CREATIVE EXPRESSION: CARTOONIST, MUSICIAN, WRITER
INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELENA MUDD
We are sitting in a castle that is a stone’s throw away from Cold Spring Harbor in New York. This home was built by Bunny Hoest’s second husband, Bill Hoest. The setting is perfect to discuss, well, the meaning of life. “I have thought of all of us as humanity as being like a beehive or an anthill,” Bunny starts. “That we all have a role to play in the general survival of the whole tribe. We have a lot of bees here in the spring and a lot of anthills. And you watch them and they all work as a team. There are worker bees and soldier ants…they all have to do their part for the whole to survive and I think that it’s probably true that if you’re looking at us from outer space we’re probably just a swarm of something or other. And we’re doing what we have to do [for] the swarm [to] survive…and it could disappear like the dinosaurs. It’s all very fragile…we’re all depending on this erratic star.” And so, does anything matter? Any of this? “Nothing matters! That’s what I keep saying. It doesn’t matter!” Bunny adds laughing. “It really doesn’t matter! …you’re not curing cancer. And even if you cure cancer, if the whole planet disappears, so what?! …You’re living in a brief period of time. …I can’t imagine the earth will survive forever…there’s something finite. …the earth is really a ball of molten lava churning up and you’re not influencing that. That’s why I figure you have to have fun every day.” Bunny is having fun. She is a ball of energy and wisdom.
Bunny picks us up from the train station for the not-so-short drive to her home and creative space. “A few years ago, I was much younger. I was 80,” she says. Bunny is now 85 years old. “And I got a 10 year contract with a 10 year option to renew. So if I die, I might be in breach of the contract!” she says chuckling. Bunny is funny. Very funny. Her cartoon feature, The Lockhorns, has a circulation of over 200 million each week in 23 countries. Bunny and her fine artist, John Reiner, are responsible for eleven cartoons each week. One every day and five on Sunday. “[We] used to have six features but [I] married again and wanted to have time with my husband,” Bunny says. “And then that husband died. I haven’t got very good luck! Good luck with the cartoon. Husbands? That’s a different matter,” she says tickled.
“I never married a man I didn’t love,” Bunny continues. “But unfortunately I have a lot of bad luck.” One of her daughter’s friends asked her, “Did you go to a grief group?” “I was too private,” Bunny says. “I never went to a grief group. It’s so outrageous to me to bear your soul like that in front of strangers. …You don’t just love one person. I never married a husband I didn’t love but the idea isn’t that this is the only person you love. I mean. I love my kids. I love my cousin. I love a lot of people. And you don’t want them to feel that because one person died that life is over. What are they?! Chopped liver? They contribute to my happiness too. I don’t want them to feel bad,” she adds.
Bunny doesn’t have much patience for those holding on to their grief for too long. “When we went to Italy there were these women in black. They were still mourning their husbands dying in 1937. I’m thinking, ‘Really?! You ought to appreciate life!’ It’s not fair. And what about all the other people that loved you. He died, but you didn’t! You owe them something. You have a responsibility…you can’t walk around full of self-pity. I’m very impatient with that. It doesn’t do it for me…there are people who want to dramatize themselves. ‘I was the youngest widow in my town.’ So what?! You get a medal?! This is embarrassing. They get into something that makes them special. There’s nothing that I went through that a lot of people don’t go through and they’re brave and wonderful and not looking for attention or trying to milk it or get something else out of it. Get over yourself! Stop dramatizing yourself! If the planet explodes who cares?!” she exclaims.
Some say that to love is to grieve. And in grieving you get to know love. Bunny’s take? “They think too much about it. You just have to do it.” She continues, “You don’t walk around rehearsing your grievance. Rehearsing your aggravation. This isn’t an opera. Don’t make a federal case out of it. The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, you can’t get on with it. …Repress. Don’t express. That is really anti-everything people are saying and I’m still convinced it’s the way to go… In the world, what are we?! We’re nothing. But I don’t want my kids to think, ‘There’s my grieving mother. Poor grandma.’ Don’t say that! It’s, ‘Lucky grandma!’ I have a job. I have a castle which I never dreamed of. This was Bill’s dream. And super friends. I worry about them. They’re getting old badly. I cheer them up.”
The Lockhorns is known for sharp and tight one-liners which is in contrast to Bunny’s initial presentation which isn’t even faintly acerbic. “There’s a crispiness,” she says about The Lockhorns. Bunny then recounts a time she was babysitting her grandchildren. “I figured I’ll take the little children for a ride around the town. Show them school buses. So I pick up these little children and I put them in the back of the car…and they have little bottles. And they’re sitting in little car seats. And I’m saying, ‘Look at the police car! Look at the school buses! Look at the ambulance!’ …And finally, I hear a little voice from the back, and he says, ‘Bun!’ They call me Bun. ‘Bun! Bun!!’ I said, ‘What is it sweetheart?’ He said, ‘Shut up Bun!!’ It was so amazing. And I realized that they just wanted to take a nap. …They absolutely shut me up. And every time I want to say something to somebody, I think, ‘Shut up Bun. Don’t say anything because it doesn’t change the world.’ So I hear a lot of stuff. Like when people say, ‘To make a long story short,’ and I want to say, ‘Too late!’ But I ‘shut up Bun.’”
