McCauley ‘Mac’ Conner was one of the original ‘Mad Men’ of New York’s Madison Avenue, the advertising capital of America in the decades which followed the Second World War. He’s been described in the British press as the real Don Draper, but he wasn’t. In the TV series Draper was a creative director, selling ideas for ads to his company’s clients. Mac Conner was the man who illustrated those ads, and was one of the best, as an exhibition of his work at London’s House of Illustration demonstrates.
“I never considered myself an artist, I just liked to make pictures,” said the centenarian Mac Conner in an interview last year. And so he did, hundreds of them for magazines, book covers and company brochures, during a long working career. He has always considered himself a designer. Speaking earlier this year to The Daily Telegraph he explained: “I think the aim [as a designer] is to tell the story. You don’t give a damn whether it’s hanging on the wall or is put into the trash afterwards. The painter is painting something emotional. It’s a point of view, you know? And they rub shoulders once in a while, the artist and the designer.”
Mac Conner was born in Newport, New Jersey in 1913. His father ran the general store and there is an early photo of him standing by the two-petrol pump forecourt, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Gas. He studied illustration by correspondence course during the 1930s and attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art. His talent was obvious even at this early stage of his career as he became one of the youngest artists ever to have his work appear on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post, the prestigious weekly, mass-circulation magazine for which the older Norman Rockwell, whom Conner greatly admired, also worked.
Conner was drafted into the Navy during the war but his artistic skills meant he stayed in New York, illustrating training manuals for the troops. He stayed in the Big Apple to study under Harvey Dunn at New York’s Grand Central School of Art (literally located above Grand Central Station) and started working for Lawrence Studios as an illustrator. It was here he met Bill Neeley who became his agent and friend. Neeley argued that his clients’ work was their own copyright and insisted on it being returned to them after publication. It is principally for this reason that the Museum of the City of New York was able to stage this show last year. As Conner says, a lot of illustrators’ work was considered ephemera, fit only for the dustbin, so it is remarkable so much of his output has survived. Curator Terence Brown emphasises that “one reason the show came about is because the art existed; it existed because Bill Neeley said ‘we’re getting it back’.”
Conner divided his time between advertisement illustration and work to accompany short stories in the many women’s magazines of the time. Rockwell portrayed Rosie the Riveter in 1943, a tough individual who embodied the patriotic spirit of defiance of women on the home front, doing the jobs that their menfolk had had to relinquish in order to fight. But once the war was over those soldiers needed to come back to work and the US government encouraged women to return to the home, bear babies and buy the goods that the ad men were constantly trying to sell them. America needed to recover economically from the conflict and to this day consumerism is still the biggest driving force behind the US economy.
The women’s magazines contained romantic stories between the ads, known in the business as ‘Boy/Girl’ material, and, as the exhibition states, ‘they conveyed intimacy without directly addressing sexuality, which was off-limits in mainstream magazines.’
Yet the periodicals delivered dreams of happiness to their female readers. The illustrative style of the immediate post-war years has been described as optimistic realism as it attempted to sell this happiness through consumer goods, an approach the Wall Street Journal, no less, has described as ‘a conspiracy, of sorts, between clients, ad agencies, copywriters and the artists to juice suburban desires and ensure that homeowners kept keeping up with the Joneses.’
It’s called capitalism and Conner was one of the best at his job. His ad illustrations were strictly regulated by the art buyers, the men (and a few women), who instructed the artists based on the brief from the agency’s client company. So an art buyer on a Blue Bell denim campaign in 1953, could write to Conner stating: “In connection with the clothes….the plaid lining is always to be the same…and it is the red, black and gray plaid that we want…I am sending you the dungarees.”
While the style of the ads was strictly controlled, Conner found he had more freedom when illustrating the magazine articles. He told the New York Times last year that he would read ‘a two- or three-page synopsis of each fiction article he was to illustrate and then what he drew was “freewheeling” and “completely up to [me].” ’ In a filmed interview to promote the New York exhibition, Conner went on to say “I tried to figure out why they would be appealing, to speak to the story, to explain the story a little bit, to the observer, to the reader of the magazine, it was a challenge to do these. But now if you whipped them there was great satisfaction in doing one.”
The stories were sold to the readers with titles such as The Courtship on Car Sixty-Five for Collier’s or Strictly Respectable for Redbook. But the mood changed as the ’50s wore on, so we find a 1955 Collier’s story called The Good Husband with a strap line saying: “He urged her to have a hobby, an interest outside their marriage. And so she decided to try collecting men.” The artwork illustrating Pilot’s Wife for Woman’s Day in 1957 shows ‘a pale and shaken stewardess stood to one side as the reporters went wild.’ She’s pale and shaken because the dashing pilot with whom she’s been having an affair has just been met at the airport by his wife.
Conner’s personal life during these years was as good as the images he created. “I was very involved with my work, the lifestyle, the whole thing, just sort of appealed to me, I loved to do it….It was a way of speaking, a way to get your feelings out, and so it was a happy journey doing these paintings.” He didn’t marry until the late 1950s, and then to a Vanderbilt.
However, by the end of the 1960s television was beginning to usurp the place of the magazines in delivering ads and entertainment to a much bigger audience. Feminists such as Betty Friedan had attacked the women’s journals for stultifying women’s brains and brainwashing them into a passive acceptance of materialism. As the exhibition also points out, ‘the Civil Rights struggle made the all-white world of the magazines look increasingly dated and irrelevant.’
Conner found new work in educational publishing and cover illustrations for romantic novels. He had used models before as the basis for much of his work and continued doing this in his book illustrations, until they too were overtaken by cost-cutting and simply appeared as cover photographs, still the norm today.
Today Mac Conner sits in his 5th Avenue apartment in New York, surrounded by his life’s work, a contented old man. No wonder he says, “it was a very happy life, very successful, I think as lives go, I think it worked out pretty well.” And at 101, death holds no fears: “I’m just coasting, waiting for the big scythe to come along.”
(All images courtesy of McCauley Conner unless otherwise stated.)
Mac Conner: a New York Life is at the House of Illustration until 28 June 2015.
You can read more about Norman Rockwell, one of Mac Conner’s major inspirations as an illustrator, in Norman Rockwell – does it matter if it’s art?