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 Leo Aloysius Cullum  (1942 - 2010)

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Lived/Active: California/New Jersey      Known for: gag cartoons-New Yorker

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Ad Code: 4
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Leo Cullum, New Yorker Cartoonist, Dies at 68
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: October 25, 2010

Leo Cullum, a cartoonist whose blustering businessmen, clueless doctors, venal lawyers and all-too-human dogs and cats amused readers of The New Yorker for the past 33 years, died on Saturday in Los Angeles.  He was 68 and lived in Malibu, Calif.

The cause was cancer, said his brother, Thomas.

Mr. Cullum, a TWA pilot for more than 30 years, was a classic gag cartoonist whose visual absurdities were underlined, in most cases, by a caption reeled in from deep left field. “I love the convenience, but the roaming charges are killing me,” a buffalo says, holding a cellphone up to its ear. “Your red and white blood cells are normal,” a doctor tells his patient. “I’m worried about your rosé cells.”

Mr. Cullum seemed to have a particular affinity for the animal kingdom. His comic sympathies extended well beyond dogs, cats and mice to embrace birds — “When I first met your mother, she was bathed in moonlight,” a father owl tells his children — and even extended to the humbler representatives of the fish family. “Some will love you, son, and some will hate you,” an anchovy tells his child. “It’s always been that way with anchovies.”

“There are many ways for a cartoon to be great, not the least of which is to be funny, and Leo was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists we ever had,” said Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker. “He was certainly one of the most popular — some of his cartoons were reprinted thousands of times.”

In all, Mr. Cullum published 819 cartoons in The New Yorker, the most recent in the issue for Oct. 25. Many of them were gathered in the collections “Scotch & Toilet Water?,” a book of dog cartoons; “Cockatiels for Two” (cats); “Tequila Mockingbird” (various species) and “Suture Self” (doctors).

Leo Aloysius Cullum was born on Jan. 11, 1942, in Newark and grew up in North Bergen, N.J. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he earned a degree in English in 1963. On graduating, he entered the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant and underwent flight training in Pensacola, Fla.

In 1966 he was sent to Vietnam, where he flew 200 missions, most in support of ground-troop operations, but at one point he flew secret bombing runs over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. “Who these were secret from I’m still not sure,” Mr. Cullum told Holy Cross magazine in 2006. “The North Vietnamese certainly knew it wasn’t the Swiss bombing them.”

He went straight from Vietnam to employment with TWA, flying international and domestic flights. He retired at 60 from American Airlines, which merged with TWA in 2001.

During layovers he rekindled a childhood interest in drawing and decided to become a cartoonist. “It looked like something I could do,” he told Holy Cross magazine. “I bought some instructional books which explained the format, and I began studying the work of various cartoonists.”

Inevitably, he set his sights on The New Yorker. The magazine rejected his early submissions but bought some of his ideas, turning them over to Charles Addams to illustrate. The first one resulted in a captionless Addams cartoon from 1975 of an elderly couple canoeing on a peaceful lake. Their reflection in the water, depicting the husband’s actual state of mind, shows him, in a homicidal rage, attacking his wife with his paddle.

After Mr. Addams encouraged him to strike out on his own, Mr. Cullum sold his first magazine cartoon to Air Line Pilot Magazine and soon placed his work with True, Argosy, Saturday Review and Sports Afield.

Before long he cracked The New Yorker. On Jan. 3, 1977, the magazine published his first cartoon, which showed a bathrobed businessman drinking coffee at his desk, surrounded by chickens and speaking into a telephone. The caption read: “No, you’re not disturbing me, Herb. I’m up with the chickens this morning.”

Mr. Cullum quickly became a regular. By the 1980s he was one of the magazine’s most prolific and beloved contributors. “Starting around the mid-1990s, no one was published in The New Yorker more than Leo,” Mr. Mankoff said. He also contributed regularly to The Harvard Business Review and Barron’s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Cullum managed the delicate feat of finding humor when the prevailing national mood was black. The issue of The New Yorker that came out immediately after the attacks carried no cartoons, but Mr. Cullum’s was the first cartoon that the magazine’s readers saw the following week, on Page 6 under the list of contributors. A woman, turning to the man next to her at a bar, says: “I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket.”

His most popular cartoon, from 1998, showed a man addressing the family cat, which is sitting next to the litterbox. “Never, ever, think outside the box,” he says.

He is survived by his wife, Kathy; a brother, Thomas, of Reston, Va.; and two daughters, the former child actresses Kimberly Berry and Kaitlin Cullum, both of Los Angeles.

In 2006 Mr. Cullum’s work appeared in The Rejection Collection, a book of cartoons rejected by The New Yorker. Asked to complete the sentence “When I’m not cartooning, I ...,” he wrote, “am wrestling, then showering, with my demons.”


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