Obituary: Whitney Darrow Jnr

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The Independent Culture
FOR 50 years Whitney Darrow Jnr quietly recorded the follies and contradictions, the big-hearted optimism and over-reaching presumption, the energy and clean-cut affluence of middle-class America, and repackaged them for the world in glorious black and white.

Less white than black actually, for Darrow's is a muscular drawing style, dense and darkly etched, a compound construction of grey wash and scribbled shade and bold, reiterated pencil strokes, from which his forms emerge with a precision and lightness of foot that belie all that weight of graphite. Lightness of heart too, for Darrow was never morbid or bitter. Even the most foolish of his subjects glows in the positive light of his enthusiasm and affection.

Darrow graduated from Princeton University in 1931, aged 21, and barely had time to place cartoons with Life, Judge and College Humor before the vibrant, gag-hungry New Yorker snapped him up. He was fortunate enough to arrive at the seven-year-old magazine just as it was reinventing the cartoon as a revealing psychological snapshot armed with a one-line caption.

To the New Yorker's pioneering founder/editor Harold Ross, Darrow must have appeared heaven-sent, because he had an instinctive understanding of the new discipline and, unusually for a cartoonist of that era, wrote his punch lines himself. Many of his captions are explicit enough to stand up even without an illustration - "Dad, you can't expect to pick up the basics of the new math in a simple dinner-table conversation"; "You're stupid. I like that in a woman"; "My hair has been over-processed. I'm having it reconditioned this afternoon"; "Stop saying I'll live to be 90. I am 90!" - though the pictures which imagination automatically assigns to them are inadequate compared to Darrow's stylish drawings, which are a visual treat.

Darrow's career path was as bold and unwavering as his drawing line. He quickly slotted himself into a niche in the New Yorker pantheon and has stayed there ever since. While Peter Arno mined the culture of the speakeasies, George Price concentrated on poor white New Yorkers, Helen Hokinson drew well-heeled and hatted society matrons and James Thurber cornered the market in dogs, seals and giant misshapen women, Darrow claimed small-town and suburban America for himself. He lived there too, first in Wilton, Connecticut, and later in Shelburne, Vermont; a vast cartoonist's hunting territory whose avenues and shopping centres he roamed, notebook and pencil ever-ready in pocket, seeking out vexed fathers, over-ambitious party hostesses, smug clergymen and smart-ass kids, to add to his catch.

His cartoon treatment of the suburban middle classes was so decisive that other cartoonists who ventured into the same territory, thinking there was plenty of scope for all, found themselves unfavourably compared with him, struggling not to look like him, and often, despite themselves, subconsciously copying him. Even suburban cartoons in the English Punch had his American look. This is why his work looks so familiar, even to someone who has never seen a copy of the New Yorker prior to his retirement in 1982.

Though his wit was as sharp as his characters' noses, Darrow chose when to reveal it. He was a gentle, unshowy man, well-read, bookish, inclined to shrewd observations and apt to disappear. He described himself as a pessimist, half-expecting the bomb to go off any minute, and once summed himself up in four words: "good husband, bad golfer". The cartoonist and cartoon collector Art Wood describes him as "a pretty serious person".

There is scant reference to him in the accounts of New Yorker writers reminiscing about the magazine he helped shape. In the Fifties he was seen occasionally at the cartoonists' Wednesday lunch at the Blue Ribbon, a dismal oak-panelled restaurant on West 44th Street. Here the established cartoonists, a lugubrious bunch, would gather to complain about the quality of the food.

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father was one of the founders of the Princeton University Press, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. When attending Princeton himself, Darrow junior's desire to be a writer was gradually overtaken by his skill as a cartoonist, which was apparent in his contributions to the university magazine. "I started drawing when I was 19 years old," he said. "In history lectures, I used to doodle when I was taking notes. Someone, I forget who, suggested I turn some of the sketches in to the Princeton Tiger. So I slipped some under the door one night and they started publishing my cartoons."

After 50 years at the New Yorker and 1,500 cartoons, Darrow retired. At times the magazine was publishing 50 of his cartoons a year, including full-page treatments and covers in colour. He also drew for advertisers, illustrated many books and brought out four collections - You're Sitting on My Eyelashes (1943), Please Pass the Hostess (1949), Stop, Miss (1958) and Give Up? (1966). His work continues to appeal because, despite his predisposition to economy, he retained the traditionalist's concern for detail and composition.

His characters are solidly located in dynamically arranged settings, in which just enough detail is sketched in to add atmosphere: a businessman's prairie desk, a charity collector's demanding hat, an intrusive pendant lamp, and in all those open-plan living rooms, where adolescent girls lay spread-eagled on carpets, monopolising the phone, the forthright furniture of an era when furniture still looked modern. This stuff is simply good to look at.

It has a more vital appeal too, for Darrow's cartoons were ever tales of everyday experience, more concerned with character than topicality. He was never afraid of feelings. His cartoons often shine with them. There's something elemental and everlasting about the little boy on his father's lap who says: "How do I know you're not just saying you love me?"

Whitney Darrow, cartoonist: born Princeton, Connecticut 22 August 1909; married Mildred Adkins (one son, one daughter); died Burlington, Vermont 10 August 1999.