Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Of Art Young and young art

   A drawing of Art Young by my friend Walt Partymiller, cartoonist for one of the few Socialist newspapers of his day, the York (PA) Times. Walt late in life married Nellie Anna Opper, granddaughter of Frederick Burr Opper. 

By Rick Marschall.

A crowded life achieves that status by many means. As Solomon said, recorded in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Time and chance happeneth to all.” Some knowledge, and treasures, and memories, come out of the blue, like last week’s Christmas card from Hergé and his wife Fanny; or through friends; or coincidental friends-of-friends… Being in the right place at the right time. Plausible events and match-ups occur more frequently as you plant seeds.

And some things happen unpredicted, unexpected, and almost unbelievable.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s I lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. First in Bethel; later in Westport and Weston. The place in Weston was three acres in the woods, two ponds and a stream running through our paisley shawl, deer in the front yard every morning; but only an hour’s drive from Times Square. That was when I wrote Disney stories for Gutenberghus, the Danish licensee.

   Caricature in clay of Art Young, by Jack Sears

My first sojourn was when I drew political cartoons for the Connecticut Herald, and my place in Bethel was rented from my college mentor Dr Albro Martin of American University. I told him I secured a newspaper job in Fairfield County. He was still in Washington DC, or maybe then at his next school, Bradley University, in Illinois. The strange thing I think I never knew was why he had a house in Bethel CT… and why his mother, an elderly Arkansas backwoodswoman, lived there. Alone, much less.

Dr Martin asked if I would consider being a tenant and collaterally look after his mother. A nice house in a charming New England town, a lot of wooded land, a swimming pool, and an easy decision.

The woods were full of cartoonists.” Literally. New Yorker cartoonists Joe Farris and David Pascal had homes on Bethel Road Extension, just opposite. New Yorker cartoonists Bob Kraus and William Steig lived in Ridgefield, and so did Maurice Sendak. Recently Cullen Murphy wrote a book, Cartoon County, about growing up as the son of the Big Ben Bolt and Prince Valiant cartoonist, and the folks who gathered weekly, or more often, for lunches, dinners, parties, golf outings, and cruises.

I was blessed to be working and living – and partying – among so many people who were my idols a few years earlier. And still were. I was accepted in the genial circles, and have shared memories here, and will in the future. Dik Browne, Dick Hodgins, Jack Tippit, Lenny Starr, Stan Drake, Jack Murphy, Jerry Dumas, Bob Gustafson, Mort Walker, Chuck Saxon, Dick Cavalli, Frank Johnson, Curt Swan, John Prentice, Hardie Gramatky, Eric Gurney, Mel Casson, Bill Brown, so many more. So many lunches.

One regular lunch group of mine was centered up around Bethel and Ridgefield. One of two days a week, a group roughly comprising Ron Goulart, Orlando Busino, Jerry Marcus, Gill Fox, Jack Berrill, and Bob Weber would meet at one of several restaurants until Jerry found something to complain about, and then we would re-gather at another restaurant.

   Two drawings by Art Young of the backyard cabin in Bethel – the studio  as it looked, and as he hoped to upgrade it as a small art gallery. 

One week, I mentioned that the property where I had lived in Bethel, ‘way back in the woods, abutted the property of the house where the legendary cartoonist Art Young lived. I knew because he wrote about it, and sketched parts of the property and studio in his two autobiographies. Art Young was a powerful cartoonist. As a radical he drew for The Masses and other Socialist and anarchist journals, and had been indicted during World War I for “obstructing the war effort.” He dozed off during his trial.

As a “straight” cartoonist, he drew some of the first color cartoons in newspapers (Chicago Inter-Ocean, 1892), and for Puck, Judge, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, even The New Yorker and the New York American, friendly with all.

Bob Weber asked if I had ever visited that house, or knocked on the door. “No, Art Young died in 1944,” I attempted to wisecrack. Bob suggested we go and visit the occupants – maybe they knew Young; or maybe he left material behind. Bob, who draws Moose and Mollie, is one of the great guys in the business, and shy about nothing except deadlines, insisted we try. Since I was driving him that day, it seemed natural. I never had thought of doing such a thing!

We drove, knocked, and were met by Clay Fairborn and his wife. Indeed, they had bought the house from Young’s children in 1944. We chatted about all they knew about Young – which was not much, never having met him – but were very grateful to learn all we could share about the famous radical and humor cartoonist. A charming couple of hours.

Bob finally asked if anything of Young’s had been left behind. Clay said, “I was just about to tell you that things were in the attic, and still are. I was going to ask you fellers if you would like them. You know more about Mr Young than we ever did. Seems right.”

   “Holy Trinity” – reportedly Art Young’s favorite of his own cartoons. About the Episcopal Church as a New York slumlord. I own the original, previously acquired to the afternoon at his old homestead in Bethel.

Yes. It sort of felt right to accept his offer. Clay brought down a small trove of books, artwork, and even Art Young’s student notebooks from Chicago, enormous sheets of sketches and studies bound in an elaborate leather book befitting the ambitions of am aspiring artist.

We thanked the Fairborns, then and afterward, and Bob and I were able to divide the artifacts, as I already had some of Art Young’s books and magazines, inscribed, and he cared less about the original art.

From a casual conversation over lunch to a random house call to driving home with precious cartoon artifacts – begun and finished in three hours or so – are threads in the weave of a Crowded Life in cartoons.


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