The first time George Booth visited New Yorker art editor James Geraghty, in 1969, he was surprised to find cartoons by George Price, the artist Booth was most frequently compared to, laying around Geraghty's office. The meeting, as Booth recalls, was a tad awkward: "So Jim Geraghty was lookin’ at my batch, and I was looking at the George Price stuff. I couldn’t help it, it was right in my face. And he said, 'That’s George Price’s work.' And I said, 'Yes, I know.' And Geraghty said, 'It's too bad he can’t draw.' Yeah, he didn’t know whether I knew anything. And I said, 'Yes, it is. But he knows enough tricks to get by.'" Booth laughs loudly at the memory.
George Price imported memories of a New Jersey hometown he claimed was "inordinately loaded with oafs, nimble jacks and weirdos" into The New Yorker's cartoon pages. And Booth concedes that Price broke ground from which the younger cartoonist later mined comedy gold. But Price is said to have never written a single gag of his own for the magazine, while Booth has always used images and language to create a world irrefutably his own. It extends from the front-porch shenanigans of his Midwestern upbringing to the tenement-apartment confines of New York itself. It's populated with versions of his Missouri family and neighbors as well as a rotating cast of cranky urbanites
In addition to his infinitely particularized cats and dogs, Booth's world includes the crew at Bohaty's Garage and their regular customer, Mr. Ferguson; the hapless Leon and his philosophically inclined older female companion (Booth calls her "Youbetcha"); the man in the bathtub; the man in the armchair under the hanging plant; the man alone in an apartment with his dog; the woman alone in an apartment with her dog; and, most famously, Mrs. Ritterhouse, a direct descendant of Booth's mother. The knock-kneed elderly musician was depicted furiously pounding out a fussilade of piano notes on the magazine's cover as recently as April 2012.
I spoke with the delightfully free-ranging George Booth – Born June 28, 1926, in Cainsville, Missouri – and his gracious wife Dione at a restaurant near their home in Stony Brook, New York.
RICHARD GEHR: I believe you are the only New Yorker cartoonist to actually be profiled in the magazine.
GEORGE BOOTH: Oh God.
GEHR: David Owen wrote about you for the 1998 cartoon issue.
BOOTH: David Owen – who’s quite a wonderful person – showed up at in 2010 when I did a chalk talk during the New Yorker Festival, and because of him it was a success. When I get up in front of people and draw and talk… I've got a one-track mind; if I draw, I can’t talk [laughs], unless I’ve memorized everything. If I turn my pencil back to the drawing, and am silent, then I have to get back on track. That’s not very good public speaking. So David Owen showed up – I don’t know how he knew I was gonna have a little difficulty there – and sat over to one side with his back against the wall and his notes on having interviewed me. And every time I hit one of my silent periods, he would either announce some sector in my history or tell me to "tell ’em about this." And the cartoonist Matthew Diffee was helping me, too, and he’s somethin’ else. He got behind my easel and provided smoke and atmosphere and noises when I needed ’em.
GEHR: He was your special effects department.
BOOTH: Yeah. And the smoke was talcum powder. I've done that by myself, too. I spoke at Stony Brook University when they gave me a doctorate in 2003. I had a black curtain behind me and acted like my speech was so old that every time I turned the page, a cloud of dust arose. I was having fun. A woman out in the audience was amazed but turned into a maniac. She wouldn’t quiet down. And the president of the university and her husband were sitting right there. It was the first time I had ever talked in front of them. I kept looking to see if I was gonna be thrown out.
GEHR: What do you talk about when people ask you to speak?
BOOTH: I gave my first chalk talk when I was nine to a bunch of ladies in a small-town Methodist church basement. My mother was an artist and a teacher. Both of my parents were teachers.
GEHR: In Fairfax, Missouri.
BOOTH: Yeah. And my dad taught there about fifteen years. He left during my junior year and went to another town. But he did pretty well through the Depression by holding in there on one job. He had a master’s degree and he became a superintendent. And mother would go to school in the summertime. She added to her credits until she was teaching school, eventually. Mother taught in one school that was all eight grades. She had about fifteen kids in grades one through eight. I went out to visit her and she was delousing all the kids, which she did on the first day of school.
GEHR: She'd feel right at home in Brooklyn these days.
