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Obituary: William Steig 1907-2003
posted November 30, 2003
"There is no school of Bill Steig - there is only Steig." - Maurice Sendak
William Steig, the prolific New Yorker
illustrator once dubbed the "King of Cartoons" best known in recent years for his award-winning work in children's books, died Friday, October 3 at his home in the Back Bay section of Boston. The family announced through Steig's agent and friend Holly McGhee that the artist's death was due to natural causes. Steig enjoyed two distinct career paths of note - first that of a master cartoonist and illustrator whose work for magazines such as the New Yorker was frequently collected in book form, and then that of a popular children's book author and illustrator who won awards and acclaim for works such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
, Roland the Minstrel Pig
, and Pete's a Pizza
. Admired by cartoonists and illustrators in several fields, William Steig's contributions to art were even more thrillingly multifaceted than his vocational history. As cartoonist and illustrator Seth explained to the Journal
, "Steig was one of those artists who had up to six different periods, all of them with great value and interest."
A Childhood in the Bronx
William Steig was born on November 14, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the third of four brothers. Patriarch Joseph Steig was a housepainter; wife Laura Ebel Steig worked as a seamstress. William was a first generation American born of Polish-Jewish immigrants, and soon upon his arrival the Steigs moved to a neighborhood friendly to their ethnicity in the Bronx, in a building halfway between Crotona and Claremont parks. Like many children of that era, Steig spent most of his youth running with a group of kids from the neighborhood. Steig would later refer to this as a "gang," although admitted that they only recruited as widely as their building. He also reported that when the gang eventually admitted girl members the group took on the not very fearsome sounding appellation "Claremont Athletic and Social Club." Steig would takes bits and pieces of his childhood and work them into his cartoons and books throughout his long career.
Steig's childhood was filled with a great deal of imaginative reading, something he credited to living before radio and television programming. He saw movies at the "Nickelettes," which charged a nickel for admission. That one of them would charge one admission for two kids willing to share a seat was a detail that made it into one of the adult Steig's children's stories. He noted in a speech as an adult those things that affected him most as a child, various works across several media.
Among the things that affected me most profoundly as a child - and consequently as an adult - were certain works of art: Grimm's fairy tales, Charlie Chaplin movies, Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel, the Katzenjammer Kids, Pinocchio. Pinocchio especially. I can still remember after this long stretch of time the turmoil of emotions, the excitement, the fears, the delights, and the wonder with which I followed Pinocchio's adventures.
Steig contributed cartoons to his high school newspaper, an enterprise that may have been cut short due to his early graduation, at age 15. He studied for two years at City College in New York, three years at the National Academy of Design and, as legend and an oft-repeated anecdote would have it, "five days at Yale" (specifically, the Yale School of Fine Arts). Steig would later admit to being a bad student more interested in recreational activities such as touch football than ever cracking a book. He excelled in at least one of those recreational endeavors - he was a member of the All-American water polo team during his time at City College.
Joseph and Laura Steig tried to steer their children towards what through they saw as a middle road of free agency and artistic expression, hoping their progeny would avoid becoming exploited workers or exploitive owners. Irwin became a writer (he also gave his younger brother William his first painting lessons), Henry drifted between music and writing, and Arthur concentrated on poetry. The family vocational strategy met young William's approval; he wanted to use his recreational and artistic skills more than anything he had learned at school, and imagined a life for himself as an adventurer-explorer, visiting far-away ports of call in a world that had not yet been brought closer together by commercial air travel and television. Instead, fate intervened. Joseph and Laura Steig may have been socialists, but they were also Americans living in the end of the economic boom era that was the 1920s. Like many families, the Steigs lost what little money they had in the 1929 stock market crash. Compounding difficulties, after the shockwaves passed through the city's economy, Joseph could no longer find work. William was unencumbered by a family of his own but still old enough to find gainful employment, so by default he became the Steigs' primary breadwinner.
Steig excelled at his new role as freelance illustrator and cartoonist. The first year he served as primary breadwinner, Steig made between $4,000 and $4,500, according to competing accounts - an amount he called more than enough for himself, his younger brother, and his parents. Although Steig's primary clients were Life
(home of his first sale), the most important transaction in that first year was a $40 cartoon to the magazine with which he would remain linked in the public's consciousness for more than 70 years, The New Yorker
. Editor Harold Ross bought a cartoon from Steig in 1930 featuring one prison inmate telling another, "My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him." Over the years, Steig would produce more than 1600 drawings and 121 covers for the magazine (a low three-figure stockpile of cartoons may push Steig's contributions to nearly 1800 if eventually published). He also drew for Vanity Fair
a bit later on, still in an initial sustained period of professional success.
Steig's cartoon style was initially dependent on gags and one-liners, although the cartoons themselves were frequently fueled by their visual component rather than serving as illustrations of a sentence or two. Steig was particularly fond of drawing children saying bold or startling things, investing his young people with a crude but very familiar authenticity in its general verisimilitude and in its evocation of smart children entertainments to come. Those cartoons were categorized under the general titles Small Fry and Dreams of Glory according to theme, and were largely inspired by events in Steig's own childhood, a time in the artist's life still close enough chronologically for easy emotional access. The cartoons made such an impression that in 1942 a New York children's clothing manufacturer produced a line of clothing using that name. In 1944 a hundred such cartoons were reprinted in book form called Small Fry
They were important artistically as well, serving as a proletarian contrast to the subject matter preferred by Helen Hokinson and Peter Arno, and encouraging future New Yorker
cartoonists to work from the picture outwards. "It was more than his artistic gift," says author, editor and biographer Lee Lorenz. "When Arno and Hokinson and [Garrett] Price were depending on gag writers, he had not only gone behind gag writers, he had gone beyond gags."
The Symbolic Drawings
Starting in the mid-1930s, William Steig moved through the first of several fundamental shifts in approach and chosen endeavor that would characterize his professional career and, to a lesser extent, his personal life. In 1936 Steig married for the first time to Elizabeth Mead, sister to the anthropologist Margaret Mead. It was a watershed year for him artistically. He discovered woodcarving, making a series of male figures (all named "Jason") and female figures (all named "Tessie") that in 1939 became the subject of a one-man show at the Downtown Gallery. It was also in 1936 that Steig started making what he called his "symbolic drawings." These were line drawings of people enduring various emotional states: from vaguely worded personality tendencies to outright diagnosed mental syndromes. Steig was working from a passionate interest in Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. The drawings were not an immediate hit with his most prominent client. In researching a biography on Steig, Lee Lorenz discovered a memo from New Yorker
editor Harold Ross on Steig's new approach. The memo noted that the drawings, while compelling and perhaps the basis of work that would make a wider name for Steig, were simply not something the New Yorker
could use. "Too personal and not funny enough" read Ross' verdict.
By the early 1940s, these drawings had found their own audience in book publication form, particularly in three groundbreaking volumes: About People
(1939), The Lonely Ones
(1942) and All Embarrassed
(1944). Steig would eventually publish over a dozen books squarely aimed at adults, making him one of the first popular American cartoonists to direct work towards that audience. Each book in the initial, unofficial trilogy outstripped the level of success publishers thought possible. When About People
sold out of its first print run but failed to receive a vote of confidence from its publisher in the form of a second printing, Steig took it to another publisher where subsequent editions sold steadily. The Lonely Ones
would stay in print for a quarter century, and in many ways became Steig's signature work of this type. Steig's books were praised by various public intellectuals of the day, including Steig's relative by marriage Margaret Mead and psychoanalysts such as Karen Horney and A. A. Brill. They were also a favorite of celebrities like Harpo Marx. Steig had become a popular if quirky figure in the American arts scene.
He also became a vitally important influence for the next generation of cartoonists. "All of those early books, such as Agony in the Kindergarten
and The Lonely Ones
, they were quite remarkable and revolutionary," Jules Feiffer told the Journal
. "They took cartoons into the subconscious, and were as revolutionary in terms of cartooning as Freud's original work was in terms of psychology. As far as I was concerned, it showed me the road, the path for the rest of my career: internalized thought into cartoons." Steig's success also played a role, keeping much of his work in print and available for cartoonists to discover when they were ready to learn from it. Steig wasn't always a natural fit for Feiffer. "He did panels, and that was a form I was never much interested in or good at. I had to take the lessons I learned and turn it into strip form." Feiffer described Steig as one of a small group of artists doing interesting work when he began looking into different artistic approaches in the 1950s. "There were a bunch of cartoonists at that time coming out at you, Steig was one, [Saul] Steinberg was another. It was more alive than making a study. You looked at it and devoured it."
Cartoonist Sam Henderson notes that it was the breadth of Steig's early career that continues to impress even today, in that he was that rare combination of innovator in styles and workhorse in established forms. "William Steig created what I call the 'id' genre of cartoons, which portrayed a state of mind or being rather than an ostensibly objective view of a particular action or situation," Henderson told the Journal
. "About People
and The Lonely Ones
are the best examples; his most famous piece of this type is probably the man cowering in the box with the caption 'People are no damn good.' What's even more impressive is that he was doing these expressive, cubistic line drawings while simultaneously blending in with his peers at the New Yorker
, producing more linear work in a different wash style. These were great in their own right; his Dreams of Glory series of gags were wonderful depictions of Walter Mitty-esque childhood delusions."
