Bon Vivant and Witty Observer of a Bygone Era
Over the span of his 48-year career, artist Peter Arno contributed 99 covers and hundreds of cartoons to The New Yorker. Long considered the magazine's greatest artist, Arno had his humble beginnings at Hotchkiss.
By Wendy Carlson
He was born Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr. on Jan. 8, 1904, in New York City, but the world would come know him as Peter Arno. His pen name, in bold cursive, anchored the lower-right hand corner of his cartoons in The New Yorker. Arno had just started working for the fledgling magazine at age 25, when he changed his name, turning his surname into his first name, minus the "s," and using his middle name, minus the "x," as his last name. His strained relationship with his father likely led to the change: Curtis Arnoux Peters, a New York Superior Court justice, vehemently deplored the idea of his son's becoming an artist. By all accounts, Arno's father was strict at best and severe at worst, spanking Arno when he asked for seconds at dinner and boxing his ears for using cuss words in his jokes. Arno dealt with his father's harshness through humor. "The shyness and unsureness induced by father's brutality were overcome by this means," Arno wrote in his unfinished memoir. Growing up on Central Park West and attending the posh Berkeley-Irving School, Arno seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps. But at Hotchkiss, no longer under his father's thumb, Arno the artist emerged.
Although he had tried, unsuccessfully, to get his work accepted by magazines from the age of 12, his first published drawings appeared in the 1920 Misch. The loose pen-and-ink style and wit that would characterize his New Yorker cartoons were apparent in his early art, which he signed "C. J. Peters Jr.." His first illustration for the Misch demonstrated a cartoonish flair: a member of the Hotchkiss Debating Union sitting atop a lectern, about to make a point by slamming his right fist into his left open palm, his face grotesquely contorted with rage. At the time, Hotchkiss lacked an accredited art program. But Arno's classmates and teachers were quick to notice his talent, and he soon became everyone's go-to artist, designing posters for the school prom and other events.
Not surprisingly, Arno's impromptu sketching occasionally got him into trouble. Instead of taking notes during Latin, Arno sketched the instructor, who kicked him out of class. Those types of rebellious acts elevated his standing among his peers, but news of his antics reached his father in the form of letters from Headmaster Huber Buehler. In those days, misbehaving students were often pulled from their dormitories and sequestered at the headmaster's house. "It seems to me that Peter was living at the master's house half of the time in his first year," recalled one of his classmates in Michael Maslin's biography, Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker's Greatest Cartoonist. In his senior year, Arno was voted "Worst with the Faculty."
Meanwhile, his relationship with his father reached a breaking point when Arno learned his father was having an affair with a woman in her mid-twenties, an act that, to Arno,"represented an evil that entered his home and destroyed it." Yet Arno continued to thrive at Hotchkiss, where he made honors and joined the hockey team and the society orchestra.
In his senior year, when he became art editor of the Misch, his illustrations dominated the yearbook. Despite his lackluster grades, Buehler wrote him a recommendation to Yale. There, Arno easily found his niche. He became a pianist for the Yale Collegians, a band that performed at society parties and speakeasies. He continued drawing, submitting cartoons for the Yale Record, the campus humor magazine. Both pursuits only further infuriated his father, but when Arno purposely snubbed him and his new wife at a theater gathering, his father cut him off financially, forcing him to drop out of Yale after his freshman year. The senior Curtis wrote his son, "you insulted my wife and myself by refusing to walk with us during the intermission....Under the circumstances, and wholly by reason of your actions, I shall expect you as soon as possible to make other arrangements and get your money either from your own efforts or from those with whom you care to associate more." Undeterred, Arno moved back to Manhattan and worked for a short time as an illustrator for a silent film company and as a mural painter and a musician, playing with shimmy queen Gilda Gray at her club, Piccadilly Rendezvous. He continued submitting his drawings to publications, including Life, without success.
Then, in 1925, a new magazine, The New Yorker was striving to brand itself as the publication of New York cultural life. Among Arno's submissions to the magazine was a pen-and-ink drawing of a man in a top-hat and a well-dressed woman crossing a city block. Something about it caught the attention of the editors, and Arno received his first paycheck of $30.
Not long after, Arno was dubbed The New Yorker's "pathfinder artist" by the magazine's first editor, Harold Ross. His cartoons stood out for their irreverent, often racy observations of New York society life and for their punchy one-line captions, often referred to as "the overheard remark." A 2016 Vanity Fair article best described the artist's cutting style: "He drew America's ruling class as unpleasant, unlikable, sometimes awful people, reducing them to pompous, often sexually avaricious, arrogant boobs — not as a class-warrior but as an insider, as one of them. The whole idea of The New Yorker as a sophisticated young person's magazine, full of drinking and sex and good times, all came from Arno. It was one of those things people grabbed hold of in the hinterlands and said, 'Yes, this is what New York is like. It was a fairytale."'
Arno himself was part of the fairytale. Handsome and always impeccably dressed, he fit easily into the social scene and soon married a young debutant, Lois Long. Maslin wrote that Arno and Long personified what people thought The New Yorker was: "Long, all of 23, covered nightlife in her 'Tables for Two' column under the pseudonym 'Lipstick.' Tall, lanky, a Vassar grad with bobbed hair and a wicked sense of humor, she was a minister's daughter to Arno's judge's son, and she matched him as a hell-raiser." When he wasn't out all night drinking and carousing, Arno worked incessantly. His motivation to succeed turned him from "an unknown, unpublished wannabe cartoonist to being the one artist on the The New Yorker roster whose work was being hailed as the harbinger of sea change in American modern satire," Maslin wrote. He focused on the "cafe society," which he both relished and disdained. In the 1930s, by now divorced from Long and a father, he married Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, the original celebutante, who was half his age. The irony of marrying a woman half his age after disowning his father for doing the same seems to have been lost on Arno, who had established a reputation for dating young models and actresses. He never made amends with the senior Arnoux, who died in 1933, leaving Arno $20,000, a pittance of his fortune. Years later, Arno wrote in his memoir notes: "The greatest favor he did me was not to leave me a sizable inheritance. I was a little sore about it at the time. But the years have proved that a lot of money would probably have destroyed the incentive to work."
After World War II, Arno witnessed a change in New York society life. In a 1950 article he penned for Cosmopolitan magazine, "Where's My Sugar Daddy Now?", he lamented that society had lost "the type of elderly gallant, often bumbling and befuddled, and usually in a state of goggle-eyed lubricity that of a lovesick cow." "The so-called playboys of today are a drab, polyglot group," he wrote.
In 1951, Arno moved from his apartment on West 54th Street in Manhattan to a farm in Port Chester, NY, where, he liked to tell people, he lived in "a state of expensive dishevelment." He spent the last few decades of his life in seclusion, enjoying music, guns, sports cars, and drawing, making contact with the outside world only once a week, when he telephoned the art director of the magazine. Reflecting on his life then, Arno wrote: "My idea of luxury used to be a high penthouse and twenty-five tailored suits. Now in the country, with the city penthouse a shabby substitute, my idea of luxury is having three pencil-sharpeners in different parts of the house."
Decades of drinking and smoking took a toll Arno's health, and in the 1960s, he battled emphysema and lung cancer. In his final years, he was put on an oxygen tank. Up until the week of his death, he continued to contribute regularly to The New Yorker. He died on Feb. 22, 1968, at age 64. His simple granite tombstone bears his bold signature, Peter Arno. Next to it, in parentheses, is his given name: Curtis Arnoux Peters Jr.