William Steig

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Whenever William Steig finds himself short of inspiration or weary from the weight of his 77 years, he heads down to his basement studio, seals himself inside a narrow plywood cabinet—just an unadorned, metal-lined six-foot box—and submits to a bombardment of invisible rays that flit through the atmosphere. "It's my orgone energy accumulator," says Steig with the serenity of a man privy to one of the galaxy's most miraculous secrets. "It looks like a crock of crap—but isn't."

Steig has taken a fair share of abuse about this odd habit from skeptics, but he refuses to let it bother him. He says that the cosmic wattage cured his mother's cancer and helped rid his wife of a mysterious pain that racked her body for several years. He swears that it heightens orgasms and conquers the common cold. And he credits it with keeping him alive, prolific and prosperous deep into his eighth decade on the planet.

It sounds preposterous but after 54 years as artist, illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist, Bill Steig is still plunging into his art—and his life—with the uninhibited zeal of a 5-year-old. Last summer saw the publication of his 14th children's book, Yellow & Pink (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95), a whimsical fable about two wooden puppets, and last month brought a quirky puzzle book, CDC?(FS&G, $6.95). Next month will bring Ruminations (FS&G, $20), a collection of Steig's recent drawings in the New Yorker. They are Picasso-esque doodles of clowns, princes, lovers and other benevolent grotesques who frolic in an Edwardian-era paradise of Steig's imagination—a pastoral place, wrote Lillian Ross, "where you hear plenty of laughter and only an occasional shriek of pain...where poetry rules and time does not pass."

Together, the works reveal an artist blessed with rare sensibility: an idiosyncratic innocent in a never-never land of his own making, waging a private war against the craziness of modern life with the pen of a master and the eye of a child. "I carry on a lot of the functions of an adult but I have to force myself," Steig confesses. "I think I feel a little differently than other people do. For some reason I've never felt grown up."

Indeed, the world of adulthood seems to slip magically away the moment one enters Bill Steig's sanctuary, a sprawling contemporary house of weathered gray wood deep in the green hills of western Connecticut. Behind the cartoonist's leathery visage, the slightly stooped frame, the paunch of age, lurks the wide-eyed insouciance of the Bronx street kid of 70 years ago. Steig is a shy man not given to discussing his work, but he rambles on uninhibitedly about whatever else pops into his mind. "I have 10-year periods in the country and in the city," Steig is saying. "I get married; I spend 10 years in the country. I get divorced; I come back and spend 10 years in New York. I get married again and move back to the country."

Steig's fourth wife, Jeanne, 54, is both his protector and kindred spirit, a writer-turned-sculptor who has transformed the house into a Xanadu of pop-art excess. From the rafters dangle her violet-haired princesses, bright-feathered phoenixes, stripe-faced Pinocchios. Life-size dummies populate the house, an extended family of grotesques who mirror the couple's oddball spontaneity. An elderly couple in tattered sweaters lean together on a white wicker chair in the hallway. A fat matron eavesdrops over a sofa. A shriveled crone huddles on a wooden chair.

"When I first met Bill," Jeanne says, "he told me, 'Nobody can sit on their ass and write all the time. It's not healthy. You have to do something with your hands.' Now I can hardly bring myself to write a grocery list. The most valuable thing he taught me was that you can't get crazy enough. Bill's work at its best is inventive, it's unconventional. And it gets crazier and crazier and freer and freer."

Steig revels in his unconventionality, although it sometimes makes problems. He says his sojourn into the world of conventional business—as an illustrator for an advertising firm in the '60s—caused him to double over regularly with severe psychosomatic muscle cramps. "Doing advertising was something I couldn't stand to do," he says. "I just hate to follow someone else's impulse."

Steig writes as he draws, with a sophisticated mixture of humor and poetry, filling his stories with magical oddities like Doctor De Soto, a mouse-dentist who, out of compassion and a sense of duty, reluctantly climbs between the jaws of a fox and pulls the creature's rotten tooth. ("Mmmmm, yummy," the anesthetized carnivore mutters in his sleep, "how I love them raw...with just a pinch of salt and a...dry...white wine.") He not only draws his animals with a magnificent range of facial expressions, he invests them with complex emotions. He has an instinctive feel for the rhythms of language and strong empathy with his audience. "I think it's his unprejudiced view of things that makes him such a natural writer of children's books," says Lee Lorenz, art director at the New Yorker. "He has a willingness to believe in things that most of us lose later on." Says Steig, "I don't think I could write for adults because I don't think I'm smart enough. I don't think I know anything more than the next guy. But I do think I know more than the kids."

He also remembers his own childhood "better than anyone else I know," says Jeanne. Steig was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx, the son of an Austrian immigrant housepainter who dabbled as an artist on Sundays. It was, Steig recalls, a sort of Tom Sawyer life in a gritty urban paradise, filled with Charlie Chaplin two-reelers, gas lamplighters making their rounds at dusk, bright red fire engines pulled through the streets by teams of horses. "Our apartment looked out over a deep depression in the street where the railroad tracks were," he remembers, "and at every intersection there was a bridge crossing over the tracks. When a locomotive was coming everybody would yell out, 'The train is coming!' And me and my buddies would all run up onto the bridge to get enveloped in the steam."

