“The Place Was Especially A Mess After The Weekly Art Meetings”

 

 

… “The artists, who waited for the verdicts, scrambled for desk space where they could retouch their cartoons and spots according to what Wylie, or Katharine Angell, told them what Ross wanted.”*

 

— So said New Yorker editor and writer Rogers Whitaker to Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney. He was describing a wonderfully fun and exciting time and place: The New Yorker in its infancy, ninety some years ago.

 

What’s changed since then?  Well, the cartoonists no longer wait in the office to hear the verdict for that week’s submissions (email now alerts them to a sale, and more often, rejection). However, many cartoonists still head to the New Yorker every week to sit across from the cartoon editor. It’s a chance to connect with the editor, to get feedback, to discuss that week’s submissions.  It’s also a chance to socialize with colleagues.  Cartoonists, as has been said many times, are mostly solitary creatures, whiling away at their drawing boards or tablets without the company of other humans.

 

Using the clues of the personalities Mr. Whitaker mentioned we know that the artists (cartoonists for the most part with some cover artists tossed in) began showing up at the New Yorker from the very first days of the magazine. What we don’t know is exactly when the cartoonists began showing up to see the Art Editor — a ritual that began sometime during James Geraghty’s tenure as the magazine’s first Art Editor.

 

Rea Irvin, the New Yorker‘s Art Supervisor did not meet the artists flooding into the office. So who actually saw the artists coming in? It was, in the very beginning, Ross’s secretary, Helen Mears, who was soon fired and replaced by a young man named Philip Wylie. He was the unofficially titled artists “hand-holder” — the link between the editorial staff and the cartoonists.   Most importantly to The New Yorker‘s history, and to its success, Wylie is the person who, while looking through twenty-one year old Peter Arno’s portfolio one day in 1925  happened to spot a drawing Arno hadn’t intended to show: a sketch  of “two old bats about to charge obliviously into a trap — made by the rise of a sidewalk elevator. It [the drawing] greatly amused me.”   The  “two old bats” came to be called The Whoops Sisters, and also came to be credited as very likely rescuing The New Yorker from an early demise.  This moment was one of the so-called “happy accidents” that saved the New Yorker and propelled it forward. And it could have only happened because Arno came into the office and sat down with Wylie.

 

We know that upon James Geraghty’s appointment as Art Editor in 1939 he began working closely with the magazine’s staff cartoonists on Look Day (Tuesdays back then, and for many years after. Wednesdays now).  What has always endeared me to the editor/artist dance at the magazine is that editorial prompts are not directives — they are suggestions.  This practice continued on during Lee Lorenz’s twenty-four years as art editor after he succeeded Geraghty, and it continues right up to today.

 

Mr. Lorenz ran a very tight ship in those twenty-four years; artists had to be invited in to the office on Look Day.  Even some long-time contributors did not receive the coveted invitation.  They had to drop off their work at the receptionist’s glassed-in cubicle at the end of the hallway near the elevators. To be invited back was well-earned. And what you found once you were buzzed through the hallway door and then walked down the dog-legged hallway to the Art Department was a small cream-colored waiting room filled with cartoonists whose names would most likely be as familiar as the names of your family members. Their work, of course, would be familiar as well. The days of artists messing up the office were in the rear view mirror.  Some of the cartoonists actually had “studios” in the building (Charles Addams, Frank Modell, James Stevenson, Edward Koren among them).  Mr. Lorenz had an editorial light touch when working with artists — a shade lighter than Geraghty’s, or so I’ve been told; like Geraghty, Lorenz’s advice was succinct, and spot-on.

 

When Bob Mankoff succeeded Mr. Lorenz, he instituted what he called an “open door” policy,  saying, “I’ll see anyone.”  And in they came. To be sure, it created a different climate in what is called the cartoonists lounge.  Lots of new faces, many unpublished in The New Yorker, or anywhere, mingled with veteran contributors such as Sam Gross, George Booth, and Mort Gerberg. The scene wasn’t messy, as in the old days, but it was lively (they’ve had to be “hushed” on more than one occasion.  Dana Fradon, recalling the pre-Mankoff days, told Ink Spill: “Once, when someone down the hall voiced an official complaint about ‘noise’ coming from the cartoonists waiting room, Ed Fisher and I went out into the hall and sang, in close harmony, ‘The Beer-Barrel Polka’. “Roll out the barrel…”).

 

It was recently announced that a New Yorker editor, Emma Allen would replace Mr. Mankoff in May. A Cartoon Department email soon followed announcing that Mr. Mankoff would not see cartoonists on Look Day in these last weeks of his editorship.  How eerily quiet it will be around the cartoon lounge on Wednesday mornings!  I imagine that come May, the non-existent doors to the cartoon department will swing open again (there are waist-high partitions everywhere now, and just a few doors) and the cartoonists will flood in, as lively and boisterous as they’ve been for over ninety years.

 

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*A Who’s Who of those mentioned above

Emma Allen:  Ms. Allen has worked as an editor of Talk of The Town, a writer, and editor of Daily Shouts, and as of May this year, The New Yorker‘s Cartoon Editor.

Ed Fisher: Mr. Fisher’s first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker October 27, 1951; he went on to contribute over 700 cartoons. He died in 2013.

Dan Fradon:  Mr. Fradon, whose first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker, May 1, 1948,  is the doyen of the magazine’s artists. He has published well over a thousand cartoons in the magazine.

James Geraghty: a former gag-writer, hired in 1939, he became the magazine’s first Art Editor.  Before Geraghty, there was no one single person at the magazine dedicated to overseeing all the art (Harold Ross was the overseer of everything in his magazine).  Ross’s successor, William Shawn said of Geraghty: “Along with Harold Ross…he set set the magazine’s comic art on its course and he helped determine the direction in which the comic art would go and is still going.”  Mr. Geraghty was the art editor from 1939 through 1973. He died in 1983.

Rea Irvin: Mr. Irvin is a huge part of the New Yorker’s DNA as he’s responsible for the New Yorker‘s first cover (featuring the fellow referred to as Eustace Tilley); Mr. Irvin adapted the typeface that we now call the Irvin typeface; he contributed a record number of New Yorker covers, and last but not least, he helped “educate” Harold Ross, art-wise. He died in 1972.

Harrison Kinney: A reporter for The New Yorker from 1949-1954; his massive biography of James Thurber: His Life & Times was published in 1995.

Lee Lorenz: Geraghty’s successor as Art Editor (and later, under Tina Brown’s editorship, as Cartoon Editor).   He began as editor in 1973, handing over the reigns to Bob Mankoff in 1997. Mr. Lorenz is also one of, if not the most prolific New Yorker cartoonists. He is also the author of numerous books about New Yorker cartoonists, including the must-read history, The Art of The New Yorker:1925- 1995.

Bob Mankoff: Mr. Mankoff, also a cartoonist for the magazine, has been its cartoon editor for over nineteen years.  His memoir, How About Never — Is Never Good For You?: My Life In Cartoons was published in 2014.

Helen Mears: Harold Ross’s first secretary and the first person delegated to be a go-between the editorial department and the artists. She was fired by Philip Wylie on orders from Harold Ross. Mr. Wylie then assumed Ms. Mears duties.

Harold Ross: The founder and first editor of The New Yorker. There are three biographies of Mr. Ross. Thomas Kunkel’s biography Genius in Disguise is essential reading. Mr. Ross died in 1951.

William Shawn: Appointed in January of 1952 as Harold Ross’s successor. He remained editor until 1987. He died in 1992.

Rogers E. M. Whitaker: hired in 1926 he headed the checking department and later the make-up department.  Mr. Whitaker went on to become an editor and contributor to the New Yorker, working under various names:  “E.M. Frimbo”  (“The World’s Greatest Railroad Buff”) for pieces chronicling his journeys on the nations railways; “J.W.L.” for his pieces about Ivy League football; “The Old Curmudgeon” when he wrote for The Talk of The Town.   Mr. Whitaker died in 1981.

Katharine White: Hired in August of 1925, Ms. White (then Angell) was the magazine’s first Fiction Editor.  According to the New York Times: she…”exerted a profoundly creative influence on contemporary American literature…having transformed The New Yorker from a humor magazine into the purveyor of much of the best writing in the country.” Before James Geraghty consolidated the Art Department, the art was under the umbrella of the Fiction Department.  Lee Lorenz has written of her that “she was a powerful voice in the selection of the magazine’s art.” She died in 1977.  Linda Davis’s biography, Onward & Upward: A Biography of Katharine S. White is essential reading.

Philip Wylie: “The New Yorker‘s first bona fide applicant” was the magazine’s second artist hand holder.  He attended hundreds of the magazine’s first art meetings.  His short stint at The New Yorker was followed by a long and successful career as a writer including the best-selling Generation of Vipers.  He died in 1971

 

 

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