Our good friend over at Attempted Bloggery shows us what happens when you ask a bunch of cartoonists at a book event to draw frogs (sometimes you get a crocodile — sometimes you get a dog).
Our good friend over at Attempted Bloggery shows us what happens when you ask a bunch of cartoonists at a book event to draw frogs (sometimes you get a crocodile — sometimes you get a dog).
Posted today are Garrett Price, David Preston, and John Norment‘s bios from the Westport Historical Society current exhibit, Cover Story: The New Yorker in Westport. My thanks to the Society for permission to post these wonderful pieces.
The opening of the Westport show was attended by three of The New Yorker‘s most veteran artists: Dana Fradon, James Stevenson, and Frank Modell. By my rough calculation, they contributed a combined total of nearly 5000 cartoons to The New Yorker.
I usually don’t post personal email (other than those coming through the “Comments” area of the site), but I received an email from James Stevenson’s wife, Josie, the other day, with a few photographs attached from the Westport opening. She’s kindly agreed to share these with Ink Spill visitors. So here’s Josie’s email, followed by the photographs of Frank Modell and his dear friend, James Stevenson:
Greetings, Michael… I had hoped to meet you in Westport that cold Sunday a few weeks ago. We were meeting Frank [Modell] there who was so revved to be present promptly at noon [when the pre-opening reception began]. We had a very jolly time with Frank who looked like Julius Caesar in his special haircut…for the occasion? (“More like an oligarch,” said Frank’s friend, Flicker). Luckily, Frank was interviewed! [the Westport Historical Society videotaped interviews with friends, relatives and co-workers of the artists in the exhibit].
Left: Frank Modell, front and center speaking with one of James Geraghty’s children, Sarah Geraghty Herndon. Behind Mr. Modell, to the right is Barbara Nicholls, once an assistant to James Geraghty, and later a gallery owner specializing in New Yorker artists. (Mr. Modell was himself an assistant to Mr. Geraghty in the 1940s, before beginning his career as a contributing artist). Below is James Stevenson speaking with James Geraghty’s two children, James Jr., and Sarah Geraghty Herndon.
Further reading…here’s James Geraghty’s entry on Ink Spill’s “New Yorker Cartoonists A-Z”:
James Geraghty * (photo above, Geraghty in his office at The New Yorker, 25 West 43rd St., 1948. Used with permission of Sarah Geraghty Herndon). Born Spokane, Washington, 1904. died Venice, Florida, January, 1983. While not a cartoonist, Geraghty’s contribution to the art of the New Yorker was substantial. He contributed material to cartoonists before and during his association with The New Yorker, where he served as art editor from 1939 until 1973, when the title passed to Lee Lorenz. In Geraghty’s NYTs obit (Jan 20, 1983), William Shawn said: “Along with Harold Ross, who was the first editor of the magazine, Geraghty set the magazine’s comic art on its course and he helped determine the direction in which the comic art would go and is still going.”
The late great New Yorker artist, Peter Arno was born 110 years ago today at home in Morningside Heights, New York. As many regular visitors to Ink Spill know, I began a biography of Mr. Arno back in 1999. Someday, a publisher willing, Mad At Something: The Life and Times of Peter Arno will be available to all those wishing to know a whole lot more about him.
Arno began contributing to The New Yorker in June of 1925 and continued contributing until his death in 1968 (his last cover for the magazine appears above). Over the past fifteen years I’ve asked New Yorker cartoonists to talk to me about Arno. Today I’ve decided to run a handful of their responses. Some of these cartoonists were contemporaries of Arno’s, and some are in the early phase of their New Yorker cartoonist adventure.
Frank Modell began contributing cartoons to The New Yorker in 1946. I first interviewed Frank in February of 2000 and then again this past Fall.At 95 he is one of the two New Yorker contributors still with us who actually met Arno (Lillian Ross is the other. Roger Angell told me he spoke with Arno on the phone, but never actually met him).