In an era that predated radio, Steig began reading at an early age. Pinocchio was his favorite, followed by King Arthur and Robin Hood. He and his three brothers were urged by their father to follow their creative impulses. "My father was a socialist—an advanced thinker—and he felt that business was degrading, but he didn't want his children to be laborers," says Steig. "We were all encouraged to go into music or art." When his elder brother Henry announced his intention to go to dental school, he was promptly ridiculed by the rest of the clan for his conventional aspirations. "He ended up playing several instruments, touring in a vaudeville jazz band, writing novels and designing jewelry," says Steig.

Steig began drawing cartoons for his high school newspaper, attended City College for two years, spent three years at the National Academy of Design and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts before dropping out. "I wanted to go to sea, live with the native girls in Hawaii and become a writer," he says. "But my father went broke during the Depression. My older brothers were married and my younger brother was 17, so the old man said to me, 'It's up to you.' The only thing I could do was draw. Within a year I was selling cartoons to the New Yorker and supporting a family. I flew out of the nest with my parents on my back."

By the late '30s Steig had become one of America's most celebrated cartoonists, capturing the mischievous exploits of his Bronx cronies at P.S. 53 in his breezy Small Fry series. At the same time he had become fascinated with Freud and psychoanalysis. In the 1940s he shocked a generation with the disturbing images of The Lonely Ones and About People, symbolic depictions of human neuroses that reflected Steig's concern with the way "human beings screw up their lives."

Dismayed by what he saw as the deadening conformity of postwar life, he, along with Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and other rebellious Jewish intellectuals, was drawn to the Austrian-born psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich's celebration of uninhibited sexual expression and his Marxist sympathies had made him a pariah to the Freudian establishment. Steig spent years in therapy with Reich, and illustrated one of his books (Listen, Little Man). He became a proponent of the controversial orgone box, and remained Reich's staunch defender even after his books were burned and the Food and Drug Administration, disputing Reich's cancer-cure claims, ordered the orgone boxes banned. Reich himself was convicted of contempt of court and died in disgrace at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. in 1957. "I never thought he was crazy," says Steig today. "He was actually the sanest and most wonderful human being I've ever met."

Steig spent the next decade cartooning and working in advertising. Then in 1967 a fellow cartoonist suggested he try writing a children's book. The result was Roland the Minstrel Pig, recounting the adventures of a lute-playing swine. His new career hit only one snag; in 1970, in the era of mass antiwar protests, the International Conference of Police Associations launched a bitter, unsuccessful campaign to have his award-winning book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, banned from libraries because Steig had portrayed two policemen in it as pigs. Steig claims convincingly that the choice was unintentional. He has always seen the swine as an appropriate symbol for mankind in general: "a creature surrounded with filth and danger, a victim of circumstances created by himself, unwilling and unable to do anything about his condition—and even, perhaps, in a way enjoying it."

Steig remains a man with rather abnormal sensitivities. The cartoonist is obsessed, for example, with underground nuclear tests, convinced that the blasts shake up the world's orgone-energy levels to such an extent that he can sometimes sense the disturbances in his sleep. "Bill would wake up in the morning and say, 'They got off another blast, I can feel it.' " says Jeanne. "And I'd think, 'Oh, sure you can.' Then on the evening news they'd say, 'Russia set off a test bomb today.' "

Apart from such disturbances beyond their control, the Steigs seem at peace in their rural retreat. They rise around 9 and spend most of the day reading, shopping in town, doing crosswords, watching TV. Evenings they usually reserve for working in their basement studios. "We go back and forth between studios to talk and compare our work and our ideas," says Jeanne. "It's wonderful to come in and watch him working because he's laughing, always looking to see where his cartoons are taking him."

It is afternoon now and Steig is standing on his lawn, squinting into the golden sunlight that casts a glow upon the cornfields, the wooded hills, the placid pond below his house. His gait is slow, measured, deliberate, a sign of the old age that has begun to creep up on him, much to his regret and anger. "I've always despised old people," he confesses. "I got angry at my father when he began to show signs of age. I thought, 'Oh, come on, cut it out.' It's a form of decay and you hate to see it happen. Now it's happened to me."

Old age has brought a measure of loneliness. With his son and daughters grown up and gone (Jeremy, 42, is a jazz flutist and artist; Lucy, 44, is studying to be a psychotherapist; and Maggie, 26, is a comedienne), Steig's contact with his youthful soulmates is growing more tenuous. A neighbor's daughter here in Kent was a constant companion for years until the family moved away—a loss Steig has borne with difficulty. "He's shy, and with kids it's easier not to be shy," says Jeanne. "He says you need to have a kid in your life somewhere."

Yet even in his solitude Steig has not lost his hold on youth. This afternoon he is taking a visitor on a stroll through his property, pointing out the natural splendors that surround him, the subtle changes in the landscape that fill him with joy. He wanders inside his garage, the site of a tiny miracle he discovered only yesterday. With difficulty he climbs a ladder and peers into a nest high on a rafter. Five newborn finches huddle together, a small jumble of feathers chirping weakly, eyes darting in fear. Steig watches them for a full minute, transfixed, not saying a word; then painstakingly he negotiates the rungs of the ladder and steps back on solid ground. "It gets harder and harder to reconstruct my world as child," he says as he walks slowly back to the house. "But I think it's important to keep those original feelings. It makes you happier if you can feel that way, about how wonderful and mysterious everything is."

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