Lee Lorenz: Cartoonist, Editor, Writer, Jazzbo

GEHR: Do you have any stories about working with William Shawn? You probably spent as much one-on-one time with him as anyone there did.

LORENZ: That's part of what made the job so pleasurable. Shawn, as you might imagine, was a very interesting man, and he was interested in all kinds of stuff. In fact, I was just telling my wife the other day that he was the first person to tell me about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GEHR: That’s funny, because when I heard the news about Schwarzenegger and his housekeeper a few months ago, Shawn was almost the first person I thought of.

LORENZ: Oh, really?

GEHR: Never mind.

LORENZ: Oh, no, this was long before…I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but what had impressed Shawn about Arnold was how this guy who was just a body builder and couldn’t even speak English had begun to create a career for himself in this country. Shawn was full of interesting stuff. He loved Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and claimed he could identify the different writers who wrote his opening monologues. Or we were talking about some new building in New York and he told me, "It’s no good. Its atrium is too shady and they have uncomfortable aluminum chairs." He'd already checked out all this stuff. He was interested in everything. Not that we sat there chatting; it was strictly business. But he was a wonderful man and he loved the cartoons. He’d tell me how much he looked forward to doing the cartoons every week. He’d ask about the cartoonists and was very aware when some guy wasn't doing well. He'd suggest that we buy something we didn't really need to help get him back on track. He was very generous and would always try to be helpful. He made my job extraordinarily enjoyable.

GEHR: Did the good times continue when Robert Gottlieb took over as editor?

LORENZ: Well, Gottlieb, that’s an entirely different thing.

GEHR: What were the repercussions in the art department when Conde Nast bought the magazine and Si Newhouse replaced Shawn with Gottlieb in 1987?

LORENZ: I found out after the fact that Conde Nast's biggest concern was that the artists would go out on strike – and some artists wanted to. I discouraged them from doing that because they weren't salaried and I thought they would be risking too much. I didn’t sign the petition against Gottlieb that went around, either. I've since thought a lot about what happened, and I finally decided the whole thing was really Shawn’s problem. Newhouse gave him the opportunity to name a successor agreeable to the staff. It was all in writing. But Shawn kept coming up with people who were unacceptable to the rest of the staff. It just lingered on and on. So when he got to Chip McGrath, who everybody agreed would be a very good editor, he sort of moved the goal line by saying he wanted to stay on as senior editor. Shawn simply did not want to go! He made it very difficult, and somebody eventually had to budge. So Newhouse did, which is why I didn’t sign that letter against Gottlieb. I didn’t feel as strongly then as I do now that it was really Shawn’s fault, but I finally came to that conclusion. And it was ultimately Newhouse’s decision to make.

GEHR: What was your working relationship with Gottlieb like?

LORENZ: Gottlieb had a wonderful reputation as an editor. He always loved The New Yorker, but his personality couldn’t have been more different from Shawn's. I had a lot of problems in the beginning because he couldn’t find any cartoons he liked. I may still have a copy of a memorandum I sent him saying, "If we don’t start buying, we won’t have any cartoons within twelve weeks."

GEHR: What was his thinking?

LORENZ: He just didn’t like stuff! He brought this guy from England he liked very much – a guy whose work I didn’t like. So I said, "You'll have to edit him, because I can’t." He did funny pastiches. They look like old-fashioned illustrations from books for teenagers.

GEHR: Do you mean Glen Baxter?

LORENZ: That's right. I didn’t get Glen Baxter, and nobody we printed was like Glen Baxter. So we went through a very bad time there. He was rejecting pretty much everything. Bob had a great weakness for puns, so we started buying stuff from Danny Shanahan, who used a lot of puns. That’s also how Bruce Kaplan came to the magazine. His early drawings were all puns. That opened the gate a little bit. I found a few artists who were on Bob’s wavelength, and the regular contributors somehow got on Bob’s wavelength, so it eventually came together. But it was very touch-and-go at the beginning. The covers were the same thing. He wanted to radically change them and Arthur Getz, for one, never did another cover.

