The year was 1979 and I was lost. Not completely so, but, on balance, I was a bit of a mess. If my life were a pie chart, there would be a slice of about one-eighth that would represent the part of my life that was percolating along fairly well. That part was my drawing. Drawing had always been an escape for me. I would draw so that I could be by myself and not be bothered. I would draw to make others happy. It was mine and it defined me when I was little, throughout my school years, and into young adulthood. It was what I did. It was who I was.
I grew up in Washington, D.C., and the political landscape of my youth was, to put it mildly, crazy. During those years, we saw the assassinations of J.F.K., M.L.K., and R.F.K.; race riots; the Vietnam War; Woodstock; women’s lib; Watergate; and Nixon’s resignation. Through it all, I drew. It kept me sane, as it does now.
Our family always subscribed to The New Yorker, but I didn’t really notice it. In 1962, when I was seven, home from school sick, my mother gave me some tracing paper, a pencil, and a copy of James Thurber’s “The Thurber Carnival.” (She loved Thurber and everything about The New Yorker.) I sat there tracing Thurber’s amorphous shapes; his people were easy to trace, because of the simple lines. Here was an adult drawing like a child, but his people had such expression and seemed so animated. And his drawings were published! These subconscious thoughts spurred me to draw in a similar way. Plus, my mother was amused. I was hooked.
In the years that followed, drawing was what I became known for: Liza draws cartoons. I had my own characters now. These people were based on adults whom I found funny, and I placed them in situations that I thought absurd. On birthdays and holidays, I received heaps of black sketchbooks. As I grew older, drawing made me feel as though I did not have to be girly, that I could avoid the trappings that accompanied being a young lady in 1967. It didn’t hurt that a cultural shift was happening, a revolt against authority that came with new clothes and belief systems. I was too young to be a hippie when it all started, but I benefitted from the effects. I grew my hair very long and wore baggy clothes, overalls, and Earth Shoes. I even had a cape. I was mildly eccentric, because, well, I was a cartoonist.
However, I thought of myself not as a cartoonist but as an artist. I looked to the likes of Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Paul Klee, Leonardo da Vinci. I grew up reading “Doonesbury” and the editorial cartoons of Herblock in the Washington Post. There were no role models who were women, but that did not worry me. Phyllis Diller, as groundbreaking as she was, seemed to do humor mostly about marriage, as did Lucille Ball. I believed that most comedy was stuck in the fifties. But, when I looked at The New Yorker (though some of it was stuck in the fifties as well), I saw cartoons that were like little art objects and drawings that were often softly political. This appealed to me.
The world was in such turmoil, but marches and protests were not my thing; I was too shy. Yet I could draw. In a Quaker household like the one in which I grew up, it was assumed that you should try to help, try to make the world a better place, one person at a time. I also learned the importance of patience, waiting, listening, and thinking. I used to criticize myself, while waiting for a dentist appointment, if I did not use my time wisely by thinking about solutions to the world’s problems or important ideas. I had a feeling that time was precious—no shopping trips for fun for me. Meanwhile, my home life was roiled by tension and strife for a variety of reasons that I didn’t understand, but clearly felt. My family role as “the cartoonist” evolved into trying to keep everyone happy with my sweet drawings.
In 1971, when I was sixteen, my father had a sabbatical and decided that it was important that we move to Rome for a year. Of course I didn’t want to go—for one, I had made the excruciating decision to try out for the cheerleading squad. The year in Rome was pivotal. School aside, I spent a lot of time alone, drawing and wandering around the city. Rome is an infinitely fascinating place, and the people a complex mixture. That year cemented my identity as an artist. I now knew that my job was to be an observer: there was so much to see, so many people to watch and draw. Living outside of one’s own country gives a perspective like no other. I watched from abroad at the riots in the States, the bubbling up of the Watergate scandal. Just as we left Rome, anti-American sentiment was increasing, and we witnessed isolated acts of hostility toward Americans. I felt like I did not have a country. I felt like I did not want a country.
When we returned to Washington, it seemed that the chaos had extended to all of the United States. And something had changed in my mother. She began to descend into alcoholism. I didn’t really notice what was happening, except that she seemed odd after sundown. “Kookie” is the word I would use. I didn’t know anything about drinking, and perhaps my survival mechanism was to simply not acknowledge what was happening to her. A mother who I knew loved me, who had been my champion, laughing at my drawings, saving them all, and clipping out New Yorker cartoons for inspiration, was now slowly disappearing. Any effort to connect with her was fruitless—she was on a path of self-destruction. I was applying to colleges. The unspoken message was: You go live your life, and I have this path to go on, and don’t try to do anything to help me.
My father left and moved into an apartment downtown, with no intention of divorce; he hoped to shock her into stopping her behavior. I went to college. I kept drawing. She kept drinking. The year 1977 was a turning point. My parents got divorced, I graduated from college, my boyfriend broke up with me, I moved to New York City, and my mother died from alcoholism. I kept drawing.
I began submitting to The New Yorker by dropping off a “batch” of around eight cartoons to the magazine’s offices, on West Forty-third Street. Two years later, in 1979, I sold my first cartoon to The New Yorker. My mother did not live to know that the inspiration she had given me when I was seven years old would lead to this.
Each week, on Wednesday morning, I left my apartment to bring my batch to the magazine. I was always very tired that day, because I would stay up late the night before finishing my drawings. As I approached the building that housed The New Yorker’s offices, my heart would race. I was terrified. Would someone question what I was doing there?
