ABOUT SYD HOFF
Articles Written about Syd:
Syd Hoff's Cartoon Life
by Sarah Lazarovic
(reprinted from The Tablet Magazine, July 2012)
Launched in September of 2010, Beached Miami.com covers a nascent phenomenon called Miami Culture. It features Miami’s best musicians and artists, and provides a platform for Miami creatives to communicate with the city.
Get witnesses! Miami cartoonist Syd Hoff at 100
By Dina Weinstein | July 16th, 2012
A new show at the Miami Beach Regional Library celebrates author, New Yorker cartoonist, and long-time Miami Beach resident Syd Hoff (1912-2004), best known for the kids’ books Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Sammy the Seal (1959). In what would have been his 100th year, Syd Hoff: Finding Home showcases Hoff’s life and work with photographic reproductions, text panels, and dozens of little known and out-of-print works from the curator’s collection, the Miami Dade Public Library Florida Author collection, and The University of Miami library.
A classically trained artist, Hoff explored belonging through underdog characters like Albert the Albatross, Julius the Gorilla, and Grizzwold the bear. The Bronx-born high school dropout cut his teeth as a gag cartoonist for The New Yorker, mainstream magazines, and King Features Syndicate.
Starting in The Depression, New Yorker editor Harold Ross told Hoff to “keep drawing those Bronx types.” Intimate and humorous scenes of outer borough immigrants and strivers were his specialty. Dozens of his cartoons take place in tenement kitchens, tease out family relationships, and take aim at single daughters and convict spouses. Hoff revealed his personal history by including his corpulent parents in just about every cartoon and storybook.
Around the same time as his start at The New Yorker, Hoff drew a biting cartoon series called “Ruling Clawss” under the pen-name A. Redfield for the leftist newspaper The Daily Worker as legions of unemployed Americans starved and demonstrated for better work conditions and pay. His focus was the absurdity of the one percent in light of the dramatic economic inequality. The Occupy movement has embraced many of these cartoons making the history fresh and strangely applicable to today’s political and economic climate.
Hoff’s early work portrays an ethnic, working-class, urban America. His made-in-Miami, post-war, Baby Boom juvenile books, like Danny, take place in more prosperous, suburban settings, much like Hoff’s Miami Beach neighborhood. Hoff’s HarperCollins editor Ursula Nordstrom considered him a genius for his skill producing “good books for bad children.” He was in good company, joining artists Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, and Crockett Johnson.
Hoff’s stories, with their Lefty subtext, gave the 60s generation fuel to imagine, explore, and accept The Other. Syd Hoff: Finding Home brings us back to the authority-free appeal of “Danny”, who starts his adventure this way: “It would be nice to play with a dinosaur.”
Dear Genius…the letters of Ursula Nordstrom, 1998
Ursula Nordstrom was arguably the greatest editor of American children's books in this century -- a Maxwell Perkins for the Tot Department, as she called her bailiwick at Harper & Row. From the evidence in this collection of her letters, not only did she change literature for young people, she changed the lives of many who created it.
For most of her career, she practiced her wizardry from an understaffed, wildly messy office in Harper's department of Books for Boys and Girls, where she arrived as a shy young assistant to the director in 1936.
Her contacts with her ''geniuses,'' as she often called her authors, continued even after she retired, as she did twice. (She was a senior vice president of Harper & Row until 1973, when she took ''early retirement'' to become editor of Ursula Nordstrom Books, her own imprint within the department. In 1980 she gave up that title as well.)
In retirement, Nordstrom considered assembling her letters, but died in 1988 of ovarian cancer, her project unfinished. Leonard S. Marcus, has done the job for her -- choosing, editing and annotating in a way that conveys her devotion to her friends and colleagues.
Kind and generous as she may have been, what she got paid for, of course, was to improve books. And in this respect her real genius glows from these letters. For an example of a brilliant editor at work, look no farther than her lengthy December 1957 letter to Syd Hoff, the New Yorker cartoonist and illustrator. Hoff had just submitted his first children's book, the now-classic ''Danny and the Dinosaur'' (1958). Working from a dummy of 64 pages, Nordstrom leads her new author sentence by sentence, complimenting, criticizing, suggesting, prodding, teaching. ''Pages 18 and 19 seem very resistible to me, Syd. The rest of the story is so reasonable, given the fact that a dinosaur came to life, but this stuff about pushing the cloud away with his nose doesn't quite come off, I'm afraid. The same for the wet cement episode on page 19.'' And again: ''I doubt that the children would have done anything so consciously adorable as 'join hands and form a ring.' Wouldn't they just jump up and down and shout 'Hurray hurray for the dinosaur'?'' God was in the details for Nordstrom, and she was merciless in pursuit of perfection.
by Michael Aushenker, Community Editor
If you have children or friend with children, chances are you have come across Syd Hoff, the author and illustrator who, over a 40 year stretch, has produced some of our most enduring children’s books.
