Celebrating New Yorker Artist Edward Frascino’s 90th Birthday: The Ink Spill Interview
Above: Edward Frascino With Aristide Maillol’s “The Mediteranean” at The Museum Of Modern Art, about 1955. Photo courtesy of Mr. Frascino
When I joined The New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists in the late 1970s there were perhaps two dozen regulars whose work anchored the magazine’s art. The strength of the stable was, as you would expect, superior cartoonery and a wealth of signature styles, or worlds. Looking through the magazine you might encounter the Thurberesque fluid line of a Nurit Karlin drawing on one page, and an endearingly cluttered George Price drawing on the next. A few pages later, you might run into a Saul Steinberg playground of inventive calligraphy followed by a rock solid cartoon by Warren Miller. Each cartoonist had a piece of The New Yorker’s graphic turf, undeniably theirs in every way. I found the art fascinating as well as highly instructive — each issue of the magazine a Master Class in cartooning.
Whenever I came upon an Edward Frascino drawing, I felt I was seeing a sly meta take of what some would call The New Yorker Cartoon.
The text on the back cover of his cartoon collection, Avocado Is Not Your Color and Other Scenes of Married Bliss
— describes Ed’s couples as “hilariously phlegmatic.” I had to look up phlegmatic:
(of a person) having an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition.
Well that works, but of course there’s more to his work than that. I sensed something brewing under the stolid calm — an undefined ingredient that Ed’s work shares with the best cartoonists — that thing that lifts their work to funnier ground. You can see it in any Frascino drawing, like this one for example — a personal favorite of mine — published in The New Yorker, August 21, 2000:
Frascino’s debut New Yorker cartoon was in the issue of September 4, 1965. His most recent cartoon appears in this week’s issue, November 16, 2020. He has contributed over 500 cartoons to the magazine to date, not including the cartoons by others based on a Frascino idea.
Today being Edward Frascino’s 90th birthday, it seemed a good time to raise a glass to him and his 55 (and counting) years at The New Yorker. What follows is the (lightly edited) email dialogue we’ve had these past few weeks. We began with my asking him about his first sale to The New Yorker — what is referred to as an “OK” within the magazine.
Michael Maslin: Let’s begin with your beginning at The New Yorker. Each of us has our first OK story, can we hear yours? Edward Frascino: I carried a 5×8 sketchbook and drew from life, from my imagination and caricatures.A friend who saw these drawings knew the assistant to James Geraghty, [then] art editor at The New Yorker. My friend took one of the books, passed it along and when it was seen by Mr. Geraghty he said, “Tell him to try some cartoons.”I did a batch of 10 roughs and left it with the receptionist outside the Art Department. Mr. Geraghty personally saw only established New Yorker cartoonists.The following week I picked up my roughs which contained a note saying, “If I was willing, the magazine wanted to buy one of my ideas for one of their artists to draw.” I was willing and Syd Hoff drew it. As I recall payment was $50.00. I continued submitting a batch of roughs weekly. Leaving it with the receptionist, picking it up the next week and leaving a new batch. From time to time I sold an idea but I wanted to sell a drawing. I sold ideas for Charles Addams, George Price, Whitney Darrow, and Frank Modell. I was paid, I think, $250.00 per idea. Below: Frank Modell’s drawing based on Ed Frascino’s idea. Published in The New Yorker April 7, 1973The people in my cartoons looked as if they might live in the Bronx. Geraghty thought the same ideas could work with the upper middle class people Charles Saxon drew living in Connecticut. He asked if I would like to bring in a batch of rejected roughs for Saxon to consider. I did and quite a number were successfully rendered by Chuck Saxon (years before I admired Saxon’s drawings in The New Yorker). Many are in his collection, One Man’s Fancy. Below: One of Saxon’s drawings from an idea by Frascino. Published in The New Yorker October 13, 1975. MM: You were providing ideas for nearly seven years (1958-1965) before selling your first drawing. That’s quite a wait. EF: That was quite a wait until I sold a drawing. I always liked Winston Churchill’s, “Never, Never, Never, give up.” Although there seems to be some question about it being taken out of context. In any case during the long wait I was selling cartoons elsewhere. Magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Esquire, The Saturday Review of Literature, British Punch, and Playboy were buying New Yorker rejects. I continued submitting weekly to The New Yorker. After about two years, I was tenacious, the batch returned to me was missing a cartoon. I pointed this out to the receptionist who called inside and told me, “You have an OK.