BOOTH: Mother wanted me to give my first chalk talk when I was nine, but I was not ready to get up and talk to people. I'd been drawing since I was three, but I wouldn’t cooperate with her, I didn't want to talk. She got disgusted and said, "All right, you do the drawing, I’ll do the talking." So we went to the ladies' thing and I drew some numbers from a 1930s chalk pin-up book. I’ll tell you about that in a minute. I memorized the stuff and drew. Mother did the talking, and it went over well. The ladies started clapping when it was over, but I didn’t bow or anything. I just shot for the nearest tin chair to get outside. Mother came over, gathered up my shirt in one hand, stood me up, and said, "You stand up there and act like you know something, whether you do or not." It’s been a good lesson in life.
GEHR: Indeed. So what's a chalk pin-up book?
BOOTH: In one, you draw two wheels like a Model T Ford and you put fenders on, the axels and spokes, and a little bit of road underneath, and that changes into a face with a guy holding a steering wheel. The wheels are his eyes, the road is his mustache, and the cap is the mountain. And the rhyme goes, "This little car is made of tin/ We veer and there – a rivet./ It’ll run on gas or tea or gin,/ Or anything you give it./ It’ll climb the mountain and ford the brook/ And swim the roaring river./ And this is how you’ll get to look/ If you should drive a flivver."
GEHR: Your mother is famous for inspiring Mrs. Ritterhouse in your cartoons. What was your mother like?
BOOTH: She had a good, healthy sense of humor. My dad’s name is William, or was, and once I was standing in front of the hardware store in Fairfax when I was six, hanging onto Mother’s first finger. Some stuffy lady came along and asked, "How is the Superintendent, Mrs. Booth?" My mother said, "Oh, he’s just fine." "And which of the three boys is this, Mrs. Booth?" Mother said, "This is George W. Booth." The lady said, "What does the W stand for, Mrs. Booth?" And Mother answered, "Wiltonpoot."
DIONE BOOTH: George and his mother also threw tomatoes at each other.
BOOTH: We had a big garden, and we lived off of it. When the tomatoes got good and ripe, we were out in the garden pullin’ weeds. Mother’d be pullin’ the weeds out, and I’d be four or five rows over. She’d find a real ripe tomato, throw it way up, and it would splatter on me.
GEHR: Didn't you and your mother paint truck signs together when you were a kid?
BOOTH: Truck doors, yeah. Missouri passed a law that you had to have your identification on your truck door – town and name and weight. I painted truck signs for a dollar a door. One of the first ones I did, I got so close and interested that I left a letter out. I had to scrub it all off and start over. [Laughs.]
GEHR: Your mother is featured in one of The New Yorker's more famous cartoons, too.
BOOTH: Yes. After 9/11, when thousands of people died in Lower Manhattan, the New Yorker said we won’t buy any cartoons this week. You may submit, but we don’t plan to buy anything. I submitted a drawing of my mother sitting like I’ve seen her sit, and they printed it. It was the only cartoon they bought and the only one they printed in the next issue. The cat can’t face it; his paws are over his eyes. And Mother's praying. Her fiddle and bow are lying down properly, with the bow facing in, like she was taught at Stevens College.
BOOTH: My father got a kick out of entertaining people. He had a 1935 Chevy, and once was coming back from a tournament or something, maybe he’d been coaching. And he had a couple of the local boys with him. Not boys, but some men who'd hang out in front of the post office. He called them the Barbershop Quartet. They'd spread rumors that weren’t true, talked too much, and didn’t have much of a life. And this one ol’ country guy with whiskey breath was sitting right behind my dad, who was a very good driver and taught driver training. There was a highway where the turn was ninety degrees, one way or the other, with a boulder in the middle. My dad was driving maybe forty-five or fifty miles per hour, and he knew he had good brakes. He was talking to the guy in the passenger seat, and the guy behind him got up behind his ear and said, "Watch out. You gotta turn left or right up here, so slow down a little bit." My dad got a kick out of that and didn’t slow down. And this guy panicked right in his ear until the last second, when Dad slowed down and made a safe turn. He got a real kick out of torturing that guy.
GEHR: Were you close to your parents?
BOOTH: In fourth grade the music teacher asked if we wanted to play a musical instrument. And I said yes, because I had seen a guy play a clarinet and I was fascinated by it. So I told them I wanted a clarinet. The money thing was different thing then, more extreme. But my dad got me a B flat clarinet, which cost a pretty good buck. The music teacher put me in the first chair – I was Superintendent Booth’s son. I tried to learn music and play, but every so often I got moved down one more chair among eight clarinetists. I got all the way down to the last one. [Laughs.] I would toot on my horn during orchestra practice, and squeak at the wrong time. But I had this devotion to my parents; I wanted to please them. I was loyal to my parents, and this loyalty didn’t go away. I kept tryin’ and tryin'. I finally got up in front of Uncle Ray and Aunt Pansy's one-room country church and played [Schumann's] Träumerei. The church is all wood, with a curtain behind the stage. I got up in front of the podium and played – and it was awful. But everyone was nice about it. So I've always told everybody that when I played Träumerei, I heard a voice behind the curtain say, "George, don’t play the clarinet anymore." [Laughs.] Kind of a holy thing.
GEHR: Your father also got you a job as a printer's devil in a linotype shop, right? In case the art thing didn't work out.
BOOTH: I didn’t really learn spelling in school. I learned it with a dictionary in my lap when I sat at the linotype. The copy I got was country writing from housewives, mostly in pencil on brown paper sacks: "Mr. and Mrs. Morris Graves visited Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Kincaid on Saturday afternoon. A good time was had by all." My boss said, "You’re going to run into wrong spelling and grammar. But these ladies are giving us free copy, so don’t be too rough on them."
GEHR: Tell me how you came to work on Leatherneck while you were in the Marines.
DIONE BOOTH: I think you could title this piece, "Always Faithful."
BOOTH: Just like I wanted to please my folks with that clarinet, I worked at the print shop until I left Fairfax and went into the Marine Corps. My folks stood with me in June of ’44, when I volunteered. I’m signing the contract and staff Sergeant Harry K. Bottom…
GEHR: Unfortunate name.
BOOTH: I don’t have any trouble remembering it. Harry K. Bottom asked, "What do you want to do in the Marine Corps?" We were fighting Japan at the time, and I said, "I want to draw cartoons." Logical thing. And he wrote it down; he had to. Two years later, I’m out in Pearl Harbor waiting to go home after VJ Day, because every G.I. in the world is going home. I'm sitting in the Quonset hut, and a telegram came to headquarters saying that PFC Booth can come to Leatherneck magazine as staff cartoonist. They were losing all of their staff, and they'd looked in the file and saw that I wanted to draw cartoons. They said I could come to Washington provided I reenlist at the end of the war. Well, I could go back to Fairfax, too. But I knew what that was like: I would go back there and get a job in a printin’ office, operating a linotype, and probably never get out of there for the rest of my life. So I said I’d reenlist. And the other Marines would bring their buddies back, six and seven at a time, to look at the geek who was going to reenlist. They stared at me like they couldn't believe anybody would do that. They were so sick of the war. So I gambled and went to Leatherneck. I was recalled in December of ’50. I went to Camp Pendleton again, and Commandant Shepherd called me back to Leatherneck a second time. So it paid off for me. It was my education.
DIONE: It was a gamble, though.
BOOTH: If Harry Truman hadn’t set that bomb off, I would have been hamburger. [Laughs]
GEHR: How did you get to New York?
BOOTH: I picked up a freelance job from an ex-Marine who was a Harvard graduate. He was editor of a railway magazine, Railway Progress. We worked together in Washington. When I came to New York in 1952, he introduced me to a fellow by the name of Morgan Brown, who was a neighbor. I moved dirt and did chores in his backyard for a little extra money. We both lived in Cold Spring Harbor. He offered me a job with his publishing company. I turned him down because I wanted to freelance gag cartoons. I hit the streets, moving batches all over town, selling cartoons – some at $7.50 and some at $60, which is what the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Look paid.
GEHR: And you had "Spot" [a United Features daily strip about a dog that thought it was human] for a year in 1954-55.
BOOTH: It probably was not a logical strip, but I didn’t want to be pinned down to a cartoon every day forever. Some guys go after that and it's fine, but I preferred the variety, sophistication, and humor of The New Yorker. When I was at Leatherneck the first time, the illustrator John DeGrasse became supportive of me and what I was trying to do. He was older, and he said, "You should zero in on The New Yorker." I had never heard of The New Yorker in ’46, but the more I looked at it, the more I wanted it.
GEHR: But first you went into magazine publishing, right?
BOOTH: In ’58, when Dione and I got married, I held out for two weeks on the freelance thing. But I inquired again about the job and it was open. I became art director for Bill Communications, which was nine trade magazines. My job was to build a central art department, and I stayed there almost seven years. I had one boss, so I didn’t have to mess with editors and publishers and salesmen, who will run you crazy. Everybody wants to come first.
GEHR: What magazines were you doing beside Railroad Progress?
BOOTH: They had Floor Covering magazine, Fast Food, Rubber World, and Modern Tire Dealer, which was my favorite. Sales Management was probably the biggest one. I was doing all the cartooning, covers, booklets, whatever was needed.
GEHR: Why did you quit?
BOOTH: I loved everybody in the place, especially my boss. But he was stuck like a broken record on keeping all the expenses down. I quit because the money I was being paid was too little, and it stayed too little. I was also inexperienced about how to get more money. I asked for a $2,000 raise and got turned down. The reasoning was that, "If I raise you $2,000, I have to raise everybody in your art department, and I have to raise everybody in the production department." I said, "Alright, I’ll work one more year." That year went by and one of the other executives interviewed me about the raise again. He was trying to be understanding, but I wasn’t budging from $2,000. Then he said, "What you have to do is change the 2." And I said, "In that case, I’ll change the 2 to 20." Because at McGraw-Hill they'd announced that no department head works for less than $30,000, and I was gettin’ $10,000. Quitting wasn’t hard for me to do. I just walked across the hall, put one guy in charge, and told them I’d be back to clean out my desk. it wasn’t anger. It was time for me to go after cartooning.
DIONE BOOTH: When you quit Bill Brothers, we were living on West 22nd Street near Chelsea. Geraldine Page and Rip Torn lived across the street. It was a really interesting place, but we had no money. I remember going to the supermarket, after George quit his job, and putting back the Cadbury chocolate-covered crackers and the mayonnaise because we couldn’t afford them. [Laughs.]
GEHR: So you started freelancing again around 1965. But you didn't get into The New Yorker until 1969 – thanks to the Saturday Evening Post folding – when the editor got you and Charles Barsotti interviews with William Shawn.
BOOTH: William Emerson spoke to Shawn and said, "Take a look at these two guys."
DIONE BOOTH: They were afraid you were too old because of what you drew. So [art editor] Jim Geraghty invited you into the office so they could inspect you.
BOOTH: I never met William Shawn. As I started selling to The New Yorker over the years, I saw him once going upstairs, once going downstairs, and once gettin’ off the elevator. That was his personality. He didn’t babysit everybody, I guess. I’d walk into Mr. Geraghty’s office and greet him the way I was taught to greet people. I said, "Good morning, Mr. Geraghty." And he’d say, "Good morning Mr. Booth." I didn’t think anything about that, except that he commented one time that I was the only one who was that formal, and that everybody called him "Jim." [Laughs.] Some people get buddy-buddy with their editors, but I didn’t get buddy-buddy.
GEHR: Do you feel like George Price broke ground for you at The New Yorker?
BOOTH: Very much so.
GEHR: Your own style has an almost childlike scratchiness to it sometimes.
BOOTH: Picasso set me off on something.
BOOTH: I liked his stuff. He would draw a profile of a face looking that way, but have another eye out here in space looking at you. The painting is looking at you and he's looking over here, too. That fascinated me. Picasso talked about small children who do such beautiful drawings just this side of being babies, and it’s so wonderful a lot of times. And then they grow up and go to art school, where they unlearn what they did naturally, and then try to recapture it, if they’re awake. It's not easy. It’s a matter of relaxing and enjoying and mentally letting go. It's drawing something that has a lot of feeling, as opposed to concentrating on drawing all the time.
GEHR: How do you do that?
BOOTH: I call it retaining controlled accidents. Sometimes I’ll draw a thing, look at it, and see that it needs a little something. So I’ll make a copy of it, enlarge it a little bit, cut it out, and put it on the drawing. Or I use a pen that’s not very good on paper that’s not very good, and then take it out in the backyard and spray part of the line so that it spreads across that not-good paper, and cut that out. If I can’t draw something the first time, I can capture it later, put it on the drawing, and make another copy of it. You’re controlling things that are usually thrown in the wastebasket. I get the looseness, the controlled accident, and the feeling, and then I put it on the light table and draw it again on a better paper, with a better pen, and it comes pretty close to what I want.
BOOTH: No, I haven’t done that in a long time. I guess I’ve done things and dropped ’em after a while. I started working closer to something that was acceptable, archival. I had to do that.
GEHR: What are your main tools these days?
BOOTH: I have some India ink pens that come in a pack, so you get a thin line all the way up to a thick line. I don’t have to take stuff out in the backyard and spray it with fixative to get the thick line. I don’t do so much of that now unless I just want to preserve something. But I did fix a lot of stuff early on. And I’ve run into some of that stuff that's thirty years old and more, and it worked all right.
DIONE BOOTH: Some of George's best things have been sketched onto napkins and paper tablecloths, à la Toulouse Lautrec. George draws ideas on newspapers, envelopes, everything. Our daughter keeps buying him moleskin books, but he has an aversion to anything that’s neat and constructed. He uses them sometimes. But he often starts by taking eight-by ten or nine-by-twelve sheets of copy paper and then folds them into fours before drawing on them. Sometimes that stuff is just wonderful, because it's that instant inspiration. Even unfinished, they have a quality you don’t get when you redraw it. That's partly why George has been using the copy machine for years, putting pieces together. He would surgically remove the head from a body and then put a new head on it. It isn’t about cheating; its about keeping that instant inspiration.
GEHR: Do you ever see yourself in George’s cartoons, Dione?
DIONE BOOTH: Yes. In one, George drew a room full of cats, and the woman in the kitchen at the ironing board is telling her husband to get something good for the pussies, because pussies like a treat once in a while. We’ve always had cats…just not that many cats.
GEHR: Sort of like counting the Ninas in a [Albert] Hirschfeld caricature, only without the hint.
BOOTH: Of course, I hid a lot of them. Sometimes there's just a little bit sticking out. I think eighty-six was the most she found.
GEHR: One of your more famous cartoons is "Ip Gissa Gul," the almost poetic sequential strip you did for The New Yorker in 1975. Where did that come from?
BOOTH: Dione and I went on vacation up in New Hampshire with her family. Her mother rented a house. I should’ve been relaxing up there, but I couldn’t quit cartooning. I don’t know why I was pushing so hard; I guess I needed the money. I wanted an idea for a spread, and Dione's mother prayed for it. And Ip’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Yeah, I look back and lay responsibility on Dione's mother for praying about it.
DIONE BOOTH: People used to write him in Ip language, or call him up and say things to him on the telephone. You just never know where people are, or how you touch them. It’s a continual surprise.
BOOTH: I did a second "Ip Gissa Gul" spread, and Geraghty showed it to Shawn. The message came back that Shawn said, "I don’t want Booth to do any more Ip because that’s a classic." I just dropped it. He was right. It wasn't a step up, it was a step down.
GEHR: Your cartoons often depict people, mostly couples, driving one another crazy.
BOOTH: I like to try to give people a little understanding, even if I don’t understand them. [Laughs.] And I’ve seen a lot of that in the American home. Women just talk, talk, talk, and the man’s sittin’ there in another world. I don’t know what you call that, but it exists.
GEHR: Do you remember how you got the idea for the man in the bathtub?
BOOTH: I decided just to leave him there.
BOOTH: I read a news article about the New Jersey shore on that side of the Hudson. Some guy was living with his wife, and he spent his time looking for antique stuff he thought was in the river. He had a diving helmet, a bunch of pumps, and stuff to do that. In the paper, he said he came up with what he thought was an antique, some wonderful prize. He washed the mud off, and it was just some common monkey wrench or something. Another disappointment in the life. I ran a series of those. Just kept it going.
GEHR: Are you a collector? A hoarder?
BOOTH: I would deny it, but I think there’s quite a bit of truth there. Remember the Collier Brothers?
BOOTH: They had their Times stacked right up to the ceiling. I don’t do that so much, although if I have a printed word circled, and I read it in bed, I have to keep it. [Laughs.] I don’t keep the whole paper, but I keep a stack of that stuff for inspiration if I’m doing gags. And then I throw them out.
GEHR: Do you collect things at yard sales?
BOOTH: A few. I have a blowtorch, because that fascinates me.
GEHR: Does it work?
BOOTH: No. Just in case I want to draw it, throw it into a picture with a lot of junk in it. I do have some things. I don’t know where my tire pump is now, but it’s a fascinating gadget. I’m fascinated by old typewriters. I may have one, I’m not sure. If I do, it’s covered up. Broken stuff fascinates me, too. I had this pulley wheel lying around for years. I don’t know where it is now. [Looking at cartoon full of random objects.] I’ve still got this wheel somewhere. A guy interviewed me, and the story mentioned my iron wheels. Suddenly people started bringing iron wheels and leaving them on our little front porch. It didn't even have to be a wheel. They started leavin’ hunks of iron on my front porch. And my kid brother sent me an iron wheel, and the iron around the wheel was as big as my fist. He brought that thing in a pickup and dumped it in my front yard. It was the wheel from the printing press in Cainsville. Missouri, that printed our parents' wedding announcement.
GEHR: Do you listen to music when you draw?
BOOTH: I like NPR. When I wake up on Saturday morning, Click and Clack are on, the two mechanics, brothers. I never tire of hearing those guys laugh – and they laugh continuously. [Laughs.]
Transcription kudos to Toby Liebowitz and Jack McKean.