Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Remembering Raeburn Van Buren

John Adcock & Stephen L. Harris

COMIC vs ADVENTURE. In 1946, speaking (and sketching) at a Rotary Club luncheon, Raeburn Van Buren, author of the comic strip Abbie an’ Slats, “termed the name ‘comic’ a misnomer as applied to the newspaper comics and said they are really ‘adventure’ strips which can do much to mold public sentiment regarding admirable character traits.” I always thought Abbie an’ Slats was an adventure, often a comic adventure, but it was also a soap opera, based on melodrama, and a great human comedy.

[1] Early Sunday page, 1938.
KANSAS CITY. Raeburn Lamar Van Buren was born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1891 and grew up in the West Bottoms of Kansas City.
“The Van Burens lived in the West Bottoms, one of the poorer districts of KC. It was near the slaughterhouses and when the wind was just right the stench was horrific. My grandmother told me that everyone would complain that Mr. Armour had just taken his shoes off. Van’s father, my great grandfather with the name of George Lincoln Van Buren, was an inventor and ran a store of some kind.
[2] West Bottoms from the railroad yards, c.1899.
KC was a wide open town in those days, the cowboys came in with the herds and the foremen stayed at the Blossom House where my other grandmother was the hotel stenographer. She once took dictation from the real Virginian who was sending a letter back to the Judge at Medicine Bow. This was written up in the Star or the Times.

One of Van’s best boyhood friends in KC was Charles ‘Casey’ Stengel. Once my grandmother was in the hospital having her appendix out, I think, and Casey, always the clown, had her laughing so badly they had to throw him out. When he managed the Yankees, every now and then my eldest sister got to go to the Stadium and sit in the dugout during a game. I never had that chance. Darn!… I anyway, was a New York Giant fan.”
Stephen L. Harris
[3] Raeburn Van Buren at the Kansas City Star.
KANSAS CITY STAR. The Lamars — source of Van Buren’s middle name — came from Georgia, and settled in southern Indiana in 1800, where Van Buren’s mother was born. He began his career as a sketch artist on the Kansas City Star newspaper. Van Buren told a reporter that “For the next three and a half years I did an average of 20 drawings a week for the Star, ranging from sports and political cartoons to pictures of fires, accidents, murders, and courtroom trials, for the princely stipend of $15 a week.”
“Van basically learned his craft as a sketch artist on the KC Star under the guidance of Harry Wood, the Star’s art editor. Wood and his family went to the same church as Van’s family and during the Christmas rush hired Van as a temp to draw advertisements, so Van quit school, thinking he had a full-time job. When the rush was over he was let go. When Ralph Stout the managing editor asked where the kid was, Wood brought him back on the staff and paid his salary out of his own, Wood’s, pocket. When Van came to New York City he did take a course at the Art Students League.

Van is my great uncle. My grandfather was Andrew Scott Harris, who came to the US from Glasgow, recruited to play soccer. Uncle Rae, we called him, grew up in the Kansas City slums. His sister, Vea Van Buren, quite an artist in her own right — she was a designer of children’s clothes in New York and won some kind of award for design that was quite prestigious — married Arnold Hofmann, a wannabe writer, also from KC who, with Van, worked on the legendary KC Star (Hemingway, Russel Crouse, et al.) and then went to New York City where he became the foreign editor of the old New York Herald. Arnold’s younger brother also worked on the Star and then became a reporter for the upstart New York Daily News in the 1920s.

Hemingway was on the KC Star at the same time as my grandfather, Arnold Hofmann. There were many blackguards and rascals back then including Lionel Moise, who some say Hemingway patterned his macho lifestyle after. He even wrote a monograph about Moise.

Another character was Courtney Ryley Cooper, Van’s closest friend. Cooper was a friend of Buffalo Bill, ran a circus, wrote dozens of books, had two short stories accepted by the Saturday Evening Post on the same day and claimed that he could write 16,000 publishable words a day. His beat on the Star was called the Shortstop Run, the same beat Hemingway landed a few years later.”
Stephen L. Harris 
[4] Neysa McMein, before the war.
NEW YORK. Van Buren moved to New York in 1913, encouraged by a cartoon sale to Life magazine, and shared a Bohemian apartment with actor William Powell, artist Thomas Hart Benton and caricaturist Ralph Barton, all from Missouri. Ralph Barton was celebrated for his Jazz Age caricature, delineated for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Judge, Life, and Puck.
“When he was rooming with William Powell, Ralph Barton, a great character who chronicled the Jazz Age (when his wife the actress Carlotta Monterey, left him to marry the playwright Eugene O’Neill, he opened Gray’s Anatomy to the heart, stuck a lit cigarette in his mouth and then shot himself in the temple — his suicide ran two columns on the front page of the New York Times) and Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was stabbed in the stomach by one of his models and Benton, naked, a towel wrapped around the wound, chased her down the hall!

