Peter Arno: The Mad Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist

Peter Arno: The Mad Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist (Regan Arts, 2016)

I began this biography of Arno in 1999. Published by Regan Arts, April 2016.

Reviews

Here are three from the mainstream.   I’ll post more soon, even the ones less than complimentary.

Peter Tonguette, The Christian Science Monitor

“Cartoonist” is unlikely to be counted among professions promising excitement or adventure. After all, those who earn their keep with pen and ink spend most days stationed at a drawing board. Cartoonists may document the passing parade – the rise and fall of politicians or the ebb and flow of cultural trends – but they seldom partake of it. Instead, they contend with such humdrum matters as the burden of deadlines and the instructions of editors.

Yet the life and work of Peter Arno (1904-1968), whose cartoons ran in The New Yorkerfor more than four decades, counters this image. He entered the world as Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr., the offspring of a New York judge father and an English émigré mother. He received his schooling at the tony Hotchkiss School and, later, Yale University (from which he dropped out). And he was surely the only cartoonist who can be said to have starred on stage in a John Van Druten play (“Most of The Game”) and appeared on screen in a Jack Benny comedy (“Artists and Models”). Did we mention that he came up with the design of an automobile and was arrested for threatening a doorman at the Drake Hotel?

In Michael Maslin’s dazzling, well-illustrated biography, Peter Arno, Arno’s story is told with skill and flair. The author also makes clear that the cartoonist was regarded as sui generis by many of his colleagues, superiors, and successors. “Peter Arno tricked me into thinking that if you were a New Yorker cartoonist, you were King of New York,” said cartoonist Robert Leighton, who began contributing to the magazine long after Arno’s death. “It’s all based on one photo I saw of him in top hat and tails, probably with a showgal on each arm, walking down a New York street in the ’40s.”

Of course, even if Leighton had not viewed that photo, he would have had a sense of Arno’s orbit from looking through back issues of The New Yorker. Befitting his background, the cartoonist fixed his gaze on the flaws and foibles of the upper class. As Maslin recounts, Arno’s drawings depicted “husbands and wives’ cat-and-mouse games, and husbands and lovers, and wives and lovers,” as well as “the battleship grande dames, the sugar daddies, the precocious young, and clueless elders.”

In one representative cartoon (included in the 1979 Harper & Row collection entitled “Peter Arno”), a bedraggled, belligerent, bow-tie-wearing gentleman has been arrested and is seen standing in a police station among a swarm of officers, one of whom introduces him as “Mr. J. Stanhope Alderson.” “He has money, position, many influential friends, and we can’t do this to him,” the cop explains, recapping, with a smile, the arrestee’s protestations. In another cartoon from the same book, a bright-eyed bride sits with her groom in a car pulling away from the church in which they have just been married. It seems that some of their vows have made a greater impression on her than the others. “Just when do I get endowed with all thy worldly goods?” she asks, eagerly.

Arno’s artwork is endlessly expressive, communicating intricacies of character with sharp, simple lines. Consider the arch of a woman’s back as she leans through a doorway to survey a gaggle of gifts or the upright posture of a pair of elderly operagoers, one of whom has failed to properly operate his hearing aid (“You have so got it turned off!”) Even small details delight, such as the light cast by a television set being watched by quarreling marrieds or the white dabs of snow surrounding a couple huddled in the woods or the outstretched arms of a wife reaching for her husband’s “consumers’ research bulletins.”

In fact, this book’s succession of wild real-life incidents suggests material for a potential Arno cartoon (the captions to which were frequently furnished by others, according to Maslin). In 1929, Arno brought a lawsuit against the Packard Motor Company, charging that the car he bought “couldn’t reach the 90-100 miles per hour as advertised.” (A decade later, when Arno designed a car for the Albatross Motor Car Company, the resulting vehicle was touted for its “beauty and overall aesthetic appeal” rather than its speed per se.)

And in 1938, while married to the second of his two wives, Arno was seen holding hands with none other than Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, famously described by Lifemagazine that same year as “the outstanding debutante” for, among other qualities, “her long hair” and “her vivacity.” A biographer of Frazier is quoted as downplaying the relationship, speculating that Arno sought her company “just for publicity,” which hardly does credit to the man.

In other ways, however, Arno was unremarkable. The cartoonist’s work routine is thoroughly detailed here, with a New York Postreporter noting in 1939 that he stayed home most Mondays because his deadline at The New Yorker fell on Tuesdays: “He, therefore, leaves work until the last possible moment, works right straight through, smokes several packs of cigarettes and loves every moment of it.” And New Yorkereditor Harold Ross is quoted in a series of simultaneously exasperated and affectionate communiques concerning everything from Arno’s tardiness at delivering cartoons (“There are various rumors around the office as to whether you will or will not do any drawings in the near future”) to his requests for higher fees (“His price is $1000 a drawing, which he feels the company can pay at this time, and, in fairness, should pay”).

Even so, it is obvious that Arno was nonpareil. Writer Philip Hamburger remembered encountering him at a 1952 party celebrating the start of William Shawn’s editorship at The New Yorker. The cartoonist, Hamburger said, arrived with a flask full of martinis: “He was taking no chances on someone being stingy with the vermouth!” It is only surprising that the episode did not prompt an Arno panel.

