New Yorker Cartoonists’ Elder Statesman Frank Modell Has Died at 98

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Frank Modell, whose first New Yorker cartoon appeared in the issue of July 20, 1946 died yesterday just a year and small change from his 100th birthday. Frank was a great cartoonist, a raconteur, a New Yorker historian, and not least, a truly truly nice person.

In 2013 Frank told his good friend and New Yorker colleague James Stevenson (in Mr. Stevenson’s book, The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell) that as a youngster:

“I wasn’t athletic and I wasn’t a good student, but I was good at drawing. I could copy a Lincoln head from a penny, and the other kids were very impressed. Everybody wanted one. I made a lot of Lincolns.”

Back in the States after serving in World War II (where he landed on Omaha Beach as part of the 116th Radio Intelligence Company) Frank made his way north from his hometown of Philadelphia to The New Yorker, the place that would remain his anchor for much of the rest of his life. After a stint as assistant to the magazine’s Art Editor, James Geraghty (who, he told me, at first deemed Frank’s work not quite ready to be published) Frank became a regular contributor, eventually seeing just over 1400 pieces published (including six covers). And like so many of the New Yorker‘s cartoonists of that time he also contributed ideas to other colleagues.

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(Left: Frank Modell’s 1st New Yorker drawing)

Later in life Frank became an unofficial oral historian of the New Yorker.  For a newcomer like me (I began contributing in the late 1970s) hearing his tales of leading the nearly completely blind James Thurber around the hallways of the New Yorker‘s offices at 25 West 43rd Street was a dream come true.

As for his art, Frank was a cartoonist’s cartoonist. He drew with confidence and grace and joy.  There’s nothing quite like a Modell character in motion. A Modell drawing exudes humor — we’re  laughing before we’ve even reached the caption.  Seeing his work was like  spotting the man himself across the room at a New Yorker party:  it always made me happy.

 

Link here to see Mr. Modell’s New York Times obit.

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MODELL1(Left: a popular Modell drawing in poster form. Below: Mr. Modell’s one and only cartoon collection, published in 1978).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(Left: James Stevenson’s 2013 tribute to his friend)

Fave Photo of the Weekend: Two Giants of the New Yorker Cartoon World

Jim & FrankHere’s a previously unpublished photograph of two great New Yorker cartoonists: James Stevenson, on the left, and Frank Modell to the right. 

If you add up (as I have) their combined contributions to the magazine, the number is a whisker shy of an astounding 3,500 cartoons, covers, and written pieces. 

In 2013, Mr. Stevenson published  The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, a celebratory book about his best friend. The book is a delight

[My thanks to James Stevenson, Josie Merck, and Frank Modell for permission to use the photograph, which looks to be from the 1970s or early 1980s]

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James Stevenson’s Secret Job at The New Yorker

 

 

 

 

 

If you pick up a copy of veteran New Yorker cartoonist, cover artist, and Talk of the Town contributor James Stevenson’s latest book, The Life, Loves and Laughs of Frank Modell, you’ll find a section wherein Mr. Stevenson recounts his “summer office boy” job at The New Yorker back in 1947, and mentions as well his beginnings at the magazine, nine years later, once he was hired full time.

In a  New York Times op-ed piece from January of 2011 (“New Yorker Confidential”) Stevenson recounted how James Geraghty, then The New Yorker’s Art Editor turned to him after the hiring handshake and said, “You must not tell anybody at the office or anywhere else what you do.” Only Geraghty and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn knew what he was up to all day long at the magazine. What he was up to was creating ideas for some of the established cartoonists.

The subject of idea men (or the less appealing term “gagmen”) is  of great interest to me –-  my unpublished biography of Peter Arno goes into the subject in detail as Arno, though prolific in his earliest years, came to rely more and more on outside help as the years wore on.  I plan on going into the subject here on Ink Spill sometime in the future.

Curious about the secrecy of Stevenson’s job, and many other things concerning his time at The New Yorker,  I called him up the other day to talk shop. Among other things, I learned that Stevenson was among the chosen (Frank Modell was another) to guide a nearly blind James Thurber around the office. According to Stevenson, this was the time-period “back when he [Thurber] was working on the soap opera series” [“Soapland” was a five part series running from the issue of May 15, 1948 thru July 24, 1948].   Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

 

Michael Maslin: Why all the secrecy?

James Stevenson: I have a very clear vision of meeting Geraghty. I was working for Life magazine –- and I’d been selling ideas [to the New Yorker] — and he said come and have a cup of coffee.  He described a career having an office at the New Yorker, and thinking up jokes, but I couldn’t tell anybody – it was a secret. And now it’s possible, but I doubt it, that he was just testing me. He liked to test people.

MM: The crowd of cartoonists that arrived at The New Yorker around the same time as you: Warren Miller, Lee Lorenz, etc.. seemed to arrive complete – you didn’t need to rely on idea men like so many of the previous generation; Helen Hokinson, Whitney Darrow, Jr.,  and  George Price to name a few.  Why was that?

JS: I think originally the  New Yorker artists –- a lot of them -– might’ve come thru the Art Student’s League or something like that and they had a background in  how to draw and how to do this and how to do that, and they would do handsome drawings but they might not be funny.

MM: I have a copy of the March 10, 1956, New Yorker in front of me – it contains your first cartoon published in The New Yorker.  Going through the list of cartoonists in that issue, it’s an amazing group: Alain, Steinberg, Steig, Perry Barlow, Barney Tobey, Hoff, Kovarsky, Richter, and on and on.  You must’ve rubbed elbows with many of them while you were there.

JS: Actually no, because I had this hidden career. I had an office for awhile across the hall from Geraghty. I didn’t much want to go into the [Art] office because pretty soon someone would ask questions. I was maybe more comfortable with people who were  Talk reporters because they wouldn’t ask me anything related to what I actually did.

MM: In your new book about Frank Modell, you mention bringing a package up to Peter Arno’s apartment on Park Avenue at around three in the afternoon and that he met you at the door still in his dressing gown.  You said that on the way home you decided you wanted to be Peter Arno.  Did you start drawing like him?

JS: No, I just liked the life style.