by Adrian Margaret Brune


By the early 1970s, the writer John Cheever had slipped beyond alcoholic; his prodigious drinking had likely caused permanent nerve damage. So he decided to give Alcoholics Anonymous a try.

No one can know if Cheever, the chronicler of the disaffected suburban class, was prepared to divulge all of his timeworn secrets—his abusive behavior, his bisexuality, and his self-loathing—at his AA meetings. Cheever had always bowed down before the alter of literature: “Literature has been the salvation of the damned… routed despair and can perhaps in this case save the world,” he wrote in his journal before his last public appearance, the ceremony at which he received the National Medal for Literature in 1982.

Blake Bailey, an Oklahoma-born biographer who wrote the authoritative book on John Cheever, as well novelists Richard Yates and Charles Jackson, never seriously considered authoring his own memoir until he was confronted “with a tragedy so mystifying” he had to find a way “to capture the quiddity.”

The Splendid Things We Planned, his memoir about his older brother, Scott, and his adolescence in an affluent, antipathetical Oklahoma City family is the product of that personal examination. The acclaimed book, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, took 11 years and several drafts until print, but with the candor and purpose of a diviner, Bailey pulls back the curtain on the effects of affluence, restlessness, ladder-climbing, personality clashes, and perhaps mental illness on Scott and all the people surrounding him.

“Scott didn’t exist in a vacuum; my family had something to do with it,” Bailey said last March in New York before the Critics Circle awards dinner. “My family was very, very strange—we were four people who wanted to be in four different places at the same time.”

Bailey introduces the book with an anecdote about Scott’s first months as a newborn in New York, where his father, Burck Bailey, a Root-Tilden scholar at New York University’s School of Law, struggled to care for his German-born wife, Marlies, and his son, who would “emit one heart-shriveling shriek after another… as if screaming helped him concentrate on some larger plan.” With no other way to mollify the baby, Bailey’s parents joked to friends that they carried Scott to the roof of their tiny McDougal Street apartment and contemplated “whether to throw him or themselves off,” Bailey wrote in Splendid Things. Instead, Burck took his German wife and toddler to Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma City, four hours away from his birthplace of Vinita, Burck Bailey found career success as one of the youngest assistant attorney general in the state’s history, then he rose through the annals of Oklahoma law as a partner at Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens, P.C. Despite a reputation as a top trial attorney and three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, Burck cut a passive, if not mollifying figure at home, succumbing to nearly every whim of Marlies. He moved his family—which, by 1972, included nine-year-old Blake Bailey—to the outskirts of the city so she could raise Arabian horses. He supported Marlies’ enrollment in the University of Oklahoma (where she would eventually earn a Master’s in Anthropology). And he funded her social life, including lavish parties with students from cultural exchange programs and friends from school.

With both an absent father and a mother who felt robbed of her youth and wanted to be anywhere but home, Scott Bailey lived without boundaries, to the envy and the vexing of his younger brother, whom, with his fluent German, Scott called Zwiebel Mund—“onion mouth”—or just Zwieb, for the sake of brevity.

“And what, in turn, did I call Scott? I called him a very matter-of-fact (or deploring)Scott. No endearments on my end,” Bailey wrote. The name game provided a harbinger of their relationship for the next 40 years—the vain, yet needy, older brother living beyond his means (the family Porsche and its ruin at the hands of Scott as the key metaphor), descending deeper into drugs and chaos, getting rescued and repeating the process. The younger brother used him as an example of how not to live and although he falters at times, especially after a wild life at Tulane University in decadent New Orleans, ultimately succeeds at a happy existence.

“We were two brothers, whose lives went in completely different directions,” said Bailey, now a professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “I looked at him and I was able to correct my mistakes. In that sense, I owe my successes to the depreciation of Scott’s life.

“I don’t think Scott wanted to accept that his inability to mesh with society was his problem. He knew ultimately his situation was hopeless and that he was fucked up, yet he was the foremost apologist for it.”

Growing up in a privileged Oklahoma family in which siblings thrive or crash-and-burn is not a new phenomenon—the difference is Bailey’s willingness to publish his story. “My own philosophy can be summed up in two quotes. Voltaire: ‘We owe nothing to the dead but the truth’; and Capote’s biographer Gerald Clark—and I’m paraphrasing—‘I just assumed I could say whatever I wanted, and that’s what I did.’

