J B Handelsman achieved great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, Punch and Playboy. Though perhaps best known in the UK as the creator of the strip, ‘Freaky Fables’, which ran for 11 years in Punch, his meticulous line and particularly the sharp, dry wit of his captions stood him out as one of the finest and most memorable New Yorker cartoonists of the twentieth century. J B Handelsman was born Bernard Handelsman in Manhattan, New York, on 5 February 1922. His father, Max Handelsman, was born in New York of Jewish Hungarian immigrants and taught English at the James Monroe High School in the Bronx. His mother, Dinah (née Birnbaum) was also a teacher. His sister, Edith, was eight years his senior and would become a journalist and writer working under the nom de plume Edith Anderson.
He began drawing cartoons as a young boy, and had decided upon a career as a comic strip artist by the age of ten.
As a child, Handelsman grew up in the Bronx and was educated in the Bronx public school system, before studying at the Art Students’ League from 1938 to 1942.
After the USA entered the Second World War, he enlisted briefly in the US Army Air Corps, though he was discharged in 1945 due to his suffering from asthma. Later that year, he enrolled at New York University to study electrical engineering. However, in 1946, he left university in order to pursue a career as a commercial artist, and began working as a typographic designer in various New York advertising agencies. At this time, he also began working as a freelance cartoonist, submitting cartoons to magazines and newspapers such as Playboy, Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. As a cartoonist, he began to use the professional name ‘J B Handelsman’. He had always disliked the name given to him at birth, and as an adult had adopted the name John, though he was known informally as ‘Bud’. In 1960, he began freelance cartooning full-time and the following year submitted his first cartoon to The New Yorker, beginning an association with the magazine that would continue for 45 years.
In 1963, he moved to England with his wife, Gertrude (née Peck), whom he had married in 1950, and his three children, and settled in Leatherhead, Surrey. He believed that his style of cartooning and sense of humour were more suited to a British audience, and he began contributing regular cartoons to Punch, as well as to the Evening Standard, Observer, New Statesman and Saturday Review. He found particular popularity with his weekly cartoon series, ‘Freaky Fables’, which ran in Punch for 11 years. Handelsman was also a talented writer and regularly submitted short stories to Punch under an assortment of pseudonyms. His cartoons to Punch were also often submitted under a different pseudonym, such as ‘T R Squink’ or ‘A J Spoop’, but his unmistakeable line meant that his editors were never in doubt as to who the true creator was.
Handelsman maintained a connection to his native country and continued to submit cartoons to The New Yorker, who offered him a contract in 1967, and to Playboy. In 1971, Playboy published a collection of his cartoons, You’re Not Serious, I Hope, and in 1978 awarded him their award for Best Black and White Cartoon. He returned to the United States in 1982 and continued to distribute his cartoons widely. He was also sought after as an illustrator of books for adults and for children. He collaborated with John Cleese and the psychiatrist Robin Skinner on Families and How to Survive Them (1983) and Life and How to Survive It (1993) and with David Frost on The Mid-Atlantic Companion (1986). John Cleese referred to Handelsman as ‘the best cartoonist alive’. The children’s books he illustrated included Who’s That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? (1975) by Jean Fritz and The Funny Side of Science (1973) by Melvin Berger. In 1992, he created a 10-minute animated film called ‘In the Beginning’ based on the Creation, which was broadcast on BBC television on Christmas Eve of that year.
Handelsman continued to appear weekly in The New Yorker until 2006. Over the course of his career he contributed just under 1,000 cartoons for the magazine, along with five covers. He died of lung cancer at his home in Southampton, New York, on 20 June 2007.
Mark Jacobs, Jumping Up and Down on the Roof, Throwing Bags of Water on People, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980