Julian Allen's Fatal Moments
Graphis, October 1999
Julian Allen owed his success to the fact that he put self-imposed limits on his talent. "I am not an artist," he used to insist, "I am an illustrator."
Unlike so many of his peers, he didn't need to stylize, distort, or conceptualize an image to make it memorable. "Julian's work had an astonishing quality of being, in a certain sense, without ego," says Milton Glaser. "From the technical point of view, it was curiously 'flat-footed' if you pardon the expression—it lacked obvious personality. Yet, this overt absence of style is the thing that made his illustrations fresh and believable."
Allen's goal was to be a fly on the wall. His realistic watercolors, depicting never-recorded events in recent history, were impartially noted—and brilliantly executed. Published in mainstream magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and New York magazine, his work gave readers the voyeuristic pleasure of being at the scene of a crime at the most dramatic and revealing moment—usually a second before the action.
With impeccable timing, Allen gave us an insight into the psyche of some of the most intriguing and often least likable celebrities of our time: Nixon brooding during the Watergate crisis; Ted Kennedy drowning his career at Chappaquiddick; Reagan confronting embarrassing facts about the Iran-Contra affair; O.J. Simpson threatening his wife Nicole.
When Julian Allen died of cancer at age 55 in September 1998, people who knew him well felt that the political scene had lost one of his most observant eyewitnesses. For many of us, he had been a bard — a visual poet depicting the deeds and misdeeds of popular figures, presidents and rock stars, mobsters and kidnappers, performers and call-girls, drug dealers and their victims.
In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I too had grown accustomed to his film noir political commentaries. I had often visited his loft on Walker street, in Manhattan's Tribeca, a vast studio where, for more than twenty years, he meticulously staged his illustrations. To recreate a scene, he did thorough research, using as reference old photographs, publicity shots, location snapshots, rented props, police reports, live models in appropriate costumes, and Polaroids of himself playing one of the parts in the story — preferably that of the villain.
Mad about America
Born in Cambridge, England, in 1942, Allen had emigrated to New York in the early 1970s, when Milton Glaser and Clay Felker, who had launched New York magazine in 1968, offered to hire him as a staff illustrator. At the time, art students in America were no longer taught the skills necessary to depict realistic scenes.
The making of conceptual images, championed by Glaser himself during his Push Pin years, had replaced drawing classes. "If we wanted to get something realistic," explains Glaser, "we had to go to an older generation whose work looked passé. But in England, we discovered, there were still a few young people who were part of the forgotten tradition of narrative illustration. And Julian was the most talented of them."
Surprisingly, Allen dropped everything to come to New York, leaving behind a flourishing career as an illustrator for British periodicals Radio Times and Sunday Times of London, a failed marriage — and a son, Rubin. "Julian was mad about America," explains his friend John Holder, who had met Julian in 1957, when they both attended the Cambridge School of Technology and Art. "He loved everything American: clothes, jazz, rock'n'roll, and of course, films."
A natural mimic, with total recall of imagery, Allen dreamt of becoming an actor. He patronized the local theater in Cambridge that showed American movies around the clock. "The Rex is where Julian misspent his youth," says Holder, matter-of-factly. Though Allen retained — or perhaps "cultivated" — his English accent all his life, his visual language, says his friend, was primarily influenced by Hollywood. He remembers how the young Allen would entertain his entourage by quoting verbatim entire dialogues from key scenes in Double Indemnity, The Rose Tattoo, or The Manchurian Candidate.
At New York magazine, Allen did spectacular illustrations. His work was immediately noticeable because no one else at that time could match his technical skills and story telling abilities. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he was sent to cover the campaign in the Sinai desert where he was wounded in a bomb explosion. In 1976, he went to Uganda to depict the attack on the Entebbe Airport by Israeli commandos rescuing hostages held by terrorists.
Closer to home, Allen's reportage savvy was tested by stories on youth gangs in the South Bronx, or by forays into the New York Gypsies' subculture. And all along, the Watergate investigation, with its night burglaries, its shadowy characters, and its secrets Oval Office meetings provided a rich fodder for his cinematographic imagination.
In 1976, in an attempt to form a new generation of reporter-artists — his future competition — Allen began to teach a much-needed course on editorial illustration at Parsons School of Design. Though he was able to introduce an eager body of art students to the finer points of draftsmanship, he could never replicate for them the political experience necessary to create images with an informed point of view.
"For Julian, storytelling was linked to an idea about Truth," says Glaser. "He had the sense that someone had to stand for principles and for social justice. There was nothing ironic about his approach."
Not so, says Dereck Ungless, a successful British editorial art director who had been Allen's student in the 1960s at the Central College of Art in London. He remembers his talented young instructor, only a couple of years older than he was, as first and foremost a "narky" — an anarchist. Julian, he felt, "always twisted the truth slightly" to make situations a little darker and more interesting.
Born into a poor working class family, Allen was proud of his proletarian origin and weary of elitist complacency. Though not a great supporter of conspiracy theories, he nonetheless believed that things would always get worse before they got better.
In 1977, when media baron Ruppert Murdock bought New York magazine, Allen quit his full-time position, allegedly on principle, for political and ethical reasons. The truth is, he hadn't come to America to work for an Australian bully. "Though Allen appeared to be cynical at times, he was in fact very thoughtful, intelligent and alert," remembers Glaser.
Distrustful of authority figures, the young British expatriate often appeared formal by American standards. "He was shy in many ways. I wasn't conscious that he was a terribly social guy, though he was the devil with women," adds Glaser. "He was extremely attractive, not only because of his appearance — he was very handsome — but also because of his sense of mystery and danger."
Indeed, Allen had all the characteristics of a romantic hero right out of popular novels. He not only was street smart, he also had a brooding nature.
"I am my own dysfunctional parent," he used to say.
Robert Law, a childhood friend, notes that, although Allen was always "the most talented, stylish, and good looking man, he was also the most self-disparaging." Characteristically, when Allen left New York magazine, he embraced the free lance life of an illustrator in Manhattan with all the élan and angst he could muster. Though successful right from the start, he was always worried about getting the next job, or being loved by the next girlfriend.
His personal life was complicated by alcoholism, and by an ability to party all night and still look human in the morning. "We always stayed up late, till three or four in the morning, talking rubbish," remembers Holder fondly. "When I think of Julian," says Ungless," I don't think of him as the brilliant illustrator he was, but as the companion of my many drunken nights in the Lower Manhattan club scene."
The majority of women Julian dated (this writer among them) became intimate friends. And female students, colleagues and assistants seldom complained about his playful flirtation. "He was one of the few real gentleman I ever met," says Canadian illustrator Anita Kunz. The type of man who buys women red roses, in fact. Once, he told Kunz, he was disappointed to find out that the florist around the corner only had white roses. No problem, said the merchant, I'll spray paint them red for you. Far from being appalled, Allen was tickled pink. Romance in America was so much easier, he felt. By the early 1980s, he had a daughter, Holly, who he dotted on, though he didn't marry or lived with her mother, Joan, now a successful illustrator.
"The first time I met Julian, he proceeded to entertain me with his colorful stories and his terrific sense of humor," says Michelle Barnes, an illustrator who became one of his closest female friends. "He was a gentle soul."
In the late 1980s, she introduced Allen to Victoria Lowe, who became Victoria Allen in 1991. With a broad smile, Julian's widow now recounts their first date. How he didn't ask for her phone number when he put her into a taxi at the end of the evening. How, when he bumped into her a month later, he got a big kick out of saying You look familiar, do I know you from somewhere? — move #304 in his seduction's manual. "I had heard about his reputation with women," she says, "and so I was surprised to discovered how sweet he was to me. I came in his life at the right time, when he had decided to quit drinking."
Sober, Julian was just as insightful a commentator, and just as prolific an illustrator. But the darkest hours of his life had served him well artistically. In 1990, when Ungless, then art director of Details magazine, arranged for his old pal Julian to collaborate with Hollywood screenwriter Bruce Wagner on "Wild Palms," a "noir" sci-fi comic strip set in Los Angeles and featuring a despicable cast of dissolute and self-indulgent characters, Allen didn't have far to look for inspiration. A tale a child molesting and parental abuse, "Wild Palms" reminded him of his own childhood.
When Julian was two and his brother Geoff was four, their mother lost custody of her children for negligence —apparently, she had left the toddlers to starve unattended for a couple of days. Their estranged father refused to raise the boys who were placed by the state in a series of care homes, British orphanages for unwanted children.
For the next eight years, the Allen brothers received no visitors. When Julian was ten, their maternal grandmother took them to live with her in Cambridge, in what turned out to be a crazy household where adults drank, gambled, and fought all night long. To escape, Julian would go up to his room, lock the door, and draw for hours. He loved battlefields. He would start drawing a tank, then add soldiers, then drop a few bombs, and so on, until, in the end, his drawing was a carnage scene.
With a plot rife with drug-induced flashbacks, blackmail schemes, and gruesome revelations, "Wild Palms" was child's play for Allen. He could unleash the bleaker side of his directorial vision. No longer simply realistic, his drawings had a startling filmic presence. Cinema buffs were treated to scenes reminiscent of some of Julian's favorite movies: Billy Liar, Strangers on a Train, Room at the Top.
For three years, the monthly comic strip ran in Details magazine. In 1994, it became an ABC TV mini-series, produced by controversial director Oliver Stone, master of the post-modern historical re-enactment. "The film wasn't as good as the comic strip's drawings," remarks Ungless. Allen had beaten Stone at his own game.
Nineteen ninety four was also the year Allen was commissioned by the United States Postal Service to create a series of stamps featuring some of his Jazz heroes, blues singers Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and guitarist Robert Johnson. Allen, who had tried for years to do controversial work, found himself unexpectedly bombarded with inquiries from the media and with criticism from angry pro-smoking groups who wondered why Johnson was pictured on the stamp without his emblematic cigarette. A politically-correct omission, it was the result of the government anti-smoking policy. The fuss propelled Allen in the limelight, with an interview in Newsweek magazine.
He would laugh: "An absent cigarette, at last, gave me my fifteen minutes of fame," he told me.
In 1997, Julian and Victoria moved to Baltimore where he joined the faculty of the Maryland Institute to chair the new illustration program for the Arts College. His reputation as a great teacher, and his standing with the youngest generation boosted attendance in the illustration department by thirty percent the first year. And he was busier than ever, his work appearing frequently in the New York Times. At Esquire, Robert Priest assigned him a marathon illustration, "The 100 Best People in the World," a particular type of group portrait he was famous for.
But, by the Spring of 1998, something was askew. The Monica Lewinsky affair was on every TV screen, but no Julian Allen illustration featuring the presidential adulterer and his young paramour had yet materialized on the pages of magazines.
The news of his death at the end of September found his New York friends completely unprepared. While we all struggled with our grief, a member of the faculty at Maryland Institute, who hardly knew Julian Allen, sent a friend the following email: "I got a call the night before last about his death. It didn't strike me with pain or sadness; it struck me like a mallet strikes a bell, made me vibrate with energy of desperation. Get out, work hard, drink in the air and smell the season, eat life and dine well."
1/12 - "Marilyn Monroe's last night", Fatal Moment Series, 1990
2/12 - "The Grid Project" collage
3/12 - "Looking for Hemingway", Esquire magazine, 1983
4/12 - Ronald Reagan, 1987
5/12 - "Cul-de-Sac", Details magazine, 1994
6/12 - "Wild Palms", Details magazine, 1991
7/12 - "Wild Palms", Details magazine, 1991
8/12 - "Wild Palms", Details magazine, 1992
9/12 - Julian Allen modeled for his illustrations, usually as the lead character
10/12 - New York cops, New York magazine, 1970s
11/12 - Punk musician Richard Hell for a film poster, 1995
12/12 - "Nixon at lunch", Vanity fair magazine, 1986