One of the best things about freelance writing and editing is that the job so often dumps fascinating information into my lap that I would never have otherwise encountered. A prime example is this first-rate story about Willem de Kooning for Smithsonian Magazine (admittedly nearly two years old) that I stumbled upon while doing background research for some student profiles I'm working on for the University of Richmond. De Kooning's paintings have never gotten my pulses racing, but this article is so good that it makes me want to give him a second try. It wasn't a surprise to come to end of the story and discover that the author, Mark Stevens, is a recipient (with his wife and coauthor Annalyn Swan) of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of de Kooning.
There's a lot to love here, but for me, the clincher is how masterfully he deploys that opening anecdote. Not only did that push me through the next several thousand words, but it's pretty sure to stay stuck in my brain for the next decade:
In 1926, Willem de Kooning, a penniless, 22-year-old commercial artist from the Netherlands, stowed away on a freighter bound for America. He had no papers and spoke no English. After his ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, he made his way north with some Dutch friends toward New York City. At first he found his new world disappointing. “What I saw was a sort of Holland,” he recalled in the 1960s. “Lowlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?” A few days later, however, as de Kooning passed through a ferry and train terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, he noticed a man at a counter pouring coffee for commuters by sloshing it into a line of cups. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s America.’”
Next to my desk, I have tacked up on my bulletin board an index card that reads: "The lede makes a specific promise to the reader. That promise is contained in the tension that will be released and resolved by the reading of the story." That's a hell of a hard task, but I think Stevens nailed it here, albeit in a paragraph rather than a single sentence. That one jarring question, "What the hell did I want to go to America for?" and then that perfect image of the man sloshing coffee haphazardly into commuters' cups—the way I imagine the abstract expressionists sloshed paint onto their canvases, ignoring the borders and letting the color spill over the edges, churning out these almost (but never quite) monotonous series of pictures—well, boy, that's it, isn't it: de Kooning, the era, America.