“I think there are genuinely malicious biographers who are out to get the dirty laundry, and that’s what’s almost exclusively featured in their books. But I view biography as an empirical endeavor foremost: you gather as much evidence as you can find, then you give each theme just as much emphasis as it deserves relative to the life.”

The book is sometimes just as much about Bailey as it is about his brother.

Blake, who floundered in New York and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., eventually returned to New Orleans and started teaching gifted children. “I was writing bad fiction—and had just finished my third unpublished novel—when an agent friend of mine said, ‘Blake, this is not good. Why don’t you put together a proposal on something nonfiction.’

“At the time, I really just wanted to find out about Richard Yates—I never thought of myself as a biographer.” However, after coming in as a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Times of Richard Yates, he took on author John Cheever. In 2009, he produced Cheever: A Life, which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Parkman Prize, and a nod from the Pulitzer board.

Just after finishing Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, Bailey finished Splendid Things. Bailey’s detachment in Splendid Things, however, is palpable—it’s an autobiography written with a biographer’s eye.

By his account, Bailey’s surviving family was not initially pleased with Splendid Things, despite its eventual success. However, Burck, who had moved to Santa Fe with his second wife and had not seen his second son for 10 years, eventually reunited with him. “I think he was pleasantly surprised how sympathetic it was to him and got back in touch,” according to Bailey.

Marlies, to whom Splendid Things is dedicated (in addition to Scott Bailey), denied the things Bailey had written about his childhood, but when he gave the opportunity to make corrections, “she wrote far more damning versions than anything I had put down,” he said. “Now she presses the book on anyone she meets.”

Cheever scholars hardly debate that two of Cheever’s best works of fiction—the novelFalconer and the New Yorker story “Goodbye, My Brother”—narrate extreme brotherly contests that result in violence and fratricide. And as John Cheever once told a psychiatrist, his older brother, Frederick, was the most “significant relationship in his life.” Whether intentionally or not, so it seems with Blake Bailey. A photo of the two as teenagers, Blake Bailey looking with admiration upon his older brother, adorns the back cover jacket. “In as far as he loved anyone, I know that Scott loved me,” Bailey said.


by Adrian Margaret Brune


In a small meeting room in a Unitarian Universalist church a few miles north of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, people of different races and age groups gathered in late 2001 to pore over the large and comprehensive “Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot.” Between bites of doughnuts and sips of coffee, they strategized a way to commemorate the riot and reach some sort of reconciliation, either through reparations, a scholarship fund, or a memorial.

The report recommended that the state make reparations to the then 130 survivors of what some call the worst race riot in U.S. history. Ultimately, however, as the number of survivors dwindled, the city and state decided on what became John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, a public arena with the 25-foot-tall Tower of Reconciliation, which aimed to tell the history of the African-American struggle in America. It portrays slaves joining Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, the development of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, the Tulsa race riot of 1921, and ultimately the “climb” to freedom.

The tower stands just past three bronze figures, two of which were sculpted directly from photographs of the riot: a white gunman and a black man surrendering. An improvised man holding a baby makes up the trio. At night, the tower is lit from the bottom with an orange hue—a flare highlighting its presence downtown.

“It’s one thing to go to a memorial to make you feel happy, but another part of that has to tell some truth,” said Ed Dwight, the acclaimed Denver-based sculptor who designed and built the monument. “We could have done a memorial that looked back in history as if the riot’s legacy wasn’t going on anymore, but it’s still going on.”

Whether confrontational or not, the dedication of the riot memorial in Tulsa in October 2010 marked a significant gain in one community’s willingness to accept a past tarnished with racial hatred and inequality that has lingered for nearly 80 years.

Riots Barely Remembered

From 1908 to 1921, several race riots took place throughout the country—in Washington, D.C.; Springfield, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; and Omaha, Nebraska—that were equally or even more destructive than Tulsa’s. Though there are occasionally small remembrances of those events, only one other city has a permanent marker: Springfield, Illinois, whose 1908 riot led to the formation of the NAACP.

The riot of Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 was one of the few that a governor called the National Guard to quash. It merited the immediate probe of the NAACP—by then a provocative force within the black community—which sent riot investigator Walter White, a black man who could pass as white and a future secretary general of the organization, to the scene of the crime. He almost didn’t survive, catching the last train out of town after a black survivor tipped him off about a plan to tar and feather and murder him.

