And There He Was … Gone

[Silverback Ed (Pond Village SBs) is no more. He was the most famous person any of us knew. He was a beloved Vermonter and a good pal. He was the pioneer who crossed the thresholds of 50, 60, 70, and 80 before us. Alas, he will not be able to do the same with 90. He was one of our original Silverbacks, and he is already sorely missed. SB SM]

Keeping Up With Koren

by Silverback SM

published originally in Best of Vermont Magazine

It’s 1 a.m. and Ed Koren, Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate, is on deadline. Outside, the dirt crossroads of Pond Village, Brookfield are quiet. There are no lights on in the tiny cluster of houses. Across the street, the renovated Town Hall, now a community center, is dark. The chairs are stacked on the tables at Ariel’s restaurant. The waters of Sunset Lake are still. The world famous Floating Bridge, re-opened for traffic in 2015, has no traffic.

He makes a final check of his latest creation and puts it in the scanner. Within seconds it will be in the offices of the New Yorker magazine, in plenty of time for tomorrow’s 9 a.m. meeting of the art department. It’s a far cry from his earlier days in Vermont when he would occasionally rendezvous at the Montpelier train station with the Montrealer bound for Grand Central. He would hand over a package to Bill Brigham-a friend, Amtrak employee, and local resident- who, in turn, would hand it over to a courier for the New Yorker or delivery in time for the morning meeting.

He crosses his fingers and goes to bed, awaiting a thumbs-up or -down that

determines if this week’s creative effort has been a boom or a bust.

“I’ve been doing this for 54 years now. The New Yorker first accepted a cartoon from me in 1962. The drill has always been pretty much the same. Every week starts with a blank sheet of paper.”

Koren’s world has some illustrious residents. Roger Angell is a buddy who is also a writer with the rare distinction of being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Garrison Keillor (“Gar”) , host of PBS’s Prairie Home Companion, drops by whenever he is passing through Vermont. Food writer extraordinaire Calvin Trillin says of Koren “ I am a great admirer of his work,” adding “The question I am asked about Koren almost more than any other is whether he looks like the people in his drawings-‘shaggy’ being the adjective most used to describe them, although ‘hairy’ is also mentioned regularly.”

Koren is a little less hairy these days. Having crossed the threshold of what he calls “the golden world of Octo (80),” he still manages to resemble the characters in his cartoons. “The common perception is that cartooning is ‘easy,’” he says with a rueful shake of the head. It’s easy to understand the misconception. Cartoons are simple. They amuse. They can be understood in a glance. The reality, however, is that the cartoonist needs to combine the graphic skill of an illustrator, the wordsmithing of a poet, and the cultural insight of a critic, and–last but not least–the timing of a stand-up comedian.

Koren is a modern master. Each week he generates a half a dozen or so new concepts that he sketches and submits to the magazine. If he’s lucky, one or two will get the green light to proceed to a more finished state. Some of those get put into a “cartoon bank” of material kept on hand for future use. The majority of ideas, however, are simply rejected. “I dwell in a world of rejection and self-doubt,” he says philosophically.

Other projects that come his way offer delightful diversion. How many people do you know who have had gallery shows in Manhattan, Paris, and Czechoslovakia? He and his wife Curtis have recently returned from Cali, Colombia where his son, Benjamin and his fiancé have opened a fashionably casual restaurant called Coyote that features framed pictures of Dad’s artwork. Koren’s humor transcends international boundaries, even though, he notes, “There are no coyotes in Colombia.”

Last summer a short film to publicize the high-fashion brand Hermes fully engulfed him for several months. Then, there are the pro bono requests from community groups and non-profits that he accommodates whenever possible. There are a lot of t-shirts in Vermont featuring his artwork.

Then there are other obsessions. Koren admits to being “compulsive about exercise.” It’s a rare day that his neighbors in Pond Village don’t see him heading off for a run, bike, or ski. Grumbling is not his style, but he does grumble about the handful of days, only 32, he was able to get out onto the snow this past winter. “116 days is my record,” he says (not that he is compulsive). This year there were fewer than a dozen.”

Another obsession is the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department, a group with whom he maintains a strong affiliation, even though he is less likely to be going out on field calls these days. “I’m addicted to the adrenaline,” he says. As a one-time captain, he’s as proud of being part of this group as much his membership in the ranks of the Pantheon of legendary New Yorker contributors.

And doodling. It’s important to leave some time for doodling.

At an age when most octogenarians have migrated south and traded professional pursuits for the golf course and daily newspaper, Ed Koren keeps on keeping on, following the same routine that has governed his past half-century. The studio is open seven days a week and there’s no such thing as a paid holiday or vacation.

Getting old? He doesn’t think about it. “I do get concerned about repeating myself, but to be honest, I think I’m getting better. The only thing that makes me feel old is the thought of not doing what I do. I’m happy where I am.” That’s Pond Village, Brookfield, and Vermont.

