Louis Silverstein: The Man Who Changed Newspapers
By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India, December 4, 2011)
There will never be another Lou Silverstein again. Yes, there will be other geniuses in the media world that fuse design with words and create magic on paper (or on the cyber screen); yes, there will be young people sprouting new ideas of dealing with visuals in the media in order to attract more readers (visitors?). And yes, media design will keep evolving, as all enterprises of the mind must.
But there will never be another Lou Silverstein again. He died Thursday in New York of cardiac arrest. He was 92 years old, but you’d never know it. His cheery character, cherubic face and continuous enthusiasm for his art form made him seem half his age. I could never imagine Lou ever aging. I suppose neither could he, or anyone who came into contact with him.
For a man whose career as an artist and designer dated back to World War II, for a man who re-invented The New York Times when it was in dire straits, for a man whose concept of introducing bold visuals and airiness on the printed page, for a man whose intellectual concepts were imitated across the United States and in scores of other countries – for such a man to be so modest, to be so giving, was astonishing. During his lifetime, the awards piled up, the accolades cascaded into his Brooklyn apartment, the applause rarely ceased. But Lou took it all in his stride, maybe spent a second savoring his success, and then kept on working.
That dedication to work, that relentless focus on excellence, that consistent attention to detail – all of those characteristics drew admiration from other notables in the design business. Ask Mario Garcia. Ask Roger Black. Ask any number of much-hailed design maestros. They will, to a person, speak of Lou Silverstein with reverence and respect.
But reverence and respect weren’t what Lou necessarily coveted. Those things, in his life view, were incidental. What mattered was the stuff that came from his mind through his heart and his fingers and on to paper. (Yes, even in this cyber age, Lou drew only on paper.) What mattered was to amuse readers, to educate them, to inform them, to provoke them, to make them think – what mattered was to always introduce that element of surprise that made readers look at a newspaper page in a way that might not have otherwise occurred to them.
That element of surprise, Lou always said, was what made a newspaper – its pages, its stories – special. Add to that the fact that Lou was a very imaginative illustrator. His sketches of people and places were mischievous, yet they captured the moment. When he and I worked together at The Earth Times – a newspaper on environment and sustainable development – I often suspected that readers came to our publications more for Lou’s drawings than the reams of text on ecology.
Those drawings were done not only in America, but also around the world. Lou and his wife Helen had traveled everywhere. But, without question, their deepest affection was for India. Lou approached India with a childlike wonder. The Silversteins went everywhere. Even I, much younger, was exhausted by their questions. The sketches Lou produced – and the vignettes that Helen wrote – filled several issues of The Earth Times. They will soon appear in a book.
They featured enigmatic sketches of India, its people, its monuments, its urban communities and its rural hamlets. They caught the subtleties of India. They sensed the sorcery of the culture. They got the zeitgeist just right.
That was no mean achievement. The diversity and the ethnic mosaic of India can be bewildering to anyone, let alone a visitor from another land. But Lou keenly understood, as did Helen, that the key to understanding a culture was in its history. And so he read copiously about the India millennia, he studied architecture. He always wanted to know what was it that explained the continuity of an assemblage of ethnicities in a country so geographically large; he always wanted to know how such a large polity could be governed at all. What, Lou wanted to know, underlay the basic tolerance and understanding that largely characterized the land? And why those occasional blips of communalism?
Behind those questions was an abiding affection for India and Indians. Lou Silverstein, after all, liked people. He could strike up conversations with any stranger: he may not have always shared the vocabulary, but he was a communicator and so he used as his main tools his ears and eyes. Those keen eyes, of course, were more than a tool – they were high-intensity cameras. Even in his later years, as his hearing declined, he still caught every inflection. Lou missed nothing.
He missed nothing because he was always a man of endless curiosity. Why, he would ask, how, when, how come? He would listen carefully to what people said – with their words and their gestures and their expressions. A conversation with him often turned into a Socratic dialogue. It was an education just listening to him ask his questions; occasionally his eyes, or a hint of a quizzical smile, relayed those questions.
It was an education, too, for the generations of young journalists he mentored. He did so with good cheer, but he also did so in the belief that in journalism and design – as in life – there were certain fundamentals that were inviolable: honesty, integrity, fairness, keeping one’s word, delineating the difference between fact and fantasy.
What had these fundamentals to do with art and media and design? Everything, Lou Silverstein would say – because unless you had a solid core of unassailable values, your work would always be perceived as shallow or suspect or worse. While Lou was too gentle a man to put down someone, he was never enamored of poseurs.
And so Lou Silverstein is gone now, leaving behind Helen, and their writer daughter Anne, and the two sons of Anne and her husband Dan, a lifelong newspaperman. I am still in shock as I write this; the deep grief, I know, will set in soon.
That kind of grief, it seems, is recurring far too frequently in my life. I am at that age when I am losing my mentors. Lou Silverstein has left. So has another mentor at The New York Times, Abe Rosenthal. Jim Michaels of Forbes – like Lou and Abe a great lover of India – has also departed. The great journalist Varindra Tarzie Vittachi has been gone a long time. So have my parents, Balkrishna and Charusheela Gupte. Another bulwark of my life, Judge Bruce J. Gould is dying of pancreatic cancer in New York, with only a few months left to live.
They asked nothing of me other than that I ask them questions about life and living now, should I so wish. So to whom do I pose my questions now? To whom do I turn for wisdom and enlightenment, for guidance during those times when uncertainty and cluelessness converge?
But perhaps there is an answer to all this: I may not realize it, but my mentors like Lou Silverstein left me a treasure trove of wisdom and good sense. It’s all within me, really, I only have to tap into that aggregation of profound and selfless knowledge that they imbibed in me. Answer by answer to my stream of questions, my mentors created within me a space of endless dimensions where universal knowledge resides. The questions that I once posed them in real life – now I should be able to ask those of myself. I am increasingly sure the answers reside in that special inner space that my mentors created.
That, in the final analysis, may have been the greatest gift of my mentors. How fortunate I was that Lou Silverstein and those other mentors walked on the same soil as I during their time on earth. How fortunate I am that they still walk on the same soil – but this time it’s on the circuitry of my mind.
(Pranay Gupte’s latest book, ‘Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis,’ has just been published by Penguin Viking (India). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)