Fred Marcellino passed away on July 12, at the age of 61, after a three-year battle with cancer; an obituary appeared in the July 30 issue of PW. Here, friends and colleagues pay tribute to the esteemed book-jacket designer and picture-book illustrator.
Joseph Montebello, art director
One is inclined to think of Fred Marcellino as the genius behind the most beautiful and imaginative fiction jackets. But the first jacket Fred ever did for me was for a biography of T.E. Lawrence. It was 1976 and I had just been made art director for Harper & Row's trade list. I was eager to use new and innovative designers, and Fred was at the top of my list. While the Lawrence book was not a great success, it got a lot of display thanks to the arresting drawing Fred had found for the jacket and the extraordinary colors he had chosen for the type. And then there were the numerous first novels that Fred saved from total obscurity. "Can't we have Fred Marcellino design this jacket?" became the cry from every editor with a new novelist on his way to fame and fortune.
Over the years I worked with Fred, we would meet for lunch every few months, something I always looked forward to. I was always ranting about some problem I was having with a particular project, and Fred was a great listener.
As he did more of his own children's books, he did less jacket design. Sad for me, because working with Fred made life easy. He sent in one sketch, you showed it, said the words "Fred Marcellino," then heard the unanimous "Ah" of acceptance and the job was done. I'll miss Fred for making my job easier and the books I worked on more beautiful. No one will ever do that again.
Nancy Nicholas, editor
At lunch in the early to middle 1980s, Fred reported on a recent encounter. It had begun with a telephone call from a man who identified himself as a stranger but a fan of Marcellino book jackets. The man had gone on and on about how distinctive and wonderful they were and how he always spotted them the minute he entered a bookstore and how they had often induced him to buy books he knew nothing about. Then he asked if Fred ever sold the art.
"I told him I didn't, except occasionally to the authors, because really they were just billboards for the title and authors' names and not meant to stand alone." But he insisted, so we made an appointment for him to come by the studio at 10:30 the next morning." Fred said he went through his files and got out eight or so pieces he thought might work without the lettering and propped them up around the walls. Right on time, the doorbell rang and the man introduced himself and then said something like, But you probably want to know something about me first, and proceeded to start with how he had been born to poor but honest parents in the Bronx, his struggle to fulfill his dreams of becoming an actor: the menial jobs he had had to take, the years of study, the unrewarding bit parts, etc. And then he finished an hour or so later by looking at his watch and saying, but now he had to run because he had landed a role in a major motion picture and was leaving for location that afternoon. He made his exit without ever mentioning a word about the art displayed around the room, the putative reason for the visit.
Fred concluded, "So I realized this was a guy who calls and makes appointments with strangers to talk about himself."
That has always seemed to me the essential Fred Marcellino story because it includes 1) the magnetic effect his jackets had, 2) his modesty about his work, 3) his gracious good manners, 4) his diligence and commitment to fulfilling any task he accepted, 5) his wit and, finally, 6) his un-diva-like and uncharacteristic among art directors and artists of various sorts willingness to chat with an editor.
Louise Fili, designer
One summer, having been away from his studio for a few weeks, Fred returned to find that a pigeon had entered through an open window and built a nest on his drawing table. It was an image that could only be described as Marcellino-esque.
In the late '70s, when that term was introduced into book-publishing lexicon, it meant, of course, that which is elegant and quietly beautiful a style that no one else dared try to imitate. I can't think of any other contemporary designer who could boast an eponymous adjective. But then, no one was as brilliant as Fred.
Fred's art was his life, and his life his art. He seamlessly blended all of his passions into a personal aesthetic. Eloquent symbolic imagery combined with uniquely integrated typography made his jackets often more memorable than the books themselves. "Never illustrate the title" was his mantra: so simple, so astute.
I continue to learn from Fred. Per his wishes, his funeral service concluded with the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. I felt compelled to buy the CD immediately afterward. I listened to the piece—so intelligent, poetic, concise. Nothing could have been more Marcellino-esque.
