... continued from here...
Leo Lionni created a bit for the Ladies' Home Journal called Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman that ran monthly as an advertisement in The New Yorker. One simple yet humorous illustration that conveyed a little something about the perceived female psyche. Leo had been at it for a decade when he passed the mantel to Roy...
"I would think up an idea and take it to the folks at Ladies' Home Journal for approval. I remember for Christmas one year, I did a sketch of a fireplace in a house. No words. Hanging over the fireplace was a man's sock and a woman's nylon stocking. They were really clever. But it was hard being clever for 14 years."
Working under legendary ad man Charles Coiner, in addition to his Ladies' Home Journal work, he continued to illustrate for other N.W. Ayers accounts like the Army and Navy. Leo had gone to New York to act as art director for Time Life, and during the start of the 60s, Roy began to freelance up north more. Eventually giving up his life in Philadelphia to move to New York, he even spent a winter in London, but couldn't make enough money to stay permanently. During this time, Roy went through a painful divorce, and eventually went on to marry a woman named June Reynard, an illustrator who did work for Christian Dior and other fashion houses...
"I was doing all sorts of freelance work for Time Life, posters and such, when one day I got a call from Bennett Cerf [founder of Random House], saying he'd seen some of my work, asking me if I wanted to meet Ted Geisel [aka Dr. Seuss]... to come for the weekend."
Bennett Cerf's wife Phyllis Fraser had recently co-founded Random House's children's book imprint with Ted and his wife Helen Palmer and was anxious to see if Roy might fit in.
"I went up to the house and Geisel was there and he and I struck it off. We were sketching. He was looking to see what I could and couldn't do. From there, I started doing books for Random House."
Under the Beginner Books imprint, starting first with Bennett Cerf's Book of Riddles in 1960 and then on to the wildly successful Seuss-penned 10 Apples Up on Top a year later, a book illustrator was born.
"My favorite is Snow, which I illustrated for my one-time neighbor P.D. Eastman. I think the reason that book has been so successful is that I have an old fashioned way of approaching things. Softer, not so vulgar as a lot of what you see for children today."
Roy has illustrated more than 100 books for many different publishers, mainly drawing for other people's words, but it's his work with Dr. Seuss and the Beginner Books imprint that's had the longest shelf-life....
"You can make a children's book that was well received in its day, and that's great. But there are a few that stick around... Each generation, they want to give their children what they had and it keeps going and going. I was very fortunate to have been with Geisel and Random House. He was such a kind man and a talent and he and Phylis earned such loyalty from the people around them. In advertising, I was used to getting paid page by page, but with Phylis and Geisel I was able to get royalties. I'm just so thankful."
Though Roy hasn't illustrated a children's book in years, a handful of his titles remain in print. A few from the Beginner Books series (The Pop-Up Mice of Mr. Brice, 10 Apples Up on Top, Summer, Snow, My Book About Me, Would You Rather Be a Bullfrog?...) and a number of humor books he illustrated for Henry Beard and Workman Publishing (Sailing, Cooking, Golfing, Skiing, Fishing...)
At 89 years old, Roy says he's still in pretty good shape...
"This past year, I did some illustrations for a horse museum in Louisville, so I'm keeping busy. I don't wanna get old. Hell, I don't wanna be old. I've done very well, so happy to have been given the chance to do all this. I came from nothing. I'm still very frugal, but June and I were able to travel all over the world. We've been married since 1964 and had a great time together. We were more like flower children than anything. So, I can't complain. I've made some mistakes in life. I loved my parent's deeply, but I'd have liked to have been closer to my own children."
Repeatedly in our conversation, Roy would use the work "kind" to describe someone...
"In life, you have a choice to deal with people who are kind or unkind. I've been very lucky."
In closing, Roy and I talked about a lot of things, many of which don't belong to this blog, but rather to an old dreamer and his memories. June chimed in at various moments in the conversation... as Roy described her, "my second brain". It's obvious that even after almost 50 years of marriage, they are still madly in love.
I might not have gotten all the facts here perfectly, but I've tried to convey a short history of an artist I admire so that his legacy can live on a bit longer. However, what I will set in stone about the man is this. Life is short. It's a beautiful thing to have used this life to create something that will live on longer than you. Something that brings joy to other people. We all make mistakes. We all make choices that lead us in one direction or another. But if nothing else, know and remember that Roy McKie was, and is, a kind man.
There is no way that someone could so beautifully visualize a world full of happy children and smiling dogs and be anything but.
Thank you Mr. McKie.
Photo at top by Jill Krementz, taken of Roy with Ted Geisel in 1984 at a party celebrating - ahem - Dr. Seuss' 80th birthday.
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