Tweaking History … and Everything Else

Looking back at one of the Gazette’s favorite illustrators

By Samuel Hughes

Over the years, the Gazette has had the pleasure of working with some wonderful artists and photographers, and in the coming issues we will be highlighting the work of several. But for our first Centennial issue, Arnold Roth seemed a natural choice. 

He has illustrated no less than 11 covers for us—including the one for this issue—as well as countless pieces for the inside of the magazine. Well, maybe not countless, but none of us can count very well, and Roth doesn’t have any idea either, so we’ll just say lots and leave it at that.

We consider ourselves very, very lucky. His work, as the selection here confirms, always seems to capture the essence of a story in a way that is irreverent, insightful, and often hilarious.

Roth enjoys tweaking history, and he knows a thing or two about anniversary issues. His first cover for the Gazette, in March 1975, featured an anonymous Founding Father laughing so hard at something he’s just added to the Constitution that he’s falling over backwards, sending his double-barreled inkstand flying off the table. When the University celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1990, Roth illustrated the Gazette’s entire 128-page anniversary issue. (The cover featured Ben Franklin holding a 250th-anniversary T-shirt, hot off an 18th-century printing press.)

Roth doesn’t remember when his first illustration for the Gazette was, or who the editor was at the time, though he thinks he “might have been doing work for the Gazette in the late ’50s even.” But he’s not sure.

“I remember a few covers,” he says. “Of course I remember the 250th one, with Ben Franklin and the printer. I did that entire issue. And of course I remember the baseball one.” That was the cover of our July/August issue in 1999, which featured a puckish depiction of the Philadelphia Phillies for our cover story on the team’s president, David Montgomery W’68 WG’70. It was a subject close to his heart, he admits: “I’ve cheered for the Phillies my entire life, which is more than theyhave done.” 

That loyalty is characteristic. Although the 71-year-old Roth has lived in Manhattan for the last two decades, he still loves the city where he spent his first half-century, and he clearly delights in working on Philadelphia-related subjects. He has a similar fondness for Penn, even though he didn’t go there. 

“I owe a great debt to Penn,” he says, “because I’m from North Philly originally, and when I was a little kid I used to wander the campus and go to the University Museum and Houston Hall—they had movies and all, and as long as you behaved yourself you could come back. I even occasionally got to Penn Saturday-afternoon [football] games. One time, it rained through the whole game, and I think it ended up Penn-Princeton in a 6-6 tie. That was during the war—I think it was ’42, ’43—and if you brought a bucket of scrap metal they’d let you in. I sat behind the goalposts in the pouring rain—but I wasn’t gonna leave.”

Over the years, his work has graced practically every important magazine in the country, ranging from Esquireand The New Yorker to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For 20 years he produced an illustrated “Report from America” for Punch (taking over from the prose of P.G. Wodehouse), and he penned a syndicated comic strip titled “Poor Arnold’s Almanac.” Last fall, Fantagraphics Books published a 50-year-retrospective collection of his work—titled, in a stroke of candor, Free Lance—that accompanied a traveling exhibition of his cartooning.

So we’re very glad that he still finds it in his heart to do work for the Gazette. “It’s always been a very pleasurable relationship, working with all these bright, professional people,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed it and I think they’ve always put out a very good, quality publication.”

We didn’t pay him to say that. But then, he knew he’d never get rich working for the Gazette.

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