“Let me tell you something about [Arno] – he was a worrier. As good as he was, and as strong an artist as he was, surprisingly he was the most worried of all the cartoonists about his drawing. He would call up [The New Yorker’s Art Department] and say, ‘Did you get that drawing, the finish I sent in – did you print it yet?’ And I’d say no, then he’d say, ‘Don’t print it! Tell Geraghty I’m doing another one – I don’t want him to print it until I do another one.’ Then he’d send in another version that didn’t look any different than the first.”
“Arno belonged to the great era of Benchley, E.B. White, Perelman, etc., the era of the Great Depression and two emerging classes, upper and lower. Arno belonged to the upper. Who’ll ever forget his Park Avenue types, on their way to a newsreel theater ‘to hiss Roosevelt’? Those bold drawings! Nobody could imitate them. They had to come out of the bourgeoisie! I remember him standing outside 25 West 43rd Street! He was big and narrow, just like his men, without [the] handlebar mustaches…”
Robert Weber. If you ask 20 cartoonists to name the top ten cartoonists to come out of the post-Harold Ross years, Robert Weber’s name will surely be on that list. Mr. Weber’s distinctive bold effortless line is a thing to behold. Mr. Weber will be 90 this coming April. He began contributing to The New Yorker in 1962.
“I wish I had known or even just met Arno and I regret I didn’t. I’ve always admired his work, particularly his later work for The New Yorker. I don’t think I ever consciously tried to emulate him, although I’ve learned a lot from his superb sense of composition and drama. He had a marvelous ability to simplify. He never permitted anything extraneous, and he developed a powerful style unlike anyone else. And, of course, he was funny. Put me down as a big fan.”
Alex Gregory began contributing to The New Yorker in 1999. Besides his work for the magazine he works in television and film.
“As far as Arno’s impact on me personally, I grew up looking enviously at his drawings in anthologies. I would say that Arno is the New Yorker artist that I would most like to have emulated yet had the least capacity to do so. His cartoons are like black-and-white Matisses. but in some ways even more accomplished. – they capture a person’s mood, character, and breeding with just a few thick supremely confident brush strokes. The art direction in each panel is flawless; characters are placed perfectly, and the action is always expressive without being broad. And as rich as each image is, he never gets bogged down in any details that could slow down the joke. His drawings appear to be done by a man who has never known a moment of fear or self-doubt in his life. I suppose it was Arno more than any other cartoonist save Thurber that made me think of cartooning as an actual art form.”
“Arno was special. He was special like Charles Addams was special, and Price was special. You know what I mean?”
George Booth began sharing his wonderful world of dogs, cats and characters with The New Yorker’s readership in 1969.
“Peter Arno’s work stands out and holds up in the test of time. His drawings and words were never timid, or just clever. They stated high quality, joy, confidence, strength, style, humor, idea, life, simplicity. His color was right; black and white became color. His cartoons were researched, with words well applied. The communication was clear and timely. He knew what he was doing. Peter Arno was an artist worthy who gave something of value to the world. A hero.”
“[Arno’s] cartoons were a major inspiration to me. His staging of a gag was masterful in its simplicity. No extra crap — the point -bang! Even today when I have trouble with a drawing I ask myself ‘How would Arno do it?’ and look in collections of his for the answer…Arno is still the model for me and for any thinking cartoonist.”
Paul Noth began contributing to The New Yorker in 2004. Besides his work for the magazine he has also written for television.
“I was attracted to library books of his when I was a kid because of the sexy ladies (I was raised a strict Catholic, so actual nudity was too much for me, but cartoons like his were somehow okay).
“A modern Daumier.”
Barbara Smaller began contributing to The New Yorker in 1996.
“Arno’s sophisticated bad boy sensibilities never resonated with me in the way a William Steig or George Price’s more plebian ones did. Still there is much I admire about his drawings, particularly his wonderful deep blacks and dramatic compositions. I also admit to enjoying the People magazine aspects of his private life; the high highs and the satisfying low lows. They are an object lesson to all wayward cartoonists!”
Henry Martin began contributing to The New Yorker in 1964
“… Jim Geraghty bought three ideas from me for Arno in 1964 and 1965. He was the master, but like so many of the greats the idea wells ran dry, but, lord, how they could create memorable drawings.”
Kim Warp began contributing to The New Yorker in 1999.