Once inside the building, I took the elevator to the twentieth floor and handed my manila envelope to a receptionist, through a slot in a window. Barely looking up, she took my envelope and then rifled through a file to find a different envelope to hand back to me through the slot. Those were my rejects from the previous week. I would open the envelope to find all the drawings and the rejection slip—did anyone even look at them? Were they in the same order they’d been in when I submitted them? One week, there was a torn slip of paper clipped onto the rejection slip, which said, in an almost unreadable scrawl, “Holding one.” That meant they were considering buying one of my drawings and were holding on to it for a week or two. “They,” at that time, were the art editor, Lee Lorenz, and the editor, William Shawn. Usually, when I returned the next week to pick up my last batch of drawings and submit new ones, the “held” one would be returned, sometimes with the words “Sorry” scrawled onto the rejection note. It was all a bit mysterious.
I had heard that for most cartoonists their first sale of any kind was just of a caption. In other words, they were being brought into the fold by selling an idea rather than a drawing. The editors would then give the caption to one of the established artists to illustrate. I assumed this would happen to me.
One Wednesday, in the fall of 1979, I took the elevator to the twentieth floor and handed the surly woman behind the glass my batch for that week. Instead of the expected routine, she said, “Lee Lorenz wants to see you.” I nearly fainted.
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She buzzed me into the door to my left and I was immediately in the inner sanctum of The New Yorker. The offices were not fancy in any way, not even remotely so. They were drab and colorless and somewhat intimidating. But I liked it. There was a hush, and there were many doors and narrow hallways. I saw no one. I immediately ducked into the ladies’ room to calm myself down and check to see what I looked like. “This is it,” I said to myself in the mirror. “You’ve done it. Or maybe you’ve done something wrong!” I brushed my hair and splashed water on my face.
I must have been in the ladies room for quite a while. When I finally gathered myself and made my way to Lee Lorenz’s office, down the hall, he smiled and greeted me by saying, “Where were you?” Obviously, the receptionist told him that I was buzzed in. Great, I’ve already done something wrong. He shook my hand and offered me a seat.
Then Lee told me that the magazine wanted to buy one of my drawings, and he showed it to me. I asked what style should I draw it in? He said, “Your style.” I was startled: I had a style? I don’t really remember anything after that. I must have smiled back and agreed that drawing it myself was probably a good idea, and then tried to get the hell out of there.
I left the building in a fog. This was well before cell phones, so I would have to wait to get back to my apartment to call anyone. Selling to The New Yorker for the first time is an experience that is a bit solitary. You share the sale with a few loved ones, but it’s not really something you brag about. You simply integrate it into your being; you are now a New Yorker cartoonist. It is not a groundbreaking event, a cataclysmic achievement, or a world-saving moment to anyone but you.
Eventually, I began to make friends in the world of New Yorker cartoonists. A wonderful tradition was that, after submitting our batches, we would all go out to lunch. We shared stories with one another about our strange lives as cartoonists—the difficulties and the hurdles. It wasn’t the Algonquin Round Table, but the chatter leaned toward the witty and the absurd. Small talk was rare; rather, we discussed the news of the day, the humor of the moment, and silly things. We never mentioned whether we had sold a cartoon that week or not. It was an unwritten rule. A good one, because it kept us all on the same playing field, even though, if you looked in the magazine, you could see who was selling and who was not. But we treated one another as colleagues—equals in this odd profession. Being a New Yorker cartoonist is a job that not many people can claim.
When I began to sell to The New Yorker, I was well aware that there was an imbalance in gender representation among the cartoonists who were getting published. I found it exhilarating to be one of the few women breaking into a boys’ club. But I never thought of myself as a woman cartoonist, and I still don’t; I am a cartoonist who happens to be a woman. But I was perplexed about why there have been so few of us, and, after researching in the magazine’s archives, in 2005, I wrote and published a history of the female cartoonists of The New Yorker, from its founding, in 1925, until 2000.
I am proud to be a New Yorker cartoonist. It has not been easy. Rejection is a constant. Think of the odds: I submit six cartoons a week, on average, forty weeks out of the year. That’s two hundred and forty cartoons. On any given year, I might sell eight cartoons. I am not alone; for most of us, these are the odds. We are competing with one another every single week. But being a New Yorker cartoonist can lead to so many other things; one has to be agile in leveraging the opportunities.
It even led to matrimony! In 1988, I married another New Yorker cartoonist, Michael Maslin—so cartoons and The New Yorker are a very big part of my life. Michael and I wrote a book together, “Cartoon Marriage,” and our two daughters speak “cartoon”—when they were young, we would draw with them every free moment. Drawing has seamlessly been woven into my life, supporting me, carrying me forward, and giving me joy. It has been my constant companion. Even when I broke my right arm and couldn’t draw, I drew with my left hand.
That said, there have been times when I wanted to quit creating cartoons. After 9/11, I did not know if I could draw humor anymore. I thought I might change my career path. Nothing seemed funny, and my work seemed unnecessary and frivolous. But I drew a not-funny cartoon about 9/11, and the magazine bought it and ran it and I felt that I had a purpose again. From then on, I promised to use my skills for more commentary on culture, global issues, and peace.
Rejection never becomes easy, even after forty years of drawing. But drawing is part of who I am, and that I have never wanted to quit. Now, with the Internet, I can find new audiences, and my drawings spark dialogue with people all over the globe, and for that I am grateful. Drawing has come full circle, back to my initial inspiration, as a kid, when I was looking for ways to communicate and help my mother. All I want to do is to share ideas and laughter. It’s helped me and I want my drawing to help others. I keep drawing.