Connect with us


Ronni Solbert, Children’s Book Illustrator, Dies at 96



In 1961, Ronni Solbert was living with her partner, Jean Merrill, on the north side of Tompkins Square Park, in Manhattan’s East Village, alongside the immigrants and bohemians who defined the neighborhood’s idyllic, small-town-in-a-big-city vibe.

When the city’s Parks Department announced plans to tear out many of the park’s benches, chess tables and centenarian trees to make room for a softball field, the neighbors rose in opposition, writing letters, organizing protests and forming the Committee for the Preservation of Tompkins Square Park.

They won their fight, at least in part, and in doing so helped inspire Ms. Solbert, an illustrator, and Ms. Merrill, an author, to write a young adult novel, as Ms. Solbert explained in 2014 to The Valley News, a newspaper covering parts of Vermont and New Hampshire (by then she had moved to Vermont). The two had already published several books together and would collaborate on 18 in all, but “The Pushcart War,” published in 1964, was their greatest achievement.

The story revolves around a ragtag band of pushcart vendors who go to war against the fleets of trucks taking over their narrow city streets, most memorably by attacking enemy vehicles with pea shooters. A modern-day parable of underdogs taking on bullies, it quickly found millions of readers.

Ms. Solbert, whose death on June 9, at 96, was not widely reported, credited Ms. Merrill, who died in 2012, as the book’s main creator. But Ms. Solbert’s illustrations, at once urbane and emotional, very much in the vein of midcentury New Yorker cartoons, were likely to have contributed to its rapid elevation into the pantheon of children’s literature.

Her niece, Lisa Solbert Sheldon, said Ms. Solbert died at her home in Randolph, Vt., where she and Ms. Merrill had moved in 1970.

Among the many fans of “The Pushcart War” was the playwright Tony Kushner, who at one point hoped to adapt it as a screenplay and later wrote a blurb for an edition published by The New York Review of Books in 2014.

“The book gave me a point of entrance — my first, I imagine — into the world of resistance to political and economic injustice and chicanery,” Mr. Kushner wrote. “It made opposition, even nonviolent civil disobedience, seem fun and right and necessary and heroic, and something even someone as powerless as a kid could and should undertake.”

Credit…NYRB Kids

Romaine Gustave Solbert, who went by her childhood nickname, Ronni, was born on Sept. 7, 1925, in Washington. Her family soon moved to Rochester, N.Y., where her father, Oscar Nathaniel Solbert, was the first director of the George Eastman Museum of photography and film. Her mother, Elizabeth (Abernathy) Solbert, was a homemaker.

Ms. Solbert graduated from Vassar College in 1946, and received a masters in fine arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1948. After a few years working in Sweden, where her father had been born, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in art.

She followed two paths. She painted, mostly in the vein of Abstract Expressionism, and was fairly successful, with 17 of her works included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Talent” exhibition in 1959.

She also began illustrating children’s books. She met Ms. Merrill soon after arriving in New York, and they released their first book together, “Henry the Hand-Painted Mouse,” in 1951. They went on to collaborate on 17 more, including “The Pushcart War.”

Critics noted how much Ms. Solbert’s work elevated Ms. Merrill’s texts, many of which told complex stories about outsiders fighting bureaucratic conformity.

Reviewing their 1969 book “The Black Sheep” for The New York Times, Natalie Babbitt, a noted children’s book author and illustrator, praised the way “Jean Merrill pulls off a difficult thing very well with the assistance of Ronni Solbert’s carefully careless, waggish drawings.”

Ms. Solbert worked with other authors as well. She illustrated the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” (1956) and “The Two Runaways” (1959) by Aline Havard. She also wrote three books of her own.

Ms. Solbert and Ms. Merrill bought a farm in Washington, Vt., in 1962. They left New York for good eight years later, having watched their beloved Tompkins Square Park fall into disrepair and crime overtake the East Village.

