The Old City

Rare NYC Portraits Found in Attic After a Half-Century

The Czechoslovakian police thought they destroyed all copies of a book of illustrations in the 1960s—until the author's grandson found it in the attic 50 years later.

Vladimír Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

In 1968, an innocent guidebook fell victim to the Cold War. Its whimsical drawings and poetic lines devoted to New York City were destroyed by the Czechoslovakian secret police—all but one copy, that is. Nearly 50 years later, the grandson of its author found the original manuscript buried in an old wardrobe, and this week, it entered American circulation for the first time ever.


During the summer of 2008, Simon Mahler was home in Prague from his sophomore year at Harvard and was gushing to his grandfather, Zdenĕk, how much he loved visiting New York City. His grandfather casually mentioned that he and a friend had once written a book about the metropolis.


And so their search began. They dug through a wardrobe in his grandfather's converted-attic study, pulling out stacks of manuscripts, and located the one the elder Mahler referred to tucked away in an envelope. Inside was a stack of papers with drawings glued on and handwritten text for the storyline. What Mahler and his friend, an artist named Vladímir Fuka, had drafted some 44 years ago was a whimsical, poetic guide to NYC called, "New York: A Mod Portrait of the City."


"When I saw it I thought it was absolutely incredible and a huge shame it never published," says Mahler, who's now 27 and works in finance in New York City. "I thought it was ridiculous something like this was going to be lying in some stack of paper, so I told him he should try to have someone publish it." In 2008, a Czech publisher released an updated version of the 85-year-old author's book, and on Tuesday, an American publisher did the same.

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

The book was written in 1964, just four years before the country was rocked into revolution with the Prague Spring. At that point, the borders were loose enough to let the two men visit America. Inspired by New York City, they drafted their story, a drawing-rich travelogue that serves as part guidebook, part coffee-table book, imbued with the light touch of a children's story. It covers the habits of New York denizens, from their modes of transportation and weekend activities, to the many colored fire hydrants and the city's prominent buildings' most famous features.


"Coming to New York, especially from Eastern Europe, must have been an incredible moment," Mahler says of his grandfather's visit, even though the author was fairly well-traveled.


But, when Fuka decided to illegally stay in America instead of returning to Czechoslovakia, the secret police destroyed all evidence of the book. "Only one copy survived: the proof sheets I had managed to grab and I glued them together to make a mock-up," the elder Mahler writes in the book's author note.

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

"I think back then if this book had been published it would have been very revealing, very fresh and new," Mahler says. "After the ’50s, which were somewhat tough in all communist countries, this would have been a pretty big insight into the way the West works."


But that doesn't mean the book doesn't have a nearly undetectable critique woven in, Mahler believes. The pages depicting advertisements of the day "is not just admiring ... it gives it a status of power that’s ruling New York," he says. In the page on Wall Street, buildings are made out of numbers and finance workers are cut from checks. Interestingly, the Czech reprint of the book is about 20 pages longer than the American. Some of the exclusions are particularly interesting—including one for Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, and a section categorizing different neighborhoods by stereotypes of its occupants—"When your shift is over, put down the hardhat, take off the overalls, line up for workers trains back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the endless suburbs of New York," a rough translation on one page about the borough reads. Another asserts that if you own your entire floor, you're probably a widow, a boxer, or a plantation owner.


Today, "New York: A Mod Portrait of the City" still reads as a colorful guidebook, with, though it's too large to carry around, utilitarian functionality. "The interesting thing about this book, considering it's more than 50 years old, is it's still relevant," Mahler says. Only a few dated references in the paintings (20 cent tollroads), but otherwise the statistics and figures are up-to-date (the Freedom Tower is listed as the tallest skyscraper). 

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

The serendipity that brought the younger Mahler to New York City is not lost on him. Though his grandfather has not yet conceded to requests to return the city he once paid tribute to with nearly 150 pages, Simon believes he's glad his grandson made the Big Apple home. "I think he likes it, I think he’s in some ways jealous of the freedom that I get to enjoy that he could not—he did not have the option to stay here without risking a lot for his family," he says. But Mahler doesn't believe his grandfather would have followed his partner Fuka's suit and stayed behind. "He's absolutely in love with Prague."

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

The names on the marquees—Elvis, Tony Curtis, Dean Martin, Aubrey Hepburn—memorialize Times Square of the ’60s. This page is one of the most eye-catching, perfectly capturing the overwhelming flashes of New York City's most iconic tourist destination.


The book is "definitely from the perspective of someone who comes to New York for the first time and absolteuly excited, and all the shapes and colors and sounds are very new," Mahler says.

Vladimir Fuka; Courtesy Rizzoli New York

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City

A blend of drawing styles articulated by poetic lines, historical tidbits, and "did you know?" facts make Mahler and Fuka's book a surprisingly unique depiction of New York. It's a rare, fresh look—even though it's half a century old—at one of the world's most commonly depicted cities. His grandfather, Simon Mahler says, "is a very good observer."


The book wraps up thusly:


"New York, they say,

is like poetry,

is a melting pot,

is a giant crystal ball in which everyone can see their own future.

Once you've seen New York, you don't have to see anything else."