Tina Brown on The New Yorker’s Cartoonists: “Anyone Who is Funny is Miserable”

Speaking this morning at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism Publishing Course, Tina Brown, editor in chief of The Daily Beast, said that when she arrived at The New Yorker as its new editor in 1992 (replacing Robert Gottlieb), she found the magazine’s cartoonists were “the most aggressive” when it came to changes she was making at the magazine. According to Gretchen Maslin, who was in the audience, Ms. Brown went on to say of the cartoonists, “they were afraid I’d get rid of the cartoons.” When Ms. Brown became editor she opened up the graphic character of the magazine (for instance, the high profile hiring of Richard Avedon as The New Yorker’s first staff photographer). At the time a number of cartoonists saw the introduction of other graphics as less space for cartoons. Ms. Brown went on to say in her remarks this morning that the cartoonists were  “the most aggressive because they were miserable. Anyone who is funny is miserable.”


Timeline of New Yorker Editors:

Harold Ross:  Founder and first editor, 1925 – 1951

William Shawn: 1952 – 1987

Robert Gottlieb: 1987 – 1992

Tina Brown: 1992 – 1998

David Remnick: 1998 – present



The New Yorker’s Art Meeting: A Potted History



It’s tempting to believe that the structure of The New Yorker’s Art Department arrived fully formed in 1924 when Harold Ross, with his wife Jane Grant  began pulling together his dream magazine.  But of course, such was not the case.


What we know for certain is that once the first issue was out,  Ross and several of his newly hired employees began meeting every Tuesday afternoon to discuss the incoming art submissions.  The very first art meetings consisted of Ross, his Art Director, Rea Irvin, Ross’s secretary, Helen Mears, and Philip Wylie, the magazine’s first utility man.  In no short order, Ralph Ingersoll, hired in June of ’25  joined the art meeting, and later still, Katharine White (then Katharine Angell), hired in August of ’25, began sitting in.

From  James Thurber’s account in The Years With Ross we get a good idea of what took place at the meeting, which began right after lunch and ended at 6 pm:

In the center of a long table in the art meeting room a drawing board was set up to display the week’s submissions…Ross sat on the edge of a chair several feet away from the table, leaning forward, the fingers of his left hand spread upon his chest, his right hand holding a white knitting needle which he used for a pointer…Ross rarely laughed outright at anything. His face would light up, or his torso would undergo a spasm of amusement, but he was not at the art meeting for pleasure.

William Maxwell, who joined The New Yorker’s staff in 1936,  told the Paris Review in its Fall 1982 issue:

Occasionally Mrs. White would say that the picture might be saved if it had a better caption, and it would be returned to the artist or sent to E. B. White, who was a whiz at this… Rea Irvin smoked a cigar and was interested only when a drawing by Gluyas Williams appeared on the stand.

And from Dale Kramer’s Ross and The New Yorker:

When a picture amused him Irvin’s eyes brightened, he chuckled, and often, because none of the others understood art techniques, gave a little lecture.  There would be a discussion and a decision. If the decision was to buy, a price was settled on.  When a picture failed by a narrow margin the artist was given a chance to make changes and resubmit it. Irvin suggested improvements that might be made, and Wylie passed them on to the artists.


In a letter to Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney, Rogers Whitaker, a New Yorker contributor from 1926 – 1981, described the scene in the magazine’s offices once the art meeting ended:

The place was especially a mess after the weekly art meeting. The artists, who waited for the verdicts, scrambled for desk space where they could retouch their cartoons and spots according to what Wylie, or Katharine Angell, told them Ross wanted done.

Wylie was one of many artist  “hand-holders” – the bridge between the editors and the artists.  Some others who held this position were Thurber (briefly, in 1927), Wolcott Gibbs, Scudder Middleton, and William Maxwell.  According to Maxwell, Katharine White’s hand-holding duties were eventually narrowed to just Hokinson and Peter Arno, the magazine’s prized artists.

Lee Lorenz wrote in his Art of The New Yorker that, in the earliest years,  the look of the magazine:

had been accomplished without either an art editor in the usual sense or the support of anything one could reasonably call an art department.

That changed in 1939 when former gagman, James Geraghty was hired.  As with so much distant New Yorker history, there’s some fuzziness concerning exactly what Geraghty was hired to do.  Geraghty, in his unpublished memoir, wrote that he took the job “without any inkling” of what was required of him. There’ve been suggestions in numerous accounts of New Yorker history, that Geraghty was hired as yet another in the lengthening line of artist hand-holders, in this case, succeeding William Maxwell, who was increasingly pre-occupied with his own writing as well as his editorial duties under Katharine White.

Geraghty, in his memoir,  recalled his first art meeting and the awkwardness of sitting next to Rea Irvin: two men seemingly sharing one (as yet unofficial, unnamed) position: Art Editor.   While E.B. White and others continued to “tinker” with captions, Geraghty began spending one day a week working exclusively on captions.   He also adopted the idea that he was the Artists’ “representative” at meetings, following Ross’s assurance  that Geraghty was being paid “to keep the damned artists happy.”

With these new components, the art meeting committee model stayed in place until the death of Ross in December of 1951.  When William Shawn officially succeeded Ross in January of 1952, he pared the meeting to two participants: Shawn, and Geraghty.

With Geraghty’s retirement in 1973, and Lee Lorenz’s  appointment as Art Editor, the art meetings continued with Lorenz and Shawn. Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb and then Tina Brown, subdivided the Art Department, creating a Cartoon Editor, an Art Editor (for covers) and an Illustration Editor.  Lorenz, who was in the midst of these modern day changes,  lays them out in detail  in his Art of The New Yorker.

