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Gluyas Williams: Master of Line and Shape and Subject

His drawings had a pristine purity that gave them a distinction no other cartoonist was able (or willing) to achieve. His line, seemingly fragile in contrast to strategically placed solid flat blacks, was sturdy and not at all delicate: of rigid unvarying width, it faithfully, dutifully, outlined his subjects without affectation or folderol—no wrinkles in clothing, no shading, no shadows. Pure and simple as his attitude towards his subjects, it was a wholly workmanlike line, as workmanlike as the people he studied and understood and drew.

Rick Marschall interviewed him in 1975 and published the result eight years later in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library No. 3, prefacing the exchange with a flood of appreciative and accurate assessment (in italics):

            Gluyas Williams did more with less than practically any cartoonist in history. His masterful panel drawings are genre studies, more often than not crowded with figures, and frequently confusion is the mood. No: confusion is the subject; urbanity is the mood. …

            All of Williams’ characters somewhat nervously floated through the twentieth century, slightly intimidated by technology and more than a little suspicious of the traps and trappings of modern life that awaited, ready to attack, around every corner.

            Perfect were his evocations of personality types and the upper-middle-class milieux that he delineated. But Gluyas Williams’s most stunning accomplishments were as a draftsman. Here was an artist in total command of his media—every pen line is in place, nothing superfluous, yet everything so marvelously expressive.

            Here is the doing-more-with-less ideal, aspired to by many cartoonists, in its finest incarnation. … The stark economy in a Williams cartoon came nowhere close to sterility: rather the scenes were vibrant and bursting with personality. Every figure is doing something—and doing something so expressively that you feel a part of the scene. Added to these gifts were Williams’ awesome sense of design, perspective, and composition. 

Gluyas (pronounced GLUE-yass) Williams (23 July 1888-13 February 1982) was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Robert Neil Williams and Virginia Gluyas. His early education took place in Germany, France, and Switzerland. He attended Harvard University, where he served as art editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the campus humor magazine of legend.

In 1911, after only three years, Williams graduated with a B.A. and went to Paris for six months to study life drawing in the studio of Angelo Colarossi, a celebrated model. Williams didn’t plan on becoming a painter, but he realized, as he later told Marschall, “I just had an idea that it would do me good—and I think it did, too. I mean, you learn how the body is put together, and just draw and draw and draw all day.”

Upon his return to the United States, he followed the example of his older sister, Kate Carew (her married name), who was, by then, a success drawing for newspapers.

Said Williams: “They had newspaper trucks that went around town delivering newspapers to newsstands, and they all had billboard-like signs on the sides—‘See Kate Carew, the only woman caricaturist’ or something like that. They sent her everywhere—sent her over to Europe to come back with Teddy Roosevelt on the boat when he returned from his hunting trip (in about 1910).”

She was sent to London which is where she was when the War broke out. “It was then that she did a great many theater things—caricatures—for The Tattler, for The Sketch. She was good!” Williams did a daily comic strip for the Boston Journal, which he later disavowed because it was “terrible.” “You have no idea how bad it was,” he told Marschall. “I worked at it for one full summer and then I said, ‘This is not for me!’—and vice versa. And I got a job on The Youth’s Companion.” He was soon the head of the magazine’s art department, and he stayed there for the next ten years.

While there, he also freelanced cartoons to various publications. His first significant sale was to Frank Casey, art editor at Collier’s. Casey bought and published as a cover a Williams drawing that had been rejected by the weekly humor magazines Life and Puck. And with that, he began selling his cartoons regularly to Collier’s, and when Charles Dana Gibson bought the old Life humor magazine in 1918 and hired Casey as art director, Williams became a steady contributor to Life.

Williams married Margaret Kempton in 1915, and by 1920 he felt secure enough as a cartoonist to give up his salaried position with Youth’s Companion in favor of a full-time freelance career. In addition to cartooning for magazines, he wrote and illustrated a political spoof about “Senator Sounder” for Life and he did theatrical caricatures for the fondly recalled Boston Evening Transcript. These efforts brought him to the attention of William Randolph Hearst, for whom he worked briefly, traveling to Washington, D.C., to do political caricatures.

In 1922, he also illustrated Of All Things, first of the book collection of Robert Benchley’s humorous essays.

