THE earliest New Yorker ritual that any oldster can remember was the weekly Tuesday afternoon art meeting. Philip Gordon Wylie was the second person in the history of Harold Ross’s magazine to hold the artists’ hands,” as the editor always described the task of dealing with artists and their drawings. Before Wylie, there had been a young woman, but, like most women, she made Ross nervous, and he asked Wylie to fire her, while he (Ross) was at lunch. Two hours later Ross phoned Wylie to ask if the deed had been done, and he was told the lady had left with two weeks’ salary, and then Ross came back to the office. H. W. Ross never had, to put a blunt point on it, the guts to fire anybody himself, with one exception. In the early thirties, Scudder Middleton, then the official hand holder, 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!”
Then, to cover his own embarrassment, he blustered that he was going to get Peter Arno on the phone and fire him, too. It was way after midnight, and Ross’s call aroused Arno from sleep. He promptly bawled Ross out and ordered him never to wake him up again.
In the very beginning, the art meeting was attended by Ross, Wylie, and Rea Irvin. The invaluable Irvin, artist, ex-actor, wit, and sophisticate about town and country, did more to develop the style and excellence of New Yorker drawings and covers than anyone else, and was the main and shining reason that the magazine’s comic art in the first two years was far superior to its humorous prose. At the art meetings, Wylie would hold up the drawings and covers, and Irvin would explain to Ross what was good about them, or wrong, or old, or promising. Rea had done the first cover — the unforgettable dandy with the monocle, known intramurally as Eustace Tilley, a name invented by Corey Ford — and for months it remained the composition most like the sort of thing Ross was after, the sort of thing Rea Irvin spent several hours every Tuesday teaching the ”corny-gag editor-hobo” (Wylie’s description) to understand. Ross learned fast, didn’t always see eye to eye with Irvin, often stubbornly had his own way, but was never truly comfortable if his art editor was not at the meetings.
Phil Wylie remembers that Al Frueh did the second cover, and a pretty, shy girl named Barbara Shermund the third one. He recalls, too, the advent of Reginald Marsh, Johan Bull, and Covarrubias, and above all, Curtis Arnoux Peters, a young man not long out of Yale and playing the piano in a jazz orchestra in the West Fifties, who came into the office one day wearing sneakers and carrying a sheaf of drawings signed Peter Arno. Ross was later to write him a note that read, “You’re the greatest artist in the world.” Under Irvin’s supervision and encouragement, other now famous cartoonists began appearing with their work, changed some of it at his quiet suggestion, took his ideas about their future stuff.
One of the last parties Ross ever gave was a cocktail affair at the Barberry Room in honor of Rebecca West, whom he always considered one of the two finest journalists of her sex. The other was Janet (Genêt) Planner, the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent almost from the start. I remember only one artist at the West party, the late Helen Hokinson, for whom Ross had great admiration and affection. “Artists don’t know anybody and they never go anywhere,” Ross used to grumble over and over. “They stay home at night, drinking soft drinks in cold sitting rooms, and watching home movies.” This Ross exaggeration was, and is, certainly applicable to many New Yorker cartoonists, but there were several others who went everywhere and knew everybody. The editor himself was socially close to Arno, A1 Frueh, John Held, Jr., Rea Irvin, Gluyas Williams, Rube Goldberg, Wallace Morgan, and Ralph Barton, whose suicide in 1931 was a grievous blow to the editor (“When I called on Barton it was like talking to a man with a gun in his hand”).
One of my 1927 chores, on top of everything else, was that of holding the artists’ hands, but I didn’t like it and was not good at it, and soon told Ross the hell with it. I think my first assignment in this touchy area came when Ross asked me to phone Al Frueh and tell him his caricature of Gene Tunney was not a good likeness. Frueh and I had never met, and when I gave him Ross’s message he said, “You can go to hell,” and hung up on me. Later I got to know and, like the rest of us, to love A1 Frueh, who once came upon me in my garage in Connecticut, sitting ten feet in front of my Ford and trying to draw it head on. “You can’t do that, Thurber,” said Frueh, out of his vast knowledge and experience as a draftsman. “You’d better draw it from the side.” I took his advice.
