The greatest cartoonists ever to grace the pages of the New Yorker have not merely rendered gags. They drew a universe. And no world has been more immersive than what Emma Allen, humor editor at the magazine, calls “Boothville.”
This is the cartoon terrain of George Booth, the beloved wit who was a true original. Hewing to his signature line, a thin black dance of ink so kinetic that characters seem to have soul, Booth drew offbeat scenes that feel as warm as the down-home bathwater of his universe.
Booth, who died this week at 96, created single-panel cartoons and occasional covers for the New Yorker for more than a half-century, ultimately becoming its oldest active contributor. Allen says his final cartoon for the magazine was published this year.
Booth made his home in the New Yorker pantheon decades ago. “He was right up there with Peter Arno, George Price, Charles Addams, Helen Hokinson, William Steig, Mary Petty, Ed Koren and Saul Steinberg,” says Michael Maslin, the New Yorker cartoonist and unofficial historian. “We call New Yorker cartoons that will last ‘evergreens.’ Booth’s entire body of work is evergreen.”
In the first half-century since the magazine was founded in 1925, some cartoonists favored scenes of wry upscale sophistication or surreal whimsy. Entering the second half-century, Booth’s natural voice instantly came from a different place. “What made him so special,” Maslin says, “was that what he identified as funny was so unlike what anyone else would identify.”
Booth was born in small-town Missouri and, encouraged by his mother, amused himself by drawing his own cartoons by age 4. He studied art and then drew for publication during World War II. Serving in the Marine Corps, he created illustrations for its Leatherneck magazine.
By the time Booth made his New Yorker debut in the late 1960s, his unique visual grammar felt established. He was home.
“I loved the way he drew even more than his jokes, if that is even possible,” says New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, who cites Booth as a “huge” inspiration. She loved his way with faces and pets, even “his bathtubs and the cockamamie objects that crowded every panel.”
Often, the domestic couples and their appliances appeared equally dysfunctional, yet these were scenes not of derision but familiar embrace. “He loved Everyman. His work often showed us folks who appeared less well-off than some, or at least they looked that way,” New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly says. “But these people George created did not seem to care about material things. They enjoyed life and all its wackiness,” she adds. (In real life, Booth was joyfully devoted to his longtime wife, Dione, who died last month.)
Booth could also draw with a profound soulfulness, such as his silent cartoon of a seated woman with head bowed, her musical instrument resting on the floor, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The prospect of the first New Yorker issue after the attacks being “jollied up in any way just seemed wrong,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick. Yet Booth’s contribution was selected as a cartoon exception because of its appropriate tone.
“He had this drawing that, without calling attention to itself, without being lachrymose, but with a set of Boothisms that the reader understood, just moved me. So that, I could do,” Remnick adds.
I met Booth once, at the 2010 Reuben Awards convention hosted by the National Cartoonists Society in Jersey City. With an aw-shucks demeanor, Booth deflected my professional compliment and articulated his appreciation of newspapers, which he read partly to generate word association ideas for his cartoons. His thoughtful pauses, Midwestern humility and lanky 6-foot-3 frame all contributed to his bearing an air similar to Jimmy Stewart.
His warm, blue eyes registered with a kindness that colleagues say was reflected in his work. They call him a “generous soul” who buoyed you with his playful spirit. “It is hard,” Allen says, “not to be happy around someone whose very atoms vibrate with mirth.”
That warmth resonated throughout the biographical documentary short “Drawing Life,” recently released by filmmaker Nathan Fitch.
“Finding humor, drawing humor, there is nothing better,” Booth says in the film. “If you can come along with the right cartoon and quiet everything down by showing how silly it is, then you accomplished something.”