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Cathy Horyn on Joe Eula and Life After the 'New York Times'

With her latest book, former 'New York Times' fashion critic Cathy Horyn aims to write illustrator Joe Eula back into 20th century fashion history.

Andy Warhol once called him "the most important person in New York," but the late Joe Eula — the warm, outspoken, sometimes outrageous figure who was in the very thick of the New York fashion scene from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, illustrating Eugenia Sheppard's columns for the New York Herald Tribune, drawing album covers for Miles Davis and Liza Minnelli, serving as creative director of Halston for most of the 1970s — is little remembered today. His work is rarely included in surveys of 20th century fashion illustrators.

Cathy Horyn's new volume, "Joe Eula: Master of Twentieth-Century Illustration," released by HarperCollins this week, may change that. Horyn, the former chief fashion critic of the New York Times, is an exceptional writer and biographer. You needn't have an interest in fashion illustration to be absorbed by her profile of Eula: The story of how they met, at Eula's apartment in 2001, when Horyn was interviewing him for a book about Bill Blass, and Eula stopped and captured her portrait; the casual parties that could bring Elsa Peretti, Lauren Bacall and Stephen Burrows under the same roof on the same night; how he failed to be awed by Halston, whittling down his creative ideas to their simplest expressions; the time he stood up three looks into an Yves Saint Laurent couture show, shouted that it was terrible, and walked out. (It did not end his friendship with Saint Laurent nor Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Bergé.)

To Horyn, Eula was a friend and confidant, who asked about her stories and offered helpful advice, and even illustrated a few. We spoke to Horyn about how the pair became friends, why fashion illustration is still relevant today and what she has been up to since she left the Times in January.

How did you come to write the book?

Someone approached me — Melisa Gosnell, she was one of Joe's great pals, she was curating the images with Dagon James and wasn't able to do the writing. And I was glad to [do] it, because I knew Joe, and I had a feeling, just the way the world moves so quickly today, that Joe's work would be easily forgotten for awhile. I was approached probably in the late fall of 2012, started working on it in the beginning of 2013, and delivered my portion October 1.

You recount in the book how you two met, but how did you become friends?

We became friends almost immediately. People got to know Joe very well very quickly. I kept thinking about Charles Tracey and Barbara Allen and the crowds that would go to his apartment. People were hearing about Studio 54, and Halston, and other kinds of social hangouts in the '70s. But a lot of people went to Joe's. There was something about his personality, so informal, so kind of warm, kind of like your best example of a big brother, someone to set you straight and who you could talk to about a lot of things — that was immediate with Joe. I remember sitting in his apartment talking about Bill Blass, we went up to the kitchen and he said, 'Stop, stand there.' And I didn't doubt what Joe was doing. I knew he got the paper out, I let him do his drawing. I started talking to him about different story ideas, about wanting to do illustration in the Times again, which we didn't do very much. I just thought it made the paper more interesting. That's when we did our piece on the opening day of Belmont, and a piece on shopping at Walmart up in Kingston. I got in the habit of going up to his house in Hurley. We'd hang out, and something would develop up there.

Why did you want to bring illustration back to the Times? Is there something illustration captures that photography can't?

There was always a challenge to make the page look mobile, kinetic. Illustration brought in something that was alive, it catches something in a way that refreshes the eye if you haven't seen it in awhile. The reason Vanity Fair has now been using [illustrator] David Downton a lot, is that [his work] brings a different texture to the page. T uses illustration, InStyle uses it, Interview magazine had drawings for the last round of shows. I can't say it's a revival, but it does get you away from stupid thumbnail photographs.

Were you concerned that no one would be interested in a volume about fashion illustration?

No. HarperCollins [was] so interested in doing a beautiful book. I think all books, most books, unless it's a wonderful new novel, a biography of someone super famous, are all kind of difficult to do. Like David Downton said, Joe was a big piece of the puzzle of 20th century fashion, he definitely played a role in the '60s and '70s. I always scratched my head about it, it was hard to put your finger on what Joe was. Yes he was an illustrator, but he fulfilled so many roles. He was creative director at Halston for 10 years. He worked with Milton Greene for, god, more than a decade. He did all those show posters. He also designed clothes at one point. He was kind of a forerunner of what people now do routinely: stylists becoming designers, designers becoming photographers. Joe wore many hats, but he didn't necessarily get credit for that. When I went to interview him for the Blass book, he was always a mystical character to me, a name I always heard in the business space, but I didn't know who he was. I'm just glad to get the book published, glad someone is interested, I don't expect huge sales. I hope people buy it, I hope they see it as a really beautiful book to have. If you're interested in the '60s, '70s, '80s, even a bit of the '50s, Joe covers a lot of that waterfront.