Bunny finds other things absurd and hilarious. Such as the over-dramatization of suffering in the arts. She describes a movie experience that she endured with her dear friend, Judy Bernhang. “We went to see a horrible movie. Do not see it! …Everything I’m railing against. It has wife-beating. Child abuse. Black and white racism. And somehow, they managed to get in the Nazis! How they took this out of Alabama and found World War II?! I mean. You really had to look far to get there. They had them enlist and then go to war. They didn’t miss a horror in the world! Wrenching. …I’m surreptitiously looking at my phone to see what time it is. And Judy says to me, ‘It’s never gonna end. We’re gonna be here for the rest of our lives.’ And the two of us, in the middle of this catastrophe, got hysterical. …We tried to not disrupt for all the crybabies that were sitting in the room. Anything that they could get into this movie that was catastrophic. The women. The children. And then they had another [film] in Portuguese…we sat through those two and they were horrendous,” Bunny says appalled and amused.
When it comes to The Lockhorns, it’s not all fun and games. Bunny is meticulous and strategic. She has devised a system that allows her to have cartoons completed four months in advance of when they go to print. “I can’t have a deadline,” she says. “I get [some good] ideas from…people. …They’re either a gem or a germ. Sometimes somebody sends me something really funny and I use it as is or I shorten it. I only do one panel and I like it to be as tight as possible. The drawing is very black and white. And I like the caption to be simple and terse and succinct and so I keep the caption in keeping with the artwork. …Sometimes they send me a germ of an idea. This is an idea that has a possibility and then I can fix it. And that’s where I solve the problem…maybe shorten it…reverse it,” Bunny says.
She continues, “And then we put [the ideas] in three by five file cards… We do four weeks at a time. Four weeks of cartoons. Four Sundays with five cartoons each and four weeks of six dailys…. And I mix and match them. We don’t want all the cartoons to be the woman beating up on the man. We don’t want it the other way around of course. We don’t want all of them to be in the movies, or all of them in the kitchen, or all of them to be in the garden. And I’m even more meticulous. I don’t want them all sitting. I want them standing and walking. …I treat it like a proscenium[: the stage arch where the scene in a piece of theatre is enacted]. As an English teacher, I [used to] put plays on. …So I treat the whole panel as my stage…and then I pay the writers. If they have given me a gem or a germ, I send them ten dollars for every one they have,” Bunny concludes.
Ten dollars may not seem like much today, but memories of the Depression are vivid in Bunny’s mind. “I’m very cheap…from the Depression era. It stays with you,” Bunny says. “In the Depression, I lived in Brooklyn. In Crown Heights. When I was a little girl, we all lived in one house because we were poor. …We had room for everybody. Cousins from Ohio came cause they were looking for a job in New York… One of my uncles, he is now my uncle, was about to marry my aunt…and everyone said that once he got a job, he could marry my aunt. One day he got a job, and everyone said, ‘Uncle Marshall has a job!’ No one asked if he was maximizing his talent. …Everyone was so thrilled. They didn’t even ask, ‘What is the job?’ Getting a job was so important. …The job turned out to be horrible…it was a job with the mafia,” Bunny says.
“The economy was depressed but my family wasn’t depressed. My family was cute and funny. My father was writing funny columns. My mother was a Juilliard singer. She was a professional but when you married in those days you didn’t pursue your profession. She had gotten a scholarship to Juilliard from Adelphi. The college out here that we went to. …[My parents] were cousins. My whole family is intermarried. We’re either geniuses or crazy as bedbugs. …They were second cousins. My father’s parents were also cousins. Scheffs always married Mezzs. That’s the way it went,” Bunny continues. “Even when we were poor…with one bathroom among how many people? We still shared. We still had the cousin from Ohio who lived in the attic and tried to get a job as a trumpet player in the Depression…lots of luck with that!” she quips.
Bunny has been exposed to many types of relationships over the years. What are her views polyamory: the fad in some circles. Polyamory comes with the promise of having multiple simultaneous connections that all have the possibility of real physical and emotional intimacy. “How’s that working out?” she asks, bemused. “I can’t even imagine how that would work out…I’m a focused person. This is one of the ways to solve a problem is to really focus. And when I love somebody, I love that person. I was very focused. They had all my attention. But I do understand. I have multiple children and I do love them all, at the same time. But that’s different. It’s not the same as an intense, mature relationship. …Even if I were younger, I wouldn’t go along with that for myself. But I wouldn’t condemn it if one of my kids, or you, said it was working out for you. I think there’s a problem. Maybe not for the person who’s doing it, but for others. They get possessive and they really don’t want you to share,” Bunny says.
