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Cullen Murphy

December 2017

By Mary Warnement

Cullen Murphy, photo courtesy of Gasper Tringale
Cullen Murphy, photo courtesy of Gasper Tringale

“Edit this, trim it all down.” Cullen Murphy opened with this advice about how to handle the transcript of his interview—welcome words from a respected author and editor—as we sat down to chat in my office about his latest book, Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe. Murphy is currently editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, which he joined in 2006. Before that, he spent two decades as managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and on the side, starting in 1979, he wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, a 25 year collaboration with his father John Cullen Murphy, who had succeeded Hal Foster as illustrator of the strip. Murphy’s book is an evocation of a now-vanished world, when scores of the country’s top comic strip artists lived and worked a few miles from one another in Connecticut. As Murphy put it when we spoke, “Fairfield County, with its large concentration of cartoonists in the mid-twentieth century—my father centrally among them—is the locus of my book.” Cartoon County ranges widely—where did cartoonists get their ideas? what were their ideas? were they funny in person? could they draw?—and is held together throughout by a son’s loving portrait of a father.

Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1952, Cullen Murphy was raised in Cos Cob, Connecticut—the eldest of eight Murphy children. He attended Catholic grammar school and enjoyed the two years when his parents “moved the whole family, just on a lark” to Dublin, Ireland, for his seventh and eighth grade years. In 1974, Murphy graduated from Amherst College. He now chairs its board of trustees. Murphy credits Amherst with, among other things, “one of my most influential jobs—a truly intensive education” on the Amherst Student, the undergraduate newspaper. After graduation, Murphy worked at Change: the Magazine of Higher Learning and The Wilson Quarterly. He wrote for the Atlantic Monthly before joining the staff and remained there until shortly before the magazine’s offices moved to Washington D.C. His wife, Anna Marie, whom he met at The Wilson Quarterly, is the deputy editor of Boston College magazine. They have three children.

The Athenæum has Cullen Murphy to thank for its select holdings, primarily from the twentieth century, of archival material from The Atlantic. Anyone interested can discover this archive’s finding aid in the online catalog and make an appointment to study it in the Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room.

Murphy had discovered the Athenæum when he first moved to Boston. “I was lucky enough to fall in with some people who knew the Athenæum well,” he recalled. “I was drawn to the Athenæum immediately—who wouldn't be? It's an extraordinary resource, both for its holdings and for the physical space it occupies. And it's in the very heart of the city. I wrote one of my books up on the fifth floor, and have researched others here.” He loves exploring in the drum stacks as much as he enjoys the view of the trees from the main reading room.

We debated the merits of views from different floors in this historic landmark building. He recalled observing the red-tailed hawks nesting in a cornice overlooking the Granary Burying Ground, and he admired my second-floor office window view still shrouded by a thick canopy of leaves in November—a consequence of thermal peculiarities in the neighborhood—before we turned to the topic of his new book.

Q: What was your biggest challenge while writing Cartoon County? It had to be quite different when the subject is your father rather than ancient history, as with Are We Rome.

The biggest challenge was finding the right tone—in the middle ground between distance and sentiment. The world I am trying to describe is gone and so is my father—so distance is inevitable, and indeed is part of the story: something vanished and irretrievable lies beyond the membrane. And yet too much distance can feel cold—and the subject matter is in fact very warm to me: my life was intimately bound up with what I'm writing about. It would be easy to err in the other direction—to become too personal, in a way that readers might find hard to take. I had been toying with the idea of writing a book of this kind ever since my father died, in 2004, and was waiting for a moment of emotional balance to assert itself. One summer day, three years ago, I had an idea for how to start the book, and found that, as I started writing, I was in the right place (I hope).

Q: What sort of review do you think your father would give Cartoon County?

Well, I have one small clue. Two decades ago, I wrote an article about him and the artwork he did in the Pacific during World War II—it was for American Heritage magazine and was abundantly illustrated. My father didn't read it until it came out, and when he called me he was in a fine mood and said, "Most people don't get to read their own obituaries." In other words, he was tickled. My father loved the cartoonists' world that he was a part of, was rightly proud of his own achievements, and was conscious of the fact that the cartoonist community as he knew it was slowly fading. He would have liked knowing that it was being preserved in memory somehow. As for what I write specifically about him as a person—as a character—I suspect he would have found himself torn between embarrassment and enjoyment: not a bad place to be.

Q: He was drawing when you were young. Did you doodle or color in his works?

I never did that. There were a lot of kids in our family and he had a little drawing table in the studio for the children. All of us would sit there at the mini drawing table doing our own work. I never defaced any of his.

Q: Are you the only sibling who worked with your father?