Although Steig's publishing success was centered in New York, significant changes in his personal life had their origins in Vienna. Steig deepened his interest in mental health and psychoanalysis by becoming a follower of the teachings of the controversial figure Wilhelm Reich. He began therapy with Reich after suffering from sulpha poisoning as a result of medication he had been given for meningitis. Having admired Reich's writing since reading the book The Function of the Orgasm
during his first divorce, Steig sought out the doctor. He illustrated Reich's 1948 book Listen, Little Man!
and dedicated his own book The Agony in the Kindergarten
to the psychoanalyst. Steig would credit his long life and good health to Reich's ideas, calling him "the most important man of our time." When federal government prosecuted Reich over charges brought against him by the Food and Drug Administration, Steig raised and donated money to his defense. Long after many followers had given up the practice, Steig continued to utilize Reich's controversial Orgone Accumulator treatment, regularly climbing inside a large box structure through which it was said various positive sexual energies were collected and deposited back inside the person.
A Second Wind
Steig enjoyed yet another sustained period of excellence and approbation with the cartoons he did for the New Yorker in the late 1940s and 1950s. According to Lee Lorenz, who in addition to writing about the artist was a friend who worked with him as an editor, Steig's renaissance at the magazine had more to do with the particulars of his advertising work schedule and changes in the magazine's overall outlook rather than a simple shift in editorial policy. "The kind of work he started doing was more comfortable in the post-war New Yorker
, which had become very different than the magazine it had been before. It wasn't just a change a mind in Harold Ross. It was a shift that the magazine made towards becoming a magazine of serious journalism, a magazine with cartoons in it rather than a magazine of cartoons and humor." In that atmosphere, and with trails blazed in terms of content by pieces like Saul Steinberg's journalism-style features, Lorenz feels that "At that point Steig was able to produce anything he wanted for the magazine."
The work itself had changed. "By the time the War ended, I wouldn't say these are like the symbolic drawings; they were a combination of that approach and a more traditional approach," Lorenz told the Journal
. "It was not a gag cartoon any longer, and more observations based on real people than attempts to delineate psychological states." For Seth, the fresh approach to style that Steig brought to the cartoons made this his favorite period in the artist's career. "I love the 1950s drawing the best. What you get in the '50s work is Steig returning to the old themes, the immigrants and kids, but he comes at it with this really fresh drawing style. He's dropped some of the stock cartoon visuals, the potato noses. What's left is a freer cartoon style, but it's really solid, too." Seth also points out that re-reading the 1950s work in particular reminds the reader how humorous Steig could be. "He was also a very funny guy. It's often overlooked because of the psychological drawings. It seems to be very small humor. He's not going for the typical New Yorker
gag, but for a slightly witty moment over dinner - but he takes the edge off of it. It's not the usual sophisticated New Yorker
Current New Yorker
Art Director Françoise Mouly believes that Steig began a very meaningful and very public transformation in terms of his artwork during the late '50s and early '60s. "At that point he is an established grand master of The New Yorker
, and all of the people that he would have been looking up to when he was a young man are not around anymore. Peter Arno, Mary Petty, Helen Hokinson, all those people are just not around anymore. So he has shifted positions. It is 30 years later. He's still doing these storytelling images, but all around him the attention is focused on Jackson Pollock. And here comes in [Saul] Steinberg, ultimately about his age, but seen as an avant garde
artist. I'm sure that it had an impact on him. I never had a direct conversation with him about it, but if you look at the work, I'm sure that he felt that 30 years into it, established at the New Yorker, what is this business with abstract art and dripping paint onto canvasses and so on? I've had enough conversations with Saul Steinberg to get a sense of that moment and what it meant for cartoonists and for narrative artists. Steig must have been near 60 by then. To reach that moment and see that the world has totally shifted - am I obsolete? I'm sure that this must have functioned as a prod for Steig to try something else. It took a lot of courage."
As much as newer approaches to art may have had an effect on how he pursued his own work, Steig remained enamored of various great painters and his affection only deepened with time. He told the Boston Globe
he was "nuts about Van Gogh," and was an avowed fan of Rembrandt. It was said that Steig was such a fan of Picasso that he used the artist to test people in conversation. In Roger Angell's lengthy profile of the artist that appeared in The New Yorker
, he reported that Steig ended one long friendship after the person in question expressed some negative feelings towards his artistic idol. Other painters enjoyed by Steig were Stuart Davis and Albert Ryder - it was one of Davis's paintings that Steig sold to raise money for Reich; unasked, Steig sent Davis half the money from the sale.
Yet by the end of the 1960s, Steig had become that much more open and loose cartoonist. Taking advice from his jazz musician and artist son Jeremy, Steig stopped doing penciled preparations for his work and started drawing straight from the pen. Lee Lorenz described it to the Journal
as a natural progression in his art. "He didn't like restraint. The battles he had with editors reflected the battles he had with himself. When he reached that point where he no longer fought with himself, his art just blossomed. There were several specific things that led up to that. When Jeremy suggested that he not sketch his drawings before he inked them in, that they would be better - this is just what Steig wanted to hear from somebody. From then on, that's what he always did." There had been hints at Steig's new art style in his 1940s and 1950s work, and Seth cites a handful of New Yorker
spreads where the artist was working in the style of a child that he believes may have preceded it directly. No matter the nature of its origin, with the full embrace of this new style Steig's line became undoubtedly livelier and more expressive, his approach to his subjects sometimes even more raw and revealing than they used to be and just as bold. There was nothing like it in the New Yorker's pages at the time, nor has there been since.
