Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

What Fools These Mortals Be!

We could have chosen a hundred drawings, but this Puck cover from the last week of 1887 doubled as a subscription inducement, inviting readers to the sideshow nature of 1888’s presidential campaign year. By C J Taylor, who had begun his career on the Daily Graphic

By Rick Marschall

A mercifully brief column, this installment, because if I shared my enthusiasms and interplay with Puck Magazine throughout my Crowded Life, all the books in the world could not hold it. That is somewhat blasphemous, but I regard this old magazine with reverence, and its headquarters building in Manhattan as holy ground, so for the nonce, whatever that is, I will restrict my recollections to the iconic Puck Building, still standing.

Puck magazine was the brainchild of actor and cartoonist Joseph Keppler in Vienna. In 1871 he emigrated to St Louis, then the third-largest city in America and with the largest German population outside the Fatherland. He was friends with another aspiring journalist, also German-speaking immigrant, Joseph Pulitzer, in St Louis. Keppler founded and flopped with three cartoon / humor magazines (one named Puck) before moving to New York and becoming Leslie’s Weekly’s answer to Thomas Nast at Harper’s Weekly.

After several years in that prominent position, Keppler went independent and launched a cartoon / humor / satire / political weekly, Puck, in German. That was in the Fall of 1876, just as the presidential contest wound down. In March of 1877 he launched an English-language version, and it soon became the tail that wagged the dog.

Self-portrait of Joseph Keppler, from the luxury volume anthologizing his great work, from 1893. He autographed the limited copies of 300. Unexpectedly, Keppler died the next year, of overwork. His son Udo (Joseph Jr, thereafter) took over the magazine and, if anything, surpassed his father in proficiency and powerful concepts.

Keppler’s novelty – for there had been many comic magazines in America, none having really succeeded – was the color cartoon. At the time, color in newspaper or magazines was virtually non-existent; and Currier and Ives prints sold as separate sheets. Puck boasted front-page, back-page, and center-spread cartoons in lithographed color.

Before long Puck was a spectacular success. It gained a national circulation; was influential in politics, affecting election outcomes; and attracted talent to assist Keppler. The young H C Bunner joined as editor, poet, editorial writer, and short-story writer (his currently neglected reputation in that period genre is a shame).  Many cartoonists, chiefly Frederick Burr Opper, joined, and shined.

But I have broken my promise. Some other column(s), more about the magazine itself and its cartoonists, and my points of connection.

I was about in fourth grade, maybe younger, when I acquired my first issues, and then bound volumes, of Puck. My father visited Book Store Row, south of Union Square in Manhattan, every weekend, and brought me along. It is where I became infected by old books, the look of aged spines, the aroma of wonderful, rotting paper, and the exotic magic of ancient books, newspapers, and magazines.

I jumped on a copy of Puck from 1882, with an Opper centerspread in the old Biblo and Tannen shop. At the second-story bookstore of Leo Weitz I found the deluxe, limited, Pictures From Puck, leatherbound, signed by Keppler himself. I squealed with a 10-year-old’s joy. My father shushed me, whispering that we should appear indifferent, in order to strike a better bargain. But Mr Weitz noticed my enthusiasm, and said that to encourage my nascent bibliomania, he would make a gift of the book. He succeeded.

Once bitten, I was never shy again. Old volumes of Puck sold downtown (yes, they could be found then) for $25 a year. I started a paper route, and every penny went towards Pucks and Lifes and Judges

Puck had started life in lower Manhattan on North William Street in a little place that was replaced by, I think, part of the Brooklyn Bridge construction. It moved into the impressive edifice bordered by Houston, Mulberry, Jersey, and Elm (now Lafayette) Streets, roughly east of SoHo. It shared the building with Jacob Ottmann Lithographers – who would print Puck – reportedly the largest steam-press lithographer in world.

In my timeline here, the building still stood, but was dingy, an embarrassing relic of its former self. The neighborhood was ratty – it still is – but the building, like an aged stage beauty, was faded, hinting of former glory. Its two outdoor statues of Puck himself, the Shakespearean mascot (“What fools these mortals be!” from Midsummer Night’s Dream), once gilded, likewise had faded, covered in soot and grime.

To me it all was magic, however. I had dreams that there were old storerooms or closets with piles of original drawings or old magazines; or that I could convince the owners to let me remove the statues and place them on my parents’ suburban lawn (I never shared this fantasy); maybe that there was an old oaken door with Mr Opper’s name on it…

On one trip to the city with my cousin Tommy, when I was old enough to indulge such jaunts without my sane father, we sought out the watchman, or super, or whatever he was. What he was was a boozy old guy in stained undershirt and suspenders. The building was, inside, as it was outside: grimy, half-empty office and lofts, burned-out lights. The polite kid asking about cartoons and presidential campaigns and original drawings, and Keppler and Opper and Bunner… Well, the old guy listened, belched, and said whatever the hell I was asking about is gone, long gone.

I will fast-forward. In the 1980s, developers took hold of the Puck Building to renovate it instead of demolishing it. Their idea was to transform it into the city’s premier location of artists’ lofts and creative space. A grand lobby would be for exhibitions. Offices became ateliers (that’s French for a studio with higher rent). Eventually, there would be grand, spacious living space on upper floors.

My friend Richard Samuel West, fellow Puckaholic with a biography of Keppler to his credit, was engaged to provide historical material for the literature and prospectus. There was a grand Grand Opening. Through the years movies and TV shows have been shot there. My beloved statues on the facing were sand-blasted, like the entire building, and re-gilded.

When the pixie-dust settled, Rich told me something I correctly had sensed 20 years earlier: there were stacks of old magazines, and volumes, and account books, and correspondence, in the recesses of the beautiful brick-Valhalla. He invited me to join in the purchase… to fill out our collections… and dispose – to make other maniacs like us happy.

Who would have thought? – well, I thought, and dreamed, and even acted. But the story had one more chapter, the ultimate salvage of buried treasures! What fool this mortal be… a happy fool for cartoons.

By the way, one of the developers was Kushner Properties, and tenants in the luxury living suite on the top floor are Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.



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