Above: Shermund self portrait, c.1941
Barbara Shermund, who died in early September, 1978, had the misfortune of passing away during a newspaper strike that affected the paper of record, The New York Times. An extensive search has turned up just one obituary for her, a four sentence notice that ran in a newspaper covering the New Jersey coastal town where she lived for a number of years toward the end of her life.
For someone who contributed hundreds of cartoons and eight covers to The New Yorker Magazine, then went on to become a mainstay at Esquire, four sentences seems a bit slight. Here then is another notice, a little late, and a little longer.
Born in San Francisco in 1899 to artistic parents (her father was an architect), Ms. Shermund studied at The California School of Fine Arts before heading east, at the age of twenty-six, to New York. She told Colliers that her initial visit east became permanent “after she had eaten up her return fare." In June of that very year, she made her debut at the four month old New Yorker with a cover of a young woman sporting a hip hairdo, eyes closed, resting her arm over a railing, against a black sky peppered with stars. In a year’s time her cartoons, many if not most of which were written by her, were appearing in nearly every issue of the magazine.
Her style had a sway to it that fit the times. Her subjects, executed in pen and ink and wash, were often hip young women, just a bit jaded – the sort that famously inhabited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. She once offered up this brief glimpse into her private life, saying she liked “fancy dancing and dogs.”
Liza Donnelly, author of Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and their Cartoons, had this to say about Ms. Shermund:
“Barbara Shermund was one of the more prolific cartoonists of the early New Yorker. Her breezy drawing style and humor reflected the new attitudes of urban women in the twenties and thirties, and she can be considered one of the early feminist cartoonists. The New Yorker sought to appeal to both men and women with its humor, and Shermund, along with other women cartoonists of the magazine, were groundbreakers in that regard, creating cartoons from a woman’s perspective that could be enjoyed by all. Her cartoons were irreverent, sassy, and a true reflection of her times.”
Shermund traveled widely – Donnelly wrote of her that “she was something of a wanderer, living with friends in the city and the upstate town of Woodstock [NY], never really having a set address.” Eventually she settled down in Sea Bright, New Jersey, a barrier beach town, just about an hour’s drive from New York.
The last of her five hundred and ninety-seven drawings in The New Yorker appeared September 16, 1944; her last cover appeared August 5, 1944. Although her relationship with The New Yorker fizzled in the mid 1940s, she participated in an Irving Penn group photo of eighteen New Yorker cartoonists ( it ran in the August 1947 issue of Vogue). Ms. Shermund, dressed in dark clothing and wearing a great wide brimmed hat, stares directly at the camera. Sitting directly in front of her is George Price, and Steinberg; overhead, reclining on a platform is Charles Addams. Off to Ms. Shermund’s right is Helen Hokinson, looking just a little apprehensive.
The discs accompanying The Complete New Yorker allow one to see all of Barbara Shermund’s work in their natural habitat. Nine of her drawings appear in the The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, and of course all of her work can be seen on the discs accompanying the book.
To view the eight Shermund New Yorker covers: www.cartoonbank.com/ ( Enter "Shermund" in search box)
To read a short essay on the 1947 Irving Penn group photograph of New Yorker cartoonists: www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/cartoonists/2008/02/group-photograp.html