YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


William Steig, 95; Children's Book Author Drew Many Covers for the New Yorker

October 05, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

William Steig, who over seven decades created many of New Yorker magazine's best covers and cartoons and also wrote some of the most beloved of children's books, including "Shrek" and the award-winning "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble," has died. He was 95.

Steig died Friday night at his home in Boston, his agent, Holly McGhee, announced. The cause of death was not reported.

In all, Steig created more than 100 New Yorker covers, starting with the one that appeared on May 7, 1932, depicting a father glaring at his son's report card as the child timidly glances up at him.

By then, Steig was already well-established as a cartoonist for the magazine, long revered as the premier publication for his craft.

Throughout his long career, Steig compiled his wryly observant drawings of grown-ups into books that provide a frank, perceptive and comic view of relationships. His first was a collection of drawings from the New Yorker, "Man About Town," published in 1932. In 1939, he published "About People," a book of "symbolic drawings."

Among his last were "Made for Each Other" (2000), which delightfully trembled between pure romanticism and dark realism, and "Sick of Each Other" (2000), which might best be epitomized by the book's penultimate drawing in which a wife points a revolver at her husband and says, "Say you adore me."

As Roger Angell, writing in the New Yorker in 1995, understated it, Steig's work "has not always been lighthearted."

"In some of the cartoons, men and women yell and quarrel, snap at their kids, glare inkily at each other from old armchairs," Angell wrote.

Exuberant Colors

Permission to be amused at such otherwise grim observations is granted by Steig's puckish characterizations and his exuberant palette of colors, which seems to take delight in all of life's strangeness and joys.

Steig, said author Leonard S. Marcus, a children's book historian and critic, drew "with a kind of wobbly line, and it makes you feel how perishable life is, and that humans are imperfect."

"At the same time, the figures are always striving for something," Marcus told The Times in May. "They're reaching for the moon, or reaching for each other, and even if they're old and hobbled, they seem on the edge of dancing."

John Updike, writing in the introduction to "The World of William Steig" (1998), an illustrated account of Steig's career by longtime New Yorker cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, described Steig's New Yorker covers as being "drawn as if with the unpremeditated certainty of a child's crayoning."

Steig himself viewed putting the color into his line drawings as "dessert," and said he thought color was "good for the soul" and that playing with color is "one of the many reasons that painters outlive by far all other creative types." It is perhaps not surprising, then, to learn that Steig idolized Pablo Picasso. But Lorenz believed that Steig's "passionate, mysterious and life-affirming" work more closely resembled Paul Klee's because Steig used his gifts "not to parade his own feelings but to elucidate the feelings of others."

"And most important, his work, like Klee's, reveals an unsentimental but forgiving view of the human condition," Lorenz wrote. He said all of Steig's heroes were sensitive to love, beauty and music and that the "active use of one's senses, not wealth or fame, were what gave life meaning."

Early in his career, Steig showed a unique understanding of children and their anguish and raptures. Among his most popular cartoons were "Small Fry," which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1931 and ran both inside and on the cover for 30 years. Through the years, "Small Fry" characters reappeared in several of his children's books, including "Spinky Sulks" (1988).

Though his characters endured adversity, Steig made sure they found a cheerful ending. "I wouldn't consider writing a depressing book for children," he once said.

For the entirety of his work, Steig was widely admired by fellow artists such as Edward Sorel, whose work also has appeared on many New Yorker covers and who put Steig "right up there" with Wilhelm Bush, the German 19th century artist who is regarded as one of the founders of the modern comic medium, and Peter Arno, whose cover work for the New Yorker predates Steig's.

"If we consider his entire oeuvre: his prolific output; the inventiveness of his stories, so often involving transformation; his precise and demanding language; and the sheer beauty of his pictures, then his legacy can only be described as unprecedented," Sorel wrote in the New York Times review of Steig's 2003 autobiographical children's book, "When Everybody Wore a Hat."

Author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, himself noted for "Where the Wild Things Are" and many other books for children, put it more succinctly: "There is no school of Bill Steig. There is only Bill Steig."

Los Angeles Times Articles