Born in 1930s New York to Jamaican parents, Ayer grew up with Milton Glaser in the first interracial housing in the US. Here, her life-long friend revisits their childhood...
Jacqueline Brandford Ayer was a year younger than and grew up one block away from me in an enclave of several 5-story walkups described as ‘worker’s housing.’ They offered a small variety of apartments mostly consisting of a kitchen, hallway, bathroom and one bedroom. It was one of the earliest examples of cooperative ownership of real estate in the United States. The inhabitants were largely refugees from Eastern Europe who, feeling the racist aggression of German nationalism that had already developed in the 20’s, fled to America (primarily New York) to begin a new life. They identified themselves as being communists, socialists, or simply leftists. They anticipated the rise of Hitler and responded to what American Democracy was offering the world.
The “Coops” (short for the United Workers Cooperative Colony) offered the attraction of home ownership on a collective basis and provided the first interracial housing in the United States. The atmosphere was exhilarating. The sense of aspiration and the desire for social change were part of daily life. The feeling that art and education could inform and change everything inspired us all. Jacqueline was slightly mistaken to describe the Coops as Trotskyite. The Trotskyites lived in another collection of apartments about a ½ hour away. Even then, the left could never fully agree with itself. It was certainly an activist population, turning out for every protest march throughout the years. Frequently, we returned home from a march bruised and shaken by cops on horseback trying to control the crowds.
On one occasion, during the early thirties, my parents and I were evicted from our apartment for non-payment of rent. We lived a block from the Coops where sympathetic tenants had joined together to create a picket line around our apartment house entrance. Our furniture had been removed from the apartment and piled like rubbish against the curb. When the crowd saw baby Milton being carried out of the building by his aunt they went crazy and attacked the mounted policemen. The following day a story in the Daily News reported that several protesters were taken away to spend the night in jail. My parents and I spend the night in a cousin’s house and found an empty apartment the following day.
During that time, the neighborhood was constantly under surveillance by the FBI for evidence of subversive activity. There were always two bulky men in ill-fitting double-breasted suits sitting on the benches outside the playground - we all knew they weren’t locals. For whatever reason, the political turmoil never intimidated us.
Both Jackie and I went on to the High School of Music and Art, one of the most extraordinary schools in New York. It was populated by brilliant and inspiring teachers and students whose dreams were unlimited. Almost everyone in the neighborhood went on to college. The city colleges were free and after four years you had no debt. We also learned from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our greatest president (except for Lincoln), and Fiorello LaGuardia our greatest mayor, that decency and generosity were possible in daily life.
Jackie grew up believing that she could accomplish anything. She was graceful, charming, smart, drew beautifully and had an innate sense of style and fashion. Her comfort with herself created a charming personality that made others want to work with her. She created friendly relationships with her fellow workers all over the world; from the Bronx to Paris and Thailand. She was endlessly admired and respected. What is always difficult to understand is the degree to which she changed every culture she was embedded in, from editorial pages to clothing design to fabrics and children’s books. Her parents, the neighborhood, her schooling and the remarkable century we shared all contributed to her extraordinary life.
This extract is taken from Milton Glaser's introduction to the catelogue accompanying Jacqueline Ayer: Drawing on Thailand which runs at House of Illustration until Sunday 22 October 2017.