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The book isn't as gushing, as celebratory, as most personal biographies or memoirs are. It was interesting to me that you quoted people who said that other illustrators were better than Joe, more consistent. Why did you do that?

I'm not very gushy. I think if you write a profile of somebody — I looked at this as a magazine-length profile — you have to put in the bad. People become more human when they're balanced. Joe had not very good qualities. That whole scene when he stands up at the Saint Laurent show and says, 'This is fucking awful, we're leaving,' it was mortifying, it caused problems for Harper's Bazaar Italy. Joe could rub people the wrong way, he could really be a pistol. But the things he said to people could sometimes be really beautiful. Somehow he didn't make that many enemies that I could find. Some of Joe's work wasn't that good, which puzzled me [in the beginning]. And David helped answer it in a huge way. Joe worked for a newspaper, it was [thrown away] the next day — it wasn't French Vogue, American Vogue. And [his work appeared] side by side with newspaper photographers — good photographers, but not the great ones. The Belmont stuff is beautiful, he could do amazing horses, and he was great with color. But then he could switch into cartoonish slap-dash things. That was better to come from David because he's an authority on drawing, not me.

I know New York wasn't as expensive back then, but it's amazing to me how well Joe lived — I don't think there are any fashion illustrators living in the Osborne these days.

Joe [made] some pretty shrewd moves. He sold his apartment to Paul McCartney, and he was able to do a lot with that. He bought the house [in Hurley] and probably didn't pay much, it was the right time. Lizette told me that his contract at Harper's Bazaar was worth $100,000 — that's a lot even by today's standards. I don't know the size of his estate, but he did have tax troubles according to a couple of people; there were those weird stories about that modeling agency trying to sue him for $6 million. People who knew Joe never knew that, but it was reported in New York magazine quite extensively. At some point he did have some problems, but still managed to do pretty well. And Joe's basic tastes were kind of small. He had a beat-up truck, the same basic clothes all the time, then he went to Italy in the summer for a month or so, whenever he wanted to. The rest was drawing materials. We'd go to Hurley, and he'd make a huge pot of pasta, no recipe, just threw it together. The fireplace was this really gorgeous thing he had made based on an Italian fireplace he had seen somewhere, the wood would burn all afternoon, there'd be a bottle of wine, great bread. It was always that simple, not any effort to it. Everyone today is moving around much more quickly, we live in a time where the economy determines a lot. I don't think that was as much the case in Joe's time.

There's something powerful, I think, about people who work in the fashion industry and manage not to be materialistic.

That was the natural rebel in Joe... and the influence Joe had on Halston. Joe was so outrageous, he said what he thought, he was unencumbered in every sense of the word. I think Joe could cut through all that bullshit pretty quickly.

I know are readers are curious what you've been up to since leaving the Times.

Well, two things really. I am working on a book around the history of the New York Times's fashion coverage for Rizzoli, that will take me awhile. It goes back to the 1850s, and in between I've done some pieces for T and Harper's Bazaar. That keeps me busy, and there's a couple things on my plate coming up. It's nice to have time. I wrote a piece for Deborah Needleman in the August issue [of T]. I was like, this was really great to be able to rewrite, to have so much more time to write an essay. It's nice to ponder things. I wrote an introductory essay for Patrick Demarchelier's upcoming book, his second one. At this point, I mostly know how books work.

You've still been going to some shows. Is that to support friends, or to keep tabs on what is happening?

The truth is, looking at fashion the way I am, which is with a longer telescope, a longer lens, I don't really have to be at the shows, covering daily, going, going, going. You can be more macro when you're off deadline. I went to a few shows this time, mainly for friends, all night shows. At that point I was getting my house painted, and I couldn't leave during the day. I'm really aware of time and how I want to use my time, as everyone should be. With more time... you see more connections,  it's not all about the fast-moving fashion machine right now. There are things in there to think about, and it's fun, and it's challenging.

This interview has been edited and condensed.