Lee Lorenz: Cartoonist, Editor, Writer, Jazzbo

GEHR: You mentioned that Frank Modell helped you develop your style as a cartoonist. How did your style evolve?

LORENZ: I recently acquired an early original of mine, a rough, that somebody was selling on eBay. It turned out that this guy's father had bought a house in Connecticut that used to belong to Richard McAllister, the New Yorker's premier gag writer. He wrote ideas for cartoonists like Helen Hokinson and would occasionally do a drawing for the magazine. He sold more gags than anybody. And when they were phasing out gag writers, McAllister asked artists to send him old roughs. He would come up with new ideas, try to sell them, and you would split the profits. So he'd acquired drawings from everybody – boxes of them. And when the house was sold, the guy found all these roughs in the basement and started selling them on eBay! I bought one for $7.

GEHR: What did you think?

LORENZ: I was shocked. It looked like I had drawn it with a crayon! I didn’t know what it was. If you look at my early drawings in The New Yorker, I was all over the place. I worked with pen, and some of my stuff resembled Chuck Saxon's work. I wasn’t comfortable with the brush at the beginning. I didn’t solidify a style until after I started working at The New Yorker, and I decided I wanted to work directly with brush. It was one of those happy accidents. My first roughs were big. Years later, I had to start doing 8.5"-x-11" drawings in order to fax them in. That was very hard because I wasn't used to working that small. But I used this paper that had a little tooth to it and was transparent enough so that I could draw over the rough and work from that, even without a light table. And that’s the way I did most of my finishes for years. It’s not acid-free paper or anything, but it’s held up pretty well, and it was a nice surface to work on. And then they stopped making it.

GEHR: Did you give up pen entirely?

LORENZ: Once I started using the brush, I never went back to using pen. It’s the Milton Caniff thing. I loved that rich brush line.

GEHR: Your brush work looks quite distinctive among other New Yorker cartoonists these days.

LORENZ: All of the younger artists draw with a more tentative pen line. When I started, the tradition was still nineteenth century. Those guys could all draw, but that’s no longer the case. Nobody comes out of that tradition anymore; it’s not what they recognize as cartooning. It seems old hat, which is too bad. Some really wonderful draftsmen were working in those days. Mischa Richter would get his OK's from Geraghty the day they had the art meeting. If he had one or two, he would sit down and do the finishes right there in the office. Then he’d get on an airplane back to Cape Cod.

GEHR: Didn't that make you hate him a little?

LORENZ: It was more envy than hate. There was a little work area if you had to fix a drawing or whatever. He was a remarkably skilled draftsman and a very interesting guy. His family was White Russian and fled during the revolution. He came from a very cultured background. He was widely read and very knowledgeable about music. And very generous. One thing that struck me when I started working in this field is how generous cartoonists are to one another.

GEHR: And yet cartooning is an increasingly competitive field.

LORENZ: It's a very competitive field. The New Yorker is only going to publish so many cartoons, so what you’re selling has a direct effect on what somebody else is trying to sell. And yet I can’t think of a single cartoonist who wasn’t generous toward the others. It’s very collegial, which is rare in the arts.

GEHR: Perhaps it has something to do with The New Yorker's weekly schedule and regular Tuesday drop-offs.

LORENZ: There’s that. But I wasn’t thinking only about The New Yorker, because in those days The New Yorker was only part of the marketplace. You went out to all these other magazines, so you’d see everybody. I remember the first time I met Mischa. I was going to True magazine, where they were repainting their offices. And there was Mischa Richter, one of the great figures in cartooning, sitting out in the hallway on this rolled-up rug, waiting for his opportunity to go in and see the cartoon editor!

A recent Lorenz rough.

GEHR: Do you use brushes for your roughs too?

LORENZ: I use these Marvy Markers. They dry out in a hurry but give a line that’s a little like a brush. I don’t like to ruin the brushes doing roughs. I’m comfortable working that small. I just sketch them out in pencil and tidy them up with the markers. Then I erase some of the pencil and put on the caption. I fax them in. When I get an OK, I have a sketch to work from, and that’s about it.

GEHR: What kind of brushes do you use?

LORENZ: I started with the best, Winsor & Newton, but now I buy the cheapest brushes I can find. A really good brush is an extravagance. I buy Jerry’s Artarama brushes by the handful, use them for half a dozen drawings, and throw them away.

GEHR: What kind of paper do you use?

LORENZ: I use a rough vellum surface, nothing fancy. I know some artists use high-quality paper. I guess if you start that way you continue that way. I also throw away a lot of drawings, even the finished drawings. I do them again and again. Yesterday I did a drawing that had to go out immediately. They were in a rush. I wasn’t satisfied with it but I turned it in. Then this morning I got up and did it again it just for my own satisfaction. I figured out how to solve an inherent problem in this particular drawing. So I like to do them over and over again, because I like to work in a hurry and keep it fresh. And sometimes the translation from a little sketch to a finished drawing on a much larger sheet of paper provides an opportunity for improvement.

"Is this a merger or an acquisition?"

GEHR: And yet The New Yorker's art has shrunk in size since you were in charge.

LORENZ: Oh, yes! Before they had that caption contest, the magazine's last page used to be a full-page cartoon. It was a great opportunity to publish an impressive drawing to go out on. Boy, I miss that. In fact, the way the entire magazine is put together now is very discouraging. The cartoons are too small, and they don’t use vignette drawings. Even a small drawing needs a certain amount of space to breathe. In a way, the younger artists doing simple line drawings are better suited to what the magazine is publishing.

GEHR: Isn't it an esthetic decision?

LORENZ: No, I think it's a business decision that affects the esthetics. Ever since Newhouse bought the magazine, various designers have been brought in to redesign it. You don't notice much of their work, but a lot of it has to do with the basic grid and how the magazine is laid out. It’s pretty clear that whoever came in during the past few years decided that the best way to fit the cartoons into the magazine was to standardize the spaces. They’ve never explicitly told artists to submit square drawings or anything like that, but it’s pretty clear they just pop our work into those spaces. They don’t design around cartoons the way they used to. I don’t know if they can, either. One of the reasons we used to use spots in The New Yorker was to give the layout department that flexibility, along with those little one-liners they used to use as fillers at the end of articles. You could throw in a spot illustration or an oddly shaped cartoon if you had a half-column open somewhere. They still have spots, but I think they commission them for the magazine as little decorative notes.

GEHR: Where else do you sell your work?

LORENZ: I don’t submit anywhere else anymore. I used to do a lot of stuff for Playboy, but they’ve got a huge inventory. I was also very good friends with [Playboy cartoons editor] Michelle Urry. She was a wonderful person, and I stopped going there after she died.