A review by Edward Short in the December 2016 issue of Literary Review
The Great Satyrist
Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of the New Yorker's Greatest Cartoonist
By Michael Maslin, Regan Arts | 287 Pages | $26.95
Many things made the New Yorker successful in its heyday. The magazine showcased the work of America’s best humorists, from James Thurber and Robert Benchley to Dorothy Parker and S J Perelman. Its eccentric founding editor, Harold Ross, knew how to coax good work out of his writers, even though he was fanatical about fact-checking. (Thurber recalled that if the Empire State Building were mentioned in a piece, Ross would not let it run until someone had called to verify that it was still standing.) The magazine could count on an audience ripe for its signature wit and sophistication. As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ‘New York had all of the iridescence of the beginning of the world … there was gala in the air.’ But what ultimately made the magazine a hit was its cartoons, and the greatest of its cartoonists was Peter Arno.
The patrician son of a judge who disinherited him after he dropped out of Yale, Arno turned to cartooning largely to spite his father. Indeed, the butts of his cartoons were often men of his father’s class and generation, greybeards at play in the new cafe society that emerged after the First World War. When his father divorced his English mother to marry a secretary sixteen years his junior, Arno was given his greatest character: the sugar daddy infatuated with buxom showgirls and typists on the make. If Evelyn Waugh got his own back at his Dickens-loving father by sending up his mania for the Victorian novelist in A Handful of Dust, Arno got revenge on his by creating cartoon after cartoon showing what he nicely referred to as the ‘goggle-eyed lubricity’ of ageing lotharios.
In Peter Arno, Michael Maslin (a cartoonist for the magazine himself) serves up the first full-length biography of the handsome, high-living, debonair artist. Before Arno, most cartoons in American publications were formulaic and decorous. In his bold, often sexually suggestive cartoons, Arno introduced a new urbanity, at once whimsical and subversive. Without Arno’s lead, as the artist in Maslin appreciates, the New Yorker might never have published the cartoons of Thurber, Charles Addams or Saul Steinberg, all of whom owe Arno an immense debt.
As for Arno’s life, Maslin shows how the artist spent much of his time ringing the midnight bell in swanky nightclubs. Maslin gives a particularly memorable glimpse into Prohibition New York when he describes Ross closing down a speakeasy he had created for his staff after finding Arno and his first wife, Lois Long, deshabille on the floor. Apparently, as Long later recalled, the couple began drinking in the afternoon and simply forgot that they were married and had an apartment of their own to go to.
On the subject of his club crawls, Arno could be eloquent: ‘At no time in the history of the world have there been so many damned morons gathered together in one place as New York right now … The town squirms with them … You don’t do good work of this sort unless you’re mad at something.’ If saeva indignatio was one source of his talent, a fine sense of the ridiculous was another. In one of his cartoons, a man bathing in the sea turns to a young woman and says, ‘Pardon me, Miss. You’re standing on my flippers.’ In another, an old satyr cavorts before a young blonde sitting beneath a tree. Her response is immortal: ‘Oh, grow up!’
At the end of his life, weary of playing the sardonic bon vivant, Arno left Manhattan for Westchester, where he discovered the joys of country life before succumbing to emphysema. He also found that he could forgive his papa. His last cover for the New Yorker shows an old polar bear touching noses with one of his cubs, a fitting farewell to the anger that had animated his earlier muse. Maslin’s book is a fascinating tribute from one artist to another, which does proper justice to a masterly draughtsman and an inspired wag.