Growing Up Underground

Growing Up Underground coverGrowing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York
Steven Heller
Princeton Architectural Press (October 4, 2022), 220 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $27.50

This is not the book I was expecting. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining and it provided some insight into a slice of life with which I was not familiar.

The book’s subtitle is misleading. Growing Up Underground focuses strictly on author Steven Heller’s childhood and his early career with underground newspapers in New York City. He is refreshingly honest with his approach, however. Heller writes, “My manuscript is as redacted as an FBI file.” Coming from a perspective unlike the unreliable narrator in Still No Word from You, he goes on to say:

quoteI promise everything that follows is like Ivory soap, at least 97 percent pure, 2 percent minor embellishment, and 1 percent memory lapse.

Heller writes about his childhood and the fact that his mother (apparently) had labor induced so his birth would fit into her schedule. His parents would go off on long vacations, leaving him with relatives in Sweden, something that strongly influenced his view of the world. Based on a psychologist’s interpretation of a battery of tests his parents paid for, they put him in a military-like all-boys high school. That was something of a disaster, and his father ended up pulling strings to get him into a more liberal private school.

Always something of a rebel, Heller began drawing and got some of his work published in New York underground publications. That evolved into the role of art director, and he took on that position during two separate stints at Screw, the underground sex publication. He also held similar positions at the East Village Other and at the New York Review of Sex & Politics, which he co-founded. He even did some design work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, work of which he was not proud. Heller was arrested twice on pornography charges, once before he was eighteen, but in neither case did the charges stick.

Heller is just three years older than me, and given that I worked for one suburban weekly newspaper and two alternative news weeklies during the eighties when I was in my thirties, his descriptions of layout and paste-up were familiar to me, even though the world of underground New York City newspapers was not. Newspaper layout and production has obviously changed significantly in recent years.

Heller left behind his somewhat tawdry early years for a far more respectable career at the New York Times, where he spent many years as art director at the Book Review. But he only touches on those days in passing, as he keeps the focus of the present volume quite narrow.

Growing Up Underground is not for everyone, but the book is a valuable contribution in its documentation of one aspect of the New York underground newspaper business of the sixties.

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