FOR several months in 1927 I was one of the editors that attended the art meetings, and every now and then after that year I used to drop in as an unofficial observer. In 1929 a sense of order was brought to the meetings by the advent of Miss Daise E. Terry, who comforted Ross by keeping track of covers and drawings (at one time with the assistance of a youngster named Truman Capote). Miss Terry (“She’s vigilant about art,” said Ross) also took down his comments and criticisms, mainly unfavorable, in shorthand. The art meetings began after lunch and often lasted until nearly six o’clock. One week, during the thirties, finished drawings, rough sketches, and typed suggestions reached a total of some 25,000. “We got a bank of drawings big enough to last two years,” Ross once said, “but there aren’t enough casuals to last three weeks.”
In the center of a long table in the art meetingroom a drawing board was set up to display the week’s contributions from scores of artists, both sacred cows and unknowns. It was never easy, and still isn’t, for a new artist to break into the New Yorker. Some of those whose names have become well known tried for months, or even longer, sending in dozens of rough sketches week after week. If an unknown’s caption, or sketch, seemed promising, it was often bought and turned over to an established staff cartoonist. Arno usually got the cream of the crop; the wonderful Mary Petty has never worked from any idea except her own; James Reid Parker did most of Helen Hokinson’s captions; and other artists either had their own gagmen or subsisted on original inspiration, fortified by captions and ideas sent in by outsiders or developed by the staff. In the early years, Andy White and I sent to the meeting scores of captions and ideas, some of them for full-page drawings, others for doublepage panels for Gluyas Williams and Rea Irvin. If a caption didn’t suit Ross — and he was as finicky about some of them as a woman trying on Easter bonnets — it was given to White to “tinker.” Gibbs and I did tinkering, too, but White was chief tinkerer to the art meeting.
The meeting always began with the display of finished covers in color, one at a time. They were bought and scheduled six months in advance, so that in June we were studying Christmas covers. Ross sat on the edge of a chair several feet away from the table, leaning forward, the fingers of his left hand spread upon his chest, his right hand holding a white knitting needle which he used for a pointer. Miss Terry remembers the day he brought it in, having picked it up nobody knows where. She later bought a dozen more of them, so everybody could have one. Ross liked to have a lot of everything he needed, for nothing irritated him so much as not to be able to put his hand instantly on what he wanted. There was always a full carton of Camels, for instance, in the drawer of the long table, and it was kept replenished by his secretary, like the carton in the drawer of his office table. For a while he had used a pencil as a pointer, but he was afraid of marking up the drawings. Then he tried a ruler, but the goddam thing wasn’t right, and fate directed him to the knitting needles that solved this little problem.
He became, I think, by far the most painstaking, meticulous, hairsplitting detail-criticizer the world of editing has known. “Take this down,” he would say to Miss Terry, and he would dictate a note of complaint to the creator of the drawing or cover under consideration. The memory of some of his “sharpshooting” — I don’t know who applied the word, but it was perfect — will last as long as the magazine, and perhaps even longer. I cannot vouch for the truth of his query about a drawing of two elephants gazing at one of their offspring with the caption, “It’s about time to tell Junior the facts of life,” but, valid or apocryphal, it has passed into legend. “Which elephant is talking?” he is supposed to have asked. I was on hand, though, when he pointed his needle at a butler in a Thanksgiving cover depicting a Park Avenue family at table, and snarled, “That isn’t a butler, it’s a banker.” Suddenly, the figure was, to all of us, a banker in disguise, and Ross dictated a note asking the artist to “make a real butler out of this fellow.” He once complained of a blue sky, “There never was a sky like that.” It is not true, as rumor has it, that he said, “It’s delft, or Alice, or some goddam shade.” The only blues Ross could have known are light, sky, and navy.
On another day, he doubted that the windows of the United Nations Building were anything like those shown in a drawing, and he ordered that a photographer be sent to take pictures of the windows. My favorite of all his complaints, in a career of thousands of them, was reported to me by Peter De Vries, who for years attended the art meetings and still helps go through the “rough basket,” skimming off the best of hundreds or thousands of sketches. The cover on the board showed a Model T driving along a dusty country road, and Ross turned his sharpshooting eye on it for a full two minutes. “Take this down, Miss Terry,” he said. “Better dust.”
Idea drawings, as they were called to distinguish them from captionless spots, were raked by Ross’s sharpshooting fire from the wording of the captions to the postures and expressions of the figures and the shape and arrangement of furniture or trees, or whatever else was in them. Sometimes it seemed to me and the rest of us that Ross was bent on wringing the humor out of a drawing by his petulant objections to details. This attitude reminds me of Gibbs’s celebrated single-sentence criticism of Max Eastman’s book, The Enjoyment of Laughter, whose advance proofs Ross had asked him to read. Gibbs wrote in a memo to Ross: “It seems to me Eastman has got American humor down and broken its arm.”
Ross rarely laughed outright at anything. His face would light up, or his torso would undergo a spasm of amusement, but he was not at the art meeting for pleasure. Selecting drawings was serious business, a part of the week’s drudgery, and the back of his mind ever held the premonition that nothing was going to be funny. Just as he searched writers’ copy for such expressions as Dorothy Parker’s office-celebrated “like shot through a goose,” he scanned drawings for phallic symbols and such, and once found one, he thought, in a hat I had drawn on a man in one of my covers. He was imagining things, but I had to change it anyway.
The most prudish neighbor woman in H. L. Mencken’s Bible belt could not have taken exception to any New Yorker drawing I can remember, including Arno’s husbands and wives in bed and the series he did of a man and a woman on, or near, a porch swing in what was intended to be a compromising clinch, the while they talked such passionless words as “Have you read any good books lately?” Arno’s first conception of this entanglement was warm without being torrid, it seemed to me, but it gave Ross the galloping jumps, and under his coaching and coaxing Arno finally drew a couple approximately as sexually involved as a husband and his sister-in-law at a christening.
One realistic detail of the kind that upset Ross was overlooked by him and the others, out of understandable ignorance. It was a Garrett Price that was published in the issue of December 20, 1930, and it showed a young woman on an operating table saying to a young surgeon entering the room, “Why, Henry Whipple, I thought you were still in medical college!” The scrub nurse in the drawing is holding a tray upon which lies what is known to the surgical profession as a double-spoon curette, an instrument used in, as Ross might put it, you know what. Wylie later wrote Ross kidding him about this, but if old Afraid-of-the-Functional exploded, I didn’t hear about it. For one thing, the scene was what he called “clinical,” which took some of the curse off the realistic and functional. However, he did direct Scudder Middleton to ask Price, “Were you trying to put something over on us?” Price is not that kind of man or artist, and just the other day he told me that his father was a doctor and he had drawn the curette from memory of instruments in his father’s office. “I didn’t know what it was for,” he said on the phone (like many other famous New Yorker artists, Garrett Price is one I’ve never met).
Every drawing was a task for Ross, and a few were real problems. It took courage for a humorous magazine to publish the grim Reginald Marsh that showed a woman holding up her little child so that, over the heads of an assembled crowd, it could witness a lynching. Among the submissions that were too much for Ross was a full page of two Arab fighters leaving a field upon which bodies are scattered, one of the Arabs saying, “Some of my best friends are Jews,” and there was another, whose central figures were two divinity students, their eyes bright with recognition, walking toward each other in Grand Central Station with outstretched hands, above the caption “Well, Judas Priest!” I substitute the name for that of the deity because I share Ross’s deep conviction that major blasphemies have no place in comedy. Ross hated to lose this drawing, though, and he sent it to White for tinkering. Andy tinkered it into a line that he told Ross comfortingly would not offend the church. It was “Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch! Ross chuckled about that all day and then sent White a memo reading, “No, but I’m afraid it would offend American mothers.”
I never saw the editor of the New Yorker get more enjoyment out of anything than he derived from a Gluyas Williams full page showing a board meeting room in which all the chairs at the long table are empty while the chairman and the members of the board are crouched in a football huddle in one corner of the office. That one lingered lovingly in his memory along with the famous Williams drawing of the day a cake of Ivory soap sank at Proctor and Gamble’s, and the picture captioned “Oops, sorry,” in which one trapeze artist misses the outstretched hands of another, high in the air — the work of George V. Shanks. There were hundreds of others, too, but I haven’t got all year.
A MAGAZINE that has published nearly 20,000 drawings was bound to run into repetitions and formulas years ago, and they formed another nightmare for H. W. Ross. There were too goddam many men and women on rafts and on desert islands, and too many talking animals, and too many guys in a jail cell — on and on the calendar of formula ran. I once made a series of drawings especially for Ross about the trials and tortures of the art meeting. One showed the scowling Ross himself shoving a drawing at a timid office employee and snarling, “Is that funny?” He was a great man for what he called the outside opinion, and sometimes sent a questionnaire to five or six of us on which we were to say yes or no about a drawing, or a casual, or a poem. Two of the other art meeting drawings I did for Ross (“You tease him too much,” my mother once told me sternly. “You shouldn’t tease him so much.”) showed, respectively, an old woman asking for a cup of cold water at a storage dam, and the same old woman asking a fireman for a match at a great conflagration. The editor had the drawings framed and hung on the walls of his office to remind him of the threat of formula. That was Harold Ross. He could not only take a joke at his own expense, he could perpetuate it. Not long before he died, I discovered, in going through my scrapbook of drawings in the office library, that I had drawn one with the caption “The magic has gone out of my marriage — has the magic gone out of your marriage?” and another with “Well, who made the magic go out of our marriage — me or you?” I sent tear sheets of the two drawings to Ross, and he sent me a note that read, “Well, who’s responsible for the magic going out of your marriage twice — you or me?”
It would not have surprised Ross if the sanity had gone out of any artist at the very moment he was saying good morning to the editor. Ross regarded writers as temperamental mechanisms, capable of strange behavior, and artists were just as bad, or even worse. Complexes, fixations, psychological blocks, and other aberrations of the creative mind had Ross always on the alert. “They have sinking spells,” he would say. “They can’t ride on trains, or drive after dark, or liveabove the first floor of a building, or eat clams, or stay alone all night. They think automobiles are coming up on the sidewalk to get them, that gangsters are on their trail, that their apartments are being cased, and God knows what else.” This dissertation, with variations, always gave Ross his saddest look and his darkest sigh. After one of these enumerations of his woes, Ross and I had lunch at the Algonquin. It was in the years when I could see, and I suddenly stared blankly at the bill of fare, as if I had never seen one before, got slowly to my feet, and began trembling. I tried to turn pale, too, but I doubt if I managed that. Ross’s alarm bell rang. “Are you all right?” he demanded nervously. I kept on staring at the bill of fare. “What the hell is this thing?” I croaked.
“It’s the goddam menu,” Ross said, and then he got it. “Don’t do that to me, Thurber,” he pleaded. “Too many people I know are really ready for the bughouse.” That was his invariable word for rest home, sanitarium, and such.
For Ross’s developed taste and sense of humor in selecting cover art and idea drawings I have a firm and lasting respect. Sitting and staring at a hundred pictures, one after the other, week after week, can become a tedious process that dulls perception, but Ross’s eager, unflagging desire to get the best and the funniest kept a sharp edge on His appreciation. Picking drawings at a lengthy meeting is somehow comparable to producing a play. You’re not going to know for sure whether something is good until the readers or the audience see it in print or on the stage.
One afternoon in the winter of 1928, when I was sharing an office with White, Andy interrupted my typing to ask my opinion of a caption he had just worked out for a drawing. I He was a little solemn about it, and clearly uncertain that he had hit on the right idea. I looked at the drawing and the caption and said, “Yeh, it seems okay to me,” but neither of us cracked a smile. This drawing, by Carl Rose, appeared in the issue of December 8, 1928, and it carried one of the most famous and laughed-at captions in the history of the magazine, the one in which the mother says, “It’s broccoli, dear,” and the little child replies, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.” The youngster’s expression of distaste was to become a part of the American language. A song was written about it called “I Say It’s Spinach,” it has been mentioned in hundreds of editorials and newspaper columns, and it was worked into the title of a book by Elizabeth Hawes, which I illustrated, called Fashion Is Spinach. (In An American Dictionary of Slang the definition of the word “spinach” as “nonsense or bunk” is attributed to J. P. McEvoy. who used it in his book, Hollywood Girl, in 1929.)
The experience of that winter afternoon so long ago, when Andy tossed the famous caption up for grabs and both of us darn near let it fall, served to moderate my disappointment whenever a captioned drawing of mine was later turned down, or bought without comment, as a matter of routine:. I suppose the best known of my own scrawls is the one of the seal on the headboard of a bed in which a wife is snarling at her husband, “All right, have it your way — you heard a seal bark.” I hadn’t thought enough of it to show it to anybody before submitting it, and I was as surprised as I was delighted when its appearance in the magazine in January, 1932, brought me a truly ecstatic telegram from Bob Benchley, than whom there was nobody whose praise a cartoonist or humorist would rather have had. I gave him the original of the drawing, and named my first book of pictures The Seal in the Bedroom because of what he had said.
THE incredulous eye of Harold Wallace Ross fell for the first time upon a drawing of mine in the spring of that troubled year, 1929. For years I had been scrawling drawings on pieces of yellow copy paper and throwing them on the floor or leaving them on my desk. I began drawing at seven, mostly what seemed to be dogs, and carried the practice into the years of so-called maturity, getting a lot of good, clean, childish fun out of filling up all the pages of memo pads on the office desks of busy friends of mine, seeking to drive them crazy. Ingersoll recalls that he was a frequent victim of the ubiquitous dogs when he tried to find a blank page to write down an address or a phone number, but he maintained his reason like a veteran of the artillery of infantilism. After all, he had gone through worse than dogs with H. W. Ross.
It was White who got the mad impetuous idea that my scrawls should be published and, what is more, paid for with money. I didn’t think he could make it. It is true that, a dozen years earlier, I had filled up a lot of space with dogs and an improbable species of human being in the Ohio State Sun-Dial, but I was its editor-in-chief then (one of my predecessors was Gardner Rea, a New Yorker artist since its first issue), and nothing could be done to stop me. Some of the Sun-Dial drawings were about the same as those 1 had done when I was seven and the ones I did for the Xew Yorker, but others were elaborate arrangements of solid black and crosshatching. When White caught me trying this same style again one day, he spoke a sound word of warning that has gained a small deserved fame: “Don’t do that. If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.”
One spring day in 1929 I had done, in approximately thirteen seconds, a pencil sketch on yellow copy paper of a seal on a rock staring at two tiny distant specks and saying, “Hm, explorers.” White inked it in, a task for which rough tremor disqualified me. and sent it to the art meeting. Anything that had the strong backing of Andy White was likely to impress Ross, who had bought and printed the year before my first serious casual, a thing called “Menaces in May,” only after getting White’s favorable opinion on it. I don’t know what Ross said upon first gazing at a Thurber drawing, but he probably dismissed it lightly as a gag, a single buzzing fly that one could swat and then there wouldn’t be any more. Rea Irvin drew a picture of a seal’s head on the same paper with my seal and wrote under it, “This is the way a seal’s whiskers go.” Promptly the following Tuesday White sent the drawing back to the meeting with a note attached that read, “This is the way a Thurber seal’s whiskers go.” It came back again, this time without a word. As the weeks went on, White kept inking in and sending on other drawings of mine, and they were all rejected. All that Ross ever said during this preliminary skirmishing was a gruff “How the hell did you get the idea you could draw?”
Soon Andy and I began writing Is Sex Necessary?, for which he insisted that I do the illustrations. We finished the book in the late summer and sent it to Harper’s, who had published White’s book of verses, The Lady Is Cold. Then one day we called on the publishers with a big sheaf of my drawings. White laid them out on the floor, and three bewildered Harpermen stared at them in dismay, probably murmuring to themselves, “God, how we pity us.” One of them finally found his voice. “I gather these are a rough idea of the kind of illustrations you want some artist to do?” he said. White was firm. “These are the drawings that go into the book,” he said. There was a lot of jabber then about sales ceilings, the temper of the time, reader resistance, and the like, but the drawings went into the book, and the book was a success, and Ross kept hearing about it and about the drawings. He was mightily disturbed. Something created in his own office, something he had had first shot at, had been printed by a publisher, a species of freak with whom Ross never ceased to do battle. He came into my office, looking bleak. “Where’s that goddam seal drawing, Thurber?” he demanded. “The one White sent to the art meeting a few months ago.” I told him that he had rejected it and I had thrown it away. “Well, don’t throw things away just because I reject them!” he yelled. “Do it over again.” I didn’t do it over again for two years, although he kept at me.
