William Steig

Children's writer and 'New Yorker' cartoonist
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The Independent Online

William Steig, cartoonist and children's writer: born New York 14 November 1907; married 1936 Elizabeth Mead (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1950 Kari Homestead (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963), 1964 Stephanie Healey (marriage dissolved 1966), 1969 Jeanne Doron (one son, two daughters); died Boston, Massachusetts 3 October 2003.

Euologised by W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, and various other East Coast literary luminaries, William Steig was the last of the truly great New Yorker cartoonists. At the age of 60, he followed other famous figures from the same magazine such as E.B. White and James Thurber in also becoming a successful children's writer. His particular blend of wistful idealism mixed with gentle irony portrayed in his distinctive, squiggly line drawings made all his picture-books instantly recognisable.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, the third of four sons to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Steig had a happy childhood before taking on adult responsibilities at an early age. Following his socialist parents' conviction that their sons should neither become labourers to be exploited nor businessmen to exploit others, he turned to art as one way out, selling his first cartoon for $40 to The New Yorker in 1930 at the age of 23.

This success was timely, since by now his house-painter father was unemployed, but in later life Steig sometimes lamented the way he had to care for his entire family so young. But he also remained close to his parents, reflecting their idealism and interest in the arts within his own life. His cartoons for The New Yorker concentrated more on reflecting states of mind than going in for any particular punch line. Frequently wordless, they soon appeared in best-selling collections with titles such as About People (1939), The Lonely Ones (1942) and All Embarrassed (1944).

Always one for out-of-the-way causes, he became heavily involved at one stage with the maverick psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose unorthodox treatment helped him recover from serious sulphur poisoning following treatment after an attack of meningitis. He regularly spent time in one of Reich's so-called "orgone boxes", a booth made of cardboard, steel wire and metal that was supposed first to store and then to reflect life-restoring psychic energy. Steig was active in his defence after Reich was imprisoned for the alleged crime of mail fraud.

It was at this stage that Steig wrote Agony in the Kindergarten (1950), a collection of the various repressive ways in which adults choose to put children down. For Reich and his disciples, such early reverses were often responsible for much adult unhappiness in the years to come.

In 1967, Bob Kraus, another New Yorker cartoonist, started his own imprint for Harper and Row and persuaded Steig to produce a book for him. Two years later, Steig's third picture book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) went on to win the Caldecott Medal: the first of many awards to come. This typically idiosyncratic story concerns a donkey somehow turned into stone. It was seen by some as a parable about death and rebirth. Others, including the International Conference of Police Associations, were less impressed with the way that the police in the story were represented by uniformed pigs. It was subsequently banned in a number of places, but the ongoing publicity did sales no harm at all.

Other popular successes included Amos and Boris (1971), a quirky tale about the friendship between a mouse and a whale, and Dominic (1972), a longer story about a dog hero, based on Steig's own father, who saves victims from an evil Doomsday Gang. In Doctor De Soto (1982) a brave mouse dentist breaks all his own rules by agreeing to treat a fox with toothache. When the fox, however amiably, just has to try to eat the mouse because that is his nature, he discovers that his new benefactor has prudently stuck his teeth together with glue.

There was also Shrek! (1990), by no means Steig's best-known book, but which became famous after being made into a successful film. Its original message about the way that like always turn to like, even in cases of extreme ogreish negativity, was much softened, yet Steig - by now less easily ruffled than before - still liked the end result.

Married four times, with brides who included the anthropologist Margaret Mead's sister Elizabeth, Steig finally found stability with Jeanne Doron, herself a sculptor and writer who collaborated with Steig on a number of his later books including a racy retelling of Greek and Roman mythology, A Gift from Zeus (2001).

Creative up to his last year, Steig continued to look young for his age, although suffering from emphysema, which gradually sapped his otherwise extraordinary creative energy. His plucky picture-book heroes, constantly striving against the odds and somehow always just managing to come through, leave the world a better as well as a more entertaining place.

Nicholas Tucker

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