As it happens, two of my favorite cartoonist’s are Roz Chast and William Steig. Here we find them together for — as far as I know — the first time. (And what a team!) I lifted this piece from the “Drawn!,” website (to which you can link from the sidebar on this blog). “Drawn!,” in turn, picked up the item from The Paris Review blog, where it originally appeared on September 1, 2011. (You’ll find a link to Paris Review by tapping Ms. Chast’s name, below.) If you love these two artists, you’ll enjoy — and learn a bunch of interesting stuff — from this short essay.
Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns
September 1, 2011 | by Roz Chast
I first noticed William Steig’s covers and cartoons around 1970, when I was a teenager and would page through my parents’ New Yorker magazines. His drawings didn’t look like the rest of the cartoons in the magazine. They didn’t have gag lines. There were no boardrooms, no cocktail parties with people saying witty things to one another. His men and women looked as if they were out of the Past, although I wasn’t completely clear as to what era of the Past they were from. Sometimes the drawings made me laugh, and sometimes they didn’t, but I always wanted to look at them. I had a sense that these cartoons were made by someone who had had to create his own language, both visual and verbal, with which to express his view of the world.
His subjects? Animals, both real and imaginary. Also cowboys, farmers, knights on horseback, damsels in distress, gigantic ladies and teeny-tiny men, grandmas, clowns of indeterminate gender, average joes, families, old couples, young couples, artists, deep thinkers, fools, loners, lovers, and hoboes, among other things.
Steig’s drawings seem to flow effortlessly from his mind to his pen and onto the paper. I doubt he ever looked at a blank sheet and thought, “I have nothing worthwhile to say today,” or “I can’t draw a car as well as Joe Shmoe, so why don’t I crawl back into bed and wait for the day to be over.” Steig gave himself permission to be playful and experimental. One of the many wonderful things about looking at his drawings is their message, especially to his fellow artists: Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost. To quote Pablo Picasso, Steig’s favorite artist, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
William Steig produced more than fifty books, from early collections like Small Fry (1944) to children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Shrek! (1990), which he wrote and illustrated late in his career. Unlike many artists who find a style early in their lives and then spend the rest of their careers perfecting it, Steig changed his style over the years. His work from the forties and fifties is fairly conventional. In the drawings of his middle years, his style is more angular and geometric. And in his last decades, his line becomes very fluid and playful, and there is an explosion of color, especially in his children’s books.
Steig, who was a follower of Wilhelm Reich, was deeply interested in psychology. Much of his work looks at society from an outsider’s point of view, observing with humor and compassion the compromises we make when we grow up and try to conform to society’s expectations. His earliest collection (and one of my favorites) was About People (1939). Each page contains a drawing representing a different emotional state, with a caption written underneath in his handwriting. Some combinations of drawing and title are fairly obvious, like the man sitting in a chair calmly smoking a cigarette. Behind the chair is a huge octopus with four tentacles wrapped around the man. The caption is simply “Poise.” But some of the drawings are not of people at all. One contains a roughly drawn spiral, and in the center of the spiral is a black blot with a tiny white dot in the middle. The caption is: “Father’s Angry Eye.”
These are not your typical cartoons, and especially not typical of cartooning at the time. They’re offbeat. They’re also about something otherwise intangible: actual emotions.
Steig’s interest in psychology continued with Persistent Faces (1945), which explores a variety of visual types, like the “Hostess,” who has alarmingly twinkly eyes and teeth, and a worried man’s face, captioned “Straw in the Wind.” The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), which he dedicated to Reich, is filled with drawings of children and accompanying statements like “I need that kid like I need a hole in the head,” and “Stop asking so many questions.” Perhaps Steig’s most famous cartoon of this period is “Mother loved me but she died,” from The Lonely Ones (1942). These demonstrate Steig’s ear for language, and also demonstrate his ability to look at life through a child’s eyes.
Steig was an exceptionally gifted colorist, and he used color in a luminous, instinctive, and expressive way. Even when the goings-on are terrifying, as they often are in Rotten Island (1984)—my favorite of all of his children’s books—they’re never depressing. His dark colors are about a gleeful darkness, the darkness children feel when they know their most trusted adult is going to tell them a spooky story. The color isn’t over-fussed or second-guessed or muddified.
