The Outside Rail

If Jim Stevenson read this, he’d probably say I overwrote it. Something like that, anyway. But, here goes.

Jim, who I met back in 1998 a few moments after my brother Sean won the New York Turf Writers Cup steeplechase race at Saratoga, died Friday. He was 87 and an accomplished cartoonist, writer, author, storyteller, husband, father, grandfather and person.

He had a gray mustache cooler people would call a Fu Manchu, an easy laugh and a gift of gab. He read my stuff, no matter where it appeared and would send me the odd note or call with a compliment or subtle critique. I loved it and will miss him, as will his wife Josie, nine children, six grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

Jim’s mother-in-law Betty Merck owned steeplechase horses, which is how I came to meet him that day in 1998 – when Sean and Hokan won the Turf Writers and I watched (with Jim, Josie and a slew of others) from two overflowing clubhouse boxes at Saratoga. Jim was gracious, conversational, interested and interesting.

When I’d write something that worked, be it in Steeplechase Times or the New York Times, he was sure to read it and let me know. 

Jim always seemed like a throwback – to a time of magazines and newspapers, celebrities, books, writers, editors, old-school bars and simpler things. You didn’t carry a phone in your pocket, but you might have a magazine or a book. And you could sit down and tell a story to anyone from 9 to 90.

Jim wrote more than 100 children’s books. A hundred. Their titles are funny, their content even better:

• Could Be Worse.

• We Can’t Sleep.

• No Laughing, No Smiling, No Giggling.

• What’s Under My Bed?

• Don’t Make Me Laugh.

• We Hate Rain!

• The Worse Person in the World.

• Quick! Turn the Page!

• That’s Exactly The Way It Wasn’t.

• Brrr!

• Clams Can’t Sing.

• Yuck!

• The Most Amazing Dinosaur.

And on and on and on. They take up nine pages on Amazon and if you know a kid you should buy some.

But that’s not the half of it.

Jim produced 1,987 cartoons and nearly 80 covers for The New Yorker magazine according to Ink Spill, a blog specializing in all things New Yorker. The total puts him in the top five artists to contribute to the magazine, which began in 1925.

Jim was born in New York City in 1929. His father Harvey helped design F.D.R. Drive in Manhattan. Jim graduated from the Hackley School and Yale. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps (that explains a lot) from 1951-53, reaching the rank of second lieutenant. He was a reporter for Life Magazine for two years and joined The New Yorker on something of a lark. He’d interned there in 1947 because his mother, Winifred, knew the fiction editor. Nine years later – after Yale, the Marines, Life – Jim got hired as an “idea man.” His job was to create ideas for the cartoonists, though the job came with one caveat. He couldn’t tell anyone what he did.

Art editor James Geraghty swore Jim to secrecy, and Jim held up his end of the deal. Nobody knew, though he soon had his own cartoons published and spawned a career of New Yorker contributions in nearly every format – writing, cartoons, drawings and covers.

Two years ago, I was honored to speak at Mrs. Merck’s funeral. Weeks afterward, a cardboard box arrived at my office. Inside, packed in bubble wrap, paper and more cardboard, was a framed original of a New Yorker cover from Sept. 21, 1987. Jim captured a gardener, leaning on a ladder and looking satisfactorily at a manicured hedge. In the background, five horses charge toward it in a steeplechase race. From an inscription on the artwork, Jim had given it to Mrs. Merck in 1995. Twenty years later, Jim left a note for me on the back in black marker: Dear Joe, With great admiration for all you do for the horses and their stories – Love from Jim and Josie. The art is on my office wall and it makes me smile.

But work for The New Yorker might not be the half of it either.

In the 1990s, Jim started writing “Lost and Found New York” for the New York Times op/ed pages. There’s a hard-cover book of the collected columns with the added words “Oddballs, Heroes, Heartbreakers, Scoundrels, Thugs, Mayors, and Mysteries” in the title. I can’t wait to read it.

Jim and Josie lived in Cos Cob, Conn., but spent summers on Block Island, which also figures. If you don’t know, Block Island is a tiny (less than 10 square miles) spot of land 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island and 14 miles off the tip of Long Island. It’s unspoiled by commercialism or much of anything really with no restaurant or store chains unless you count Ben and Jerry’s. It’s a different place. My wife and I went there somewhat by accident on our first anniversary in 1991 and have been back sporadically ever since. Someday, I joke, we’re buying a one-way ferry ticket and never coming back.

Anyway, at some point Jim, Josie and I put it together that we had Block Island in common. They’re local legends, sort of, with a windmill, a “sea-foam green” VW microbus and their hands in all things worthwhile like the nature conservancy, a book about sea monsters and other tall tales, the new wind turbines and all things Block Island.

In July, I met them for coffee at the Surf Hotel. It’s as advertised – old, creaky, breezy, standing sentry over the water and beach. Technically it’s been fixed up, but it can’t be that different than it was in the 1920s. I rode a bike. They rumbled there in the VW. We talked about kids and breakfast and Mrs. Merck and writing. As usual, Josie was energetic and caring. Jim was slower and shakier than the last time I saw him, a little more forgetful, but he brightened when we talked about the island and he added to the conversation. By the end of July, he had to be flown to a hospital on the mainland with a heart problem.

Jim got over that, and enjoyed more days with Josie and his family. I saw a video of him in Mrs. Merck’s barn in New Jersey. Jim stood in the shedrow wearing khaki pants, a dress shirt and a sharp green sweater. The horses hung their heads out the doors and begged for carrots. It would have made a great cartoon.

Almost five months after that moment, he died at home in Connecticut – of complications from pneumonia. I’m not sure he ever went back to Block Island, and that saddens me, though I’m sure he’d have roughed out a funny cartoon of an old man standing on the shore and flagging down a sea monster to give him a ride for one more visit. In a bit of good news, Josie informed me that they did indeed get to Block Island in October to visit friends and friendly places. 

Life ends for each of us at some point, and Jim’s time came last week. What a life he lived. I’m glad I knew him.

NOTE: An exhibit of Jim’s work – “Century Masters: James Stevenson” can be seen through March 17 at the Century Club, 7 West 43rd Street in New York City. The exhibit is open Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

The great Roger Angell on Jim Stevenson.

Jim Stevenson obituary.

Ink Spill tribute to Jim Stevenson.

Jim Stevenson on Amazon.com.

 

Below: Jim and Betty Merck at Saratoga in 2010. Tod Marks photo

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