General 11-12-2004

Letters in Response to a Column

Read on for a developing controversy over the portrayal of artists.

Some time ago received a letter from Susannah Kelly, the daughter of one of the subjects of Michael Fallon’s series of columns on “doomed artists.” Ms. Kelly strenuously objected to this characterization of her mother, and challenged Michael to respond. He did write a letter in reply, and also responded to Ms. Kelly in his next column, the final in the “doomed artist” series (see the next article on the site).

We are reproducing both letters here, so you can draw your own conclusions.

I believe Michael Fallon has raised interesting and serious issues with his series, issues that can be extremely painful. I’d like to know what you feel about this. If you have responses to these issues, please email them to me, Ann Klefstad, the features editor, at I’ll assemble the responses and run them on the site.

To: Michael Fallon:

I am responding to the June 19th article: “The Doomed Artist,Part 1.”
The artist profiled in your article is my mother, Sonia Gechtoff. She is an
extraordinary woman of strength and integrity. At 78 and recovering fully from
several operations in the last two years as well as the death of her husband
last summer her energy is far from flagging. This is, in fact, the best time of her life.

You have lied about many of the details of my mother’s life and I hold you
personally accountable for your slander.
Shame on you Michael.
Examine your own agenda, disillusionment with the world of art and dangerous
You owe her an aploogy.
Address this as a human being and send her one.

Susannah Kelly,
Proud daughter of artist parents and a happy artist as well.

Dear Ms. Kelly,
In response to your letter:

I am deeply sorry that you, and I assume your mother, Sonia Gechtoff, feel wronged and betrayed by what I wrote about her in my column of 6/19, “The Doomed Artist, pt. 1.” While it is true I have my own agenda in exploring certain aspects of the artist’s life, I have nothing but respect for what Ms. Gechtoff was able to accomplish at the peak of her career. This is the reason I spent so much time in the column describing all of her accomplishments and praising her work.

As to the charges that my descriptions of her life now amount to “slander,” I must disagree. While visiting Ms. Gechtoff I took care to record what she said and did by taking precise notes and digital photos. The quotes from the article are verbatim from my notes, and my descriptions of her and her studio and appearance are supported by the photographic record. I also acknowledge in the column that she may not have been at her best that day because she was both recovering from surgery and grieving her husband’s death. And while you may not agree with my conclusions at the end of the piece, certainly there is nothing factually wrong with what I wrote (and so, there is technically nothing libellous about it).

In sum, I must state that I believe that a column is more generally accepted by a reading audience as potentially biased by a writer’s opinion regarding a particular purpose or cause than, say, a straight profile might be. I understand that an artist and her daughter might take exception to having the artist’s career depicted as a “failure” or as “doomed.” I sympathize with attempts by an artist’s heirs to color the art legacy with the tint of success, and I acknowledge in the piece that there are signs that a reconsideration of Gechtoff’s entire generation of artists may yet occur. In fact, I sincerely hope this may happen, for what you interpret as my “disillusionment with the art world” is actually an attempt to point out to a larger reading audience that artistic treasures like Ms. Gechtoff are not well-treated in our country and they deserve better. I simply believe that sometimes the cold, hard truth is the way to shake people up and affect change.

As a human being, I both stand by my work and send my honor and respect to the artist Sonia Gechtoff.

Michael Fallon