New York cartoonist George Booth has died. No one has drawn funnier dogs.
It’s the cartoon land of George Booth, the beloved spirit who was a true original. Following his signature line – a fine dance of black ink so kinetic that the characters seem to have soul – Booth drew quirky scenes as warm as the bathwater of his universe.
Booth, who died this week at 96, created single-panel cartoons and occasional covers for The New Yorker for more than half a century, eventually becoming its oldest active contributor. Allen says his last cartoon for the magazine was published this year.
Booth has taken up residence in the New York pantheon decades ago. “He was right there with Peter Arno, George Price, Charles Addams, Helen Hokinson, William Steig, Mary Petty, Ed Koren and Saul Steinberg,” says Michael Maslin, the New Yorker’s unofficial cartoonist and historian. “We call New York cartoons that will last “evergreen”. All of Booth’s work is still relevant today.
In the first half-century of the magazine since its founding in 1925, some cartoonists have favored scenes of ironic, upscale sophistication or surreal fantasy. Going into the second half, Booth’s natural voice instantly came from a different place. “What made him so special,” Maslin says, “was that what he identified as funny was so different from what anyone else would identify.”
Booth was born in a small town in Missouri and, encouraged by his mother, had fun drawing his own cartoons when he was 4 years old. He studied art and then drew for publication during World War II; portion in the Marine Corps, he created illustrations for his magazine “Leatherneck”.
By the time Booth made his New York debut in the late ’60s, his unique visual grammar felt established. He was at home.
“I loved how he drew even more than his jokes, if that’s even possible,” says Roz Chast, who cites Booth as a “huge” inspiration. She loved her way with faces and pets – even “her bathtubs and the naughty objects that cluttered every panel”.
Often domestic couples and their devices seemed equally dysfunctional, but these were not scenes of derision but a familiar embrace. “He loved Everyman – his work often showed us people who looked less well off than some, or at least looked like that,” said New York cartoonist Liza Donnelly. “But these people George created didn’t seem to care about material things – they enjoyed life and all its craziness.” (In real life, Booth was happily devoted to his longtime wife, Dione, who died last month.)
Booth could also draw with deep soul, such as his silent caricature of a seated woman with her head bowed, her musical instrument resting on the floor, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The prospect that the New Yorker’s first issue after the attacks would be “brightened up in any way seemed just wrong,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick. Still, Booth’s contribution was selected as a cartoon exception due to its appropriate tone. “He had this drawing that, without drawing attention to itself, without being tearful, but with a set of Boothisms that the reader understood, just moved me. So I could do that.
I met Booth once, at the 2010 National Cartoonists Society Reuben Awards convention in Jersey City. With an aw-shucks attitude, he deflected my professional compliment and expressed his appreciation for newspapers — which he read in part to generate word association ideas for his cartoons. His thoughtful breaks, Midwestern humility and lanky 6-foot-3 frame all helped make him look similar to Jimmy Stewart.
His warm blue eyes reflected a kindness that his colleagues said was reflected in his work. He is called a “generous soul” who rocked you with his playful spirit. “It’s hard,” Allen says, “not to be happy with someone whose very atoms are vibrating with joy.”
That warmth resonated throughout filmmaker Nathan Fitch’s recently released short biographical documentary “Drawing Life.”
“Finding humor, drawing humor – there’s nothing better,” Booth says in the film. “If you can come up with the right cartoon and calm it all down by showing how silly it is, then you’ve accomplished something.”