ARTIST: Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence

THANKS FOR GIVING ME MY MOTHER

My mom and dad, Polly and Lou Cowan, died on November 18th. The year was 1976. They tend to float into my awareness during this holiday season, but it's been so long that I have to remember to remember. No wonder Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday.

Polly Spiegel Cowan, November 1958. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence.

contact sheet, portrait of Polly Cowan by Mary Morris Steiner, 1958

And by strange coincidence - which I do not actualy believe in - the other day I received a packet of photos from the estate of Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence, who died in 2009. The package came on Monday the 21st, which means it could have been sent from San Francisco on the 18th. Close enough.

Mom raised me to believe in reincarnation and communicating with spirits. It was not something she spoke about with any but a few close friends, and with me. The story of her death is interesting, though, in this light. She called me about a week before she died. I was living about three hours away from Manhattan, in the Catskill Mountains of NY. She summoned me to the city to go with her to her bank so she could transfer my share of some heirloom jewelry to a safe deposit box we would open in my name. She had had her jewelry appraised and evenly divided amongst the four children. She didn't want us to have to pay inheritance tax on it when she died.

I thought she was being ridiculous. She was only 63, her health was perfect, she was fine. Great. But I went. I asked her why. She wasn't about to die. She said, "Oh, Liza, you and your sister think I'm going to live forever, but when my time comes, I will go."

We made the exchange. I spent the night. Meanwhile, for the past couple of weeks  I had been horribly - for me- depressed. I couldn't seem to shake off some kind of dread and sorrow that I didn't understand at all. It had been triggered by watching the TV movie Sybil about child abuse. But I hadn't been abused, of that I'm certain. On the contrary, my childhood had been filled with love, stability and good times. But that movie touched some nerve and I couldn't shake it. 

I talked about it with mom, told her about some other stuff that was going on in my life, stuff about friends, work, the usual. She told me that although she knew it was impossible, she wished we could live together again.

The next morning we spoke about reincarnation and communicating from beyond the grave. This was not an unusual topic for us, but in hindsight it was poignent. The very last paragraphs we spoke, as I waited to catch a cab to the train station, were about how she would try to communicate with me after she died.

I never saw her again. A few days later there was a fire in my parents apartment and they both died. 

And yes..she did communicate with me. I had lucid dreams for weeks afterwords in which we would chat. I would say, "mom, this isn't a dream, right?" and she'd say, "No, it's not a dream. I'm here." When those stopped, I would see her in the mirror, looking at me from what should have been my reflection. Or a photo of me would turn into a photo of her. Then it all stopped.

These days, she rarely communicates. When my daughter Willa was born, mom would visit us through the twinkly lights above the crib. I told this to my brother Geoff one day when he was visiting. He laughed. All the lights in the house flickered, sputtered, went out. Then came back on. 

Some days she leaves me a little token. Nothing, really. A pen found in the wrong place at the right time. Stuff like that. Or she directs a packet of photos to be send on the anniversary of her death.

Here's to all the ancestors we have lost. No matter when. 

Polly Spiegel Cowan. 1958. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence.

Polly Cowan. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner. November 1958.

 

 


 


MARY MORRIS STEINER LAWRENCE 1914-2009

A tweet from the Monroe gallery in Santa Fe alerted me to the sad fact that Mary Morris  Lawrence  died earlier this month. Here's a link to a story in The San Fransisco Chronicle:

"In 1937 she became the first female photojournalist hired by New York's Associated Press. She was photographer and Hollywood columnist for New York's progressive tabloid PM, shot photo stories for Look Magazine, and produced a variety of award-winning projects in a world-roving career. "I was good in the newspaper business," she said, "because I had this way of wanting to get the dope. I had an aggressive nature, a creative spirit." Her trail-blazing career is chronicled in books and periodicals, one describing "a 23-year-old wisp of a girl, with a thick mass of tousled brown hair and dancing blue eyes, Miss Mary Louise Morris ... daily faring forth with camera slung over her shoulder to cover every variety of news and feature story." SF Chronicle, Aug 23, 2009

Ralph Steiner, Mary Morris, Mary Mary morris steiner, mary morris lawrence, Polly Cowan, Lou cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, elegant dinner party, man bites woman on shoulder,

L to R: Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Polly Cowan, Ralph Steiner (biting my mom's shoulder,) photo set up by Mary or Ralph, shot by Edna Lerner.

The SF Chronicle article omits the fact that Mary was married to Ralph Steiner,  iconic American photographer. Mary told me in a phone conversation last year that when she and Ralph were partners in their New York City photography studio, they split the shooting equally, but he got all the credit. They didn't really pay attention to who was shooting, who was setting up the shots, who was climbing the ladder. It was all in a day's work.  She didn't care. The paycheck came in and that was pretty much what mattered at the time. I don't think either one of them realized at the time how famous he would become and how relatively, but not completely, obscure she would become. So those Ralph Steiner photographs that are now highly collectible, the ones done in the NY studio might be by Mary.

Mary Morris Steiner photo, Liza Cowan, Polly Cowan, mother and child in mirror, reflections mother and child, smocking dress,  

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner (Mary Morris Lawrence, for google's sake) Polly Cowan and baby Liza Cowan circa 1950

Another obit, somewhat more substantial,  from The Oakland Tribune: "In his 1938 book, "Get That Picture!" cameraman A.J. Ezickson described her as a hard worker and a cunning "scout," gaining access with her small RolleiFlex camera to scenes her less enterprising colleagues (the same ones who made "sly jibes" about Morris Lawrence) were barred from by using her wits but never "feminine wiles."

Last year Mary and I discussed the possibility of her having a retrospective exhibit here at PSAW, but there were more technical difficulties than I could  overcome from 3,000 miles away. The 95 year old Morrie lived in San Francisco and had only original prints of her work, which she did not want to ship to Vermont. I'd have been happy with scans but we never worked out the logistics of having them made and printed. Alas.

Morrie only published one book in her lifetime, Bringing Up Puppies, A Child's Book of Dog Breeding And Care, written by Jane Whitbread Levin (another Sarah Lawrence chum)

Bringing up puppies front

Bringing up puppies back

Bringing Up Puppies, by Jane Whitbread Levin and Mary Morris Steiner (Lawrence)

So here 's to you Morrie, talented, brave and wise. You will be missed.


CAROUSEL HORSES: HERSHELL, DARE, CARMEL

The amusements of Atlantic City in the last post made me think of carousels. I have spent periods of my life obsessed with carousels. In my own childhood I rode the Stein & Goldstein horses at the carousel in Central Park in New York City. But more than that, we had our own carousel horse on our lawn in Redding Connecticut in the early 1950's. Nowadays, nobody in their right mind would leave a vintage wooden carousel horse outdoors, exposed to the elements and gaggles of rowdy children, but in those days the discarded horses were not particularly valuable or appreciated as works of folk art.
carousel, charles dare horse, carousel horse on lawn Liza Cowan, circa 1951, Redding, CT.

charles dare, carousel horse, carousel horse in private collection, children on charles dare carousel horse

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner

My sister just sent me this. Sorry about the quality, it's a many times scan, but here is my mother, Polly Spiegel Cowan, with my sister Holly and brother Geoff on the carousel horse.  I don't understand the seeming discrepency in the color of the mane, but I guess that between the time of the picture with my mom and sibs, and the one of me, the horse was painted. Ouch.

The horse  sat on our lawn for years. The mind boggles. I rode this horse until my early teens, when we sold the house. And by "we" I mean my parents. Years outdoors exposed to the elements runied this fine piece of sculpture, and I regret that more than I can begin to express.

Carousel dare carousel NY State Museum
These horses are in the New York State Museum in Albany.  Armitage/Hershell machine probably carved by Charles Dare in the 1890's.

Carousel Charles Dare
Attributed to Charles Dare. Photo from James D. Julia Auction, Maine.  This is the horse we had. The breastplate and saddle on ours was simpler, but otherwise they match up. My heart is breaking.

Moving on from my heartbreak...

When my daughters were little, we were lucky to have a house in Greenport Long Island, where there is a beautifully restored Hershell Carousel right on the water's edge. I got a call one evening at dusk that the horses were about to be moved to their newly built pavillion, so I raced over and got this shot of some of them stacked up and ready to go. The light was fading too fast, so I only got a couple of good images.

 

Carousel horse, carousel greenport ny, allen herschell carousel horses, hershell horse,


Liza Cowan Photo 1999, Hershell Horses, Greenport NY Carousel

 hershell carousel horse, greenport LI


This Hershell beauty was up and rolling when I took the picture. The Greenport Carousel actually has a brass ring, which makes it even more exciting and historic.

 

 

 

Liza Cowan Hershell carousel horse painting on photo copy of cowan photo


Mixed Media by Liza Cowan.

 

This is a painting I did on top of a photocopy of a photo I took of a Hershell horse at the Greenport, Long Island Carousel. If you've never tried painting on top of a photocopy you should. It's really fun and easy. Best if you put down a coat of clear medium first.

 

charles carmel, carmel carousel horse, carousel prospect park, child on carousel horse, restored carousel, carmel jumper


Photo by Liza Cowan. WG riding a Charles Carmel jumper, Prospect Park Carousel

 


The carousel in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY has beautifully renovated horses carved in Coney Island sometime between 1910 and 1915 by Charles Carmel. We spent many an afternoon there. The American Folk Art Museum in New York recently had and exhibit, which I missed, called Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, The Synagogue To The Carousel, which traced the art of Jewish immigrant carvers "inspired by their memories of the  symbols and forms they left behind. Some of the same Jewish artisans who arrived in America at the turn of the twentieth century and carved for their local synagogues also found work carving horses and other animals for the flourishing carousel industry."

