Michael Crawford, who began publishing his drawings in The New Yorker in 1984, passed away this past Tuesday afternoon.
The first time I laid eyes on him, thirty-two years ago, I was sitting in a street level apartment next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. The apartment belonged to another New Yorker cartoonist, Richard Cline. I was waiting for Cline to finish up a phone call so we could cab uptown to the Pierre Hotel on 5th Avenue for the magazine’s annual anniversary party. Crawford suddenly came in through Klein’s Seinfeldian unlocked apartment door. More specifically, Crawford sidled in like a sand crab – looking as if he wasn’t sure he really wanted to be there or was supposed to be there. This kind of entrance became, for me, his trademark over the years: looking like he was ready to leave as soon as he entered a room.
In those early days of his run at The New Yorker he was struggling to catch William Shawn’s discerning eye. Crawford got his work into the magazine, but rather than getting in and advancing, he plateaued. As he told me in an interview in 2013:
“Shawn ran a total of 6 between ’83 and the year he departed . Once Bob Gottlieb [Robert Gottlieb was William Shawn’s successor as editor] took over, the buy rate increased.” [Shawn actually only ran a total of four in those years].
Early Crawford seemed to owe a bit to Jack Ziegler’s work. His very first drawing in The New Yorker, in the issue of June 25, 1984, [above] reserves a Ziegleresque word for the “pow” at the end. By his third drawing he was showing us, appropriately enough, a baseball. Baseball was one of Crawford’s greatest passions. Again, from my interview with him: “Baseball was life for me, from the beginning.” He soon became a fixture on The New Yorker’s baseball team.
As Gottlieb’s editorship gave way to Tina Brown’s, Crawford thrived. He told me: “Tina was relentlessly cordial, encouraging and welcoming of spread ideas.” He contributed color work (color was no stranger to him. Like many New Yorker artists he wore two hats: cartoonist and fine artist). His good friend Danny Shanahan said of him not long ago: “Michael’s not really a cartoonist – he’s an artist.”
Somewhere during his middle years at the magazine his family moved from the Boston area to a house at the end of a dirt road in a burg along the Hudson — a scenic town already lousy with New Yorker cartoonists (the aforementioned Danny Shanahan, Liza Donnelly & myself). In all the years he lived here this is how many times I spotted him walking around town: 0.
Some short scenes from my interactions with him over the years:
* I met him at a local bar & grill shortly after he moved here. He came up to where I was sitting, his eyes fixed on the television screen over the bar. “Are those the Bulls?” he said. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “he likes basketball – he’s a sports guy.” Another small window to the man.
*I was sitting in his house once staring at a painting he’d done of a rowboat. “What’re those,” I asked, pointing to the dark areas below the boat’s seats, “cast shadows?” “Yeah,” he replied, and laughed a quick laugh – as if it accidentally escaped.
Some years later his life changed again and, now single, he moved into Manhattan where he eventually met a model who soon became a fellow New Yorker cartoonist, and eventually, near the very last weeks of his life, his wife. They became the fourth New Yorker married cartoonist couple (in chronological order the four couples are: Mary Petty & Alan Dunn, Liza Donnelly & myself, Emily Richards & Marshall Hopkins, Carolita Johnson & Crawford).
I think of Crawford’s hundreds of contributions to the New Yorker: his odd energetically layered wash or marker drawings with au courant captions; his other art: the paintings of mobsters and the Kennedy assassination. I think of his sidling in and out of parties, chin up, checking out the scene (he rode a motor scooter for a while and would show up at events holding onto his helmet, ready to bolt, and jump back on his two-wheeler and vroom into the night). In any conversation his eyes never fixed on me for more than a half-second. They were wandering around, looking here there and everywhere; he wasn’t really here with me, he was somewhere way way over there. A social attention span like mercury, unless — so I’ve heard — he was painting.
All these quirky observations of Crawford — they’re like slides quickly fast forwarding on an old slide projector. Here’s one final slide: many years ago, not long after Crawford moved to this town, he wrote me and said he was gathering together, on tape, versions of the song “On Broadway” … could I think of any unusual recordings?… Well, yes, I told him, I could. So I sent him a copy of The Dave Clark Five’s rendition, which caused him to smile ever so slightly.
…They say that I won’t last too long
I’ll catch a Greyhound bus for home they all say…
NOTE: There are no collections of Michael Crawford’s New Yorker cartoons. In 2003 he edited and wrote the Introduction to The New Yorker Book of Baseball Cartoons (originally published in 2003, it was reissued in 2012). And of course his work can be found in all the New Yorker cartoon anthologies beginning with the The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975 – 1985.
[The cartoon above appeared in The New Yorker August 6, 2012]
Correction: In the initial post, I misstated Mr. Crawford’s age at the time of his death. According to Mr.Crawford’s wife, he was 70 years old, not 75.