“The riot that happened in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 is just not as sexy as the ‘Little Rock Nine’ [the nine students who desegregated the public schools in Arkansas], which people have interpreted as a win for Little Rock,” said Grif Stockley, the author of Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919, about the riot in a small town 90 miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee. Stockley adds, “What happened over in Elaine… was a complete disaster for the black community; there’s no way to spin it—nothing from it came out good.”

An armed feud broke out between the black sharecroppers and white deputized law enforcement after a union meeting among black sharecroppers. Governor Charles Hillman Brough put the riot down by sending the National Guard to dispose of mostly black agitators.

“After the Oklahoma commission, one of its state legislators came over to discuss strategies for doing something, which we brought to our state legislators,” Stockley said. “People around [Elaine] are aware of this [riot] and are interested in doing something—a statue or a plaque of some sort—just to lend weight to the event… But I suppose politics prevailed.”

White, who was also eventually dispatched to survey Tulsa, examined the aftermath of three other race riots in this period, which was ultimately deemed the Red Summer: Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Omaha, Nebraska.

In Washington, D.C., on July 19, 1919, word of a rape committed by a black man rapidly spread throughout downtown saloons and billiards halls. Shortly thereafter, drunken World War I veterans clubbed, beat, or shot more than 150 innocent men, women, and children; deaths totaled at 39. President Woodrow Wilson, by then incapacitated and near death, finally mobilized troops to end the carnage after
three days.

Just a week following the D.C. riot—and after a cartoon lampooning Wilson and the D.C. riot appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune—Eugene Williams, a black teenager, took a swim in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, ignoring the unwritten rule that blacks and whites largely kept to their own beaches. A mob stoned him to death and subsequently laid waste to the South Side of Chicago for a week. In some cases, black men and women were pulled off trolley cars and beaten.

In Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1990s, a group composed of historians, researchers, and Creighton University students organized an effort to monumentalize the riot that consumed Omaha in September 1919. The riot led to the near-death of the city’s white mayor and the brutal murder of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. After a mob pulled Will Brown—a disabled packinghouse worker—out of the county jail, they dragged him across the streets of downtown Omaha, lynched him, perforated his body with bullets, and then set it ablaze on a homemade pyre.

Henry Fonda, the eminent actor, said of the Omaha riot: “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes.” Pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents apiece.

“Brown was buried without a headstone, and this group of students tracked down his burial site and paid for one,” said Max Sparger, a research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha. “There was talk of putting a plaque at the courthouse, but we had to go through local politicians and that never happened… It’s an essential piece of Omaha history. We had a massive event in which our own mayor was attacked for trying to protect a black man. It was representative of the time of how people in America acted out of nothing but racially based rage.”

In 1993, two sixth-graders at a Springfield, Illinois, middle school, Amanda Staab and Lindsay Harney, turned up findings of the 1908 Springfield race riot during a project for a history fair. Springfield’s was one of the first post-Reconstruction race riots in U.S. history and led to the formation of the NAACP in 1909. The young girls’ final report on the riot—a devastation that led to six people fatally shot, two black people lynched, the flight of 2,000 blacks from their homes, and 50 minority businesses leveled—resulted in the placement of plaques on sites of the riot.

“Most people I talked to said they lived here all their life and had no idea the riot happened,” Harney told the  Chicago Sun-Times  on the day of the markers’ dedication three years later. “It’s shocking they don’t know. There are so many other historical markers in Springfield; the riot should be included.”

The city took down those markers in order to make way for the $145 million “interactive” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in 2003. In 2009, however, instead of replacing the plaques, a mayoral commission unveiled a two-section cast bronze sculpture depicting the aftermath of the riot across from the museum—a month after a noose was found hanging in a city power plant’s employee work area.

“This monument will symbolize our commitment to advance race relations in Springfield and the surrounding area from bitterness and intolerance to inclusion tolerance and collaboration,” Beverly Peters, the chairwoman of the mayor’s 1908 Race Riots Commemoration Commission, told the State Journal-Register at the memorial’s dedication. “So let the word go out—that we will not be deterred by one or two or even a few Neanderthal thinkers who would resurrect a hangman’s noose or any other relic of the dark and racist past that we have lived.”

