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The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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