Art in Service

In my previous post I wrote about how my parents met at art school in 1942 and that soon after my Dad was drafted into the military in 1943. My father served in the US Army Engineer Corps (the Engineer Aviation Battalion 1891st) till the end of WWII *.

Postcard from Bernie Safran 1943Throughout those years my parents wrote to each other and sent photos back and forth.

Here is a postcard dating from April 1943 that my dad Bernie sent to my mother Adele from the Base Unit at Geiger Field in Washington State. He was being moved with the troops across the country to Los Angeles from where he would ship to India, then on to Burma, and finally to China. (The message on the card was about their stop in Chicago and how great the USO was there.)

You can see he doodled all over the card.

I’ve only found one surviving letter from the time my Dad was overseas – I know that my parents destroyed the other letters because they wanted to keep their secrets to themselves.

This letter has drawings all over it just like the postcard.Bernard Safran letter from Basic Training 1943  It’s an early letter and not a very personal one (which is probably why it survives from a scrapbook I used to look at all the time when I was a kid). It recounts my father’s experiences in basic training to my mother.

Since my Dad was an artist he continued to work at his drawing throughout his service in the War. He drew on whatever paper he could find, and he drew whenever he had the time.

There are several beautiful small drawings of his friends and colleagues among my father’s papers.

 Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7" x 5", March 1944

Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7″ x 5″, March 1944

And there are quite a few fully completed, surreal drawings from then too. They seem to be created from his stream of consciousness…

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil drawing on airmail paper, 9" x6", WWII

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil on paper, 9″ x 6″, WWII.
(the paper has yellowed and become spotted from moisture over time)

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75" x 5", WWII

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75″ x 5″, untitled (it was pasted into a scrapbook in the 1940s)

Some depict clear themes, while others conjure fantasies or nightmares. Many of them are disturbing – which is not surprising given he was in the middle of a terrible war.

These drawings have never been shown, as far as I know, to anyone beyond immediate family.

Bernard Safran, Pen and Ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5" x4.5", untitled

Bernard Safran, pen and ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5″ x4.5″, untitled

My father often reminisced about his war years, but he would never tell me about the darker side of being a soldier. In my righteous teenage years, I interpreted this to mean that he enjoyed the whole war experience – and this offended me. My mother explained to me then, that just the opposite was true – it had been an awful time for him, but he was proud to have served and felt it was something he had to do.

Then she further explained that he served during his late teens and early 20s – a time that most people feel nostalgic for, simply because they are young and life is still an adventure. Certainly being in China, Burma and India was an adventure – this I could understand, and this helped me understand my father better.

Another time my mother told me that though my father had army buddies who kept in touch through Christmas Cards and letters over the years, he mostly avoided the company of the men he had to camp with.

Bernie with Dog WWII

Bernie Safran with a dog, WWII. My father, like many soldiers, looked for happiness in small things during the war.

Conditions at all the bases were primitive, to say the least. They camped in tents in the jungle and were overrun with venomous snakes like pythons and cobras, and other wild creatures. The heat and humidity were oppressive and foot rot and mildew were ever present. The food was horrendous, and there were endless Allied plane crashes on the airstrips too. All of this and the constant threat of enemy fire made life a living hell.

My father was always a loner, and preferred the company of a few like-minded individuals to the comradeship of a larger group. So he spent a lot of time in his tent, at the base library, or at the service club when he could.

C-47-flying-the-Hump WWII by R G Smith

An amazing painting by R G Smith called Over the Hump, Douglas C-47. To see more spectacular aviation paintings visit

One of the things he remembered fondly from the War was the experience of flying The Hump from India to China over the Himalayas. He spoke about the solitude and sheer beauty of the mountains and the endless jungles that they crossed.

The Hump, map by Zaur Eylanbekov from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009

The Low Hump route over the southern end of the range was less perilous, but Japanese fighters forced most missions over the main Hump—including the 15,000-foot-high Sansung range between the Salween and Mekong rivers.(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov) from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009, by John T Correll

It was only recently that I read about The Hump. I found out that it was extremely dangerous and some historians estimate that nearly 700 planes went down during this mission, never to be found. I’m not sure how many times my Dad went on the run but he told me that he went whenever the opportunity arose.

When I had the honor to go with my father inside a Canadian war plane (on a hangar in a museum – not in flight) similar to the C-47s my father flew in – I could easily imagine the experience of being a young person overwhelmed with life in war time and the freedom of standing some thousands of feet above the earth hanging onto the frame of the open door with nothing between you and the clouds.

Battalion leather patch WWII

*Campaigns: India-Burma, China Defensive, China Offensive


WWII and A Long Distance Romance

My artist parents met at Pratt Institute Art School the year my Mom, Adele Innes, became a freshman in 1942; she was just 16.

Adele Inness Pratt067My Dad, Bernard Safran, was already in his third year at Pratt, and was by then considered one of the stars of the art school (especially for drawing); he was just 18.

