Kaplan: Remembering David Levine, the Greatest Caricaturist of His Era

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Levine's June 10, 1968 cover for New York.

The caricaturist and painter David Levine, whose drawings appeared in the New York Review of Books, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, and many other publications over the last 50 years, died at New York Presbyterian Hospital yesterday at age 83.

I grew up staring at David Levine’s decisive, compassionate wit first on the pages of Esquire in the sixties — where his illustrations accompanied Dwight Macdonald’s film reviews as rather small, scratchy commentary — then later in New York Magazine and, of course, rather gluttonously in the New York Review of Books. They served as a kind of "Great Books" tutorial for an illustration-mad boy who lived for his books and ever-clogging Rapidograph pens. Levine had first really burst into my consciousness, however, with his 1967 Time Man of the Year cover depicting Lyndon Johnson as despairing King Lear and Hubert Humphrey as faithful Cordelia. What kind of Time cover was that?! It lifted the whole game up to another level. But those were the royal regatta days of magazines. By the time I bought No Known Survivors, his 1970 compilation — with my own money! — I was hooked, copying his work shamelessly to learn cross-hatching and Johnson-nosing. The more I copied, the more I discovered Levine was not only a great drawing man, but a kind of a Method actor: He inhabited his subjects, and the subjects stared back.

So the first time I met Levine, in 1979, it was with the tremulous avidity of a Little Leaguer meeting the Babe. Needless to say, he looked exactly like a Levine drawing. Not a Nast, not a Tenniel, not a Daumier, but a Levine. He was kindness itself, and it seemed inconceivable to him that he was a boy’s book hero. But he was. I had learned to draw by literally tracing his caricatures, and when I became an adolescent cartoonist I often described myself as a third-rate Levine — which was two levels higher than my skills suggested. He illuminated my life and my intellectual path like no other writer or illustrator of my childhood, scratching me ahead into curiosity about Pritchett and Naipaul and Colette, Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, in ways that no essayist could.

With all due respect — and is it ever due! — to the geniuses who worked alongside him, he was the greatest caricaturist of his era, in the sense that John Updike and Louis Armstrong were great, combining living curiosity, real fun, and pure discipline. Maybe it was the Brooklyn erudition: Nobody could reach his pants cuff. It wasn’t just that his cultural view was piercing, or that his cross-hatching suggested the shadow of character and human depths and heights. Nor was it the fact that technically, nobody came close to his accuracy in portraying the human skin and what lay under it. It was the combination of intelligence and soul in diagnosing what infused the public figures of our lifetime that was sublime. He saw the mischief and icy productivity of Updike, the shy caught-in-the-actness of William Shawn, the forthrightness of Groucho, the blustering maleness of Hemingway, and, needless to say, the power cupidity of Nixon, on whom Levine alone seemed to bestow a delicate pathos by remembering the lower eyelashes. David Levine was the only pen-and-ink artist who was able to create an internal world that drove deep below the black-and-white surface. It wasn’t just that he made a feast of the culture — his brilliance suggested that we were a culture worth feasting on.

Many will celebrate him, but I’d like to add this: As an editor who worked at a newspaper in the twilight age of the great print empires, nobody embodied the magic merger of ink and newsprint and its ability to state a human point of view — nobody could lift life from the page — as David Levine could. He seemed to me a little like Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein: It was always a little bit terrifying to see what he had brought to life. There was not another pen-and-ink artist in the world who invited you to look into the eyes of his creations. The eyes and the soul inside separated David Levine from caricaturists the way that Ted Williams seemed separate from other ballplayers. Nobody else’s drawings demanded that you have a conversation with them.

It may make sense that Levine left us during Christmas week. For some of us, this time of year is incomplete without considering Thomas Nast, the greatest American newspaper cartoonist of the nineteenth century. As lacerating and technically astonishing as Levine, Nast changed the culture by inventing his Santa Claus from a previously sallow and unavailable St. Nicholas. Like Nast making his embodiment of Christmas eternal, David Levine gave the saints and scoundrels of the public life of the twentieth century a dark mirth and permanence that they could never have imagined for themselves. Happy New Year with no new David Levine calendars for the 21st Century? Maybe not. But thanks to him, the personifications of culture and politics of the era will be forever alive, dragging us back into the docket of inky crosshatched shadow and light where print reigned.