Today, the  Shawn model Art Meeting continues, with the current Editor, David Remnick, and the current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff (and with a third editor occasionally joining the meeting) sitting down one day a week to look through the pile of drawings Mankoff has distilled from the mountain submitted to the magazine. The cartoonists no longer wait outside the Art Meeting’s door for the verdict on their work,  but I assure you: wherever they are on Thursday or Friday afternoon:  they’re waiting.

Pat Crow: “You Make It Good”

Pat Crow, a colleague at The New Yorker and a neighbor—he lived down the street —died last week at the age of seventy-one. Pat was the elder statesman among us local upstate New Yorkers, having made his way to The New Yorker in 1967.  In an 2001 interview with the Arkansas Gazette, Pat recalled that William Shawn hired him even though  “I think he didn’t know what to do with me.”  Pat went on to edit New Yorker contributors Andy Logan, Elizabeth Drew, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, among many many others.

My wife and I came to know Pat a little more than twenty years ago through a serendipitous conversation in the parking lot of a local Quaker Meeting house. Pat’s then wife Elizabeth struck up a conversation with us, saying she’d heard we worked for The New Yorker, adding she’d worked there once, and that her husband, Pat, still did.  After a little more chit-chat we  realized we lived right down the street from each other, barely a five minute walk.

When those blurry days arrived at the time Tina Brown was transitioning from editing Vanity Fair to editing The New Yorker, Pat was fond of  informing us outliers of what he was hearing and seeing at the office.  I was once able to return the favor when a number of other of cartoonists were invited to the office to hear Tina share her thoughts about the cartoons. Tina told the assembled cartoonists she’d like to see, “Cutting edge cartoons — not fuzzy.”

Afterwards as I wandered The New Yorker’s hallways trying to find an exit, Pat pulled me into his office by the elbow, closing his door behind us.  John Bennett, another senior editor was also there. Pat wanted to know,  “What happened? What did she say?” It was as cloak-and-dagger as The New Yorker ever got for me, and, it was a whole lot of fun.

Pat  became our Deep Throat, passing along news he’d heard as part of Tina’s circle of senior editors. Before most of the world knew that Tina Brown had chosen an Ed Sorel drawing for the first cover of her refurbished New Yorker, my wife and I learned the news from Pat. Running into Ed around that time I mentioned the cover and Ed looked startled: “How’d you know that?!” But, of course, I couldn’t reveal my source (until now).

My few lengthy chats with Pat revealed a genteel man, full of mischief.  Whatever he had to say he said with a small smile.  He seemed amused by conversation, especially concerning anything having to do with the magazine.  He was a no-nonsense guy, usually but not always willing to cut to the chase.  Reading his lengthy 2001 interview with the Arkansas Gazette I was struck by the way he summed up  his approach to the work that came across his desk for thirty years at The New Yorker, saying simply, “You make it good.”

New Yorker lure is filled with tales of staff members passing each other in the magazine’s hallways for years with perhaps just a nod – sometimes a “hello.”  Over the years as my wife and I walked our dogs down the road past the hay fields that separate Pat’s home from ours, we’d see his olive green Suburu wagon coming our way.  Sometimes he’d pause and we’d chat for a moment; sometimes he’d cruise by and offer a wave. It seemed we were all holding up our end of an Upstate New Yorker tradition.

Read:  John McPhee on Pat Crow in the current issue of The New Yorker.

“What’s So Funny About Red?” Color Cartoons in The New Yorker

I’m  betting that a good number of The New Yorker’s readers (you know, those folks who go to the cartoons before looking at anything else in the magazine) have noticed something colorful going on with the cartoons.

Four out of the first five issues of the new year have  a color cartoon (the cartoons in the issue of January 24th are black & white, while the issue of January 31 has two color cartoons).

Any article that mentions color cartoons and The New Yorker in the same breath would be ridiculously remiss without including the famous line attributed to the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross.  When asked why The New Yorker didn’t run color cartoons, Ross was reported to have said, “What’s so funny about red?”  The magazine itself used this Rossism as a heading back in its 2007 Cartoon Issue when it ran five cartoons “testing the possibilities” of using red in cartoons.  And more recently, in October of 2010, The New Yorker’s current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff,  taking part in a live online chat on the magazine’s website had this exchange with a questioner:

Q:  Do your artists feel limited by black and white?

A: I don’t think so. Everyone once in a while a cartoon demands color for the joke to be understood or better understood but for the most part color is a distraction. Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker when asked why the cartoons didn’t use color answered ” What’s so funny about red?”

Color New Yorker cartoons were once such a rarity that The New York Times, in an article dated February 15, 1989, noted  William Steig’s four-page color contribution in the magazine’s 64th Anniversary issue.  Robert Gottlieb, the magazine’s editor at the time, told the Times,  ”Cartoons and maps are not suddenly going to be in Day-Glo.” Wouldn’t that have been something?   The Times noted that the last known use of color cartoons was in 1926, when it ran a two-page spread by Rea Irvin.  [Rea Irvin’s two page color spread,  The Maharajah of Puttyput Receives a Christmas Necktie From the Queen, actually ran in the issue of December 12, 1925]

The first use of color single panel cartoons  in The New Yorker occurred during the tenure of Gottlieb’s successor, Tina Brown.  In the March 21, 1994 special issue, The New Yorker Goes to the Movies, three color cartoons appeared, one each by Peter Steiner, Liza Donnelly, and J.B. Handelsman.