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“it Was Nice”
CHARLES SAXON’S fond but clear-eyed cartoons are a definitive record of suburban life in the 1960s and ’70s
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
HISis CASUAL, affable self-assurance made it seem he was born to the comfortable upper-middle-class milieu he poked fun at. He wasn’t.
After the war Saxon rejoined Dell, left it for a year’s tenure as cartoon editor at This Week , then returned to Dell to edit Modern Screen . On weekends he drew cartoons that he sold to the Saturday Evening Post . The perks of producing Modern Screen included being wined and dined by movie studios and interviewing glamorous stars, but it was not easy for an ex-bomber-pilot-cartoonist to give his all to a fan magazine. He hated it. In 1955, despite warnings from James Geraghty, then art editor of The New Yorker , about the low income that was the lot of most cartoonists, he left Dell to devote all his energies to comic art.
Saxon’s work was an immediate hit with readers of The New Yorker who had grown weary of cartoons in which somebody would say something funny and somebody else would react. “I think a cartoon should include the reader,” he once explained to an interviewer. “I like to think that what I’m doing are people speaking seriously to people who are accepting seriously what they say, and the reader finds the ridiculousness and meaning first, rather than the people in the cartoon.”
Although self-taught, Saxon was a natural draftsman, and while he frequently complained to friends—and to anyone else who would listen—how long it took to get a drawing that satisfied him, he had a style that looked effortless. This of course is essential for portraying the comic; what looks labored ceases to amuse. The background detail was sparingly employed but always exactly right. The well-mowed lawns and sculpted shrubbery, the living rooms of wainscoted walls and Persian rugs, seemed casually executed but were in fact the perfectly observed stage set against which his Brooks Brothers-and-Bergdorfed characters played their one-liner roles.
As Saxon’s cartoons and covers appeared with increasing regularity in the late 1950s, advertisers began to realize that a Saxon character simply reeked with class. He was soon besieged by agencies; his prodigious output could be seen on ads for banks, airlines, and a variety of alcoholic beverages from Gallo wines to Chivas Regal. Across the country people who had never looked into an issue of The New Yorker knew his style even before they read his signature. To his admirers, who regarded him as an important social satirist, it often seemed that he took on too many commercial assignments. But in fact, he approached his advertising work with the same concern for excellence that he gave to his editorial drawings, spending much time explaining to ad agency copywriters that “a cartoon attempting to eulogize a product is nowhere near as effective as one that takes a swipe at the awful consequences of not using the product.”
Surely the wealthiest of all New Yorker cartoonists, Saxon lived in a landmarked (1722) house with his wife and three children. Nancy, a talented portrait painter and sculptor, shared her husband’s enthusiasm for horticulture and gourmet cooking. On Friday nights Chuck bowled with his cartoonist friends Whitney Darrow, Jr., and Rowland Wilson and the writers Vance Packard and John Fuller. On alternate Thursdays these same friends would experiment with exotic luncheon dishes. It was all great fun; and then again, it was grist for the Saxon cartoon mill.
The departure of William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker marked a downturn for Saxon’s fortunes there. Fewer and fewer of his cartoons and covers were bought by the new editor, Robert Gottlieb, who suspected that the milieu Saxon satirized no longer existed. Even more devastating, his health was rapidly declining. His heart finally gave out on December 6, 1988, and days later the man born Charles David Isaacson was eulogized at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan.