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My Day with William Hamilton 

Christopher R. Wolf

I came across the ominous words “Anti-Social Register,” twice, while researching references for an Observer article in 2015 that became “Taking the Name in Vain.” The first “Anti-Social Register” was the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1965 collection of short stories, “a shivering sampling of his favorite fiendish feats.” The second, with a similar title, was a brilliant 1974 book of cartoons by William Hamilton, the famed New Yorker magazine cartoonist. I recognized his distinctive style, which I had long admired, but was unaware this was his first published book of cartoons.


Assuming William was skewering sophisticates and socialites from a safe reserve, I was surprised to learn that he was a product of Andover and Yale and also, like many of his characters, himself a longstanding member of the Social Register! About his audience he said, “Many of the people in this book eat English muffins for breakfast and in the evening have that wooly whisky the Scots distill.” Most of us have tried both, and so we are all inescapably part of William’s landscape.

Above: Mr & Mrs Hamilton 


The more I enjoyed revisiting his early cartoons, the more I wanted to meet him. After learning that the Observer had published a profile of Hamilton 20 years earlier, I gave him a call and set up a meeting at his exquisite second home, a converted century-old winery in St. Helena, a town in Napa Valley, California, and located near Ethelwild, the family ranch where he spent his early childhood and which is still owned by the family.


After courtesies had been exchanged, and William told me that he believed the SR was one of the last vestiges of civility, we met his charming wife, Lucy Young Hamilton, in the living room. She asked, “Are you a reporter?” To which I responded, “No, a publisher” and added bravely, “but this is my first interview.” Being far too gracious to point out that I was dragging her beloved husband out onto thin ice, she laughed lightly and withdrew.


William began our conversation by telling me about Lucy’s prominent family from Lexington horse country, and about their Overbrook Farm, where her father bred American Thoroughbred stallion Storm Cat, the very successful stud horse (his dam was Terlingua, who was sired by Secretariat), and won the 1996 Kentucky Derby with Grindstone.


As we sat down in his study and the interview began in earnest, I opened with the declaration that I loved the New Yorker monthly cartoon caption contest, where readers compete to supply their own caption to a previously published, but now captionless cartoon. I observed that while I had not won in my two years of effort submitting captions, I was heartened that Roger Ebert, the movie critic, finally won after 135 tries. Hopeful that William would commiserate, he instead leaned forward in his chair and gruffed loudly, “That damn contest is an abomination!” Shocked, I resolved to drag myself out and forever swear off this impractical avocation as an interviewer.


William went on to explain why he hated the contest, giving me time to recover. He believed that cartoon and caption were inseparably joined creative offspring, and that to suggest decapitating the cartoonist’s work was akin to savagely cutting a Picasso painting in half. It made the artist’s cartoon impersonal and that, he declared, was a lamppost illuminating a sorry road to the overall decline of the social cartoon. William observed that today’s cartoons had increasingly become “gag cartoons,” compositions of baffling sets of mysterious items, replete with abstract UFO’s, chattering animals on flying carpets, and genies in cognac bottles. Social relevance begins, he said, with the familiar and the recognizable, and with such identification, a connection to deeper shading and meaning. The urbanites in William’s drawings are recognizable, as is the cadence of their language, whether in actual terms or aspirational ones.


We spoke of the subtle role of the cartoonist seeking the profound, at least half-heartedly or on a good day. I recalled several passages from Typologia, a relatively obscure book by the type designer Frederic W. Goudy (1865-1947), who believed the artist’s genius in type design had to be a near-invisible hand. A typeface with too much flourish, say Old English (Blackletter), overwhelmed the message of the writer. On occasion, Goudy would use offset ovals inside his “O’s” to create a subliminal excitement that promoted greater attentiveness to the message of the author. Type designer and writer were an unspoken team. William saw his own expression in cartooning to be an intimate partnership with his audience, not a mocking of his readers through indecipherable and impersonal gags.


William spoke of his experiences with different aspects of creative loneliness and why they drove him to expression beyond cartooning, and to becoming an accomplished playwright and author. He usually avoided writer’s block by first drawing a cartoon with no caption in mind and later writing several captions and trying them out until the cartoon and ultimate caption became indelibly “married” to each other. He noted that one could listen to the radio while drawing cartoons, which was good because, by contrast, he had to write plays in silence, which was lonely. That said, when the cartoon was finished he mailed it to the publisher, and the experience was solitary and, again, lonely. After a play was written, he joined director and actors for a collaborative and congenial experience. With cartoons, though, William controlled the entire experience, which was calming, while with plays, much of the ultimate success was due to avoiding bad directorial decisions and attracting talented actors. And so it went for him, back and forth.


After our engaging and wide-ranging conversation, William invited me to see Ethelwild, the ranch within whose confines he discovered old stacks of European magazines, particularly the early cartoons of Le Figaro Magazine, and ultimately his own calling. At Ethelwild, we met his sister, the artist Diana Stockton. She was talking with a man she described as a professional tracker. “Do you know what we’ll be tracking today?” Diana queried me. I responded that I did not. Looking at my urban attire and fall coat, she pushed “I bet you don’t know what a puma is.” With a straight face, I replied, “If you’re referring to catamounts, I might offer you some advice.” Diana looked at William, smiled broadly, and said, “I like him.”

On April 8, 2016, William Hamilton was tragically killed in an automobile accident in Lexington, Kentucky. He was only 76 and had so much more to contribute. Shortly before that, William enthusiastically agreed to the Social Register’s proposal that we run both his earlier cartoons and new ones that he would draw for the Observer, ending his last email to me: “I’m all yours.”


Christopher R. Wolf is the publisher of the Social Register.


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