Firsts: Thurber’s First New Yorker Drawings

When you think of James Thurber’s drawings you probably think of one or two or three of his classics.  But before any of his cartoons appeared in the magazine (his first cartoon appeared in the issue of January 31, 1931), he illustrated and wrote something he called Our Pet Department.  It was, from the very first, intended to be a series; the first installment (shown above) appeared in the magazine’s fifth anniversary issue, February 22, 1930.  What’s fascinating (to me) is that the piece contains two elements that would go on to be forever associated with Thurber’s art: a dog, and a seal. 

It’s unclear when the two camps formed over whether Thurber’s art was or wasn’t art. Was it when the illustrations began appearing, or was it nearly a year later when the cartoons started turning up. Thurber’s simple line certainly wasn’t a shock. A trio of single line artists were already established at the magazine by the time Thurber’s first drawings appeared: Gardner Rea, Otto Soglow, and Gluyas Williams.  But it appeared that no little effort went into their finished pieces.

Thurber’s drawings seemed as casual as the effort he claimed to have put into them; their initial appearances in the New Yorker seemed to have dropped like graphic boulders in a placid pond. Thurber’s New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs wrote (this from the Book-of-the-Month Club News, February, 1945):

“…for a good many years [Thurber’s drawings] were regarded by the rest of the staff, with the exception of E.B. White, as a hell of a way to waste good copy paper, since his usual output at a sitting was twenty or more, not to mention those he drew on the walls.”   

 New Yorker history books tell us that White was instrumental in bringing Thurber’s art to the world’s attention.  In 1962, a year after Thurber’s death, White told Thurber biographer, Harrison Kinney that “I think his art surpasses his writing” and “his drawing has a touch of genius.”

 

 

 

 

  

Well-Thumbed: Thurber. A Biography by Burton Bernstein

There are three New Yorker-related books that have stood the test of interest for me since the mid 1970s when the New Yorker became the place I wanted and had to be: The Thurber Carnival, Brendan Gill’s Here At The New Yorker, and Burton Bernstein’s Thurber.  A box-ful of New Yorker-related books have been published since (and a smaller box-ful were published before), but these three forever fascinate and educate. The Thurber Carnival came first — it was my entry point for his drawings and writing. Luckily for me, both Gill’s book and Bernstein’s were published soon after I first devoured Carnival — both, in fact,  came out in 1975 — coincidentally(?) the year the New Yorker celebrated its 50th anniversary) and not-so-coincidentally, exactly at the time I was ready for them to take over my world. Bernstein’s book, read while I was still in college, helped push me forward to living in the big city and going all out to break into the New Yorker.  I had already decided I needed to be part of what Thurber was part of — reading his biography only made it more imperative (as there was no plan “b”).

Luckily, I had a chance to meet Mr. Bernstein just a few years ago and tell him how important his book was/is to me. I explained how tattered my copy has become, and how, like Gill’s book and my first copy of Thurber Carnival, it is never far from where I work. True then, true today. 

I’m happy to say Thurber’s influence runs through me daily.  There are days I’m aware I’m trying to do something in the spirit of what he has done. A drawing recently published was an homage to Thurber’s Seal in the Bedroom. Even more recently I sold a drawing (not yet published) to the New Yorker that was heavily influenced by my all-time favorite Thurber drawing, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss.”  I’ll note it here on the Spill when it is published. Now in my 41st year of contributing to the magazine, my debt to Thurber is never paid.  The same can be said about the other two authors who assisted in bringing me here.   

 

   

Profile of Interest: The “Sistine Chapel of Comic-Strip Art”; Liza Donnelly to Speak at Ireland’s Inspirefest; Cartoon Companion Rates the Latest New Yorker Cartoons

“The Sistine Chapel of Comic-Strip Art”

From the New York Times, May 11, 2018, “The Sistine Chapel of Comic-Strip Art” — this piece on a mural of various cartoon characters in a sports bar (James Thurber is mentioned here and there as the sports bar’s lineage includes Costello’s, where Thurber famously drew a mural in the mid 1930s. That mural, restored in 1972*, vanished in 1992**). 

*”Thurber Creatures Live Again in Bar Here,” NYTs,  April 9, 1972

**“Drawing Attention to Great Thurber Heist,” New York Post, November 9, 2005

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Liza Donnelly to Speak at Ireland’s Inspirefest

 “Liza Donnelly on art and activism: ‘Change Comes One Person At a Time'”

–this short piece on Ms. Donnelly as she prepares to head across the pond.

Link here to Liza Donnelly’s website.

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Cartoon Companion Rates the Latest New Yorker Cartoons

“Max” & “Simon” are back with their takes on the cartoons in this week’s New Yorker (the “Innovators Issue”).  The guys dig into drawings of snails, Death, Frankenstein, mice, a mime and more. Joe Dator is awarded Top Toon of the week.  See it all here.

 

 

“Insurance Goes On Forever”; Panel of Interest: “I Was Only Kidding!”; Krimstein in Shrewsbury

Slightly Underwritten, published in 1951 by Simon & Schuster was one of my most memorable used bookstore finds.  Memorable because the original of the Thurber drawing on the cover happens to be the one and only Thurber original in the Spill‘s collection. When I pulled this book off the store shelf and saw the drawing on the cover, time stood still for just a moment. The drawing is the only Thurber in this slim collection; it’s joined by other four other New Yorker cartoons, with the rest from a wide variety of publications.  New Yorker artists include Gardner Rea, Gluyas Williams, Syd Hoff, Robert Day, Richard Decker, and Chon Day.

From the inside flap:

“Here we have a collection of cartoons to gladden the hearts of both the men who sell insurance and the people who try vainly to resist them.”

And from the The Foreword :

“Almost all good things come to an end…Food will spoil.  But insurance goes on forever.”

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Panel of Interest: “I Was Only Kidding!”

Two New Yorker contributors, Ben Katchor and Liana Finck are part of the panel. All the info is right there on the above screen grab, but here’s another version.

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Krimstein in Shrewsbury

Ken Krimstein, shown above right holding a copy of his upcoming graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, is across the pond at the big Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival. Here’s a short piece with some Krimstein content.

Armed Services Editions: Thurber, Benchley, White, Arno, O’Hara, Parker, Woollcott & More

The Spill has been very fortunate over its decade plus span to receive numerous contributions to its archives. The latest is a treasure trove of Armed Services Editions from Prof. Brian Anderson of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC..  Prof. Anderson, seeing an ASE-related post on this site, recently supplied a list of the New Yorker related editions as well as a box of editions (many of which you see above). Also in the box: a pony edition of The New Yorker, dated January 27, 1945, cover by Perry Barlow.  Prof. Anderson, along with Molly Guptill Manning are curating an exhibit of Armed Services Editions at the Grolier Club in the spring of 2020.

Here’s a short list of titles by some favorites (the bolded ones are in the Spill‘s archives):

The New Yorker’s Baedeker 819
New Yorker Profiles 955
The New Yorker Reporter at Large 1066

By Thurber
My World and Welcome to It A-11 (reprinted as S-5)
My Life and Hard Times L-2 (856)
Let Your Mind Alone N-7 (rpt 755)
The Middle Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze I-253 (rpt 705)
The Thurber Carnival 970

With E. B. White
Is Sex Necessary M-2 (rpt 1016)

By E. B. White
One Man’s Meat P-26
Quo Vadimas 696

With Katharine White A Subtreasury of American Humor  F-176 

Margaret Case Harriman Take Them up Tenderly  Q-26

 Walter Bernstein Keep Your Head Down  903

Charles Boyer Dark Ship  1156

John McNulty Third Avenue, New York  1180

Joseph Mitchell McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon D-108

Dorothy Parker Selected Short Stories R-4

John O’Hara Pipe Night 741

John O’Hara The Doctor’s Son and Other Stories 979

Robert Benchley After 1903 What? R-5

Samuel Hopkins Adams A. Woollcott 931

The Bedside Tales / Introduction by Peter Arno 933

 

At the Oscars! Liza Donnelly Live-Draws From the Red Carpet; “That Special Kind of Madness”: The Seventh New Yorker Album

At The Oscars! Liza Donnelly Live-Draws From the Red Carpet

 Back for her third trip to the Academy Awards, Liza Donnelly, is live-drawing for CBS News (she’s their Resident Cartoonist). You can follow her work tonight from the Red Carpet on Instagram (lizadonnelly), Twitter (@lizadonnelly), etc., etc.

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“That Special Kind of Madness”: The Seventh New Yorker Album

The Seventh New Yorker Album, published in 1935 by Random House, features Peter Arno’s March 23, 1935 New Yorker cover as its cover (the third solo album cover for Arno, with two more to follow).  As I wrote in my Arno biography, this cover was “a quiet link between the old Arno style and what would become the new.”

The front jacket flap copy informs us that this album is a two-fer since there was not a 1934 album, and goes on to say, “Consequently, this edition not only contains more pictures by more artists, but the publishers believe that it marks a new high standard in quality for the series.”

A remarkable album in the series for one reason: it has dueling forewords: The Undertakers Garland (described as “A Dissenting Foreword By Lewis Mumford ” and Fresh Flowers (described as “A Partial Defence By One Of The Editors” ) .

Lewis Mumford, at the time the magazine’s Art Critic, didn’t sugar-coat his take on The New Yorker‘s current cartoons, writing, in part:

“…the jokes seem more interesting than the drawings; or rather, even when the drawings are most adequate, they remain a mere instrument of the idea….The comedy has that special kind of madness that springs out of  a rough day at the office and three rapid Martinis. It is titillating, but a little frothy; it tickles me but remains peripheral; it has flavor but lacks salt.”

Wolcott Gibbs, who wrote the “partial defence” was in his fifth year of acting, in his words, “as a sort of liaison officer between the editorial staff of The New Yorker and the artists who draw its pictures,”  addressed Mr. Mumford’s issues one-by-one and concluded with this “defence” of Mr. Mumford’s “three rapid Martinis” charge:

“This apparently refers to the work of a few artists whose characters belong to no particular land or time and are held to the world only lightly, by the pull of tempered gravity. They are the wilder shadows in the same wonderland that Lewis Carroll first explored, and they are valuable to this collection as lesser examples of the same universal and timeless comedy. It is, of course, important that this sort of humor, operating in its own particular vacuum, be used judiciously…”

And so, here we have, just ten years into the New Yorker‘s existence, a very public debate over what a New Yorker cartoon should be, and should not be.  If there’s a constant in this funny world of the magazine’s cartoons — now closing in on their 100th birthday —  it is that the debate has never ceased.

Here’s the list of the contributing artists in the album. 

Most of the names will be familiar to long-time New Yorker readers, with the possible exception of Eric Monroe Ward,  who is a certified member of Ink Spill’s One Club. The One Club is limited to cartoonists who have been published once and only once in the New Yorker.  This icon   identifies them on the A-Z. 

  Mr. Ward’s only appearance was in the issue of July 14, 1934. As his work likely has little opportunity to shine, I’m showing his one drawing below:

*Note: this very same issue with Mr. Ward’s drawing also contains James Thurber’s classic, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?”  — for me personally, a most important cartoon — actually, the most important cartoon.  Nice to run across it again in its natural habitat. 

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For more on Lewis Mumford, check out Findings and Keepings: analects for an autobiography (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).

And for more on Wolcott Gibbs, there is Thomas Vinciguerra’s wonderful Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of The New Yorker (Norton, 2016).