Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Mad, Mad World of Peter Arno

Brenda Cronin in The Wall Street Journal.

Peter Arno, whose cartoons skewered cafe society for more than 40 years, was driven more by ire than inspiration.

According to Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist, a biography by Michael Maslin out April 19, the artist said, “You don’t do good work of this sort unless you’re mad at something.”

With dark strokes and spare backgrounds, Arno created raffish scenes of potbellied plutocrats and curvy chorus girls amid flowing martinis and a racy ambience.

Born Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr. in 1904, he adopted the “Arno” name with a drawing published in 1925. He dropped out of Yale after his parents’ marriage failed and his father, fed up with his high jinks, stopped paying the tuition. 

Although a dismal student, the good-looking and glib Arno distinguished himself with drawing and cartooning. He played the banjo and accordion and started a band that performed in supper clubs. In his early 20s, he was torn between music and art until the fledgling New Yorker bought one of his sketches.

The magazine and Arno found their voices in tandem. Arno’s vivid personal life—two failed marriages, nightclub melees, Hollywood stints and romances with starlets—was grist for his art. Between nicotine-fueled drawing jags, he produced a Broadway flop, appeared in a movie and courted a debutante heiress. 

In 1941, he was named the best dressed man in America. He designed and drove a fancy convertible, fittingly named the Albatross, that never was mass produced. One Halloween, he was arrested after threatening an attendant at the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue with a .38 caliber pistol. (The third-degree assault charge was dropped the next year.)

“I would see fatuous, ridiculous people in public places, in night clubs where I ran a band, on trains and beaches, in cafes, at parties, and I was awfully annoyed by them, by the things they did and said,” Arno said. “That anger, if you like, gave my stuff punch and made it live.”

He directed some of his bile toward the magazine, negotiating higher fees and at one point going on strike for more than a year. He badgered Harold Ross, the founder and editor, to print his cartoons on left-hand pages, considering the display preferable to right-hand ones. He also insisted on being paid if his captions were altered without his permission.

Many Arno drawings started as concepts dreamed up by “gag men” who supplied cartoonists with ideas, Mr. Maslin said. Among them were James Geraghty, hired by Ross in 1939 to run the magazine’s art department, and Richard McCallister. Arno “got the cream of the crop of the ideas” and ones he rejected trickled down to other artists.

In the article, Mr. Maslin, who began his New Yorker career in 1977, comments three of Arno's cartoons:

1941: Well, Back to the Old Drawing Board
Published March 1, 1941

It’s not Arno’s most famous drawing but the caption lives on. I believe the idea came from a New Yorker cartoonist named John Ruge. Arno was a master artist. At this point in his career, he was at the top of his game and these are absolutely beautiful forms that he did.

Back in the ’20s he did a very similar drawing, without these fellows in the forefront. It was a plane crash and the plane is actually tilted at the same angle. If you put the two drawings side-by-side the horizon line is almost the same. 

I think he may have had that in the back of his head. Also, the engineer is walking out of the frame and that’s unusual because Arno loved to do boxes that are very solid. He doesn’t do it here. He’s breaking that wall a little tiny bit.

The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker's Greatest Cartoonist
By Michael Maslin
Simon & Shuster
304 pages

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