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The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the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





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




Cartoon Auction includes work by Charles Addams, Geoge Booth, and William Steig

From the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman, “Art auction in Rhinecliff Saturday”

this news of a benefit auction of cartoons, including work by New Yorker artists  Charles Addams, George Booth, William Steig, Frank Modell, James Stevenson, Peter Steiner, Lee Lorenz, Harry Bliss, Barbara Smaller, Charles Barsotti, Joe Dator, Gahan Wilson, Robert Mankoff, Liza Donnelly, P.C. Vey, Roz Chast, Danny Shanahan, Carolita Johnson, Edward Frascino, Michael Crawford, Zachary Kanin, Pat Byrnes, Mick Stevens, David Sipress, Raymond Davidson, Robert Weber, Jason Polan, Henry Martin, and more.
In addition to the auction, a signed Charles Addams print will be raffled.

Link here to the Morton Memorial Library



Steig’s birthday


The one and only William Steig was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1907 (he died in Boston, October 3, 2007). Steig contributed over 1600 cartoons and 117 covers to The New Yorker in his 73 years with the magazine.

Speaking of Steig to The New York Times in 2007,  Lee Lorenz, former Art editor of The New Yorker, said that “because of him ‘the next generation of artists felt a freedom they never had before.'”


In Good Company: a look at the cartoons in Al Ross’s New Yorker debut issue


The news that Al Ross passed away last week got me to thinking about  his start at The New Yorker, way way back in the issue of November 27, 1937, when he was twenty-five years old. This morning I went to our cabinet full of bound New Yorkers, brought out the volume from late 1937 and began paging through the particular issue that contains Al’s inaugural drawing. It’s a wonderful snapshot of that time with an outstanding roster of cartoonists.

The issue begins with a Helen Hokinson cover,  one of those pieces capturing a moment. Beautiful. The first cartoon is by Charles Addams, done in his earlier style before his drawings became more defined. Next up is a Richard Decker drawing printed in step-ladder fashion – sitting atop two columns of type. On the opposite page, a Richard Taylor, also step-ladderish. Taylor had such an unusual style – it reminds me of P.C. Vey’s in a way. Turning the page we come to a beautiful full page by William Galbraith. On the opposite page a great spot drawing by Suzanne Suba – a Macy’s parade moment.

Next page, a Mary Petty that nearly eats up the whole page. Opposite that is a short piece by E.B.White titled “Small Thanks to You “(sorry, couldn’t avoid mentioning that). Several pages later a Syd Hoff spread along the top third of the page. Up next is one of the masters of the full page, Gluyas Williams. A few pages later the two Prices face each other: George and Garrett.

I have to take a break here just for a moment and comment on the way the make-up department handled the cartoons. With the exception of the full page cartoons, every single cartoon was awarded a unique space, meaning the shape of the cartoon is different for each cartoon. Even the cartoons that are rectangular are never the same size (the Hoff stretched out three columns wide, the Garrett Price two and a half columns wide).

Turning the page, a Robert Day cartoon (another rectangle, but nearly square). Two pages later, not a cartoon, but an Al Frueh drawing illustrating a current Broadway show.  Frueh does a terrific take on Orson Welles.  Would love to see a collection of his theater pieces in a book (there is a very nice catalog of his work, but so far, not a collection).

Two pages later we find Al Ross’s first New Yorker cartoon (caption: “Listen, Chief…”). Those familiar with Al’s later work would be hard pressed to recognize this cartoon as one of his.  It’s done in a somewhat early Addams-ish style. Across the gutter from the cartoon the name “Robert Benchley” appears at the end of his theater review.  Heady company!

A number of pages go by before we reach a fairly large and very funny Barbara Shermund cartoon.  Leafing through more pages, through the New Yorker’s holiday wrap up of children’s toys and books, we come upon a brief review of Dr. Seuss’s  And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street: “Slight but humorous. Spirited comic-strip pictures and a rhymed text show the power of exaggeration…”

And finally, a Perry Barlow cartoon to end the issue.  It’s a children’s book themed drawing running on the book review page.  If I’m not mistaken this is an unusual pairing. I’ve been under the impression for most of my life that the editors avoided tying the cartoons to the surrounding story.

Before we close the magazine, a treat near the end:  a full page ad for The 1937 New Yorker Album, published by Random House. A banner running across the page declares: “Just Published – bigger and funnier than ever.” Contributors include all the aforementioned in this post ( except Al, whose work would begin showing up in later Albums) plus, among others,  Peter Arno, James Thurber,  Rea Irvin, Gardner Rea, Otto Soglow, Alan Dunn, Barney Tobey, Alajalov,  Chon Day, Carl Rose, Whitney Darrow, Jr., and William Steig.  Wow.


For more on Al Ross, head on over to newyorker.com, where the magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, has posted this piece (it includes a good scan of Al’s first cartoon).

And for even more: Mike Lynch has posted a number of Al’s drawings on his site. (You’ll need to scroll down a ways, past all the NCS business)