A memoir by a man who has drawn caricatures for the greatest editors is a treasure trove of the American mid-century modern
At 92, Edward Sorel is the grand old man of New York magazines. For 60 years, his blistering caricatures have lit up the pages of Harper’s, the Atlantic, Esquire, Time, Rolling Stone and the Nation. He is especially revered for his work in Clay Felker’s New York in the late 60s and for work in the New Yorker under Tina Brown and David Remnick.
Related: A life in cartoons: Edward Sorel
He has also worked for slightly less august titles, like Penthouse, Screw and Ramparts.
He is one of the foundational New Yorkers. Like Leonard Bernstein or E B White, Sorel absorbs the rhythms of the rambunctious city, using them to create an exaggerated, beguiling mirror of all he has experienced.
A very abbreviated list of his memories includes the Great Depression, Hitler and Mussolini, the Red Scare, Joe McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump.
His memoir begins with a political frame. Like the unreconstructed lefty he is – he voted for Ralph Nader twice – he announces that he will show how the crimes of the previous 12 presidents made possible the catastrophe of Donald Trump.
He gives the CIA and the military industrial complex all the shame they deserve for an unending parade of coups and wars – from Iran, Guatemala and Chile to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But he promises “these exposés will be brief”, so “it will only hurt for a few minutes”. On that he keeps his word.
What gives Profusely Illustrated its charm and its power – besides 177 spectacular illustrations – are Sorel’s tales of New York, beginning with a childhood spent in a fifth-floor walk-up in the Bronx with a father he despised and a mother he adored.
Sorel spares no one, especially his “stupid, insensitive, grouchy, mean-spirited, fault-finding, racist” father, who he dreamed of pushing in front of a subway train when he was only eight or nine.
“When I grew older, I realized how wrong that would have been,” Sorel writes.
“The motorman would have seen me.”
The first riddle that tortured him was why his amazing mother married his revolting father. She explained that a few months after her arrival in New York from Romania, at 16, she started work in a factory that made women’s hats. When one of the hat blockers noticed on her first day that she hadn’t left for lunch, he loaned her the nickel she needed. Later, the same blocker told her he would kill himself if she didn’t marry him. So that was that.
During a prolonged childhood illness that confined him to his bed, Ed started making drawings on cardboard that came back with shirts from a Chinese laundry. When he went back to school, the drawings were admired by his teacher at PS90, who told his mother young Ed had talent. She enrolled him in a Saturday art class at the other end of the city, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then another at the Little Red School House, at the bottom of Manhattan.
At Little Red, thanks to the generosity of one Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, all the students were given a wooden box containing oil paints, brushes, turpentine and an enamel palette.
It was Ed’s “to keep so I could paint at home” – and it changed his life.
He gained admission to the highly competitive High School of Music and Art, and then to tuition-free art school at Cooper Union. But his teachers did nothing but delay his success: the fashion for abstraction was so intense, he wasn’t allowed to do the realistic work he loved.
The Bronx boy who had been Eddie Schwartz was transformed after he discovered Julien Sorel, hero of Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black. Julien was “a sensitive young peasant who hated his father, was appalled by the corruption of the clergy in 19th-century France, and was catnip to every woman he encountered”.
Five years later, Eddie changed his name to Sorel.
With Seymour Chast he founded Push Pin Studios, which after Milton Glaser joined, became the hottest design studio in New York. Sorel didn’t last long but when Glaser founded New York magazine with Felker a few years later, Sorel got the perfect outlet for his increasingly powerful caricatures.
His book’s pleasures include interactions with all the most important magazine editors of the second half of the last century, including George Lois, art director of Esquire in its heyday under Harold Hayes.
Gay Talese had written what would become a very famous profile, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. The crooner had refused to pose for the cover, after Lois told him he wanted a close up with a cigarette in his mouth and a gaggle of sycophants eagerly trying to light it.
Lois asked Sorel for an illustration. It was an assignment that would give him “more visibility than I had ever had before”. He panicked and his first effort was a failure. But with only one night left, his “adrenalin somehow made my hand turn out a terrific drawing of Frank Sinatra”. It launched Sorel’s career. The original now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Village Voice, New York’s original counterculture newspaper, gave him a weekly spot. Sorel inked a memorable portrait of the New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal as a tank shooting a too-liberal columnist, Sydney Schanberg, after Schanberg was fired for attacking the news department from the op-ed page.
Tina Brown chose Sorel to do her first New Yorker cover. When Woody Allen and Mia Farrow split up, Sorel imagined a Woody & Mia Analysts Convention.
If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of the glory days of magazine journalism, illustrated with drawings guaranteed to make you nostalgic for great battles of years gone by, Profusely Illustrated is perfect. When you’re done, you’ll be ready to rewatch Mad Men all over again.
Profusely Illustrated is published in the US by Knopf