Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker‘s Greatest Cartoonist

Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker‘s Greatest Cartoonist

The New Yorker's original one-man art department, Rea Irvin, famously designed Eustace Tilley, the magazine's monocled mascot. A foppish aristocratic dandy with a nose turned up in sniffy dismissal while scrutinizing a butterfly, Tilley became the ironic icon of Harold Ross's fledgling weekly and would survive unto the generations in a variety of guises. In addition to the fictional Tilley, however, Harold Ross soon had a real-life dandy in his stable. Beginning with his first New Yorker drawing in the magazine's eighteenth issue (dated June 20, 1925), Peter Arno would manifest Ross's ideal of a magazine that would celebrate the new postwar freedoms of the Jazz Age while gently mocking upper-class pretensions. In Arno, he found an artist who embodied both guises – artist and aristocrat – in one brilliant, handsome, and self-contradictory package.

In the first book-length biography of Peter Arno, New Yorker cartoonist – and invaluable New Yorker cartoonists blogger  – Michael Maslin delivers a meticulously researched account of the enigmatic, and often angry, Arno. In fact, what appears at first glance to be a throwaway subtitle – "The Mad, Mad World of THE NEW YORKER's Greatest Cartoonist" – hints at the gas that fueled the dapper drawer's particular genius. As he told Joseph Mitchell in 1937, "You don’t do good work of this sort unless you’re mad at something."

Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr. was born into an upper class Manhattan household in 1904. His father, an attorney (and future New York State Supreme Court judge), would become his defining opponent. You don't need to be Dr. Freud of Vienna to twig what might have twisted the interior life of a man whose earliest stated memory was of checking in on the Christmas tree at age seven only to find his parents engaged in the "violent throes of intercourse." Arno attended prep school at Hotchkiss and college at Yale. He was a compulsive artist, a middling yet apparently devoted musician, and an enormous disappointment to a father earlier prone to knocking his son around. During his single year in college, Arno drew like a demon and played banjo, often alongside Rudy Vallee. Café society's need for music drew them to New York, and Arno was backing "Shimmy Queen" Gilda Gray in Vallee's Yale Collegians when he made his first New Yorker sale.

Within months of his arrival, "our pathfinder artist," as editor Harold Ross viewed him, was helping to create the magazine's signature style. He quickly rose to the occasion, switching from ink or charcoal to an ink-and-wash technique in 1926. Arno's first full-page "idea" drawing – Ross's term for the single-caption cartoons that would come to define the magazine's look – appeared in July 1926. He married Lois Long, the magazine's nightclubs and restaurants columnist in 1927. Fun was had, along with a daughter, but the couple divorced in 1931, ending the first of Arno's three marriages. (He would court teenagers into his thirties.)

In a recent feature for Vanity Fair, Ben Schwartz (not the New Yorker cartoonist), focused on Arno's duel existence as both socialite and satirist. "He drew America’s ruling class as unpleasant, unlikable, sometimes awful people," Schwartz wrote, "reducing them to pompous, often sexually avaricious, arrogant boobs—not as a class-warrior but as an insider, as one of them." Through Arno's daughter, Patricia, Maslin gained access to her father's unfinished and unpublished autobiography, I Reached for the Moon, in which he confirms, "I am, throughout the fibre of my years living and working, a deep-dyed Rightest, Conservative. I despise, however, the vicious, benign malefactors of great wealth." The "vicious, benign" part of that hedge is confusing, as was much of Arno's split personality.

Arno's stylistic break in the early thirties took his work to a higher level entirely. Up to then, Arno had been a workhorse for The New Yorker, producing dozens of drawings and covers every year in the mode he is best known before: strong, dark, swooping lines that released the sexual and societal energies contained in his figures. Arno captured café society like Weegee photographed the criminal demimonde, in brilliantly lit moments of truth as harshly monetized as a paparazzo's flashbulb. Beginning in 1933, according to Maslin, Arno replaced his classic style with "bolder lines, less detail – a certain sense of design that no longer reminded of Daumier but of Rouault," and stuck with it for the remainder of his career. His gags, as always, were supplied mostly by ideaman Richard McCallister, a figure in New Yorker lore probably worthy of a volume himself.

For the first decade of his career, Arno performed the part of the genius artist criticizing his own class (even as he reveled in its privileges) brilliantly. With his wealth, good looks, and talent, he was Batman and Bruce Wayne at the same time, with a bit of Hugh Hefner thrown in for good measure. (In the late thirties, Arno designed a jet-black, low-slung roadster that echoed his graceful lines. Unfortunately, he named it the Albatross rather than the Arnomobile.) His productivity continued to soar into the forties, and Iain Topliss (in his excellent The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams, and Saul Steinberg) estimates that Arno earned a combined $61,000 in 1942 from his New Yorker and advertising work – or about $900,000 in 2016 dollars.

The cracks in Arno's personality add up over the course of Maslin's biography. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking artist began to feel gravity's pull. Harold Ross may have served as a substitute father figure, but that meant Arno had to rebel against him, too, which he did by withdrawing his services at fiscally opportune moments. In 1951, having publically tired of urban nightlife, Arno bought eight and a half acres in Port Chester, New York, and retired to the countryside, where he farmed, played electric guitar, and continued to draw, though increasingly less prodigiously. He fell in love with a neighbor whom he married after her divorce.

The final New Yorker drawing to appear during Arno's lifetime was published in the issue of February 24, 1968, two days after his death from emphysema. The perfectly composed and brilliantly double-edged image shows Pan toodling his pipes near a buxom young woman. "Oh, grow up!" she says. Arno's posthumous final New Yorker cover, however, depicts a polar bear and cub rubbing noses on Arno's final cover, on the other hand, was a minimal masterpiece of parental adoration. Like William Steig and Saul Steinberg, Arno's art was almost autobiographical in nature.

In an afterword, Maslin offers a condensed account of The New Yorker's cartooning ecology after Arno, and it's always fun to hear how those sausages get made. He also solicits thoughts on Arno from dozens of his cartooning successors at the magazine. Insofar as Arno represents the perfection of their craft, it's unsurprising that few regard him with anything less than awe. Maslin has gone a long way toward humanizing a genius capable of intimidating his employers, but even he claims difficulty reconciling the man and the artist. One thing seems sadly certain, though: The New Yorker, nor any other magazine, will ever see Arno's louche like again.