One reason Hoff, 85, has been around for so long has to do with the antic quality of his drawing – pleasing, economical pen-and-ink illustrations textured with monochromatic color. Another reason is, no doubt, related to the ideas and themes that his Jewish subconscious has projected into a plethora of whimsical adventures that reach out both to children and parent alike. These colorful yarns usually follow certain Hoffian conventions – the displaced animal or human outcast, wandering through and alienating, if benign, society, looking for a friend, a home, or a way home. Often times, the central character is shunned by the people or animals of his new environment – politely informed that he is unwanted – until the insouciant misfit performs an act that endears him to society and leads to his acceptance and happiness. Ultimately, Hoff’s books are thinly disguised celebrations of the individual triumphing over the conventional masses in devil-may-care fashion – finding love, purpose, and a place in the world.
In the case of “Stanley,” the story of a caveman kicked out of his clan for being too gentle, the book was published in 1962, at the height of “The Flintstones” prime-time popularity. But despite superficial similarities, Hoff most likely had another famous caveman in the back of his mind. “I think I must’ve subconsciously observed the humor in “The Flintstones,” Hoff told the Journal. “Prior to that, there was a comic strip with a caveman called “Alley Oop.” You try to subconsciously absorb something from everything (that you come across).” In fact, Hoff has publicly credited his grandmother’s eccentricity for instilling in him his flair for fantasy and penchant for exotic animal characters. After all, she owned a pet parrot and would routinely feed it blintzes, gefilte fish, matzo balls, and other homemade confections.
Born in the Bronx in 1912, Hoff grew up following the exploits of his favorite newspaper funnies. Strips like “Barney Google,” “Happy Hooligan” and cartoonists like Harry Hershfield and a sports cartoonist Thomas Alluewishes Dorgan (known by the initials T.A.D.), all had an impact on the young artist.
But Hoff’s first brush with his artistic destiny came when Milt Gross, a famous cartoonist best known for “Dave’s Delicatessen” and “Count Screwloose,” singled him out while visiting a Morris High School assembly.
Recalls Hoff, “We were friends for as long as he lived (until he died in the fifties).”
By his mid teens, Hoff began training at the prestigious National Academy of Design. However by 1931, at the age of 18, Hoff gave up any pretensions of becoming a fine artist when he sold his first gag cartoon to The New Yorker. He instantly detoured into a multi-decade stint supplying gag cartoons to the magazine, as well as other periodicals like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Liberty. According to Hoff, New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross – “a brilliant man” raised in Aspen, Colorado with decidedly conservative, Puritanical values –most likely hired him to reach Jewish readers.
“With Ross’s editing, my characters became more and more Jewish,” Hoff related to a Florida paper. “Sometimes they would even change a caption to give it a real Jewish accent. They had a Jewish jeweler saying, ‘It’s solid golt.’ This would never happen today.”
Hoff often drew upon his predominantly Jewish immigrant environment for inspiration.
Within these exquisitely – rendered single-panel comics, Hoff quickly mastered the fine art of lampooning the tensions between the sexes and the classes in Urban American. This was all before Hoff’s career took yet another direction in 1958 with the sale of Danny and the Dinosaur (the good-natured exploits of a boy who befriends a museum dinosaur) to Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). Perhaps his seminal creation, “Danny” has its origin in a turbulent time in Hoff’s life, when his daughter, Susan, was convalescing following hip surgery.
“I drew a picture that I hoped would take her mind off her crutches,” he once wrote in an autobiographical sketch. “…my conception of a prehistoric creature, with my brother as a boy, sitting on its back.”
Susan’s enthusiasm inspired Hoff that night to cultivate the project that would establish his name and his fortune in the children’s book industry. Since then, the prolific Hoff has written and/or illustrated over 200 children’s books, all while maintaining a 20 year secondary career as a syndicated cartoonist, working well through the early 80’s on newspaper comics like Laugh it Off and Tuffy. He also tours extensively across the country, visiting grade schools on what he calls “chalk talks.”
Since his wife of 57 years, Dora “Dutch” Berman passed away in 1994 following open-heart surgery, Hoff has picked up the pace on his production schedule, recently completing two sequels to his most well-known work, Danny and the Dinosaur.” And while “Danny” may be Hoff’s called card (over 10 million copies sold to date), it certainly is not the author’s only classic –Julius (1959), Sammy the Seal (1959), Oliver (1960), Albert the Albatross (1961, and Grizzwold (1963) are just a few of his familiar titles.
