When I was a child, everybody wore a hat. And people doffed," said William Steig, talking about his new picture book about his childhood in New York City early in the last century. At 95, William Steig has just completed his 42nd book, When Everybody Wore a Hat.
I had traveled to Boston to deliver a finished copy of the new book and to ask him to talk a bit about his life. His wife of more than 35 years, Jeanne Steig, joined us in conversation.
Bill Steig is one of our great living artists and the oldest living contributor to the New Yorker. He has illustrated all but six of his 42 books. He has won the Caldecott Medal, Caldecott and Newbery Honors and the National Book Award, and he was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. One year—1977—he won both a Caldecott Honor (The Amazing Bone) and a Newbery Honor (Abel's Island); in 2001 his picture book, Shrek!, was adapted into one of the biggest-grossing children's films in recent years.
Steig reached far back to recall his earliest memories. He was born at home, in 1907, to a seamstress and a carpenter/house painter, but "there was never enough work." They were immigrants from Eastern Europe. "My parents spoke many languages: Polish, German, English. It was hard to know what they were saying but we learned the important words. We moved a lot. Our apartments were very small. There was no privacy."
Had he ever thought of writing an autobiography, other than the peek at his childhood provided in his new book? "I thought of writing it when I was about five years old," he said. "I don't think about myself much."
But did he like making books? "Sure. It's a hard question to answer, because there are many other reasons for making books—your bread and butter and similar reasons. I always had to make a living."
He drew and painted as a child, then went to the National Academy of Art in New York City "with the idea of learning how to make a living—drawing from a model and casts to start with," but he agreed when I suggested that formal art training probably works against free expression (he dropped out of Yale School of Fine Arts after five days).
Had he ever considered how he established his trademark style? "If I thought about it, I'd have to consider myself important." His parents were socialists—"everyone was back then"—and because of that, "it was looked down upon to be a doctor or lawyer or some such. An artist was okay."
After he began to sell his work he was able to support his parents, and didn't leave home until the early 1930s, when he got married for the first time, to Margaret Mead's sister, Elizabeth.
He started to sell his work to the New Yorker in 1930 "and that was it," said Jeanne, who was born that same year. "The very first time I went to the New Yorker," he said, "they wanted to buy just the picture without the caption on my first cartoon. So I asked my mother what I should do and she told me they had to take all or nothing, so that's what I told them and that's what they did."
He loves his new book, he said, because "I thought these pictures would make a nice story." It shows a world almost inconceivably long ago, with no radio or TV, few phones or cars. What does he think of life today? "It's a hard time now. I wish for what we all do: peace; busy, interesting lives."
He sums it all up gratefully: "I'm lucky. I've been able to do something I loved all my life."