"He finds this way which is really truly both original and both in keeping with what he has done before," suggests Francoise Mouly of Steig's later approach to art. "There is a kind of logical link between the very traditional artist of the '30s Steig and Steig the goofball of the '60s. There's a kind of openness and almost naivete, but it's a genuine naivete. There are a number of artists who fake naivete, including New Yorker
artists, and certainly in the '60s and '70s it's almost a style in and of itself to be falsely naive. That's not the case with Steig ever. If he ever was clumsy, he was wholeheartedly clumsy. It wasn't an affectation for him. He literally did draw with his eyes closed, and with his left hand. He was trying to provoke himself. Having been such a good boy, it was really interesting for him to find out what happened when he closed his eyes or when he used his left hand or when he would leave the beaten path."
Even more than the cartooning and interior illustration, for Seth it's the covers for The New Yorker
that stand out in his look back at William Steig's career. "I look at him most often for his cover design," he told the Journal
. "In all the different time periods, he had the ability to capture a really simple idea and present it in way that was fresh. There are so many examples… a little girl holding a pile of daisies in a field of daisies. This was simpler than the usual New Yorker cover, but just as effective. He had a nice palette, a really good sense of color. He had perhaps a wider range of color than the other cover artists; it wasn't just that he worked with bright color, or muted tones. He could work with color in several different ways."
"He had an absolutely unique place as a cover artist, In part due because of his talent, of course, but also because of his longevity," says Françoise Mouly, who in addition to her current position at the New Yorker
co-authored with Lawrence Weschler 2000's Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution
. "There is no other New Yorker
artist that goes from the '30s to the 21st Century." Mouly notes that understanding Steig's place at the New Yorker
requires placing him in the context of the magazine's development. "When he enters into the magazine in 1930, it's at the heyday. The first few years - 1925, '26, '27, '28 - are really heavily art deco. The covers are of their moment, stylistically. There are artists who are doing beautiful patterns and aesthetically pleasing images, but the cover is not dominated by what later on took over, which was storytelling and narrative images. Certainly the art director of the time, Rea Irvin, the quintessential artist of the New Yorker
at that moment, had both qualities. He was very interested in funny pictures and storytelling pictures and would have recognized the talent of William Steig when he submitted his images. Steig is actually more of a cartoonist than Peter Arno or Helen Hokinson or Mary Petty and that's probably one of the reasons he had to be at The New Yorker
. He was such a fully rounded man."
For Mouly, Steig's art and particularly his covers "represent the dual desires of the editors and the positioning of the magazine at the time. On the one hand, you have the very art deco images of the flappers, the F. Scott Fitzgerald type - rich, young hip people. But you also have a more popular set of characters, more humanistic, literally less abstract, with a deeper sense of character. It's a more sentimental approach where it's not just the slick look of the people, but really their emotions that matter. The people themselves in Steig's storytelling, they are very much not genteel." Although many people think in terms of the New Yorker
being aimed towards an affected, cultured readership, Mouly notes that many famous New Yorker
cover images were less about portraying the typical reader than about satirizing and mocking the notion of fussy dandies. Steig's work may have been atypical of his peers, but fits right into the magazine's growing conception of itself. "Steig is one of the most populist of the artists that work in the '30s," Mouly says. "He brings in a different set of concerns than certainly Peter Arno on one hand or some of the other chroniclers of the foibles of the upper class."
Mouly also notes that Steig's early work prefigures the direction of future covers and with it, the general thrust of all illustration in the magazine. "A number of his images are set in bucolic settings, even though he does images that are purported to show the city, which is the title of the magazine, there's a lot of outdoors in his images. He prefigures what will happen in the late '40s and the early '50s, which is a lot of the cover artists and a lot of the artists for the magazine moving to the suburbs. That will also happen to the middle class - they move from the tenements of the Bronx or Brooklyn. In terms of the New Yorker, they move to upstate New York or Long Island, that's where the artists go. It's very interesting to see his presence at the magazine. He's not just one of the great artists, he really does have an influence in terms of introducing a sentimentality that come more pronounced later on. Where a lot of New Yorker
images in the '60s and '70s and '80s are very Hallmark-y in their sentimentality. They masquerade as sophisticated images but compared to what you see in an art gallery, they are kind of a rear guard."
