Peter De Vries, Cartoon Doctor




Occasionally, Ink Spill takes a look at New Yorker contributors who weren’t cartoonists but whose work at the magazine was so intertwined with cartoons and/or cartoonists that it would be just plain silly not to look at them.  Peter De Vries,  a New Yorker staffer from 1944 through 1986, fits the bill perfectly.


De Vries, who died in 1993, moved from his hometown, Chicago, to the east coast and The New Yorker via James Thurber, who highly recommended De Vries to the magazine’s founder and editor, Harold Ross.


Hired to work part-time in the magazine’s poetry department, De Vries wrote for Notes and Comment, as well as contributing fiction.  After asking the magazine’s Art Editor, James Geraghty if there was anything he could do in the Art Department, De Vries was taken in as a “cartoon doctor” in 1947,  fixing captions, helping to develop ideas, and sometimes coming up with his own. Unless my computations are wrong, no other New Yorker editor had as  long an association with the magazine’s cartoons as De Vries: thirty-nine years.


In various interviews over the years, he seemed reticent to discuss his duties concerning cartoons. Ben Yagoda, who interviewed him for The New York Times in 1983, reported that De Vries couldn’t recall any original cartoon ideas he came up with, except one: a drawing by Richard Decker that appeared in July 21, 1945. Yagoda surmised that “DeVries  hesitancy to discuss his work in the Art Department may spring from a desire to uphold the myth that cartoonists’ works are never altered.”  That myth is worth exploring at another time, but perhaps it was less an allegiance to the myth and more of a De Vries personality trait. Former New Yorker Art/Cartoon Editor, Lee Lorenz, who was recently interviewed for this piece, described De Vries as “very quiet – sort of shy.” In a 1956 interview with The New York Times, De Vries described himself as “‘utility man in the Art Deaprtment,’ while others around the place describe him as a force in the Bull Pen.”


Frank Modell, now age 95, and the New Yorker’s eldest cartoonist,  was good friends with De Vries,  interacting with him weekly at the magazine’s office during the time Modell was Geraghty’s assistant in the 1940s.  Modell told me recently, “De Vries was an amazingly good humored guy.” Distilling De Vries’ work with cartoons, Modell said,  “he made [captions] a little more clear.”


When Lorenz succeeded James Geraghty as Art Editor in 1973, a sea-change was underway at the Art Department.  Idea men (there were no idea women) who had supplied some of the great New Yorker cartoonists with a steady stream of excellent work, were facing a new wave of cartoonists who were in the mold of Thurber – an artist who wrote all of his own ideas  — and not George Price, a cartoonist who relied completely on ideamen.

Lorenz, reflecting on that time, and the waning of idea men:

Of course there was a long tradition there of people who just did the ideas and the artists who just did the drawings, but we’d gotten past that by that point. Artists did their own stuff. If he [De Vries] came up with a good one I’d certainly take it  back to the artist, and they’d have the final word –- it was their caption.

 I’ve thought about it a lot — there’s a big difference between writing humor and captioning a cartoon. There’s a special skill to writing captions.  He was a funny writer, but when he tried to change a caption, it got longer, it got more convoluted.”

 Asked to describe his working relationship with De Vries, Lorenz said:

“We were friendly, but I hardly ever saw him. He kept pretty much to himself there.  The stuff [sheets of paper bearing copies of approved cartoons for that week] would be shipped out to his office at some point during the week and he’d go through it.   He didn’t come to the art department.  All this stuff would be passed around in a box – a regular wooden box. It would go down to his office and he would go through it and make notes and eventually it would come back to me. But I don’t remember we discussed much of this face to face.  We weren’t avoiding each other —  that was just the kind of relationship we had.

If cartoon aficionados have one reason to hold De Vries in high regard it would certainly be for the part he played in developing one of Charles Addams most enduring cartoons (and a captionless one at that). In the fall of 1946, James Geraghty, in need of a Christmas cover, invited  De Vries over to his Connecticut home to sit out on the front lawn and brainstorm. The result was the classic Addams  cartoon that appeared in the December 21, 1946 New Yorker:  three members of the so-called Addams Family, four stories up, about to pour boiling oil on the carolers below. Although Geraghty and De Vries conceived of it as a cover, Harold Ross nixed the idea and ran it inside as a full page cartoon.

De Vries, a prolific novelist, did not shy away from using his New Yorker Art Department experience in his popular 1954 book, The Tunnel of Love.  It’s the story, in a nutshell, of a fellow named Dick, who is Cartoon Editor of  The Townsman, a New Yorker-like magazine,  and  another fellow, Augie, who’s a third-rate cartoonist and first rate idea man.