THE first drawings of mine to appear in the New Yorker were of animals, illustrating a 1930 series called “Our Own Pet Department.” In one of these, incidentally, a drawing of a horse’s head with antlers strapped to it, the horse’s teeth had been put in by a girl friend of mine. Everybody took liberties with my drawings. In one of them, showing a man and his wife and another woman at a table, a charming editrix blacked in the other woman’s shoes with India ink to make it clear to readers that the designing minx was playing footy-footy with the husband. The startled husband, strained and bolt upright in his chair, had drawn from his wife the line, “What’s come over you suddenly?” Benchley, always a kind of jealous guardian of my art, such as it was, was annoyed by this monstrosity of explicitness, and said so to Ross. My goddam drawings were beginning to close in on Ross. Now he had something new to fret and fuss about, something he had never dreamed God would let happen to him.
It wasn’t until January, 1931, that I sent another idea drawing to the New Yorker’s art meeting. I had begun drawing straight away in India ink, without pencil foundation. Ross bought the drawing and asked for more. This was easy, since I could do a hundred in one weekend, but I usually submitted only two or three at a time. (In 1939 I did all the drawings for The Last Flower between dinner and bedtime one evening, but spared Ross this flux of pictures, because I didn’t want to be responsible for his having a seizure of some kind.) He still kept pestering me about the seal drawing, and one evening in December, 1931, I tried to recapture it on the typewriter paper I always used. The seal was all right, atypical whiskers and all, but the rock looked more like the head of a bed, so I turned it into a bed, and put the man and his wife in it, with the caption Benchley so generously wired me about. With its purchase and printing in the magazine, I became an established New Yorker artist, still to Ross’s mixed bewilderment and discomfiture.
There was another drawing that set off a memorable display of fireworks between the editor and me. It showed three hound dogs in the window of a petshop, one of them, sitting between the other two, having unusually sad eyes and gentle expression. A would-be woman purchaser is talking to the proprietor of the store, who is saying, “I’m very sorry, madam, but the one in the middle is stuffed, poor fellow.”
“I don’t think they have stuffed dogs in petshops,” Ross said. “Not in the show window, anyway.”
“ This shop has one in the show window,” I said stubbornly.
“You have me there,” Ross growled. Then I got into deeper difficulty. “It’s a variant of that old story about the three men on the subway train late at night,” I said. “They were sitting across from a fourth man, who is left alone on the train with the three others after still a fifth passenger hands him a note and gets off at the next stop. The note says, ‘The man in the middle is dead. I never saw Ross look unhappier about anything. He said so much then, in such a splutter, that it doesn’t come back to me coherently now. “I’ll send that drawing in to every art meeting until it’s bought and printed,” I told him. I think it was bought on its third resubmission. Some ol my drawings were held up much longer than that, and one night I got into Ross’s office with a passkey, faked his R on three drawings I especially liked, and sent them through the works the next day. Nothing was ever said about that, but for weeks I expected all hell to break loose.
Ross’s tormented forehead was always in creases of worry about some art problem. When, early on, he had decided to put captions in italics bang! there was the problem of what to do about emphasizing words and phrases that needed it. Clearly they would have to be set up in roman, thus reversing an ancient convention, and Ross was not fond of being the first by whom the new is tried. Several times I tried to sell him the idea of romanizing only part of an emphasized word, on the ground that Americans, particularly females, often do that; a case in point is the caption l sent in (my last one, I think) for which Whitney Harrow did the drawing, an ardent girl saying to her gloomily intellectual young man, “When you say you hate your own species, do you mean everybody?” Actually, it seemed to my ear, our young ladies stress only the “ev” in that word, but this was the kind of hybrid that would have driven Ross into a new ulcer.
Since the great worrier was a worshiper of the gods of Clarity and Explicitness, that devotion sometimes led him into overelaboration of captions. I remember an early Arno of a husband and wife arguing en boudoir, the wife saying, And after I’ve given you the best years of my life, and the husband snapping back, “Yes, and who made them the best years?” The point would be sharper if only the husband’s speech were used, and Ross soon gave up dialogue for monologue in most captions. He could torture single lines, though, as in the case of a Hokinson dowager complaining to her pampered Pomeranian, couchant on a soft cushion in his cage at a dog show, “I’m the one that should be lying down.” The caption had come in that way, but Ross changed it to “I’m the one that should be lying down somewhere,” so readers wouldn’t get the idea the dog’s owner wanted to climb in and He down on its cushion. I made my own mistakes in the same area, too, once drawing a tipsy gentleman, fallen prone at the feet of a seated lady, and saying, “This is not the real me you’re seeing, Miss Spencer.” It should, of course, have been simply, “This is not the real me.”
