William Steig (1907-2003) The American artist, William Steig, first made his name with his highly original cartoons for The New Yorker, and he worked regularly for that magazine for several decades. Gradually, he widened his reputation with his work as a draughtsman and sculptor. Then from his sixties, he gained an entirely new audience – and many prizes – as an illustrator and writer of popular children’s books, including Shrek! (1990), which proved the basis for the phenomenally popular series of animated films. William Steig was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 14 November 1907, the third of four sons of Joseph Steig, a house painter, and his wife, Laura Ebel, a seamstress. Both Polish-Jewish immigrants, his parents had arrived four years earlier from Lemberg, Galicia, in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Though Joseph has been brought up in an observant Jewish household, he turned to atheism as a young man and became a committed socialist.
In New York, he even contributed reports on labour issues to the Yiddish daily, The Forward. Soon after the birth of William Steig, the family moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx. As a child, he showed a serious interest in both literature and art, and was encouraged to do so by his parents. Indeed, all three of his brothers would become writers and artists, while his parents also took up painting. While a student at the Townsend Harris High School, in Flushing, William Steig contributed cartoons to its newspaper. Graduating at the age of 15, he studied art at the City College of New York for two years, though, as an excellent sportsman, he later joked that his ‘biggest interest was not learning but playing – water polo’. In fact, he really wanted to be ‘a professional athlete, a sailor, a beachcomber, or some other form of hobo … but the Great Depression put me to work’ (Anita Silvey (ed), The Essential Guide to Children’s Books, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, page 434). Though he spent three years at the National Academy of Design, from 1925 to 1928, and then enrolled at the Yale School of Fine Arts, Steig had to end his education in order to help support his family, when his father lost his meagre savings in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He began to sell drawings to a number of magazines, including Collier’s, Judge, Life, and especially The New Yorker, to which he would eventually contribute 1,600 drawings and more than 120 covers. He brought something fresh to The New Yorker, through both his experience as the son of Jewish immigrants and his literary approach, for he developed his own ideas and wrote his own captions. In 1936, Steig married the educator and artist, Elizabeth Mead, sister of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and moved to a farm in Sherman, Connecticut; together they would have a daughter, Lucinda, who became an artist, and a son, Jeremy, who became a jazz flautist. In that year he began to make both woodcarvings (which were gathered in a solo show at the Downtown Gallery in 1939) and what he called his ‘symbolic drawings’. These were influenced by his study of Freud and psychoanalysis, and showed people experiencing various emotional states. Though they did not sit comfortably among the pages of The New Yorker, they were published in a series of volumes, beginning with About People (1939), which created a new audience for the artist. During his divorce from Elizabeth, he sought out the controversial psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich, and, undergoing analysis with him, remained loyal to his thinking. He illustrated Reich’s Listen, Little Man! (1948) and made him the dedicatee of his own book, The Agony in the Kindergarten (1950). Between 1950 and 1963, Steig was married to Kari Homestead; together they had one daughter, Margit, who became the actor, Maggie Steig. This was succeeded by a third, short marriage to Stephanie Healey, between 1964 and 1966. His fourth, and lasting, marriage, to the artist and writer, Jeanne Doran, began in 1969. In 1968, Steig added a new strand to his creative life, by publishing his first children’s book, C D B!, a collection of pictures with captions written in code. Many of his subsequent books for children were awarded prizes, including Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) (1970 Caldecott Medal; 1978 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award), Dominic (1972) (1972 Christopher Award; 1975 William Allen White Children's Book Award), Abel’s Island (1976) (1977 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award), Gorky Rises (1980) (1980 Irma Simonton Black Award) and Doctor de Soto (1982) (1983 National Book Award for a Hardcover Children’s Book). Both Doctor De Soto and Abel’s Island were made into films, in 1984 and 1988 respectively. The former won Steig the CINE Golden Eagle Award in Education in 1984, while the latter won an Emmy Award for the Most Outstanding Animated Film in Under an Hour in 1989. These prepared the way for the adaptation of his 1990 book, Shrek!, into the first of a series of films by DreamWorks Animation in 2001. In 1992, William and Jeanne Steig moved into an apartment in Boston, Massachusetts. In semi-retirement from the mid 1990s, he produced his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat, in June 2003. He died in Boston later the same year, on 3 October 2003. Further reading: Claudia J Nahson, The Art of William Steig, Yale University Press, 2007