Williams had met Benchley at the storied Harvard Lampoon. Williams was art editor, and Benchley was an aspiring cartoonist. His first drawing printed in the Lampoon showed two Irish women standing next to a smelly garbage can. One says, “Ain’t it offal, Mable?” It was a standard bad pun joke of the day.  In her biography, Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times, Babette Rosmond says all of Benchley’s cartoon characters looked Irish. No doubt he was partaking of an established cartooning custom: most highly comical characters of the time were either Irish (and looked like monkeys) or African American (with big lips and bugging eyes).

According to the popularly circulated report (by Benchley), Williams pretty soon took Benchley aside and said, “Now look, Benchley—you’ve written some things and they aren’t bad, but your drawings aren’t very good. Why don’t you just stick to writing? We have plenty of pictures.” Reportedly, Benchley, in rehearsing this tale, would complain that he could’ve been making ten thousand dollars a week if he’d just stuck to drawing. But Williams disputed the story in his interview with Marschall: “Of course, he just made that up: I don’t think I ever said any such thing at all.”

In other tellings of the story, Benchley maintained that Williams’ advice at the Lampoon had effectively set his feet on his career path. Said Rosmond: “Robert was overjoyed and rather staggered when he was elected president of the Lampoon—the grandeur of the office scared him. He wondered if he would be equal to it; but he needn’t have worried. His performance on the job founded a Benchley tradition: both Robert Benchley’s sons, Nathaniel and Robert, Jr., were presidents of the Lampoon in their respective years at Harvard.”

Among the people who Benchley (and, presumably, Williams) knew in those Harvard days, Rosmand reports, “were Frederick Lewis Allen, who would be come Harper’s editor-in-chief; and John Reed, later famous as author of the chronicle of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, who has the dubious distinction of being the only American to be buried in Moscow’s Red Square.

“Reed,” Rosmond continues, “was another person who recommended that Benchley pursue a career in writing, sending him a letter inviting him to join Reed at his house at 42 Washington Square in the Village. Said Reed: ‘I will guarantee that you get a good room and fair treatment; the water pipes burst about once a month, and the gaslight is not what it should be, but who cares? BOHEMIA! O BOHEMIA!’”

Williams’ first Benchley book was followed by another in each of the next two years and nine more over the next two decades. Williams illustrated them all. And in return, Benchley wrote the Preface to the first book of Williams’ cartoons, The Gluyas Williams Book, published in 1929. The two creators would be forever linked. Williams’s drawings of Benchley and his milieu so perfectly caught the mood of “the little man” encountering the humiliations and frustrations of life in the twentieth century that the cartoonist’s work was often acclaimed as the best part of the books. In this collaboration, Williams found his metier, a subject and a treatment that were exactly attuned to his sensibility.

In his customary role as the put-upon “little man,” Benchley elaborated upon his relationship to Williams in the aforementioned Preface to The Gluyas Williams Book (quoted here at length and in italics):

There is only one drawback I having been Mr. Williams’ model for so many pictures. After years of capturing those particular facial characteristics of which my mother is so fond, he has quite unconsciously taken to putting me into all his drawings, commercial and otherwise, as the typical American Sap. … My friends point out to me that I have been caught to the life in a Williams drawing showing the delight with which dear old Uncle Tasker will receive a dressing gown for Christmas. When people come to me and say: “I saw your picture in Vanity Fair today,” I know instinctively that it was not among those nominated for the Hall of Fame but in the back of the book among the advertisements typifying the sort of men to whom a Bates umbrella or a pair of Goodyear rubbers will be an ornament.

Not only in his advertising drawings but in those amazing full pages in The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan where the face of Mr. Mencken’s Boobus Americanus is called for, mine is the face.

Thus, through his conscientious attempt to illustrate my books faithfully, Mr. Williams has made me his lay figure, and owing to the enormous popularity of his drawings, I am fast losing all personal identity and becoming a type, like the Gibson Girl.

However, if this is to be my path to fame, I am content. There could be no surer or more permanent way of going down to posterity. For while there are other artists who have caught something of the American scene, and other artists who can draw well, I know of no other artist who combines, as Williams does, that sure insight into the common mind and a technique which might well be turned to more important things—if there were things more important. I believe that Williams drawings will be preserved for expert contemplations both as data on the manners and customs of our day and as graceful and important examples of its art.

On another occasion (in the Introduction to Fellow Citizens), Benchley waxed more favorably yet (in italics):

I have sometimes felt that Gluyas was a little overconscientious in delineating my extra poundage in each book, but my friends tell me that, if anything, he has been kind. All in all, it has been a beautiful relationship.

One of the remarkable things about Gluyas Williams’ work is that he not only keeps it funny but, through the exercise of some sort of necromancy, he has managed to keep drawing as well as he did twenty years ago.

I see him only about once a year, when he comes to New York to check up on my waistline for the next book, but on those occasions, his usually placid face becomes livid as he recounts his most recent escape from lynching at the hands of his compatriots.

In American Heritage for December 1984, cartoonist Edward Sorel describes the annual dinners (in italics):

Although Williams lived in Newton (a suburb of Boston) and Benchley in Manhattan (a suburb of the Algonquin [a celebrated hotel ands watering hole for New York wits]), both made it a practice to meet at least once a year in New York. Over cocktails and dinner Williams would get caught up on all the gossip that never reached Newton.

Williams would later recall those dinners with his old friend: “He was a wonderful man, probably the wittiest man in New York in his day, but he never hogged the limelight. If you were with him he had the rare gift of making you feel that you were the one who was saying the witty things.”

But Williams must have been pretty good company himself. Charles Dana Gibson, Harold Ross, Edward Streeter, and Alexander Woollcott were not the sort who suffered fools gladly, and all valued his friendship. He seems to have had enough good qualities to fill a Boy Scout manual. He was loyal: he stuck with Gibson in 1929 when Gibson’s old Life was failing and other contributors had switched to The New Yorker. And he was modest.

When the publication date of his tenth book approached in 1938, Benchley had become increasingly dissatisfied with his printed humor pieces. By then, he was making a living as a theater critic and doing short humorous films. “I wish they would never get it out,” he said about the forthcoming tome. “I haven’t seen Gluyas’s drawings yet, but they have got to carry it, I’m afraid.” By then, Williams was well into his major contribution to American cartooning. In 1924 Williams sold a single-panel daily gag cartoon series to Bell Syndicate, which distributed the feature nationwide for twenty-five years.

The title of the feature varied with the subject, as was the practice then in similar endeavors by by J. R. Williams and Clare Briggs and others. Whether called “Suburban Heights,” “The World at Its Worst,” “The Moment That Seems a Year,” “Difficult Decisions,” “The Neighborhood League,” or any of a half-dozen other names, the cartoon focused on the minor crises and tepid tribulations of middle-class life in the suburbs of an America that was becoming increasingly urban. The cast was composed of mostly anonymous businessmen, housewives, and youngsters, but a comfortably portly fellow named Fred Perley was frequently the springboard to the day’s chuckle.

Williams explained his philosophy for the feature: “Two things I strive for in my cartoons: to bring the reader to smile at himself in the past or to make it easier for him when the incident happens in the future.” As a rule, Sorel said, “Williams drew only those things that he had observed personally. Years after he retired [in 1953], he described his working methods this way: ‘I’d watch for things to happen at the West Newton Station in the morning or evening—things like somebody trying to get through the station door to buy a paper, just as everyone else surges out to board the train; or trying to get a taxi at the station on a rainy night; or the way everyone in the station starts for the platform when a train rumbles by, and it’s usually a freight train. All those little everyday occurrences can be built into cartoons.’”

Said Edward Street (whose Father of the Bride Williams illustrated) in The Gluyas Williams Gallery (in italics):

Gluyas Williams’ humor is a compound of gaiety and sadness, gallantry and failure, pompousness and frustration, mixed in accordance with some secret formula that he alone possesses and seasoned with a dash of futility and a pinch of wistfulness. He sees humans as confused, insecure, well-intentioned duffers bluffing their way through the world of half-baked customs and screwball mores which they do not understand but cannot sidestep. You like his people and you sympathize with them for the good reason that they are always you—just as they are always Gluyas Williams.

… with a few sparse strokes of his drawing pen he manages to convey the idea that his subjects are not only making fools of themselves, but are quite aware of it. One senses that, in spite of their embarrassment at being discovered, they will do nothing to correct the situation. They are caught in strong currents and find it easier to turn on their backs and float than to struggle against them.

            In the same book, humor writer David McCord goes to greater length (in italics):

This universal human quality—a love, not a contempt, for his fellow man—is what sets Gluyas Williams in a class by himself. Satire has no place in his method of characterization. Even his painfully correct reporting of some of America’s incredible playgrounds shows not the slightest trace of mockery. That crowds of men and women can look and act as they do, and affect to find pleasure and recreation in the sordid mass, is part of the subdivine comedy in which he enters as a spectator, never as a critic. …

Every figure in a Williams drawing is doing something of value to the picture; every niche and quarter of the background is justified and correct. The illusion of distance, rain, and atmosphere, and of the unexplained, is effected solely by ‘the lucid, faultless line we have come so to admire.’

