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Something Special: Peter Arno’s Publishing Debut

“I’ve made a couple of drawings with the charcoal outfit I bought, and find it works just to my satisfaction.”

The following is an excerpt from “Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist” by Michael Maslin.

In 1920, Peter Arno made his publishing debut with two pieces in The Mischianza. The first drawing, a black-and-white illustration for the Hotchkiss Debating Union, exhibits a deft handling of form, combined with an undeniable sense of energy. In the drawing, a debater, sitting forward atop a lectern, is just about to make a point by slamming his right fist into his left open palm. His brow, deeply furrowed, his mouth wide open and slightly twisted, suggests a person thoroughly engaged in the moment. The ornate signature, “C A Peters Jr,” is typical of the era.

By senior year, or let’s say during his last two years, Pete finally became known and understood. He did posters for the prom and illustrations for school publications. Such things impressed students, faculty and head master greatly and by then Pete’s classmates idolized him.

By his third year, his interest in the arts blossomed. He wrote his mother:

I’ve been taken on the mandolin and banjo clubs, as well as the Dramatic Association. Along with the school work, they keep me pretty busy, but I don’t mind the extra work any.

Arno further branched out that fall, joining the track squad, the Musical Association, and the Dramatic Association. He was leader of the “Wa-hoo” Society Orchestra, the school orchestra. He also won the Dramatic Cover-design Contest. In the fall of 1920, he wrote his mother: “. . . have been having a fine time.” And then, in February of 1921:

Dear Mother,

Please forgive my not writing for so long, but naturally my time is pretty well filled up with getting ready for the Mid—I have to draw a lot for the Misch and Lit, too, and that keeps me busy.

In another letter to his mother, in April of ’21:

I’ve made a couple of drawings with the charcoal outfit I bought, and find it works just to my satisfaction. I expect to do a lot of work in this medium, and hope to get good results.

And then, in May:

Hope you don’t worry any about my studies. I’ve been working hard, but the assignments toward the end of the year are very difficult, and I’d been trying to do too many outside activities, but am spending more time on studies now. I passed everything last quarter, so am out of study. I’ve finished all my drawings for the Misch, and am certainly glad it’s over. Have about twelve things in this year . . .

Along with his successes came an attitude. His classmate, G. Clark Keeley called it “an independence in Pete’s character”—Arno, now seventeen years old, was struggling with the disintegration of his parents’ marriage. His father had fallen in love with New York City native Charlotte Kallensee, a woman in her mid-twenties, who Arno felt “. . . represented the evil that had entered our once-home and destroyed it.” For Arno, his father’s betrayal was unforgivable—it marked the beginning of the end of whatever father-son relationship was left.

In the summer of 1921 Arno and a classmate, Tom Rhodes, traveled west by car to work at Tom’s father’s cement mill, the Castalia Portland Cement Company in Castalia, Ohio. Arno wrote his mother:

Our job is to load crushed stone into little carts which are drawn away to the mill. The work is hot and strenuous, but it’ll do us a lot of good physically and will be a fine experience for me. We are paid $3.60 a day, working ten hours, 6 days a week . . . What do you make of your pride and joy making his living all by himself for two months?

By his senior year, Arno was thoroughly engaged in pursuing his interests in art, theater, and music. He had become, by this time, “banjo crazy”—his idol was a “short hunchback man” named Michael Pingatore, a banjoist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the premier jazz orchestra of the day.

Pingatore (originally named Pingitore), a charter member of the sensationally popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra, developed a strumming style, sometimes described as looping, that can be easily picked out when listening to Whiteman’s recordings. Pingatore also developed a banjo with a longer neck. Arno acquired one of these after meeting and talking banjos with Pingatore at the Palais Royal on Broadway and 48th Street, where the Whiteman Orchestra was ensconced for a four-year run.

Whiteman’s popularity at this time had skyrocketed due to his hit song “Whispering,” as well as his enormously successful stand at the Palais Royale. His management, seeing gold in the Whiteman name, spawned the idea of booking “satellite bands under the Whiteman banner.” Arno’s band was offered such an opportunity. According to Whiteman’s biographer, Thomas DeLong, “much of Whiteman’s business files have long since disappeared.” As there is no mention of playing for Whiteman in Arno’s letters home, or in his unfinished memoir, it seems unlikely he accepted the offer.

Arno said later he spent his “last dollars to buy a Paramount similar to [Pingatore’s] six or seven instruments,” proudly proclaiming in his senior yearbook “Pingatore has one like this!”

Besides his involvement with the banjo and mandolin quartets, and leading the mandolin club, Arno had become art editor of The Mischianza. Arno’s drawings filled The Mischianza of 1922—it was practically a one-man show.

However impressive his senior year schedule had become, Arno continued having behavioral problems in the classroom. In a “Special Report” issued November 19, 1921, he was cited by his French teacher as “Careless in preparation. Inattentive in class work. Should do it, but needs to work.” His history teacher reported Arno was “abundantly able to win good marks. Inattention, football and lack of effort is my diagnosis.” Curtis Senior, after reading the Special Report, shot off this note to Dr. Buehler:

I have written to him [Arno] that the report is a disgrace and that he must secure better marks in the coming terms or he will be subjected to severe penalties. I thank you for this report and assure you that I will do everything in my power to render unnecessary a similar report in the future.

By now, Arno’s mother had left the family’s home on 1 West 82nd for the Hotel San Remo on Central Park West and 72nd Street, where she was joined by her father, Ga-Ga. Edith, according to her granddaughter Patricia, was “a very religious woman [who] refused to acknowledge the divorce from [Curtis], his remarriage to Charlotte, nor the legitimacy of their daughter, Constance Peters.”

Up to this time, Arno had been unwilling to challenge his father, but with this unraveling of his family he “. . . found the guts to defy him . . .” Although “the boy rebelled” he moved ahead with plans to attend Yale—his interests in music and art propelling him forward.

At the end of his senior year [June 1, ’22], Arno wrote to his mother:

Just think of it! My course at Hotchkiss—four long years—will be over in about four weeks. It will be good to be home again, though, and then there’ll be no more long terms away from you any more.

After Dr. Buehler sent his final recommendation off to New Haven in late summer, Arno was officially a Yale man.

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