Parties with the Upper One Percent Provide the Pith and Vinegar for Bill Hamilton's Cartoons
No cartooning commentator since Peter Arno has caught the foibles and foolishness of the upper classes as accurately as Hamilton, a self-styled "California Gothic" who learned about the social elite by observing rather than belonging. His cartoons blend elegant line drawings with tart captions. Examples:
•A couple leaving a party: "I found out why they're so incredibly laid-back: Valium."
•Worried hostess at a dinner table: "Oh, dear! I've got all the husbands and wives separated, but I forgot about you live-togethers."
•Tipsy wife to her homecoming husband: "Hi, darling—everything is in the crock pot, including yours truly."
•Woman to her crestfallen companion: "I almost died over your pronunciation of 'oeuvre.' "
Author Paul Erdman (The Crash of '79), a Hamilton friend, says, "He's very original in the way he interprets things. Of course, he's not just looking at life, but at life among the upper one percent. I've watched him on social occasions and he works at watching people." Keeping an eye on that upper crust is only part of Hamilton's job, though, and he complains about the daylight hours of solitary confinement at his drawing board: "Cartooning is such a lonely life. You send cartoons in and they send back a check. You never see anybody." As a result, he has been writing plays lately, in hopes of finding some escape—relying still on the one percent for his cast of characters and caption-like one-liners for his stage gags. "The theater is so different," he says. "There are producers and directors and actors and the rest. You're up to your neck in intrigue." Producer David Merrick will bring Hamilton's second play, Plymouth Rock, to Broadway this fall, with Gene (California Suite) Saks directing, and Merrick has an option on the first, Save Grand Central. Both plays are, naturally, drawing room comedies.
Hamilton took up writing for the stage five years ago. "I had written three novels, none of which I'd particularly like to see published, and a movie about astronauts," he admits. "It is like a line in one of my cartoons: 'Although I haven't exactly been published or produced, I have had some things professionally typed.' That's the story of my novels and movie. I prefer writing plays. My kind of writing has too much talk for movies, and it is too condensed and rich for a novel. I think that comes from compressing things down into cartoon captions. It does well on a stage rather than a movie, where people don't listen that acutely."
His playwriting began at a time when his marriage was falling apart. Save Grand Central, he says, "is about the middle of the end of a marriage. It was my exorcism—driving the demons out of the dark shadows into a nice comedy." At a party he was introduced to Merrick by Simon & Schuster editor John Dodds and his wife, TV's Vivian Vance, who gave the producer Hamilton's script. "Merrick read it on a flight to London. He called me and told me he wanted to option it, and said that in 40 years in the theater he had never bought a play that way." Hamilton admits that he occasionally lifts lines for his plays from his cartoons (In his latest play, a woman looking at a family portrait says, "I didn't know Californians had ancestors"). "Anybody I know who is successful spends the second half of his life plagiarizing from the ideas of the first half, as my friend Kenneth Galbraith says."
Whether his career as a man of the stage will supersede his cartooning is still moot, but the first half of Bill Hamilton's life has been devoted to his graphic art. He comes from an eccentric California family with plenty of ancestors but no knack for financial matters. "I wouldn't say Father's family was rich. It was what was known in the last century as a 'nice family.' Hamilton men often marry rich women. My grandmother was an heiress. She had piles of money, and relatives who helped her get rid of it. Father believed that money as a means of exchange was going to vanish in his lifetime. He lived accordingly. Any time someone in the family died and left him money, he got rid of it. There was only one trust fund that he couldn't violate. That kept us going."
Bill spent his childhood at Ethelwild, a family estate in the Napa Valley city of St. Helena that was built, and has remained, in the 19th century. "After World War II my father decided he didn't want to work anymore. Mother wanted to move to Bali, but Father wanted to move to Ethelwild. They flipped a coin and he won." Ethelwild had been built by a Hamilton uncle for his wife. "Ethel died in 1901," Bill explains, "and my great-uncle kept it the way it was when she died. When we moved in, everything was as it had been, right down to the towels. I remember using a pencil once and having the eraser shatter in my hand. It was so old it had crystallized."
While his father busied himself at home inventing a 10-hour clock and a 10-month calendar, Bill, his older brother Alexander (who now sells fire-fighting equipment in Seattle) and younger sister Diana (now married and living in Massachusetts) had an idyllic if isolated life. But when Alexander went off to school Bill was desolate. "I had a hard time with friends because of the way my family lived. I was considered odd. I told my mother I wanted to go away to school. She asked me where, and I said, the Middle East, which was about as far away as I could imagine. Mother went to the library and came back saying there were no schools in the Middle East—but what about England, because we had a cousin living in Harrow."
