Douglas McGrath ’80, left, with his father-in-law Henry Martin ’48 and his son Henry Raynsford McGrath ’20. The photo was taken at Martin’s 91st birthday.
Jane Read Martin McGrath
‘He had a quality that grows more rare, and thus more precious, in these coarse and vicious times: unfailing courtesy’

Henry Martin was that rare thing: a person who got to do exactly what he dreamed of doing, and he did it beautifully. For more than four decades he was an artist at The New Yorker, where he contributed hundreds of cartoons that placed him in the pantheon of that magazine’s most celebrated contributors. He also did countless ‘spot’ drawings, small sketches that offer occasional relief for the eye from the pages of text in the magazine. He is deservedly best known for his cartoons, but I am partial to his spots, many of which have a storybook charm. 

He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 15, 1925, and was drawing by the time he was 4 — he never stopped, even after he retired from The New Yorker in 1999. He did cartoons for Pennswood Village, the retirement community in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife Edie spent the last years of their lives, and always throughout his life he created drawings,  logos, and cartoons for Princeton, decorating banners, class notes, and all manner of University communications. Like many of us, he was mad for Princeton. He loved it so much, he moved there after he finished grad school at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. 

After their first daughter, Ann, was born, Hank got an office at 17 Charlton St., a one-room studio next to a private house on the fringe of the campus. He would often ride his bike there and do what creative people must do: create. He knew that waiting for inspiration was a good way to lose the day, and then the week, and then the game. So he would come in, sit down at his drawing board and start drawing, just doodling at first, seeing what he could coax out of himself and his pen. He made himself produce five cartoons a day, four days a week, and then every Wednesday, he would take those cartoons into New York City and, as he said, “peddle my wares.” Early on, The New Yorker began acquiring his spot drawings, but it was almost 10 years before the magazine accepted a cartoon. It takes a certain kind of spirit to keep going — and not grimly — in the face of that rejection, to endure the discouragement without bitterness, but that was the spirit he had. 

There is a plaque outside the building on West 44th Street where The New Yorker had its offices for decades before moving to swankier, glassier rooms in the Conde Nast building. The plaque takes note of the magazine’s life there, and it mentions a handful of the celebrated writers and artists who made the magazine so invaluable to generations of readers. Of the scores of cartoonists who have been in the magazine, only 14 could be named, and Hank was one of them, along with Charles Addams, Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, and Saul Steinberg. When we looked at the plaque one night, Hank shook his head and said, “I just don’t understand this — the other people, yes, but I just don’t know why I’m up there.” It was not false modesty; he was just a person whose talent did not corrupt his humility. 

Read more about Henry Martin ’48 in PAW’s Lives issue

He always encouraged new artists, whether at Princeton where he was an alumni adviser to The Princeton Tiger humor magazine, or at The New Yorker where he made friends with new generations of cartoonists. He became great pals with Roz Chast, who said that Hank was one of the first of the old guard who welcomed her and her new and (to them) eccentric style. He thought she was terrific, as an artist and a person, though they had a lively, years-long disagreement over the comic strip Nancy. (Roz was for it, Hank against.) They signed their correspondence to each other “Nancy” and “Sluggo.”

He was old world in the best ways: all the charm and generosity, none of the bigotry or limits. I almost never saw him in a bad mood, which is one of the luckiest of all things for a son-in-law to say about a father-in-law, especially a son-in-law whose earnings varied wildly from year to year. Hank’s life as a fellow creative person made him sympathetic to my struggles, and he was an unending source of encouragement. I was out of town in Hartford with my play, The Age of Innocence, and on opening night he emailed me this: “Tonight is the BIG night and I wish you all in the luck in the world. You don’t know how much I admire you and all you’ve accomplished over the years since I’ve known you. Devotion and hard work are the keys to success. At least that is what I found.” 

In 2004, I was in Austin, Texas, for three months to make my film Infamous, and Hank wrote me letters or postcards two or three times a week. I was staying at a great old hotel, the Driscoll, which still had mailboxes behind the front desk for all the rooms. This was long past the time when people still got actual mail at their hotel, and one day, the woman handing me yet another letter from Hank said, “Do you mind my asking you why you get so much mail?” I said, “These are from my father-in-law.” To which she replied, “Oh, my God! For real? Really? That is the sweetest thing I ever heard.” Weeks later, when I checked out to go home, she said, “Tell your father-in-law we’ll miss the mail!”

The truth is, if you gave me a kit from which I could have constructed the perfect father-in-law, Hank is just what I would have built. He was engaged in the world, and he was easily given to laughter. He loved Princeton, the theater, old-fashioneds, Jack Benny, Pearl Bailey, Woody Allen, and Nathan Lane. Even though he worked alone in his office, he always wore a coat and tie. “You never know,” he explained, “when someone is going to stop by and ask you to lunch.” We never once had to discuss sports. He was so offended by Richard Nixon that he left the Republican Party and became a Democrat. The only subject on which we fiercely disagreed was tomatoes. (He was against, I am for. I was totally with him on the Nancy controversy.)

And he had a quality that grows more rare, and thus more precious, in these coarse and vicious times: unfailing courtesy. The last words I heard him say were to a nurse who was adjusting his pillow to try and make him more comfortable. He had no real voice left, just a whisper, and he used it to say, “Thank you ever so much.”

No, Hank — thank you.

Douglas McGrath ’80 is a filmmaker and playwright. He is the husband of Jane Read Martin, Henry Martin ’48’s younger daughter, and the father of Henry Raynsford McGrath ’20.