Ask any gorilla, elephant, walrus, or bear, and they will most likely concur that of all the American Jews who have contributed to the advancement of the children’s book art form, Syd Hoff is the most American. For Dr. Seuss wore the crown as clown prince of surrealist verse, approaching Yiddish with his nonsensical cadences; Shel Silverstein lent a Talmudic wisdom to his gentle parables of life and longing; and when the Reys fled from Nazi-occupied France on a bicycle, the couple not only smuggled with them the manuscript for Curious George but also a European sensibility and sophistication that informed their work.
Syd Hoff’s work, on the other hand, has always conveyed a quintessential Americana of the 40’s and 50’s –clean, bold minimalism in text and art; cartoon idioms; whimsical characters set loose in generic cityscapes, populated by vaguely ethnic citizens and bulbous cars –all hallmarks of a tradition Hoff cultivated during his early years as a top-dollar gag cartoonist. Despite the sketchier line and flatter colors prevalent in his most recent books, Hoff’s winning artwork has been amazingly consistent over the years –a stability and quality that has directly linked the children of the 60’s to the kids of the ‘90’s.
But those deep-sea diving for hidden meaning in Hoff’s fish-out-of-water themes will not extract them from the author. Hoff is particularly elusive when the conversation turns to an analysis of his work. Concludes Hoff, “I’m just trying to be amusing or entertaining. Make the kids laugh. That’s about all.”
Reprinted with permission: The Jewish Journal – December 26, 1997. (www.JewishJournal.com). No part of this article may be reprinted without permission.
From Tenement Dweller to Gag Cartoonist
Hoff had over a hundred cartoon and children’s books published and it would be overwhelming to analyze all of these. One outstanding example where a definite transition seems to become apparent is Hoff’s book Out of Gas from 1954, which precedes his classic picture book Danny and the Dinosaur by 5 years. The book is interesting because while it is not essentially sequential storytelling, the book has a beginning and end and details the lives of a cast of characters; a family of four. It is not a children’s book but rather a collection of gag cartoons intended for adults. Still, very much like his children’s books there is one picture per page with a written caption below. Unlike Hoff’s earlier cartoon collections such as Oops, Wrong Party or Feeling No Pain, this collection shows the same cast of characters throughout. Again, there is the balding father with a moustache, the overweight double-chinned mother and their two intelligent children. Each page maintains its own joke but at the same time, it tells the story of this family’s cross country journey. In doing so, he transplants a semblance of a narrative, the cross county journey, by use of large gag cartoon panels without borders.
copyright 2006 Dave Kiersh
Article in Japanese Esquire - July 1992:
Man of Esquire, Mr. Syd Hoff
A character in a comic book often looks alike the cartoonist who created it. Mr. Syd Hoff is not an exception – he was a good-looking guy when he was young, but it’s interesting that he started to look alike the characters that he created as he got older.
Mr. Hoff was born as a second son of a Jewish salesman of Bronx, New York. He showed talent of drawing when he was still in elementary school. His career as a cartoonist started at The Daily News – Mr. Hoff worked part-time as a delivery boy at The Daily News when he was a senior, and his superior was Paul Gallico, who was closely connected to Esquire. Young Syd was excited to see Mark Hellinger, who was a famous columnist of Broadway at The Daily News.
When a well-known cartoonist Milt Gross visited his high school, Mr. Hoff drew a cartoon in front of the classmates and Milt Gross. Upon seeing Hoff's work, Gross predicted success for Mr. Hoff, telling him, "Kid, some day you'll be a great cartoonist!" His parents did not believe what Mr. Gross said, and were against Mr. Hoff to be a cartoonist.
While studying at The National Academy of Design, he was drawing portraits of Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy, and more. His drawings were recognized and sold by The New Yorker.
One day, he was inspired by watching French actor Maurice Chevalier in a movie, and drew a cartoon and brought it to The New Yorker. The chief editor of The New Yorker liked his cartoon very much.
It was April, 1934 when Mr. Hoff’s cartoon appeared in Esquire for the first time. Mr. Hoff’s cartoon was somewhat unrefined comparing to E. Simms Campbell or Milt Gross at that time, but had a simple, good-natured, and warm atmosphere that the other cartoonists’ works did not have.
Hoff’s cartoon appeared every volume of Esquire until around 1957. A close bond of affection among his family members should be the origin of Mr. Hoff’s warm, tender style of drawing of the characters and his innovative ideas.
In 1953, February edition of Esquire had put together a special issue on Mr. Hoff’s cartoons for his 20th anniversary. Currently he is 80 years old and lives in Miami Beach, Florida.
Translated by Professor and Coordinator Setsue Shibata - Japanese Program, Dept. of Modern Languages and Literature, CA State University Fullerton.
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