The covers Steig did for the New Yorker
as his approach to art changed became more carefree and colorful, fanciful assaults on the borders of reserved good taste, open to the potential of whimsy - the kind of aggressive forays on which the magazine had built its reputation. Françoise Mouly believes that what really distinguished Steig's later covers was in simply having his wider artistic transformation reflected in his work for the important platform in American publishing that was the New Yorker's
cover. "At that moment where the rest of the New Yorker
catches up with a softer kind of concern, such as sunsets or a tree without leaves in the middle of winter and things like that, Steig goes somewhere else again," she told the Journal
. "He goes through this intense period of expressionist drawings, where they become much more doodles, and it becomes a matter of expressing what goes through his head. At that point his drawings are self-analysis. It certainly has a lot to do with the pleasures of drawing. He pioneers a kind of self-reflection that is hard to pull off. Your own doodles. He's so established in the magazine - you couldn't have that on the cover of another magazine, that would commission an artist to illustrate a theme or a cover article or to make a point that the editors have thought of. It's only because the New Yorker
is following on the established path of letting the artists express themselves, come up with the ideas, that the magazine can publish drawing that don't have a narrative content. At the time there are also other kinds of drawings such as those by Steinberg, but Steinberg's drawing is very content-oriented. A lot of the other images, whatever one's taste might be, are more outer-directed, flower pots on the window sill, there's not much of a story there. But it's a cliché… a commonly shared image. Some of Steig's work the only way you can define it is as whatever was going through William Steig's head at that moment. It's not so much the topic as much as the doodle. I found that really interesting, and they open up the possibility for other artists at the time, although no one really reached the level of freedom that he gave himself. And that he was given by the magazine. It was rather unparalleled.
"A lot of the Steig pictures are both less abstract and more bizarre. They often involve characters. Almost all of his characters - I think, I'd need to look it up to be true, but I would say all of his pictures have people in them. There's no such thing as a landscape by Steig. Whereas a lot of the pictures published on the cover of the New Yorker
in the Shawn, the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s were fairly static in terms of what was published, a lot of those were landscapes. I think Steig, there was always a person there at the core of it. Certain themes - one juxtaposition I put in my book, a cover Steig did in the '30s, with a child lighting up a firecracker, and then literally 50 or 60 years later he does a similar cover which is July 4 also. But at that moment it is a father, actually wearing a '30s-type outfit, bending down to light up a firecracker, and the mother and children including a little boy are cowering in terror. There's this really interesting passage in time where you can see where the artist identifies. In the '30s he identified with the little boy, and 60 years later he still identifies with the little boy, but the little boy is the father. He's the one who has outwardly aged. That's another way in which Steig is fascinating, that through the stylistic shift, he retained personal sets of scenes that are his and no one else's."
A New Career
Although his presence in the magazine would diminish slightly and steadily from his near-ubiquitous presence in their mutual heyday, William Steig would enjoy a significant and steady relationship with the New Yorker
until the time he stopped drawing several months preceding his death. By that time the magazine shared its long-surviving master with yet another arts industry. Steig launched another, equally remarkable, career when he began creating children's books at 60 years old. In 1967, fellow New Yorker cartoonist Bob Kraus organized the Windmill Books imprint for Harper & Row. He recruited Steig, and in 1968 they published Roland the Minstrel Pig
. The opportunity came at a fortuitous time for Steig. He had finally begun to buckle under the limitations of the advertising work through which he had bolstered his income through the years. Despite having a style that worked effectively on the page, Steig severely disliked the type of art he had to do in order to meet client specifications. He would later claim success from early efforts at greeting card design where the punchline was acerbic or even cynical, something he believed led to a portion of that industry being devoted to more adult, tongue in cheek sentiment. His commercial illustration career had its fair share of home runs, too, such as drawings he provided the writer Will Cuppy on his enormously successful 1950 release, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
, a standard work of American satire that would remain in print for years.
Writing for children proved greatly satisfying as both commercial enterprise and as an avenue for artistic expression. Although Roland
was rightfully seen as a considerable artist trying to find his way in a new form, the books that followed right on its heels quickly helped Steig ascend to the top of the children's book field. His third effort, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
, won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Roger Angell later hailed it as Steig's masterpiece. In his widely remembered acceptance speech, Steig threw down the gauntlet for art as it can play a role in the lives of children and adults.
Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.
Steig's speech was so forthright and lean that it was both lauded to the moon and parodied in subsequent years - a testament to its force and effectiveness, although according to one report Steig didn't understand why the speech might be implicitly criticized in that way.
In 1972 Steig won the prestigious Christopher Award for his first attempt at a children's novel, Dominic
, and four years later produced a noted classic of the genre, the Robinson Crusoe-informed Abel's Island
. For that and similar books from this period he worked with Michael Di Capua at Farrar Straus. Between the picture books and the novels, Steig became a juggernaut of awards and citations. In addition to those mentioned, honors given the artist include the William Allen White Children's Book Award, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, Irma Simonton Black Award (for Gorky Rises
), the Reading Magic award, the Newbery Honor for Abel's Island
and Doctor De Soto
, several notable and outstanding book awards from the New York Times and the Boston Globe, several notable designations from the American Library Association, and American Book Award (Doctor De Soto
) and three National Book Award finalists (Amos & Boris
, Caleb & Kate
). In Europe, Steig won Italy's Premio di Letteratura Per L'Infanzia for The Real Thief
, France's Prix de la Fondation de France for Dominic
, and the Netherland's Silver Pencil Award for Abel's Island
. Steig was the 1982 United States candidate for the Hans Christian Anderson Medal for illustration and the 1988 candidate for writing, a rare double achievement.
In addition to critical success, both the illustrated children's books and the longer, written works have been enormously popular sales-wise. Steig has long been one of the financial foundations of the children's book lines through which he published, and his work has been translated into twelve languages in addition to its success in North America. In terms of combining critical and commercial success, Steig moved in a select company that included author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle, although very, very few creators exist for whom it could be argued they matched Steig's versatility within the field. Steig's oeuvre remains the kind of sprawling achievement that readers could explore aspect by aspect and perhaps never suspect other sides to his career. Critics have frequently mined the depths of Steig's bibliography for hidden gems, their own carefully selected keystone works in carefully built new views of the artist's career, and should continue to do so. A few days after his passing the writer Timothy Noah made a case on Slate.com
for 1988's Spinky Sulks
as a forgotten masterpiece and the pinnacle of writing on a specific brand of human melancholy. "Books for children are something I take seriously," said Steig, matter-of-factly, and critics seem eager to continue engaging his work with equal gravity.
Steig also helped pioneer a category of novelty book that played with language in a relatively sophisticated way that amused both adults and children, with C D B!
(read as "See the Bee") in 1968. It would remain in print for several years. A 1984 sequel C D C!
was equally well-received and even more challenging in its verbal wordplay. Steig's mid-1990s work Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving
, although more traditional in format than the overt wordplay of his letter-language books, was notable because the cartoonist wanted to make the book one of his efforts aimed at adults. His publisher chose a more comprehensive campaign that included children and their parents. In general, Steig's books have held a measure appeal to readers of all ages in great part because of their sophisticated use of language. "He always corrected diction," reports Holly McGhee, a former editor of the artist's who was his agent at the time of his passing. "It always bothered him that people said hysterical when people meant hysterically funny, even though if you look in the dictionary it's come to mean hysterically funny."
In 1990, Steig's publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux released Shrek!
, which would to the non-reading public become the artist's most recognizable work due to an immensely popular movie adaptation released in 2001. The film was a box office juggernaut and the first winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, bringing home the statuette in April 2002 - the same night that many paying attention to the nominations were surprised to hear that the work existed in book form first. Although one might guess the multiple modern movie parodies in the film were not among them, Steig claimed to have contributed several ideas for the adaptation during the long process of bringing book to screen. He reportedly enjoyed seeing his story move, particularly the extended chase scene with the dragon. Says Holly McGhee, "I was wondering how he felt, because the film bore little resemblance to the book. He said, 'It's vulgar and disgusting and I love it.'"
Although not primarily known as a collaborator, Steig found time to illustrate the work of other writers, including wife Jeanne, a successful artist in her own right with whom he partnered on books of fairy tales and light verse. He may have been slightly less successful giving up art duties and acting solely as a writer for another illustrator. A dream team-style planned collaboration with Maurice Sendak, perhaps his closest comparable peer in children's book publishing, reportedly ended prematurely when Steig simply decided he wanted to take on that project's art chores himself. He worked with his artist granddaughter Teryl Euvremer on the book Toby, Where Are You?
, and with the illustrator Quentin Blake on Wizzil
The Steig Legacy
It may be that so much of William Steig's artistic output was of a high quality because he demanded it. It always seemed that Steig knew exactly what he wanted on any given project, and he enjoyed a long-standing public reputation as an intimidating author and illustrator to edit. In a 1970 letter to Horn Book Editor Paul Heins, Steig declared, "I hope you'll understand if I tell you that I tend to be a bit 'uptight,' even neurotic perhaps, about being edited. It's not vanity - I don't think I'm a great writer or even a good one [in fact, I'm not a writer] - but I like to sound like myself when I talk or write." Lee Lorenz described Steig as an artist who was disappointed when an idea wasn't accepted, but simply withdrew the idea rather than continue to work on it until it met someone else's satisfaction.
Steig's line-in-the-sand stance may have softened in his later years, or he may simply have developed different relationships with those editors with whom he worked in his last ten to fifteen years. Françoise Mouly told the Journal
she had no trouble working with the artist, and remembered several pleasant and interesting conversations. According to Holly McGhee, who initially worked with Steig as a children's book editor when the artist was already decades into his second major career, Steig was particular but not difficult. "He was amazing," she says. "One thing I think was true is that the very best writers are the best at taking criticism, partly because they have an amazing self confidence, partly because they know if something will be better. He was always extremely grateful." He also understood the publishing business. McGhee elaborated on one incident when she and the artist temporarily gave up work on a difficult project to go to dinner. As a young editor, she was worried that she was returning to New York empty handed, and Steig stepped in with the initial thoughts that would very quickly become the successful book Pete's a Pizza
. "He was wonderful in that way because he was very practical. When 'I said I can't go home without anything,' he completely understood and he didn't want me to go home without anything." McGhee quoted Steig in a letter he sent her in 1994. "The truth is, I was brung up to be a free person, and to obey my natural self. But sometimes you can't get away with that."
