Next to the nudes, one of the most popular features in Playboy magazine over the years has probably been the cartoons. In wit they are probably outranked only by those in The New Yorker. For more than 30 years choosing the cartoons – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – has been the work of a woman: Michelle Urry, who has just died at the age of 66. The cause: ocular melanoma , a cancer of the eye.
Her ailment did not prevent her over the years culling the boxloads of cartoons – up to a thousand a week – that landed on her desk from cartoonists all over the world. Her job was to pick out around a dozen a month which she would submit to Hugh Hefner for a final decision. Mostly Hefner would agree with her choice, but occasionally she would battle for a specific cartoon that she liked for inclusion in the monthly edition.
One famous cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, on hearing of her death described her as "the mother superior to cartoonists" While the curator of the Museum of Cartoon Art in Rye Brook, New York, Brian Walker, said that with the exception of The New Yorker , Playboy has over the years been the only publication to maintain excellence in the field..
Born in Canada, Michelle Dorothy Kaplan, daughter of a Winnipeg clothing manufacturer, she admitted as a girl that instead of dolls she collected comic books. After graduating from the University of California, she opened a dress shop but when it didn't work out – at the suggestion of a friend who was impressed by her "wicked sense of humour" – she applied to Playboy for a job,. She rejected the magazine's first offer of a job as secretary. Then she was offered the job of "assistant to something" – no-one knew quite what, but ultimately it led to a job in the cartoon department, She soon demonstrated she had a knack for the job.
In an interview with the National Observer she said " The fact that I brought to it an inordinately dirty mind was a bonus that Hefner might not have expected," When it was once observed that her views of feminism didn't seem to match the Playboy philosophy, she said that women usually posed nude to further their careers. "No-one ever coerced anybody to take their clothes off": she told the Los Angeles Times.
Over the years she assembled a stable of artists whose cartoons it was once said were certainly sexier than The New Yorker's , but also reflected a cheekier more anti-establishment attitude that reflected the sexual revolution of l960's and l970's . One of her favorites she once said was a cartoon by an artist called Chon Day which portrayed a gentleman in his club confiding "While other fellows were swapping wives, I traded mine for l00 shares of IBM".