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Remembering magazine industry creative giant J.-C. Suarès

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By Douglas Barasch, OnEarth

One would have almost thought that nothing could overpower J.-C. Suarès, not even death. He was as immovable as a granite rock, a torrent of magnanimity (though this was not always obvious at first blush). He was softhearted but gruff, elegant but roughly hewn, sweet but tough--a mash-up of irresistible paradoxes. But death did overtake J.-C., suddenly and unexpectedly, on Tuesday, July 31, at age 71.

I first encountered his seismic personality at Le Pain Quotidien on the Upper East Side more than a dozen years ago. A mutual friend suggested we get together so that J.-C.--a renowned and visionary art director and designer who was a legend in the publishing industry--could offer me some mid-career professional advice and look over a book proposal I had written. Since I had never met him in person, J.-C. described himself to me beforehand over the phone: I'm five-foot-seven, I weigh 175 pounds, and I don't have an ounce of fat. I thought: what a character.

And I was right. I soon learned that he was an avid boxer (even past age 60), which turned out to be one of those odd, deliciously random things we had in common (I boxed when I was in college). What else? First impressions might include his love of profanity, of politically incorrect turns of phrase, though he was deeply committed to a wide range of progressive political and social causes. He played polo. He and his wife, Nina (a competitive horseback rider and herself a talented, published artist), owned horses. (There was that time he played polo after several shots of vodka, became dehydrated, and fell off his horse.) He admired, unapologetically, just about anything that embodied beauty: his chauffer-driven blue BMW sedan, vintage pen-and-paper illustrations, three-piece suits, classic movies, classy people. His love of elegance came less out of vanity than out of a deep appreciation of how beautiful life can be, or should be, not only on a page or on a canvas, but also in the shiny bling-ness of a gold Rolex, the pattern of a silk tie, the weave of a cashmere scarf (which one of our junior editors once inadvertently mistook for her own, except that his cost $1,000 and was a gift from Nina).

The second time I encountered J.-C., unplanned, was at the offices of Discover magazine in 2001, where I was a senior editor and he was the design consultant. He would come in during our monthly "wall walk," look at the cover and page layouts, offer inspired suggestions (often preceded by lacerating criticism, as in: "What the f-ck is that?"), and leave in his wake beautified pages and, not infrequently, a few bruised egos. When, a few years later, I became editor-in-chief of OnEarth, J.-C. was one of the first people I called. Would he, I asked, do for us what he did at Discover? And, oh--since we are published by a nonprofit, would he charge us a small fraction of what he would ordinarily earn from one of his big newsstand clients? (I believe we paid him a monthly retainer that was roughly equivalent to what he would make in a single hour at other publications.)

For the next 10 years, every three months or so (since our print magazine is published only quarterly), our collaboration included a particular ritual: a "working lunch" at one of his favorite watering holes, Periyali, conveniently located directly across the street from my office. He, Gail Ghezzi (OnEarth's gifted art director), another colleague, and I would have lunch and discuss cover ideas, which he would usually sketch on some scrap of paper with his Montblanc pen (black with gold trim); you can see of the results here. We spent anywhere from nine minutes to a half hour on business. Then, for the remainder of the time, he would regale us with fascinating stories and juicy gossip, and orchestrate unforgettable conversations. He was a peerless raconteur, a virtuoso. A single savory lunch might include personal reminiscences of Jackie Onassis, Michael Jackson, and Truman Capote. He may have been too pungent a flavor for some, but everyone I knew who knew him couldn't help feeling charmed and enchanted in his company, couldn't help glimpsing the palpable magic (and absurdity) of the world as he saw and experienced it. Our former photo editor, Meghan Hurley, wrote me a few days ago to say, "He was one of the most eccentric, talented, honorable (in the sort of European way that has gone by the wayside), interesting people I've ever met."

Over the years, J.-C. made brilliant contributions to the aesthetic and journalistic character of OnEarth, just as, throughout several decades, he helped make and remake some of the best-known and most respected periodicals in the country, from the New York Times to New York to Variety to Publisher's Weekly. In addition to our lunches, he visited our offices as we produced every issue, scrutinizing our layouts and designs, guiding (on more than one occasion) the redesign of our publication (brightening it and modernizing it), working hand-in-hand with Gail to move around or enlarge photos, shift the size or location of headlines, suggesting--or rather, insisting upon--a color accent here or a caption there. Most importantly, he conveyed his love of the visual as a means to enhance the significance and strength of words--to heighten the impact of a story and uphold, always, the loftiest editorial standards. He was a wizard of refinement. He practiced alchemy: our magazine's pages sparkled in ways they hadn't moments before he arrived. So did our lives. I will miss him terribly. I already do.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.

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