Mac Conner, Illustrator for Ads and Magazines, Dies at 105


Mac Conner, a prodigious illustrator whose realistic, colorful and often dramatic paintings for major magazines and advertisers helped lend a distinctive look to postwar popular culture, died on Sept. 26 at his home in Manhattan. He was 105.

His death was confirmed by a family spokeswoman.

Mr. Conner thrived as an artist from the late 1940s to the early ’60s, when magazines still prized illustrations for short stories and advertising agencies on Madison Avenue valued artwork over photography to pitch clients’ products.

Mr. Conner’s illustrations, largely in gouache, appeared in major magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook and Woman’s Day, and in ads for United Air Lines, Armco Steel, Blue Bell denim and many other companies.

Mr. Conner said he wanted to tell a story in all of his work. But he had a pragmatic assessment of its ultimate value. “You don’t give a damn whether it’s hanging on the wall or is put into the trash afterward,” he told The Telegraph in 2015.

The stories he told for advertisers were largely upbeat ones about prosperous, mostly suburban life in the 1950s.

A smiling boy hangs upside down from a tree limb wearing Blue Bell overalls while his sister, also in overalls, rakes leaves below. Another happy boy in a hospital is helped in his recovery by air-conditioning equipment manufactured by Carrier. And a family of four enjoys a day on the verdant grass surrounding an atomic plant made by American Machine & Foundry.

Mr. Conner found greater artistic freedom in magazines, whose editors needed him to heighten the impact of the fiction they published.

For “Let’s Take a Trip Up the Nile,” a short story in a 1950 issue of This Week, he depicted a man kneeling before a woman on the landing of a fire escape. Composed like a movie scene, it showed the couple (was he proposing? apologizing?) from a high angle, probably from the floor above them.

For “Veni, Vidi, Video,” a 1949 story in Collier’s about a man trying to woo a woman by purchasing a television set, Mr. Conner captured the novelty of the infant medium’s arrival in a home. Again, he used a high angle to set his scene: About two dozen people (and a dog) crowd into a living room, nearly all of them standing transfixed by a boxing match on the screen.

“He’s the only guy with a television, so all the neighbors came to see the game,” Mr. Conner said in an interview with Channel 4 in Britain in 2015 when an exhibition of his work that had opened at the Museum of the City of New York came to the House of Illustration in London.

Many of his paintings were for women’s magazines, where he invariably portrayed women as beautiful, sophisticated and fashionable.

“He was alert to changing necklines, styles and glove lengths,” Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator of the Museum of the City of New York, said in a phone interview. “His women were powerful figures; he was sympathetic to them and he made them the center of the stories. They definitely weren’t props.”

Mr. Conner also had a noirish side, which suited the crime stories he illustrated. For a 1954 yarn in This Week, he captured the shooting of a police officer in a jewelry store. In shades of black, blue and white, he showed the officer clutching his chest after being struck by a bullet; a wisp of smoke snaking out of the killer’s gun; and a frightened little boy watching outside the shop.

McCauley Conner was born on Nov. 12, 1913, in Newport, N.J. His parents, Ross and Maud, owned a general store. A shy youngster, Mac admired the work of Norman Rockwell and found it easy to express himself by drawing people, which led him to take a correspondence course in illustration.

Mr. Conner sold his first cover illustration to The Saturday Evening Post while still in his teens and later graduated from what the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts). He also studied under the renowned illustrator Harvey Dunn at the Grand Central School of Art, located in the Manhattan terminal of the same name.

“He didn’t like pretty pictures,” Mr. Conner said of Mr. Dunn, in the Telegraph interview. “He wanted them to tell a story. He was direct — ‘Is that a red dress? Well make it red, dammit!’”

While in the Navy, Mr. Conner painted signs and illustrated training materials.

He found enough regular work after the work that he and two partners were able to started a studio in 1950. Their company, Neeley Associates, provided illustrations to magazine publishers and advertising agencies from a team of artists.

Mr. Conner’s advertising and magazine work continued for about another decade, until photography became a more favored alternative to illustrations. He shifted to painting cover images for romance novels and eventually shifted again, to illustrating children’s books, including “Dorothy and the Misfit Chimp” (2014), written by Paul Dalio, a step-grandson.

In addition to Mr. Dalio, Mr. Conner is survived by a stepdaughter, Barbara Dalio; a stepson, Louis Gabaldoni; three other step-grandsons; and three step-greatgrandchildren. His wife, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Conner, an artist who was known as Gerta and whose grandmother founded the Whitney Museum, died in 2009. A cousin, Gloria Vanderbilt, died earlier this year.

Mr. Conner was nearing his 101st birthday in 2014 when the exhibition of his work at the Museum of the City of New York opened.

Ms. Henry said the exhibition explored “an important moment in American media history,” adding, “It was the heyday of pictorial magazines and Madison Avenue — and how they shaped the way Americans looked at themselves.”

The exhibition opened during the run of “Mad Men,” the hit television series about advertising executives set mainly in the 1960s. The exhibition linked Mr. Conner to the show by calling him an “original Mad Man,” although he had never held a job at an ad agency. (He did say, however, that he enjoyed Manhattan during that time, working late and often drinking at the Stork Club.)

When his show moved on to the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington in 2017, he reflected on what his younger self had done.

“It’s good for the old ego, of course,” he told the museum in a video, referring to the exhibition. “You look around and see what you’ve accomplished over the years.”

He added: “I can’t even draw a line now. I can’t even draw a line. I look at this stuff and I say, ‘How the hell did that guy do it?’”

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