“Peter Arno wasn’t the reason I became a cartoonist in particular but he was always part of the cartoon collections that fascinated me as a child…I was impressed by the graphic power of his drawings ( although I wouldn’t have called it that at the time of course) and by the world he portrayed. In particular I remember the “I’m checking up for the company, Madam. Have you any of our fuller Brush men.?” Cartoon which somehow melded in my mind with his man in the shower cartoon. This was a much more interesting world of possibility than I was being led to believe existed by 1960s TV shows. When I think of him now I’m struck by the grown-up playfulness and joy of life his cartoons portray which contrasts with the work-obsessedness of today. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t know too many people who have wild cocktail parties after work or fuller brush men hidden in their apartment. Everyone is at soccer practice with the kids.”
Edward Sorel began contributing to The New Yorker in 1990. Mr. Sorel, I believe, is the closest we’ve come to a modern day Arno.
“It was Arno, not John Held, Jr. who was the true artist of the Jazz Age. Not only was his canvas much larger—including not only the coeds in their yellow slickers, but rich clubmen, gold-diggers, Hollywood illiterates, the unemployed, and most especially, satyrs and other pursuers of sex. And beyond his subject matter, his style of drawing, so spontaneous looking, is much more in keeping with the spirit of the roaring, anything goes, twenties, than Held’s meticulous, carefully designed cartoons. Once the Jazz Age was over, Held seemed antique, whereas Arno’s style not only kept going, but attracted several imitators.”
And last, but certainly not least, William Steig. Mr. Steig, who died in 2003, began his New Yorker career in 1930.
“I like his work.”
By the late 1940s, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s legendary founder and first editor, had assembled either by happy accident or design (depending on which version of the magazine’s history you want to believe) a stable of magazine cartoonists unrivaled in American publishing. Some have called that era of the magazine’s cartoons its Golden Age. The guiding forces of the New Yorker‘s art (besides Harold Ross, of course) were Rea Irvin (who is most known for creating The New Yorker’s signature mascot, the top-hatted Eustace Tilley) and the magazine’s first Art Editor, James Geraghty, a former gagman who began working at the magazine in 1939 and retired in 1973.
As mentioned on this site this past summer in a profile of Anatol Kovarsky, there are just four surviving New Yorker cartoonists from the Ross era: Frank Modell, James Stevenson, Anatol Kovarsky and Dana Fradon. Mr. Fradon was the last cartoonist contracted by Mr. Ross, who died in December of 1951.
Fradon’s first New Yorker cartoon (below), published May 1, 1948, launched a career that spanned half a century; he went on to contribute nearly fourteen hundred more cartoons, placing him in the stratosphere of such other New Yorker artists as William Steig, Alan Dunn, Robert Weber, Warren Miller, Helen Hokinson, Lee Lorenz, Mischa Richter, Robert Day, and the aforementioned, James Stevenson and Frank Modell.
A native of Chicago, Fradon studied at the Art Institute there, and later, following service in the army during WWII, he studied at The Art Students League in New York. Fellow classmates included future New Yorker colleagues, Joseph Mirachi, Herbert Goldberg, and James Mulligan.
In a recent phone and email conversation with Mr. Fradon, who is now 91, we covered a lot of territory, from his beginnings at the New Yorker all the way up to today and whether he’s still thinking up ideas for cartoons.
Beginning our conversation, I asked Mr. Fradon if he had any thoughts as to why the Art Students League turned out so many New Yorker cartoonists.
“It’s a great school, it’s in New York, it’s cheap, and there were no marks given or attendance taken; a future cartoonists paradise.”
Michael Maslin: What brought you to The New Yorker—was it that that was the place to go?
Dana Fradon: No, I didn’t know anything about The New Yorker. My sister married Albert Hubbell and then I heard about The New Yorker [Mr. Hubbell was a jack-of-almost-all trades at The New Yorker, contributing fiction as well as pieces for the Talk of The Town. He was, briefly, The New Yorker’s Art Editor during WWII when James Geraghty left for service. He was also a cover artist and contributor of “spot” drawings as well as an in-house idea man, creating captions for cartoonists, including, among others, Mary Petty] I admired Albert and I admired some of the things he pointed out [in the magazine]. I decided that’s where I would channel my work.
I did the first cartoon that Geraghty took notice of when I was still in the service. Apparently, when Geraghty showed my work to Ross, he threw Geraghty out of the office. Geraghty said to me later, with that nice little grin he had that he [Geraghty] didn’t think what I sent in was that bad. It was a panel gag—I still remember it—it was rejected, but nevertheless Geraghty said, “Keep coming.”
MM: I noticed that your first five cartoons in the magazine were captionless—was that happenstance, or was that something you were doing a lot of?
DF: I guess that’s what I thought Geraghty thought was funny. In the beginning I had the idea that he was buying only stuff of mine that was rather topical. And I thought that was a restriction—that I could not do the ordinary funny gag—that they were just going to want politically topical stuff. And I thought that would limit me. I didn’t know that it would become, in a sense, my hallmark. I thought at first it was a sign of failure—that I couldn’t do the straight old cartoon. But of course I did end up doing those kinds of cartoons as well.
MM: In the beginning you had almost two different styles. You had a heavier style and a looser style.
DF: I think the thicker lines came after about five years, ten years—that was still early in a career that spanned 50 years. I went to a felt tip marker that was heavier; I look back at those drawings and I really like them better than some of the thinner line drawings I did later in life. It was not a conscious change—it was a change in paper, and what kind of pen I used.
MM: You were trying to find your way?
DF: Absolutely. I was trying to find my way for about thirty years.
MM: Let’s talk about Geraghty. Obviously he was a huge part of your career.
DF: He was a huge part of The New Yorker magazine. His taste was what guided the magazine—in cartooning and in those days, all the artwork. He bought the spots and the covers. He’s best described by something which has become reasonably common knowledge. He said it to me originally about making a drawing beautiful. He said, “Make it beautiful, Dana. Make it beautiful.” And very often he would OK a drawing—the final OK would either be Ross’s or Shawn’s—or he would bring to their attention cartoons which were borderline funny but would make magnificent drawings.
It was Geraghty’s belief that New Yorker cartoons provoked a chuckle (not laughter) and, of course, much thought. He once went through an act with me imitating a commuter on the New Haven R.R., city bound, opening and skimming through his recently arrived New Yorker. I can imitate every one of Jim’s marvelous gestures and soft grunts (chuckles) to a tee.
MM: And the “magnificent drawings” bought—would they be tinkered with?
DF: Towards the end under Lee [Lee Lorenz, James Geraghty’s successor as Art Editor], maybe because I was more experienced, there was not much tinkering. But yes, in the beginning there was tinkering down to the last finger. You couldn’t even distinguish where the fingers were [on] my early rough drawings.
MM: Did you ever meet Harold Ross?
DF: Never met Ross, but nodded to him dozens of times. My only close experience with Ross was at one of the first huge parties the New Yorker threw at the old Ritz-Carleton. Geraghty gave my then wife [the cartoonist, Ramona Fradon] and I an invitation. My wife said, “Fasten your eyes at the guy at the next table.” It was Ross. So I fastened my eyes on him, and he looked at me like I was a freeloader or something. Everything I know about Ross I heard from Albert [Hubbell]. Albert was the be-all and end-all if you wanted a connection with Ross—he had it and he had total recall.
I can’t tell you much about Ross except that I accepted from the beginning that he had impeccable taste. That was the greatest period of drawing, if not ideas: Arno, and those other guys—Whitney Darrow, Robert Day—all brilliant.
MM: I have a list of names I want to run by you, but first, before I forget, I want to ask you if you ever provided ideas for Peter Arno, or anyone else?
DF: Yes, Arno, one or two, and for Charlie Addams, half a dozen to a dozen—he was another wonderful artist. You might say Geraghty would look at me and say, “This needs a better artist.” But then it got to where he would give me a trade. He’d say “This would be better if George Price did it.” And he’d give me a simple idea. [Mr. Fradon recalled one idea given to Addams, of Martians coming to the door on Halloween. It ran in The New Yorker November 1, 1952]
MM: When I was researching the Arno biography at the New York Public Library, and looking through The New Yorker’s archives there, I found a lot of interaction, a lot of back and forth—idea-wise—between artists.
