Life With and Without Mozart

Artists have always attributed inspiration to their muse (Though some of the more self-centered artists insist that they are their own). Usually, muses are dipicted in cartoons as apparitional women dressed in flowing, white gowns, holding golden harps, and floating around in the air somewhere in the vicinity of the artist. (I’m sure there’s one behind me right now, hard at work).

In San Francisco, before I got started at the NYer, I would sit for hours, waiting for inspiration in front of that “Blazing white island”, as Bill Woodman once called those blank pieces of paper we eventually draw on. (He was quoting a writer who’s name escapes me). I hadn’t yet learned that you don’t just wait around for the muse. You have to start doodling a little before she shows herself if she’s going to. I was living with a woman, then, a sometime muse and a classical violinist. Before meeting her, I’d been listening to a lot of country music. She had introduced me to the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, Vivaldi, and especially Mozart, who I loved. I still wore cowboy boots and occasionally a western-style hat, and carried a harmonica in my jeans-jacket pocket, but now I was whistling “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” around the house. I had a tape of that piece and another, I think his 5th Piano Concerto, which was on the flip side. The tape was always playing on my old cassette-player behind me as I worked on my cartoons.

One day while I was listening and doodling as usual, I found myself drawing an empty frame, then a horizon line within it. I added a few forlorn-looking clouds above the horizon, then some random objects in the foreground: An old tire, a tin can, an empty bottle, a pencil, and assorted debris. I stared at this melancholy scene for awhile then added a box at the top for a title. I was stuck there for awhile, then eventually lettered the words “Life Without …” in the box. The drawing could represent life without something, but what?

A few seconds later, I heard “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” suddenly stop playing behind me and then heard the sad, crunching sound tapes make when they self-destruct in a cassette-player’s mechanism as they die.

My muse at work.

This event provided me with the last word in the title. As it turned out “Life Without Mozart” became my first OK at the New Yorker.



  1. Roz says:

    I recently submitted a muse cartoon. Guy walking along a street, following his muse. Muse turns around and tells the guy to fuck off (or less profane equivalent).

    Love the “blazing island of white” and often think of it.

  2. m2 says:

    I wonder how many cartoonists can remember the specific thread of an idea…especially the idea that resulted in their first New Yorker ok… it would make great reading.

  3. Tom Cheney says:

    About 25 years ago I began to suspect I had two muses hanging around…one rated “G” and one rated “R.” It’s a bitch trying to get a batch together for the NYer when only the “R” shows up for work.

  4. Patty Lyn says:

    Dear Mick,
    This cartoon was the first New Yorker cartoon I fell in love with. My husband-to-be clipped it out in 1982 and adjusted the caption for me. It read: Life without buttermilks — a tribute to our favorite donut. My husband was the only person I knew on the Northwestern University campus who had a car, a Datsun B210, and we’d make midnight runs to Dunkin’ Donuts in Skokie. He gave me the cartoon as a little Valentine. Now, when I listen to Mozart, I think of my husband of 27 years, buttermilk donuts, the B210 named “Dotty”, and our first days together. A rich memory string, indeed. I still have the cartoon in my treasure box.

  5. MStevens says:


    Sorry it took this long to get back to you.

    I’m glad that cartoon had significance for you. It’s always a treat for me to hear that one of my drawings
    has found it’s way to someone’s heart!


  6. David Hildreth says:

    Those Datsuns were cool, weren’t they? Cost nothing, you could take them apart and put them back together with a Swiss Army knife … how come there aren’t any left on the road?

  7. David Hildreth says:

    I saw this cartoon when it first appeared, loved it, lost track of it, and now I’ll have it forever. There should be a T-shirt. I’m just saying.

  8. Michael Katz says:

    I’m a Mozart “Lover”! I celebrate his birthday every January 27th. Nothing depicts the visual wasteland in my life if Mozart were missing, as much as does your cartoon.

  9. C Carl says:

    (This page has been up since 2007 and I’m just now finding it?)

    I cannot BELIEVE most of these comments! How absolutely irrelevant to the meaning of Mr. Stevens’ cartoon!

    Like the last two posters, I have been a Mozart lover – since 1984. Changed my life! I can’t remember when I first saw this cartoon years ago (though *not* in the NYer), and it always comes to mind when I’ve gone too long without his voice in my ears. That cartoon – it was as if someone read my mind. Wherever that world is in that little rectangle, I don’t ever want to go there!

    Mr. Stevens, I certainly hope you have had the time in the intervening years to familiarize yourself with more than 2 of the Master’s works. There is a whole world — wonderful and exciting – that you have before you.

    It’s so great that I now know the man who drew this cartoon, and can say to him: THANK YOU, MR. STEVENS!!!

  10. MStevens says:

    Thank you for your comments. I hope you’re not too disappointed to learn that, though I do love Mozart, my musical tastes turned toward Jazz later, and I took up playing the tenor sax. Still listen to Wolfgang, though.

  11. Michele says:

    Hi Mick, my mother loved this cartoon so much she bought a t-shirt with it. Now the t-shirt is disintegrating beyond repair because she wore it so much. We are looking to replace it! But the Conde Nast store no longer carries it. So our next option is to take the image and do a t-shirt ourselves. Is this something you can help us with?

  12. C Taylor says:

    My dad, a retired music professor, has an old sweatshirt with your “Life Without Mozart” cartoon, and it’s one of his prized possessions. Unfortunately it’s beginning to look a bit worn, and we’d like to get him a new one. Is that still possible? I see you directed another person to your email, but I’m not sure what that is.
    Thank you!

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