Book Review – Peter Arno

Peter Arno The New Yorker’s Most Famous Cartoonist Gets His Due

Peter Arno Maslin Book coverDays after Peter Arno’s death on February 22, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson wrote to The New Yorker editor William Shawn about Arno:

We all have our favorite memories of his comic genius. They seem so fresh in mind and heart that I believe he has a firm hold on posterity.

The nation can be glad of that, and grateful to The New Yorker for serving as Mr. Arno’s stage for so many happy years.

A private life is the most difficult to capture in a biography. For someone so famous during his heyday of fame, Peter Arno led a very private life. In his public life Arno hobnobbed with the famous, was once named the best dressed man in America and was the very definition of man about town. Yet Peter Arno never divulged his inner-self and is somewhat forgotten today.

Michael Maslin’s Peter Arno The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist (Regan Arts) April 2016, takes up the challenge of unveiling Peter Arno’s life .

Besides Linda H. Davis’ Charles Addams A Cartoonist’s Life (2006), several biographies of James Thurber who was more than just a cartoonist, and biographies of Ralph Barton and contributor Ronald Searle, incredibly, no other New Yorker cartoonist has been given a full length biography.

Here, Peter Arno comes across as a handsome, confident, multi-talented artist who became bored easily in both artistic endeavors and personal relationships, felt he was underpaid at The New Yorker, enjoyed living the high-life, was possibly manic-depressive and drank a bit too much.

With limited first-hand information on Arno, Maslin has done an admirable job at presenting the life of The New Yorker’s star cartoonist.  There are large gaps in the Arno timeline and that is to be expected. Despite those gaps, Peter Arno succeeds in detailing the Arno’s professional life and giving fresh insight into what shaped the artist.

Maslin, a cartoonist himself for The New Yorker for nearly forty years, is the ideal person to tell Arno’s story.

Most importantly, Maslin had the cooperation of Arno’s only daughter Patricia, Arno’s last long-time love interest, Charlotte Markell, and access to a partial unpublished, autobiography Arno began in 1961 but never completed.

Maslin was able to query former and current long-time New Yorker staff members including many of the cartoonists.

Born Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr. on January 8, 1904 in New York City, young Curtis exhibited early artistic and musical talent. A contentious relationship with his father is the probable cause of Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr. rechristening himself Peter Arno.

Arno first began contributing cartoons to The New Yorker soon after its founding in 1925. Quickly Arno rose to become one of the magazine’s most valuable contributors.

Maslin describes Arno’s great gift for comic artistry and how he developed a drawing technique that made his illustrations unique. Once you have seen Peter Arno’s work one thing is clear: no one drew cartoons like Peter Arno. As fellow New Yorker artist Ed Francisco describes what made an “Arno” cartoon, “Arno’s instantly recognizable style. There’s no need to read the signature.”

What many New Yorker cartoon fans may not have realized is that some of the captions for those famous cartoons were supplied by New Yorker “ideamen,” professional gag men (many times, other cartoonists), who were paid for their ideas.

This was not an uncommon practice at The New Yorker that began to change in the 1960s as a new breed of cartoonists who not only drew but relied on using their own captions started appearing in the magazine. Star cartoonists Charles Addams, Whitney Darrow and George Price were all somewhat propped up by these ideamen. As time went on more and more of Arno’s cartoons were written by other cartoonists or ideamen.

Peter Arno compilation books (photo: SNCA)

Peter Arno compilation books (photo: SNCA)

Even with that help, there always seemed to be a shortage of Arno cartoons, as the magazine liked to put cartoons in the bank, so to speak, to have them available to run when they needed them. As Arno became more popular, he could be notoriously slow or reluctant in providing finished cartoons as more often than not, Arno worked when he felt like it.

Arno had advertisers always clamoring for his work, so extra income was there if he needed it. Arno also made himself available to illustrate other authors books. From 1927 until his death, Arno regularly put out his own books of cartoons and drawings. These books often netted him a tidy sum, as they usually sold well.

What is interesting is that during Arno’s long association with the magazine that made him famous he rarely came into the office and many of the other staff members never met Arno.

Arno’s death at the age of 64, nearly 50 years ago means that there are more than two generations who may not know Arno’s name or work. All of Arno’s cartoon collections are out-of-print, but generally available through used book stores and online. Arno’s work is worth re-examining. This biography is a welcome first step to re-introduce this comic master to a new audience.

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