The popular New Yorker artist creates a riotous menagerie of attorney dogs, businessman cats, TV-watching mice and fashion-challenged penguins.
By James Dempsey
A balding, well-dressed businessman is glaring down at the family cat, who sits, attentive and tail erect, beside the litter box. The stern-faced businessman speaks:
“Never, ever think outside the box.”
A courtroom scene: the judge looks down at the defendant, an apprehensive dog wearing a suit and tie. The defense lawyer puts a comforting hand on the shoulder of his canine client.
“You’re going to do time,” he whispers, “but I’m trying to get it in dog years.”
The doctor is a rabbit. The patient is a snowman with a large carrot nose. “We could reshape your nose with conventional surgery,” says the doctor-rabbit, eyeing the carrot greedily, “but I’m going to suggest something radical.”
The world of Leo Cullum ’63 is one of humanoid animals and animal-like humans. Dogs in business suits sit at bars and commiserate over their martinis. Mice get psychoanalyzed. Parrots argue politics. Cats discuss the point of life while waiting patiently at a baseboard mouse hole. It’s all very bizarre, yet somehow thoroughly familiar. Who wouldn’t cheer for the mouse trying to forge an anti-cat alliance with a gullible-looking dog by reminding him that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend”?
The art of the cartoonist is that of the minimalist. Given a tiny space and using only a few words of text, he or she has no more than a second or two to create a believable world, populate it with recognizable characters, offer us a unique take on the human animal and make us laugh, often at ourselves. It’s quite a trick.
Cullum has been performing this trick since 1977 for the readers of The New Yorker, in which he has published 612 cartoons. “Leo is a classic gag cartoonist,” says Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker. “He is a master at creating an extraordinary image and then teaming it up with some ordinary, everyday phrase that lets us, for an instant, enjoy the logical craziness of a perfect cartoon.”
Cullum always had an interest in art. He remembers as a child visiting the home of an uncle who painted and whose studio was stuffed with paints and drawing supplies. “I loved that room,” says Cullum.
He grew up in North Bergen, N.J., where his father, Thomas ’30, ran a trucking company. Among the family’s many friends was one James Braddock—the boxer who would go on to overcome enormous odds and, a 10-1 underdog, win the heavyweight championship of the world from Max Baer. Cullum attended St. Peter’s Preparatory School with future Holy Cross classmates Barry Tyne, Phil Martorelli, Richie Macchia, Bill Reid and Hugh McCormick.
Young Cullum quickly learned the power of humor. “Everybody seemed to be my older brother Tom’s age, so I was always attempting to fit in, usually by means of humor,” he says.
The Cullums lived just across the Hudson from Manhattan, but trips to the city were usually only for special events such as the rodeo or performances by cowboy entertainers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. More often than not, Cullum and his friends would spend their free time riding their bicycles or using public transportation. “A big adventure would be to ride our bikes across the George Washington Bridge, drop eggs on boats, climb the Palisades or go exploring the derelict barges along the shore of the Hudson River,” he says.
Summers were often spent at his uncle’s Camp Notre Dame on Lake Spofford in New Hampshire. Cullum remembers the talent shows at which monologues were delivered by a young would-be comedian called George Carlin. The camp, Cullum says, was good training for his days at Holy Cross, offering its young guests such delights as freezing mornings and compulsory Mass.
Cullum was destined for Holy Cross. His father was an alumnus, after all, and the uncle after whom he was named, Rev. Leo A. Cullum, was a Jesuit. Fr. Cullum, who was taken by the Japanese as a prisoner of war in World War II, spent most of his adult life as a missionary in the Philippines. He eventually became Father Provincial of the islands.
Cullum did not have a lot of spare time for art at Holy Cross. He recalls that there was a studio art course offered in a Quonset hut near the St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, but Cullum couldn’t afford the luxury of a not-for-credit course. He did some drawing for The Crusader and produced a few campaign posters for friends running for school office.
His other memories of Holy Cross include the “great camaraderie” of the institution; late-night discussion of The Ugly American with Rev. Joseph Labran, S.J., “who lived on Fenwick 4 with us freshman year and always had time for a talk”; and, again, the wintry temperatures of Mount St. James. In fact, Cullum is pretty sure his undergraduate career at Holy Cross was one long, shivering, sniffling four-year cold. He is now settled in sunny Malibu, happily exchanging the inconveniences of brush fires and the occasional earthquake for the region’s temperate weather.
Once a year or so, Cullum’s parents would visit him at Holy Cross to take him to dinner at the old Putnam and Thurston’s restaurant in downtown Worcester. This was an outing that provided a “welcome relief from the dining in Kimball Hall.” He also recalls visiting Mechanics Hall during its incarnation as a boxing venue to see classmates Mac Buckley and Peter Cox duke it out under their ring names of Denny Mack and Slim Peters respectively.
Cullum majored in English in a class that included future poet laureate Billy Collins. But he himself wasn’t a writer, reserving his literary skills for letters home requesting money. His last year was a mix of pain and pleasure. The pain was provided by a class in Greek taught by Rev. Francis X. Carty, S.J. The pleasure came when Fr. Carty allowed Cullum and others to make up missed work by performing The Medea in English.
“I always felt the play lost something in the original Greek,” he says aphoristically. Cullum often seems to be trying out gag lines for future cartoons.
Hugh McCormick, M.D., ’63, was a childhood friend of Cullum’s, and the two often drove home from Holy Cross to New Jersey in what McCormick called his “illegitimate” car. Students weren’t supposed to have cars until their final year, but McCormick took the risk of suspension and kept his in a rented garage at the top of College Hill. The trips gave the two young men plenty of time to talk.
“He was a quiet but somehow very entertaining and funny guy,” McCormick says. “Look at his cartoons, and you really see his personality.”
The Cartoon World of Leo Cullum ’63, continued >>>
A Life in the Air