Tulsa Ennobles Its Past

“The memorial teaches Oklahomans that we can be one city, that we can remove the invisible walls of history and move forward, that racism isn’t something to be tolerated,” said Jean Neal, administrative coordinator of the John Hope Franklin Center. “You always want more, but you have to start somewhere.”

By now, the story of the Tulsa race riot is well known to most. But, the story of John Hope Reconciliation Park is hardly mentioned in the chronicles of the riot’s battle for legitimacy.

After Governor Frank Keating denied reparations to riot survivors in 2001, the survivors sued the state, an action taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The survivors lost on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out on the mass crimes committed by officials acting on the state’s behalf.

In November 2008, John Hope Franklin, esteemed historian, cultural critic, and riot survivor attended the groundbreaking of the Center for Reconciliation named for him, which was partly funded by the state.

Neal said that compared to other riots in the U.S., Tulsa underwent total devastation—300 blacks dead, 3,000 people left homeless, and a thriving community burned to the ground—yet still had the “spirit and the heart” to rebuild.

“But we’re not stuck in the race riot,” she said. “Although we have reached back to 1921, we are still moving forward.”

Editor’s note: Portions of this essay have been previously published elsewhere. 

Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 17, September 1, 2014. 


by Adrian Margaret Brune


During the early 1990s in Oklahoma, Catholic prep schools didn’t exactly impress punk music, rebellion, or third-wave feminism on their charges, but Anya Jack, a senior at Cascia Hall, could feel an undercurrent of female solidarity swelling. Soon, she bore witness to it.

After graduation and a move to Austin, she noticed a few homemade flyers advertising various Riot Grrrl meetups and a “zine” — a handwritten, photocopied, and self-distributed fan magazine about Riot Grrrl action and Bikini Kill, a predominantly female punk band out of Olympia, Washington.

Kathleen Hanna, the 23-year-old lead singer of Bikini Kill, turned up the amps at Emo’s, where Anya Jack (now Anya Jack Whaley) worked. Hanna gripped the mic and began bawling the lyrics to “Rebel Girl”: “When she talks, I hear the revolution / In her hips, there’s revolutions / When she walks, the revolution’s coming.” 

“For me, it was freeing; it was fun; I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Anya said in an interview from Texas. “There was a group of like-mined people who wanted to be a part of this punk thing — we had the same feelings and desires — but it was more of a liberating thing; there was not a dedicated thought-out process to it.”


The Punk Singer, which premiered at SXSW in 2013, is a film about Hanna’s life as a provocateur, singer, feminist, and enigma. During it, Hanna is frequently — in many venues and on a wide range of turfs — commanding women in the crowd to come from the rear to the front of the stage and take back their space. The film not only captures this essence of Riot Grrrl’s esprit de corps, but also traces the trajectory of the Riot Grrrl movement through 20 years of footage of Hanna’s life, in-depth interviews with the members of Bikini Kill and other musical groups at the forefront of Riot Grrrl, and its activists, from zine writers to indie record-label owners.

The film also explains the reason in 2005, after she had left Bikini Kill and formed Le Tigre, a left wing, electroclash band in New York, Hanna stopped recording music for eight years — she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. 

“What consumed me was how much of Kathleen’s life we were going to squeeze in the film, not only about the place from which she came, but her emotions along this ride and her personal drive,” said filmmaker Sini Anderson, who co-founded Sister Spit, a parallel spoken-word poetry movement in the 1990s. “I hope people who see the film realize there is another option about how we live in this culture — even among feminists… There is space for everybody and taking each other down is not the way.”

Hanna and Bikini Kill, which regularly toured Texas clubs, derived much of its onstage power by confronting male aggression. Hanna was filmed at times wading through the audience and removing hecklers, according to an interview [1]Hanna did with The Guardian.  

“It’s not very much to spend five dollars to come and yell at someone. Guys would come to yell really horrible stuff, call me all kinds of names, sometimes be physically violent. And later, when we charged $12 a show, it didn’t happen. Because no one’s going to pay $12 to harass this women’s band,” Hanna recalled. “But it became this thing — like, oh, she kicks guys out. We played clubs that didn’t have any security. People could get away with a lot of shit, and if I wanted to get someone out, I had to physically do it myself.