“You found yourself trying to spend more time trying to fix things, but the problems were too big,” Ms. Solbert told The Valley News in 2014.

In 2013, a year after Ms. Merrill’s death, Ms. Solbert, who leaves no immediate survivors, gave their farm to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science and settled full time in Randolph, a small town in the center of the state. She had largely stopped illustrating but continued with her art, which by then included photography and sculpture.

“Art is my sanity, joy, frustration and passion,” she wrote in an artist’s statement. “My subject is the human animal, our relationship with each other and to the world we inhabit. I want the work to invite reflection, open perspectives and challenge the viewers’ emotional and intellectual responses.”


An American Life in a Million Glances



In COMING AND GOING (Mack Books, paperback, $85), the Connecticut-born photographer Jim Goldberg pieces together the chapters of his life in a million glances. In 1985, Goldberg published “Rich and Poor,” capturing in words and images both sides of the economic divide in pre-internet San Francisco. A decade later he released “Raised by Wolves,” which documented runaway teenagers across California, again alongside their own handwritten commentary.

Here Goldberg turns the lens onto himself, showing us fragments of his own life from 1980 on in collages of photos overlaid with other ephemera: a typed letter he wrote to his dad, locks of hair, his daughter’s toothbrushes, unidentified photo cutouts and his own contact sheets.

Together these form a deeply personal visual memoir: the orange tree his dad planted in Florida in 1980; and that same tree years later, now just a broken stump standing behind his older parents in a photo framed by so many others of the couple throughout their life together. Goldberg shows us his own marriage too: a Polaroid of a young woman in a black bathing suit on which he’s written, “THIS IS THE MOMENT I FELL IN LOVE”; the birth of his daughter; her first days at school. We watch the generations age over the course of the book; we see the heartbreak of his divorce and the grief over his mother’s cancer diagnosis and death. In the images he’s amassed over a lifetime, Goldberg shows the beauty and sorrow of everyday existence.

Continue Reading


Whatever Happened to Local Comedy Scenes?



Paris in the 1920s. Hollywood in the ’70s. Chicago in the ’90s?

It’s long been my after-midnight-at-the-bar theory that when it comes to urban cultural vanguards, the Michael Jordan era belongs in the pantheon. Full disclosure: I was there and missed it all.

Despite living in Chicago when young improvisers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Adam McKay were killing in front of live crowds, I never saw any perform. I don’t have a story of bumping into the legendary comedy teacher Del Close or catching Kanye West’s original rap group. I missed Liz Phair as well as the indie-rock renaissance pushed by labels like Drag City and Touch and Go Records.

Just when I thought the cultural obliviousness of my college years couldn’t be greater, a new book, “The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side,” opens another avenue of regret. Its author, the comic Mike Bridenstine, makes a persuasive case that Chicago in the late ’90s and aughts was one of the great incubators of modern stand-up. Bridenstine was part of it, but his account, catnip for comedy nerds, benefits from detailed reporting, tracking the careers of, among others, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Beth Stelling and Cameron Esposito.

Packed with fabled stand-ups who never made it big and their intimate shows, his punchy chapters are perfect for those who argue about comedy the way Stephen A. Smith does about sports. Was the Lyon’s Den (where Holmes and Nanjiani started the same week) the greatest comedy open mic in history? Did T.J. Miller revolutionize crowd work? Does Matt Braunger deserve to be compared to Robin Williams and Will Ferrell? This book should start some fights.

But there’s also a challenging broader argument buried here, about the conditions that make for great art, one that hints at a pessimistic outlook about local scenes in the age of social media.

Chicago has long been known as a place for artists to get good, not famous. It’s far enough from the coasts to keep industry executives at bay. This has produced many eccentric artists and chips on shoulders. For stand-ups, the fact that it was renowned as an improv town was one chip; the second was that the only major club, Zanies, did not book many local acts.

