In 1953, an established arts journalist named Aline Bernstein Louchheim, then working as an associate art critic for The New York Times, flew to Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to interview Eero Saarinen, the son of renowned architect Eliel Saarinen and solo architect on the rise, and write a profile for the newspaper. She hadn’t been the first choice for the assignment; that was John McAndrew, a professor at Wellesley College, but something had happened with him, and she’d volunteered, or been volunteered to go, and so there she was, ready to meet Saarinen, do the requisite interview, and go home.
The assignment itself was nothing new for Louchheim: She was as comfortable reporting on executive shake-ups at the California Modern Institute as she was exploring the issue of monumentality in architecture; as well-versed in the formal qualities of Alvar Aalto’s curved forms as she was in Mies’ Modernism. She was part of an exclusive social milieu in New York, attending garden parties with Philip Johnson, palling around with playwright Clifford Odets (she broke a date with him to write the Saarinen profile), becoming romantically entangled with Edgar Kaufmann Jr., son of the Fallingwater Kaufmanns. She’d never met Eero, although she’d written about him once before: in 1948, when she’d reported on the results of the St. Louis Gateway Arch competition, the event that ended the partnership between the elder and younger Saarinen, when, after years of working together, they submitted separate designs—and Eero won.
Louchheim’s editorial brief was to portray Eero’s life post-Arch. “What we would like is a combination personality piece and discussions of the man’s work,” her editor, Daniel Schwars, wrote in a memo. “You would give the reader an idea of the kind of man that Saarinen is and how he developed personally and artistically, together with an evaluation of his work.” The piece, which was published in April 1953, ran with the headline “Now Saarinen the Son.” It was a loving profile; Louchheim called Saarinen “the most widely known and respected architect of his generation.” She described his buildings as those that “interlock form, honest functional solutions, and structural clarity,” and wrote that they “become one expression of our way of life.”
It was an idea that she—and he—would repeat for years, from their shared breakfast table, in their shared house. For this particular assignment not only changed Louchheim’s life, as well as Saarinen’s; it also helped change his practice, not to mention the lives of countless architects (and magazine editors, and writers) to come.
The Modern Architectural Publicist
Louchheim and Saarinen drove from one building to another on the first night of her visit, and they did more than talk about architecture: As they rounded a corner in the car, they also metaphorically rounded a different kind of corner, when one of them touched the other’s hand—an event that we can find described in one of the thousands of letters that they wrote to each other, and which was followed, very quickly, by a far greater intimacy.
I spent four years reading those thousands of letters, now physically and digitally held by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, as well as papers from Saarinen’s office held at Yale, to research and write my recently finished dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, which argued that Louchheim was indispensable in Saarinen’s rise to fame. More broadly, I illuminated the ways in which her press machinations and editorial acuity (exemplified in her job as “Head of Information Services” for Eero Saarinen and Associates) amplified not only his career, but helped codify a cultural and professional position: the modern architectural publicist. As I argue, most biographical treatments documenting Saarinen’s smooth rise to fame post-1953 have either ignored or glossed over Louchheim’s contributions. When mentioned, she has been categorized as something between helpful wife and casual observer. The oversight warrants more than just a feminist reworking of our understanding of his career, though it definitely warrants that. It also neglects the actual ways in which fame has been produced since the second half of the 21st century.
I wrote this dissertation because my experience working in the field of architectural journalism did not square with the ways in which I saw architectural historians rely on the press as a neutral and representative agent of an architect’s value. I wanted to correct—and add to—the record. I also wanted to read Louchheim and Saarinen’s sexts.
It is a cardinal rule of journalism that profile subjects have no editorial control over the story: They are not allowed to “check their quotes,” or “read over the draft for accuracy,” though enterprising publicists—we’ll get to how and why architectural publicists work the way they do shortly—have tried, and will continue to try. Which is why I was astonished to learn, based on letters written in the first few months of their 1953 courtship—letters that alternated between the professional and the deeply personal—that Louchheim had solicited line edits and quote checks from Saarinen, line edits that came with admonitions about how many “spanks” he would give her because of her “scalpel”-like critiques.
For the most part, if an architect has been widely and legibly published, if their work has appeared in magazines and was written about in a forthright and cohesive manner, then that has suggested that the work was inherently valuable. The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, a Columbia University–sponsored database that tracks press appearances, is often used to measure how seriously we should take someone. It shows a marked increase in articles about Saarinen (from 32 to 157) after Louchheim’s story was published. Yes, Saarinen’s winning of the St. Louis Arch competition inspired new interest in his work (hence Louchheim’s assignment from the Times), but his presence in the press—and, more importantly, the clarity with which his work began to be represented—shifted dramatically post-Louchheim.
You see where I’m going with this, or at least you should, because what I’m arguing is that Louchheim’s interventions—which she formalized with her job at the firm and which ranged from editing speeches that Saarinen gave, preparing text to send to magazines, coordinating the dissemination of photography and which photographer to hire for which job, managing competitive editors who each wanted to be the first to publish a project, deftly managing job and press opportunities by writing letters to the likes of Ada Louise Huxtable (whom she recommended for her job at The New York Times), and generally keeping the message extremely on track, not to mention the ways in which she invited Saarinen to intervene in creating his own profile—had a profound impact on the way in which his work and career were subsequently represented.
As she wrote to the art critic Bernard Berenson in 1958: “Now I observe myself ardently promulgating the Eero-myth. All of us around create situations to reveal him as we understand him. He creates situations to reveal himself as he understands himself and as he wishes to be understood. Reporters and photographers create situations to satisfy editorial demands. He is all of this and none of this. But recorded, it becomes truth for the future.”
A Euphemism for Lying
Saarinen was married when they met, and Louchheim’s story portrayed his wife, the sculptor Lilian Swann, as a domestically oriented helpmeet who produced a sculpture of “a fantastic three-toed sloth”—not exactly on a par with her description of Saarinen’s “talent.” Letters, written around this time, show Louchheim mounting extraordinarily compelling and well-constructed arguments for why Saarinen should leave Swann for her. “We find this candidate fitted intellectually, emotionally, and physically to the job,” she wrote to him in a mock job application (the job was wife/adviser). She was also concerned about her Times article. “It’s not really good,” she wrote to him. “You deserve much better. … I console myself by saying this is just journalism, any way, and not very important. But YOU are important—and it would be nice if anything that had to do with you did you justice.”
She kept writing to him, taking every opportunity to mention her skills and her connections. She also reminded him that it was the combination of their talents—his with architecture, hers with words—that would produce so much more than the sum of their parts. Saarinen finally relented. In February 1954, the two secretly married in New York City; in 1956, she moved to Bloomfield Hills to take a permanent position with Saarinen’s firm. Publicity as a practice may have been standard in corporate America, and was increasingly becoming standard for art, but her organization and control of the firm’s publications was the first time an architecture studio had had a figure like hers on staff, someone who could blend a personal relationship to her subject and professional expertise, to considerable effect. Before Louchheim and other pioneers of PR, architects relied on their own cult of personality for fame; think Philip Johnson, perhaps the best at the game, who single-handedly cultivated his own image (read Mark Lamster’s 2018 biography The Man in the Glass House, published by Little, Brown and Co.). Architects who could convince society doyennes to fund them and enterprising journalists to write about them could become successful; those without such access were, until Louchheim’s role was professionalized, at a clear disadvantage.
Professional memos between 1956 and 1961, when Saarinen died suddenly of a brain tumor, demonstrate Louchheim’s skills at maneuvering—which, in this case, is a frequent euphemism for lying. One of her most frequent press contacts was Douglas Haskell, editor of Architectural Forum, one of the major architecture publications of the time, and one that frequently featured Saarinen. As she was figuring out her job, he was figuring out how to navigate a changing publishing world. For many years, it was standard practice to send project photos to all the magazines, but Haskell had decided to try something else: the exclusive. In 1961, Saarinen wrote a memo to Louchheim outlining a phone call he had had with Haskell negotiating the publication of the upcoming TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. “If FORUM does this, then they would insist on the same kind of an arrangement as they had with Chase Manhattan,” Saarinen wrote. “This arrangement is that all the ordinary information … is available to all the magazines, but the FORUM had the inside track on special and more information.”
Louchheim had angered Haskell on a previous project, when she had given the same information to his magazine and to Architectural Record. She’d written Haskell a long letter saying that she had given him special access—“the series of candid camera shots of Eero and the designers at work on models,” and expressed surprised and dismay that “you would be so distressed that another magazine should publish a particular job with a limited point of view.” Her willingness to insult Record by calling its point of view “limited” smoothed things over. Haskell forgave her.
Today, for magazine editors, the “exclusive” is often all that matters—sometimes to writers’ great distress, and architects’ total chagrin. A building can be held by a magazine for years, with the writer attached and unable to file an invoice. Some writers, sometimes, try to game the system. So do publicists—a practice that is whispered about in a “can you believe they tried to pull this shit” kind of way. Let it be known that no one was better at pulling that kind of shit than Louchheim. She pretended to lose photographs, pretended that she had accidentally thrown away her carefully typed written responses to editors. She was the original staller, waiting weeks to respond to an editor’s inquiries and then acting, in her correspondence, as if she just couldn’t get it together to assemble the materials. Meanwhile, she would be offering those very materials to another editor; if the ruse was ever uncovered (as it was with Haskell), she could lean on her sly confidences, extolling the virtues of the publication in question, and roundly insulting the others. Louchheim was playing “bad cop” to Saarinen’s innocent “genius architect good cop”—and accomplishing her goal for the studio: to get as much exposure, in as wide a variety of outlets, as possible.
The best example of this is the publication of the TWA Terminal (which has been recently restored and will reopen as a hotel in May). Louchheim ensured that a combination of early news pieces in The New York Times, glossy coverage in Architectural Forum, and more would keep the structure alive in the public eye, and, with her emphasis on its being compared to a “bird in flight,” a legible structure despite its formal unusualness for the time.
Louchheim understood the challenges of translating the ways in which Saarinen wanted to talk about architecture—with an emphasis on humanism, deep phenomenological experience, and also the geometric possibilities of certain concretes—and she encouraged him to speak in metaphors and emphasize simple ideas. People got that Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink at Yale curves like a whale mid-swim. They got that the TWA Terminal looked like a bird in flight. In particular, I can tell you that the famous 1956 Time magazine story that describes Saarinen and Louchheim sitting at a breakfast table as he turns a grapefruit peel upside down, depresses the middle, and uses the resulting shape to demonstrate his vision for the TWA Terminal roof was an Aline Louchheim production. It would have been hard to get the magazine’s readers on board a discussion of thin-shell construction; but this intimate scene was a delight. Aline had described it in a letter she sent to the Time reporter, and in the retelling the story changed, so that it sounded like Saarinen had been struck by a burst of inspiration as he manipulated the peel.
It was all a bit of clever marketing, in much the same way as Saarinen (publicly, and strategically) took every chance to disavow the bird-in-flight metaphor. That doubling—of saying one thing behind the scenes to writers, and another in public—allowed the office to both create a gimmicky and sticky metaphor that was easily understood while at the same time publicly maintaining that Saarinen himself was a true genius beyond such easy similes.
Shaping His Legacy, Posthumously
After Saarinen died, Louchheim kept the office together to finish TWA. Saarinen’s partners, Joseph Lacy, Kevin Roche, and John Dinkeloo, stayed together until 1966, when Roche and Dinkeloo formed their own firm. Louchheim moved into television, where she worked as an on-air art and architecture critic for NBC, and wrote more books, but not before finishing what was then a definitive biography of Saarinen. The title was Eero Saarinen On His Work (Yale University Press, 1962). Yet the words—the on—were hers. Even after his death, she was the one truly shaping his image in this posthumous biography that cemented so much of his reputation, and set the stage for later analyses of his ouevre.
Recently I had lunch with a respected architectural publicist and friend whose client, Margi Nothard, Assoc. AIA, lives in Florida and wanted to meet me and show me her work. I told them a little bit about Louchheim as we talked. Nothard showed me images of two projects. One of them I knew I could work with, and I watched as my friend picked up on my interest, navigated me in a direction she knew—having worked with me for 15 years—would suit me. I agreed to pitch the story until I landed it. I kept thinking of Louchheim, of how proud of my publicist friend she’d be. At lunch, I felt special, smart, like I deserved this story because I’d done a good job. I knew the machinations behind this. I could see the strands of this publicity dance and all the ways in which we were doing each other favors. But I also knew that this person and I are real friends, that when we hugged and I said goodbye and she then sent me an email with the pitch information and said, “This was the best work lunch I’ve had in a while,” that she meant it. My friend never met Louchheim. But her practice, the way she works, the way she gives voice to architecture all the while maintaining hundreds of interpersonal relationships, that job was profoundly shaped by Aline Bernstein Louchheim Saarinen.