In addition to his syndicated cartoons (which reportedly ran in about 70 newspapers, a goodly number in those days), Williams produced illustrations for numerous books and advertisements.

Williams was soon also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, which had been launched by Harold Ross in February 1925. Although Ross began soliciting cartoons from Williams almost at once, the cartoonist did not produce anything for the magazine until 1926. “Ross would write,” Williams told Marschall, “but I’d say that I was based in Boston and I didn’t know enough about New York to be of any use. And then he finally sent me a cartoon idea about the house wrecker who has the wrong address. 

“I did it and sent it over, and Ross sent it back and said that it won’t do: he said to get more fun into it—have a woman taking a bath while they’re taking the bathtub out and like that. [Cartoons with women in bathtubs were standard fare in the Ballyhoo magazine comedy of the period, but I doubt Ross thought along those lines. He did, however, make suggestions that Williams couldn’t accept, whatever they were.—RCH]

“Ross said to change it and put those things in it, and he’d buy it. I sent it back just as it was and said, ‘No, I wouldn’t touch it because my idea of humor was understatement rather than slapstick.’ And Ross wrote—oh, how I wish I’d kept that letter!—it was a wonderful letter, saying, ‘You’re perfectly right. I’m going to change all my ideas on drawings. Of course that’s much subtler your way and better.’

“And after that letter,” Williams concluded, “I thought to myself that this was an editor I’d like to work for.”

For most of his career, Williams lived in West Newton, a suburb near Boston, but he did his work at a studio in the city at 192 Boylston Street, to which he commuted, completing his weekly quota of cartoons in four mornings. He took his syndicated assignment seriously, said Sorel: “He made certain that he was always fifty or sixty drawings ahead, just in case he got hit by a truck.

 “He was also cautious,” Sorel went on. “Fearing that the ramshackle building he used for a studio would catch fire, he kept his reserve pile of drawings in the local bank. Each week he would take out a week’s supply and send them to the syndicate. But in 1933 Roosevelt declared a bank holiday. ‘My deadline was at hand, and I couldn’t get to my drawings,’ Williams later re-called. ‘The Boston Globe had to pull strings and arranged for me to go under guard to my bank to get the drawings. The guard was supposed to make certain I didn’t take any gold out.’” Added Sorel: “The bank-holiday story was one Williams told over and over. It was an incident that must have seemed like high adventure in a life that was otherwise prosaic: marriage, children, a home in the suburbs, a summer place in Maine, grandchildren, and retirement at the age of sixty-five. He is quoted as saying: ‘I was sixty-five. It seemed like a great age to retire, so I did.’ But some friends believe he was afraid that further drawing would cost him his sight. He had almost three decades yet to live after he retired.

At one o’clock every day, having finished his self-imposed quota for the day, Williams left his studio in Boston and returned to life in suburbia, pursuing such activities as cabinet-making, sailing, billiards, reading detective stories, and playing bridge. The father of a son and daughter, Williams exemplified in many respects the kind of life his cartoons depicted.

For The New Yorker, Williams produced the full-page cartoons under a series of titles that typified his approach. Under the heading “Industrial Crises,” for example, the cartoonist depicted the panic and dismay among company officials “the day a cake of Ivory sank at Procter & Gamble’s” and the chagrin and consternation that prevailed around the boardroom table when “a director of the Diamond Match Company absent-mindedly lights his cigar with an automatic lighter.” 

Typically, a Williams cartoon was crowded with people, each a distinct individual doing something appropriate for the scene. In “Office Building Lobby,” Williams showed a throng of businessmen rushing to enter or leave, one looking at his watch, another asking the elevator operator a question, yet another consulting the building directory, two people arguing, a man flirting with a woman, and so on. 

In “The Waiter Who Put a Check on the Table Face Up,” an entire restaurant population, waiters and customers, looks aghast at the offending party— as does every member of the audience at a piano recital when a woman snaps her purse “during a pianissimo” (every member of the audience depicted in individual eccentricity in an expansive two-page cartoon).

Williams sought to reveal the humor in ordinary life among ordinary people doing everyday things. In many of his earliest endeavors, he said he was inspired by the French cartoonist Caran d’Ache. In these, Williams filled a full page (or two) with a sequence of drawings depicting in pantomine an individual’s growing frustration at performing some activity— a man struggling to remove a stubborn dandelion from his lawn, a father trying to read aloud to his son who fidgets in his lap and climbs all over him. 

“I was devoted to d’Ache,” Williams said to Marschall. “I liked his things enormously; although our styles of drawing were entirely different, his way of approaching things appealed to me.” Later, Williams reflected the influence of British cartoonist H.M. Bateman when he depicted the fate or faux pax of “The Man Who … ”

Both models are evident in “The Woman Who Suspects All Restaurant Glasses,” a succession of pictures showing an imposing matron arriving at a restaurant table and then intently examining her water glass while a gathering crowd of observing waiters displays, first, increasing concern, then obvious relief when the glass passes inspection.

Sorel believed that “the pen-and-ink technique Williams used to record his observations owed much to the work of Aubrey Beardsley. At first it is difficult to see what Beardsley’s erotic, serpentine illustrations have in common with Williams’s open, sunny drawings, but the use of solid black shapes in an otherwise delicate line drawing is common to both. In fact, Williams was so in awe of Beardsley’s work that he never used white paint to correct a line, because he believed (erroneously) that Beardsley never ‘whited out’ mistakes.” “It was some of a shock, therefore,” noted McCord, “when a young American artist (Matlack Price) discovered some Beardsleys ‘fairly plastered with Chinese white.’”

Oddly perhaps, Williams favorite comic strip cartoonists were E.C. Segar and Frank Willard, neither exactly in his manner in either drawing style or subject. Both Popeye and Moon Mullins were determinedly slapstick betraying no restraint whatsoever, and Williams’ humor is nothing if not restrained. Williams soon honed his influences into his own brand of pawky humor, low-keyed and restrained, and evolved a distinctive graphic style that was the perfect complement to the comedy. His drawings, models of lucid simplicity, were precisely outlined with a sturdy, unvarying line and then starkly accented with solid, flat blacks. In both attitude and visual treatment, Williams’s cartoons were so wholly unpretentious that they seemed the embodiment of only honest reportage on the human condition.

Famed British cartoonist, and one-time editor of Punch, Kenneth Bird (aka Fougasse) said: “It will be readily agreed that Gluyas is in a class by himself; but to put this down to his drawing, or to his technique, or to the style he adopted would be to do him very much less than justice.”

Sorel agreed, advising that “if you want a quick fix on what upper-middle-class Americans were doing between the two World Wars, look at the cartoons of Gluyas Williams. It will take less time than reading Dodsworth or the works of J. P. Marquand, and will be just as accurate. Accurate observation was the essence of Williams’s art, and he was, in the words of one magazine editor, a ‘superb noticer.’”

Williams died in Boston in 1982 at the age of 93. Said Sorel: “The thousands of drawings he left behind remain a superb guide to manners and customs during three decades of the American saga. They are also, to a large extent, his autobiography.”

A few more fragments of his autobiography are posted forthwith. 

Bibliography (for the compulsives among us)

Most of the information about Gluyas Williams’s life and career can be found in Current Biography (1946) and in a 1975 interview with Richard Marschall published in Nemo: The Classic Comics Library No.3 (October 1983). Among the books he illustrated are Father of the Bride by Edward Streeter (1948); There’s a Fly in This Room (1946) and Wrap It as a Gift (1947) by Ralf Kircher; How to Guess Your Age (1950) by Corey Ford; The Camp at Lockjaw (1952)by David McCord; and the following by Robert Benchley: Of All Things (1922), Love Conquers All (1923), Pluck and Luck (1924), The Early Worm (1927), The Treasurer’s Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing (1930), From Bad to Worse (1934), My TenYears in a Quandry (1936), After 1903—What? (1938), Inside Benchley (1942), Benchley Beside Himself (1943), Benchley—Or Else (1947), and Chips off the Old Benchley (1949). Williams cartoons are collected in two volumes, The Gluyas Williams Book (1929) and Fellow Citizens (1940), both accompanied by appreciative and informative introductions as is The Gluyas Williams Gallery (1957), which includes sample text and illustrations from several of the books on which the cartoonist collaborated plus a few cartoons. As far as I know, none of his syndicated cartoons have been collected or reprinted (except those you find in this essay—a spectacular exclusive).


3 Responses to Gluyas Williams: Master of Line and Shape and Subject

  1. Mark Mayerson says:

    Dover put out a collection called The Best of Gluyas Williams in 1971.

  2. Bob Levin says:

    Good piece. Taught me things I didn’t know. Made me think about others I’d taken for granted.

  3. Burning Question says:

    How is it possible that Fantagraphics hasn’t published a three-volume Complete Gluyas Williams? This money of mine is just sitting around getting old and moldy.

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