Vint Lawrence, a CIA paramilitary officer who helped organize a secret war in the jungles of Laos before becoming a critically acclaimed artist and caricaturist, illustrating wild-eyed literary giants and wide-eared politicos for such publications as the New Republic and The Washington Post, died April 9 at a hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 76.
The cause was complications from acute myeloid leukemia, said his wife, Anne Garrels, a broadcast journalist long associated with National Public Radio.
Mr. Lawrence began making highly detailed line drawings of presidents, writers and international events around 1970, freelancing for Washington Monthly and The Post, particularly the newspaper’s Book World section. He was later a contributing editor at the New Republic.
“He does not burlesque his subjects,” Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in 1973, reviewing a Washington exhibition of Mr. Lawrence’s illustrations and watercolors. “He shapes their faces into symbolic objects that illuminate the news.”
Through Mr. Lawrence’s pen, faces and objects often underwent fantastical transformations: Sen. Everett Dirksen acquired a head in the shape of his home state of Illinois; the West Bank became the car of Jordan’s King Hussein.
For a 1984 profile of White House spokesman Larry Speakes, Mr. Lawrence imagined Speakes dressed as a court jester, seated at the foot of a drawbridge hanging from President Ronald Reagan’s ears. Hungry sea critters gazed open-mouthed from a moat below, their sides emblazoned with the names of news outlets including The Post and the New York Times.
No transformation was more dazzling than that of Mr. Lawrence himself, who had just graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in art history when he was drafted into the Army and recruited by the CIA in 1960. He found himself in Laos two years later, in the midst of a bloody civil war between the country’s Communist party and ruling monarchy.
The rugged, landlocked nation had become a crucial battlefield of the Vietnam War because of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a winding North Vietnamese supply route that carried troops and munitions through eastern Laos and south to Vietnam.
Mr. Lawrence was tasked with coordinating between American forces and a guerrilla army led by Vang Pao, a charismatic Hmong general whom CIA Director William Colby later called “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.”
For three years, Mr. Lawrence spent nearly every hour of the day with Vang Pao, planning raids on North Vietnamese soldiers and developing a 39,000-person army at a secret base in the valley of Long Cheng.
He returned to the United States in 1964, 11 years before Vang Pao and his forces were defeated by the Communists, to work as an aide for Colby — then a high-ranking deputy at the CIA — and later for Paul Nitze, deputy secretary of defense.
He seemed to have a long career in government ahead of him when he decided to drop everything and become an artist, encouraged by an unusual meeting with the dean of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Garrels said in a phone interview Tuesday that the dean told Mr. Lawrence that art school might be able to improve his technique, but “if you don’t have something to say, no art school is going to teach it.”
“You should go up in your attic and draw,” he added, “and see if you have something to say — and what’s more, see if you like working alone.”
After the meeting, Mr. Lawrence climbed upstairs, shut the door and — after a few sketches — found art to his liking.
James Vinton Lawrence was born in New York City on June 25, 1939, and grew up in Englewood, N.J. His father was an investment counselor who served in the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II-era precursor to the CIA.
Mr. Lawrence graduated in 1956 from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and in 1960 from Princeton.
In addition to his newspaper and magazine work, which continued through the late 1990s, he also illustrated the covers of such books as “Liar’s Poker” (1989), Michael Lewis’s best-selling Wall Street takedown. The book’s original cover featured a caricature of swaggering investment banker John Gutfreund on a million-dollar bill.
His first marriage, to Maria Satzger, ended in divorce. Besides his wife of 30 years, of Norfolk, Conn., survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Rebecca Lawrence of Kalispell, Mont., and Gabrielle Strand of Indialantic, Fla.; a brother; two sisters; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Lawrence set aside illustration for painting at the end of his career but said he found great joy in the caricatures that brought him fame. Among his favorite subjects was Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, whose large-eared face peered out from the pages of the New Republic a half-dozen times during Perot’s failed 1992 presidential campaign.
“He was a treat, a real original,” Mr. Lawrence told the Los Angeles Times that year before lamenting the uninspiring appearances of the remaining presidential contenders. “How do you draw a pudgy Clinton and an angular Gore?”
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