Edward Koren, 87, Whose Cartoon Creatures Poked Fun at People, Dies
Edward Koren, the New Yorker cartoonist who created a fantasy world of toothy, long-nosed, hairy creatures of indeterminate species that articulated the neuroses and banalities of middle-class America for six decades, died on Friday at his home in Brookfield, Vt. He was 87.
His wife, Curtis Koren, said the cause was lung cancer.
In the gentle, affable kingdom of Koren, the beasts form a polite queue in the woods at a 24-hour banking A.T.M. attached to a tree. They line up to board Noah’s Ark, but must pass through security-gate metal detectors. And as smiling cockroaches, they cluster like tourists with a city skyline in the backdrop. One takes a group selfie.
With Charles Addams, James Thurber and Saul Steinberg, Mr. Koren was one of the most popular cartoonists in The New Yorker’s long love affair with humor. To connoisseurs, his pen-and-ink creatures, with or without captions, were instantly recognizable — nonconfrontational humans and a blend of fanged crocodile and antlered reindeer who poked fun at a society preoccupied with fitness fads (bike-riding), electronic gadgets (cellphones) and pop psychology.
In a bed for three, a grimacing psychiatrist squeezed between battling spouses takes “couples therapy” notes.
Wife to husband amid a debris of smashed furniture: “I think it’s wonderful to be so direct with your anger.”
Two bohemian couples enjoying drinks in a book-lined living room. Looming over them is the elephantine resident beast. “We deal with it by talking about it,” the hostess confides.
The only child of a New York dentist and a teacher who subscribed to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, Mr. Koren studied art in New York and Paris, struggled for years to create a unique style and found it hiding in plain sight: the subtle humor of life’s contradictions.
He published his first New Yorker cartoon in 1962. It depicted a struggling writer in a “Shakespeare” sweatshirt, puzzling over his typewriter.
In a career that seemed oblivious to wars, racial strife and calamities that bloodied the rapiers of more combative cartoonists, Mr. Koren forged his mythic realm of benign beasts and untroubled innocence with some 1,100 cartoons for The New Yorker, including dozens of covers, and many more for The Nation, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair and other publications.
“My trajectory was a comedy of manners,” Mr. Koren said in an interview for this obituary in 2018. “I was drawn to sociology and cultural anthropology. My work was a bit tame, I suppose. I avoided sex. It was political in a different sense. I examined the middle class, and everywhere I looked people were outraged. I did not want to manifest that in my work. I just gravitated toward animals.”
Elaborating on his anthropomorphic creatures, Mr. Koren said: “Animals are gentle and funny. There is a long tradition in English and French literature, going back to the 19th century, of using animals in humor. For me, it was a framework, a way of getting above the political fray and the passing controversies of the day.”
Besides his New Yorker work, Mr. Koren published collections of his cartoons, wrote and illustrated children’s books and illustrated books by Delia Ephron, George Plimpton and Alan Katz. His cartoons, drawings and prints appeared in shows and galleries across the United States and in England, France and Czechoslovakia. Many became part of museums’ permanent collections.
“Woody Allen’s world is Tolstoyan by comparison,” Ken Johnson wrote in a Times review of a Koren retrospective at Columbia University in 2010. “Within his comfort zone, though, Mr. Koren can be funny, psychologically acute and philosophically provocative. He has a pitch-perfect feel for gag lines, and with his scribbly draftsmanship has forged one of the most distinctive styles in cartooning.”
Mr. Koren also drew some frankly commercial, if slyly humorous, cartoons for private clients — vineyards, banks, clothiers, mutual funds, university course catalogs and credit cards.
A restaurant waiter in a bow-tie takes dinner orders from two seated American Express cards.
A holiday reindeer with two toddler-beasties winds up a jeweled music-box at Hermès (Paris).