Benton did a portrait of Van and gave it to him, but it was too modern for my uncle so he gave it back and Benton overpainted the canvas.

When Van was living in New York with Benton, Barton and Powell, their studio apartment was in the Lincoln Arcade where the Lincoln Center now stands. It was a pretty rundown place and you could hear the rats rattling along in the rafters. Most of the residents were “old ladies with parrots,” Van once told me.

In the apartment right above Van’s lived Neysa McMein. She was from Illinois and also a struggling artist. She later became famous for illustrating covers for McCall’s Magazine. She hung out with many of the Algonquin Round Table clan — Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams (aka F.P.A.) and Robert Sherwood, among others — and brought Van into their circle where he spent time learning to play poker. All the men pursued Neysa with a passion and when she wanted Van she’d stamp her foot on the floor and he’d scamper up the fire escape to her apartment. She also posed for him. She later moved to a much more upscale apartment building, called the Shropshire, and there she had one of New York’s most sophisticated salons.”
Stephen L. Harris
[5] Raeburn Van Buren in uniform.
[6] ‘Discipline,’ cover drawing by Pvt. R. Van Buren, Co. E, 107th Inf., Wadsworth Gas Attack and The Rio Grande Rattler, February 9, 1918.    
GAS ATTACK. Van Buren served as a private in the 107th Regiment, New York’s ‘Silk Stocking Regiment,’ which was incorporated into the 27th New York ‘Empire’ Division, which was attached to the British Fourth Army. He was one of the art editors and illustrators of Gas Attack, a WWI trench magazine, started in 1916 as The Rio Grande Rattler, then retitled Wadsworth Gas Attack and The Rio Grande Rattler, and finally Gas Attack and The Gas Attack. The New York Times compared Van Buren’s drawings in WWI to the great British artist Bruce Bairnsfather.

[7] “Must go now!” – from a letter home to mother, 1918.
“I wrote a book, “Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York's Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line — based on my long chats with Van at his Great Neck studio and a huge batch of letters he wrote from the Western Front. He and I were pretty close.
 [8] “Dear, dear Mother” – a letter home, August 28, 1918.
[9] ‘A Little Close Order Work,’ cover drawing for Gas Attack of the New York Division, April 20, 1918.
[10] ‘Army Habits We Must Forget,’ comic strip in The Gas Attack, special and final issue ‘!home again!’, March 1919.
When Van came back from the war, he gave up the Bohemian life of the Big Apple, married his hometown sweetheart, Fern Ringo, and moved out to the suburbs, to Great Neck. There his father built him a snug studio in the garage. That’s where he worked for the next 50, 60 years. The studio was narrow, the walls lined with artwork (not just his), his bayonet from the war and two pistols. He had a cot in it where he took naps. He had to draw 365 strips a year, including the many-paneled Sunday pages. He had to get ahead of the game so he could take time off in the summer to fish in the Ozarks and time off in the winter to head for Florida. In the Ozarks, the family property had a famous cave where the Jesse James movie was filmed, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda (released in 1939). If you ever see the movie you’ll see the cave and the river flowing by. Stephen L. Harris
[11] Gas Attack, half-page, 1918.
[12] Gas Attack, 1918.

ILLUSTRATOR. Before and after World War I, Raeburn Van Buren contributed over 700 illustrations to magazines like Green Book, Screenland, Photoplay, Rotarian, Life, Collier’s, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Liberty, Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. One of his specialties was the glamor girl, who adorned the front of numerous Sunday newspaper supplements, and continued to appear in the Abbie an’ Slats comic strip to its end. In 1932 Van Buren illustrated Fifty Years of New York Steam Service, in color, for the New York Steam Corporation.

