Peter Arno, seriously.

 

Of the thirty-six Peter Arno drawings that appeared in The New Yorker in 1939, one should be noted as entirely different from what the readership had come to expect from his pen.  The captionless drawing of October 7th, described in The New Yorker’s records as: “Air Squadron flying over a cemetery in France” is a somber piece unlike anything Arno had ever done before.

The drawing had nothing to do with his specialties: sugar daddies, buxom babes and Cafe Society, but with the very real and current war in Europe. Although Arno’s drawings would re-visit the subject of war in the coming years,  his work would never again be so nakedly serious.

(the above excerpted from Mad At Something, my biography of Arno)

 

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The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the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

 

 

 

 

Scudder Middleton, New Yorker Cartoonists Hand-Holder and More

 

 

 

 

Does the name Scudder Middleton mean anything to you?  It meant a little something to me, but no so much…until recently when I decided to look a little deeper into his association with The New Yorker’s art department.

 

I’d seen his name on memos while sifting through the magazine’s archives in The New York Public Library, and recalled that Lee Lorenz, in his book The Art of The New Yorker, mentioned Middleton as an early artists hand-holder.  Mostly though,  Middleton was in my brain because of the following passage I remembered  from Thurber’s Years With Ross:

 

In the early thirties, Scudder Middleton, then the official handholder, was emboldened one night at the Players Club to say to Ross, How am I doing at the office?” and Ross, emboldened by Scotch, snapped, “You’re fired!”

 

 

It is Middleton’s role, however brief, as artists hand-holder that has landed him here on Ink Spill.

 

Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker’s Art Editor from 1973 through 1993, and Cartoon Editor from 1993 through 1997, recently told me in a phone interview  that the job of artists hand-holder back in the magazine’s earliest days was really no more than dealing with cartoonists who the Art Editor did not want to interact with. The hand-holder would relay the bad news to cartoonists that they hadn’t sold a drawing, or the good news that they had (along with instructions for required changes to the drawing before it was finally accepted).

 

Judith Lee in her well researched book, Defining New Yorker Humor wrote that archival material suggests Middleton acted as artist hand-holder while Katharine White was away in the Spring/Summer of 1929.  As Ms. White did leave New York  in the Spring of 1929 to obtain a divorce in Reno, the suggestion fits. It would seem that this moment also marked the beginning of Ms. White’s fade from her hand-holder duties. Middleton was the first of her assistants to be given the job (but not the first New Yorker staffer to have the job).  With Middleton’s departure,  hand-holding duties were turned over to another of White’s assistants, Wolcott Gibbs (Ms. White retained a working relationship with Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson and perhaps a few other high profile artists).

 

Middleton’s hand-holding days didn’t produce much to write about (I only came across one story of an interaction he had with a cartoonist – it’s not worth repeating here). What I did find interesting was his pre and post New Yorker history.  Thankfully,  Middleton’s  New York Times obit fills out his days following Ross’s “You’re fired!”

 

After leaving  The New Yorker,  Middleton  blossomed as an editor, working first at Stage, from 1935 through 1940, then at Tomorrow Magazine for a couple of years, then at New Movies (later renamed Films in Review).

 

A few interesting tidbits found among the New Yorker biographies, especially Harrison Kinney’s massive biography, Thurber, His Life and Times:

 

Kinney writes that Middleton, after assuming his new job at Stage, attempted to lure New Yorker writers away by offering them more money (a small irony here is that both The New Yorker and Stage were partially financed by Raoul Fleischmann).

Kinney also refers to correspondence between E.B. White and Thurber about a proposed jointly written play about Harold Ross and The New Yorker.  White says in his letter to Thurber, the book would “…have to include Scudder Middleton…”

Lastly, it would be unthinkable to leave Middleton without mentioning that he was a published poet, with at least one affair with a Big Name. Edna St. Vincent Millay  dedicated her poem “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” to Middleton, and said of him, he was “ a poet with the romantic profile of a matinee idol.”

 

Middleton died at age 70,  February 26, 1959.  At the time he was a resident of Boston. Here’s a list of his published work, all still available in one form or another:

Upper Night (Henry Holt & Co., 1927)

Streets and Faces (Little book Publishers, 1917)

The New Day (Macmillan Co., 1917)

Dining, Wining and Dancing in New York (Dodge Publishing Co. 1938)

To read more on The New Yorker’s Art Meeting, here’s a link to Ink Spill’s “Posted Notes” section.  Scroll down to February 2012.