“I remember playing in Oklahoma and this guy was messing with me, and I said, ‘That’s enough, get the fuck out of here. For five dollars? Go and get your money back.’ ”

Hanna, who formed The Julie Ruin with former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, had to cancel the summer leg of The Julie Ruin’s tour on May 13, 2014, due to her relapse from Lyme disease. 


Inspired by independently produced music, symbolized by vintage, dissonant clothing, and galvanized by feminists and zines, informal Riot Grrrl gatherings turned up from New York and Washington, D.C., to the flyover states and back to the “Left Coast” in the early 1990s. Each group came up with a version of Hanna’s manifesto, which proclaimed that the “punk rock you-can-do-anything idea is crucial to the angry girl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural loves of girls and women everywhere.” Most loosely existed on college campuses, art galleries, or coffee houses; later gatherings manifested through more formal conventions and concert festivals. 

“Riot Grrrl provided people outside the coastal metro centers with a way to connect with people in their own cities and towns in places like Oklahoma, through networks, through zines, through concerts and conventions,” said Sara Marcus, author of the book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. “It also provided a framework wherein young people who held feminist ideals and who may have not been very widely held or accepted within their communities could join a nationwide conversation that in the pre-Internet age wasn’t available through other means.” 

And as with any good rebellion, mainstream media backlash ensued. Magazines and newspapers, such as Newsweek, lambasted the new crusade for sullying feminism, calling Riot Grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’ ”

Kathleen Hanna mandated a press blackout on all media surrounding Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl and refused all interview requests, saying that the media did not take seriously the ideas put forward by the movement or the bands. Riot Grrrl eventually splintered and lost momentum with the breakup of Bikini Kill in 1997. Other bands, such as Sleater-Kinney and L7, continued outspoken feminist punk. In 1998, a Riot Grrrl group purportedly formed in Norman, Oklahoma. 

“More diverse opportunities for cultural conversations about feminism and gender and this attitude of speaking from the gut and being uncompromising is a mindset that comes straight out of Riot Grrrl,” Marcus said.


Anya remained in Texas and heard many more underground female rock and punk bands come through Emo’s and Bottom of the Hill, another Austin club. She eventually took the informal, do-it-yourself knack put forward by Riot Grrrl to help build one of the first roller derby leagues in the United States, the TXRD-Lonestar Rollergirls. 

“Kathleen Hanna may have become the face of the movement, but she didn’t start the movement — it always existed and it will always exist; that spirit and energy is not going away,” Anya said. “If you were at one of her shows at the time, the spirit was contagious… [she] drove the movement further and faster than it would have otherwise gone. And I am happy that she paid it forward.”  


1. Hanna did not reply to repeated requests for an interview with the author.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.


by Adrian Margaret Brune


It was a nitrate negative that marshaled an august tribute for its 2012 re-release—and a movie poster of the finest design and cleanest lines to match.

The internationally acclaimed Grand Illusion—Jean Renoir’s 1937 Academy Award-nominated picture about French POWs in World War I—was seemingly lost permanently, then somehow found nearly unscathed on a shelf of the Cinémathèque of Toulouse, France, 63 years later. Considered a 20th century masterpiece, it had been spirited away by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1940 to the Third Reich’s “Reichsfilmarchiv” film archive in Berlin.

When it turned up, a fanfare arose among film buffs the world over. Screenings were scheduled; DVDs were re-issued; and renowned former Push Pin Studios collaborator and illustrator Paul Davis—the art director responsible for the New York Public Theater’s stately broadsides of the 1970s—was called to lend his vision to the film’s poster.

“I love the posters from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They were very straightforward and exciting, and had a kind of emotional quality you don’t see today,” Davis said at his New York studio this summer. “Right now, we’re in an era of so much media, it all becomes sort of mushy. So, the art most interesting to me calls on things outside of the world of commercial design.

“When an artist works in other times or brings in other influences, but focuses on the story ahead of him, that’s when I’m most moved and excited.”

A onetime boy wonder of New York’s commercial art scene, with portraits gracing the covers of Rolling StoneTime,LookNew York, and Sports Illustratedmagazines, Davis will be inducted into the Will Rogers High School Hall of Fame this November, joining such luminaries as actor and fellow illustrator Gailard Sartain—a former assistant of Davis’—S.E. Hinton, the author of the seminal Oklahoma book, The Outsiders, and musician Leon Russell.

