Rea Irvin’s Talk of The Town Town Masthead: “A Mere Reassuring Blur”

I’m devoting today’s Spill to Rea Irvin’s long-running Talk of The Town masthead —  the one that appeared for 92 years, before being replaced this past May by a redrawn effort.   Tune out if you wish — at least I’m not talking about the two dots that sometime appear below certain cartoons.

I happened upon this passage about the Irvin masthead  (shown above) in Brendan Gill’s must-read memoir, Here At The New Yorker.  I haven’t read a better description. We pick up just after Gill has discussed Eustace Tilley:

“The drawing at the head of “Talk’ is in some ways ways more mysterious even than the cover and deserves examination.  The dandy is shown at the left-hand side of the drawing; he is in profile, wearing a high stock, with a monocle on on a ribbon screwed into his left eye. He is engaged in writing a missive of some length with a grotesquely exaggerated quill pen.  On the right-hand side of the drawing, full-face to the viewer, perches a plump black owl, roguishly winking.  Between the dandy and the owl rise some peculiar skyscrapers, topped by cupolas unlike any any to be seen in New York.  Rays of sunlight, or perhaps moonlight (for the owl’s unwinking eye is wide-open), stream from behind the skyscrapers.  Dandy, owl, and sky-scrapers are drawn along a single notched, curving line, under and over which float a number of wheels with sawtoothed  rims. What is this incoherent jumble? Nobody alive any longer remembers, and it doesn’t matter. There the heading is, and every week we see it and yet take care not to see it.; it is a mere reassuring blur at the top of the page as we settle down to our reading of Notes and Comment. As such, it remains a continuing witness to the almost total confusion  of purpose manifested in those early days by Ross…”

The new masthead — and I have to stress it is new — appears below.

 

As I wrote on the Spill back in May when this new masthead was installed (the redesign first appeared in the issue of May 22, 2017),  Mr. Irvin’s charmingly imperfect scroll-like line has met a white-out brush.  His owl has been re-drawn, his buildings re-drawn too (with the inclusion of One World Trade Center in this new assortment).  Tilley himself has changed just a bit.  The designery horizontal line running over the drawing (added in the issue of February 21, 2000) remains.

Let’s compare and contrast the Irvin masthead with this new one, which we’ll call the Niemann version (after Christoph Niemann, who was hired to redraw the masthead), incorporating some of what Mr. Gill spoke of.  The 92 year old masthead segments below will always appear on the left (you’ll be able to tell the difference because of the slight amber color of the older version); the Niemann redrawn masthead segments are to the right. 

Brendan Gill: “The dandy is shown at the left hand side…he is engaged at writing a missive of some length”

The dandy remains in Niemann’s version, although he’s lost many of the character lines in his hair, on his jacket and even his face. The white dots on his lapel have disappeared. His body has narrowed as well.  Tilley’s new face is smoother — not yet approaching the cartoony Tilley look the magazine has incorporated on its various online features, as seen here:

 

Brendan Gill: The “plump owl”:

The Irvin owl as been replaced by a slimmed down version and losing some of the woodcut-esque lines around its face. It somewhat resembles a rubber stamp.

Brendan Gill: The “peculiar skyscrapers topped by cupolas unlike any to be seen in New York”:

The new skyscrapers (seen on the right) are no longer peculiar; they are now a generic skyline, identifiable as Manhattan’s only by the addition of the World Trade Center, which, if we’re going to get technical (and I wish we wouldn’t) would rise far above its neighboring buildings. The cupolas are gone, as is the spacing of the buildings. The new buildings are huddled together. The building to the far left in the new version looks somewhat like Pisa’s Leaning Tower, except it’s not leaning. Irvin’s buildings had breathing space — something city dwellers cherish.

 

Brendan Gill: “Rays of sunlight, or perhaps moonlight…stream from behind the skyscrapers”

 In the 92 year old version, each of Irvin’s rays can be seen as an actual drawn line, with imperfections, even a blob or two of ink just above the owl. In the new version (on the right) the beautiful symmetry of the streaming lines has been off-set by the disappearance of a line shown behind the owl’s head. The hand-drawn quality of the lines has disappeared, replaced by perfect spear-like lines, each one just like the other.

 

Brendan Gill: The “single notched curvy line”:

The curvy line has completely lost its notches. The bare line in the new version seems drawn by a chiseled felt tip marker. Its end on the right  just tapers off. Irvin’s 92 year old version ends with a mysterious irregular line, that runs thin to thick, ending with what looks like the bumper at the end of a subway line. It’s quite beautiful in its own peculiar way.

Brendan Gill: “…a number of wheels with sawtoothed rims”

The wheels remain, yet they have been re-drawn. (Irvin’s on the left, Niemann’s on the right). Note how Irvin’s scroll has lost its flair as well as a couple of tiny scratchy lines just to the left of Tilley’s elbow.

The cleaned up wheels, shown in the screen grab below right are puzzling.  In the Irvin drawing on the left, we see what look like the artist’s expressions of the moment — stray pen marks around the small circle floating off to the right.  I’m a fan of imperfection.

 

And there we have it. Irvin’s “reassuring blur” has been transformed into something far less blurry, featuring crisp lines, a defined skyline with at least one identifiable building in it, and an 86ing of character lines.  Rea Irvin created a masthead drawing with charm, mystery, and grace.  It’s a pity that it no longer “remains a continuing witness to the almost total confusion of purpose manifested in those early days by Ross…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steig Covers Brendan Gill’s Here At The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few days ago I took a look at Charles Addams’s original cover for Brendan Gill’s Here At The New Yorker (Random House, 1975).  Today I’m adding the 1990 edition of that book to the Spill’s New Yorker Cartoonists Library. This edition, published in the UK by Heinemann, features  a William Steig cover originally published by the New Yorker, February 14, 1964.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An even later edition (De Capo Press, 1997) features a typically exuberant Frank Modell drawing:

 

 

 

Luckily, Mr. Gill kept adding new introductions as each edition appeared, giving us a kind of play-by-play as the New Yorker‘s editors and the magazine itself changed over time.

A bonus tucked away at the end of every edition: “Shawn On Ross” — nearly eight pages about Harold Ross written by his successor, William Shawn.

Author’s Progress Report: Thomas Vinciguerra on his Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of the New Yorker

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(above: foreground: Fritz Foord, Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Case (owner of the Algonquin Hotel) and Dorothy Parker. Standing, left to right: Alan Campbell, St. Clair McKelway, Russell Maloney and James Thurber.

 

An Ink Spill Exclusive:

Wolcott Gibbs and Co. in Upcoming Group Portrait

There’ve been a handful of New Yorker-centered books in recent years that have caused the house lights here to blink in excitement and anticipation.  The Linda Davis biography of Charles Addams, James Stevenson’s lovely book on Frank Modell, and Deirde Bair’s biography of Saul Steinberg.  Now another is added to that short list.  Last August, Publisher’s Weekly announced that W.W. Norton would be publishing Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of The New Yorker, by Thomas Vinciguerra in the spring of 2015, coinciding with the magazine’s 90th anniversary. Since then, little has been heard from Vinciguerra. But some delicate arm-twisting elicited an update and overview from the harried author.

 

“After months of plowing through The New Yorker records at the main branch of the New York Public Library, I can safely say that I should be able to wrap up my primary digging there by the end of the summer,” Vinciguerra says. “I’ll soon be off to a few other archival collections and conducting some interviews. But happily, I’ve been working on this book in one form or another for so long that much of my research is already done.”

Thereby hangs a tale. In the fall of 2005 Vinciguerra began investigating the life of Gibbs (1902-1958), who in more than 30 years at The New Yorker contributed countless comic sketches, parodies, profiles, short stories, “Talk” and “Comment” pieces and, notably, a pungent theatre column for approximately two decades. “I was appalled that this incredibly productive, versatile, indispensable contributor had been largely forgotten to history,” he recalls. “But for five years, nobody wanted a biography about him. Their attitude was, ‘Wolcott Gibbs? Who’s he?’ Then, in 2010 I got lucky. Bloomsbury had published A Reporter at Wit’s End, a collection of the journalism of Gibbs’s colleague and friend St. Clair McKelway, and I found they were looking to do a follow-up. So in 2011 they came out with my anthology Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs From The New Yorker.