My Dad - Bernard Safran at Pratt Institute Art School

She told me that she idolized Bernie – he was handsome, friendly and talented.

I was never told any stories about how they met that year, though there is a small drawing by my mother of people dancing and drinking and the words “How We Met” on it from an old scrapbook that my mother kept – so let’s assume they met at some college party.

Dad received notification in December 1942 that he would be drafted into the US Armed Forces. And in the spring of 1943 he was called up for service and went into basic training at a camp in Richmond, Virginia.

Marching Papers 1943

Dad’s marching papers

As soon as he left Pratt the letter writing between them began.

Bernie with canteen and rifleWhen Dad had a furlough and he got home to Brooklyn for a short visit before shipping out to Asia, he and my Mom had their first date.

She illustrated a page for her scrapbook with what reads like a diary entry so she could have a lasting record of that first date.

Adele and Bernie their first date illustration

Adele’s romantic watercolor illustration and diary entry

Adele Safran and Bernard Safran first date photo c 1943

First Date 1943

Dad was then sent overseas; first to India, then to Burma (called Myanmar now) and finally to China. He was on active duty til the end of WWII.

My parents wrote to each other the whole time; they sent each other long letters and photos…

Bernie Safran in his army tent in China 1943 looking at Adele

Dad sent this photo to my Mom – it shows him in his army tent in China looking admiringly at her pictures. (notice he’s already smoking a pipe)

Bernie Safran in his army tent in China 1943 looking at another girl

Okay – so here’s my faithful and ever loving Dad posing the same way for some other girl. I guess you can’t blame a soldier for keeping his options open. But notice how someone (?) damaged the photo – ?

My mother told me once that they really got to know each other through their letters despite being apart for so long.

By the time my father was decommissioned and returned home to Brooklyn, they both knew that they were for each other.

My father finished his final year at Pratt along with my mother who was by then a senior, and soon after they got married.

The Safrans and the Drapers

I started watching the AMC series Mad Men like everyone else because it looked so cool, and its about the coolest people, and one of the coolest periods in recent memory (at least for those of us who lived through those cool times.)

Like many people, I am amazed at the attention to details that they manage on the show.

Sally Draper and Betty Safran wore this kilt

I wore the same skirt that Sally Draper did!

I was born in 1960 so I am on the tail end of those who can clearly recall everything about back then, but enough of the show hits me in the emotional center of my brain to make me remember things and feelings that otherwise would have remained buried in there.

1960s tartan book bag just like Sally Draper and Betty Safran had

Sally and I had the same book bag?

For instance I’ll get a sudden flash of recognition as a character walks by a wall near an elevator or a lobby, or the instant recall of a skirt or dress or some item that I knew.

All of my senses can come into play when I’m watching the show – and it can happen just from seeing some small item like the genie vases in the Draper’s apartment (see below).

Draper apartment with genie vases, AMC Mad Men

See those tall glass vases on the right side of the picture – we had them in our living room too – imagine that.

My father Bernard Safran worked at the Time Life Building in Manhattan just like Don Draper.

Time Life Building at Rockefeller Center

This giant black shiny building is the Time Life Building in NYC. It opened in 1959 and Marilyn herself was there to christen it. It was an iconic building then and it still is today. We’d drive by it and I’d think – “Daddy works there”.

He walked the actual halls, took the elevators, went to meetings there, had drinks in offices and ate weekly catered meals with suited men and kitten heeled women. In fact he was there a lot, from 1959 when the building opened, till 1966 when he stopped working for Time Magazine.

My Dad painted 73 cover portraits for Time. He was one of “The Stable” – a group of artists who were regularly commissioned and brought in to do cover art.

He worked closely with some of the most powerful men in American journalism at the time (no pun intended), including Otto Feurbringer and Jim Keogh and Henry Luce Sr. These men helped define American foreign policy and held a lot of power and sway.

In his book, The Powers That Be (Alfred A Knopf, New York 1979) David Halberstam writes about how even President Kennedy was intimidated and bullied by them.

These are the guys that my Dad would stay late with to have a drink.

Or he’d stay late with them to put the magazine to bed (get it into production and printed) which was a social event with lots of booze and food, and big name guests and other artists and writers would sometimes join them.

He was in the senior editorial offices when major news was breaking and so was privy to events before most people even knew they were happening.

Bernard and Adele Safran with Jim and Verna Keogh

My parents in the middle and Jim and Verna Keogh on either end. Jim Keogh was Executive Editor of Time, and later became head speech writer for the notorious Richard Nixon. (btw doesn’t Mrs. Keogh resemble Julia Ormond?)

So its kind of neat that my Dad’s painting of Conrad Hilton was included, nay, dare I say, featured in episode 306 of Mad Men – A Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency – (its one of the best episodes too in my opinion). Look for when Connie shows Don Draper that he’s on the cover of Time Magazine…

Well, how about that!