ONEt 92, Edward Sorel is the big old man in New York magazines. For 60 years, his blistering caricatures have lit up the pages of Harper’s, Atlantic, Esquire, Time, Rolling Stone and the Nation. He is especially honored for his work in Clay Felker’s New York in the late ’60s and for his work in the New Yorker under Tina Brown and David Remnick.
He has also worked for slightly smaller August titles such as Penthouse, Screw and Ramparts.
He’s one of the founders of New York. Like Leonard Bernstein or EB White, Sorel absorbs the rhythms of the battered city and uses them to create an exaggerated, seductive mirror of everything he has experienced.
A very abbreviated list of his memories includes the Great Depression, Hitler and Mussolini, the Red Scare, Joe McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump.
His recollections begin with a political framework. As the unconstructed leftist he is – he voted for Ralph Nader twice – he announces that he will show how the crimes of the previous 12 presidents made possible Donald Trump’s disaster.
He gives the CIA and the military-industrial complex all the shame they deserve for an endless parade of coups and wars – from Iran, Guatemala and Chile to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But he promises that “these revelations will be short”, so “it will only hurt for a few minutes”. On that he keeps his word.
What gives Profusely Illustrated its charm and power – in addition to 177 spectacular illustrations – are Sorel’s tales of New York, beginning with a childhood spent on a fifth-floor walk in the Bronx with a father he despised and a mother he beloved.
Sorel spares no one, especially not his “stupid, insensitive, sulking, vicious, flawed, racist” father, whom he dreamed of pushing in front of a subway train when he was only eight or nine.
“As I got older, I realized how wrong it would have been,” Sorel writes.
“The motorman would have seen me. “
The first riddle that tortured him was why his amazing mother married his rebellious father. She explained that a few months after her arrival in New York from Romania, as a 16-year-old, she started working at a factory that made women’s hats. When one of the hat blocks on her first day noticed that she had not gone for lunch, he lent her the nickel she needed. Later, the same blocker told her he would commit suicide if she did not marry him. So that was it.
During a long-term childhood illness that limited him to his bed, Ed began making drawings on cardboard that came back with shirts from a Chinese laundry. When he went back to school, the drawings were admired by his teacher on PS90, who told that his mother young Ed had talent. She enrolled him in a Saturday art class at the other end of town, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then another at the Little Red School House, in lower Manhattan.
At Little Red, thanks to the generosity of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, all students received a wooden box with oil paints, brushes, turpentine and an enamel palette.
It was Ed’s “keeping it so I could paint at home” – and it changed his life.
He was admitted to the highly competitive High School of Music and Art and then to the non-teaching art school at Cooper Union. But his teachers did nothing but delay his success: the mode of abstraction was so intense that he was not allowed to perform the realistic work he loved.
The Bronx boy who had been Eddie Schwartz was transformed after discovering Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black. Julien was “a sensitive young farmer who hated his father, was shaken by the corruption of the clergy in 19th-century France, and was a catnip for every woman he met.”
Five years later, Eddie changed his name to Sorel.
Together with Seymour Chast, he founded Push Pin Studios, which after Milton Glaser became the hottest design studio in New York. Sorel did not last long, but when Glaser founded New York magazine with Felker a few years later, Sorel got the perfect outlet for his increasingly powerful caricatures.
His book’s pleasures include interactions with all the major magazine editors of the second half of the last century, including George Lois, art director of Esquire in its heyday under Harold Hayes.
Gay Talese had written what would become a very famous profile, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. The crooner had refused to line up for the cover after Lois told him he wanted a close-up with a cigarette in his mouth and a bunch of sycophants eagerly trying to light it.
Lois asked Sorel for an illustration. It was a task that would give him “more visibility than I had ever had before”. He panicked and his first effort was a failure. But with only one night left, his “adrenaline somehow made my hand become a great drawing by Frank Sinatra”. It launched Sorel’s career. The original now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Village Voice, New York’s original counterculture newspaper, gave him a weekly seat. Sorel drew a memorable portrait of New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal as a tank that shot one for liberal columnist Sydney Schanberg after Schanberg was fired for attacking the news department from the up-ed side.
Tina Brown chose Sorel to make her first New Yorker cover. When Woody Allen and Mia Farrow parted ways, Sorel envisioned a Woody & Mia Analysts Convention.
If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of magazine journalism’s heyday, illustrated with drawings that are guaranteed to make you nostalgic for big fights in past years, Profusely Illustrated is perfect. When you’re done, you’re ready to revisit Mad Men again.