The New York Times

 

Obituary of Michelle Urry, Editor of Cartoons for Playboy Magazine

By Douglas Martin

Published: October 18, 2006

 

Michelle Urry, who brought a wicked sense of humor, an uncanny ability to nurture eccentric artists and what she called an “inordinately dirty mind” to her position as cartoons editor of Playboy magazine, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 66. The cause was an ocular melanoma, a cancer of the eye, said her daughter-in-law, Justine Rosenthal.

 

For a generation — from the early 1970’s until her death — Ms. Urry sorted through more than 1,000 cartoons a week to come up with the couple of dozen or so to appear in the monthly magazine, then sent them on to Hugh Hefner for the final selection. Her taste — seasoned by a girlhood of reading comic books, the careful study of the history of cartoons and experience as a fashion designer — helped shape the famous look of Playboy’s cartoons.

 

Brian Walker, curator of a 1984 exhibition of Playboy cartoons at the Museum of Cartoon Art in Rye Brook, N.Y., wrote that “perhaps with the exception of The New Yorker, Playboy has been the only publication to maintain excellence in the field.”

 

Playboy’s cartoons were certainly sexier than The New Yorker’s, but they also reflected a cheekier, more anti-establishment sensibility that Mr. Hefner has said presaged and reflected the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s. Ms. Urry assembled a worldwide stable of artists who captured this worldview.

 

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Hefner said that occasionally Ms. Urry would persuade him to use a cartoon he had initially rejected. He also praised her ability to communicate with cartoonists, whose artistic egos often needed massaging.

 

The cartoonist Jules Feiffer, in another interview yesterday, said Ms. Urry was a “mother superior to cartoonists.”

 

Lee Lorenz, the longtime cartoon editor of The New Yorker, recalled the famous poker parties for cartoonists she held in her loft and the cartoonists’ Christmas parties at Playboy headquarters. He praised her ability to choose work that reflected Playboy’s mission.

 

Michelle Dorothy Kaplan was born on Dec. 28, 1939, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where her father was a clothing manufacturer. She said in an interview with The New York Times in 1995 that instead of dolls she had a huge comic-book collection. After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, where she studied English, she opened a dress shop where she sold her own designs.

 

She sold the shop and moved to New York, but hated it and moved to Chicago, where a friend suggested she might find design work at Playboy.

 

Instead, she was offered a secretarial job, which she angrily rejected. A few days later, she was offered a job she remembered as “an assistant something,” with the promise that in six months she could be an editor. The job was “bunny department assistant,” although she was never a bunny, Ms. Rosenthal said.

 

Not satisfied, she transferred to answering phones at the Playboy mansion, and eventually Mr. Hefner asked her to be his assistant on cartoons, with the understanding that she might become cartoon editor in a year.

 

She did, although she said in an interview with The National Observer in 1971 that the job “had some onus attached to it”: her predecessor had been a girlfriend of Mr. Hefner’s, and gossip was inevitable. However, Ms. Urry said, she quickly demonstrated an indisputable knack for the work.

 

“The fact that I brought to it an inordinately dirty mind was my own doing — I mean, I don’t think he expected that kind of bonus,” she said. She also learned that appreciation of humor is almost instinctual. She told The National Observer that when people brought intellect to humor, the enjoyment was lost.

 

In the 1970’s, it was cause for comment that Ms. Urry was working for Playboy despite her outspoken feminist beliefs. But she stoutly defended her magazine for backing feminist goals like access to abortion. She said that women posed nude to further their careers: “No one ever coerced anybody to take their clothes off,” she said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1971.

 

Ms. Urry’s first husband, Steven Urry, a sculptor, died in 1993. She is survived by her husband, Alan R. Trustman, a screenwriter, and a son, Caleb Urry.

 

One of Ms. Urry’s big successes came from a visit to B. Kliban in his San Francisco studio in the 1970’s. She bought six cartoons involving cats for $25, and urged Mr. Kliban to do a book. He became famous for his cat cartoons.

 

She once said her goal was to prod readers to think about something familiar in a different way. One cartoon she selected, by Chon Day, showed a gentleman in a club remarking, “While other fellows were swapping wives, I traded mine for 100 shares of I.B.M.”