Cover
"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses" Exhibition Catalog, American Folk Museum with Brandeis University Press. 2008
Listed on my Powell's Bookshelf (under MY WEBSITES on upper right of sidebar.)

 


carousel paris france, carousel france, carousel luxembourg, child on small carousel horse, child on paris carousel
Photo by Liza Cowan

This turn of the century carousel is in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The children can take sticks and try to spear the wooden hoops. This must hark back to when carousels were used to teach jousting to knights. It's as much fun for the children as grabbing for the brass ring. Notice how petite these horses are.

mechanical horse, child on mechanical horse, child on amusement park horse
Photo by Liza Cowan.

And then, sometimes, a mechanical horsie -ride -for- a- quarter is just as much fun. Although GW is wearing the same dress as in the Paris photo, it is not the same day, or even the same country. She just adored the dress.


Carousel at Shelburn Museum  
Carousel at Shelburne Museum, Shelburne VT

Now we live only a few miles from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vt. They also have a working Hershell Carousel. They also have an amazing collection of historical carved carousel animals. It's worth the trip.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM

Today is my mother's birthday. Had she lived, Polly Spiegel Cowan would be 95 years old today. She died when she was a mere 63, but she lives on in the hearts of those who loved her.

Polly cowan at redding (small)
Polly Spiegel Cowan, Redding CT, circa 1948. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner

Lena 1906 (small)
My grandmother, Lena Straus Spiegel.

It's Lena's birthday too, after all. On this day in 1913 she gave birth to the last of her four children.

And finally, a picture of Polly Spiegel Cowan and little Liza Cowan. I wouldn't be here if Polly hadn't been born.

Steiner liza&polly (SMALL)
Polly Spiegel Cowan and Liza Cowan. Circa 1952. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner.


Mary Morris and Polly Cowan

I got these photos in the mail today. They were photocopies, not original prints, but who cares. I'd never seen them before and they are of my mother, father and their best friends at my mom's 40th Birthday in 1953.
Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Ralph Steiner
From left to right, Max Lerner, my dad (Lou Cowan,) my mom, (Polly Cowan.)  Above Polly is Mary Morris Steiner and biting Mom's shoulder is Ralph Steiner. On a personal note, isn't my mother gorgeous?? Too thin, perhaps, but wowza. Photograph probably by Edna Lerner, set up by Mary Morris Steiner.
Pollys_40th_3

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953
L to R. Max Lerner, Holly Cowan (my sister) Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan and Ralph Steiner. At first I thought this was some kind of fashion shoot with a roll of seamless paper, but in fact this was a wall in our New York City apartment. My dad planned this celebration with great ingenuity. He bought forty presents for my mother, not sure what they were but I remember a lot of fake gold wedding rings, had them all wrapped and tied in grocery twine and suspended all around the apartment. Four years old at the time, I wasn't at the party.  But my three siblings were and the affair was family legend.

I got the photos in the mail and the descriptions of the party over the phone from Mary Morris Steiner (now Lawrence.) Mary and Polly had been best friends at Sarah Lawrence college. The third best friend was Edna, who later married their professor Max Lerner. Mary married the photographer Ralph Steiner. And mom, of course married dad, who was radio and later television producer and executive Louis G Cowan. But this unusual group of former college co-ed weren't just housewives.  They married famous men, but they had their own careers as well.

My mother was a radio producer and later a civil rights activist. Edna Lerner was a psychologist.  Mary Morris joined The Associated Press in 1937 as the only woman phototo journalist. Later she worked for PM (Picture Magazine) a leftist daily newspaper in New York City. When I knew Mary and Ralph they were working as advertising photographers .

Pollys_40th_2_2

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953. Clockwise from the far left: Ralph Steiner, Geoff Cowan (my brother) Polly Cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, Paul Cowan (my bro) Holly Cowan and on the floor, my dad, Louis G. Cowan. The trunk which serves as a coffee table was filled with family photos, all of which were destroyed in the fire.

These photographs are particularly poignant for me because most of my family's earliest photos were burned in the fire that killed my parents in 1976. Each addition to our scant collection is precious. I'm also happy to have images of the party that was the stuff of legend around our dinner table. And then there's Mary.

I looked for Mary Morris Steiner for years, but only knew her as Morrie (her nickname) Steiner. Google searches were in vain. Finally Sherrie, at the Charlotte (VT) Community Library, found a file of clippings on Ralph Steiner, who had moved to Vermont later in his life. Sherrie found me Mary's second married name and some phone numbers.

So now, not only have I found  an important link to my family history, but a new friend as well. And, in my role as gallerist, I have found an amazing photographer. I'm hoping that someday I will be able to exhibit her work at PSAW. So far it's just a hope, because it would be a large task, but keep your fingers crossed.