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.