“ It was then that I met Jim Geraghty. I had an OK! With my head in the clouds I walked 20 blocks home and proceeded to do a finished drawing. A week later I showed it to Mr. Geraghty but he didn’t feel it was suitable for The New Yorker. He gave me the choice of selling the idea or trying another drawing. Back to the drawing board. I drew, redrew and redrew again. Friends who saw the drawings thought they were great but none of them were cartoon editor of The New Yorker. The next finish I showed to Jim Geraghty was accepted. If truth be known, I couldn’t comprehend how this drawing was superior to the one rejected. Above: the first drawing Ed Frascino sold to The New Yorker, published October 9, 1965. The White Rock cartoon shown below was the first drawing of his to appear in The New Yorker, published September 4, 1965. MM: Where you were working before you broke into The New Yorker? EF: Had a position with a Madison Avenue advertising agency doing paste-ups and mechanicals. Before computers all ads were assembled by hand. Following an art director’s layout I pasted in position type and a photostat of the art work. We all wore jackets and neck ties. In fact, unless so attired a man was not permitted to dine in a restaurant. There was a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop on Madison Ave. named Clyde that sold only neckties. It was a time not unlike “Mad Men.” MM: Can you talk a bit about James Geraghty. What kind of working relationship did you have following your first few OKs? Were you going into the office weekly and showing him your work? How involved with each drawing was he (offering suggestions, and the like)? EF: Editor par excellence. Knowledgeable about art, literature, theater and music. Jim Geraghty showed an interest in each cartoonist. He was supportive and I valued his constructive criticism. I showed Geraghty a batch of 10-12 roughs weekly. He studied each cartoon making comments. Leafing through the batch he remained very stoic. Only one time did he laugh out loud. Photo: James Geraghty in his office at The New Yorker. He was the magazine’s art editor from 1939 – 1973. Photo from the collection of Sarah Geraghty Herndon Above: the Frascino cartoon that made Geraghty laugh out loud. Published in The New Yorker, December 3, 1966, after the Catholic Church declared it was okay to eat meat on Fridays. He’d hold 4 or 5 and return the others to me. At the afternoon meeting with Mr. Shawn one of the holds may be bought and mailed to me. I’d do a finish and show it to Geraghty the following Wednesday with a new batch of roughs. When presented with a finish sometimes it wasn’t exactly to his liking. He talked about about how this or that might be drawn differently never once actually asking for a redraw. His way of putting things ultimately resulted in my offering to redraw it. Other cartoonists who worked with Jim will bear me out on this because we laughed about it amongst ourselves. There was a cartoonist, new to the magazine, who resented Jim’s technique and very shortly quit submitting. MM: It would seem that Lee Lorenz as art/cartoon editor [Lorenz succeeded Geraghty as The New Yorker‘s art editor in 1973] had a very different approach than Geraghty. I can probably tick off on one hand the number of times he suggested a change in one of my drawings. I wonder if your experience with Lee as editor was similar to mine. EF: My experience with Lee also was different than with Geraghty. I admired Geraghty and learned from him but being an editor he had to edit. While looking through a batch of roughs Lee might comment on how some might be done differently. Don’t recall his ever asking for a change in a finish. MM: You began publishing at The New Yorker in a decade that also saw the arrival of J.B. “Bud” Handelsman (1961), Robert Weber (1962), Edward Koren (1962), Henry Martin (1964), Donald Reilly (1964), Mort Gerberg (1965), Charles Barsotti (1969), and Sam Gross (1969). How well did you get to know your fellow 1960s classmates? EF: After the weekly meeting with Geraghty, depending on who else showed up, I lunched with Henry Martin, Sam Gross, Sid Harris, Bud Handelsman, and Mort Gerberg. Sometimes we were joined by Don Reilly, Arnie Levin or Gahan Wilson. Always a convivial occasion with little talk of cartoons. Gahan and I shared an interest in classic films so we always had a lively discussion enhanced by Bud Handelsman’s impersonation of old time character actor Eugene Pallette. Bud had him nailed. Mort Gerberg taught cartooning at the New School and a few times I was guest speaker at his class. After I moved to Los Angeles, Sidney, Sam and Mort, when here on separate occasions, each visited me. MM: Did you have any memorable interactions with the established cartoonists working at the magazine when you arrived? For instance: Otto Soglow, Addams, George Price, Saxon, Mischa Richter, Alan Dunn, Whitney Darrow, Jr.. EF: On Wednesday morning (later upped to Tuesday) the cartoonists gathered in Geraghty’s outer office waiting to go inside and meet with him. I was uneasy my first time there. Barney Tobey and Mischa Richter were the first two who made me feel welcome and continued to do so thereafter.A common practice between artists was, and maybe still is, to exchange artwork. Cover artist Arthur Getz asked everyone if we would care to exchange art with him. I visited his studio and chose a watercolor rough for one of his covers. He also gave me a pen and ink sketch of the same subject. Arthur