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Peter Arno: Whoops!

In honor of Peter Arno's birthday — he was born this day in 1904 — I'm posting a brief excerpt from my biography of him, Mad At Something.  It's still-in-the-works and who knows, may be closing in on completion sometime this decade.  We pick up the story in 1925, the year The New Yorker began publication. 

 

In 1925, The New Yorker published nine Arno drawings.  In 1926, it ran seventy-two.  The enormous jump was due to the wild success of two cartoon sisters Arno created:  Pansy Smiff and Mrs. Abagail Flusser, otherwise known as The Whoops Sisters.

The Sisters were not sweet little old ladies — they were naughty boisterous grinning "wink wink, nudge nudge" sweet little old ladies,  their language laced with double entendres.  As often as not, the captions contained the word "Whoops!" as in the drawing of January 22nd, 1927, where we find Abagail and Pansy attending a burlesque show, watching a scantily clad woman onstage: "Lordy, I'll bet the poor little thing's freezin!" "Whoops! Throw 'er yer beads, sweetheart!"

As well as turning the sweet little old lady cliche upside down, Arno (and his sometime collaborator, Philip Wylie) revived the two line caption -- a version of the "he —she" drawings fading fast from the pages of The New Yorker.  The Sisters were a perfect vehicle for Arno, allowing him to mine one of his favorite themes, sex, in a harmless way ( i.e., acceptable to The New Yorker).  According to the late New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, the Sisters "caught the public's eye and helped markedly to increase circulation."  Jane Grant, (a co-founder of The New Yorker along with her husband, Harold Ross, and Raoul Fleischmann) would later say that "The Whoops Sisters...sold the magazine on the newsstands."

Arno, writing of The Sisters later in his life said:

They came to me at a time they were most needed, both by me, and by The New Yorker, and after running several years they had served their purpose.  By then I was able to handle the "big" pictures I'd been eager to do, so I quietly interred them, before I or others grew tired of them.


While The Whoops Sisters appeared almost weekly during their  roughly twenty-nine month run (April 17, 1926 through December 24, 1927), Arno's regular cartoons continued to appear as well: sixty-seven times in that same twenty-nine months.  The New Yorker hadn't quite become the  Peter Arno Show, but it was coming close.





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