The literary reputation of Steig's work for children should remain intact for decades. Described as a "huge figure" by McGhee, Steig was well known for playing with language in a way that refused to patronize children by letting up on the use of obscure and difficult words. Steig believed that children loved language, and would actively seek to learn any word that sounded right or looked interesting in a story in which they found themselves absorbed. As precise as he could be with language, a wide range of themes and narrative approaches could be found in children's stories. Many of Steig's earlier books were about animals and other members of the natural world as a way of cleverly masking very real human concerns - the stillness of the rock in Seymour
can be seen to represent both death and separation from one's parents - but he proved equally adept working with outright human characters. Steig drew on children he remembered growing up, children he met while doing the books, and his own child-like way of looking at the world. Among his favorite themes were the value of the natural world, the goodness of having a family, friendship and belief in oneself. Many of Steig's stories were classic wish fulfillment fantasies involving quests. Combined with their bouncy good nature and lofty language, this made Steig in the eyes of some the modern standard-bearer for romanticism in children's literature. Steig may have trusted children more than he did adults, and hints of conversation in print indicate that he believed today's children were being unfairly jolted from a more natural child-like state, something his stories might seek to temporarily rectify. Returned to a state of grace at story's end, Steig's protagonists often loved widely, without reservation, and with an appreciation of the benefits of a child-like state of mind - an outlook with which the cartoonist seemed deeply familiar.
Holly McGhee told the Journal
that Steig remained highly influential in his chosen field despite being uniquely, almost idiosyncratically, talented. "If you look at his pictures, he never drew perspective. But it works. With someone else it wouldn't work. He broke all the rules. There was no variation on perspective in his art, they were all straight shots, and the stories were really long… but he was still the best. It's amazing. He even wrote about the same thing a lot of time. In some of his books he might have used the same phrase, but they were 15 years apart, so nobody cared." Scrutinizing the books as closely as possible still might not force a confession of their secrets, according to McGhee. "None of them are light, they're all about something big… For me, when I first saw his art, I looked at the faces of the characters, and… how do you do that? I can put two dots on as eyes, but they don't look like his do. They all have soul."
The kindness of Steig's outlook provides one significant through-line that connects the children's books to the cartooning and illustration. Lee Lorenz: "People interested him. How they worked, what they thought, how they felt. How society just molded people, sort of cripples them to receive beliefs in the ways of raising children or dealing with other people, that these were the most dangerous things in the world. Some of the drawings were a little didactic on this point, but it was always very much on his mind. What interested him was people. Even people he didn't like, types he felt particularly obnoxious, he never assigned blame. That's one of the interesting things about his kids' books. There's never punishment. They either come to terms with things, or they choose to be exiled, but the opportunity for redemption was always there."
Steig's widow Jeanne described her husband in an essay for the New York Times
as a classic worrier and an artist who preferred ponderous wholes to dissected truths. "He drew from an impulse that went straight from the heart to his moving hand - and he always watched that hand with delight, wanting to see what it was up to. The interpretations others might bring surprised him. 'Really?' he'd say, and make haste to forget whatever metaphysical visions had been assigned to him. He didn't need them; they got in the way." She added, "He talked about death and cruelty and God. He never condescended." Author and admirer John Updike testified to Steig's longevity and ability in his introduction to The World of William Steig
. "Such a compilation serves to celebrate an original who has endured, who has taken his talent in one direction after another and found new territory deep into his old age. Steig's art is not just testimony to his love of life but robust evidence of the necessary interaction between art and life, reality and fantasy."
Steig was married four times. For many years he and fourth wife Jeanne lived in a sprawling country house in rural Connecticut, where he took inspiration from the natural surroundings. The couple moved to a spacious apartment in Boston in 1992 as a hedge against any physical difficulties as they grew older, particularly those that might keep them from being able to drive. Steig embraced semi-retirement in the mid-1990s in awkward but vigorous fashion, reportedly relaxing more while sustaining his publishing output. Steig produced his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat
, in June 2003. Like many of the cartoonist's best works, Hat drew heavily on memories culled from Steig's New York childhood. Steig always lived comfortably, but never achieved the absolute riches many thought he was due (he never pursued it aggressively, either, once burning 20 years of original drawings that doubtless could have been sold - the reason: he hated his early drawing style). Steig also felt that he may have fallen short as an artist, telling Publisher's Weekly
in 1987, "One is never as good as one would like to be. On the positive side it means you see the difference between good art and bad. I feel a complete lack of art spirit in our culture now. It's all talk of war, and everyone wants to get rich and be safe, surrounded with money bags and chicken fat."
