PEOPLE: Lou Cowan



Ethan murrow. pinto brothers, drawing 54x36 for sale
Ethan Murrow, 2006, large scale drawing from Pinto Brothers Series, for sale

This beautiful, large -scale drawing by Ethan Murrow is now for sale. 

I bought this piece in 2006, when Murrow had a show at Burlington City Arts. Ethan was raised in Vermont, and has many friends and admirers here. I hadn't know Ethan when he lived here, but I had been somewhat friendly with his father when we were kids because his father (Ethan's grandfather, Edward R. Murrow) was very good friends with my father, Lou Cowan. The small-world effect of the Cowan family has ceased to surprise me. 

But that's not why I bought this piece. I bought it because it's that good. THAT good. I bought it to sell, because at the time, I was running Pine Street Art Works. I had it framed by my favorite framer, Jennifer Koch of Frames For You And Mona Lisa Too, and it hung at PSAW for several years. Finally, when we closed, I had no place to hang the work, so I loaned it to the University Of Vermont, where it has been on view at the Davis Center, much to the delight of the thousands of students, faculty and visitors for the past 5 years. 

Now it is for sale. If you are interested, or know someone who might be...just click this link to my online store, Small Equals. 

The piece is avaiable framed, but I'm also willing to have Jennifer Koch take it out of the frame, for much much easier shipping and delivery. 

Ethan Murrow website.


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.





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.


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.

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