Why Did The New York Times Kill This Image of Henry Kissinger? (Not for His Naked Butt Cheeks!)

The Kissinger image below (by David Levine) is one of 320 illustrations – by 142 of the world's most acclaimed contemporary artists – that The New York Times itself originally commissioned for its Op-Ed Pages, but then got cold feet about running, and eventually paid more than $1 million in “kill fees” to hide from public view (sometimes for as long as 38 years).


What didn't the Times want you to see?

Can you imagine illustrations so "blasphemous," so "politically embarrassing," so sexually "over the line" that The New York Times gladly paid a fortune just to protect your delicate eyes from being exposed to them?

You’ll find hundreds of such allegedly “not-fit-to-print” illustrations – together with the bizarre and often ludicrous reasons for suppressing them – in a sly and deliciously funny new book called All The Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t) , by Jerelle Kraus, former Art Editor of the Times Op-Ed and Editorial Pages, who reluctantly quit her "dream job" at the Times after 13 years in order to publish it.

And we're fortunate she did. Her book (published by Columbia University Press) rescues 320 eye-stopping illustrations by 142 of the world’s most provocative graphic artists, including David Levine, Jules Feiffer, Ronald Searle, Milton Glaser, Charles Addams, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Ralph Steadman, Larry Rivers, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn, Art Speigelman, Andy Warhol, Garry Trudeau, and many more.

Publishing these illustrations should have been an occasion for pride and rejoicing at the Times. Instead, many were killed by panicky editors – often just minutes before press time.

What spooked these worldly Times editors?

Ms Kraus, who is the longest serving art director of the Times Op-Ed Page (there have been 27), says that Times editors were convinced that illustrators were always trying to put something over on them, forever conspiring to sneak in hidden sexual or political statements. So they frequently watered down editorial art to near vacuity – even though, ironically, the articles they illustrated were often fearless and hard-hitting.

Although Times management believed that the pen was mightier than the sword, it had an uneasy suspicion that art might be more brutal than the pen. This resulted in weird, last-minute censorings – especially of caricatures of famous people, against which there was a puzzling, long-standing prohibition. "You could write it, and be as scathing as you liked,” says  Kraus says, "but you couldn't draw it."

For example, this rather mild Robert Grossman illustration of Bill Clinton from 1994 as a crusading soldier (which Clinton would probably have liked) was rejected by former Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, because “It's a nasty caricature of a sitting president" – even though the editorial it illustrated was far nastier.

Ward Sutton's illustration of George W. Bush — sweating out (literally)  the results of the 2000 election – was considered unflattering to the majesty of the office. (American presidents are not supposed to sweat.) So the art work was only permitted to run after the offending beads of sweat were banished from Bush’s brow – along with whatever point the artist was trying to make.

Another example of Executive Editor Raines’s rather vivid imagination: When presented with a Nancy Stahl drawing of a light bulb with a copyright symbol on its top (for an editorial commentary on patents), he exclaimed, "We can't publish a bare breast and a nipple!"

Even Andy Warhol, at the time arguably one of the most famous artists in the world, could be censored. In 1980, the paper commissioned Warhol to illustrate an unflattering editorial about Ted Kennedy as a “nebulous figure.” But his illustration was turned down by management as "meaningless" – to which Kraus replied (under her breath) that perhaps they could just run the signature.


Frequently an artist’s intentional naughtiness often pales next to what is imagined by editors, who seem to locate phantom phalli in the oddest places. In 1996 Milton Glaser drew an ardent alien for a Valentine’s Day editorial that fancifully described intergalactic love. It was killed because management said that the alien’s beak “looked like a taboo human part.”

This illustration of an article on aesthetics was rejected for unacceptable nudity -- shocking the Belgrade artist Jugoslav Vlahovic. "I publish drawings like that all the time in this Communist country," he said.

David Suter's elegantly wry visual pun, commissioned for an article about the disdain with which the executive views the legislative branch in the United States, failed to pass the taste test -- i.e., it demeaned the dignity of the American government (and The New York Times).


Ohio humorist George Kocar's interpretation of Ronald Reagan's request for missile money alarmed editors -- but not because of the nuclear nose or blind eyes. It was reducing a president of the United States to beggar status that sealed its fate.

Cathy Hull's thermometer from 1996 was supposed to illustrate wild fluctuations in weather (i.e., it reads over 90 degrees, but is surrounded by snow). It was killed, in the last seconds before printing, when an editor objected. "It's an ejaculation!" he said.

Here's one the editors wish they had killed. Just before the first Gulf War, in 1991, this David Levine depiction of Saddam Hussein appeared under the headline "The Descent of Man." The Times was deluged with so many complaints from Arab-Americans that they had to install a separate phone line with a pre-recorded apology.


A rather mild portrait of Idi Amin by Peruvian artist Carlos Llerena Aguirre was deemed "too severe" an indictment of the Ugandan tyrant's mass murders of his own people -- even though the article it was to illustrate was far more ferocious in its condemnation. Again, you can say it, but you can't draw it.


And Brad Holland's image of a suicidal rat, for an article on low-cost housing in Manhattan, was rejected, said the editor, for "going too far" (whatever that means).


The book offers many other graphic images – and the bizarre editorial reasons for censoring them -- involving Henry Kissinger, Ella Fitzgerald, Yasir Arafat, Richard Nixon, Leonard Bernstein, Osama bin Laden, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, J. Edgar Hoover, JFK, Madonna, Joe McCarthy, Edith Piaf, Picasso, FDR, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and hundreds more.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for more information about this book -- don't expect to consult a review in The New York Times. You won’t find one. For years the Times tried to discourage Ms Kraus from publishing this book, but now that it's out, the Times is spitefully refusing even to acknowledge its existence, let alone actually review it. Since the Times' Book Section is a bible of the publishing world, not being noticed in its pages can often destroy a book's chances of attracting a large audience.

Which may be the the Times’s purpose -- a publicity blackout might make the book quietly disappear. But it’s too funny to disappear (quietly). The author is starting to receive a growing number of radio and TV talk-show invitations, and her wry slide presentations are a "hot ticket" item at libraries, bookstores and college campuses around the country.

In fact, on February 26 – joined by ex-Times columnist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Sydney Schanberg – she hosted a slide show and discussion about her book at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Broadway at 82nd Street in Manhattan. This being just a short jog north of Times headquarters, it was no surprise to see a large contingent of Times editors, reporters, and other former colleagues in the audience, snickering gleefully at the follies of their masters -- and wishing the author well -- but wearing dark glasses and pulled-down hats just in case anyone might be watching.

As media consumers, we owe a debt of gratitude to the feisty whistle-blowing author for giving us what one reviewer has called "a witty, if occasionally scary, peek into the parochial mind-set of the most powerful ‘editorial Mafia’ in American journalism."


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