The life of the once-influential cartoonist, a favorite of New Yorker readers for decades.
Maslin, himself a longtime contributor of cartoons to the magazine, joins a long list of staffers and freelancers to look back longingly on the eras of Harold Ross and, after him, William Shawn and anyone who is not Tina Brown. His subject, Peter Arno (1904-1968), drew sketches and cartoons from the very beginning, way back in the Jazz Age. Maslin writes, rather too enthusiastically, “for forty-three years, from 1925 to 1968, Arno’s art was as essential to The New Yorker as the Empire State Building is to the Manhattan skyline.” (Ross would not have approved of the hyperbole, though Arno probably wouldn’t have minded.) Arno also wrote plays, designed sets, painted, and did piles of commercial art for other clients, which caused Ross to worry. Arno, he wrote in a 1944 memo, “like the rest of the artists, is swamped with advertising work these days, and is feeling cocky and restless.” In the end, Arno also drank with the copious abandon of Thurber and the other inmates, which did not serve him well. As Maslin writes, he was a man of parts; he might have been a musical star. But the author credits Arno particularly for inventing the New Yorker cartoon—i.e., the kind of cartoon for which the magazine would become renowned, droll and arch, dry and ironic. Although Maslin does not take this fruitful thesis as far as he might or supply much in the way of example, he does note that that Arno-esque vision is antiquated now, though all cartoonists from the start have had to ask themselves the same question from Ross and predecessors: “Is it funny?”
A book that could have been funnier, though admittedly Maslin delivers more chuckles per page than Renata Adler. The book is also insightful about the workings of a magazine that is a critically important cultural institution.