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‘s 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