“it Was Nice”

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When his affluent neighbors in suburban Connecticut accused him of using them as characters in his New Yorker cartoons, Charles Saxon quickly assured them that he was “really satirizing himself. Since he seemed to lead the same sort of life they did, shared the same interests, and belonged to the same country club, they found the explanation acceptable. Even when their exact words appeared in his cartoon gag lines, they tended not to recognize themselves.

 

When his affluent neighbors in suburban Connecticut accused him of using them as characters in his New Yorker cartoons, Charles Saxon quickly assured them that he was “really satirizing himself. Since he seemed to lead the same sort of life they did, shared the same interests, and belonged to the same country club, they found the explanation acceptable. Even when their exact words appeared in his cartoon gag lines, they tended not to recognize themselves. “The people who said them don’t remember them,” Saxon once confided to a friend. “They don’t realize they’re being pointed to.”

Thanks to this willful nonrecognition, “Chuck” and his wife, Nancy, continued to be invited to New Canaan’s dinners and parties, weddings and barbecues, and the patter he heard or overheard often reappeared as captions to his cartoons for The New Yorker . Lee Lorenz, the cartoon editor of that magazine for twenty-four years and himself a superb cartoonist, acknowledges that suburbanites were an easy target for humor but thinks that “Chuck saw beyond that to the bitter side of it: people too cautious to take advantage of the very opportunities that their privileged position offered them.”

The careful prudence of the upper-middle-class male concerned with maintaining his status in the corporate world was tellingly explored in a four-page cartoon story of 1968 titled “The Fountain of Youth.” A prosperous commuter walks in his suburban woods and comes upon the famous fountain. He is tempted to drink but hesitates, considers how he will be perceived by his colleagues, worries about possible negative effects on his pension plan, and loses the opportunity. When that evening his wife inquires what he did in the woods that day, he replies, “I got lost.” In the same vein an oft-recalled drawing depicts a boardroom of corporate executives listening to their chairman as he sums up a delicate situation. His measured opinion, “Of course, honesty is one of the better policies,” became a catch phrase and later served as the title for one of Saxon’s several collections of cartoons.

My personal favorite, which appeared in 1973, portrays an elegant crystal-chandeliered dining room after the guests have departed and two uniformed maids are clearing the last of the dishes. Reflecting on the evening, the hostess comments to her husband: “It was nice. Hard times give everyone such a sense of camaraderie.” (The cartoon invari

ably reminds me of Anton Chekhov’s observation that “there are a great many opinions in this world, and a good half of them are professed by people who have never been in trouble.”)

Saxon’s satire was always gentle. His cool, carefully composed drawings never suggest outrage. And he himself resembled his subjects: charming, affable, but not given to spontaneity. By the time I met him, he was balding, a bit overweight, and generally wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches. He seemed to me very much the suburbanite he caricatured. His casual self-assurance implied he was born to the milieu he poked fun at.

He wasn’t. Charles Saxon was born Charles David Isaacson in Brooklyn, New York, on November 13, 1920. His father was a violinist and music critic; one great-uncle had the distinction of having served as court violinist to Queen Victoria. Saxon broke with that tradition by studying drums and working in jazz bands while attending Columbia College, which he entered at fifteen. He drew for the Jester , became the managing editor, and after graduation parlayed this experience into a job at Dell Publishing, editing the satirical magazine Ballyhoo . Eligible for the draft, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 and later, as a bomber pilot, flew forty missions over Germany.