Thursday, April 14, 2016

Interview: Michael Maslin on Peter Arno

Amazingly, cartoonist Peter Arno has never been the subject of a biography—until now. Michael Maslin's Peter Arno:  The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker's Greatest Cartoonist will be released on April 19. Today Mr. Maslin answers Attempted Bloggery's many questions about his research into the life of this seminal cartoonist.

Q:  Many New Yorker cartoonists maintain websites, but yours is far and away the most ambitious. It obviously took years to attain its present level of comprehensiveness. You provide basic biographical information on every single New Yorker cartoonist since the magazine's launch in 1925. You have archived a great treasure trove of cartoon book covers. On Ink Spill, you also keep track of the divers events and happenings in which today's New Yorker cartoonists participate. Other sections of the website describe your own development as a cartoonist and some of your early influences.

Now you have written the first full-length biography of the great Peter Arno (1904-1968), an undertaking that lasted more than a decade. How is it that Michael Maslin the New Yorker cartoonist also has become Michael Maslin the New Yorker historian?

A:  As a little kid living in Bloomfield, New Jersey, I saw a plaque on the town green that said Revolutionary War soldiers once trained there.  I was bowled over by the idea that guys in powdered wigs and tri-cornered hats once marched around right where I was standing.  It began a way of thinking that continues to this day: seeing the past while looking at the present.  

The New Yorker’s history, including its characters (most especially James Thurber) pulled me in as a cartoonist but also as a student of the magazine and its art.  Many people recognize  the marquee names usually  associated with New Yorker cartoonists: Charles Addams, or Steinberg;  I wanted to focus as well on the very deep bench of cartoonists, past and present, most people don’t know much about.  Ink Spill allows me to do that. 

Ironically, Arno, though the most famous and influential of all New Yorker artists, had never been the subject of a biography.  I felt he deserved the respect and attention accorded other New Yorker institutions, like Thurber, Addams and Steinberg, so I nervously took on the job. 

Q:  Do you recall your first encounter with Arno’s work?

A:  I actually don't remember seeing any cartoonist's work for the first time, except for Thurber. "What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?" changed everything for me.  As Both Thurber and Arno were long gone by the time I arrived at The New Yorker (Thurber died in 1961 and Arno in 1968), my knowledge of their work came primarily through back issues of The New Yorker I'd started hoarding.  My first Arno collection was his first collection, Parade, published in 1929.
Q: It was four years earlier in 1925 that Arno came to the New Yorker during the magazine's rocky first year. How did a 21-year-old come to establish himself at the young magazine? He had talent, to be sure. Did he also have connections?

A: He had zero connections at The New Yorker. He brought his work in, unsolicited, like so many have done since. If we want to let our legs go wobbly for a moment, consider that Arno's first visit to the New Yorker was going to be, in his own words, his "last try" at selling his art. Had the New Yorker not taken his work (one from that very submission), he would've headed fully into his other passion: music.

Q: Does any of his music survive, either compositions or recordings?

A: I believe that his daughter has some home recordings. I've been unable to find the one song that you see mentioned in brief bios of him: "My Heart Is On My Sleeve" (usually coupled with: "He cracked Tin Pan Alley with...") -- it is not catalogued by any publishing company, nor is it to be found in the records of The Library of Congress. A real mystery.

Q: He did some writing as well. Didn't he write a novel early on and the book for a Cole Porter musical?

A: The novel, Whoops Dearie! was ghostwritten by his New Yorker colleague, Philip Wylie -- the man who brought Arno's Whoops Sisters drawings to Harold Ross's attention. Arno provided the illustrations. Arno did write a few short pieces that saw publication.

Whoops Dearie!

As for the musical, it's a two-part answer:

There were two musicals. The first, The New Yorkers, did include music by Cole Porter, including a song, "Love For Sale" that was controversial as well as commercially durable. The play also featured music written by one of the stars of the play, Jimmy Durante. The play itself was based on a seed of an idea by Arno (a wealthy woman falls for a criminal). Arno was responsible for the sets. The play was relatively successful, but was eventually done in, attendance-wise, by the Depression.

"Where Have You Been"
Sheet Music from "The New Yorkers"

The second play, Here Goes The Bride, is of far more interest as it was actually written by Arno. It arrived on Broadway with much fanfare, and was ravaged by the critics before the celebratory champagne lost its fizz on opening night. Lasting just six performances,  it was Broadway's biggest flop, up to that time. 

"Shake Well Before Using"
Sheet music from "Here Goes the Bride"

Q:  Did you have any luck finding Arno's Western melodrama?

A: No, never found it.  It's yet another one of those mysteries that may never be solved. 

Q:  It's hard to imagine the magazine without Peter Arno. How responsible was he for the development of the modern New Yorker cartoon?