No, my sister Meg [Mairead Nash] was also intimately involved in the strip. I’m the oldest, she’s the youngest. She did all the lettering and all the coloring. Lettering is one of those under-appreciated arts. Nowadays you can buy computer fonts that look like real comic strip lettering, and they’re good enough, but they don’t look like what a master would make. My sister Meg was extremely good.

Q: Were the children of your father’s friends at that same table in the studio? Were you friends with them?

With some of them. There were a number of other cartoonists who had families, sometimes even large families. Mort Walker, who is still alive, and who did Beetle Bailey and other strips, had six children, and we would see them. The children of other cartoonists pretty much had the same experience we had. There were real commonalties. One is that your father—and it was almost always a father—worked at home. Nobody else’s did. So he was always around. Second, your father was doing no visible work. I mean, we knew on some level that in fact he was working, but it looked like fun rather than work. Probably the most important thing is that all of these people were living by their wits. They weren’t hired by a company and told that this is your job and here’s how you do it. Come in every day and do that. They had to be thinking all the time about what is it that they were creating, how to do it over the next week. It was an unusual way of putting a life together, at least at that time, when many other people in the same neighborhoods in Connecticut were working for corporations, banks, and Madison Avenue, and children didn’t see their fathers until their fathers came home. It took a while before you began to understand how unusual this was. And it was something very special, something to be cherished.

Q: You work as an editor. When you step into the other side—as a writer—how’s it work? Are you your own editor?

Throughout my life I’ve been an editor and a writer, so the nature of that dynamic is pretty well known to me and I see it from both sides. This may be wishful thinking, but I’m probably not a troublesome writer for an editor, and probably not a troublesome editor for a writer. I had a wonderful editor at FSG (Farrar Straus Giroux) named Jonathan Galassi, who is the editor in chief there. He is very shrewd and had some terrific advice on the macro level. He’s also a very smart line editor. It was an educational experience working with him, so I’m deeply grateful to Jonathan for that. As well as for signing up the book.

Q: Would you ever write about your life as an editor?

No. I prefer to be outer-directed in what I write. Even in this book, which seems to be a memoir, the substance is not about me. I’m just the set of eyes that is viewing. It’s my father, it’s his friends, it’s this world that I saw—that’s the subject.

Q: Do you take much of a breather, or do your projects overlap?

I tend to work on many things at once. It’s fun to jump from one task to another. If you’re doing the same thing all the time, it can become a little bit stale. When you have the freedom to move from one endeavor to another, it makes everything that you turn to seem fresh.

Q: So what are you working on now?

I have two books under way with Farrar Straus. Right now I'm in the middle of research on the fountains of Rome—how and why Rome came to be the city with more fountains than any other. It's a tale that begins in antiquity, gathers force in the Renaissance, and ranges over topics like the environment, urban and papal politics, art history. There's even a lost manuscript that plays a crucial role.

Down the road I plan another book about “how to edit yourself,” because it’s very hard to get the perspective on your writing that fresh eyes have—eyes that aren’t your own. And more and more people are writing, even if it’s only for their families and themselves.

Q: Two books about Rome? Why Rome?

I love the city of Rome. I love the history of it, the art, the feel of it as a social space, and I go back there frequently. A friend, who had never been there before and went for the first time, came back, and was going on and on about the fountains. That was a classic case of someone seeing with fresh eyes something that I was taking for granted. So I thought about the idea of doing a book on the fountains, and it turns out there’s an interesting back story. Why, during the Renaissance and the Baroque period, did the city suddenly embark on the greatest effort at fountain-building the world has ever seen?

Murphy as a child, photo courtesy of Cullen Murphy
Murphy as a child, photo courtesy of Cullen Murphy.

Q: Have you worked in any of the libraries in Rome?

The Vatican Library. For the fountains of Rome book, I wanted to look at and eventually reproduce original design drawings of fountains as well as engineering plans for sixteenth-century waterworks. The Vatican Library has a lot of this—they’ve even produced a wonderful book of Bernini drawings, about six inches thick, including designs for fountains and monuments that were never built. Most of us know the famous statue of the obelisk on top of the elephant, but Bernini had other ideas for what to do with that obelisk which he made designs for and are fun to look at. Anyway, many of the original Bernini drawings are preserved at the Vatican Library, and so I made a point of going there and seeing them for myself. Librarians in white coats brought them out in stiff folders and laid them out for viewing.

We ended our conversation by repeating our shared appreciation of the view from the window. Murphy hopes to return to the Athenæum when he writes the fountains book. I asked how working at the Vatican Library compared to the Athenæum, where visitors frequently feel overwhelmed. He said, “You don’t have to surrender your passport when you enter the Athenæum.”

Selected Works