PEOPLE: Geoff Cowan

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.

 

 


 


COWAN MEN: LOU, GEOFF, PAUL

Today is my father's birthday. He would have been 95 and very proud of his children.

I found this great clip from an article in Columbia College Today, January 2006. An article about John Brecher, author and wine reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. He says about my dad, who was his professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:

"The class that made the biggest impression on Brecher was taught by Lou Cowan, former CBS president, at the Journalism School. Cowan invited famous people to talk to the class, including Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and John Ochs from The New York Times. “One day Cowan asked me to have coffee with him at his fabulous East Side penthouse,” Brecher recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Do you know why I have these people to class? Don’t listen to what they’re saying. Study how they’re thinking.’ It was the single most important thing that anyone ever said to me. And I carry that bit of advice with me to this day.”

My brother Geoff Cowan is - among many things - the author of Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers, a play that has been presented to rave reviews all around the country. This morning Geoff  sent me this link to a clip by Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air from WHYY, broadcast on NPR on December 8th. In her list of four recommendations of books to read during this holiday/pre inaugural moment, she discusses  a book by our wonderful brother Paul Cowan, who died in 1988. Corrigan also recommends The Hunger Of Memory by Richard Rodriguez, American Crucible by Gary Gerstle and The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

Tribes_200
The Tribes Of America: Journalistic Discoveries of Our People and Their Cultures, by Paul Cowan, The New Press, 311 pages, list price: $16.95

Best Books For A Transformative New Year by Maureen Corrigan

"Allow me to begin by stating the obvious: there's something different in the air this 2008 holiday season — and it's not just the Scrooge-like damper on spending cast by the financial crisis. The holidays this year also serve as prelude to the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president. This is such a milestone that most people I know are still walking around saying, "I can't believe it really happened." So this year, I'm recommending some terrific books that can help anyone, whatever his or her politics, gain a deeper understanding of what we've had to come through as a country —what we're still struggling through — to reach this moment. And, yes, in recognition of the fact that many of us are humming "We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money" more often than we're singing "Santa Clause Is Coming To Town," almost all the gift books I'm recommending are paperbacks.

The Tribes Of America: There was once an extraordinary writer for The Village Voice named Paul Cowan. Cowan covered everything from a miner's strike in Harlan County, Ky., to school busing battles in Boston. He died at age 48 of leukemia in 1988, but surely few who read his pieces or his autobiography, An Orphan in History — about rediscovering his Jewish roots — ever forgot his voice. A collection of Cowan's finest reportage from The Village Voice has just been reissued. Although the pieces in The Tribes of America are from the 1970s, the early culture-war tensions they chronicle are still with us. As historian Rick Perlstein says in his new introduction, "Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that?"

Certainly in 1974, when Cowan went to West Virginia, where a traditional rural community was fending off radical new grammar school textbooks, you'd assume he'd have been on the side of modernity. But here's what Cowan said about that and similar experiences: "The stories I wrote about … turned out to be dialogs with my own private dissatisfactions. As a whole, they left me with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life: of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois. . . . How can one embrace them and still be . . . a political progressive?" "

read the text on the NPR website

listen to it on npr

41SCJJZQJPL._SL500_AA240_


Obama - Or Else

Banner OBAMA OR ELSE b:w

my campaign contribution - I've made it as a postcard

Were you glued to your radio, tv or computer last night listening to Obama? I was. For the first time in my life I had a moment of hope, or faith, that America has the possibility of becoming an ethical country - with all that implies. Or, ethicalish. As my friend Laurie Essig said of her emotional response to the speech, "Don't worry, I  know corporate and military interests still control everything." But still, it was quite the night.

Obama hit every note. And the resonance with the 45th anniversary of the March On Washington was perfect. Eerily perfect, I thought.  I was at that march. I was fourteen. My entire family traveled from NY City to Washington DC for the historic event. As my friend Paul Fishcher pointed out today, "it was strategically uncool for McCain operatives to mock Obama's backdrop, which referenced the ancient pillars of democracy and the MLK speech site."


I-have-a-dream 

This is the best photo I could find on a google search for Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. If anyone knows the name of the photographer please let me know. It is against my ethics to post photos without credit, but I couldn't find it.


Last night, after watching Barack Obama's speech I dreamed that I met him. It was a very uplifting experience, in a very friendly way, as if  I had met long lost cousin.

And speaking of wonderful relatives, this is just in from my brother Geoff Cowan, in Los Angeles from The Jewish Journal - an ad from "Why I'm A Democrat.

Blog geoff why i am a dem


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.


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.