Eventually Hamilton wound up at Andover, and a totally different world. "Here was this lovely Georgian school where all the fathers were dynamic and all the mothers pretty. Coming from my Gothic background, it fascinated me. At home my father was working on a 10-hour day. At Andover all the fathers were presidents of steel companies. I fell in love with the order and regularity of it all. That's why I always drew that class of people. And the process of being an alien gives you the distance to be an artist."
At Andover, and later at Yale, which he attended on scholarship, Hamilton was always haunted by his lack of ready money. Unable to go home for holidays, he had to scrounge invitations from rich classmates without appearing to do so. "It was a horrendous position. You didn't want them to know you depended on them for food and shelter." Still, it gave him an even closer look at the affluent gentry. "I was seeing a culture I'd never seen before. The father would come home at 6, having been met at the railroad station, have three or four murderous drinks to knock himself out and sit down to dinner half bagged. Then he'd be up and dressed and on his way to the office the next morning. Even loving it all, I noticed there was a lot of drinking."
After graduating from Yale in 1962, Bill made an abortive effort to escape the draft by wangling a grant to study in Mexico. "It ended suddenly," he says, "because I got involved in a shotgun wedding." Before the indignant Mexican father could force him to the altar, though, Hamilton ungallantly hightailed it back home—where he quickly got his comeuppance. "In St. Helena, a member of the draft board saw me on the street and it was all over. I was in the Army in a week."
During his two-year hitch in Alaska, Hamilton honed his talent for drawing, which he had taken up seriously as a preppie. "It was my equivalent of being a football player. My voice didn't change until I was 18.1 weighed 137 pounds and was 6-foot-5, even at Yale. I knew I wouldn't be able to win a letter in sports, but I could draw, and nobody else could do that." Bombarding The New Yorker with his cartoons from Alaska, he finally got what he considered the ultimate rejection slip. "I wrote the art director a letter saying he must be an old man who hates young people," Hamilton recalls. "Suddenly I got a check for $200, with no explanation."
Once he got his Army discharge, Hamilton went to New York and, still in uniform, presented himself at The New Yorker offices. "The art director offered me 100 bucks a week. I found out later it was an advance on royalties. I ended up owing them a fortune." Although he has worked for The New Yorker since 1965, Hamilton says a cartoonist cannot make a decent living drawing only for that magazine. His fees were about $13,000 last year. He still recalls meeting editor William Shawn: "That first day there, Mr. Shawn asked, 'Do you have a private income, Mr. Hamilton?' "
Despite his insolvency, Bill broke into Manhattan society in a large way in the 1960s. He was, after all, unmarried, an Ivy Leaguer and Socially Registered—even though the Register was San Francisco's. "I got around pretty much," he admits. "I sat next to Jackie at a dinner party." More important, he met Candida Vargas, a Brazilian beauty, at another party in 1969. "Her grandfather had been dictator of Brazil. Unfortunately, he was an honest dictator, so there was no money. We only went out four times when we got married. I wanted to get married before I was 30, and my birthday was coming up."
The marriage was short-lived. Bill and Candida have been separated since 1976, not long after they moved from New York to California. Still, Bill has no regrets. Married life provided new grist for a thousand cartoons: "Enormously fruitful," he muses, "situations like buying wallpaper, the first dinner party..." Even more gratifying was Alexandra, the Hamiltons' daughter. "I desperately wanted a child and I'm very glad we had one. Alexandra is the greatest thing that ever happened to me—what I am proudest of in my life." Nowadays Alexandra, an uncommonly pretty girl of 7, lives with her mother in a posh apartment in Pacific Heights, while her father lives and works down in Cow Hollow in a modest flat on Pixley Street.
Earlier this year Hamilton spent much of his time with Merrick in Los Angeles—where, incidentally, Bill's steadiest girlfriend, Monique Bertrand, 25, is studying fashion design. He is currently in New York, helping to cast Plymouth Rock, the story of an English bride's first encounter with Boston inlaws. It is due to open in November.
Recently Bill Hamilton celebrated his 40th birthday with a gala party at Ethelwild. It recalled an earlier and particularly convivial evening he loves to describe. He was driving home when suddenly he realized he was bracketed by two police cars. Thinking fast, he slammed on the brakes and jumped out, shouting, "Help! Help! I'm drunk!" The startled and amused state troopers thereupon drove him home without even giving him a ticket. His mother heard him at the front door, urging the cops to come in. He wanted to read them his latest play.
William Hamilton drew moments in his life exclusively for PEOPLE