Below:  De Vries first book, published in 1940, cover by Charles Addams


Special thanks to Lee Lorenz and Frank Modell for their assistance with this piece. Lee Lorenz interviewed April 9, 2013; Frank Modell interviewed April 11, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mr. Roth

Philip Roth, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, was first published in The New Yorker the issue of March 14, 1959, with his story, “Defender of the Faith” causing an immediate stir (see the upcoming PBS American Masters profile “Philip Roth: Unmasked”  for, among so many other things,  Mr. Roth’s recollection of buying, opening up, reading and rereading his story in this particular issue — jokingly(?) saying he even read it “upside down”).


The issue featured a cover by the wonderful Abe Birnbaum, who contributed nine cartoons and nearly a hundred and fifty covers to The New Yorker.  His New York Times obit (June 20, 1966) contains this quote by Mr. Birnbaum: “Nothing is ugly. Everything is what it is.”


Brendan Gill reprinted the robin cover in his book,  Here At The New Yorker, writing of it:


“Nobody was satisfied with the ‘rough’ of this giant robin as it was first seen at the weekly art meeting. At the time, the background consisted merely of landscape. Geraghty [the New Yorker’s Art Editor from 1939 thru 1973] suggested the addition of birdwatchers. That simple change changed everything.”


When Philip Roth read, reread, and read his first New Yorker story upside down, he ran across cartoons by the following cartoonists — a roster that’s just about as good a snapshot of The New Yorker cartoon universe late 1950s as any:

William O’Brian, Frank Modell, Robert Kraus, Saul Steinberg, Everett Opie, Barney Tobey, William Steig, Ed Fisher, Robert Day (whose cartoon appeared on the first page of Roth’s story), James Stevenson, Otto Soglow, Syd Hoff, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Charles Saxon, Anatol Kovarsky, Dana Fradon, Eldon Dedini,  and Lee Lorenz




Cartoon Auction includes work by Charles Addams, Geoge Booth, and William Steig

From the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman, “Art auction in Rhinecliff Saturday”

this news of a benefit auction of cartoons, including work by New Yorker artists  Charles Addams, George Booth, William Steig, Frank Modell, James Stevenson, Peter Steiner, Lee Lorenz, Harry Bliss, Barbara Smaller, Charles Barsotti, Joe Dator, Gahan Wilson, Robert Mankoff, Liza Donnelly, P.C. Vey, Roz Chast, Danny Shanahan, Carolita Johnson, Edward Frascino, Michael Crawford, Zachary Kanin, Pat Byrnes, Mick Stevens, David Sipress, Raymond Davidson, Robert Weber, Jason Polan, Henry Martin, and more.
In addition to the auction, a signed Charles Addams print will be raffled.

Link here to the Morton Memorial Library



All Cartoonists Are Actors

“If I’m drawing a certain type of character, I try to get into the spirit of the thing – and my wife complains about the faces I make while I’m working. All cartoonists, I guess, are actors in a way.”

— George Price to Jud Hurd, Cartoonist Profiles, March 1975


If you can find it, Jud Hurd’s Price interview is worth seeking out. Price (pictured above) who died in 1995 at the age of 93, is best remembered for his unparalleled mathematical drawing style, characterized by the split pen line created by his crow quill.


Let us pause briefly and consider the idea of Mrs. Price watching Mr. Price draw.  I wonder how many spouses or partners make a habit of watching their cartoonist mate draw.


I could never work with an audience.  From time-to-time while drawing I’ll realize I’m mimicking the face I’m working on. My only audience at those moments would be our Jack Russell Terrier, Bernie, who sometimes plants himself under my desk, at my feet. If there is such a thing as an audience of one, Bernie qualifies. Once I realize he’s staring at me, I can’t work. I cap my pen, leave my desk and do my best to resolve his issue (after all, he’s not there to be entertained — he wants something, such as the cat’s bowl of milk).


But I digress.  Heading back to the Price interview, it was “All cartoonists …are actors…” that really caught my attention.  I’ve long thought of cartoonists as spies, sponges, stage directors, costume designers, lighting experts, set designers, script writers (script doctors!), hair stylists, haberdashers – well, you get the idea.  But until I read this Price interview it never occurred to me that we were (possibly) actors as well.


This explains the number of cartoonists who have sought and seek the stage.  Otto Soglow was famous for his love of the stage, and Thurber appeared in his own Thurber Carnival on Broadway,  winning a special Tony for the adapted script. Peter Arno performed in summer stock, as well as investing his talents on Broadway as a producer and playwright (he also did time in Hollywood making a brief appearance in a 1937 film, Artists and Models). Frank Modell appeared in Woody Allen’s  Stardust Memories. In more recent times, Victoria Roberts has won acclaim for her stage appearances as Nona Appleby.  And then there are the numerous cartoonists currently involved in stand-up comedy.


So are all cartoonists actors?  I suppose you could say (super-duper groan alert!) some are drawn to it.