Peter Tonguette has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and many other publications.

 Publisher’s Weekly

New Yorker cartoonist Maslin pays homage to artist Peter Arno (1904–1968) whose witty drawings created a style that’s been synonymous with the New Yorker since its launch in 1925. Maslin’s riveting biography is—surprisingly—the first on the rakish genius, who arguably shaped the look of the weekly magazine. Beginning with Arno’s posh education at Hotchkiss and Yale, Maslin depicts the young, defiant artist (born Curtis Arnoux Peters) determined to become a cartoonist despite the strong objections of his father, a New York state supreme court judge from whom he became estranged. His first piece appeared in the 18th issue of the magazine under his pseudonym, possibly in an effort to sever ties with his father, suggests Maslin. Readers of the New Yorker in the 1920s embraced Arno’s work, especially after the debut of the Whoops Sisters series, featuring two feisty old ladies who used language laced in double entendre. From 1925 to his death in 1968, with a short hiatus during WWII, the New Yorker published hundreds of Arno’s drawings, many of which are reproduced in the book. Maslin fills the book with insights into the cartoonist’s life and art, noting that the world he depicted on paper as well as in his messy private life reflected “the implication that something unsavory was about to take place.”

Edward Short, The Literary Review  (UK) —

Many things made the New Yorker successful in its heyday. The magazine showcased the work of America’s best humorists, from James Thurber and Robert Benchley to Dorothy Parker and S J Perelman. Its eccentric founding editor, Harold Ross, knew how to coax good work out of his writers, even though he was fanatical about fact-checking. (Thurber recalled that if the Empire State Building were mentioned in a piece, Ross would not let it run until someone had called to verify that it was still standing.) The magazine could count on an audience ripe for its signature wit and sophistication. As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ‘New York had all of the iridescence of the beginning of the world … there was gala in the air.’ But what ultimately made the magazine a hit was its cartoons, and the greatest of its cartoonists was Peter Arno.

The patrician son of a judge who disinherited him after he dropped out of Yale, Arno turned to cartooning largely to spite his father. Indeed, the butts of his cartoons were often men of his father’s class and generation, greybeards at play in the new cafe society that emerged after the First World War. When his father divorced his English mother to marry a secretary sixteen years his junior, Arno was given his greatest character: the sugar daddy infatuated with buxom showgirls and typists on the make. If Evelyn Waugh got his own back at his Dickens-loving father by sending up his mania for the Victorian novelist in A Handful of Dust, Arno got revenge on his by creating cartoon after cartoon showing what he nicely referred to as the ‘goggle-eyed lubricity’ of ageing lotharios.

In Peter Arno, Michael Maslin (a cartoonist for the magazine himself) serves up the first full-length biography of the handsome, high-living, debonair artist. Before Arno, most cartoons in American publications were formulaic and decorous. In his bold, often sexually suggestive cartoons, Arno introduced a new urbanity, at once whimsical and subversive. Without Arno’s lead, as the artist in Maslin appreciates, the New Yorker might never have published the cartoons of Thurber, Charles Addams or Saul Steinberg, all of whom owe Arno an immense debt.

As for Arno’s life, Maslin shows how the artist spent much of his time ringing the midnight bell in swanky nightclubs. Maslin gives a particularly memorable glimpse into Prohibition New York when he describes Ross closing down a speakeasy he had created for his staff after finding Arno and his first wife, Lois Long, deshabille on the floor. Apparently, as Long later recalled, the couple began drinking in the afternoon and simply forgot that they were married and had an apartment of their own to go to.

On the subject of his club crawls, Arno could be eloquent: ‘At no time in the history of the world have there been so many damned morons gathered together in one place as New York right now … The town squirms with them … You don’t do good work of this sort unless you’re mad at something.’ If saeva indignatio was one source of his talent, a fine sense of the ridiculous was another. In one of his cartoons, a man bathing in the sea turns to a young woman and says, ‘Pardon me, Miss. You’re standing on my flippers.’ In another, an old satyr cavorts before a young blonde sitting beneath a tree. Her response is immortal: ‘Oh, grow up!’

At the end of his life, weary of playing the sardonic bon vivant, Arno left Manhattan for Westchester, where he discovered the joys of country life before succumbing to emphysema. He also found that he could forgive his papa. His last cover for the New Yorker shows an old polar bear touching noses with one of his cubs, a fitting farewell to the anger that had animated his earlier muse. Maslin’s book is a fascinating tribute from one artist to another, which does proper justice to a masterly draughtsman and an inspired wag.

Cartoon Marriage

A collection of work by Liza Donnelly and myself, with a cover illustration inspired by George Herriman. The book includes previously unpublished cartoons and features an autobiographical graphic narrative. Published by Random House, January 2009.

There ( …At The New Yorker )

A memoir recalling the path taken by this cartoonist on the way to a career at The New Yorker as well as the people and events encountered at the magazine throughout the past three going-on-four decades. The memoir may eventually run in installments on this site.