DF: When I first started working there—it might’ve been about the tenth cartoon I did—it was a couple of kids watching television, a close-up on the kids. Geraghty didn’t like the faces on the kids. I couldn’t do kids; now I can, but then I couldn’t at least not on the New Yorker level. Frank did one of the faces on one of my drawings on one of my kids. He [Frank] was sitting out there in the office and Geraghty said, “Just a second” and took the drawing out and Frank did the face and they bought it.
MM: We do that around here sometimes. Liza [Donnelly] will ask me for some help on perspective and I’ll ask her to help me with cats. We have cats here, but that doesn’t help me—I still can’t draw them.
DF: Well, certain poses, they’re [cats] hard to draw. You know, Ramona used to do all my horses. It wasn’t until I started doing kids books, and I was divorced, that I learned to do my version of the horse, which is more like a merry-go-round horse. I learned to draw them out of necessity because Ramona wasn’t there to draw them for me. There are a couple of my New Yorker cartoons with horses in them, and she drew the horses.
MM: There’s one I have here on my desk…you have an invading army…
DF: Is it “Beware of dogs?”
MM: Yes, yes.
DF: She didn’t do the finish, I inked them—but she drew the horses.
MM: As long as we’re talking about specific drawings, there’s one I thought would make a good title and cover drawing for a collection: “The gods are antic tonight.”
DF: That drawing has a story behind it. Lee put the word “antic” in there. I had the “gods are something-or-other” and I believe he changed it to antic. He asked me, of course, if it was ok. I didn’t get the fine difference between what I had and he had, but apparently the antic thing was pretty cute, and he knew what he was doing. “Antic” was not in my vocabulary.
MM: Can you list for me some of the cartoonists you knew back in those early days. Let’s begin with Arno.
DF: Never met Arno, never saw Arno but always felt his presence. Knew fairly well: Sam Cobean, the magazine’s other genius; Charlie Addams, Richard Decker, Frank Modell, Whitney Darrow, Mischa Richter, Bill Steig, Dick Taylor, Barney Tobey and many more. I met, casually, Saul Steinberg (I suppose he’s another genius), Robert Day, Chon Day, Alan Dunn and Mary Petty.
MM: Did you know Stan Hunt?
DF: A nice gentle soul.
MM: James Mulligan?
DF: He was left-handed, but because of several car accidents, had to learn to draw with his right hand. His last few hundred cartoons were drawn with his right hand.
MM: Rea Irvin?
DF: Rea Irvin lived in Newtown [Connecticut] for several years. A really sweet guy. Worked with drawing board held in his lap in a, literally, closet-size studio in a large, beautiful colonial. Actually, HE is the genius of The New Yorker. Did the first cover, designed its typeface, and designed the headings, I think, of the various regular columns. Based on his drawing and the variety and depth of his drawing…he’s the number one guy that everyone always forgets about. Rea just seemed like Major Hoople…“woof woof woof” while he talked, to clear his throat.
MM: Speaking of covers…I couldn’t help but notice there was never a Fradon New Yorker cover.
DF: I submitted one cover and after about the tenth time of correcting it and fixing it, I gave it up and went back to doing something I knew better: doing cartoons and ideas. I was doing well on the cartoons and beginning to move into kid’s books, where I got all that color out of my system. I never pursued it. The one I did try lent itself mostly to design—there was nothing funny about it.
MM: What about Richard Taylor—you mentioned you knew him.
DF: Dick Taylor was a lovely man, and sort of a comic on his own. He had a unique way of drawing. There’ve been Whitney Darrow look-alikes and Bob Weber look-alikes, and dozens of Cobean look-alikes, and Arno look-alikes; when I say look-alikes, they’re not as good—there was a guy who did a lot of ads—nothing but ads—he was a pale version of Arno. I’ve never even seen a pale version of Dick Taylor.
MM: His work—his people were too different weren’t they? With those giant eyes…
DF: And the way he did his washes too. Layers and layers before he got the tone, without it going dead. Whereas most of us…I strive to splash it on as best I can.
