Syd Hoff Biography

Born September 4, 1912, in New York, NY; died May 12, 2004, in Miami Beach, FL. Children's book author and illustrator. Syd Hoff was both author and illustrator of more than 60 children's books, including the well-loved Danny and the Dinosaur, a 1958 classic. A cartoonist contributor to the esteemed New Yorker for more than six decades, Hoff was a masterfully elegant artist who was able to capture humor in just a few quick strokes of the brush or pen. "In Hoff's simple lines, a curve can serve as a smile or a snake, they can be read by four-year-olds and yet touch adults," declared Christopher Hawtree in London's Guardian newspaper.

Born in 1912, Hoff was a New York City native and son of a salesman. He grew up in the Bronx, and began drawing at the age of four. When he was 16, a well-known cartoonist for the Hearst Syndicate newspaper chain, Milt Gross, visited his high school. Upon seeing Hoff's work, Gross predicted success for Hoff, telling him, "Kid, some day you'll be a great cartoonist!" according to Martin Plimmer in the Independent.

Taking the advice to heart, Hoff dropped out of school and managed to gain admittance to New York's National Academy of Design in order to pursue his ambition. He sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker two years later, in 1930, an association that would continue for the rest of his career. In 1939, he began his own comic strip for the Hearst Syndicate, about a girl called Tuffy, which had a ten-year run. His first book for children, Muscles and Brains, was published by Dial in 1940.

But it was Danny and the Dinosaur, Hoff's fourth title for young readers, that launched his career as the originator of some of the most beloved children's books of the twentieth century. When his daughter was stricken with a hip problem, she had to undergo rehabilitation therapy, and so Hoff drew fanciful stories to amuse her that became the story of a little boy and his dinosaur pet. Published by Harper in 1958, the tale centers around little Danny, who visits a natural history museum and is so entranced by the brontosaurus on display that he rides it right out of the building. Danny and the Dinosaur was an immense success, translated into several languages, and sold some ten million copies in Hoff's lifetime. It was also said to have single-handedly launched the entire dinosaur craze among children.

Hoff wrote and illustrated a slew of other books for young readers, often featuring gentle animals and clever boys and girls. Their sweet, gentle themes usually came to "the conclusion that although the grass may look greener outside the circus or beyond the peddler's wagon, there's no place like home," noted New York Times journalist Eric P. Nash. Another one of Hoff's better-known titles was Sammy the Seal in which a seal is released from the zoo and begins classes at the local elementary school. Grizzwold, dating from 1963, features a title character bear who tries to convince humans that he is not merely a man wearing a bear suit. Several other titles featured an irrepressible hen named Henrietta. Hoff even had his own television series in the 1950s, Tales of Hoff, a title that may have been an erudite nod to German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and his well-known short stories, which were the basis for an 1881 opera, Tales of Hoffmann.

Hoff wrote short fiction himself, in the form of mystery tales for the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen publications, as well as two novels, Gentleman Jim and the Great John L in 1977 and Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him, published a year later. There was another comic strip from his pen, Laugh It Off, which ran in American newspapers from 1958 to 1978, and he continued to produce typically witty, sophisticated fare for the New Yorker and Esquire over the course of a long career. "Hoff's cartoons captured moments of everyday absurdity," noted Plimmer in the Independent. "Often the gag was slight, the emphasis being the celebration of a common human trait, such as the nosiness of the woman pressing her ear against the neighbour's wall, saying to her ostensibly indifferent husband, 'Boy, have they got your number!'"

Hoff also provided reams of advice to a younger generation of illustrators and New Yorker aspirants, sometimes in the form of such books as The Young Cartoonist: The ABCs Of Cartooning, published in 1983; he also visited schools regularly. Hoff died on May 12, 2004, in Miami Beach at the age of 91. The daughter who had been so entertained with the first "Danny" drawings, Susan, predeceased him, as did Hoff's wife, Dora, whom he married in 1937. He is survived by another daughter, Bonnie, and two grandchildren. For Hoff, the joys of life as well as its harder moments served as an infinite fount of inspiration. "Humor, for some reason, is basically sad," the New York Times ' Nash quoted him as once writing in an essay. "The best humor has to do with events that people can identify as having happened to them, or something that has been in the subconscious."


Guardian (London), July 9, 2004, p. 27

Independent (London), May 25, 2004, p. 35

New York Times, May 17, 2004, p. B7

—Carol Brennan

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