The editor was also often on the edge of panic about suspected double entendre, and after thirtyfine years I recall his concern about an Arno drawing of one of his elderly gentlemen of the old school dancing with a warmly clinging young lady and saying, “Good God, woman, think of the social structure!” Ross was really afraid that “social structure” could be interpreted to mean a certain distressing sexual phenomenon of human anatomy. Me brought this worry to me, pointing out that “social diseases” means sexual diseases, but I succeeded in quieting his fears, and the caption ran unchanged. He was wary of fatality in drawings, sharing Paul Nash’s conviction that “not even Americans can make death funny,” and when Carl Rose, in 1932, submitted a picture of a fencer cutting off his opponent’s head and crying “Touche!” Ross thought it was too bloody and gruesome, and asked Rose to let me have a swing at it, because “Thurber’s people have no blood. You can put their heads back on and they’re as good as new.” It worked out that way. Nobody was horrified.
In the early thirties all the New Yorker cartoonists had to put up for months with the havoc and bother of a new Ross apprehension. He became convinced that somebody was giving away our captions to rival magazines before they could be used. The trouble began when two similar drawings with identical captions appeared in the New Yorker and the old Life. A snowbound traveler in the Alps is taking the brandy cask from a Saint Bernard and saying, “What, no White Rock?” The line had been invented by Donald Ogden Stewart, who told it to somebody, who told it to somebody else, and thus both magazines heard about it before long. After that alarm had sounded through the offices like a somber bell in Macbeth’s castle, the originals of drawings the New Yorker bought came back to the artists with heavy strips of butcher’s paper pasted over the captions. This ruined some of the drawings, since the paper often stuck to the caption like a collie’s tongue to a frosty hitching post. A drawing of mine with the caption “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?” got the super-secret treatment, and was obliquely described in the office records as “Woman with strange animal.” The strange animal was a hippopotamus, but the New Yorker wasn’t going to let any spy find out about that. This panic, like many another office panic, died down and was forgotten.
IF I wrote of Ross’s constant concern and kindliness about my eyes, it would embarrass him in heaven, as it would embarrass him on earth if he were still here. He was not a demonstrative man, or he thought he wasn’t, but anyone who knew him well could see through the profane bluster and gruffness that covered great solicitude for the men and women he loved when they were in peril, or in any kind of trouble. He began by taking my drawings as a joke, went through a phase in which he dismissed them as “a passing fancy, a fad of the English,” and ended up doing his darnedest, as my disability increased, to keep the drawings going by every kind of ingenious hook and crook. After I got so I could no longer see to draw, even with black grease crayon on large sheets of yellow paper, Ross began a campaign, recorded in a series of letters he wrote me, to reprint old drawings of mine with new captions. First he suggested reversing the old cuts, a simple mechanical maneuver; then, with the aid of others in the office who knew about such things, he experimented with taking figures or furniture out of one drawing and putting them in another, arriving at a dozen permutations of men, women, and dogs, chairs, bridge lamps, and framed pictures, upon which he must have spent hours of thought with his confederates in this conspiracy of consolation.
I did think up a few new captions for old drawings, but whatever device of recomposition was used, some readers got on to it. The first publication to point out what was going on was the News Chronicle in London. The interest of the English, or some of them, in my drawings both pleased and puzzled Harold Ross. He was puzzled by Paul Nash’s interest in my scrawls, although he was delighted by Nash’s having singled me out at a luncheon in the Century Club in 1931 from the very forefront of American painters, all present and lined up for introduction to the visiting British painter and critic. He loved my story of how Nash insisted that I be put on his right (on his left was a bottle of whisky we had snatched from a sideboard), and by the distinguished visitor’s asking a formidably bearded connoisseur of art, seated across from him, “What do you think of Milt Gross?”
