I just got back from my framer three precious things. Since I never want to have a squash court at my house—besides the fact that I am sure I’ll never be able to afford it, I too much like the social side of squash, the random locker-room chatter, the serendiptious gossip that is absent when you have your own court and have to invite over players—these pictures are destined to decorate my already crowded office wall. They are the three squash covers of the New Yorker.
Two were by Constantin Alajalov. Born in Rostov, Russia in 1900, Alajalov emigrated in the early 1920s, first to Persia and then to the U.S. where he soon got work as an illustrator. Constantin (sometimes with an e at the end of his first name) Alajalov did one hundred and sixty-seven covers for the New Yorker from September 1926 to September 1960. He was notably the only artist who did covers for both the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, the sole exception to the famously iron-clad rule of the country’s two leading magazines. He also did covers for Vanity Fair, Vogue and Fortune, illustrated many books and painted murals for the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and for ocean liners. He was close friends with Odgen Nash, Leonard Bernstein and the Duke of Windsor. Janet Flanner, the famed New Yorker correspondent in Paris, wrote an book with him that collected his cartoons and painting. He died in New York in October 1987, survived by a brother who still lived in Moscow.
Alajalov was the sports cartoonist for the New York Evening Post in the 1930s, a job that brought him into contact with a relatively obscure sport, squash. In the space of ten months, he twice put a squash player on the cover of the New Yorker. On 25 May 1935 he depicted six men playing squash, tennis, polo, golf, ping pong and baseball, all trying to swat the same white ball. It is a brilliant, metaphorically-rich painting.
On 7 March 1936, he drew a squash match. In the foreground is fierce, white-haired man about to smash, with an enormous swing, a backhand into the back wall while his opponent cowers in a corner. It is an awkward scene, with the smasher’s right foot heading toward the front wall and yet his swing shaped for a backhand to the back wall. The only copy I have seen in a squash facility is at the University Club of San Francisco.
On 7 November 1977 Charles Saxon put squash players back on the New Yorker cover for the third and last (so far) time. Saxon, like Alajalov, was another legendary staff cartoonist: in thirty years he did ninety-two covers and seven hundred and twenty-five cartoonists for the magazine (it took three books to collect them all). Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Chuck Saxon grew up the son of English emigrants (his great-uncle Barney had been a court violinist to Queen Victoria).
Saxon was renowned for puncturing the pompous sensibilities of upper-class East Coast America, and his portrait of a woman waiting to get on a squash court filled with two men perfectly captured the wildly-changing 1970s New York City squash scene. It was rumored that Saxon drew the picture at an old squash tennis court at the Yale Club (he went to Columbia, class of 1940 and the Columbia Club of New York is based at the Yale Club).
Saxon, like most squash players, went down swinging. He was sardonic, right up to the day in December 1988 when he had a heart attack in his home in New Canaan. In the process of falling down when his heart seized, he knocked down a lamp. He seemed to be pretty sure he was dying, and when the EMTs were taking him out on a stretcher, he said, “I guess I’d better die—I just broke our best lamp.”