Fifty Years Earlier

As a cartoonist it’s (mostly) all about what’s next; this may explain why I sometimes like to take a breather and think about what was.  Still in a celebratory mode because of The New Yorker’s 86th anniversary, I went to my collection of anniversary issues and pulled out the issue from fifty years ago, dated February 18, 1961.   Thought I’d sit with it for a few moments and take a look at the cartoons.

There’s no “Table of Contents” for the issue ( the magazine didn’t add that helpful feature until the issue of March 22, 1969),  so knowing whose work appears inside will be a surprise.

William Steig’s work appears on page 14, but it’s not a cartoon, it’s an ad — an illustration for  First National City Bank.  Moving through the movie listings ( “Ben Hur,” “the Misfits,” “Exodus,” etc., etc.) and pausing to take in Otto (“The Little King”) Soglow’s wonderful “Talk of the Town” drawings, we encounter the first cartoon of the issue, and it’s by the magazine’s most prolific cartoonist, Alan Dunn (Dunn also holds the honor of being one half of the first married New Yorker cartoonist couple.  His wife was Mary Petty).   Dunn was an expert at making something out of the day’s headlines, and in this case the drawing reflects our country’s endless fascination with the Russians.

Next is a George Price drawing of a waiter holding a giant shish-kebob setting off the  restaurant’s sprinkler system.  A good solid effort by one of the masters of the Golden Age.  Richard Decker’s drawing of a doctor’s waiting room filled with self-promoting ads, including a “Specials” sign, wouldn’t be so out of place – with some tweaking — in today’s New Yorker.

A Robert Kraus is next, done in his inviting moody Dedini-esque style, and then an Ed Fisher drawing (by my calculations, the eighty-fifth of his career at The New Yorker – he eventually published just over 700).  Another Alan Dunn follows ( tied into current events, of course) and then a classic Steig husband-and-wife  domestic scene ( I can’t help but be reminded that The New Yorker is fortunate to have a contemporaneous expert at  capturing domestic scenes: Victoria Roberts). Opposite Steig’s drawing is a Steinberg,  captionless of course ( he’d given up captions long ago).  A man wearing  a helmet and shield sits on a rearing horse—they’ve just encountered a projection screen, such as the kind a family would set up to watch home movies.

A page later is a  half-page captionless Charles Addams drawing ( Addams told Dick Cavett that the captionless drawings were his favorite kind).  Turn the page and there’s a Charles Saxon ( man, did he have a smooth style) and then a Lee Lorenz ( his eighty-eighth drawing for the magazine in a career still going like gang-busters). Another page finds a Chon Day, the master of economical styling ( not counting Thurber).  Two pages later, a three-quarter beauty by Whitney Darrow, Jr.,  specifically referencing the new family at The White House; Caroline Kennedy utters the caption.

After the Darrow drawing it’s a fifty-four page wait til the next cartoon, wherein James Stevenson takes us back to a couple in ancient Rome and, shockingly(!) uses the word “orgy” in his caption.  Another twenty-nine pages zoom by before we reach the last cartoon in the issue.  By Frank Modell, it’s a bar scene, and the subject is nearly everyone’s favorite subject — a subject at which Modell excels: men and women.

Time Capsule

Staring me in the face as I sit at my desk is a wooden Cuban cigar box, stamped “Ramone Allones Trumps.” I began using it as a filing system back in the late 1970s when  I moved to Manhattan and began taking this whole business of becoming a New Yorker cartoonist very seriously.  Each week, on a 5×7” index card, I listed and numbered the cartoons I would bring up to the magazine’s offices on West 43rd Street.  The card system  began before I was accepted by The New Yorker and ended in the early 1980s  when it suddenly dawned on me that writing down the captions each week was pointless. The cigar box, jammed with these cards, has remained untouched all these years—it’s a time capsule documenting my early attempts to grab the golden ring.

For me, the card dated August 22nd, 1977  marked a major turning point.  Up til then I’d managed to sell zip, nada, nothing to The New Yorker.  But with the August 22nd card everything changed.  Among the fifteen drawings sent in that week were such curious captions (curious to me now) as caption #13, “I’ve been able to find mittens, but no Mickey” and caption #2, “Are you really buying the old Tony Curtis place?” But it was caption #10, “Nothing will ever happen to you” that The New Yorker bought and then  handed over to Whitney Darrow, Jr.  to draw up.  It was an odd moment, being accepted and rejected ( the editor rejected my drawing, but accepted the caption). It would take a number of months for the The New Yorker to finally “OK” one of my drawings and run it under my own name.

“What’s So Funny About Red?” Color Cartoons in The New Yorker


I’m  betting that a good number of The New Yorker’s readers (you know, those folks who go to the cartoons before looking at anything else in the magazine) have noticed something colorful going on with the cartoons.

Four out of the first five issues of the new year have  a color cartoon (the cartoons in the issue of January 24th are black & white, while the issue of January 31 has two color cartoons).

Any article that mentions color cartoons and The New Yorker in the same breath would be ridiculously remiss without including the famous line attributed to the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross.  When asked why The New Yorker didn’t run color cartoons, Ross was reported to have said, “What’s so funny about red?”  The magazine itself used this Rossism as a heading back in its 2007 Cartoon Issue when it ran five cartoons “testing the possibilities” of using red in cartoons.  And more recently, in October of 2010, The New Yorker’s current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff,  taking part in a live online chat on the magazine’s website had this exchange with a questioner:

Q:  Do your artists feel limited by black and white?

A: I don’t think so. Everyone once in a while a cartoon demands color for the joke to be understood or better understood but for the most part color is a distraction. Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker when asked why the cartoons didn’t use color answered ” What’s so funny about red?”


Color New Yorker cartoons were once such a rarity that The New York Times, in an article dated February 15, 1989, noted  William Steig’s four-page color contribution in the magazine’s 64th Anniversary issue.  Robert Gottlieb, the magazine’s editor at the time, told the Times,  ”Cartoons and maps are not suddenly going to be in Day-Glo.” Wouldn’t that have been something?   The Times noted that the last known use of color cartoons was in 1926, when it ran a two-page spread by Rea Irvin.  [Rea Irvin’s two page color spread,  The Maharajah of Puttyput Receives a Christmas Necktie From the Queen, actually ran in the issue of December 12, 1925]

The first use of color single panel cartoons  in The New Yorker occurred during the tenure of Gottlieb’s successor, Tina Brown.  In the March 21, 1994 special issue, The New Yorker Goes to the Movies, three color cartoons appeared, one each by Peter Steiner, Liza Donnelly, and J.B. Handelsman.