I started doing illustrations for The New York Times around 1963 and continued on until 2016. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I had to quit my part time teaching at Parsons because the Times would go so far as to call me there and ask me to come by before going home. It got so crazy I had to just stay home and freelance instead of trying to teach at the same time.
Working for the Times was different than working for any of my other clients because at the Times there was a “bull pen” opposite the art directors’ offices where 4 or 5 free-lance illustrators sat and worked at drawing boards every day. There was Robert Zimmerman, Randy Jones, Tom Bloom, Robert Neubecker, David Suter and others who would come in and hang out and eat lunch in the Times’ cafeteria. They might be delivering a job and then just hang around and likely pick up another job while there because it was so convenient for the A.D.s to just walk across and get a quick spot drawing. I, myself, did not do any illustrations there (well, only once, I think) because I was working in my linocut style and it was inconvenient for me to do my work other than at home, but it was fun to talk shop with the boys (I don’t remember any women there except Tom Bloom’s pregnant wife) and we had good times all sitting together in the cafeteria.
I remember a few notable illustrations I did for The Gray Lady, the nickname of the Times, among the many hundreds I did in those days. One was a ¾ page illo for the front page of the Wednesday Living Section, which was a section I often worked for under art directors Jerelle Kraus and later Nancy Kent. The subject simply was chicken sandwiches. The author had gone around to various famous high-scale chefs and asked them how they would make the humble chicken sandwich. The article went on to talk about inexpensive chicken as a food in general. So, I decided to create (in the large space I was given), the grandest picture of a chicken that the world had ever seen. I had overnight to do it. I rushed home and started working. I worked all night long without any sleep lino-cutting an intricate, highly decorative, complex vision of a big eye-catching chicken saying, in a tiny word balloon, “cheap.” By morning I had printed it out but felt that I still had time on the train to embellish further with a rapidograph pen, which I did in the hour-long trip to Grand Central Station. Jerelle was very happy with it and wondered what I could possibly do if I actually had a lot of time to do an illustration like this so she decided to give me an advanced assignment to do a Halloween front page a year in advance. I worked on a large apple tree, Halloween revelers, cider, trick or treaters and the like, in as much detail as I could for the whole year amidst all my other jobs. I lovingly drew every detail of the bark and every twig and leaf on that tree and every li’l kid in costume until it filled almost the entire front page of The Living Section. To tell you the truth, though, the chicken was better.
Another time, I was on vacation in California and Jerelle thought it would be cute to give me an assignment while I was out there. Through some fantastic Sherlock Holmes sleuthing she acquired my mother-in-law’s phone number and tracked down my number out there and found me in Los Angeles. I thought it was such a funny, perverse feat of art directorship that I actually accepted the job and had to go out and buy some lino cutters, lino block and printing ink and roller to do it.
It was so much fun to work for Jerelle. She really fought for the illustrators, constantly doing battle with the wordsmiths in the struggle for space on the pages. Later, she was on the Op-Ed and would get people like Folon and Andy Warhol to do pictures for her. She spoke about 6 languages and she seemed to know everybody –even Richard Nixon.
Jerelle asked me once to do a Santa Claus. It had to be a Danish Santa Claus… AND… it was to be in a long vertical space. So, I drew a tall skinny European-style Santa whose outfit was replete with intricate detail featuring symbols of the Danish Christmas. At the last minute, before going to press, she lost that space in the paper and ended up with a smaller, more conventional almost squarish shape for the art. No time for me to re-do it. She skillfully cut the top part of my picture and joined it to the bottom part (eliminating the whole central area). Because she was an artist herself, she was able to make it work. I liked it better than what I had done.
I had worked with Nancy Kent at Connecticut Magazine and then she went to the Times and I worked with her for many years until she retired. She worked the Living Section for a long time and was then given the special magazines to do. Those were great because I sometimes got to do covers along with interesting inside stuff for subjects like Travel, Health, Christmas, etc..
I worked on the Book Review section with Steve Heller and got to do covers there too. When Steve came to the Times, he had come from Screw Magazine. At Screw, he had called me one day (I didn’t know him yet) and said, “Will you do a cover for me for $100?” Then he named the important artists like Ed Sorel who had done $100 covers for him so I said “Yes.” He loved my cover and asked for a second one. Then he went to the Times to the Op-Ed page. When I found him there, I said, “How do you like working for The New York Times?” To which he replied, “It’s just like working for Screw!”
In 1978, the Times workers went on strike. They were out for quite a while. No New York Times! Some guys from the Lampoon plus the author Jerzy Kosinski, Carl Bernstein and his wife, Nora Ephron and George Plimpton and other notables decided to try a parody of the Times and have it printed up to look exactly like the Times. They even got some of the actual pressmen from the Times to lay it out and compose it. The famous writers all wrote parts of it and a small number of artists like myself were asked to join the fun. Everybody thought we’d be sued so the contributors were allowed anonymity. I decided to take a chance and use my real name in doing a parody of a Hirschfeld cartoon and another parody of a typical “vague and incomprehensible” op-ed cartoon. In the Hirschfeld, I decided to draw “Nina” and hide the name “Hirschfeld” in the picture the way he used to hide his daughter’s name, Nina in his caricatures. I later found out that Hirschfeld saw my parody and said, “Very interesting”.
The parody of the Gray Lady was hilarious. There were takes on Bloomingdale ads, ridiculous TV listings, ads for movies, the “Living” section became the “Having” section and gave tips on furnishing your loft with old newsstands. The front page featured two main stories. The first was New York blaming overweight marathon runners for destroying and collapsing the Queensboro bridge complete with a photo of the bridge collapsing. The other major story was the death of the new Pope. At that time, we had a new Pope taking office after the incumbent Pope died and shortly thereafter the new Pope died, so, on the front page we had “ Pope Dies Yet Again” showing a THIRD Pope (a picture of Lampoon editor Tony Hendra) who had the shortest reign ever… 19 minutes.
We didn’t get sued and we had a big party for all contributors at George Plimpton’s townhouse on the upper east side.
As I sat reading my copy of Not The New York Times on the train out of Westport one day while the strike was still on, an excited commuter leaned over the back of my seat and started shouting, “The New York Times is back?” I said, “No, this is Not The New York Times”. He said, “But, that’s The New York Times!!” Finally, I carefully pointed to each word on the masthead, Not… The… New… York… Times”! He slunk back in his seat utterly confused and dejected.
As of late, the art in the Times (on Sundays especially), often consists of big, splashy nonsense. Even Ralph Nader wrote a letter to them condemning the waste of space on frivolous and meaningless art that cheats the reader of valuable news items that could occupy the wasted space.
And now, most recently we see that the Gray Lady has dispensed with all editorial cartoons in her foreign editions. The once glorious art-laden Lady is no more.
The Gray Lady has gotten a lot grayer now.
Read many more of Randy’s cartooning memories: