James Stevenson’s Secret Job at The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

If you pick up a copy of veteran New Yorker cartoonist, cover artist, and Talk of the Town contributor James Stevenson’s latest book, The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, you’ll find a section wherein Mr. Stevenson recounts his “summer office boy” job at The New Yorker back in 1947, and mentions as well his beginnings at the magazine, nine years later, once he was hired full time.

In a  New York Times op-ed piece from January of 2011 (“New Yorker Confidential”) Stevenson recounted how James Geraghty, then The New Yorker’s Art Editor turned to him after the hiring handshake and said, “You must not tell anybody at the office or anywhere else what you do.” Only Geraghty and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn knew what he was up to all day long at the magazine. What he was up to was creating ideas for some of the established cartoonists.

The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the years wore on.  I plan on going into the subject here on Ink Spill sometime in the future.

Curious about the secrecy of Stevenson’s job, and many other things concerning his time at The New Yorker,  I called him up the other day to talk shop. Among other things, I learned that Stevenson was among the chosen (Frank Modell was another) to guide a nearly blind James Thurber around the office. According to Stevenson, this was the time-period “back when he [Thurber] was working on the soap opera series” [“Soapland” was a five part series running from the issue of May 15, 1948 thru July 24, 1948].   Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

 

Michael Maslin: Why all the secrecy?

James Stevenson: I have a very clear vision of meeting Geraghty. I was working for Life magazine –- and I’d been selling ideas [to the New Yorker] — and he said come and have a cup of coffee.  He described a career having an office at the New Yorker, and thinking up jokes, but I couldn’t tell anybody – it was a secret. And now it’s possible, but I doubt it, that he was just testing me. He liked to test people.

MM: The crowd of cartoonists that arrived at The New Yorker around the same time as you: Warren Miller, Lee Lorenz, etc.. seemed to arrive complete – you didn’t need to rely on idea men like so many of the previous generation; Helen Hokinson, Whitney Darrow, Jr.,  and  George Price to name a few.  Why was that?

JS: I think originally the  New Yorker artists –- a lot of them -– might’ve come thru the Art Student’s League or something like that and they had a background in  how to draw and how to do this and how to do that, and they would do handsome drawings but they might not be funny.

MM: I have a copy of the March 10, 1956, New Yorker in front of me – it contains your first cartoon published in The New Yorker.  Going through the list of cartoonists in that issue, it’s an amazing group: Alain, Steinberg, Steig, Perry Barlow, Barney Tobey, Hoff, Kovarsky, Richter, and on and on.  You must’ve rubbed elbows with many of them while you were there.

JS: Actually no, because I had this hidden career. I had an office for awhile across the hall from Geraghty. I didn’t much want to go into the [Art] office because pretty soon someone would ask questions. I was maybe more comfortable with people who were  Talk reporters because they wouldn’t ask me anything related to what I actually did.

MM: In your new book about Frank Modell, you mention bringing a package up to Peter Arno’s apartment on Park Avenue at around three in the afternoon and that he met you at the door still in his dressing gown.  You said that on the way home you decided you wanted to be Peter Arno.  Did you start drawing like him?

JS: No, I just liked the life style.

 

 

 

 

Video Clip of Interest: Pat Byrnes; Cartoon Within a Cartoon

 

 

 

From myfoxchicago, May 1 2013, here’s a short video of Pat Byrnes talking about his new book, Captain Dad.

Pat Byrnes’ blog: Captain Dad: The Manly Blog  of Stay-At-Home Parenting and his website: patbyrnes.com

 

and…

 

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker (May 20, 2013) there’s a rarity: a cartoon within a cartoon. Ink Spill can’t recall this ever happening before. The original version of the cartoon within the cartoon appears in the magazine’s Cartoon Bank, but was not published in The New Yorker. It would spoil the fun to simply point out where to look. Good luck hunting.

Book of Interest: The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell by James Stevenson

 

 

   Well here’s something we haven’t seen since Lee Lorenz’s Essential Cartoonist Library series ended in 2000: a book about a legendary New Yorker cartoonist written by another legendary New Yorker cartoonist.  James Stevenson’s new book, The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell (Frank & Ralph Press, 2013) is a wonderful tribute to Frank Modell, his long-time friend, and the New Yorker’s elder cartoonist statesman (his first New Yorker cartoon appeared in the issue of July 20, 1946).  Frank, who is now 95, kindly sent a copy of the book this way.  I read it through, then read it through again.

 

The book is part autobiography and part biography with reminiscences from Frank’s friends, along with a fascinating interlude by Stevenson about his early years at the magazine.  Life, Loves and Laughs is chock full of color reproductions of Modell’s art, cartoons, covers and fine art, as well as plenty of photographs including a number taken by Stevenson of William Shawn, the New Yorker’s second editor.

 

The only catch with this book, and thankfully it’s a temporary catch – is that it is privately printed and momentarily unavailable to the book-buying public. However, Ink Spill has learned that plans are well underway to soon make it available to all. This site will post details, possibly as early as next week.

 

And…

For those who’d like a hefty dose of Modell while waiting for Mr. Stevenson’s book, there’s always Frank Modell’s classic 1978 cartoon collection, Stop Trying to Cheer Me Up!(below), available through most any online book dealer. And then there are Frank’s 1400+ New Yorker cartoons and 6 New Yorker covers, readily available to anyone with a subscription to the digital edition of the magazine or access to a library holding bound New Yorkers.