Backward Ran Sentences (its title derives from the famous 1936 Gibbs profile of Henry Luce, which spoofed many aspects of Time magazine, notably its weirdly inverted narrative structure) was a minor success and reawakened some interest in Gibbs. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post named it one of his best books of the year and even Time declaimed puckishly, “Forward run to this Wolcott Gibbs anthology.” Still, there was no interest in a full-length account of Gibbs’s life.

“Finally,” says Vinciguerra, “I got in touch with my old friend John Glusman, editor-in-chief at Norton. He suggested a book about Gibbs and his circle, shamelessly playing up The New Yorker angle and such giants as White and Thurber, to elicit as much interest as possible. Proceeding from the principle that half a loaf is better than you know what, I gratefully accepted.”

The volume will be neither a history of The New Yorker nor a conventional biography, but rather a group portrait of a certain collection of writers, editors, artists, entertainers and other personalities placed against the backdrop of the magazine, with Gibbs as a focal point. “The best comparison I can make is to Poets in Their Youth,” Vinciguerra says, “in which Eileen Simpson chronicled the lives and times of a whole bunch of interconnected persons—Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, R.P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell—with her husband, John Berryman, as a connecting link.”

It’s an unconventional approach, and Vinciguerra is finding that he has his work cut out for him. “This is unlike anything I’ve done before,” says the author, a founding editor of The Week magazine and a contributor to various sections of The New York Times for almost 20 years. “And I’m afraid that I’m going to disappoint some people. When Brendan Gill came out with a new edition of Here at The New Yorker, he explained that the book wasn’t an official account of life at the magazine; it was an account of his life at the magazine. Similarly, Cast of Characters will concern itself almost exclusively with Gibbs and the people who were part of his orbit.

“Fortunately, Gibbs wasn’t merely a writer but a major New Yorker editor as well. And unlike White and Thurber, with whom he was always mentioned in the same breath, he never formally left the staff. So he was absolutely an ongoing, sometimes omniscient, presence. At the same time, there were many big names that weren’t in his crowd. You’re not really going to see anything here about folks like Joe Mitchell, Jean Stafford, Dorothy Parker, Richard Rovere, Saul Steinberg, or S.J. Perelman. A.J. Liebling, Robert Benchley and Peter Arno, among others, will enter only fleetingly.

“At the same time, there will be new information about hitherto elusive figures who Gibbs did interact with, like St. Clair McKelway, Russell Maloney, Gus Lobrano, John Mosher, Hobie Weekes, and Freddie Packard. It goes without saying that along with White and Thurber, Harold Ross and Katharine White will loom large. So, too, will Gibbs’s close friends Charles Addams and John O’Hara, and his literary enemy Alexander Woollcott. And I’m paying special attention to the two worlds that Gibbs really made his own—Broadway and Fire Island.

“I’m tempted to spill even more, but I do have a deadline.”

 

Some links of interest:

From newyorker.com, October 11, 2011, an interview with Jon Michaud of The New Yorker: “Q&A: Thomas Vinciguerra on Wolcott Gibbs”

From The Committee Room, December 12, 2012, this interview:  “TCR Recommends — “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs by Thomas Vinciguerra”

From The Washington Post, December 9, 2011, “Year-end Picks”

From Time, October 25, 2011, “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker”

And…

Mr. Vinciguerra has been kind enough to pass along to this address examples of some of the treasure he has discovered while digging through the New Yorker’s archives in the New York Public Library.  From what I’ve been seeing, there is no doubt “Cast of Characters” will be in a league with “Genius in Disguise”  Thomas Kunkel’s spectacular biography of Harold Ross.  Come 2015, we are in for a treat.