visited my studio and selected an original cartoon drawing about a cat. MM: Perhaps not an answerable question, but heck, I’ll ask anyway: when your first began appearing in The New Yorker were you aware you were part of a new generation of cartoonists that was wholly self-sufficient providing their own ideas rather than relying on ideas from others (something that began to take hold in the mid 1950s)? EF: Had no idea about the new generation of cartoonists. Did know the magazine continued to buy ideas because I was selling some. MM: Let’s talk about your work. Some cartoonists can easily point to influences, some can’t, or won’t (I’m on record as being indebted to Thurber). Did you find any New Yorker cartoonists work particularly inspirational/influential when you were first starting out? EF: When I was a kid many New York newspapers carried comic strips daily and full color comic sections on Sunday. After reading them I spent some time studying the art work and copying it. My favorite was Milton Caniff‘s “Terry and the Pirates.” I cut those strips out and pasted them in a scrapbook. As a teenager I drew my own strip heavily influenced by “Terry.” My neighborhood friends were my readers. On Sundays my family visited my maternal grandmother. It was there I first saw The New Yorker and enjoyed pouring over the cartoons, although I didn’t always get the joke.Army basic training was in South Carolina. The base library had a humor section where I found Thurber’s Fables For Our Time. I couldn’t borrow it but returned as often as I could to read and enjoy it.Before being published myself, the New Yorker cartoonists I most admired were Charles Saxon, Robert Weber, Mischa Richter, Frank Modell, Barney Tobey, William Steig, and Alan Dunn. MM: When I look at your New Yorker work (from the earliest right up to the one that just appeared in The New Yorker) what I see is a lot of energy, sort of the opposite of Chon Day‘s laid back style. Your work, your line seems animated. We see it in the sketchbook drawing you’ve shown us. Are you animated when working — I picture your drawing hand moving rapidly over the paper. EF: When drawing I require total silence. No music and certainly no conversation. Working at night is best when it is quietest. Drawing a rough is drawing an idea. Doing a finish is drawing the rough. I try to keep the spontaneity of drawing a rough when doing a finish. Sometimes I start a finish and don’t like how it’s turning out. I stop, start again on a clean piece of paper. I may do several finishes and submit the one I judge to be the best. MM: Following up on working, I’ve found there are a number of ways cartoonists think. Don’t worry — this isn’t a where do you get your ideas question, but more of how/when do ideas come to you question. Some colleagues carry sketchbooks out into the world, and jot down ideas and/or draw something they see. Others sit a desk 9-5 turning out cartoons in a kind of production line fashion; some just show up daily at a stack of plain paper and hope for the best (that’s me). Then there are those who are struck by lightning when cartoons are the last thing on their minds. Do any of those strike a chord with you? EF: I sit with a large sketchpad on my knees, doodling and scribbling and eventually ideas come. Only once did I use what someone said to me in conversation. Speaking of music a friend said that on her death bed she would like to hear the concluding trio from “Der Rosenkavalier,” and in those days of vinyl 78s, told exactly where on the recording it could be found.MM: What are your roots, humor-wise? EF: Every Sunday my parents, my brother and I visited my maternal Grandmother. Aunts, uncles, my favorite cousin were usually there engaging in lots of humorous banter. My Uncle Al could have done stand-up. He could do 15 minutes off the top of his head. At 7 o’clock we gathered around the radio and listened to Jack Benny. Those Sundays, I believe, contributed to developing my sense of humor. I remember my first laugh. When I was very young I very much wanted to drink what I saw grown-ups drinking: coffee. Too young. At about age 4 or 5, sitting on Macy’s Santa’s lap, he asked, “And what do you want for Christmas?” I replied, “An electric train and a cup of coffee.” All the other parents on line laughed. It felt good. Above: Frascino in Korea In Korea I did a cartoon in the weekly company newspaper, just a few mimeographed pages. At the Mess Hall tent a group of stray dogs waited for scraps that many of us, after filling our trays, tossed to them. I did a cartoon showing the Mess line with soldiers tossing scraps, but the dogs turned up their noses and walked away. One of the men said, “Lamb chunks again.” The company commander was not amused. No more cartoons from me. Another cartoon I remember: a lone GI in a foxhole spraying deodorant under his arm. Above: None of the work Mr. Frascino drew during his time in Korea survived. He kindly redrew the above for this interview, adding, “It’s a rough facsimile of a cartoon done for the Company paper. I had to draw using a stylus on mimeograph paper. No way to do wash.” MM: I meant to ask you in the beginning of our discussion if you recall the idea of yours given to Hoff? If you don’t recall, how about any