Milwaukee Journal art editor from 1972 - 2005

Auer used his gift for words to share love of art, history

by JACKIE LOOHAUIS

Writer, photographer, cinematographer, historian, magician - Journal Sentinel art critic James Auer was the definition of a Renaissance man. He possessed all the attributes in the rest of that famous quote about Thomas More. Auer, who died Saturday at 76, was a man of gentleness, mirth and singular learning.
Auer felt as much at home in the stale-doughnut-strewn environs of the newsroom as he did in the homes of the Frank Lloyd Wright family. His friendship with theatrical greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne led him to become their unofficial photographer. He was on close terms with film star Willem Dafoe, chanteuse 'The Incomparable' Hildegarde and actress Carole Shelley.
He knew the stars, all the way back to Janet Gaynor, said Tybie Taglin, vice president of Taglin Enterprises/Access Milwaukee.
Sean Malone, executive director of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, said that Auer played an important role in the growth of Milwaukee's art community.
"Cities all over the country are trying to catch up to where Milwaukee is, and I think that Jim had his finger on that," Malone said.

"He was an exceptional journalist, but even more important, he was an outstanding person," said Martin Kaiser, editor of the Journal Sentinel. "Not only will our readers miss him, but everyone in the newsroom will, too."
Artist Patrick Farrell was a teenager the first time Auer reviewed his paintings in Appleton. Farrell was included in one of Auer's last reviews, too.
Farrell said: "Jim did an article about the new Times Square area in New York some years back. When you read that article, I swear to God, you could smell the area and taste the area. He wrote so grandly."

Many talents

Auer joined The Milwaukee Journal as art editor in 1972, with his primary duty to cover the visual arts. But he soon showed that canvass was too small to hold him. His work at The Journal, and later the Journal Sentinel, would also include writing about everything, including movies, theater, history and obituaries of the rich, famous and artful.
His colleagues knew Auer as a mobile encyclopedia of show business and Wisconsin minutia. Need to know what apartments Greta Garbo owned in Milwaukee? Auer could pop out the addresses. Who gave Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss? Auer could say in an instant: 'Robert Stack.'
"Jim was someone who could converse intelligently and in-depth on topics ranging from the arts, politics and world history to corporate business, investment strategies and automobiles," said Tom Heinen, Journal Sentinel religion reporter and a longtime colleague.
Auer's writings and his kindness won him praise from the Wisconsin visual arts community.
"I think the whole community is impoverished" by his death, said David Gordon, director and chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Art Museum. "He was such a wonderfully kind and generous man. He was a very respected critic, who had a deep knowledge of art, a huge amount of local interest. He was very supportive to the museum."
Auer also recently agreed to support the museum in another way: through his amateur photography hobby. "I asked him if we could use some of his photographs of the building of the Calatrava (museum expansion)," Gordon said.
Auer's photos will appear next May in a book about the Quadracci Pavilion.
His expertise brought coverage of the arts on a national basis to Milwaukee, says his former editor, Dominique Noth, now editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press. "We had that coverage because he was so enterprising."
Noth recalled that Auer was so eager to cover an art event in Washington, D.C., that he managed to pull off the trip there and back on a budget that became Journal legend: $28.

Humble roots

Though he spoke with the diction of an Ivy League patrician, Auer's roots sprouted from pure Wisconsin soil. A native of Neenah, his early home life was not the stuff of the haut monde. His father was a sheet metal worker and his mother a librarian.
But his command of language showed itself early on. He was a three-time recipient of the English medal awarded at Menasha High School. As an English major at Lawrence University, he contributed regularly to the student newspaper.
In 1953, he joined the staff of the Twin City News-Record for a three-year stint as reporter. Always an adventurer, he took off for a three-month trip to Mexico and a job on the staff of the Hanford Sentinel in California.
But as Auer would later say, he 'needed Wisconsin vibes.' He returned to an editor's post on the Twin City News-Record in Neenah-Menasha.
He enjoyed writing a juicy local gossip column with Marion Drew using the nom de plume, 'Reynaud Riverton.' His identity a secret, he relished dining with talkative locals who worried aloud: "Hope Reynaud isn't in the room."
He was named Sunday editor of the Appleton Post-Crescent in 1965.
Auer's talents weren't confined to the print medium. Auer wrote and narrated award-winning documentaries that aired across the country on PBS stations. One of his more popular specials was "A Partner to Genius," a 1993 documentary about the life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, third wife of artist and designer Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bill Werner, a producer and director for Milwaukee Public Television, the executive producer for 'A Partner,' remembered Auer as someone who would overcome every obstacle in pursuit of a story.
"He was the quintessential journalist," said Werner, who also produced "Etched in Acid: Warrington Colescott," a Golden Eagle-winner documentary Auer wrote and narrated on the celebrated Wisconsin painter.
"I remember we were shooting for the Colescott piece on top of the Kenilworth Building, on Prospect Ave., just south of the Oriental Theatre, and the elevators went down."
Others would have postponed a trip to the top of a tall building like that, Werner chuckled, admitting that "I was concerned, and wondering what was going to happen to Jim, because it was a quite a ways to the roof."
Just when he was convinced that Auer wasn't going to make it, "Jim suddenly appeared huffing and puffing up the stairs, but smiling nonetheless," Werner said.
Among his many hobbies was magic.
"He started doing magic when a boy doing baby-sitting as a way to keep control of his charges," said his wife, Marilyn Auer. He was a member of the Houdini Club of Wisconsin and other magician groups.
Auer is survived by his wife and his son, Charles William Auer. Services will be held Thursday at the First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa with visitation at 2 p.m. and services at 3 p.m. A reception will follow.
Journal Sentinel writers James Burnett, Mary Louise Schumacher and Graeme Zielinski contributed to this story.

From the Dec. 19, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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