GEHR: How would you characterize Gottlieb's "wavelength," apart from a love of puns?

LORENZ: He liked things that were more fey. I remember one cartoon he loved, although I forget who did it. It was set in the Middle Ages, and they’re launching spear throwers out of a giant toaster with the caption, "Someday my idea will be accepted by the whole world!"

GEHR: That’s kind of funny.

LORENZ: It’s funny, but it's the kind of extravagant, off-the-wall kind of stuff he liked. He finally figured out that everything couldn’t be like that. We had to have a range of humor in the magazine; we couldn’t just have one kind of joke. But the cover thing was the bigger problem, because for so many people who had careers there, it was the end.

GEHR: What type of covers did Gottlieb prefer?

LORENZ: He felt the covers had been too muted. Shawn had already phased out humorous covers. Early on, we used to print a lot of covers by cartoonists, and I guess he felt uncomfortable doing that during the Vietnam era. The covers were deliberately nonpolitical, not even very topical. He wanted a cover you’d be comfortable with if the magazine was lying on the table for a couple of weeks. Bob wanted to shake things up, which was part of the Newhouse mandate.

GEHR: Wasn't Tina Brown an even more vigorous shaker? She didn't revere The New Yorker nearly as much as Gottlieb did.

LORENZ: The shaking-things-up part wasn’t really articulated to me until Tina Brown came in 1992. She explained that the key to advertising wasn't the subscription list but rather newsstand sales, "So we want stuff that’s going to jump out at the newsstand." That’s when we started running outlandish and provocative covers. Bob didn’t do that, but he wanted splashier and juicier covers in terms of color or content. That came from Newhouse. He didn’t put it to me like that, but looking back I’m sure that’s what it was. So there was a scramble to find new people to do covers. We spent a lot of time coming up with new people, and we came up with quite a few interesting cartoonists who turned out to be important regular contributors.

GEHR: You almost left the magazine's staff along with Gottlieb, right?

LORENZ: When Bob left, I had the opportunity to accept a fantastic retirement package he'd put together for me. I'll always be grateful to him for that. I told Tina I wanted to retire, and she didn’t have any objections. But pretty soon after she said, "I hope you stay on. We can work out another package later." I said no to that, and I’m glad I did. But I agreed to stay on as long as she wanted me to.

GEHR: Which turned out to be for quite a while.

LORENZ: Almost another five years, just working with cartoonists. I started working with her on covers, but it soon became pretty clear we didn’t see eye-to-eye. That’s when she hired Françoise Mouly. I went to one cover meeting with the two of them, and they were a good match. By which I mean, they were at it hammer and tongs the moment Françoise walked in. So I just worked with the cartoonists until she found somebody else. She eventually got Bob Mankoff to do it.

GEHR: How did you feel about being replaced?

LORENZ: The retirement package they gave me was fine, and I was happy to go. I don’t have any hard feelings about Bob.

GEHR: Has the Cartoon Bank been good to you?

LORENZ: Yeah! I don’t like it on principle, though. I just got a coffee cup that has a cartoon about Bloomingdale’s. Now, how many of these fucking coffee cups are you going to sell? It’s just stupid. We cartoonists squeezed into a room and had a meeting with the Cartoon Bank several months ago about the new contract they were sending out. The guy who conducted the meeting, somebody from Conde Nast, put up these pie charts showing where they were spending money and where they were making money. They spent the most money and made the least money on all these tchotchkes. Where they spent the least money and made the most money was licensing, which is what all the cartoonists knew but hadn’t been able to persuade the Cartoon Bank to pursue. We had a good meeting, but I don’t know that the policy has changed. Unfortunately, the kind of money the Cartoon Bank takes out of it is way beyond what any agent would take, and I don’t think it’s quite a fair split. On the other hand, you’re actually selling more than you might with an agent. But personally, yes, I get a nice check every month from the Cartoon Bank.

Lee Lorenz's desk. Photograph by Richard Gehr.

Major transcription kudos to Rolando A. López and Ao Meng.