With the scan completed and dispatched to New York, the last light in the village is turned off. It would be silent but for the distant trucks on Interstate 89 rumbling their cargoes north and south, reminding us that Vermont is, at once, isolated from and connected to the rest of the world. But for now, all is well. Another deadline has been met. Tomorrow will bring a new day, and another blank sheet of paper.

Edward Koren Obituary

Edward Koren, who spent more than six decades delighting readers of the New Yorker with his unmistakably shaggy and joyous cartoons, died Friday at his home in Brookfield. He was 87 years old. 

Koren’s wife, Curtis, confirmed his death to the New York Times

Ed Koren drawing cartoon character
Ed Koren, diagnosed with lung cancer in 2020, continued drawing from his home in Brookfield. File photo by David Goodman

Born in New York City in 1935, Koren attended Columbia University and earned an M.F.A. from the Pratt Institute. He taught at Brown University and sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1962. The magazine would go on to publish some 1,100 of his pieces, according to the Times, featuring a universe of humans and animals sharing similarly immense noses and wild hair. 

He published many collections over the years — including his latest, “In the Wild,” in 2018 — and contributed to children’s books, a poetry collection and even a cookbook. 

Though Koren’s remarkable tenure at the New Yorker made him known throughout the world, he was, perhaps, most beloved at home in Vermont, where he bought a house in 1978 and moved full-time in 1982. 

“I became enamored,” he said of his adopted state in a 2018 interview with VTDigger. “I just kind of stayed.”

Despite his curmudgeonly affect, Koren became known in Vermont for his generosity to friends, neighbors and strangers alike. A significant subgenre of his work consisted of pen-and-ink drawings he created to raise money for community organizations and to celebrate the life milestones of the network he and Curtis cultivated. 

He was particularly generous to aspiring artists, journalists and local news organizations — often contributing work to Seven Days and VTDigger (Curtis served on the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, which operates VTDigger, for nine years, including as its chair). Just this week, Koren emailed this reporter, along with editors from Seven Days and the New Yorker, to introduce and promote the work of a fellow cartoonist.

Koren’s life in Vermont informed much of his later work. He took notes while out and about, returning to his home-studio in Brookfield to gently satirize the Vermonters he encountered. It was not uncommon to find the name of a local bar or school scribbled in his cartoons. 

“I’m an inhabitant of two worlds,” he told journalist David Goodman for VTDigger’s ‘The Vermont Conversation’ last October. “My early work was based on the Upper West Side.” By contrast, he said, “Vermont has always had its own milieu that I’ve drawn from, and I oftentimes mix and match.”

The state — and the White River Junction-based Center for Cartoon Studies — honored his local ties by naming him Vermont’s second cartoonist laureate in 2014. He responded with a mix of appreciation, embarrassment and humor, telling Vermont Public, “It’s a wonderful idea, and I’m very happy to replace my wool hat with a wreath of laurels.”

Koren had a particularly close connection to Brookfield and its environs, where he was an avid cyclist, cross-country skier and — perhaps most importantly to him — firefighter. He served on the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department for more than three decades, much of that time as a captain, and would regale friends with stories of the Vermonters he encountered on the job. 

Late in life, Koren would bemoan the hollowing out of his own community. When he first moved to Brookfield, he told Seven Days, “There were people living in every house up and down the street.” But by 2018, he said, only 13 of 22 structures in his village were occupied, rendering it “a ghost town.”

In July 2022 — two years after Koren was diagnosed with lung cancer — his Brookfield community honored its neighbor in a gathering outside his home. As Seven Days reported at the time, many came sporting T-shirts featuring Koren’s cartoons, and a convoy of Brookfield fire trucks rumbled by. 

In March of that year, Koren appeared at the opening of his final exhibit — a pairing with the photographer Stephen Gorman — at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The long-planned and long-delayed exhibition, called “Down to the Bone,” featured haunting photographs Gorman made of hungry polar bears pillaging the carcasses of whales in the Arctic. Interspersed with those were uncharacteristically bleak Koren drawings of skeletal — though still, somehow, shaggy — creatures. 

It was a dark commentary on the ravages of climate change. Koren, who by then was quite ill, summoned seemingly all of his energy to make the journey to the opening and participate in a Q&A onstage with Gorman and a pair of Peabody curators. 

Koren never gave up cartooning, even as his health faded, and the New Yorker continued to publish his art. 

“I love my life. I love my work,” he told Goodman last fall. “I would hate to say goodbye to it.”

In addition to Curtis, Koren is survived by his three children, Nathaniel, Sasha and Ben. 

2 thoughts on “And There He Was … Gone

  1. Koren was a giant – even I recognized his work, shaggy characters, indeed. And “Cartoon Laureate”? What a concept. The fact that Koren was the “second cartoon laureate” seems somehow fitting. Like Avis in those old timey commercials, would he have felt compelled to try harder?

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