November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
CHARLES SAXON’S fond but clear-eyed cartoons are a definitive record of suburban life in the 1960s and ’70s
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.
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.
Even after death Saxon’s cartoons continued to appear (the magazine kept a number in “the bank"), and these would bring his total to nearly seven hundred published inside The New Yorker and another ninety-two on its covers. It is the covers that I find particularly impressive. He was a brilliant observer of the everyday, and there he turned commonplace activities into hilarious pantomime. Besides, his drawings look better with color. The addition of watercolor brought warmth, texture, and a needed illusion of spontaneity to his work.
Charles Saxon will remain one of the cartoonists who immediately come to mind when people think of The New Yorker . Like Helen Hokinson, who preceded him as chronicler of the upper middle class, Saxon viewed these children of privilege with a critical but forgiving eye. Perhaps he was forgiving himself as well.