John Dempsey, 83; His Cartoons Were a Staple of Playboy


John Dempsey, a veteran freelance magazine cartoonist whose full-page, color cartoons lampooning contemporary America were a staple of Playboy magazine for five decades, has died. He was 83.

Dempsey died of complications of a stroke May 18 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the World War II Navy veteran began selling his cartoons to Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and other national magazines.


Then, in 1954, he submitted a batch of single-panel cartoons to a new men’s magazine, Playboy.

Hugh Hefner purchased one of the drawings.

The cartoon ran in the December 1954 issue, and from then on, as Dempsey once put it, he was “in the groove.”

Indeed, one if not two Dempsey cartoons ran in virtually every issue of Playboy since then.

“He was the most California of all the artists,” said Michelle Urry, Playboy’s cartoon editor.

“He did very California figures.”

Dempsey did surfers on the beach. He did the first “Mrs. Robinson” cartoon, in which the older woman is eyeing her daughter’s boyfriend. And, most famously, he did cartoons set in nudist clubs.

“He did these incredibly hip cartoons for a man who was basically the Gary Cooper of cartoonists: a slow-talking, slow-walking, long drink of water,” Urry said. “He was very thoughtful and noticed everything. He lived on the beach--he loved beach life--and did all those California characters: out-of-work actors, the would-be starlets, the randy preacher....

“He was not exactly politically correct, nor did he have to be with us. Sex for him managed to be so nuanced, so full of life, that he really got Everyman, but it was a California version of Everyman.”

New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross, who had known Dempsey since the ‘70s, praised his use of color in his Playboy cartoons.

“He was what I would consider one of the premier cartoonists that could work in color,” Gross said. “He enhanced the whole idea of color.”

In one memorable cartoon, Gross said, Dempsey drew a gardener pushing a lawn mower who was so fixated on a neighbor woman who was gardening that “he doesn’t realize the mower is going into the flower bed and flowers are flying all over the place, these beautiful flowers. If you did this in black and white, there would be no reason for it. It was just absolutely magnificent.”

Gross said Dempsey had an ability to “tell an off-color joke, which is what a Playboy cartoon would be, but with a real gentlemanly way of doing this, of knowing how to do it without being raucous.”

Dempsey had just finished working on a drawing in his studio in downtown Del Mar, a few blocks from his home, when he suffered the stroke.

The drawing was for a series of four themed cartoon books he was working on, ranging from dogs to couples talking to their marriage counselor.

With the exception of a collection of his Playboy cartoons published in 1970, the series would have been his first cartoon books.

“He never was a businessman at all with his drawings,” said his daughter, Joanna, who has been working on finding an agent for her father and still plans to see that his books are published.

Even at 83, Dempsey never considered retiring from his drawing board.

“He told me once that he felt like he had the job that every man would have wanted to do, to make people laugh,” his daughter said.

Born in Sierra Madre, Dempsey spent his early years in the foothills east of Los Angeles, where some of his earliest drawings were of the horses he and his friends rode through orange and avocado groves.

After graduating from Monrovia High School, where he received A’s in art, he worked on a cattle ranch in southern Arizona.

He then worked as a surveyor on the Pan American Highway in Alaska and Costa Rica.

During World War II, he served in the Navy Seabees. While stationed in Hawaii, he became a staff artist for Seabee magazine and began contributing cartoons to Yank magazine.

After his discharge from the Navy, Dempsey attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.

But after two years, he sold one of his cartoons to Collier’s magazine and quit school to focus on freelancing.

In 1960, he moved to Laguna Beach, where he joined a close-knit group of fellow Laguna cartoonists, including Frank and Phil Interlandi, Ed Nofziger, Dick Oldden, Virgil Parch, Don Tobin and Dick Shaw.

Many of Dempsey’s friends wound up in his cartoons.

A Del Mar resident since 1970, Dempsey contributed to ZOO NOOZ, the magazine of the San Diego Zoo; and the local Del Mar newspaper, the Sandpiper.

In addition to his daughter, Dempsey is survived by his wife of 35 years, Ann; a son, Jason of Paris; a brother, Sam of Lemon Grove; and a sister, Dorothy of West Covina.