for Addams, or any of the others? EF: Two ideas were bought for Addams, and one each for George Price* and Frank Modell.The Hoff idea came at the time when New York City was flooded with an influx of Japanese culture. Restaurants, shops, etc. The people Hoff drew were perfect for it. *The Frascino idea drawn up by George Price is the classic: “I heard a bit of good news today. We shall pass this way but once.” Published in The New Yorker, April 14, 1973 Below: Edward Frascino’s first sale to The New Yorker was an idea given to Syd Hoff. Below is Frascino’s original drawing. Below: Hoff’s drawing based on Frascino’s idea (this was published in the New Yorker, June 21, 1958). MM: Let’s discuss a few of your drawings — ones that you particularly recall coming up with — perhaps even a personal favorite. EF: I don’t have a personal favorite cartoon. That would be like asking a parent to name their favorite child. There are memorable cartoons because they concern one of my interests. [Mr. Frascino shared some examples below under the headings shown] Classic movies Cats Comic StripsOne of the dogs is Daisy from the Blondie strip. Dean Young who now draws it wanted to buy the original but agreed to exchange an original Blondie strip for my cartoon. A treat because as a kid it was a favorite then drawn by Dean’s father, Chic. Just fun to draw MM: A question outside of The New Yorker cartoon world about you illustrating E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan. Is there anything you’d like to say about that experience? Did you have interactions with Mr. White? EF: I had illustrated several children’s books for Harper & Row and was known for meeting deadlines. The [Trumpet Of The Swan] manuscript was edited and ready to go in September, 1969. E.B. White wanted it on the 1970 Spring List. Not a problem for all text but this would include illustrations which didn’t leave a lot of time. As I heard it, Ursula Nordstrom, head of the Childrens Book Dept., said, “Get Frascino!” White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web were illustrated by Garth Williams using pen and ink. Harper wanted White’s books to look uniform. I started working with pen and ink but was uncomfortable. I pointed this out to Ursula and did an illustration using wash and line. White’s contract gave him final approval on everything. Ursula showed this [the wash and line illustration] to him and he approved. E.B. White was very generous to me. We exchanged phone calls and letters (no email then). It was daunting composing a letter to the co-author of The Elements Of Style. He was open to my suggestions making it feel like a true collaboration. The small royalty given to me was uncommon. Illustrators of books with mostly text are paid a flat fee. Only picture book illustrators receive royalties. The Trumpet Of The Swan was published in 1970 and I still receive royalties. Puzzling because a new edition with full color illustrations by another artist is now on the market and the original edition is out of print. My search found originals only in foreign editions and used books. MM: I’ve often thought that cartoonists are forever young in spirit. Perhaps it’s an involuntary requirement that allows us to do what we do. Does that apply to you — forever young — now in your 90th year? EF: Paying attention to everything and curiosity is a requirement for what we do. If that qualifies as forever young then I am. Above: Ed Frascino with Santa, in L.A., approximately a dozen years ago. All drawings and photos, except where noted, are courtesy of Mr. Frascino. My thanks to him for materials from his personal collection..____________________________________________________________________ To see more of Edward Frascino’s New Yorker work visit The New Yorker‘s Cartoon Bank. His cartoon collection Avocado Is Not Your Color And Other Scenes Of Married Bliss (Penguin, 1983) is available on most bookstore sites including AbeBooks. It’s a must-have for any New Yorker cartoon library. The Trumpet Of The Swan, illustrated by Mr. Frascino can be found online as well. His cartoons appear in all the New YorkerAlbum anthologies published since The New Yorker Album Of Drawings 1925-1975 (Viking). A favorite photograph of Mr. Frascino appears in The New Yorker‘s first Cartoon Issue, published December 15th, 1997. In a group photo taken by Arnold Newman, the cartoonist is seen seated on the floor in the foreground enjoying a stream of confetti he’s just tossed in the air.
I’ll try to describe one of my favorites among Mr. Frascino’s many masterpieces. A cocktail party in an apartment that seems to be on a fairly high floor. Center background, big window, city beyond, man in dark suit, mustache, looking out, away from other guests. A group on the right is brilliantly drawn very vaguely, not quite featureless. Two women on the left, much more detailed, more in focus, as it were. One is saying to the other, “You’ve probably never heard of him. He won the Pulitzer for poetry.” That one hung in a moderately discreet spot on my office wall for almost twenty years, from the year I won the Pulitzer for poetry until my retirement. These days it’s among my stored photos on my computer. I’ll be grateful for it as long as I’m grateful for anything.