Lee Lorenz: Cartoonist and Gatekeeper at The New Yorker

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Lee Lorenz, 90, Cartoonist and Gatekeeper at The New Yorker, Dies”:

Lee Lorenz, a cartoonist and cartoon editor who over 40 years at The New Yorker introduced unconventional illustrators like Roz Chast and Jack Ziegler while publishing droll covers and some 1,800 cartoons in the magazine himself, died at his home in Norwalk, Conn.

Mr. Lorenz joined The New Yorker in 1958. He was its art editor — only the second one since the magazine was founded in 1925 — from 1973 to 1993 and its cartoon editor from 1973 to 1997.

During his tenure he bridged a precarious transition when The New Yorker was sold to Samuel I. Newhouse Jr.’s Advance Publications in 1985 and the magazine’s venerable editor, William Shawn, was deposed, replaced first by Robert A. Gottlieb, a book editor and publisher who introduced a more ideological and earthy tone, and then by Tina Brown, who fostered a jauntier and, to some, more jarring style.

“When people asked me what I looked for in a New Yorker cartoonist, I always said, ‘I want a distinctive point of view,’ not just gags, in other words,” Mr. Lorenz said in 2011. “All the best artists have a personality.”

One was Ms. Chast, whose scraggly, disoriented characters led to complaints from more classical colleagues “who said she couldn’t draw,” Mr. Lorenz recalled. Mr. Ziegler’s comic strip form was also a radical departure.

“There’s nothing more futile than trying to explain a cartoon to someone who doesn’t get it,” Mr. Lorenz said. He cited an illustration by Mr. Ziegler of a man standing at the counter of the Bureau of Missing Toast as he tearfully shows a clerk a photo of a well-done slice of bread.

“It didn’t seem like the craziest thing we’d ever run, but I had people come up to me and say they did not get it — or like it,” Mr. Lorenz said. “On the other hand, Jack got a half dozen pieces of toast in the mail.”

In his own work, tapping his skills as a jazz cornetist, Mr. Lorenz preferred broad brushstrokes rather than the precision of a pen to create a “free-flying spirit of a music that sounds dated while still epitomizing the improvisational whimsy informing so much modern art,” Richard Gehr wrote in “I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists” (2014).

“He captures characters in motion,” Mr. Gehr added, “momentary slices of time that may make you laugh out loud while pondering their befores and afters.”

Mr. Lorenz’s cartoons found humor in the most mundane slices of life:

A patient confessing to his analyst, “I’ve lost the will to obsess”; a quizzical wife asking her husband and the family dog, both of whom are guffawing, “Is this a private joke or can anyone join in?”; a man confessing plaintively to a bank officer, “Frankly, when I took out the loan I sincerely thought we’d all be blown to hell before it came due.”

“I try to respond to things that seem ridiculous to me in the world around us,” Mr. Lorenz told The New York Times in 1977. “As long as you’re sensitive to these things — show people how unthinking their behavior has become — you’ll never run out of material.”

Lee Sharp Lorenz was born in Hackensack, N.J. His mother, Martha (Castagnetta) Lorenz, was a homemaker. His father, Alfred Lorenz, organized U.S.O. shows for the YMCA, which meant the family frequently moved: to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; White Plains and Newburgh, N.Y.; and finally, in 1947, to Greenwich, Conn.

His primary interest as a teenager was jazz, but his mother subscribed to The New Yorker, and in perusing issues Lee was captivated by the inspired work of Saul Steinberg, a frequent New Yorker contributor regarded as having elevated cartoon drawing to high art. Elsewhere he came to admire the work of Milton Caniff, who drew the comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon,” and the cartoonist and animator Gene Deitch, who was then illustrating a jazz magazine. He was encouraged by an art teacher, Lucia Cumins, at Greenwich High School.

As a student there Lee wrote a satirical class history for the senior yearbook and illustrated it in the same spirit. After graduation, he won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but “living in Pittsburgh was tough back then,” he later said, so he returned to New York and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied with the painter Philip Guston.

Surviving on gigs booked by his band Eli’s Chosen Six (he later formed the Creole Cookin’ Jazz Band), he aspired to a career in abstract impressionism, a school of art emerging at midcentury.

“That’s what I pursued when I got out of art school, but I still needed to make a living,” he said. “That’s how I got into cartooning.”

When he was hired by The New Yorker, Mr. Lorenz recalled, gag lines that were submitted to the magazine and that tickled the editors were still given to professional illustrators, who would then create the cartoons to accompany them.

His first published cartoon appeared in Collier’s magazine in 1956. The New Yorker began buying his ideas and farming them out to contract artists. He was signed as a contract contributor to the magazine in 1958.

Mr. Lorenz was the author or editor of several books, including “The Art of The New Yorker: 1925–1995 (1995), “The World of William Steig (1998), about the children’s book author and illustrator, and collections of his own cartoons.

Mr. Lorenz expressed a certain defensive pride about his vocation, telling The Times in 1993, “People think of cartoonists as eccentric, marginal types and forget it’s a profession.” But he also approached it with humility.

“There is a kind of masochistic personality that’s drawn to this business,” he said in a documentary, “Funny Business: An Inside Look at the Art of Cartooning” (2015).

“They always feel that their work is not as good as it could be,” he added. “But when you start off with a sense that you’re not good enough anyway, rejection is a little easier to take.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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