[13] The Dude.
GOSSIP COLUMN. In 1936 Van Buren was an object of notice of the New York gossip columnist O.O. McIntyre, who called him the “Dude of the illustrators,” and (falsely) claimed that Van Buren started his career as “a circus tumbler.” Rae Van Buren, he wrote, “is considered a fashion plate among illustrators, even topping at times James Montgomery Flagg and the extravagantly shirted Russell Patterson. Like most nifty dressers, his ensembles are studies in color contrasts. Someday the hue is an autumnal leaf brown and the vest a sedate shade of ash gray relived by touches of salmon pink.” Patterson was renowned for his “glamor girls” and Van Buren shared his passion for pinups.

[14] Illustration for ‘Star of the North’ by Frank Williams, in Photoplay magazine, February 1916.
“Slats and Van are one and the same. Red-haired and freckled. The red comes from the Dutch side of the family. Charlie Dobbs was patterned after my father. Crabtree Corners was modeled after Pineville, Missouri, where Van always went to fish and where his father (my great grandfather) had built a resort of log cabins — “Crag o’ Lea” he called it.’ Stephen L. Harris

[15] Abbie an’ Slats original art.
ABBIE AN’ SLATS. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant made its debut in February 1937, and that year saw the beginning of the Golden Age of comic books. Abbie an’ Slats began on Monday, July 12, 1937, distributed by United Feature Syndicate. Bathless Groggins, the unwashed old man of the southern town of Crabtree Corners, eventually took over as star of the Sunday strip. Van Buren was 46 years old when he took on the job. Abbie an’ Slats was carried by over 400 newspapers until its demise on January 30, 1971. In 1958 the artist was named “Cartoonist of the Year” by the Quaker City Lodge of the B’nai B’rith in ceremonies at Philadelphia, Pa. Previous winners were Al Capp, Milton Caniff, and George Wunder.

[16] May 5, 1956.
Al CAPP. Abbie an’ Slats began in 1937, ghostwritten by Al Capp (Alfred Gerald Caplin). One of Capp’s obituarists called him the “grey eminence” behind the strip, which sounds a bit sinister. Capp wrote the strip until 1945 and turned the scripts over to his brother Elliot Caplin. Allen Saunders noted that the majority of authors of comic strip continuity labored behind the scenes. Royalties were shared equally.
“Many times Van had to go to some hotel where Capp was holed up with a woman and get him to write the continuity. When he didn’t, Van did.” Stephen L. Harris
[17] December 6, 1958.
ELLIOT CAPLIN. Elliot Caplin was born at New Haven, Connecticut on December 25, 1913. In addition to Abbie an’ Slats he wrote continuities for the strips Dr. Bobbs, Big Ben Bolt, Long Sam (illustrated by Bob Lubbers), and Heart of Juliet Jones.

[18] November 8, 1958.
“When Burne Hogarth quit the Tarzan strip Van was asked to draw it. He bowed out, but took over the Tarzan strip as art director, hired Bob Lubbers to draw it and his own son, Richard Van Buren, to write the continuity. Bob Lubbers, who grew up near Great Neck, used to come to Van’s studio as a teenager and show him drawing’s he made while in high school. Every once in a while my cousin would put me into the Tarzan strip… Cool.
[19] May 5, 1955.
I recall Van telling me he was furious with Al Capp because he took Lubbers away from the Tarzan strip. Van had him replaced by John Celardo, who then drew Tarzan for about ten years.” Stephen L. Harris
[20] April 21, 1956.
RETIREMENT. Raeburn L. Van Buren retired Abbie an’ Slats in 1971 and died at the age of 96 years and 11 months, following a fall at his home in Manhasset, New York, Long Island, on December 29, 1987. Van Buren was posthumously honored by the National Cartoonist Society in 1989 with an election to its Hall of Fame.

[21] September 27, 1958.
[22] Kellogg’s All-Bran cereal advertisement, 1940.

READ MORE about Stephen L. Harris’ book Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York’s Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line — HERE.

Gas Attack issues are available in several digital collections — HERE, HERE and HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable strip with excellent artwork. Have some old newspaper comic sections with a few that carried Abbie and Slats. The comic, or as Van would say the adventure strips, that were prior to the 1970s were the best. Going from one strip to the other in the old comic sections creates a mood of pure delight.