Nora Ephron once wrote that “death is a sniper.” Too true. And it’s never more ruthless than when it picks off our very best.
In a just world, Tony Auth would still be among us. He’d still be working and honing his craft, distilling journalistic point of view into a powerful cartoon image, and chortling at what he’d wrought. He loved it when people loved his work, and he shrugged when they didn’t; as he once said, “It’s utterly predictable that some people are just gonna freak out.” He understood, as much as anyone I ever met in this business, that journalism was the most fun you can have while working hard, and the hardest work you can do while having fun. And in a just world, he’d still be among us, stressing the fun. The fun was right there in his face, all the time, when it crinkled in glee.
Tony – the longtime Philadelphia Inquirer editorial cartoonist; and, since 2012, the digital artist in residence at WHYY/NewsWorks – died yesterday. To me, he was a treasured colleague and companion. After I processed the news, which felt like someone had whacked my skull with a 2×4, I was stumped about what to do. I wandered aimlessly on the sidewalk, marveling insipidly that all the coffee shop people were chattering on as if nothing in the air had changed. And I began to free-associate the umpteen times that I happily hung with the guy – random shards of memory, cinema-style jump cuts, the years devolving to zero way too soon.
Much will be said in the days ahead about his Pulitzer-sized talent; he was a journalistic star long before I landed in his orbit. What I see most (and always will) is Tony smiling mischievously in the Inquirer newsroom, stopping at my desk to solicit feedback on a draft of his next cartoon, veritably rubbing his hands together in glee, looking like a kid who just lit a stink bomb in church; Tony the acerbically funny lunch mate, week after month after year (part of a quartet; we called ourselves The Bad Boyz), cracking wise about the latest idiots in the news and stoking our shared love of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm; Tony the relentlessly upbeat professional, taking great joy in his artistry even as the leaky Inquirer ship kept taking on water.
Tony understood that journalists needed two traits in order to be successful: a healthy ego and a thick skin. We talked about this a lot. Tony had trolls before there were trolls – people who’d like a cartoon when they agreed with it, but go ballistic about “bias” when they disagreed with it – and in that pre-Internet era, when they’d phone him in a rage, he was often successful at hosing them down. He had the personality for it. He could pen a cartoon that lambasted Israel, the Jewish community would go nuts, but then he could guest-speak at a synagogue and win skeptics over with charm.
He and I talked frequently about commentary (our respective forms), and about reader reaction. Somebody was always demanding that he be fired. But he’d often say that “controversy is a given if you’re doing your job.” (True that.) He said it again when he visited one of my University of Pennsylvania classes, in autumn 2009. But what struck me most about that visit – this is another random shard of memory – was the pride he took in his craft. Did he have fun? Absolutely. But it was earned fun. On a typical day, it took many, many hours to create and tweak an image that readers would absorb in seconds. And in the Inquirer era, spanning 41 years, he did that five days a week.
He told my students, “I’ve gone down cul de sacs that led nowhere. I’ve thrown things away. There’s a pile of sketches that are balled up three feet deep around the desk…There are moments when I wonder, ‘What if I’m suddenly no good? What if I’ve forgotten how to draw?’…There’s no resting on your laurels, because you’re only as good as the next idea, amd you don’t have it yet.” Nevertheless, “when you’re doing the best work you possibly can, it’s very rewarding.”
He moved from the Inquirer to NewsWorks and worked his craft until illness defeated him. He had stayed puckish and optimistic as long as was humanly possible. But when I called him a week ago Friday – to hear how he was doing, and to find out whether he’d be attending a 9/10 event honoring his art – what stood out, in that difficult 90-second conversation, was his assessment of his cancer, that it was now “inescapable.”
If you know Tony’s work, you know he was a blunt truth-teller; for four decades in Philadelphia, he told it that way, brilliantly so. In our phone talk, he was just as blunt with the truth. And he was true to his irrepressible self: The very last thing he said was that he hoped to see his friends at the 9/10 event (he didn’t make it); the very last words he said to me – his fragile voice suddenly clear as a bell – were: “Should be fun.”
It always was, Tony. Thanks so much.
At NewsWorks, here is Chris Satullo’s “Appreciation.”
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