“The best thing that ever happened to comedy in Chicago was Zanies saying you can’t perform here,” Bridenstine, 44, told me in a recent phone interview. Rejection fueled comics to start their own shows, presenting bills in restaurant back rooms, bars and scrappy festivals. The isolation of these shows, their lack of publicity, meant that crowds were locals not tourists, die-hards not casual fans. Originality mattered as much as killing. “There was pressure, in a really good way, to be different and weird,” the comic Brooke Van Poppelen says in the book.

This resulted in comics like the wry political observer Dwayne Kennedy, who inspired considerable awe and gushing among peers. “The fact Dwayne Kennedy is not a household name is insanity,” Sarah Silverman has said. One possible explanation might be found from a producer, who says that to book him, you needed to fax his dad.

An early provocateur, Bill O’Donnell was famous for incorporating vomiting into his act. There were guys with nicknames like Tommy Mayo, and others like Nick Vatterott, who refused to do the same joke twice in a week and performed a bit as a ventriloquist’s dummy that required him to sit inside a box for two hours. He delivered a hilarious set on “The Tonight Show” years ago that hinged on him pretending to forget a joke. “Nick Vatterott is my evidence that comedy is not a meritocracy,” Bridenstine said. “I don’t know anybody funnier than him. And I know a lot of people more famous and successful.”

Along with stories of the famous and forgotten, the book leans on the journalism of Allan Johnson, a critic for The Chicago Tribune who died at 46 in 2006. He was an early champion of Bernie Mac, probably the greatest comic to emerge from Chicago that decade and the book’s most glaring omission. (In the 1990s, comedy was more segregated than today, and there is scant coverage here of predominantly Black rooms.) The attention Johnson lavished on local shows, in praise and criticism, was an important spotlight, drawing audiences and creating conversation. His coverage is also an integral source for this book. Considering the depleted state of newspapers, in Chicago and elsewhere, one wonders about the local comedy coverage future authors will draw upon.

The more significant contrast with comedy today is the minor role of the internet. It’s not merely that there wasn’t the push to turn your jokes into videos. Comics were less aware of their peers in other cities in the 1990s, and thus there wasn’t the same anxiety of influence. One Chicago comic, John Roy, describes the sense of wanting to embrace alt comedy on the coasts, but only vaguely knowing about it from reading about Patton Oswalt or seeing Janeane Garofalo on HBO. “We’re trying to reverse engineer this idea of alternative comedy from a couple articles in Rolling Stone and a special,” Roy says in the book. “You don’t really know what it is. But you subsequently get a lot of creativity because people start going: ‘Well, I got to be weird.’”

The internet — with social media and sites like YouTube — diminished the distance between scenes and put all comics in the same digital room. This has advantages. Comedy is bigger than ever, and it’s easier to find quality jokes. Bridenstine argued that while there are more good stand-up shows in Chicago today, the scene isn’t producing “Kinanes, Kumails, Beths or Hannibals.”

Is this merely nostalgia? Perhaps a bit, but it’s fair to ask a troubling question: Is the internet killing off distinct local comedy scenes?

There is a long history of cities producing their own comedic aesthetics. Boston is blustery and blue collar (think Bill Burr), while San Francisco is wild and experimental (see Robin Williams). Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have their own styles, too. These are all simplifications, but they matter. When everyone can see everyone else online, parallel thinking in jokes increases, and comics move to New York and Los Angeles quickly after viral fame, making coherent local identities harder to maintain.

Who you are around as a young artist is tremendously important. Now we are all, to some degree, around the same people. To be sure, “you had to be there” is a real thing, especially with live comedy, and the internet is full of niches where subcultures can flourish, but whether they will be closely associated with cities is an open question.

Bridenstine sounded skeptical. “City scenes don’t exist in isolation like they used to,” he said, adding a note of optimism while tossing one more chip on his shoulder. “I think new styles will evolve and people will decide to be new and different whenever this current way of arena rock comedy gets old.”

Continue Reading


The Most Novelistic Part That Patrick Stewart Ever Played



“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

Continue Reading