Berta & Elmer Hader

Bohemians and Picture Book Artists (from The Lion & Unicorn)

Joy Hoerner Rich, Karen Tolley, John Waller and Judy Waller. Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art. Roseburg, Oregon:

The first picture book I was ever given was Berta and Elmer Hader’s “Little Appaloosa.” I loved it because it was a mix of my real life and my wishes. I grew up in Montana and often visited my grandparents’ ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains; in other words, my own circumstances were not so different from those of Little Ben in the book who had been in the saddle since he was a baby and who had Native American friends. On the other hand, I didn’t, alas, have my own Appaloosa pony named Pal that I rode to school every day.

“Little Appaloosa” was the first book I “read” and, for me, that meant visualizing. In a slow and very patient way, and through multiple readings, I constructed a picture in my mind of the book’s young cowboy and the other characters mentioned; at the same time, I felt I had to have very clear and concrete images of the ranch–where the boy’s room was located, for example — before I could understand the events that occurred there. Since this was a picture book, I was greatly aided by the Haders’ drawings which provided me with clues about ways to visualize the story’s world so that my images would not only be accurate but also very concrete and complete — as concrete as an actual encounter with a real place, as complete as the memory of my own house when I was away from it.

I owe, in other words, a great debt to the Haders–albeit, a highly personal one–and I have long wanted to know more about them. Now, thanks to “Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art,” that desire is answered. Here is a biography of these beloved children’s book illustrators (active between 1927–1975) as well as a liberal collection of their art (close to 300 color pictures). And here are a number of surprises as well.

The story begins with Berta Hoerner, a young artist in Seattle who was getting by doing fashion drawings of Gibson girls for the leading department stores in town, the Bon Marche and Frederick and Nelsons. She was a bohemian keeping company with Edward Curtis (most remembered for his collected photographs of North American Indians) and Imogen Cunningham (the modern photographer who combined her botanical studies with an interest in human forms).

Then Berta traveled to San Francisco and rented a bungalow on Telegraph Hill with her roommates Katherine Ann Porter (eventually the Great American Writer) and Rose Wilder (daughter to Laura Ingalls and often thought to be the real author behind the Little House books). There she met another young bohemian painter, Elmer Hader, and fell in love. They were separated by the Great World War, but reunited afterwards in Greenwich Village and married.

Eventually, by hand and with the help of friends, these bohemians built a home and studio called The Little Stone House, alongside the Hudson River, near Nyack, New York. From there, they made more or less weekly trips into New York to pick up assignments from magazines and publishers and drop off work they had completed; they did close to fifty children’s books and numerous other odd jobs (including the illustrations for the iconic dust jacket of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”). And they worked together, passing artwork back and forth, in this way harmonizing their two very different styles (his Paris-trained impressionist landscapes, her merry Kate-Greenaway-like figures).

In his “Metamorphoses,” Ovid tells the tale of Philemon and Baucis, an elderly couple of modest means who lived in the country and were noted for their kindness and hospitality. When they died, Zeus granted their wish and changed them into two trees that wrapped around each other. This was the story I thought of as this book sounded its last notes with accounts of the deaths of Berta and Elmer.

This essay originally appeared in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (January 2014) at the prompting of Nathalie op de Beeck.

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