If Peter Arno was still with us (he died in 1968), I imagine he’d feel right at home in New York, New York, 2004. My guess is that he’d find us just as ridiculous as he found many of his contemporaries. Today’s character types are not all that different from those Arno scattered among his six hundred drawings and hundred-and-one covers for The New Yorker. The thin young pouty career men and women, and I-Podded dot-comers snaking through Times Square traffic in their Hummers would prove irresistible to his brush. How Arno would’ve loved this new millennium with its cell phones, botox, dyed spiked hair, and pierced bodies. Back in the winter of 1928 in a piece heralding Arno’s very first exhibition of drawings, Time magazine said of him, “he lies in wait for those moments when civilized people burst through their shimmering camouflage of gentility and blatantly expose rage, sex, silliness.” If Arno was here today, he’d have more than enough work to keep himself busy.
James Thurber has always been my cartoon god, so it may seem kind of strange that I’ve spent nearly five years working on Peter Arno’s biography. But tackling Thurber was out of the question. Harrison Kinney and Burton Bernstein have been there and done that. So have Richard Tobias, Charles Holmes, Robert Long, Neil Grauer, and Robert Morseberger.
What brought me to Arno in the Fall of 1999 was the realization that Arno’s life remained unexamined. Short biographic entries exist, and so do two or three page summaries, but the man who’s often credited with helping to save, resurrect and lift the fledgling New Yorker, deserves more. I doubt I’ll be pleased when I cross the last “t” and dot the last “i” on Arno’s story, although there have been times when he’s made it difficult for me. There are some loose ends that I fear will never be tied: where is the song “My Heart Is On My Sleeve” he is said to have published? Where is “The Albatross”, the car he designed and had built? ( it was last seen parked at a gas station in Chicago in the mid-1980s).** Where is his finished “Western melodrama” mentioned in Look magazine in 1949?
Chasing Arno’s story sucked me deeper into a world I’ve known since 1977 when The New Yorker finally caved in to my barrage of submissions. Like a kid in a candy store, I was soon walking the halls of the magazine, then located at 25 West 43rd Street. In due time I managed to meet cartoon greats like George Booth, Edward Koren, Frank Modell, Henry Martin, Warren Miller, Arnie Levin, Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, and Charles Saxon, to name but a few. And I met fellow new kids on the block, like Jack Ziegler, Bob Mankoff, Roz Chast, Richard Cline, Mick Stevens, Liza Donnelly, Peter Steiner and Peter Vey.
Arno, like George Price, Charles Addams, and many other cartoonists of that era, was a different breed of cartoonist than today’s lot. While many of the golden age contributors wrote some (or all) of their ideas, many did not. Today’s cartoonists might take an outside idea once in awhile, but the bulk of their work is their own. Every cartoonist has an idea about where ideas come from. I once wrote in an introduction to a collection of cartoons “All cartoonists are spies. We lurk on the fringes of fads and trends, picking up vital pieces of information.” I should add that we’re also a bit like sponges – we sop up much of what we come across. What we’ve taken in blends, churns and mixes in our brains until amazingly, sometimes startlingly, an idea is produced that seems good enough to put down on paper.
At the end of a cartoonist’s workday, it’s impossible to know if a “New Yorker cartoon” is among the newly hatched drawings on the drawing board. It’s better not to think of the work that way. The better thing to do is to try to do something that works for you. The very notion that there is such an animal as a “New Yorker cartoon” owes much to Arno. He began contributing to the magazine in June of 1925, and by mid 1926 his work was as important to the magazine as the two staples that held each issue together. His drawings, usually published full page, were graphically commanding. Flipping through now ancient issues of The New Yorker, one’s eye easily catches and stays on Arno’s drawings. The simple broad brush strokes delivered onto the page as if by providence, were instantly recognizable. He owned the look.
By 1944 Arno was acclaimed by Life magazine as the “ …old master of The New Yorker cartoon school” ( even though he was only forty-one years old). The 1940s through the 1950s was his era of solid gold hits. Including “Well, back to the old drawing board” and the captionless drawing known as the Man in the Shower. Most cartoonists will admit to being influenced by other cartoonists’ work, but Arno’s work is theft-proof. Try it – I have – and you’ll see what I mean.
As The New Yorker’s founder and Editor Harold Ross went about the business of producing his first issue, he was already on the lookout for something other than the uninspired cartoons and limp jokes dotting the pages of established weeklies. Instituting his own form of quality control, Ross ( with the guidance of Rea Irvin) was genius enough to see in Arno’s initial submissions to the magazine – not to mention Helen Hokinson’s – something special. Both these cartoonists flourished like mad within their first year at the magazine. Arno’s work perhaps demanded more attention because it was just so…well… demanding. In Arno’s work, and Hokinson’s, the infant New Yorker had found its measuring stick.
Finding Arno’s work is relatively easy. It’s in every New Yorker album right up to and including The 75th Anniversary Collection, where his chorus girls dance on the cover. For those who want it all, his New Yorker work – excepting his spots and covers – is now available on two discs included with The Complete Book of New Yorker Cartoons. * Two collections appeared after his death, ten collections appeared in his lifetime. There isn’t a used bookstore worth its salt that doesn’t have at least one copy of Arno’s bestseller Sizzling Platter. The man himself wrote the introduction to his 1951 collection, Ladies & Gentlemen.
New York, Aug.2004
* In 2005 The Complete New Yorker was released. Every page of every single issue of the magazine is included on 8 discs ( a booklet Highlights from The Complete New Yorker accompanies the set).
** In December of 2009, I learned that The Albatross has survived. It currently sits in a garage in the mid-west. awaiting extensive renovation.