dubbed Steig the "King of Cartoons" in a memorable 1995 profile; the appellation would remain part of the cartoonist's legend for the rest of his life. Unlike some of his peers, Steig received a great deal of approbation while still alive. He was the subject of dozens of major articles and a broad range of critics dissected his works. William Steig: Drawings
(1979) featured a substantial number of the artist's New Yorker
cartoons taken from a broader range of years than early collections. By the mid-1980s Steig started to be recognized as the great remaining link to the magazine's esteemed cartooning past. He was celebrated in one full biography/appreciation/collection, the aforementioned The World of William Steig
. Organizing many of Steig's profiles was the notion that he fully embraced childhood as an ideal state from which to live and work. "I carry on a lot of the functions of an adult but I have to force myself," Steig admitted in a 1984 interview with People Magazine
. "For some reason I've never felt grown up."
The occasion of Steig's death brings into bold relief, perhaps for the final time, the significant contributions of The New Yorker
to 20th Century cartoon art. The magazine will likely feel Steig's passing at its very core. "He's one of the four five people who really made The New Yorker what it has become," said Lee Lorenz. "Not just cartoonists. Harold Ross, E.B. White and Katherine White - who was extraordinarily involved in shaping the writing and art through the '40s - and then [James] Thurber and then Steig. He's a part of the magazine's DNA now. There's always going to be Bill Steig."
When interviewed, particularly later in life, William Steig drew increasingly fine distinctions between the discipline necessary to sit down and work and the freedom he needed to create. Despite his success in various commercial applications for his art, Steig always remained a fan of doing art for its own sake. In one later profile, he declared, "I often ask myself, 'What would be an ideal life?' I think an ideal life would be just drawing." Holly McGhee saw this side of Steig reflected in how he went about his work. "One thing he did that I think is really funny, a running theme in his life was that he wanted to be free. He wanted to mentally feel free. He never liked illustrating picture books because he didn't like drawing the same character on each page. What he would do, he would draw out the entire book in black line. He would then, like an assembly line, he would paint all the reds, all the blues, color by color. People are horrified when I tell them this. But it's funny." Yet despite the rigorous schedule he kept, Steig had little in the way of professional regrets. Early in 2003, Steig sounded pleased with the way things turned out. "I'm lucky," he said in an interview. "I've been able to do something I loved all my life."
In an on-line tribute released through the Pippin Properties web site, Holly McGhee described her friend and client as "brave." She explained the comment to the Journal, saying that what she found brave about Steig was an honesty reflected in his work. "He was only brave because he didn't know he was. Everything he wrote about he wrote about what was true. It's okay for a character to be sad in his books, or to complain a lot and be mean to their parents, or go to prison and spend the rest of their life there. Because that happens in life. He didn't think about what worked. You have feelings that are real. So many people like Spinky Sulks because when you've gotten into a snit, and you've been mean to everyone, you want to find a way to come back without losing - you're proud, you want to find a way to come back that's not humiliating. Bill showed you the way."
Steig's marriage to Elizabeth Mead ended in divorce. He married Kari Homestead in 1950, and they split in 1963. In December 1964, he and Stephanie Healey were married. Their union dissolved almost exactly two years later. Steig is survived by his fourth wife, of 35 years, the former Jeanne Doran, and by three children: Lucy Steig Francheschini and Jeremy Steig of New York City, from his first marriage; Margit Laura Steig of Boston, from his second. He had two grandchildren.
An invitation-only service will be held on February 7 in conjunction with a Steig exhibit opening February 8 at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. "Heart and Humor: The Picture Book Art of William Steig," the first exhibition devoted exclusively to Steig's illustration for book publication, is scheduled to run through April 25. Most of the pieces to be exhibited are from the Steigs' own collection, and the show had been long in the planning while the artist was still alive. An accompanying book is scheduled to contain an essay by curator Jane Bayard Curley, the posthumous essay by Jeanne Steig, "What My Husband Saw," and the last interview with the artist, from March 2003, conducted by Joanna Cotler, his editor at HarperCollins.
"You couldn't try to get into his life," Holly McGhee told the Journal
. "He met you, he looked in your eyes, and you were in or out. It wasn't something you could prepare for. And if there was anything superficial, you were out. There was nothing superficial about him."
In many of William Steig's stories, the protagonist ends a journey by returning home and into the welcoming embrace of friends and family. As he grew older, the cartoonist and illustrator let those around him know how much he was looking forward to that soon-to-be-enjoyed reunion with old companions and long-missed relatives.
"He was a dear friend," said Lee Lorenz. "I've received a number of calls about him in the last two weeks, and there always seems to be so much to say. It's hard to get to the bottom of him."
William Steig, groundbreaking artist and among the handful of true greats in three fields of commercial artistic endeavor, was 95 years old.
The author was particularly indebted to Holly McGhee, Lee Lorenz, and Francoise Mouly for their patience in being interviewed, and to the avalanche of information published by Steig representatives and through media outlets upon the artist's passing. This article was originally Published in The Comics Journal #257