Though an honor such as the Hall of Fame is usually reserved for those going out rather than those coming in, Davis has hardly renounced his place at the helm of modern illustration. Instead, he simply substituted it for a quieter, introspective spot on the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a permanent exhibit in Italy’s Musei Civici Vicenza, among others. Yet, Bruce Goldstein, the founder of art-house film distributor Rialto Pictures and repertory programming director of New York’s Film Forum, brought Davis out of the shadows and into a burgeoning film career once again, beginning with the poster he created for the Spring 2012 showing of Abel Gance’sNapoleon in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival followed by a limited-engagement viewing of Grand Illusion in New York.

“All Paul’s posters are so iconic,” Goldstein said. “Most movie posters today are just blown-up advertisements—laurel leafs, big heads, and big quotes. Paul does beautiful renderings with distinctive style; he gives almost a handmade quality to illustration that is very rare these days.

“We didn’t want our posters to be advertisements but rather enduring works of art with a real sense of humanity to them.”

Creating both posters required a bit more work than imitating the lines of Toulouse-Lautrec, however. First, Davis, who had first seen Napoleon in 1981 during a bombastic full-orchestra showing at Radio City Music Hall, then Grand Illusionyears later, watched the films over, and over, and over again. It wasn’t enough. So, he downloaded both to his computer to study them frame-by-frame. Seizing on the natural tension in the actor Albert Dieudonné’s face, Davis decided on a portrait of Dieudonné in the character of Napoleon straight away; Grand Illusion took more time.

“The creative process also has a lot to do with intention. When I set out to do something like this, I go to the material and I go as deeply as I can go, finding out what moves me and working off of that,” Davis told me. “For Grand Illusion, which is a film about French fighter pilots shot down and housed in a German prison, I wanted to get the stars (Erich von Stroheim and Jean Gabin) and then it became all about the drama—the conflict, the juxtaposition of the two sides, even they empathy they shared.”

But Davis, the son of a Methodist minister, is used to studying characters and the landscapes they inhabit. Growing up in Centrahoma, Oklahoma, a 0.2-square-mile speck of land in Coal County, near the Texas border, before his family moved to Tulsa in the 1940s, Davis decided early on that he had to “do something to fill the open landscape.” So, he picked up a pen and a brush. Between the ages of 15 and 17, Davis honed his art at Will Rogers High School under Hortense Bateholts, a graduate of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute who introduced him to the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and Regionalist painters Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry.

With Benton on the brain, in 1955 Davis bid goodbye to Tulsa for New York’s School of the Visual Arts. By the time he arrived, the city was in the full throes of the beatnik era: hippies and poets, corduroy and ties, Bob Dylan and Enid’s Karen Dalton singing together at Café Wha? in the Village. And, Davis argues, its greatest period of graphic design: the era of Push Pin Studios and its agent provocateurs, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser.

Though de riguer to walk into a studio and ask for a portfolio viewing—or a job—Davis never thought about taking his work straight to Push Pin, ground zero for avant-garde illustration in the 1960s and ‘70s. Fortune, however, brought him into the hands of venerable artist agent Jane Lander, who in turn showed Davis’ work to Glaser and Chwast. Both noted his signature balloon-handed figures, but called them too abstract and cutting edge—even for Push Pin.

“Seymour told me to just keep drawing and get a regular job,” Davis said. He landed initially at Redbook magazine, where he got his payback.

“Andy Warhol called my boss to see if he could bring up some of his latest commercial work. My boss said, ‘No.’ Davis recalled, laughing. “The assistant art director said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ ”

“He arrived, took skeins off the art and revealed this gold leaf—lots of gold leaf. We told him we were grateful, but the gold leaf would probably be very difficult to reproduce in a magazine. He shook hands with us and he left.

“I bet those drawings are worth two or three hundred thousand apiece right now.”

Nonetheless, during his internship atRedbook, Davis massaged his look and produced his first commissioned illustration, a pencil drawing, for the October 1959 issue of Playboy. He went back to Push Pin. Much to his surprise, Chwast voted Davis in. At 22, he started drawing as a contributing member to Push Pin.

