Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jeff MacNelly

Nine years ago his week my friend Jeff MacNelly died of cancer. He was 52.

Jeff was a cartoonist, which is a little like saying Bob Dylan is a songwriter. MacNelly didn't much like Dylan, but no matter. Jeff won three Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning, his first at 24, just two years after he "almost graduated" from college in Chapel Hill.

He wrote and drew the cartoon strip "Shoe" for more than 25 years, seven times a week, no complaints. A multiple winner of the Reuben award for cartooning, he was generally regarded as the best of his generation, both on the editorial page and in the funny papers.

MacNelly knew he was a big talent, but he was utterly lacking in pretense or vanity. I wrote once that he was nearly always not only the most talented person in the room, but the most decent, the most generous, and the funniest.

Ideas, laughs and perfect drawings poured out of him. In 1988, we worked together on a project for the Chicago Tribune. They let us do a series of full-page, full-color posters on the presidential campaign - the primaries, the conventions, the outcome. MacNelly and I would motor around Iowa or New Hampshire, happily drinking in the madness, usually in a rented Lincoln Town Car, Jeff being somewhere north of 6 foot 5.

After dinner we would talk about the events the day and I would generally have an idea. Jeff would have nine of them. Maybe a dozen. All good. Really good. All reflecting an astonishing eye for the moment, the characters, the detail and the nuance.

Some nights he would just start drawing on the placemats - Bob Dole in a fury; Michael Dukakis clenching his hands and babbling; a map of Illinois that included O'Hare International Airport and - just as big - O'Hare Baggage Claim.

On the editorial page MacNelly had great fun at the expense of Democrats, notably Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He was a big fan of the Gipper. Our politics intersected at virtually no point, but it never mattered. You just looked at the page and shook your head in admiration.

"Shoe" was about whatever Jeff wanted it to be, which is why he loved it. Among comic strips, he admired Walt Kelly's "Pogo," he said, because "it wasn't about anything." Whenever a celebrated cartoonist would go on hiatus, citing creative burnout, MacNelly would offer the big, rueful smile that was a trademark. "We're drawing cartoons here," he'd say. "It's a cartoon strip."

Late in a too-short life, Jeff took up painting and sculpture, with a focus on Key West in the former and on the American West in the latter. His work was, of course, vivid and striking and unforgettable. But again, there was never a need to get all artsy-craftsy about it. For example, MacNelly delighted in the fact that the legendary Western artist Charles Marion Russell used to toss off drawings on scraps of paper to pay his saloon bills.

On a snowy night in 1989 in a Washington restaurant, my wife Jane and I introduced Jeff to Jane's longtime friend Sue Spekin. It seemed liked the snow had not even melted before she was Sue MacNelly, on the hilltop in Rappahannock County, with the barn and horses and dogs, representing the best interests of the guy she called "the 'toonist."

These days, Sue and a pair of his old cartoon amigos keep "Shoe" moving forward. If you can't find it in the paper - let's face it, you can't find anything in the paper anymore - it's all at www.macnelly.com. The paintings are there, too.

Jeff's work graces our house and our lives, as does a photograph of him taken by our friend David Burnett. MacNelly is on his hilltop, smiling that electric smile, posed in front of his beloved, becalmed 1959 DeSoto.

They tell you that in this life you're supposed to get over this stuff. But you never, ever do. We miss Jeff every day.


  1. Truly, truly well said. I suffer the effects of only getting to know Jeff way too late, but the mere whisp of cigar smoke will recall that inimitable fashion in which he would engage both pen and cigar in that magic creative hour, just after breakfast. And there was something special about the way he maneuvered both 'gar and pen with such talent. I know I'll never draw like that, but damn, I sure wish I could hold a cigar was well as he did.

    David B

  2. Among so amnythings about Jeff, I just loved that he couln't stand to see a blank piece of white paper--and whenever he did, withing minutes it was filled with some incredibly clever, usually hysterical, work of art.

  3. Among so many things about Jeff, I just loved that he couldn't stand to see a blank piece of white paper -- and whenever he did, within minutes it was filled with some incredibly clever, usually hysterical work if art. I miss him every time I see a blank sheet of white paper.