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Victor “Vicky” Weisz: A permanent sense of sorrow

“He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions.”

On 22 February 1966, the political cartoonist Victor “Vicky” Weisz took an overdose of sleeping pills and died at his flat in north London. He was 52. The previous day, he had filed a portrait of Denis Healey, a gracefully limned arrangement of simple, black lines and smudged eyebrows, which was used on the cover of that week’s New Statesman– the same issue that would carry his obituary.

Writing hastily to deadline, the then editor of the NS, Paul Johnson, praised Vicky’s generosity, wit and moral judgement. “Vicky loved his subjects,” he wrote, “even – perhaps above all – those whom he flayed most mercilessly. And they loved him.” A flurry of letters arrived the following week. Some doubted Vicky’s elan. The screenwriter Heinrich Fraenkel wrote of a lifelong weariness: “For those of us who knew Vicky as a young man, even as a boy, he never seemed to have been young at all.”

Weisz was born in Berlin in April 1913 (were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his centenary with the New Statesman). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and drew sports and theatre caricatures for the radical journal 12 Uhr Blatt until it was taken over by the Nazis in 1933. His father, Dezso Weisz, was a Jewish-Hungarian goldsmith who committed suicide in 1928.

Fearing the rise of Hitler (whom he had lambasted in the press), Vicky fled and arrived in London in 1935. He freelanced for the Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and News Chronicle, where he became a staff cartoonist in 1941.

Vicky was assiduous and rarely satisfied with his work. Michael Foot called him “the best cartoonist in the world” yet the man doubted his own talent. He drew Hugh Gaitskell as a fiery, angular knight and John Foster Dulles as a refrigerator; he transformed Harold Macmillan into “Supermac”. Politicians relished seeing themselves depicted by Vicky and offered him notes.

Quick draw: a cartoon showing Vicky caricaturing Harold Macmillan, first published Octovber 1958.

Every Monday, at precisely 12 noon, Vicky would arrive at the NS offices on Great Turnstile to present his latest cartoons. In person, he appeared like one of his drawings: a small, broad-jowled man with a sweeping comb-over. He wore thick, round glasses and dressed in black. “He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions,” said the cartoonist Stan Franklin. Norman Mackenzie, writing in the centenary issue of the NS, recalled Vicky having “a delightful sense of entertainment but a permanent sense of sorrow”.

One letter the NS received after his death came from Bishop William Simon, soon to be archbishop of Wales, who had written to Vicky in August 1960 to compliment him on a Macmillan cartoon. He received no reply. Four months later, on 25 December, a parcel appeared on Cathedral Green. It was the original drawing, wrapped in a parcel almost as large as the artist who had sent it, “with Christmas wishes”.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis