Lee Lorenz: Cartoonist, Editor, Writer, Jazzbo

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GEHR: Let's move on to your third career: editing, art direction, and writing for The New Yorker.

LORENZ: Sure! I want to emphasize how much I enjoyed editing, although I took it on with great trepidation. When Jim Geraghty retired, there was all kinds of speculation about who would replace him, and several people really lobbied for the job. I certainly didn’t. I was very surprised when it was offered to me. It turns out I wasn’t the first person it was offered to. That was Roger Angell, who may have been interested because of his mother [longtime New Yorker fiction editor Katharine White].

GEHR: That would have been quite a legacy.

LORENZ: Roger’s got a very short fuse, so I don’t think he'd have been very good at it. But evidently they couldn’t come to terms on the money. The New Yorker was making all kinds of money, but they were very cheap. In fact, when they offered me the job, the lawyer who was supposed to negotiate the contract suggested that whatever I made as a cartoonist be deducted from my salary as an editor! Someone in the business department, the intermediary between the business and editorial departments, whom I knew slightly, claims he’s the one who put my name in front of Shawn, who I'd had very little contact with. In any case, they offered it to me after they couldn’t come to terms with Roger. My understanding was that I would continue be a cartoonist, and Shawn would edit my cartoons. It was not a big salary, but they kept bumping it up a little every year.

GEHR: So you didn't exactly jump at the opportunity.

LORENZ: The salary wasn't the issue for me. My real anxiety was about working with the artists. I didn’t just step into the job; I worked with Geraghty for a while. I would sit beside him as he worked, and make suggestions. And then it turned out that Geraghty didn’t want to leave! They had instituted a retirement age, and he was dragging it out. I told Shawn that if I was going to do the job, Geraghty’s got to leave at some point. He didn’t want to. He wanted to keep his hand in. He was very angry and began talking as if I had deliberately pushed him out of the job, which had no truth to it whatsoever. I'd never thought about replacing him. He was a wonderful editor.

GEHR: Did he help you get more comfortable with the artists?

LORENZ: Between shadowing him and talking to the artists, I began to see how I could work with them. They were very responsive. Geraghty was very good, but he didn’t have any artistic training. I could see what was wrong with a drawing right away. Any artist could do that; it’s easy to see what’s wrong with someone else’s drawing. It was a useful skill at The New Yorker, and the artists were very happy to work with me. I could make helpful concrete suggestions, and I could edit captions as well as drawings.

GEHR: Could your encyclopedic knowledge of New Yorker cartoonists have had anything to do with why you got the job?

LORENZ: That never occurred to me. But maybe I remember more from those early magazines than I thought I did.

GEHR: You wrote beautifully about many early New Yorker artists both in The Art of The New Yorker and in the many obituaries you wrote for the magazine over the years.

LORENZ: How nice of you to say that. The obituaries were hard. I didn't have much space and I always tried to explain what was special in each artist's work. I enjoyed doing that book, especially because of the letters I found. They never simply spoke to one another at Ross's New Yorker! He had this thing about not interrupting anyone, even in the hallway, because they might be thinking about something important. All their communication took place as memos that were like long letters sent back and forth.

GEHR: And perfectly punctuated one, too.

LORENZ: Oh, absolutely! They didn’t need to be edited. They also kept copies of memos that went out to the artists, like the correspondence between Katherine White and William Steig, who was bellyaching about stuff till the day he died.

GEHR: The letter from Steig to White you reprinted in The World of William Steig is one of the pissier exchanges I've ever read between a creator and an editor.

LORENZ: Steig and I were no longer friends by the time I finished the book. I sent it to him and asked, “How do you like it?” He replied, “You wouldn’t want me to shit you, would you?” I said, “I wouldn’t mind.” And he said, “Well, I hate it!” I said, “Bill, you saw it every step of the way.” He said, “You know I don’t like to see those old drawings.” I said, “I couldn’t tell the story without them, you knew that. But I’m sorry you’re pissed off." We were not close friends after that.

GEHR: The book starts off well with a long interview, and then his voice kind of disappears.

LORENZ: He hated those early drawings. In the book, I show how he re-did some of the early ones he didn't feel were up to his standard. That’s all perfectly reasonable, but if you’re going to recount an artist's career, how and why he changed his drawings is all part of the story.

GEHR: I'm impressed the book came out as well as it did.

LORENZ: Me too. I was very friendly with his wife. Still am. But Bill was an extremely difficult guy, and he and Geraghty used to fight all the time. Everybody appreciates Steig, but you'd think he didn’t have a friend in the world. And if he had his way, he wouldn’t have a friend in the world.

GEHR: Even after all the time he must have spent in his [Wilhelm Reich-ian] orgone box. Did you ever try it out?

LORENZ: He still had one after they moved up to Boston. I went up to see him and he insisted I try it. It's like a little telephone booth with one tiny window.

GEHR: The only one I’ve ever been in belonged to William Burroughs.

LORENZ: Then I’ll ask you what Steig asked me. "Did you feel anything?"

GEHR: I felt delighted to be in William Burroughs’s orgone box. But other than that…

LORENZ: While we were working on the book, Steig sent me a note saying somebody had isolated the orgone and they had a toy car that was actually running on orgone energy. But I never saw the car.

GEHR: So, with certain exceptions, you ended up enjoying working with your fellow artists.

LORENZ: The artists were a pleasure, and my anxiety about working with someone like Charles Addams or Saul Steinberg – no problem. If you wanted to suggest something to Steinberg, he would listen and he rarely had to change anything. No, the only people who made problems – and this is true in any area, I guess – were those at the bottom of the totem pole. Not contract artists, but people who only occasionally sold to the magazine. They’d always bellyache about this and that. The only difficulty I had with the regular artists was that they were all such perfectionists. They always had second thoughts: "I could do it better." So you had to say, "No, it’s already gone," or they’d just keep doing it over and over again. And I have the same impulse, so I understood.

"Oh lord! Here comes Mr. Forty-eight-hour erection!"

GEHR: Who were some of the old guard when you took over?

LORENZ: George Price was still there. He could be very prickly but not with me. He was just like all those wiseacres in his cartoons. Charles Addams was one of the most gracious and charming men you could ever meet. He was the only artist who never reworked anything. He did his drawings, brought them in, they were always beautiful, and that was it. Then he went off to have drinks with some gorgeous woman. He was less anxious about his work than any artist I know. He was the exception. Most of them always wanted to make some small change.

GEHR: What was the hardest part of the job?

LORENZ: It was dealing with artists like Alan Dunn and Whitney Darrow who were at the end of their careers. Their ideas just weren’t fresh anymore. Dunn would send his stuff down by messenger on tiny pieces of paper. We just couldn’t find stuff we liked, and I had to call him up every week and tell him. He was very gracious about it. What made it even harder was that he had sold more ideas to The New Yorker than anyone. He was wonderfully prolific. And then Darrow's stuff began to seem dated, and I loved him. They’d see new people coming in and think, "They’re phasing us out so they can bring somebody else in." It wasn’t like that, but I think that’s every cartoonist’s anxiety, that you’ve lost touch and your stuff is dated. They didn’t scream or anything, but it was the hardest part of the job for me.

GEHR: And your greatest satisfaction?

LORENZ: The most satisfying part was bringing new artists into the magazine, which Shawn made possible. The first time Roz Chast came in, I showed her stuff to Shawn and said, "I think we should go for a contract right away," which we never did. He agreed but said, "Do you think she can keep it up?" Well, she did keep it up. But there was such an uproar when she started appearing in the magazine. When I tell people, they think I’m making this all up, but no! The artists didn’t like her work and said she couldn’t draw. There were still all these craftsmen contributing to the magazine, and that was the model of New Yorker cartoons. But hers weren’t funny in the same way and they weren’t drawn in the same way. It was a radical departure.

GEHR: Did anyone else raise hackles around the office?

LORENZ: Roz wasn’t the first one I brought in. The first was Jack Ziegler, whose stuff was a departure because it was based on the comic-strip form. And it became interesting to see how quickly other artists picked up on that and incorporated it into what they were doing.

GEHR: Do you think it’s possible to characterize what an archetypal New Yorker cartoon was like before you arrived compared to after you left?

LORENZ: I don’t want to do that, because it had been evolving anyway. Geraghty brought in a whole generation of people including me, Charles Barsotti, and George Booth – all kinds of interesting people. The biggest change was moving from cartoons based on a gag writer’s idea to fully done cartoons, and Geraghty effected that change. Part of his impulse may have been that it was such a pain in the ass to go through written cartoons to find ideas for somebody else to draw.

GEHR: It's twice as much work for the editor.

LORENZ: Yeah, but he put an end to that, much to his credit. They were still buying ideas when I started out but were trying to phase out the gag writers.

GEHR: So you don't think the platonic ideal of a New Yorker cartoon might have changed while you were there?

LORENZ: I don’t know. I remember Geraghty telling people that he wanted to "shake it up" and get "something new" from them the following week. So people like Bob Kraus, a very prolific cartoonist who specialized in dark charcoal drawings, would put talking utensils into his cartoons just to do something different. People used to say, "The New Yorker’s not as funny as it used to be," and Geraghty would reply, "It was never that funny!" His point was that people remember what they considered really funny and forget everything else in the magazine. So if you get three or four terrific ideas in an issue, you're doing fine. When people asked me what I looked for in a New Yorker cartoonist, I always said, "I want a distinctive point of view." Not just gags, in other words. Most artists only did gags and didn’t quite understand what a point of view was. But all the best artists have a personality. Geraghty spent time helping artists like me, who really didn’t have a distinctive style, to develop one. There were always people who thought they could be the next George Booth or Gahan Wilson, but we already had George Booth and Gahan Wilson. I wanted artists who could bring something new to the mix.

GEHR: Did you change the submission and acceptance process while you were there?

LORENZ: With Geraghty, the younger cartoonists came on Tuesday even if they had a contract. Wednesday was for the senior group, and they would all go out and have lunch with Geraghty. When I started doing it, I let anybody who either had sold a drawing, or who I thought could sell a drawing, come in on Tuesdays. They didn’t have to be a contract artists. Wednesdays were only for contract people. That was helpful because I think a lot of the younger artists thought they were being discriminated against.

GEHR: Because of the two-tier system?

LORENZ: Well, it was still a two-tier system – you either had a contract or you didn’t. But they could still come to the magazine and not just leave stuff. They could come in and see me, which was the big difference. Geraghty only saw the contract artists. I think Bob Mankoff sees a whole lot of people on Tuesday mornings now.

GEHR: How do you submit work now?

LORENZ: I never go in, I just email or fax. But if I have to be there for some reason, it’s fun. All the artists are there, and we'll go out and have lunch together. We used to look at each other’s roughs and it was very collegial. It was a shock to me at first, everybody looking at everyone else's roughs. But cartoonists are very collegial, as I said.