In this final part of our interview with legendary cartoonist Arnold Roth, we discuss the his work creating covers for jazz LPs for artists like Dave Brubeck, his relationship with novelist John Updike, his connection to PG Wodehouse, and why not working for Playboy means you don’t want to live.
You’ve done a lot of LP covers, primarily for jazz groups.
And even for classical people, but they were funny covers. I did one for Glenn Gould, who was a great concert composer.
Do you listen to the record much before you create the cover?
Oh no. a lot of times they were recording or hadn’t quite recorded, and they wanted to set up the printing or save the time. No, I never heard any of the music, but of course they were successful musicians, so generally I knew what they did and how they did it. But a lot of times the idea would key more toward—like Glenn Gould, it was an album of stuff that he had conducted with the orchestra. I remember I did a drawing of the orchestra, with Glenn Gould in the front conducting and everybody playing in the orchestra was Glenn Gould. So I drew Glenn Gould about 80 times [laughs]. I don’t know if they ever saw that.
You did a few book covers for John Updike, as well.
I did three. The Bech books. I enjoyed that very much. It was a lot of fun to do. And he knew that I would have to do the ideas, and whatever I sent to him, he liked and it went right through.
Was that a situation where you had the text in front of you before you drew the cover?
Yes, yes, because what they were were actually collections of short stories, most of which had run in different publications. They were always about this one writer, Henry Bech. A lot of things that I’ve done as an illustrator, writing humor, whatever, the piece that is involved is accomplished already. But I would say that, 70-percent, over the years, maybe more, had not been writen yet, because I did a lot for Time, Fortune, and it goes on and on. But they knew what the subject was. Of course, I keep to the subject, I don’t illustrate anything in the story. So, whatever the editors could tell me. If they had a title or a subtitle, fine, but they would say, “this is about a guy who lived in Moscow for 10 years.” That’s enough to get started. And like I say, the way I think, the sort of ideas I do, I can just pull it out of the air. But it will relate to the piece, naturally, because the setting or whatever fits. If it’s about a guy 10 years in Moscow, you knew you would see Moscow and the sky. That would connect to something funny about Russia, or whatever.
Was the work that you did for Playboy primarily strip or illustration-based?
No, I did a lot of illustration for them, but I did do a history of sex for them. That was in the 70s, when things had really blown wide open [laughs]. And it was a lot of fun to do, because imagine you’re gonna sit down and make up a history of sex. Everything is possible, and it was in there [laughs]. So, yeah, I even started with the dinosaur age for chapter one. One thing that happened is, Michelle Urri, now, unfortunately the late-Michelle Urri who was great—she was their cartoon editor. When I got to the ancient Greeks, I got two chapters. They were usually three or four pages. She called me up and said, “how long is this history going to go on?” And I said, “as long as I’m paying tuition!” A year later I called her up and, “Michelle, I have great news for you—both of my sons dropped out” [laughs]. She started to worry that they weren’t going to be educated. And, of course, they’re both still working in the rock and roll world. They’re both terrific musicians.
Did you feel a certain sort of stigma, when you first started working for Playboy?
Oh no. Although I lived in England for one year. When I sold the feature to The Herald Tribune, and I was starting to get lots of magazine commissions, I paid off all my debts in a year, because I had borrowed money from people to put into Humbug. And they included the Fantasy Record guys, Paul Desmond—people who had money. And since I had this steady thing of doing the syndicated feature, my wife and I decided we could go live in England, which we had always wanted to do. I guess I had been to Canada once, but I had never really been out of the country. So our boys were very young—they were two and four. We went and I thought we would be there for at least two years, but when they folded my feature, it turned out to be one year.
Now, that had to do with the question you had asked [laughs]. Of course, when I was there, I met tons of British cartoonists. You go to the cartoonist pubs and they’re there. They would say, “how can you work for Playboy?” Of course they had all seen it [laughs]. They felt it was not degenerate, but a low kind of thing to work for. I asked, “are you against anything Playboy stands for?” Because they print nude photos of women. “Oh no, no,” they didn’t want to be Puritanical. So, everything I asked them, I said “are you against this, are you against that?” So a lot of them became regular contributors. But I think it was just because everybody considered it to be low.
It’s like, I lived in Princeton for many years, and I would go to cocktail parties and someone would say, “I understand you do drawings for Playboy Magazine,” but they would say it in this derogatory way. And I would say, “yes,” and they would say, “well, isn’t that sort of…you know…” and I would say, “they were the first major American magazine to come out against open air nuclear testing.” And one guy, when I said it to him, he said, “well, sure, if anybody would want to live, it would be those guys” [laughs]. So that was one of my test questions on the list, “do you want to live?” If somebody didn’t want to work for Playboy, my first question would be, “do you want to live?”
So Hefner was pretty good to the cartoonists he employed?
I thought he was great. See, my deal was that I would do the work, and that’s how it would have to run, if they wanted me to work for them.
No editorial input.
Yeah, but he was a nitpicker. He wanted to be a cartoonist when he was young. He loves cartooning. They always had the obvious burlesque joke, but I think Michelle was running far superior cartoons to the New Yorker, for a long time.
They had Jack Cole—
Jack Cole, they had Francis Smilby, Eldon Dedini, oh gee, just a ton of excellent cartoonists. [John] Dempsey—Dempsey could draw dirty minded middle-aged people better than anyone [laughs].
Looking back on all of these various publications you’ve worked for, is there one you can point to as a favorite?
Oh yeah. I had a really great and fortunate route. I say because of my “demands,” but I didn’t demand it, I just went in and said, “the way I work best is to not do sketches.” They all went along with me. But the real romance of my career was Punch. To begin with, I replaced PG Wodehouse—the novelist and movie writer. He was like 90-something. He would do the “American Report.” I was doing lot of full-page joke. On one of our visits—I think Kennedy was still alive, it was like ’63 or something. And they said, PG Wodehouse is the reporter on America, which we run two pages a month. They said, “he really doesn’t do any work. He cuts out oddities from The New York Daily News and pastes them up together. Would you do the report? “ I said, “yeah.” My head blew up.
When we came back to Princeton, I wrote two pages, which I was sure were the funniest pages about the American news ever written in the English language. And by return mail, I got my pages back and written in red at the top was, ‘you fool! I meant draw two pages!’ “Draw” was underlined. My wife brought me the mail and said, they’re really angry at you. Look, they call you a fool.” And I said, “listen, in England, if they don’t call you at least a swine, they’re not even serious.” So I drew two pages and I did it for another 20 years or more.