Wolcott Gibbs and New Yorker Cartoons

 

Of all the duties Wolcott Gibbs attended to during his thirty-one years at The New Yorker (and his duties were many: editor, writer, theater critic), his relationship to the magazine’s cartoonists (or “artists” as the magazine calls them) is probably the least examined.

When Gibbs began at The New Yorker, working under Katharine Angell (later, after marrying E.B. White,  Katharine White), one of his duties was “seeing artists” — that is, he acted as the buffer between the editors and the artists, delivering the bad news or good news to cartoonists about work submitted;  if the news was good, Gibbs would relay instructions, if any, from the editors as to how to make the bought work work for publication in The New Yorker.

As his stock rose at the magazine, Gibbs went on to sit side-by-side in the weekly Tuesday afternoon Art Meetings with Katharine White, Harold Ross, and Rea Irvin.  Gibbs’ affinity with the magazine’s art went public in 1935 when he contributed a rebuttal, of sorts, to New Yorker Art Critic, Lewis Mumford, who had  issues with the work presented in the New Yorker’s Seventh Album. Here’s how Gibbs, in his piece titled “Fresh Flowers” responded to  Mumford’s quibble that the Album contained too much work that came out of “that special kind of temporary madness that springs out of a tough day at the office and three rapid Martinis.” :

 

This apparently refers to the work of a few artists characters whose characters belong to no particular land or time, and are held to the world itself only lightly, by the pull of a tempered gravity. They are the wilder shadows in the same wonderland that Lewis Carroll first explored, and are valuable to this collection as lesser examples of the same universal and timeless quality.


While continuing at the Art Meetings as an editor, Gibbs eventually passed his “seeing artists” job to a new-comer, William Maxwell,  who told The Paris Review in 1985:

 

A great deal of what was put before the art meeting was extremely unfunny. Gibbs was repelled by the whole idea of grown men using their minds in this way and seldom said anything.

 

 

Sitting in the Art Meetings, examining thousands upon thousands of “extremely unfunny” cartoons is one thing, but enjoying the work of masters of the form is very much another. It comes as no surprise then that for a quartet of New Yorker cartoonists, Gibbs was the go-to man for introducing collections of their work to the public.   He wrote the Foreward to William Steig’s 1942 collection, The Lonely Ones; the Foreward to George Price’s  1943 collection, Who’s In Charge Here?, and the Preface to Alan Dunn’s 1956 collection, Should It Gurgle?

 

In the Foreward to Charles Addams’ 1947 collection, Addams & Evil,  Gibbs wrote of the two camps of cartoons thriving in the magazine’s pages:

 

New Yorker cartoons can be roughly divided into two classifications, which, back in the days when I was the most insanely miscast of an almost endless procession of art editors, were conveniently designated as “straight” and “nutty.”

 

 

Addams in turn provided  three covers for Gibbs’  own work:

More in Sorrow (1958), Season in the Sun (1946), and Season in the Sun (the Play,  in 1950).

 

And way back in 1937, Rea Irvin, who, we can’t be reminded enough, shaped and guided the magazine’s art in its infancy, provided the cover and illustrations for Gibbs’ first collection of his New Yorker pieces, Bed of Neuroses.

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.