After a prestigious career as an art critic and editor for the New York Times, Aline Saarinen “swapped mediums” and gained a much larger audience on television—where she worked as a commentator, correspondent, and producer, and—at the time of her death at age 58—as chief of NBC News’s Paris bureau. Nelson Rockefeller, a friend and one of the subjects of her best-selling book The Proud Possessors, called Saarinen “one of the art world’s ablest critics, whose vision of art reached millions of people.” She produced a number of specials on museums and art collections, but was also a regular news correspondent for NBC, covering elections and the Vietnam War. As the moderator of a show called For Women Only, she dealt with hot-button non-art topics, including abortion and homosexuality. Her articulate, gregarious personality coupled with the desire to arouse intelligent dialogue allowed her to dabble in many different facets of television. Saarinen once said, “I’d like to be a latter-day Madame de Stael. If I could have anything I wanted, I would have a marvelous home frequented by fascinating people, and beautiful guests would come who would put good questions to the fascinating habitués.”
She was born into an affluent New York City household in 1914. As the daughter of two amateur painters, she was surrounded by art from an early age, and at nine made the first of many art tours of Europe. In 1931 she graduated from Fieldston School and attended Vassar College, majoring in English and art. Her interest in journalism peaked when she became the art critic of the Vassar Miscellany News. As she later said to a New York Post reporter, “Vassar taught you [that you] could have marriage, a career and children. It never occurred to me not to.” Upon graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1935, she married her first husband, Joseph Louchheim. In 1941, she received a master’s degree from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. While studying at NYU, she had two sons, Donald and Harry.
Saarinen joined the staff of Art News magazine in 1944 and quickly rose through the ranks to the position of managing editor. In 1946 she compiled a book, 5000 Years of Art: A Pictorial History, which received an excellent review in the New York Times—and opened doors for her at the renowned newspaper. She was appointed to the position of associate art editor and critic of the New York Times in 1947. One of her assignments was to interview the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, designer of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The two had an instant attraction and were married in 1954. They had one child, Eames (named after the designer Charles Eames, who was a friend of theirs). Aline continued writing for the New York Times until 1958 while also freelancing for various magazines. In 1958 her book The Proud Possessors, which chronicled the lives of American art collectors, was published. During her newspaper career, Saarinen received numerous awards and honors, including the International Award for Best Foreign Criticism at the Venice Biennale, the American Federation of Arts Award for Best Newspaper Criticism, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Throughout her life, she was passionate about art—but not all art. Never one to mince words, Saarinen once listed what she called “the six worst man-made objects.” These included the Pan Am Building in Manhattan, Salvador Dali’s The Last Supper, the suburban builder’s “typical tacky house,” some glass sculpture at New York’s Lincoln Center, and the faces etched on Mount Rushmore.
When Eero Saarinen died in 1961, Aline took a break from journalism. Several months later, she was interviewed for television about a Rembrandt painting on display at the Metropolitan Museum, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. The interview sparked a series of freelance television interviews—and thus her second career was born. Saarinen later claimed that she snuck into television “through the back door of art.”
In 1962 Saarinen landed a guest spot on NBC’s Today show, where she reported on manners, morals, and culture and the arts. In 1964 she was made a regular NBC News correspondent and a year later was sent on assignment to Vietnam to cover the noncombat stories of the war (including reports on U.S. aid and counterinsurgency programs). When making the appointment, William McAndrew, executive vice president of the NBC News division, said, “With Aline Saarinen reporting from Vietnam, we will have the advantage of a new, fresh and objective viewpoint by a particularly discerning and articulate woman correspondent. Quite apart from the military action, we need revealing reports that emphasize the human side of war.”
Although she specialized in the arts and cultural issues, her educational background and expressive personality allowed her to shrewdly cover an array of subjects. In 1968 Saarinen reported on the presidential election, focusing on the wives of the candidates.
Among the specials in which she appeared were The Prado, Bravo Picasso, and From Here to the Seventies. In 1970 she took on the role of producer for a one-hour special that looked at the collection of one of the world’s great museums: Marvelous! Magnificent! The Metropolitan Museum! It was hosted by New York City’s mayor, John Lindsay, with a script written by Saarinen. She said of her brainchild, “We film the works of art…but never see the galleries. The concept is of a fast-paced, entertaining show in which art can be enjoyed—as art was intended to be. I believe you can illuminate art and make it entertaining without betraying its integrity.” The idea was to bring art to a bigger audience, to make it more accessible via television. Some of her production methods were unorthodox for at that time, such as when, to dramatize the relationship of art to life, she juxtaposed film clips of a sprinter with photos of a runner modeled in bronze.
From 1968 to 1971, Saarinen hosted and moderated a daily morning show called For Women Only. The program, which examined such weighty topics as abortion, homosexuality, pesticides, and birth control, had a panel of experts who debated and answered questions from audience—with Saarinen moderating the discussion and keeping the pace moving briskly. She contended, “There’s a tendency on the part of people in public positions to say bland things, the things we’ve all heard. You just need the stiletto to make them be candid.” With her eloquent, yet frank hosting style, the debates were fresh and informative. “I think the networks are very behind in recognizing that daytime audiences will accept things beside game shows,” said Saarinen in an interview. “This may sound funny but soaps deal with topics we talk about on For Women Only. They’ve been talking about abortion for a long time and there is an audience for it.” When Saarinen moved on to her next assignment, Barbara Walters took over the show (which was renamed Not for Women Only).
In 1971 Saarinen was appointed chief of NBC News’s Paris bureau—marking the first time a woman was asked to head an overseas TV news bureau. Tragically, she held the position for only a year—in late 1971 she was stricken with a brain tumor. Aline Saarinen died on July 13, 1972. She will be remembered for her desire to bring art and culture to television audiences without making the highbrow seem elitist. As she said in 1966, “Twenty years ago an editor would never think of sending a reporter, especially a woman, half way around the world to cover the opening of an art museum. Now the American public is becoming interested in such things, largely because of television.”