December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
He was more than just a cartoonist. He was the Hogarth of the American middle class.
As a rule, Williams drew only those things that he had observed personally. Years after he retired, he described his working methods this way: “I’d watch for things to happen at the West Newton Station in the morning or evening—things like somebody trying to get through the station door to buy a paper, just as everyone else surges out to board the train; or trying to get a taxi at the station on a rainy night; or the way everyone in the station starts for the platform when a train rumbles by, and it’s usually a freight train; all those little everyday occurrences can be built into cartoons.”
The pen-and-ink technique he used to record his observations owed much to the work of Aubrey Beardsley. At first it is difficult to see what Beardsley’s erotic, serpentine illustrations have in common with Williams’s open, sunny drawings, but the use of solid black shapes in an otherwise delicate line drawing is common to both. In fact, Williams was so in awe of Beardsley’s work that he never used white paint to correct a line, because he believed (erroneously) that Beardsley never “whited out” mistakes.
Williams probably was introduced to Beardsley’s work by his older sister Kate, an art student, when both were still living at home in San Francisco. By the time he arrived at Harvard, his sister already had embarked on a career as a magazine illustrator (using her married name, Carew), and this may have encouraged Williams to pursue a similar career. Gluyas (it is a Cornish name) became art editor of The Harvard Lampoon in 1910 .
That year Robert Benchley, a lower classmate who wished to contribute to the humor magazine, showed his cartoons to the art editor. Williams (according to Benchley) suggested he go into writing. Years later, when Benchley’s first book of essays was published, Williams illustrated it. When Williams’s first collection of cartoons was published in 1929, Benchley wrote the introduction.
In time Williams would illustrate all of Benchley’s books, which meant doing hundreds of caricatures of the pudgy author. Sometimes it seemed as though he could not stop. At least it seemed that way to Benchley: “There is only one drawback in having been Mr. Williams’s model for so many pictures. After years of capturing those particular facial characteristics of which my mother is so fond, he has quite unconsciously taken to putting me into all his drawings, commercial and otherwise, as the typical American Sap. I glance at an advertisement for McCreery’s and see myself, laden with bundles, illustrating the sales point that even the dullest of customers receives consideration in that store. My friends point out to me that I have been caught to the life in a Williams drawing showing the delight with which dear old Uncle Tasker will receive a dressing gown for Christmas. When people come to me and say: ‘I saw your picture in Vanity Fair to-day,’ I know instinctively that it was not among those nominated for the Hall of Fame but in the back of the book among the advertisements typifying the sort of men to whom a Bates umbrella or a pair of Goodyear rubbers will be an ornament. Not only in his advertising drawings but in those amazing full pages in the New Yorker and the Cosmopolitan where the face of Mr. Mencken’s Boobus Americanus is called for, mine is the face.”
Although Williams lived in Newton (a suburb of Boston) and Benchley in Manhattan (a suburb of the Algonquin), both made it a practice to meet at least once a year in New York. Over cocktails and dinner Williams would get caught up on all the gossip that never reached Newton. Williams would later recall those dinners with his old friend: “He was a wonderful man, probably the wittiest man in New York in his day, but he never hogged the limelight. If you were with him he had the rare gift of making you feel that you were the one who was saying the witty things.”
But Williams must have been pretty good company himself. Charles Dana Gibson, Harold Ross, Edward Streeter, and Alexander Woollcott were not the sort who suffered fools gladly, and all valued his friendship. He seems to have had enough good qualities to fill a Boy Scout manual. He was loyal: he stuck with Charles Dana Gibson in 1929 when Gibson’s old Life was failing and other contributors had switched to The New Yorker . He was modest. And he was dependable: when his cartoons were being syndicated on a daily basis, he made certain that he was always fifty or sixty drawings ahead, just in case he got hit by a truck.
He was also cautious. Fearing that the ramshackle building he used for a studio would catch fire, he kept his reserve pile of drawings in the local bank. Each week he would take out a week’s supply and send them to the syndicate. But in 1933 Roosevelt declared a bank holiday. “My deadline was at hand, and I couldn’t get to my drawings,” Williams later re-called. “The Boston Globe had to pull strings and arranged for me to go under guard to my bank to get the drawings. The guard was supposed to make certain I didn’t take any gold out.”
The bank-holiday story was one Williams told over and over. It was an incident that must have seemed like high adventure in a life that was otherwise prosaic: marriage, children, a home in the suburbs, a summer place in Maine, grandchildren, and retirement at the age of sixty-five. He is quoted as saying: “I was sixty-five. It seemed like a great age to retire, so I did.” But some friends believe he was afraid that further drawing would cost him his sight.
Whatever the reason for putting aside his drawing tools, the world that was taking shape in 1953, the year he retired, was a world far different from the one he had up until then chronicled. The upper middle class was beginning to feel uncomfortable about its conformity, and some people had even stopped wearing hats. Nineteen fifty-three was a good year to call it quits.
The world had changed even more by the time he died in 1982 at the age of ninety-three. The thousands of drawings he left behind remain a superb guide to manners and customs during three decades of the American saga. They are also, to a large extent, his autobiography.