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Joan Paterson Kerr

June 2024
1min read

When a little band of optimists undertook to create this magazine, early in 1954, we decided that history benefits enormously from showing graphically how people, places, and events looked in their own times. If we had ideas, we had no picture library of contemporary photographs, portraits, drawings, sketches, lithographs, and paintings, whether high art or primitive, to add this vital dimension. But we had Joan Paterson, whom two of us had known at Life magazine in its glory days of the 1940s; she had come there from Vassar, a bright researcher.

There is no great master directory to historical art and photographs. You have to dig out your materials all over the world in museums, libraries, private collections, commercial picture sources like Brown Brothers or the Bettmann Archive, or leafing through such ancient but picture-filled nineteenth-century magazines as Harper’s Weekly or The Illustrated London News , and elsewhere. Joan was a valiant explorer of Elsewhere, forever striking gold in unexpected places. Wherever she traveled, this tall, attractive, and good-natured lady made friends for our magazine. As time went on and we also began publishing books, she acquired assistants, and began writing articles based on some of her discoveries.

The culminating project, as I look back over the years, was an outsized volume called American Album , reproducing the best of a vast number of extraordinary photographs of life in all its aspects in this country, from the earliest days of the art to the eve of the First World War. Joan collected most of it from her wide knowledge of sources. She and our skilled art director, Murray Belsky, and I spent weeks sorting the collection down, often on our knees on a big floor, winnowing out and arranging the layout. When the book appeared, under the shared byline of the three of us, modesty must be discarded for the moment to say that it received hundreds of ecstatic reviews all over the country. It is still in print, now in a new edition to which that famous wanderer about America, Charles Kuralt, contributed a fine introduction.

During these busy years, when Joan was bringing up the three fine children of her first marriage, she met and married, in 1964, Chester Brooks Kerr, a noted publisher who was for many years the director of the Yale University Press, as well as a classmate and friend of mine. Presently she left the full-time staff for New Haven but kept contributing picture stories and text to go with them. She also provided picture expertise to Newsweek Books and to the Bookof-the-Month Club series “The American Past.” Always busy at some project, she most recently published a book called A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children . David McCullough, who had also worked with us at American Heritage in earlier days, contributed its introduction.

All was going well in Joan’s productive life until she learned last year that she had an inoperable cancer. Friends and family, including her devoted co-authors, rallied around until, brave and game to the end, this talented and beautiful lady died, at seventy-five, on November 21, 1996.

—Oliver Jensen

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