Famed cartoonist Gahan Wilson, a longtime resident of Sag Harbor, died on November 21, 2019. Mr. Wilson, who was 89 years old and suffering from advanced dementia and other health issues, lived in a memory care facility in Arizona.
Mr. Wilson was predeceased by his wife of 53 years, author Nancy Winters Wilson, who died on March 2, 2019. Caring for them both in their final months was Paul Winters, Ms. Wilson’s son and Mr. Wilson’s stepson. In recent months, Mr. Winters had been posting updates on Mr. Wilson’s condition on a GoFundMe page that was set up earlier this year to help pay for his medical care.
“The world has lost a legend,” Mr. Winters wrote on the page on November 21. “One of the very best cartoonists to ever pick up a pen and paper has passed on. He went peacefully — surrounded by those who loved him.
“Gahan Wilson leaves behind a large body of work that is finely drawn, elegant, and provocative,” he continued.
Among the magazines in which Mr. Wilson’s work regularly appeared were Playboy, The New Yorker and National Lampoon, where his regular comic strip “Nuts” delved into the world of childhood trauma.
Mr. Wilson lived in Sag Harbor from the early 1990s until about five years ago, when he and his wife (who for many years lived in England in a unique, but entirely happy marriage) moved to New York City. The couple lived in Greenwich Village until early 2019, when, due to their failing health, Mr. Winters relocated his parents to be near him in Arizona.
Back in a 2008, Mr. Wilson was interviewed for a story the Sag Harbor Express and, in that interview, he revealed that his great uncles included both P.T. Barnum and William Jennings Bryan — perhaps accounting for his keen sense of irony.
Mr. Wilson was born on February 18, 1930, and grew up in Evanston, Illinois, on the shores of Lake Michigan. His earliest memories were formed by the ironies of the Great Depression — and images of once comfortable people in his neighborhood struggling to survive on limited resources.
“My association as a kid growing up and formative stuff was out of the dimmest recollection of the actual Depression, which was horrendous,” Mr. Wilson said. “Society was on the verge of collapse, and about to fall apart. If FDR hadn’t come along, it would have.”
One of Mr. Wilson’s strongest memories from his youth was that of a woman who stood on the side of the road in his hometown with a calliope, which she’d crank to make music.
“She’d play it for change and survived the Depression that way,” he said. “Then she kept with it, but it started breaking down and skipping notes.
“The last time I saw her, I was on this bus which would stop at a gas station on the route, and there was a big graveyard,” he continued. “There she was. The window was open. She was in this inappropriate place on the side of a hill, with no sound coming out of the thing whatsoever.”
With a talent for art and observation, Mr. Wilson attended the Chicago Art Institute and did a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force before moving to Greenwich Village, where he began honing his craft as a cartoonist.
“Young cartoonists had a chance to break in and scuttle around from one magazine to the other,” he said. “It was more degrading than being a door-to-door salesman.”
But it was a trade that Mr. Wilson continued to pursue throughout his long career. Along the way, he saw many magazines transform, and witnessed several others go under entirely.
Even when he lived in Sag Harbor, Mr. Wilson was still a freelance cartoonist plying his wares in New York. That’s where he would head every Tuesday to pitch his cartoons to magazines, along with all the other cartoonists in the city.
“Now there’s only two markets — Playboy and The New Yorker, and Playboy does everything by mail, so The New Yorker is it,” he said in the 2008 interview. Since that time, Playboy has cut back even more, and is now a quarterly periodical.
During the years he lived in Sag Harbor, Mr. Wilson didn’t own a car, and he became a familiar fixture in the village as he walked to and from Main Street from his home.
“I very much enjoy not having a car,” Mr. Wilson said at the time. “It’s quite in vogue now to build towns so people can walk everywhere. I get bored silly doing exercises. I just have to walk into town for my exercise.
“It’s a nice little walk, and I go back and forth twice a day,” he added.
In an interview this past summer, Mr. Winters recalled that, after moving to the city, Mr. Wilson used to talk a lot about his time in Sag Harbor, recalling the people and the place with fondness. In recent months, as dementia took its toll, he noted that his stepfather never lost his sense of wonder about the world, and in fact, regained much of it as his memory faded.
Finding humor and wonder in the world, and of course, irony, was a skill set that served Mr. Wilson well throughout his life, as evidenced at the end of his 2008 interview with the Express.
“I have one cartoon in The New Yorker this week,” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s a dungeon, and these two guys are hanging by their wrists from the wall with a shaft of light coming through the window. One guy’s saying to the other, ‘Remember when they couldn’t do this sort of thing to us?’”
Yes, we do indeed.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Wilson was preceded by his parents, Allen and Marion Wilson. He leaves behind stepsons Randy Winters and Paul Winters, and daughter-in-law Patrice Winters. Wilson also leaves grandchildren Tiffany Smith, Jessica Winters, Chris Winters, Ashtin Winters, Carlie Winters, Rachel Winters, Kyle Winters, and Jessie Winters, and two great-grandchildren, Noah Smith, Jaylie Winters, and Elizabeth Winters.