William Hamilton, a cartoonist known for his drawings in The New Yorker that skewered the wealthy and powerful, died in a car crash Friday in Lexington, Kentucky. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lucy Young Hamilton.
She said her husband liked to go for afternoon drives and was about 4 miles from their horse farm when he either passed out or was distracted and drove through a stop sign. His vehicle was struck on the driver’s side by a pickup truck, she said.
Lt. Jackie Newman of the Lexington Police Department said the collision happened on a rural road around 2:45 p.m. His vehicle then struck a fire hydrant, and he had to be pulled out of the wreckage. He was taken to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, she said.
Lucy Hamilton said she was introduced to her future husband at a mutual friend’s birthday party in January 2002 in Virginia. When they met, she said, she had no idea he was the brains behind a series of popular cartoons in The New Yorker. They married on Nov. 2, 2003.
William Hamilton began his career with the magazine in 1965 and was working for it up to the time of his death, his wife said.
“He was always just drawing and writing and creating,” she said.
Hamilton’s cartoons had a distinctive quality, Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a longtime friend, said Saturday.
“You were never in doubt about who the cartoonist was,” he said. “He had a particular beat, as it were — the preppy world, the world of Ralph Lauren, the Protestant WASP establishment that was on their way out, holding onto their diminishing privileges.”
Hamilton’s cartoons depicted characters dressed in suits and gowns in fine-dining settings or high-society parties, or corporate executives, frequently with a cigar in hand.
In one cartoon set in an office, a man in a dark suit is talking to another man in a suit. The caption reads: “Dobbs, we’ve been through the executive roster ten times and decided you’re the man for the job. How would you like to take a price-fixing rap?”
In another, two women are at table talking over glasses of wine. The caption reads, “He’s perfectly nice, but sort of boring, like good cholesterol or something.”
Although Hamilton took a pin to overinflated egos, his work did not spring from a place of anger, Lapham said. “He had a gracious mind, I thought, and a very lovely wit,” he said.
Hamilton’s daughter and son-in-law, Alexandra and Billy Kimball, said in an email that he drew inspiration for some of his work from his own encounters with people and situations.
They cited one cartoon — a husband and wife dressing in black tie to go out — with the caption, “If we don’t go do you think people will think we weren’t invited?”
“He took a rarefied world and broke it down into terms that would seem familiar to any socially insecure high school student anywhere,” they wrote.
Hamilton began drawing when he was a child, and his first rejection came from The Saturday Evening Post when he was 12, The New York Sun reported in 2005. He had submitted a cartoon of burglars complaining about the rain as they broke into a house.
In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, Hamilton said his fascination with those in high society came from “being near money, but far enough away that I couldn’t quite get my fingers around it.”
Hamilton, who was raised on a ranch in California’s Napa Valley called Ethelwild, said, “We lived on one of those dwindling trust funds with a hint of money in the past, but not much in the present.”
A blog celebrating his work highlighted his witticisms — “Omigod. The entire axis of boring is in there.” — and noted that some of them had been adopted into everyday conversations.
His daughter and son-in-law noted that his work had a certain New York quality to it.
“In a city that seethes with aspiration and where people are preoccupied with subtle social rituals, his work suggested that the world of Manhattan sophistication that so many aspire to might be beset with the same sort of frustrations, insecurities and tedium as the life of anyone anywhere,” they wrote.
Hamilton was also a playwright and author, although he viewed his work in those fields as a mixed success.
He told People magazine in 1979: “I had written three novels, none of which I’d particularly like to see published, and a movie about astronauts. It is like a line in one of my cartoons: ‘Although I haven’t exactly been published or produced, I have had some things professionally typed.’ That’s the story of my novels and movie.”