Writer, publisher, painter, Pulitzer Prize winner. Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1952, Steven Naifeh is the son of George Amel Naifeh, a U.S. diplomat and founder of the American-Arab Affairs Council, and Marion Lanphear Naifeh, an educator. Naifeh graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University before earning both a J.D. and M.A. from Harvard. It was while studying law at Harvard that he met his life partner Gregory White Smith.
Choosing not to pursue a career in law, Naifeh eventually turned to his primary area of interest—art. His first book, Culture Making: Money, Success, and the New York Art World, was published in 1976 while he was still pursuing graduate education. That same year he worked as a staff lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
When he and Smith decided to pool their talents and collaborate on book projects, one of their first joint efforts was a monograph on the painter Gene Davis (1981); this was followed by a volume entitled The Bargain Hunter’s Guide to Art Collecting (1982). During this period when they were turning out largely commercial titles—including some true crime sagas—in order to pay the rent, Naifeh and Smith were devoting most of their free time to research on the life and career of iconic American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
After seven years of research, including interviewing 2,500 individuals and examining every authenticated piece of the artist’s work that they could find, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga was published in 1989. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1990 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Most of the critics were impressed by the book’s exhaustive research into not only Pollock’s life but also the milieu in which he worked, but some questioned the authors’ psychological approach to the subject, including their posthumous probing into the nature of Pollock’s sexual orientation and other aspects of his interior life. The book was subsequently used as the basis for the film Pollock (2000), directed by and starring Ed Harris. For her role as Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner, Marcia Gay Harden won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The publication of this monumental biography coincided with the authors’ relocation from New York City to Aiken, South Carolina, where they purchased Joye Cottage, the sixty-room mansion built in 1897 by tycoon William C. Whitney. The book On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye is the often-humorous account of their frequently nonjoyous attempt to renovate and restore the estate, which takes up an entire block in the city’s historic district. This impressive property both men have deeded to the Juilliard School in New York City to be used after their deaths as a retreat for performing artists.
Following the success of their first large-scale biography, Naifeh and Smith decided to tackle an individual whose life and work casts an even larger shadow over the world of modern art—Vincent Van Gogh. This time the research and writing took ten years, including unprecedented access to the archives at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The most controversial element of Van Gogh: The Life (2011) is the authors’ contention that the artist did not commit suicide, which is the accepted version of how he died at the age of thirty-seven, but that he was the victim of an accidental shooting at the hands of careless adolescents. This theory melds two of Naifeh and Smith’s greatest strengths as writers, relentless scholarship and a penchant for criminal investigation. For a fuller account of their three true-crime narratives, please refer to the entry for Gregory White Smith.
In addition to their writing careers, Naifeh and Smith have run a publishing firm from their home base. Using each of their middle names to make up the name of the company, they established Woodward/White, Inc., which has published the reference guide The Best Lawyers in America since 1982 and The Best Doctors in America since 1989.
Naifeh is an avid art collector; he is also a painter in his own right, having exhibited his work in solo shows in this country and abroad. In fact, in 2013, the Columbia Museum of Art hosted a large-scale one-man show entitled “Found in Translation: The Geometric Abstraction of Steven Naifeh,” which curator Will Smith hailed as a “smart, vibrant way of encountering Middle Eastern ideas.”
Mack, Tom. Hidden History of Aiken County. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.
Naifeh, Steven and Gregory White Smith. On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye. New York: Little, Brown, 1996.