Steig loved pattern. Rugs, sofas, chairs, wallpaper, ladies’ dresses, and men’s shirts were all miniature canvases where he could make up designs—diamonds or flowers or spirals or something that looks like an upside-down banana peel. Even a sky could be patterned with lines or brick-like shapes or decorative cloud puffs.
In the preface to his collection Dreams of Glory (1953), Steig writes, “We can laugh at the pretense and pose and foolishness of an irrational ideology and at the same time feel the pity and love—for a living being—that should be ingredients of all humor.” Sometimes I think of the Cartoon World as a big house with a Magazine Panel Cartoon Wing, a Newspaper Daily Strip Wing, a Graphic Novel Wing, an Underground Comics wing, a Superhero Comics wing, an Animation wing, and lots of other wings I don’t know about yet. Steig’s drawings throw open a bunch of windows and let in some fresh air, for which I am deeply grateful. He saw the world of human beings as absurd, hilarious, terrifying, mystifying, and infinitely worth observing.
Roz Chast’s cartoons have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Scientific American, and Mother Jones. Her next book is What I Hate: From A to Z. A longer version of this essay will appear in Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig.
By Susan Middaugh
The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. The heavy plastic, which protected the gown after its one and only wearing, had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tightly by a local dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, retained the same winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper, visible at the neck.
After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my teenage daughter, Liza, would want to wear it someday. When I got home, I threw the dress — gently — giving it plenty of room, into a basement closet, containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.
With the approach of Liza’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although there were no nuptials in Liza’s forecast, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed . . . ” was in my mind, if not in hers. Looking around for a family precedent, I found there was none. My own mother, who had married during the war, wore a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. Mom did not save her wedding garments for me and my four younger sisters — except in black and white photographs. What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? With Mona and Nana, the subject of wedding dresses never came up.
As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand me downs. Except for me, they don’t buy at thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new. Hand me downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. As an adult, I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop — whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first or second wearing, the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else — a woman from a different century perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier. For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this garment instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is threadbare. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.
Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters or nieces and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical aspects to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding garment fits or may be altered to fit the bride; another that she likes the taste or style of her relative. A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love one another? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.
What then of former brides like myself whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor, do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our past? Because I hope my daughter will fare better in affairs of the heart and in matrimony than I did the first time, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is — gently used and with some history, but no baggage.
I can see her now, a young June bride very much in love and with high hopes, as she raises the plastic covering. “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”
Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.
Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Her personal essay, Turning Green, was published on this blog on April 21, 2009. To read it, check out the April archives in the sidebar. Also in the sidebar, under the blogroll, business and writing labels, there are links to Susan’s Have Pen Will Travel website.
Photo Illustration Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.
Jacquie Roland, a writer of wonderful blog comments on some of my posts—several of which we’ve turned into posts in their own right—has sent a short personal essay via e-mail this time, occasioned by the death of the 1950s sex symbol, Bettie Page. Miss Page (no “Ms.” in those days) was the “IT” girl for pre- and post-pubescent guys like me, and Jacquie thought that I might like to know about Bettie’s passing. She was so right, of course. In fact, when I received her e-mail I merely had to look over my left shoulder to see a favorite picture of Miss Page pinned to the wall. (I’ve reproduced it here.) Enjoy that image (click on it for a larger view) and the delightful word images Jacquie creates in her memoir.
By Jacquie Roland
Bettie Page died December 11, 2008, at the age of 85. For young men of a certain age she was the most beautiful, exotic, woman they had ever seen. She filled their every fantasy. Those boys—men now— must have felt a certain pang, a loss, when they saw her obit in the New York Times. They couldn’t have forgotten her. How do you forget your youth?
In recent years, Bettie had become a cult favorite. Websites, books and calendars were devoted to her. In her 80’s, she again had fans who remembered her heyday, when they were all living high. A movie THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, starring Gretchen Moll was well received , as were several books, telling her life story. I hadn’t given her much thought until I saw the listings in BUD PLANT’S ART BOOKS catalog. It was then I remembered the woman in the fishnet stockings and the whip that had been taped inside notebooks, and on the back walls of gas stations when I was a kid. No thought of “PC” in those days. Ladies would just look away.
There always seemed to be two pinups, now that I remember… Bettie Page and Jane Russell… one in little or nothing, and one in the most incredible sweater. Both were sex symbols, both world famous. Although I wasn’t sure about the sex symbol stuff, even as a child, I understood fame. Jane Russell was a famous movie star, Bettie Page a famous model, or “Pin-up”, as we called them then. Her claim to fame was her body and , for their day, her provocative poses. And they were provocative… enough so that she was called to Washington by no less than Estes Kefauver to testify in his anti- pornography campaign. Both women went through what could be termed ” a bad patch” as adults, but came out whole on the other side. Both became Born Again Christians. Read their biographies.
Ms. Russell had a more secure upbringing than Ms. Page, to say the least, but both ended up being married three times. Neither woman could conceive a child. Bettie had no children, while Jane had three. She adopted two boys and a girl. I never met Bettie Page, but because Ms. Russell was an adoptive parent, and because she founded WAIF ( World Adoption International Fund), I met her in Washington, DC during the CHILDREN GROW BETTER IN FAMILIES adoption initiative, under President Reagan. A staunch Republican and adoptive mother, she would be the perfect keynote speaker. Would she come to Washington, and help out her old friend Ronald Reagan? I hung up the phone happily… she would.
The day she was to speak, however, I was panicked. The “green room” was full, the Great Hall of the Health and Human Services building was as well… and no Jane. The other celebrities were waiting to go on, and time and celebrity waits for no man ( or woman) but she was nowhere to be seen. When I rushed out of the green room one last time, I saw guest Art Buchwald look at his watch. The kids from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE , Melissa Gilbert and the Laborteaux boys, were getting restless. Will Sampson, the American Indian actor who was so good in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST was talking to baseball great, Steve Garvey. They were all wearing that ‘lets get this show on the road’ look. Time was, in fact “a-wasting”. I literally ran out of the elevator into the Great Hall. Nope, none of the greeters had seen her. My god… a no show… I was about to lose my job. …. But then…In the middle of that vast room stood Ms. Russell, (to this day in my mind’s eye) in a sunbeam, surrounded by a nimbus cloud. A perfect angel in a belted, print, no nonsense dress and sensible pumps. She was older, of course, but who could miss her? She was a queen… a real celebrity… every inch a star.
My greeters, sweet, lovely and handsome youngsters had each been given her bio, so that they could answer intelligent questions and in fact were looking for the Jane Russell of THE OUTLAW, cleavage ‘down to there’, or at least a Madonna look-a-like. No official greeter was near, in any case… they were still craning their necks out the front doors. I feared that “my “star was not prepared to be swept up by some small, panicked art director, but that is how it was. I said the first thing that came to mind, to put her at ease… I may have been less than truthful, but I was quick. “Ms. Russell, Mr. Buchwald was just asking about you… may I take you to him?” Which I did, when I got her downstairs I opened the green room door and said “Mr. Buchwald, it’s Ms. Russell, sir, she’s here.” Art Buchwald, Pulitzer Prize winner, took his cue like a man from Central Casting, and introduced her to the others. Perfect.
I spoke to them both several times that day, saw to their welfare, took care they were both filmed and interviewed… and though I don’t remember a word of her speech… I do remember that it was spectacular. Years later, I heard that Art Buchwald was ill. While still working for the Reagan White House I had the opportunity to call on Mr. Buchwald now and again for small favors. He was always gracious. I wrote him, reminding him of those days on Capitol Hill. I finally asked if he remembered what he and Jane Russell talked about that day. He wrote back July 20, 2006:
Dear Jacquie, thanks so much for your nice letter and reminding me of my tete-a-tete with Jane Russell. I cannot reveal what we said to one another, WOW, was I living high at that time. Love- Art Buchwald
I could almost see the twinkle in his eye, as I read the words. Yes, Mr. B, we WERE living high, weren’t we? Mr. Buchwald died January 17, 2007. Ms. Russell, now 87, lives in California. And lest you feel mislead by this post’s title—to me, there is nothing sexier than a kind, intelligent, witty man. That gets me every time. And I’m willing to bet that is why men were so drawn to Bettie Page… she was intelligent, and had the twinkle in spades. The leopard skin helped, though. I do so wish I had also met Bettie Page back then, but meeting two out of three iconic sex symbols in one day…not shabby.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.