A: Ross called Arno the New Yorker's "first pathfinder"; it's true that Arno was, in those early years at the magazine, finding his way, along with Ross, and Rea Irvin, to what we now recognize as the New Yorker Cartoon. Could the New Yorker Cartoon have happened without Arno? His two peers at the top of Ross's ranked artists, were Gluyas Williams and Helen Hokinson -- both incredible artists, both well represented in the magazine. Their work was graphically opposite Arno's: gentler; their captions subtle. Arno's work hit hard and fast. He wanted the readers to experience an instantaneous connection: drawing, caption, Bam! Had his work not been in the mix, who knows if the magazine's cartoons would've headed where he took them. 

Q: Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr. adopted the pen name Peter Arno upon his arrival at the New Yorker. Significantly, he did not use the name he shared with his prominent father, a New York State Supreme Court Justice. What did his family think of his unusual career choice, and what did they make of the well-publicized excesses of his social life?

A: We know for sure that his father did not want him to pursue art. His mother, on the other hand, was supportive. Arno was either going to be an artist or musician. Lawyering never seemed to be part of his plan. As far as his exploits, they were obviously aware of his antics -- in a letter he wrote to his mother while he was out in Reno for divorce #1 (from New Yorker writer Lois Long), he tells her not to believe a word of what she's reading in the paper.

Q:  What were the newspapers reporting?

A:  In a nutshell, it involved Arno escorting a married woman home only to be met by her jealous husband (a Vanderbilt) who brought out a gun and chased Arno across the front lawn.  There was also an altercation between the two men on the Reno train station platform. Punches were thrown, or at least one punch was thrown by Vanderbilt.  All of this created a boat-load of stories in the national press.

Q: Did your research uncover any surprises about Arno's childhood or his schooldays?

A: No surprises: an angel until his his early teens and then, while at Hotchkiss, the mischievous side of him surfaced, and (luckily) stuck.   

Q:  An angel! That is a surprise. What sort of mischief did he get into at boarding school?

A: Oh nothing serious.  The usual: inattentiveness, carelessness in his work,  etc.. Things we probably find fairly normal today, but were less tolerated in 1920. It's worth noting that while he was cutting-up in class, he was also working on his drawing, and slowly making a name for himself as an artist. The year he graduated, his work dominated the school yearbook. 

Q:  And he continued to hone his skills at Yale?

A: Very much so. His drawings were accepted almost immediately by The Yale Record upon his arrival in New Haven. He was drawing portraits, cartoons, covers. Some of the work he produced could've easily worked in the earliest issues of The New Yorker.

Q: His mature style is very bold and direct. It seems quite unique and extraordinary even for The New Yorker. Who were his artistic influences?

A: Like most cartoonists, his was a melting pot of influences. As a child, he was a fan of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and at the same time was taking in art with a capital "A" while looking through the books in his parents' library. The 19th century French caricaturist, Daumier was important to him both stylistically and biographically. Arno wasn't just interested in how drawings looked, he aspired for them to say something about his times.

Honoré Daumier, After the Water, Fire (1858)

Q. Well, they certainly did look great—with all those wonderfully-rendered showgirls, speakeasies, dinner parties, and bedroom scenes—and they succeeded brilliantly in commenting on his times with humor and wit! Yet one also gets the sense with Arno more than others that he was not just documenting, say, the jazz-infused nightlife of the Prohibition Era, but participating in it too and rather rakishly at that. Is this a fair assessment or was he putting us on?

A: Participating! Up until the 1950s he was out and about, on the town. Luckily for us he mixed business with pleasure, recording the scene on paper (or in his case, board).   

Q: How did he go about that? Did he carry a sketchbook while out on the town and later finish selected work on illustration board in his studio?

A: It is documented that he went out with a sketchbook, and drew, but it's not clear that that was something he usually did. He photographed some of what he was seeing in the clubs and (presumably) worked from some of those images. Beyond that I believe that the soul of his work came out of experiencing the Cafe Society life and translating that onto paper. 

Q: It sounds as if not too many sketchbooks survive.

A: I've never seen an actual sketchbook, although I have seen sketches seemingly done outside of his studio (in fact, I have a couple, framed and hung on a wall). The paper is the kind usually associated with a sketchpad: thin, manilla. 

Q: What about his reference photos? Have you encountered any of them?

A: Not a one. I can imagine they'd make for an interesting, if not great book.   

Q:  There's a tough sell to a publisher. So you have documentation that Peter Arno drew and photographed the nightclubs, but the original material doesn't survive. We know that many artists keep their sketchbooks and Andy Warhol, to give one example, kept his reference photographs. Do you suppose Arno discarded his reference material when he no longer needed it?

A: His sketchbooks/photographs may turn up, or they may not. There are a number of loose Arno threads still haunting me.     

Q: Before we get to those, did he at least hold on to his correspondence?

A: Most of the correspondence I've seen is from his childhood.  Letters home from camp, from boarding school, from college.  I got the impression that, as an adult, he preferred the telephone. 

Q: How helpful to you were The New Yorker records in the New York Public Library?

A: As you'll see in the book, I leaned heavily on material from the magazine's archives. Reading so much material brought me that much closer to living through those early times. That alone was a 

Q: What insights did you gain into the early days of The New Yorker?

A: Before beginning my research I was very much aware of how the magazine's art department worked in its earliest days (our library is well-stocked with New Yorker related books). What I discovered by digging through the archives sharpened my understanding of how things began and how they moved along.

Q. Was there anything in the Arno folders that took you by surprise?

A: How casual he was about work at times. There are a number of telegrams encouraging him to finish pieces or reply to his editor's requests for better communication. There were a lot of distractions in his life once his career took off. I go into all of them in the book.

Q. The nightclubs and these casual work habits make Arno seem very much the carefree man about town. Yet you originally chose the working title Mad at Something which hinted at something essentially more troubling about your subject. How did you come up with this early title?

A: Its roots came right out of Arno's mouth. He told Joe Mitchell in the late 1930s (when Mitchell was a newspaper man, before he joined the staff of The New Yorker): "You don't do good work of this kind unless you're mad at something." Arno declined to elaborate when pressed by Mitchell.

Q:  What do you think he meant?

A: I'll let Arno answer for himself exactly as he answered Mitchell's further questioning:
"Oh hell, I don't know. What's gained by making generalities about yourself?"

Q: Your cover photo shows Arno holding brushes in both hands (and a cigarette in his mouth). I can't think of another artist who does this. Was Arno uniquely dextrous in this manner of handling his brushes?

A: That's an interesting thing to point out. In a survey of photographs of Arno posing as if he's in the process of drawing, he often, but not always, has extra brushes or a piece of charcoal or pencils in his left hand. If I could bring my own experience into this just this once: I can relate. When I've worked on color pieces, I usually find it easier to collect in my non-drawing hand the pencils and brushes I'm constantly using. It's partially done as a time saver, but it also keeps the experience tied to the paper. You don't need to look off to the side for that other brush or other pencil.

Q: You got to interview a number of cartoonists who had been around in Arno's day. What was this experience like for you and what were you able to learn?

A: They confirmed what I'd heard: that, with the exception of Lois Long, (who he married), and his editor, Harold Ross, Arno didn't have much to do with his New Yorker colleagues. The end of the biography includes a number of Arno's contemporaries talking about him -- mostly they speak about his art and what it meant or didn't mean to them and/or The New Yorker. What comes through, mostly, is great respect for his art.

For me, it was a somewhat unreal, Zelig-like experience communicating with the likes of Syd Hoff, William Steig, Mischa Richter, and Eldon Dedini, among many many others -- all legends in the world of cartoon art.

Q. You yourself have been publishing cartoons in The New Yorker for nearly four decades. How, if at all, does Arno's work inform your own?

A: I think, probably, I've absorbed a little of his attitude.

Q: Do you have a favorite Arno cartoon?

A: I don't. Like I don't have a favorite Beatles song. There are just so many, it doesn't makes sense to isolate one of them. I can pick up any Arno collection and instantly find favorites. Some of those made it into the biography, but I had to leave so many more out.

Q. What would you say is Peter Arno's legacy?

A. The New Yorker Cartoon.

Q. Are there significant Arno loose threads other than the ones we've discussed here already?

A. Probably, but I know I won't realize what they are until I see this interview published.

Q. If you could time travel and interview Arno, what else would you ask him about?

A. If I was thinking clearly, I'd remember to bring along his unpublished memoir and ask him about all the pieces of it I was unable to unravel.

Q. Is there anything further you would like to add on the subject of Peter Arno?

A. If the situation in the previous question happened to come true, I'd add the material Arno supplied. 

Q. You've spent some 17 years on this project. What would the boy from Bloomfield have made of all of this?

A. That boy loved books, comic books, history. I think he would've thumbed through Arno's biography and then (depending on what age the boy was) either asked his mother to buy it for him or would've bought it himself.

Q. If you could choose only one, what cartoonist would you most like to see the subject of a future biography?

A. I have one in mind, but I'm keeping the name close to the vest.

Q. Please tell us a little about your next book project.

A. I've been working for a long while on a book about my time at The New Yorker -- a chronicle as much as a memoir. As I've yet to cap my Rapidograph for the last time, the book continues to be a work-in-progress, and (hopefully) nowhere close to finished.

Note:  After almost five years of blogging, this is my very first interview. Thanks to Michael Maslin for letting this novice practice on him. Mr. Maslin's long-awaited biography of Peter Arno will be here in just a few days.

Michael Maslin will join Edward Sorel in conversation at Columbia University on April 18. Guess whom they'll be talking about?

More Arno links:

Peter Arno posts on Ink Spill.

Peter Arno in Chris Wheeler's Cartoon(ist) Gallery.

Peter Arno in April's Vanity Fair.

Peter Arno in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Peter Arno on Attempted Bloggery.



  1. I look forward to reading the biography, and I'd love to see a biography of Charles Saxon.