“Out of the unkempt hair styles and ragamuffin dress of the sixties, Mr. Koren has distilled a marvelously ironic comedy of manners,” the Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote in 1975 about an album of New Yorker cartoons. “His hairy creatures, with their smirky animal faces and sloppy social vanities, add something genuinely new to The New Yorker’s chronicle of wayward sociability.”
As the passing years brought new technology, income disparity and the ravages of aging to America’s bourgeoisie, Mr. Koren jabbed at myriad targets:
A dowser with a Y-shaped divining rod hovers over a desktop computer.
A bearded snob on his grand portico greets a grimy plumber: “Ah, Hopkins! Finalmente!”
A bathroom mirror speaks a dreaded morning message: “Time has not been kind to you.”
“I’m the kind of American middle-class folk I like to draw,” Mr. Koren told the Knight-Ridder news service in 1982. He found subjects everywhere. Walking in a woods in California, he was passed by a jogger, who called out: “Working on my quads!”
“There’s a cartoon,” Mr. Koren said.
Mr. Koren usually tried to express something positive in a bad situation. For a New Yorker cover after terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, he drew “The Best Offense,” a mouselike creature holding up a long nib-pen in its right paw and a short sword, point down, in its left.
Even his exceptions were gentle:
A television talk show host, looking offstage at a skeleton with a scythe, says, “I see that our time is just about up.”
In a domestic setting, houseplants, pets, even a hairy goldfish droop and sag as a despondent housewife is informed that her “depression is contagious.”
While Koren creatures were rarely depicted as threatening to humans, he thrust a jab now and then at the environmental crowd.
As two bearlike creatures look hungrily up a tree trunk at a hiking couple cowering in the branches, the man says to his wife: “Tell them how hard we’ve worked to protect their habitat.”
Edward Benjamin Koren was born in Manhattan on Dec. 13, 1935, to Harry and Elizabeth (Sorkin) Koren. He was raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., from which his father commuted to a dental practice in Manhattan. His parents wanted Ed to become a doctor or lawyer, but he began drawing as a teenager and was hooked.
After graduating from Horace Mann School in the Bronx in 1953, he attended Columbia College, where he edited The Jester, a student humor magazine. He graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree. In Paris, he studied printmaking, etching and engraving for two years with S.W. Hayter at the prestigious Atelier 17, and earned a master of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1964.
He soon joined the faculty of Brown University, where he taught the arts until 1977, long after he became famous.
In 1961, he married Miriam Siegmeister. They had two children, Nathaniel and Alexandra, and were divorced in 1973. He married Catherine Curtis Ingham in 1982 and had a son, Benjamin, with her.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his sons and daughter, who is known as Sasha Koren, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Koren illustrated some 25 books and wrote nine of them, including “Behind the Wheel” (1972), which put readers in the driver’s seat of a subway train, a tugboat, an airplane and other conveyances; “Well, THERE’s Your Problem” (1980), a joshing of pop psychology nostrums; and “What About Me?” (1989), a collection that featured a beastly Napoleon and a motorcyclist with ram’s horns.
Mr. Koren, who never retired, worked until the end, his wife said. For The New Yorker’s April 17 issue, Koren drew Moses on a mount overlooking his people and holding up a stone tablet of The Ten Commandments in Roman numerals while proclaiming, “Time for an update!”
After vacationing in Vermont for years, Mr. Koren became a full-time resident of Brookfield (population 1,200) in 1982. He joined the volunteer fire department (and was a captain for 30 years) and rode a bicycle nearly every day — he called it “an addiction” — through the changing seasons of a peaceful countryside, far from the cares of cities.
“When I ride, I often recall lines from Arthur Conan Doyle” (from “Scientific American” 1896), he said in the interview for this obituary, and he recited them: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
In “Landscape of Metaphors,” Mr. Koren depicted a bearded, balding academic, much like himself, carrying a book through a pastoral setting studded with signs: On a tree was “Metaphor for growth and change.” Beside a bird, “Metaphor for lyricism.” And on a trail leading to the distant hills, “Metaphor for aspiration.”