simply – inescapably and therefore even beautifully — human? I sought the perspective of Brian Englander, his friend of nearly two decades and fellow member of Ladder 25. “He was basically living in agony,” Brian said. “He just wanted some peace and tranquility.”

For months, I worked to compose a worthy elegy. Only by confronting his turmoil, I believed, could the world truly honor his gentle nature and appreciate his final heroism. In February 2002, I wrote his Portrait of Grief, which appeared in print alongside more than a dozen others. It was eventually compiled in a book of Portraits. It mentioned both Debbie and Lynne, couching the discord in polite terms. Every sentence makes me cringe. The more you say about a person, the more you might have to say.

* * *

Paul G. Ruback. Photo via

Paul G. Ruback. Photo via

Ten years later, a thick manila envelope landed on my doorstep. The Times was closing its bureau in Brooklyn, where I had left behind some files. Inside the sheaf, I found hundreds of documents concerning the life of Paul Ruback, including his personal diaries and letters to his children. In his own voice, he had articulated his perspective on the unresolved conflict in his life. For reasons including deference to the living, I had quoted none of it in his Portrait. But how better to know a distinct sentient being in this electric world?

As I read his writings again with fresh eyes, every new insight led to more questions. Though not unaware of the dangers of obsession, I started calling librarians in upstate New York to piece together an account of his childhood. Paul had three sisters, including a twin. His younger brother had died, not quite a month old, in 1954. His younger brother’s name had been Christopher, the same name Paul would choose in later years over his own middle name for the middle name of his only biological child. At the expense of making his namesake son a full junior, he had followed some human instinct to preserve the memory of the dead among the living. Was this observation, finally, the key to truly knowing the man? Of course not. It was just one more piece of information.

I kept researching, not unaware of the dangers of obsession. Paul’s father, Henry W. Ruback, had served in World War II, taught mathematics at Chester High School and died in 1956, at age 33, when Paul was just a small boy. Other than a terse obituary noting a four-month illness, no public record took account of the pain that had shaped Paul’s character, losing his father and only brother two years apart at cruelly young ages. Save for this oblong reference: In 1966, in a letter to the editor of The Evening News of Newburgh (“A Proud Newspaper Serving a Proud Area”), Paul’s mother, Joan, established her credentials by writing, “I also feel a great affection for the people of Chester, whose sympathy and support at a time when my world was falling apart helped me to go on and build a new life for myself and my children.”

Who was Paul Ruback? One way to interpret his mother’s words, cast across nearly half a century, might be that we know all we need to know. Paul’s diaries and letters, expressing his inner thoughts at a fixed point in time, were full of life as it is lived, painfully and uncertainly and hopefully, but perhaps even they can not say for certain who he was. Life may very well be for the living, and its memory the property of anyone who stakes a claim. We know, as the mayor said, that this was a man. His death was tragic. His courage was heroic. This was a man, like any other. His life was his own.

* * *

You can read Michael Brick’s obituary in The New York Times here. Thanks to Ben Montgomery and Thomas Lake.

from Longreads Blog

Dancing Naked in Public

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,104 words)

If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.

A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.

Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?

Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”

But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.

Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be.

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Where’s the line between “online Jerry Saltz” and “real Jerry Saltz”?

I think it’s all one big ball of wax by now. I think that there is very little difference anymore between how I write online and how I write in the pages of magazines or when I speak. I’m a big believer in what I call “radical vulnerability”: when somebody is hearing, reading, seeing me they have a sense that they’re getting at what I might really be. Even though the pervert that is often out on Instagram might not seem like me, it’s me. And my wife approves of about eighty percent of those pictures. So what are you gonna do? You know what Edgar Allen Poe said? He said we are all splendid but dark. And I think my darkness is pretty garden variety, but that’s just me.

Do you ever worry though that the grandeur of your online persona could compromise your clarity as a critic?

Yes, I do. I sometimes think I have maybe made it too easy for some people, like if I’m saying something bad about a museum or an artist or what not—something negative—that they can go, “oh you know Jerry, he just posts pictures of Medieval porn.” Or, “you know Jerry, he’s posting pictures of Greek statues with their asses with swords in them.” Now, I want to remind you guys if you look at my Instagram feeds and all that, I don’t post porn. It’s not my thing actually. I really like images from art, real masterpieces that the art world gets a little uptight about. Anyway, yes, I do worry that I might have made it easy. I worried when I was on that TV show [“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which aired for two seasons on Bravo] some years ago that people would say, “oh Jerry, he’s just that guy that was on a TV show.” Well, that is true and if you use that to dismiss me, I’m sorry; I’m just sorry; I don’t want it to discredit my work. I don’t think that it does at all. I think it’s all part of the whole ball of wax.

Does that provocation complement your criticism then? Perhaps the authoritative critic role is too constraining?

I really believe in what you’re saying. I don’t like the idea of the authoritarian, the one speaking from the top of the pyramid to the many. I am much more interested in—and the only way I can thrive is when—the many are speaking to one another. I am one of those voices. I’m not the most important, the smartest, the one with the most power. I am actually looking to make this a horizontal conversation and relinquish that power. That’s why on November 11th last year—out of nowhere, I don’t know where it came from—I decided also to post my bank account. Because I noticed that when I came out and said that I was going to be voting for Hillary as a way to stop the psychopathic, xenophobic, climate-denying nativist, I was accused by hundreds of people of being a corporate, Wall Street, sell-out warmonger. And I suddenly thought, “these people don’t get it, they really don’t,” and I published all the money I had in the world in my Chase Manhattan bank account, which is three thousand dollars. For about a month people started to understand that we’re all hurting, we’re all pretty much equally poor—except for eleven white guys that are making all the money—and that we’re all hysterically staring and envious, but that really most people in the art world, no matter what their jobs, they are not making much money. They’re just making ends meet. I want to eliminate that kind of Artforum, October magazine, classic art world structure of the powerful critic.

How does the art world rebalance itself and become a place not just for the one percent?

I think we lost a few generations of art critics to academia. They all learned to write in a similar style, which I find very jargon-filled and impenetrable; and I also feel that their taste flattened and everybody liked the same fifty-five artists, and they would quote the same twenty writers over and over. I thought, “The art world is not this boring; how can this be?” Now, I’m seeing more and more younger writers starting to write online, making sense, speaking in ways that you can understand and, most importantly, putting out opinions. The juice of criticism is opinion. I really admire Artforum; I’ve never written for it for good reason: I’m not smart enough, but I look in the second-to-the-last paragraph and I see a phrase like “this problemetized the show.” Is that positive or negative? There is no judgment in it. Everybody is smart. So I can’t fit in that art world because I never went to school; I have no degrees; I am not schooled in the language of the empire.

Is your mission, then, to make criticism opinion-driven rather than about academic explanation?

I would not call it my “mission,” as I love the academics. I love everybody’s mission. I am just doing the only thing I can. I don’t know how to write in the other way. I have tried and it makes no sense to me. I can’t even read it, let alone write it. So I don’t have a mission. I’m just like everybody else in the art world. We are all dancing naked in public, and I am trying to be myself as much as possible without too much faking it.

Your wife Roberta Smith is the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—does her criticism inform yours and vice versa?

Well I would say certainly she informs me far, far more than I inform her. I think Roberta is the real deal. I am very prejudiced and I think she is among the greatest art critics that have ever lived. She looks at objects; she really can describe and judge. My approach is different. It’s more psychological. I am interested in questions like, “Where does this gallery fit with the other galleries” and other issues like that. But that is not my strength. I love her work, but I cannot write that way. I find it utterly readable, always challenging, rigorous, serious, and I think she brings up the whole art world to that level; but again what do I know? That’s just from my seat of being a big, big fan.

Walk me through the act of your criticism. Do you have an immediate, visceral reaction to art or is it a longer, note-based, pensive pursuit?

That’s a good question. I see about 25 or 35 shows a week. It’s what I do. I have a list of about one hundred galleries that I go to that almost none of your readers go to or should they go to. But I am a very big believer in, “If you build it, I will try to come.” I don’t get to leave New York City that often. Even when I go to the Venice Biennale, I pay my own way and I usually only stay at the most three nights and then I’ve gotta get back to my weekly deadline.

But, okay, I see my shows and I start to have reactions. Other than the very big museum or some very big gallery shows, nothing appears on my horizon before I see it in the flesh. That’s how I do it. And if I start to get a bite on my reactions I will follow it. Often I am very horrified to realize something I thought I would like, I don’t like; but I think, again, a critic has to honor their reactions and be honest and deliver those up full-throated, honestly, and openly.

Are there any unfortunate trends you’ve seen in contemporary art as of late? Your review of Alex Israel’s latest was quite scathing…

I think when people know the system too well they can only make the system. You think you’re playing the system but the system is playing you. And what they end up making has been something called “zombie formalism.” That’s empire art. It’s real easy. Everybody in art, every art history and art criticism department, every curator can understand it even before they see the show. It has what’s called “all-over composition,” which means that every part of the surface is more or less equal to every other part. It’s often restricted in color or subjected to certain processes that had quote, unquote “political purposes,” like, “I put this canvas in the Dead Sea” or “this canvas was allowed to dry in Ferguson, Missouri.”

What I say to that is bullshit. One hundred percent bullshit. Your canvas dried, period. You have to be able to embed your thought in material. That’s my wife’s expression: “embed thought in material.” I think that we are going to be getting out of it. The market loved it, and I think that’s great for those kids that made a lot of money. I love when every artist, even mediocre artists, make money.

That trend is a really unfortunate one, but I have a lot of hope. I see a lot of hope with writers and artists breaking this thing completely open. Now that everybody is starting to realize that while people with money are obsessing about Alex Israel or whomever those artists are, it’s allowing a lot of time and space for a lot of other artists to take root before money rushes in and fucks it all up.

How does money fuck art up?

It makes us see art and the beautiful art world through the cynical lens of money. The real truth is money has very, very little to do with art. I think it’s fine that Jeff Koons gets a trillion dollars for his sculptures. I’ve liked a lot of Koons’ work, but the money he gets has very little to do with his work. Just because Vito Acconci makes no money off of his work doesn’t make him a bad artist. Just because women make less money than men or non-white artists make less money than white artists—see how crazy this is? It’s just mad. But it is fun; it’s sexy; it allows everybody to envy the rich, which is a national pastime; and without this money in the art world people like me would not have jobs. Even though I only have three thousand dollars to my name, somehow that money came from those rich people, and I wouldn’t have it without them. So more power to anybody making money, but looking at the art world through the lens of money is a waste of your time. It’s a complete waste to me, unless you’re into that, and then it’s super sexy.

What’s the lens we should look at art through? If not an academic lens or a fiscal lens…

I’m not against the academic lens. Without theory there would’ve been no women’s liberation, no multiculturalism, no black liberation, no feminism. I would never say that’s a bad lens. I’m just saying stay open. See everything; stay up late with your friends; test your ideas against others. But I don’t have a prescription. Make your own blog, start your own online magazine, curate your own shows. If you build it, they will come.

It’s engagement that you’re interested in.

Totally. Engagement, intensity, energy. That’s what I’m interested in.

Is that interest in engagement behind your realization that social media could be useful to you as an art critic?

What I think, Cody, is all of us in the art world spend ungodly amounts of time alone. It’s extraordinary. It’s soul killing. I’m not really part of society. I never go out. This is my life. For me, social media was just a way to be in contact with everybody else and feel like I was in a digital bar hanging out. It only takes me a minute or two to think of an image, put it online, then I go back to work, and then fifteen, twenty minutes later I might check it, and I go, “Oh wow, everybody’s ripping me a new asshole because I wrote this thing.” You know? “Oh you didn’t like this Marlene Dumas painting that I just posted,” or “I’m an asshole because I liked this Richard Prince Instagram photo.”

And it generates energy. Am I looking just for the “land of like”? No. No. It doesn’t work. If that’s what we wanted—just to live in the “land of like”—then I suppose you could just post porn because we’re all told that that’s half of what’s up there right now on the Internet. I guess I could just post porn, have a private account, and I’d get “likes” all the time. I am not. I like that people click on it, but I want to engage. I answer everybody back. Everybody. If you yell at me, I will come back to you and never yell back. I just want to hear what’s going on. Does it take a lot of time? No. It takes like a second.

How much of your day is spent responding to emails, Instagram comments, et cetera? What’s the pie chart of how you spend your day?

I am a lucky person that I get about five hundred personal emails a day. And my sad life really is I love them all and at the end of every day I seem to hit the delete button and delete them all. I have never had an assistant; I never will. The only thing I would ask an assistant to do—the only thing—is to please write my work. Get me out of this hell. You can have half my money; get me out of here. But I can’t get out. I will never be able to get out, and I’m lucky.

I spend usually all day at my desk. I have right wing radio going in the background, the further right wing the better. I love listening in on the other side. I am immensely curious. How do they work this? How do you talk about emails or Benghazi? How do you ignore global warming and racism? How does that work? I’d love to know. So I have that on and it is an adrenaline producer. And on my TV I have two news channels going at all times. And usually a Spotify channel.

So I’m writing all day and then I’ll check in on this or that platform just to spend a minute or two, going “Oh, Dear MisterJewJew69, you said I was an asshole but what I was really trying to say about Marlene Dumas is that I found that this work was too photographic.” And then Mr.—or Mrs.—JewJew69 will come back—nine times out of ten, Cody—they will calm down. They’ll say, “I’m sorry I called you an asshole. I thought you were saying such and such.” And usually, in a sentence or two, we can work it out, agree to disagree, ya know? This isn’t nuclear codes here. It’s been bad around the election in America. It’s been really bad because the art world went so heavy for Bernie that I was really shit on. And maybe they’re all right. I’m not a big Hillary fan; I just want to win. That’s the only thing I want: vengeance.

What’s the role of art in the current political climate? Do artists have a moral obligation to address certain political issues?

No, I don’t think so. Artists have only one obligation in my mind and that is to make what they must make. A lot of them paint stripes, a lot of them cut up cardboard all day. If an artist tells me those stripes are about stopping Trump, I accept that. I am not a cynic. I’m really not. That’s why I believe in outsider art as much as insider art. The outsider artist who is collecting little chips of crystals and organizing them into hexogrammatical charts—that same artist talks the exact same way that Brice Marden speaks about his monochromatic fields. There is no difference; it’s all one ball of wax. In other words, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning are both called “abstract expressionists,” but to me they have nothing to do with each other and it limits both. This is played out daily in the art world. I am for artists going to school. I wish I went, but I think it’s partly the result of a nineteenth-century education system based in colonialism to make everybody on the same page.

You’ve said in the past that you’re a “failed artist.” How does that inform your criticism? Does it help you be sympathetic with certain artists? To see or not see certain things a better-educated critic might not?

I don’t know its effect, but I feel it all the time. I feel it in that if you do one thing that I like one time I really, really will follow you for a long time even if I think you’re not making it to where I hoped that you would go—I actually believe that’s what was going on with me, that maybe I did something like that one time. I want people to keep reading me to know that I’m trying really hard here to keep pushing myself to not fall into formulaic predictability, that I really mean this stuff and that this is my time here and when I’m gone it will all be forgotten. I accept that. I’m not writing for the future, I’m only writing for now. The conversation: that’s what I’m interested in. I want that conversation to include anybody. If I can be in the conversation I would say to people you can too. I am an idiot. I know nothing. I just am driven, just like you.

If you’re an average person—you don’t have a criticism background, you don’t have an art background—and you’re walking into a gallery or a museum, what should you be doing, thinking, preparing yourself for?

First things first: leave your cynicism at the door, motherfucker. Everything in a room, you just have to take at face value. Don’t look at it through the lens of money. Don’t look at it through the lens of fame. Don’t look at it through the lens of power. I am not saying ignore that—“oh it’s just another white male artist”—of course you should factor that in; it’s a given; it goes without saying. But I want you to engage. Get very quiet inside. Listen to your reactions; follow them; compare one thing to another; it’s through comparison that we learn. You can’t tell how high a mountain is if you only look at one tall mountain. You have to see the whole landscape to get its diversity and how amazing or horrible it is. I would say see everything. Speak to artists. Stay up late with artists, if possible, every night, every single night, just listen to artists. If you are younger, stick with your generation. Do that for a while. You will take over the world together. You must make an enemy of envy. You’ve gotta grow a pair of whatever. Understand that you are going to be poor your whole life; stop feeling fucking sorry for yourself; the art world is an all-volunteer army—if you don’t like it, you can leave. But stop being envious of everybody else for having better than you. They do and that’s just the way it is. Take it from a 65-year-old man. You’re reading this and you think I have a lot more than you? I don’t, and I certainly don’t have that much time. Time is what you’re working for. You want time to make your work. That’s really what this is about. That is all that’s going on and you’ve got to work for credibility. You must have credibility. I want you to have love and money and have sex with anybody you want, but without credibility you’re just another flim-flam woman, another flim-flam man.

How does an artist gain that credibility?

I think that it’s the combination of everything of who you are. Did my asshole-ness eclipse my work or does my work eclipse my asshole-ness? It’s a very delicate balance. Do you believe what you are doing? Is the real me a credible thing or is it a hologram you can’t use? If you can’t use it, I’m sorry, but you’ll find a lot more. We contain multitudes and the art world contains multitudes.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.

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