MM: I loved watching the progression of your drawings from the very first ones to where they became very loose. The energy there—your heads would almost be disconnected from the bodies. I could see you were having a really great time doing these.
DF: That, and a little bit of writing is the only thing that absorbed me. And playing baseball.
MM: How did you work? Did you go to your desk in the morning, five days a week?
DF: Yeah, five or six days a week, I made it a point. The first thing I’d do—the first three hours in the morning, when you’re freshest—is think of ideas. I’d just think of ideas five days a week and come up with twenty or twenty-five of them and then let Geraghty comb through and pick out what he thought was funny.
The routine for thinking of ideas—you may feel the same way—I have no formula for thinking of an idea. It’s more of free association. You start out with a subject, and you may not end up with that subject.
MM: And you write everything down, right, because these things can float away.
DF: I had a big pad of paper, 14” x 17” bond paper; I’d make little notes and sketches and see where they’d lead me. Once, when I was giving a talk I said the important thing of thinking of ideas is knowing when to pounce. You kick ideas around in your subconscious and then this one is a straggler and you pounce on it because it seems funny. And that’s the one you draw up. I drew up a lot of rejections too of course [laughing].
Geraghty used to tell new cartoonists—and some of the established ones as well—about how he’d be at a party and someone would tell him a funny story and then say, “Why don’t you make a cartoon out of it?” He’d turn to them and say, “That’s not a cartoon, that’s a short story.” There’s a hell of a big difference. You know, they’ll start by saying, “There’re ten thousand people in a living room…” Well, who the hell is going to draw ten thousand people in a living room!?
MM: One of the things that fascinated me about Arno’s life was that his career spanned enough time at the magazine, 1925 through 1968 to see a change in the use of ideamen. He began using his own ideas but then shifted into using ideamen in the 1930s and beyond. Many of his contemporaries used ideamen as well (not all of them did, but a majority). By the time your era came along, late 1940s, early 1950s, your crowd, or most of you, were doing your own ideas. That just sort of happened? Or did someone encourage you?
DF: Yeah, it just sort of happened, but it’s also something I think subconsciously that Geraghty was striving for. He probably thought it was taking too much time or thought or energy putting cartoonists together with ideas. If you could do it in one step, that was helpful…it became a real badge of courage to do your own ideas, your own drawings.
DF: One person who did his own ideas—I don’t know if you remember him, was Herbert Goldberg.
MM: I know his work from the albums, The New Yorker anniversary albums. I’m a sucker for those collections.
DF: You live in the world of cartoons.
DF: Well that’s one thing I’ve never have done and I’ve always been sorry for it. I’m not really a cartoonist. I’m a misplaced baseball player or something like that. But I look at [cartoonist] Orlando Busino and I’m just so envious of people who can get into that. When I drew I was in the world, but I wasn’t really there. I wish I could’ve appreciated who I was.
MM: Do you still take a crack at cartoons every once in awhile?
DF: For a time, when I thought of a good idea that I thought would go in today’s New Yorker, I stifled it. And then I said to myself: well don’t do that anymore, write ‘em down—so I write them down on a scrap of paper and throw them into a pile.
Dana Fradon’s books include:
Breaking the Laugh Barrier (Dell, 1961)
My Son the Medicine Man (Avon, 1964)
Insincerely Yours (Dutton, 1978)
Sir Dana: A Knight, As Told by His Trusty Armor (Dutton, 1988)
Harold the Herald (Dutton, 1990)
The King’s Fool: A Book About Medieval and Renaissance Fools (Dutton, 1993)
To see some of Dana Fradon’s New Yorker work, link here.
At 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in late June, my wife and I, wearing our cartoonist historian hats, were welcomed into an apartment in a pre-war building along Manhattan’s west side. We made our way through a short hallway to a foyer lined with paintings. There were paintings on the walls, and paintings lined up several feet deep along the floor. Paintings paintings everywhere. All of them by the New Yorker cartoonist/artist, Anatol Kovarsky.
(to the left: Kovarsky, New York City, June, 2013).
Kovarsky’s wife, the actress Lucille Patton, married to the artist since 1954, greeted us, and a few moments later, Kovarsky himself appeared from a back room. He held the latest issue of The New Yorker, and was eager to talk about an illustration that caught his eye. “This was done with a [computer] program?” he asked pointing to the piece.
When Kovarsky began his publishing career at The New Yorker he was 28 years old; he is now 94. His New Yorker work, which began with a cartoon in the issue of March 1, 1947 (cartoon below), ended with a great flourish of covers in 1969. After 1969, Kovarsky turned to painting full time. New Yorker readers no longer saw his work in the magazine and on its covers, but his work continued and continues on to this day.
For me, it was a rather surreal moment shaking Kovarsky’s hand. I had long ago placed him in my thinking — and rightly so– in the late Harold Ross, early William Shawn era of the magazine’s history, what some have referred to as “the Golden Age” of the magazine’s cartoons. In 2013, if you count the number of New Yorker Golden Age cartoonists who are still with us — those who began contributing to the magazine during the editorship of Harold Ross — you will count no further than four: Frank Modell, Dana Fradon, James Stevenson, and Anatol Kovarsky. Meeting these artists is meeting New Yorker history. In the past two months I’ve had occasion to speak to three of these men, and all three exhibit the playfulness of spirit I’ve encountered in most every cartoonist I’ve ever met, no matter their age.
For someone who contributed hundreds of cartoons to The New Yorker it may seem odd that only one collection, Kovarsky’s World, was published (by Knopf, in 1956). Kovarsky’s Kabinett der Kuriositaten, published in Germany in 1962, seems to be a paperback reprint of Kovarsky’s World.
I had always wondered why there was no follow-up collection – a book that would have included some of his scores of covers for the magazine. When I posed that to Kovarsky, he shrugged, and said, “there were some other books” – one in particular he seemed proud of is an unpublished illustrated guide to English spelling. His work found its way into books as illustrations ( Cycles in Your Life, and a book of limericks, There Was a Young Lady Named Alice). Kovarsky’s work also made it to the Great White Way; he designed and drew the sets for the Broadway play, “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
I said to him that I couldn’t help but notice, looking through his New Yorker work, that the majority of drawings were uncaptioned – to my way of thinking, the most difficult kind of cartoon to do (there have been scant few masters of the form: Otto Soglow, Sam Cobean, Steinberg, Anthony Taber, Nurit Karlin, and more recently, John O’Brien). Kovarsky said, pointing to this newer work of his — a book-in-the-works of drawings accompanied by humorous rhymes — that this latest effort “made up for” the lack of words in his earlier work. He opened the manuscript and read several of the rhymes, then his finger ran over one of the drawings, as if he was redrawing it.
Lucille said, “Anatol will draw on anything” as she handed us two large round cardboard platters that had come from a catered event: each were painted over by Kovarsky. A design incorporating an elephant on one, three nudes on the other. Later she showed us two small cardboard saucers or dessert plates, also transformed by Kovarsky into works of art.
I had done my homework on Kovarsky before meeting him, looking through his entire New Yorker ouvre, and reading an extended biography from a conference volume about American cultural figures from the Russian empire. Born in Moscow in 1919 to Jewish parents, he drew at a very young age, entertaining his classmates (behavior much in common with many cartoonists) – he drew his first political cartoon at age 9. After the Russian revolution, his family settled in Warsaw.Kovarsky studied briefly in Vienna (his father wanted him to be an economist), but then, according to his daughter, “he found a drawing master and shifted his attention exclusively to art.” Kovarsky went on to Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts for three years. The war was on in Europe and in 1941 Kovarsky was able to make his way to Casablanca, where he boarded the last passenger liner leaving Morocco for the United States. He was eager “to see,” he told me, “what the rest of the world looked like.” He arrived in America just as it entered the war. Kovarsky told me of the circuitous route he took from the South up through the Midwest and finally to New York City.
He enlisted in the Army, serving as a cartographer and translator; he also began contributing cartoons to Yank and the Stars and Stripes. He returned to Europe as a soldier, at first based in London, and then landing at Normandy. He arrived in Paris the day after it was liberated from the Nazis, and was eventually reunited with his family, who amazingly had survived.