During the mid-‘70’s, Davis also fomented a relationship with another up-and-coming endeavor: Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. With Papp, Davis flexed his most creative muscle, and still uses bits and pieces of drawing from his work with the festival to create some of the his most acclaimed illustrations today.

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever thrown anything away,” says Davis about the varied directions in illustration, book jacket and poster design that define a career of more than 50 years. “One of the artists I admire most is Picasso because experimentation is one of his strengths. He neither felt the need to be consistent nor to reject one method simply because he found another.”

Today, Davis runs his own freelance studio blocks away from SVA, and keeps an office in Sag Harbor, where he houses his vast museum of images—postcards, matchbook covers, book jackets, anything that catches his eye. He continues to experiment in not only paper and ink, but also with film and video. In addition to mentoring his own son, Davis has also inspired a generation of other graphic designers, most notably Christoph Niemann—best known for his New Yorkercovers and his New York Times blog.

“Being able to work with Paul in his studio was an incredibly impressive chance to, for the first time in my life, see one of the greatest illustrators at work live,” said Niemann, who just released Abstract City, his own book of illustrations about New York. “Experiencing how Paul turned around one of his most gorgeous portraits, that of a famous baseball player, under a tight deadline—without losing his ease and becoming tense—was a uniquely inspiring treat.”

Though he has given up the gig as the art director for the Shakespeare Festival, Davis still contributes the occasional mural, the periodic book cover, and pro bono illustration for various arts groups, including Tulsa’s International Mayfest. More work with Rialto Pictures as well as a project on Eleanor Roosevelt and a potential illustration of the next president are in the incubator.

“A lot of people see my work and think I am old- fashioned, but I’m fine with that,” Davis said. “I just miss that thing in illustration—to see illustrations that actually say something about human beings; to see illustrations that are moving.”

“I don’t find most illustration very moving, or emotional or deeply engaging, these days. It is usually like a throwaway sentiment. But it’s just the zeitgeist of the time and that zeitgeist is cynical; it’s cautious. The zeitgeist changes however, and that’s something we can always count on.”

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 22. Nov. 15, 2012.


by Adrian Margaret Brune


I grew up in Tulsa, but was raised knowing next to nothing about the Race Riot of 1921. Though I considered myself educated when I left for Northwestern University at the age of 18 in 1994, I had never taken a black history course, nor ventured over to Greenwood to hear jazz and blues. Four years later, while attending Columbia Journalism School in New York, I came home and learned about the journalist and civil rights activist Walter White. In May of 2002, just over 80 years after White investigated Tulsa—one of his last riots—I loaded up my car in Brooklyn and drove across America to trace his footsteps.

When Walter White, then 28 years old, came to Tulsa in late June of ’21, he had already experienced a lifetime of racial dilemmas, ensconced within the pigment of his skin.

“Walter White’s parents were enslaved; his parents were black. They maintained a presence in Atlanta’s black community, though they could have made a decision to pass up that hardship and pass as white,” said Kenneth Janken, author of White: The Biography of Walter F. White, Mr. NAACP.“He was not conflicted by their choice, or ultimately his. He formed a chapter of the NAACP and he chose a job investigating race riots when he could have done quite well as insurance salesman.”

The ascension of Walter Francis White from the inquisitive schoolboy who tailed his father during his afternoon postal routes, to the NAACP’s preeminent riot investigator seemed a natural one. That metamorphosis began on Sept. 22, 1906—the first day of the Atlanta Race Riot. That day was the first day White would understand that, despite his alabaster skin, he was black.

The Early Activist

Within a few hours of the appearance of the headline “Bold Negro Kisses White Girl’s Hand” on the front page of The Atlanta Evening News, mobs of angry white men assembled on corners all over Atlanta. As dusk fell on the city, White and his father heard a fierce roar erupt from the inner city. George White cloistered his young family to the rear of the house and he and Walter took their defense positions at the parlor windows. The father ordered his son not to shoot until the first white man stepped on the lawn, and once that man did, not to miss.

“In that instant, there opened up within me a great awareness,” wrote White. “I knew then who I was. I was a Negro … Yet as a boy there in the darkness amid the tightening fright, I knew the inexplicable thing—that my skin was as white as the skin of those who were coming at me.”

White never fired his gun that night, nor did he suffer the fate of many of his neighbors, but years later the effect of the Atlanta Race Riot hit him like a bullet. Fresh out of Atlanta University, and headed toward a pecuniary career as an insurance salesman at Standard Life Insurance Company, he balked and joined the NAACP as an assistant secretary at the salary of $1,200 per year. Dressed in a tailored suit and overcoat, Walter White stepped off a train onto the frigid platform of New York’s Penn station in the late afternoon of Jan. 31, 1918. However, it was not until twelve days later that White received his first taste of real life and work at the embattled civil rights organization.

A news report announced that a mob had slowly burned to death a black sharecropper in Tennessee. Upon reading the report, White and Executive Secretary John Shillady conferred about the NAACP’s counterinsurgency. They concluded a protest letter to the Tennessee governor—the usual course of action—would gain little more than short-lived publicity. At that point, White experienced the epiphany that would launch and define his career: “I asked permission to go to the scene and make a first-hand investigation.

“I started a phase of work for the association which neither it nor I had contemplated,” wrote White.

Even after seeing his first lynching, however, White could not imagine the greater violence in store for America.

A year later, faced with staggering lynching numbers and the U.S. Congress’ refusal to pass anti-lynching legislation, the NAACP started a vigorous, nationwide anti-lynching campaign. Then the organization sent White on the trail of the riots that followed: DC, Chicago, in Elaine, Arkansas and finally, Omaha, Nebraska.

“The Chicago riot taught me that there could be as much peril in a Northern city when the mob is loose as in a Southern town such as Estill Springs (Tennessee),” White wrote of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, during which a black man took aim at him and fired.

Although he saw inequality every place he visited, White believed there was a city that held some true potential for African Americans: Tulsa.

White’s Great Last Hope

“In the early days Tulsa had been a lifeless and unimportant village of not more than five thousand people, and its Negro residents had been forced to live in what was considered the least desirable section of the village, down near the railroad,” White wrote in “I Investigate Lynchings” forAmerican Mercury magazine. “Then oil was discovered nearby and almost overnight the village grew into a prosperous town… The Negroes prospered along with the whites and began to erect comfortable homes, business establishments, a hotel, two cinemas and other enterprises, all of these springing up in the section to which they had been relegated.”

In the middle of a societal tinderbox of jealousy over land, status and wealth, White reported, a Negro messenger boy went to deliver a package in a downtown Tulsa office building and came upon a white female elevator operator. White arrived just in time for the showdown. This is how he saw it:

A hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building … in open daylight. Without pausing to find out whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry … a mob of 100-per-cent (sic) Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.

One could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa. Her reign of terror stands as a grim reminder of the grip mob violence has on the throat of America, and the ever-present possibility of devastating race conflicts where least expected.

Despite the overt racism and unbelievable brutality White witnessed, he still held out hope for Tulsa, which he defended in The Nation: “The damage to Tulsa itself would be irreparable if the attitude of that community were the brazenly defiant one which usually marks a Southern community after a scene of such violence and lawlessness,” he wrote. “Happily, Tulsa has had remorse and is not afraid to admit it.”

I thought so as well. After all, in 1996, the State of Oklahoma put together a commission to study the Race Riot, and in 2001 it recommended the state make reparations to the 130 survivors. But ultimately, the state drew different conclusions about the riot.

“I have carefully reviewed the finding of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and, contrary to the statement in your letter, I do not believe that it assigns culpability for the riot to the state,” wrote then-Governor Frank Keating in an October 2001 letter. He further noted that a state law prohibits Oklahoma from making reparations for any past mass crime committed by its officials or on the state’s behalf.

A lawsuit filed by the late Johnnie Cochran and civil-rights lawyer, Charles Ogletree—followed by an appeal taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—couldn’t right the long-buried wrongs of Tulsa. No material reparation was ever made.

Ultimately, White moved on from riot investigator and so did I, leaving my book and film about him and the riots he investigated on a folder that lingers on my desktop. White, however, rose through the ranks of the NAACP to become the executive secretary and then faded into obscurity, due to the changing times, his team of rivals at the NAACP and, ironically, the complexion that propelled him to the pinnacle of fame.

“White died right after his crowning achievement, just before the Montgomery bus boycott and just as the black power movement was taking hold across America,” Janken said. “The movement did not place great emphasis on the style of work White represented—integration—and did not know how to deal with his assimilation.”