When Nash was art critic for the New Statesman and Nation in London, he once wrote a piece about American comic art in which he mentioned that I apparently began drawing without anything particular in mind, in the manner of the early drawings of the great Matisse. This remarkable and somewhat labored comparison was distorted by word of mouth until some careless columnist printed the news that Henri Matisse was an admirer of my scrawls. So it came about that in 1937, when two bold young gallery men in London put on a one-man show of my drawings, one of them telephoned Monsieur Matisse, over my dead body, to try to arrange a meeting. The poor chap came back from the phone a little pale, and stammering, “Matisse’s secretary says that Matisse never heard of Mr. Thurber or the New Yorker.” That same year a short-lived magazine called Night and Day, too imitative of the New Yorker for its own good, was published in London, and it bought and printed a series of my drawings called “The Patient,” which the New Yorker had rejected. I saw to it that Ross was immediately notified of the sale, and I sent him a copy of the magazine. That’s when he really began telling people, “Thurber’s drawings are a fad of the English, a passing fancy.” He thought that some of my drawings were funny, all right, but what really got him, I could tell from his tone and look when he first mentioned it to me, was the praise they got from Ralph Barton and Wallace Morgan when Ross asked these friends of his about them. There was one New Yorker cartoonist, perhaps one of many that felt the same way, who yelled at Ross one day during the thirties, “Why do you reject drawings of mine, and print stuff by that fifth-rate artist Thurber?”
“Third-rate,” said Ross, coming promptly and bravely to the defense of my stature as an artist and his own reputation as an editor.
In the last seven years of his life Ross wrote me dozens of letters and notes about my drawings. In one he said he had found out that the New Yorker had published 307 of my captioned drawings, of which 175 had been printed in one or another of my books. He wanted to know if I would permit new captions by outsiders on those rearranged originals of mine. “There is a caption here on a sketch by an idea man,” he wrote me, “that it is thought might do for a re-used drawing of yours, as follows: (Two women talking) ‘Every time she tells a lie about me, I’m going to tell the truth about her.’ Now that I’ve got it on paper, it may not sound so hot, but it might do. The women in your drawings used to say some pretty batty things.” He wanted to pay me the full rate I had got for originals, but I said no on a project in which I would have no real creative part.
The whole idea was abandoned after I told Ross that I didn’t grieve about not being able to draw any longer. “If I couldn’t write, I couldn’t breathe,” I wrote him, “but giving up drawing is only a little worse than giving up tossing cards in a hat. I once flipped in forty-one out of the whole deck, at twelve feet.” I may have been straining a point to cheer up Ross, but cheering up Ross was a good deed, like lighting a lamp.
He was fond of two series I had drawn, “Famous Poems Illustrated” and “A New Natural History,” and here are some of the things he wrote me about them. “Why in God’s name did you stop doing the illustrated poems? There are forty million other verses in the English language, many of them unquestionably suitable for Thurber illustration.” “I hereby suggest the Blue Funk as an animal or bird in the Natural History series. Also, I suggest the Blue Streak and the Trickle, and mention the fact that you might get a few more animals out of the bones of the human skeleton.” “There might be a name for something in the Natural History series in ‘Lazy Susan,’ a flower or a butterfly, or something. Would ‘antimacassar’ be possible? I guess not.”
Some of his written comments on the Natura’ History series show the old sharpshooter at work. “The checking of the names in your Natural History series revealed that one name is a real name: there is an actual fish called the pout. You have a bird called a shriek. In real life there is a bird called a shriker and also one called a shrike. I should think the approximation here does not matter. There is a bee called a lapidary, but you have drawn an animal. You have a clock tick. There is, of course, a tick. No matter, I say. There is a bird called a ragamuffin. You have drawn a ragamuffin plant. No real conflict.” I wrote Ross that, for temperamental reasons, and such, I could draw only creatures suggested to me by my own thoughts about words, and said, “I’ve come to the end of this series, unless you want a man being generous to a fault — that is, handing a small rodent a nut. And I know you won’t want a female grouch nursing a grudge. As for the illustrated poems, they began when I sent McKelway, from Frederick, Maryland, the Barbara Frietchie drawings, and they ended when I tried Poe’s Raven, and it turned into a common cornfield crow.”
In 1955 my London publishers brought out a small paperback of some forty selected drawings of mine, with a short preface. It was called A Thurber Garland and cost five shillings, or about seventy cents. That year only thirty-seven copies of it were sold, and I can hear Ross now, as I so often hear him, pacing the chalcedony halls and complaining. Perverse, unpredictable, H. W. Ross is grumbling to some uninterested angel, “What the hell’s the matter with the English? Thurber’s drawings are not a fad, or a passing fancy, they are here to stay. Don’t they know that?”