The New Yorker is renowned for its cartoons, which have been a mainstay since the magazine’s founding in 1925. It has published the works of hundreds of cartoonists over the years, but few have proved as prolific or as popular as George Booth. Revered among his colleagues as a cartoonist’s cartoonist, Booth has spent five decades mining huge nuggets of off-the-wall humor from everyday life and ordinary people, making him a particular favorite among the magazine’s discerning readers.
Before George Booth was George Booth
Born on June 28, 1926 in rural Cainsville, Missouri, George Booth knew that cartooning was his calling early in life. “I have known what I wanted to do since I was 31/2,” he told a writer in 2016. “I was drawing cartoons all the time. My father and mother both encouraged me.”
Booth created cartoons for his high school newspaper and continued to draw after joining the Marines in 1944. Following basic training he was offered a position at Leatherneck magazine, where he learned the ins and outs of magazine production and cartooning. When he agreed to reenlist to continue with the magazine, his fellow Marines were shocked. “They came around to my quarters in groups of four or five to look at the freak who was reenlisting,” Booth recalls with a laugh.
Leatherneck allowed Booth to develop his unique style of cartooning, which can only be described as sketchy. “It was a wonderful education because of the guys who were on staff,” he notes. “I was put with John DeGrasse, who was a fantastic illustrator. He took me under his wing.”
New York and New Yorker
Booth remained with the magazine until 1952, when he moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts and other institutions. One of his instructors at the SVA was Burne Hogarth, a master of human anatomy best known for his stint on the Tarzan cartoon strip.
During his beginnings in New York, Booth started submitting cartoons to national publications such as Collier’s, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post, which at the time were among the highest-paying markets for cartoonists, offering as much as $60 per gag. He also had his eye on The New Yorker, which was and remains the Holy Grail for gag cartoonists.
Booth worked a number of editorial jobs while gradually building his reputation as a cartoonist. He finally got his foot in the door at the Saturday Evening Post, only to have the magazine cease publication the issue before his first major spread was to appear. But from the bad came some good. Saturday Evening Post editor William Emerson referred George Booth and fellow cartoonist Charles Barsotti to William Shawn at The New Yorker. There, Booth met with Cartoon Editor James Geraghty, who liked what he saw. Booth was in.
Over the ensuing decades, Booth sold hundreds of cartoons, covers, and spot illustrations to The New Yorker, where his unique sensibilities were deeply appreciated by both the editors and the readers. He quickly became one of the magazine’s most popular cartoonists via a skewed world populated with frenetic dogs, bathtub philosophers, fiddle-playing matrons and Everymen just trying to get by in a world that refused to give them a break. It was a world to which everyone could relate.
A study of Booth’s work reveals a number of quirks that make him stand out from his colleagues. Foremost, he’s a dog lover, as evidenced by the many crazy pooches that inhabit his cartoon world. He also likes cats and believes 86 cats to be the greatest number he’s incorporated into a single cartoon.
Booth also is a skilled wordsmith. In fact, while most cartoonists see brevity as the key to a funny caption, he feels just the opposite. The George Booth captions are lengthy – always funny – and have become one of his trademarks, with his most verbose cartoon coming in at an impressive 205 words.
And then there are his recurring characters, which range from the inept mechanics at Al’s Auto Lubrication & Tune-Up to the beloved Mrs. Ritterhouse, who was based on Booth’s mother.
A Famous Lady
“The New Yorker liked Mrs. Ritterhouse, and they put her in my contract,” Booth says. “They own Mrs. Ritterhouse. The New Yorker put my dog in the contract, too, along with a character named Senator Bloviate. They put all those characters in the contract because they didn’t want other magazines printing them. That was okay. If The New Yorker liked it, that was fine with me.”
According to Booth, Mrs. Ritterhouse is among his most popular characters with readers. “She really resonated,” he notes. “On 9/11, after that hideous tragedy, we cartoonists got a note from The New Yorker that they would be publishing the week after but that they would not be publishing any cartoons, though they would still be looking at submissions. So I submitted a batch, and they printed one of Mrs. Ritterhouse in the issue after 9/11.”
“I depicted her sitting in her kitchen chair in prayer with her hands folded the way my mother did it, with her head down, and the cat was on the floor covering his eyes,” Booth says. “Mrs. Ritterhouse had placed her violin and bow to the right of her right foot for a moment of rest. The cartoon had no caption. I was very honored that they printed it. It was the only cartoon they ran in that issue.”
Fifty years after selling his first cartoon to The New Yorker, George Booth still finds great joy in putting pen to paper in varying projects in an effort to make people laugh. He has slowed down, but has not stopped. “Cartooning brings me pleasure more so than ever,” he states. “I see more than I ever did; I hear more than I ever did. It’s like being a fine painter. I believe the more you paint, the more do you it, the more you love it. And that’s the way it should be.”
About Don Vaughan
Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His work appears regularly in Writer's Digest, Military Officer Magazine, Boys' Life and other publications. He also is the founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers.