In December 1956 (just four years before I was born) my father Bernard Safran decided that after an intensive 6 months of self study of the Old Masters and painting portraits for practice in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he was ready to move up in the world and paint Time Magazine cover portraits.
He painted a sample cover of General Ulysses S. Grant, the American Civil War hero and 18th President of the United States, with a non-objective background. This showed that he was capable of painting anything well and that he had a sound grasp of composition and color.
For some reason he called Life Magazine first to get contact information, and serendipitously spoke with someone high up who was very genial and switched the call directly over to Ed Cerf, Senior Editor at Time Magazine. Mr. Cerf was polite but told my father he was busy that weekend and to leave his portfolio at his office. My father did that – the portfolio contained the portrait of Grant and a sampling of other works.
A week went by and my Dad went back to see what happened. Apparently Cerf’s assistant had broken her ankle skiing and had been out all week recovering and nothing had happened with the portfolio. So he sweet talked a woman sitting near Cerf’s office to take the portrait straight into the Senior Editor right then and there. Cerf looked at the portrait and called my Dad in, and soon after my father became a Time cover artist.
His first cover was of the Sultan of Morocco (edition April 22, 1957).
In this day and age we tend take it for granted that every bit of information is at our finger tips, but not that long ago it was very difficult to get accurate information quickly. Here’s an example of how Time Magazine fact checked back then:
When my father took in his finished cover portrait of the Sultan to a meeting of the senior editorial staff, the cover researcher was unsure that the red color that my father had painted was correct for the hat. Cerf instantly picked up the phone and called Time’s Paris office and had them send a man over to Morocco to find out what color the Sultan’s hat actually was. A few days later my father got a call and was told the Sultan’s hat was the same blue as his robe, so he repainted the hat just in time for publication.
It must have cost the company several hundreds of dollars to get that one bit of information – and it really impressed my Dad. He was told that if he needed anything for source material, anything at all, to call and it would be made available to him asap. This was definitely a new way of working for him.
My father who, for the previous ten years, was used to being paid measly amounts for commercial illustrations, was now paid the princely rate of $1500.00 a portrait.
This was a huge step up for my Dad, not just financially but for his reputation as well. Time Magazine was one of the most influential weekly magazines back then and it had a world-wide distribution. Being one of their cover artists meant having your work seen by millions of people.
He quickly became one of their top artists – his riveting paintings increased sales and a lot of people, including readers and those he painted, collected his covers and wrote fan mail about his work to the magazine.
There are still paintings that he did for Time that are extremely popular even today, such as the one of Pope John XXIII which was the cover for the 1962 Man of the Year edition.
Just after its publication, Time considered printing the portrait at its full size (17″ x 24″) because of the public demand to buy it.
But somehow the original painting became badly damaged at the Time offices (deep long gashes were cut through the paint and into the board below) and the project was scrapped. When my father saw the damage he was very upset, and insisted on repairing it himself. He returned the portrait to Time, and it is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
One fan letter he got came from the Shah of Iran along with a personal gift engraved with the royal insignia, in thanks for the beautiful portrait my father painted of him. It’s likely that the original painting was given to the Shah after publication (a frequent practice – many of my father’s paintings were given away by Time executives). The painting has since disappeared, much like the Shah.
Another notable letter my father received was from Jean Monnet the founder of the European Foreign Market. Monnet thanked him for the great portrait (published October 6, 1961) and included an invitation to my father to visit with him at his office in Paris. My father took him up on this invitation in 1962 when we were all on a European holiday (more on that in another post).
So my Dad went from being an overworked and underpaid artist – to being one of the most recognizable portrait painters in the world.
These were his glory days – making money, having fame and social standing, being at the center of world news with real movers and shakers – it was a very heady time for him (no pun intended).