2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Stevenson Lost & Found’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

James Stevenson
James Stevenson in “Stevenson Lost & Found” (Photo courtesy of Salient Films)

“Stevenson Lost & Found”

Directed by Sally Jean Williams

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many people despise or distrust big-city “liberal” media types for being “hypocrites” and “out of touch,” then this documentary about illustrator/author James Stevenson (best known for his illustrations for The New Yorker and The New York Times) is a perfect microcosm to show why there’s so much animosity toward mainstream corporate media. In an era where “liberal” media outlets, now more than ever before, are in the business of exposing sexism and racism, there are large segments of the “liberal” media who ignore these problems in their own companies, and don’t question that the people they choose to elevate to the top aren’t exactly a diverse group.

Things are slowly changing, but Stevenson represents the “old establishment” of media that takes for granted that being a white male automatically comes with privileges that shut out other people who don’t fit into that demographic. It’s the type of people who live or work in one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, and yet they spend decades or an entire life not having any close friends outside of their own race. They live in such a bubble that while they spend a lot of time in their media jobs pointing fingers at all the horrible racists and sexists in the world, they fail to see that they’re not part of the solution, and they might be part of the problem.

That’s not to say that Stevenson was a racist, but it’s very telling that the only people interviewed in this documentary are white. The people in his inner circle—including his closest colleagues at The New Yorker, The New York Times and Greenwillow Books—are all a homogenous group of New York media types who clearly think of themselves as elite intellectuals. It’s very obvious that in his long life and career (he remained employed by The New York Times until his death in February 2017 at the age of 87), Stevenson chose to be close to only a certain type of people, which is a shame because he was in a position that allowed him access to a much broader view of New York and the world. He wasn’t a rank-and-file member of the media. He had prestigious media outlets as platforms that most media people don’t have, and his job at these media outlets was to make social commentary in his work, albeit through comedic illustrations.

Stevenson is interviewed for this documentary, which gives you an idea of how long it’s taken for this movie to finally get a public screening through its world premiere at DOC NYC 2019. A lot has changed in the media landscape since Stevenson died. The New York Times and The New Yorker have been at the forefront of breaking #MeToo stories. Many more women in all walks of life, including the media, are starting to stand up for their rights and no longer tolerate sexism and other forms of bigotry.

It shouldn’t take just the #MeToo movement to point out sexism, and yet this documentary (whose title is inspired by Stevenson’s  work in the “Lost and Found New York” column in The New York Times) fails to address the fact that Stevenson’s illustrious career was the direct result of ingrained sexism in the media that gave and (in some cases) still gives the best opportunities to men. If you don’t believe it, think about how rare it is for a woman to become an illustrator at prominent newspapers and magazines. It’s not because there aren’t talented and qualified women who can do this type of job. Even if they apply for this job, chances are they won’t get hired for it.

Stevenson, who was educated at Yale University, talks about starting his media career as an office boy for The New Yorker, a magazine that Stevenson describes as having “snob appeal.” He then got promoted to being a joke writer. When he discovered that he had a knack for illustrating (he had no formal training), he became a combination of a joke writer and illustrator. It was basically a career path that owed a lot to luck, talent and connections, without any of the struggles that a woman or person of color would have experienced. We’ll never know if Stevenson ever really understood how opportunities could have been handed to him because of his race and gender, because he was obviously not asked to reflect on it in this film.

He also doesn’t talk about mentoring anyone, which is a little strange, because Stevenson wrote several children’s books, some of which are mentioned and shown in the movie. And yet there’s no sense that he was interested in helping young people achieve their dreams through mentorship or charity work. This documentary is so fawning toward Stevenson, that if he had done any significant charity work, it would have or should have been mentioned.

His first wife, Jane, was also an artist, but like most women of that era, she sacrificed having a career to raise a family. She and James had nine kids together, and some of their children are interviewed in this movie. Having this large family put James under such an enormous financial burden that his kids say that he often had “explosive anger” toward them. Stevenson acknowledges this flaw too, and he seems remorseful that he wasn’t a better father. But nowhere does the film address why he and Jane decided to have so many kids, knowing they would have a hard time affording such a large family.

And while Stevenson talks a great deal about all the pressure he was under to be the family’s breadwinner, nowhere does he acknowledge if Jane (a fellow artist) had any career ambitions outside of raising a family, or if he was ever supportive of her of having a career, even if it was to help pay their bills. He clearly had the connections to help her get work as an artist, but all he says in the movie is that she channeled her creativity into being a nurturing mother. You get the feeling that the filmmakers never asked him these questions. And if they did, they should have put it in the movie.

Jane and James split up around 1980, and their divorce had long-lasting effects on the family. He eventually remarried (to Josephine “Josie” Merck, in 1993), and stayed in his second marriage until his death. Merck is also interviewed in the movie, but she doesn’t offer much insight, other than having the role as Stevenson’s adoring and doting wife who helped him recover from alcoholism.

“Stevenson Lost & Found” is very much a “bubble” biography that falls into the same trap that many authorized documentaries tend fall into when they’re about someone who has a certain level of fame: The filmmakers are so concerned about wanting the celebrity to like the film that they don’t ask hard questions or show how the celebrity’s life fits into a larger cultural context. It’s very easy to do a documentary as a star-struck fan. It’s much harder to be a more objective filmmaker and shine a light on some unflattering truths. A biography isn’t an “intimate portrait” if you just interview a small group of people in the subject’s inner circle, because that narrow view often makes the biography very superficial indeed.

Yes, Stevenson talks about his alcoholism in this movie, but nowhere do we hear how having this disease affected his job. Did he show up to work drunk? Was he tardy or absent because of his alcoholism? And if so, did people make excuses for him because of his clout? Did his work colleagues or supervisors know about his drinking problem and try to help him get treatment? These are all questions that are not asked in the movie.

Yes, Stevenson opens up about problems in his family (alcoholism, mental illness, divorce and possible verbal abuse of his children), but they’re framed in that bubble of not acknowledging how lucky he was that none of these problems ruined his career. Stevenson was no doubt part of a “good ol’ boy network” that protects its own and will condemn other people for making the same mistakes or having the same flaws and problems. Because the documentary doesn’t ask any real, probing questions and lets Stevenson control the narrative, it’s clear that director Sally Jean Williams wants this documentary to be a love letter to Stevenson instead of a truly insightful biography.

And although Stevenson’s work was based in humor, the movie barely scratches the surface in how his work was also meant to be social commentary, and yet he remained oblivious to addressing a lot of uncomfortable social issues. During Stevenson’s long career, New York City experienced many social ills and tragedies, such as the Son of Sam killings; the Central Park jogger rape case and the Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of the crime; the World Trade Center bombing; 9/11; and Eric Garner’s illegal chokehold death by a NYPD officer.  Stevenson acknowledged some of these issues in his work, but the movie shows that Stevenson avoided a lot of commentary about the city’s social tensions over race and class, and mainly focused instead on more light-hearted concerns for the privileged set. It’s yet another example of living in that bubble that doesn’t really like to include or acknowledge non-Caucasian people in this very racially diverse city.

As for Stevenson’s own background, he says he went to a “radical” high school that allowed the students to have a lot of creative freedom. His family and friends talk about how close he was to his mother, and how distant he was from his father, who used to be in the Army and was frequently away from home. Ironically, Stevenson said one of his biggest regrets is that when he became a parent, he also was a frequently absent father because of his work. His father ended up being an architect, and is described as “formal” and “stern.” Stevenson relays an anecdote that probably influenced his career ambitions. He said his father once told him: “I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it better than anyone else on earth.”

Stevenson should not be criticized just because he was a white male who benefited from racism and sexism in his chosen profession. He was obviously very talented and worked very hard for all the success that he had. And despite the flaws in his personality (no one is perfect), he was an upstanding person who never abandoned his family. All of that should be commended, but not at the expense of exploring why an exalted media person who was supposed to be an observer of the world through a New York City lens chose to shut out a fascinating amount of diversity he could have had in his own world.

There are a lot of talented artists in this world, but a truly great artist is one who goes outside comfort zones, pushes boundaries, and uses any position of power as a platform to help others who aren’t as fortunate. Stevenson was clearly not that kind of artist. In fact, the documentary points out that he was very resistant to change and different points of view. According to his former colleagues at The New Yorker, he and some other old-time staffers quit the magazine because they couldn’t stand working for Tina Brown, who made sweeping changes when she was editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998. Coincidence or not, she was also the first (and only) female editor-in-chief in The New Yorker’s history.

The filmmakers of “Stevenson Lost & Found” missed an opportunity to present his story in the social context of why he ended up in his privileged position and why an illustrator whose job was to provide social commentary chose to surround himself with a very limited social circle. If Stevenson had a diverse group of close friends of different races and backgrounds (it’s obvious that he chose not to), his world view would have been much more culturally informed. And by “close friends,” that means people who you vacation with and who are welcome in your home anytime, not co-workers or colleagues you only interact with in a business setting.

The documentary doesn’t even have Stevenson’s thoughts on the current and future state of the media. In this day and age of many print media outlets consolidating or going out of business, it’s become increasingly rare for anyone in the media to expect job security for decades at the same outlet. Perhaps Stevenson, who had the same employer for decades and spent most of his career in the heyday of print media, couldn’t relate to what younger generations of media people are experiencing, and maybe he didn’t care to comment on the problems of modern media. Or maybe he just wasn’t asked. We’ll never know, because it’s not in the movie. And in the end, with more people expressing their distrust of the media, this movie shows that just like in society at large, success in the media isn’t really about being “liberal” or “conservative.” It’s about being “privileged” or “not privileged.”