Michael di Capua, publisher
Fred and I met in 1975. His career as a jacket designer was taking off, but what Fred really wanted to do was illustrate children's books. At that first meeting, he showed me his dummy for a picture book based on a posthumously published text by Edward Lear. Any fool would have seen that this dummy was an inspired piece of work, that Fred was a natural-born picture-book maker. But the Lear text—well, it was easy to understand why he'd never published it. So Fred and I agreed that we would find something else for him to illustrate.
And for the next 10 years we both tried to find that something else. We read story after story, by writers living and dead, but nothing I suggested and nothing Fred read on his own appealed to him. All this time, his career as a jacket designer was flourishing, but we kept on meeting for gabby, three-hour lunches, during which we compared notes on our gardens, gossiped about colleagues, made plans for a night at the opera and discussed this or that story he might illustrate, both of us determined to launch him in a new career.
Finally, Fred happily agreed to illustrate A Rat's Tale by Tor Seidler, which I, just as happily, published at FSG in 1986—11 years after Fred and I met. Working with him on this and all the other books he published (except The Trumpet of the Swan) was one of the greatest joys and blessings of my long publishing life.
Fred and I had lunch for the last time on May 8. Everyone who loved him—and there seemed to be an army of us—knew that he'd been heroic in battling the cancer over the past three years. When the first treatment began to fail, he went on to another, and then a third, a fourth, a fifth. And he kept on working, he looked good! I allowed myself to think, "He's going to beat this." But during that last lunch, I sensed that a corner had been turned, though Fred was optimistic and upbeat. We talked about the second draft of his new picture-book text, originally The Black Tulip, now The Tulip Wars. But I felt heartsick when we said "Speak to you soon" in front of his studio building. Two months later, Fred was gone.
Fred Marcellino's books will live for a long, long time. I think he knew that, I think everyone knows that. But how I miss him, his perfectionist, noble and beautiful soul.
Holly McGhee, agent
It was an honor to be Fred's agent and a magnificent honor to be his friend, and I doubt my thoughts will come as a surprise to those who knew him and loved him. Fred lived in a world of infallible principle and exquisite taste. His effortless grace in all he said and did set the standard to which we could aspire. Wherever there was something good to find, Fred found it first. And his art reflected him—complex but accessible; as marvelous to look at as the person he was to be with; subtly and easily humorous; sure of character and absolutely confident, but never in an obvious way.
There is simply no one better than Fred, not that he would ever compare himself to anyone. In his heart, he had to know he was incomparable in every way. The sheer beauty of everything he touched was intimidating and might even make him seem unreal, but he was so very real he wanted an apple-green Volkswagen just because he liked the way they looked; he put the advance for his first children's book in an escrow account in case it didn't work out; he collected both Venetian glass and salt and pepper shakers; he adored babies; he made an excellent beet ravioli; and he was extremely amused that his crocodile was named "I."
Jim McMullan, illustrator
Fred Marcellino and I had the advantage of geography in our relationship. We would have been friends even if we had lived in different parts of town, but we were really lucky to both have studios on 32nd Street, three crosstown blocks apart. This made it easy to have lunch together two or three times a month, and to have conversations which ranged from the low gossip about publishing to the high gossip about Moghul court life as revealed in the miniatures at the Met. Sometimes we even met at the Met, enjoying the rare privilege made possible by his good friend Kathleen Howard of walking through the empty galleries on a Monday. Fred was a perfect companion to have at a museum, of course, commenting in a knowledgeable yet completely spontaneous way about some subtlety of a Roman head or the carving of a medieval saint. Fred was so elegant in his thinking about everything that he challenged me to take more care in my opinions, whether it was about choosing the mushroom ravioli instead of the pork chop for lunch, or not being so quick to typecast Federico Barocci as simply a melodramatic religious painter.
I also realized, over time, that it was important not to typecast Fred, because for all his high critical faculties, he was incredibly generous of spirit. Behind the formality of his demeanor was a man capable of great friendship and human connection. It is that generous-hearted friend I will miss the most.