Back in America following the war, he turned to the world of magazine cartoons but never away from painting. Lucille told us that the large studio Kovarsky once used in lower Manhattan, was divided in two: one part for doing drawings, the other for paintings. Lucille said, “he would switch from one to the other.” (photo below: Anatol Kovarsky and Lucille Patton, in the late 1950s or early 1960s)
I asked Kovarsky if he was led to cartoons by the work of other cartoonists, and he replied, “No, they (the cartoons) just came out of me.” While it’s not exactly clear how Kovarsky was introduced to The New Yorker, Gina Kovarsky believes it was “very likely” that the enthusiasm and encouragement of the author, Herbert French, led her father to submit work to the magazine. Kovarsky had contributed illustrations for French’s 1946 book, My Yankee Paris.
The New Yorker immediately fell in love with his work; Kovarsky’s drawings averaged at least two appearances a month (sometimes his work appeared every week of the month). His work often centered on the art world: artists in their studios, with their models and without, museum art; foreign culture was also a theme of great interest, specifically the Middle East. Little of post-war American life escaped Kovarsky’s imagination.
After a decade of contributing drawings to The New Yorker, his covers began to appear. Kovarsky has said he never did more than six a year, and seeing them it is not difficult to understand why. Many of his covers, like the paintings that surrounded us in the Kovarsky’s apartment, were energetic displays of brilliant color and action.(pictured below: A Kovarsky painting, In The Ring, and a Kovarsky New Yorker cover)
Before our visit, Kovarsky’s daughter wrote to me of her father’s interests:
His eye has been attuned to beauty not only in pageantry and performance, but also at the bar and grill, the beaches of Coney Island, the boxing ring, and the supermarket. (Indeed, his appreciation for city life was such that when I was a little girl and we would be going on walks, he would periodically draw my attention to the colorful and interesting patterns created by garbage strewn about on the streets, or by dilapidated storefronts with their torn-off signs).
What he was doing was what all great cartoonists do: he was taking it all in, no matter what “it” was (Kovarsky continues to take it all in to this very day).
We were shown a brilliant unpublished cover sketch obviously intended for The New Yorker (it included the famous “strap” that runs along the left edge of every New Yorker cover). It was a snapshot from Kovarsky’s eye, perhaps a combination of snapshots, with what appeared to be a throng of pedestrians on a major Manhattan avenue and above them a collage of bright signage. An elevated train roared past above the signage and then, the quiet grey backdrop of the city sky. We were also shown another New Yorker cover submission with the strap section showing a commuter reading his newspaper; the cover field itself is a series of images one would see from a train or elevated subway. It could easily be a contemporary New Yorker cover.
Gina Kovarsky has been spending her summer off from teaching cataloging her father’s work. She has accomplished much, but there is plenty left to do. She showed us three rooms filled – and I do mean filled — with her father’s work. Going through his drawings she found a number of folders labeled “Nyet” (Kovarsky is fluent in Russian, Polish, French, and English – indeed, when we first arrived Gina and her father spoke to each other in Russian before switching to English). It’s a puzzle now as to whether the “Nyet” folders contain drawings rejected by The New Yorker, or whether Kovarsky pre-rejected them as not suitable for the editors.
Sitting next to Kovarsky on a living room sofa, surveying the living room walls lined with his paintings, the hallway beyond, with paintings stored in racks, I said to Kovarsky, “You have done so much work” to which he replied, “I am told,” he said, “that there are 600 paintings here. I would like to do more.”
All work, published and unpublished, courtesy of Anatol Kovarsky. Photograph of Anatol Kovarsky taken in NYC, June, 2013, by Liza Donnelly. My thanks to Lucille Patton, Anatol Kovarsky, and to Gina Kovarsky for her invaluable assistance in providing images and biographical information.
Kovarsky contributed nearly 300 drawings & almost 50 covers to The New Yorker. All of his work (drawings & covers) can be found in The Complete New Yorker, or to see just his drawings: The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. Another option: any library with a collection of bound New Yorkers. The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank has a few examples of Kovarsky’s work for the magazine.
Although there is no website devoted to his paintings and drawings, Gina Kovarsky has told me that a website is a priority.