James Stevenson, Ex-New Yorker Illustrator, Dies at 87

His wife, Josie Merck, said that Mr. Stevenson died of pneumonia, but that he also had dementia.

But Mr. Stevenson was best known for cartoons that mocked the pompous and the hypocritical with “an effortless competence employed to structure a drawing for maximum comic effect,” Robert Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, said in an interview. Mr. Stevenson, he added, executed his cartoons with “a perfect combination of line and wash” (diluted ink).

In 1983, decades before Donald J. Trump became president, Mr. Stevenson depicted the yawning gap between wealth and poverty at the construction site of the luxurious Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. As people walk beneath scaffolding that displays the building’s name in capital letters, an unshaven, scruffy man sits with a sign at his feet that says, “Trump Bum.”

Mr. Stevenson’s tone reflected his heyday at the magazine, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, when William Shawn was its editor.

“It was humor where voting for different people didn’t disqualify you from dating someone,” Mr. Mankoff said. “It was congenial and more benign.”

He added that Mr. Stevenson had “one complete synchronous wavelength with Shawn and Lee Lorenz,” the magazine’s former art and cartoon editor.

Mr. Stevenson shifted easily from light social commentary to a silliness that often had its roots in art, current events or old jokes.

One of his cartoons showed a particularly glum egg and a chicken meeting at a supermarket checkout line. Each has a shopping basket in tow. “Who’s next?” the cashier asks.

Another pictured three frogs on a lily pad. One, a youngster, says, “Tell us again about Monet, Grandpa.”

“Anything that was sort of ridiculous was in his milieu,” Roz Chast, one of the magazine’s star cartoonists today, said in an interview.

Photo

Credit James Stevenson

The summer job left him with a desire to contribute comedy to the magazine, so he started to send in gags for others artists’ cartoons through the rest of high school, from Yale University, from the Marine base in North Carolina where he served for about 18 months, and from Life magazine, where he was a reporter.

The New Yorker hired him in 1956. Mr. Shawn, he recalled, was at such a loss for something to say when they first met that he asked him, “Would you like to have a cigarette?” But Mr. Shawn could not find one, and they parted.

Even while he was producing cartoons for The New Yorker, Mr. Stevenson was producing children’s books. A few, like “When I Was Nine” (1986), were stories based on his youth; some were about Emma, a young redheaded witch; others were about “The Worst Person in the World” (1995), a sour old man challenged to be better by the ugliest creature in the world. He even illustrated a book by Dr. Seuss, “I Am Not Going to Get Up Today!” (1987).

In an interview with The New York Times in 1990, Mr. Stevenson said that he used a simpler voice when he wrote for children but that “the same care, the same intensity of communication” was involved in writing for adults and younger readers, with humor the bond between the ages. The joy he derived from creating picture books, he said, was connected to his love of movies.

“You cast, write the script, set design, find the right actors, people you care about, have them say the right things, find locations, the right stove for the kitchen,” he said.

Susan Hirschman, the retired publisher and editor in chief of Greenwillow Books, who published many of Mr. Stevenson’s children’s books, said in a phone interview: “Every single book is different. No cuteness, no talking down, and such sweetness and truth. I think he understood that honesty was the key.”

Mr. Stevenson was so productive, she said, that she wondered if she had done him a disservice by publishing so many of his books. “But if we’d done half as much or a third as much, someone else would have published him,” she said.

In addition to Ms. Merck, his second wife, Mr. Stevenson is survived by four daughters, Jane, Edwina, Emma and Suçie Stevenson; five sons, Harvey, Chuck, Jim, Walker and Peter; six grandchildren; a stepdaughter, Oona Coy and a stepson, Morgan Coy; and four step-grandchildren. Mr. Stevenson’s marriage to Jane Walker ended with her death in 1982.

By the time his last cartoon ran in The New Yorker, Mr. Stevenson was also contributing to The Times. He first drew editorial cartoons, and in 2004 he began an occasional series for the Op-Ed page called “Lost and Found New York,” which looked back on people and places of the past. Sometimes the pieces were little memoirs, like the one in 2010 about the Hessian Hills School, the progressive private school in Croton-on-Hudson that was a critical influence on his creativity.

No grades were given and no tests taken, he wrote. And students addressed teachers by their first names.

“We read newspapers, including The Daily Worker,” he wrote, referring to the American Communist Party publication. “We knew about the Ford strike at River Rouge, where company thugs bloodied the strikers. We painted huge murals and put on plays. My part was the heartless banker evicting Okies in the Dust Bowl.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 24, 2017, on Page B14 of the New York edition with the headline: James Stevenson, Former Illustrator For The New Yorker, Is Dead at 87.

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