By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 8:18 PM
Maira Kalman went to the Library of Congress to learn about American history. She planned to sit among the filigreed lamps and inhale the rarefied air, to have a close encounter with important literary artifacts in all of their gravitas. She walked into the rare-book reading room, through the heavy, embossed doors, and - "I fell in love with the linen binding tape."
She now reenacts this swooning romance, ushering a visitor to the help desk, where a librarian demonstrates the mending of a crumbling book. "Look!" Kalman exclaims. "They tie it up like a little present!"
So it goes with Kalman, 61, the illustrator and children's book author and living talisman for those artsy types who chuckle at all of the cartoons in the New Yorker. She was recently in Washington for a book reading. The book, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," was supposed to be a year-long travelogue, an investigation of democracy in the United States. Instead, it's a lushly painted romp through the fringes of democracy, the stuff that would appear just outside the viewfinder.
She ogles Susan B. Anthony's hairbrush in Rochester, a piece of a fruit bowl used by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and a light bulb made of Jell-O in Brooklyn.
She lusts after the Grand Marnier cake made by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's husband,////and declares the Supreme Court Justice her new "imaginary best friend forever," replacing Jane Austen.
She develops a passionate crush on Abraham Lincoln, and imagines taking him to the Baked Potato King for dinner. She eventually reads the Lincoln Bible at the LOC, but first she gets distracted by the plump gold tassels hanging from a curtain there.
"Everything I do is off-topic," Kalman says cheerfully. She is a small, slight woman with curly blond hair and a round nose and chin which, combined with the high collar of her suit, give her a vaguely turtle-ish appearance. "You might be researching one thing, but a thousand things are going to happen along the way that are funny, or interesting."
It's history for the attention deficit crowd, the sort of person easily distracted by shiny objects or the history of the rubber band (which was, Kalman informs her readers, invented in England in 1845). It's politics, sort of, but actually not at all. "Politics?" says the woman who has ostensibly just penned 471 pages about the American political system. "Politics, I loathe."
For decades, Kalman was the lesser-known half of one of New York's eminent creative couples. Her husband was Tibor Kalman, an aesthetic wunderkind-turned-aesthetic impresario, a man who founded the design firm M&Co and also became founding editor-in-chief of Benetton's "Colors" magazine. He died 11 years ago at 49, of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, working until his final days.
"Maira and Tibor were amazing - just the gold standard of what you aspire to as a couple," says fashion maven Isaac Mizrahi, Kalman's upstairs neighbor and longtime friend. (They're doing Hanukkah at her house). He and Maira "both share this color lust. I just love the bon-bon quality of her work." Tibor did one of Mizrahi's early ad campaigns "and he was the mentor figure of my life."
When you are married to a person as driven as Tibor was, Kalman says, "you learn to do more. You learn to expect to do more," to accomplish more with your days. "You have to build in time to be inefficient. You have to build in time to be insecure, and you have to build in confident time."
You presumably build in the time, as Kalman has, to write more than a dozen children's books - lyrically written, languidly illustrated ones often featuring a soulful dog-poet named Max - that parents buy for their children the way they buy olde-fashioned wooden blocks in primary colors. Appealing, nutritious, high-minded, lovely.
You illustrate covers of the New Yorker, including the iconic "New Yorkistan" cover, depicting the island of Manhattan and all of its boroughs as a complex map of native tribes: the Kvetchnyans, the Bulimikhs, the Fattushis.
After stumbling on a copy of the classic grammar guide "Elements of Style" at a yard sale, Kalman thought, "this is one crazy funny book," and obtained the rights to illustrate it. The resulting project is a sly wink to the absurdities of language and life; the sentence "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug" is accompanied by an image of a formal, Gatsby-ish dinner party. The guests have begun to notice the bloodstain on the carpet; they have managed to ignore the dead body on top of it.
Maira is a "codebreaker, shake-up-the-worlder in the most gentle and sweet way possible," says Erica Clark of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, who introduced Kalman at her Washington reading and knows the artist and her work well. The famed New Yorkistan cover was published just three months after Sept. 11, Clark points out, but managed to walk the tightrope between brash and treacly. With Kalman, she says, "Nothing is sacred and everything is sacred."
The deliberate warmth and obsessive everyday-ness of Kalman's work means that it's often labeled "whimsical," a precious term that belies its deeper value. "If you can't have frivolous moments in your day," Kalman says, "then you're really in trouble. . . . These moments are powerful, and emotionally nurturing," and a counterweight to the serious slog of everyday life.
Kalman was born in Israel, emigrating to the United States when she was four. She and Tibor spent blocks of time back in her homeland, and also lived in Rome for a few years with their children Alex and Lulu (now a filmmaker and a chef, respectively).
Like many adults with children and husbands and jobs, she'd long since forgotten much of what she'd learned in her high school American history classes. But after her journey through America's back catalogue, Kalman "ended up being proud in ways I never expected." The country that opened itself up to her had "a sense of humor and a sense of resilience, and an ability to look at things from a long view not a short view."
"It's still functioning, for better or worse," still pursuing its happiness, whatever that looks like.
Back at the Library of Congress, Kalman wanders over to the desk of Clark Evans, the head of the department's reference services. He begins explaining how the Lincoln Bible can technically be requested by anyone - anyone! - though this is not something the Library goes around advertising. It's fascinating stuff, and Kalman is listening until she is not. "Clark," she interrupts, jabbing at an electronic device on his desk, which has nothing to do with the Lincoln Bible and has no historical import. "Clark. Clark, what is this?"