George Booth, whose cartoon dogs became a New Yorker staple, dies at 96
A droll, bright-eyed artist with an uninhibited laugh and gentle Midwestern drawl, Mr. Booth sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1969, the year he turned 43. Editors came and went, but he was still published in the magazine as recently as January, when the New Yorker ran his cover illustration “Around the Clock,” showing one of Mr. Booth’s signature grungy dogs waiting expectantly at home, wagging its tail and stamping a paw while keeping an eye on the clock.
Mr. Booth brought a wacky, offbeat sensibility to one of the country’s most storied weekly magazines, developing a squiggly cartoon menagerie of cave men, bull terriers, feisty cats, prehistoric beasts and ordinary looking men and women, many modeled on people he knew as a boy in small-town Missouri.
His cartoons often examined contemporary neuroses, existential anxieties and the everyday difficulties that crop up at home, with a tone that was more tender than mocking, less cynical than amused.
“Don’t give the dog any more coffee,” a woman says in one cartoon, as the family pet convulses next to the refrigerator. Another was a farcical portrait of the way secrets are sometimes kept in a relationship, only for the truth to eventually come out: “There’s something you haven’t told me,” a woman says to her companion across the dining table, a smiling man in a furry bear suit. In the corner of the cartoon, a dog looks away in horror, or perhaps embarrassment.
Fellow New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin said that Mr. Booth was a master at creating “wackiness in an island of calm,” and cited him alongside some of the magazine’s most renowned artists. Like Charles Addams, Helen E. Hokinson, George Price, Saul Steinberg and James Thurber, “Booth invented a defined cast of characters and an environment for them to exist — a place entirely Boothian,” Maslin wrote in an email.
“No other cartoonist could (or would) touch the style and the tone,” he added. “All cartoons rely on the unexpected twist, but Booth reveled in the haywire. There was always a joyous thump or a whump hovering around his work — often with a measure of vaudeville humor.”
Many of Mr. Booth’s cartoons took place in a modest kitchen or dining room, including one that was strewn with tools, machine parts, boxes and cans, with a man seated calmly at the center. “I bond with things,” he explains.
Another showed a balding gentleman in front of his refrigerator, with a solitary lightbulb dangling overheard. “I have a mango in the fridge that I can’t deal with,” he says to nobody but his cat. In another, a pet cat is seated at the dining table across from a bespectacled woman in a floral dress. “Nation-wise,” she tells the cat, “we’re in a pickle.”
“We all sort of felt like those people in his drawings,” cartoonist Liza Donnelly said in a phone interview, noting Mr. Booth’s careful observations about human behavior and relationships. “We all have that dog in the corner, or think we do,” she added. “His people were just coping, and that’s what we’re all doing.”
Other Booth cartoons ventured into the realm of the bizarre and surreal. One shows a bowtied man seated with an oversized bag, talking with a loan officer who inquires, “What have you other than your bag of parrots?” In another, a woman floats into the sky like a runaway balloon as her family watches down below. “Your mother eats all the wrong foods,” the caption says.
“Something out of place is always funny,” Mr. Booth told his daughter in January, as part of an interview she conducted for the New Yorker. “A dog eating somebody else’s lunch, people and critters not playing their expected roles, doing something no one ever imagined, like an elephant eating breakfast with you. In cartoons, you can choose to make things fit, or you can choose not to. And, if you don’t, it’s kinda funny.”
Mr. Booth often made cartoons about art itself, drawing haggard or disheveled writers struggling to finish their work.
In one cartoon, a woman attempts to inspire her partner by imagining his future literary success: “I’ll run through it again. First, the exhilaration of a work completed, followed by the excitement of approaching pub date. Reviews pouring in from everywhere while the bidding for the paperback rights soars to insane figures. An appearance on Merv Griffin or Dick Cavett, sandwiched in between like Engelbert Humperdinck and Juliet Prowse. Finally, a flood of letters from people to whom your name, yesterday unknown, now has the shimmer of national renown. Hit those keys!”
By all accounts, however, Mr. Booth had little trouble making cartoons. “I never saw anyone enjoy his own drawings more than George,” said Martin Garrity, one of his former art teachers, in a 1980 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “He’d sit back and laugh at everything he did.”
The second of three children, George William Booth was born in Cainsville, Mo., on June 28, 1926. Both parents were schoolteachers, and the family moved several times before settling in the town of Fairfax, where his father worked as a superintendent. For a time, they lived in a converted schoolhouse illuminated by bare lightbulbs — the bulbs became one of Mr. Booth’s trademarks — and his father was paid in cherry trees because the district didn’t have enough money.
From age 3, Mr. Booth was obsessed with drawing, staying up as late as 2 or 3 in the morning to sketch racecars stuck in the mud. He worked as a printer’s apprentice after high school and in 1944 was drafted into the Marine Corps. Two years later, he re-enlisted to work for the Marine magazine Leatherneck as an illustrator and cartoonist.
He later studied on the GI Bill at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the Corcoran School in Washington and the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he tried to build a career by selling cartoons to trade publications and magazines.
But he struggled to break into the business, and after marrying Dione Babcock in 1958 he got a day job, working as an art director for Bill Communications, a publisher of business magazines.
For nine years, he effectively set cartooning aside, struggling to summon the energy to make cartoons after he got home from work. Then he decided to give it another shot. He quit his job and soon sold his first piece to the New Yorker.
It helped, he said, that he had finally gotten a chance to meet some of the magazine’s editors, who had previously thought he was in his 80s, given his shaky style and older subject matter, and who worried he wouldn’t be around for long. He had also stopped “trying to draw to fit a market,” as he put it, after years of attempting to replicate cartoons he saw in the magazine.
“I worked very hard on those cartoons, but I wasn’t enjoying it,” he told The Washington Post in 1976. “For relief I’d write a letter home and draw some crazy thing on the envelope, chickens having a fit, and I’d sit there laughing. I had to transfer that joy to the work I was submitting. I made up my mind I had to do 100 percent George Booth and offer it. That was all I had to give.”
By 1980, Mr. Booth was working on contract for the New Yorker, making around 10 cartoons per week. He was also illustrating children’s books such as “Wacky Wednesday” (1974), written by Dr. Seuss under the name Theo LeSieg, and publishing cartoon collections including “Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat” (1975). He later created a short-lived syndicated comic strip, “Local Item.”
Mr. Booth received the National Cartoonists Society’s Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, and was posthumously inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame on Thursday.
For decades, he and his wife lived in a 19th-century saltbox house in Stony Brook, N.Y., on the North Shore of Long Island. They were accompanied by pet cats but never a dog, although his cartoons suggested otherwise. “Dogs are kind of like trees to me,” he explained in a 1998 interview with the New Yorker. “I enjoy them, but I’d just as soon not do all the chores.”
Mr. Booth and his wife moved to Brooklyn to live with their daughter in recent years. Dione Booth died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 26, six days before her husband. She was 85.
“I see people floundering around in their lives — wanting to do something that they can’t do, or not knowing what they want to do, or not having the opportunity to do what they want to do — and I realize how blessed I’ve been,” Mr. Booth told the New Yorker. “I have spent my whole life doing the thing I love. … The work I do is the only work I’ve ever wanted to do. And no matter how long I do it, I always feel like I’m just on the verge of getting started.”