“I was an only child in a house filled with grownups. My aunt lived with us until she was married to my uncle…a bunch of relatives from Ohio …So I had a lot of observation. ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ [was the motto]. I was very quiet believe it or not. And I listened a lot. …I was never a sibling. So I don’t know how ‘jealousy’ feels like. I saw that with my own children. I was astonished. ‘You’re giving more to Patty!’ Really, I’m not. It was amazing. And from way back in the bible, with Cain and Abel, there was sibling rivalry. …And Bill [Hoest] was an only child. And Doc…my other husband. We were always baffled by this need for attention. …It didn’t play with us. We didn’t know how that worked. So we watched it. …I know people who are jealous of the person’s job, even if it’s not another human being! They’re mad because you’re so excited about the work you’re doing, you don’t have time for them. And I’m thinking, ‘They’re doing that work because they’re bringing home bread. This is a means to an end.’ I never understood any of it. Neither did Bill. And neither did my last husband, the pediatrician. …If you love [someone], you’d be delighted he was so happy,” Bunny adds.
How has Bunny managed to keep it all together and produce cartoons at such a prolific rate throughout the roller coaster of life? Her co-creator, and fine artist, John Reiner has had a lot to do with it. “All my husbands are dead. The first one I had divorced and then he died. So I felt really bad. I felt that maybe if I had taken care of him he wouldn’t have died,” Bunny says half in jest. “But he died anyway… And then Bill got cancer when he was 50-something. That was really horrible. The whole cancer scene. After a good report we would be high. It was like a roller coaster. High as a kite. And then a bad blood test. And then a good blood test. It was exhausting. I felt terrible. I was beside myself. But then somebody said, ‘Are you gonna go on?’ We had six features going. …John [Reiner] was a mess when Bill died. [Bill] was like a father figure to him. He absolutely worshipped Bill. And I said, ‘John, through the tears can you still draw?’ So the two of us thought that we’d just give it a shot. We’d try. And we did very well. John kept up his end and we were able to go on and never missed a day. And that’s the thing about personal days. I went from death to divorce to disaster and I never missed a deadline because if you have a job you have to do it. There’s a personal responsibility. Nobody out there reading…my 100 million people. They don’t care about my life. They don’t care if I’m having a bad day. And they shouldn’t. It’s not their problem. …John was great. He really was a great supporter. He never missed a day.”
Hold on. Bunny’s husband died and shewas the one asking John if he was fine? “I feel responsible because I’m OK. I can’t explain that. I feel like I’m OK. And so I worry about people who aren’t,” she says. When did Bunny internalize the idea that she is OK? “In the 30s, they had a poster. The March of Dimes had just started. Roosevelt was elected four days before I was born. And he had polio…polio was a scourge. I lived in Brooklyn. There were kids missing. There were kids who would never come back to school. They were dead. They were paralyzed. So polio was a scary thing in my life. They had a March of Dimes with a polio poster child. They had a child with braces and crutches…and I used to get all teary looking at that poor child. I was very skinny and I gave away my milk money to the March of Dimes…I knew then that I was responsible,” Bunny adds.
The Lockhorns are a bickering couple that are not grateful for what they have. “You see the humor in two people who should be best friends. A husband and a wife. They picked each other. They should be supportive of each other. Instead of that, they don’t appreciate the wonderfulness of finding another person to share your life. And so I think it’s like a negative role model. It’s what you shouldn’t do. And also, it’s kind of like a stand-up comic where they have to give you a scene. They say, ‘Guy walks into a bar.’ That’s my proscenium. …It’s like stand-up one-liner comedy. …I love the crispness and directness of the one panel,” Bunny says.
How does Bunny describe her natural creative expression? “Words and music. I was an English teacher. I write lyrics to songs. I have perfect pitch. So I do music. I have 2 pianos. …The pleasures I get is from words and music. The art came much later. It came when I married Bill. …My father had a waiting room in the beautiful Brooklyn brownstones…and they had magazines for the patients who were waiting. And a lot of those magazines had cartoons. And there was a cartoon…they called him Hoest of a Post; that was Bill. He had a cartoon every week in the Saturday evening post and I used to look through the cartoons and idly notice the names of people…George Booth. And now they’re all my friends. George Booth stood up for Bill and me at our wedding. I noticed the cartoons when I was in my father’s waiting room. I was a big reader. The cartoons were always exciting to me,” Bunny says.
At 85 years young, Bunny is vibrant and energetic. Her intellectual and physical stamina are remarkable…for any age. What does she attribute her lively longevity to? “Luck. This is dumb luck,” she says. Maybe a little yoga to stretch the bones? “Oh please! I’ve never been to a gym. [Life is] such a crap shoot. …If you get off a train, and you’re well, and don’t get wheeled off then all is well. I have no answers. Just appreciate the fact that you’re OK,” Bunny continues. Bunny’s views in general, and especially with regards to non-attachment to suffering, resonate with Eastern ideas of spirituality. Ram Dass, the famous yogi, has similar overall views that were developed after he traveled to India seeking enlightenment. “He had to schlep all the way to India to figure this out?!” Bunny quips. Hilarious. And legendary.
“I’m having fun. I don’t know if I’m making the world a better place but I’m having fun,” Bunny says. “I feel that…life is an adventure. Whatever comes along…no one gets by with a free pass… You have bad and good. But you have to milk it. Because, I’m 85. It ends in a flash.”