Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fontaine Fox (1884-1964)

by Wesley W. Stout

Oakland Tribune Magazine, Dec 10, 1922.

Unlucky Experiences as Reporter Brought Fontaine Fox Over to Newspaper Cartooning.

Fontaine Fox, whose cartoons appear daily in the Oakland Tribune, wanted to be a writer, and had no gift for drawing, according to his telling.

Fox was born and reared in Louisville and still talks like it. When he graduated from the Boys’ High School, where his English teacher had encouraged him to take up literature as a goal, he got a job as a reporter on the Louisville Herald.

Fox went to work with high journalistic ideals which survived the better part of a week. He was given what was known in the Herald city room as the “West End run.” That is, he made his headquarters in the reporter’s room at City Hall, called on a few undertakers, justices of the peace, and politicians, and waited for telephone calls from the city editor.

In practice he spent his time shooting craps with the opposition reporters. He learned, moreover, that scoops or beats were bad form. At 5 p.m. the reporters divided up their gleanings, each returning to his office with the same grist. This left small opportunity for independent effort by an ambitious cub.

Someone told him that a colony of men and women were conducting themselves scandalously on an island in the Ohio river just below the city. Islands being out of bounds, Fox didn’t share his tip. Instead he hired a farmer to row him to the island.

On landing Fox said to the farmer: “You better wait for me here. I’m with the Herald and I’ll be going back as soon as I get this story.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” exclaimed a male member of the colony, and hit Fox with force and accuracy on the point of the jaw. This blow knocked Fox 51 percent of the distance from literature to art.

Fox told the city editor, who told everyone. A political reporter named Peters, with a robust sense of humor, had Fox assigned to accompany him to the Churchill Downs racetrack. In the paddock Peters pointed out a large hook-nosed person and said: “Get a good sketch of him, my boy.”

The hook-nosed man was Ed Corrigan, master of Hawthorne, a notorious camera smasher and sketch artist caner. Fox got in range and began sketching under the impression that Corrigan would be flattered. The sketch was almost finished before Corrigan noticed him. The Master of Hawthorne’s cane just missed the artist’s head. Fox dropped his pencil in getting away, but saved the sketch. Back at the office the sketch was praised as a likeness and the sketcher for his temerity. Fox confined himself thereafter to art.

“As a boy I had sketched as most boys do,” he will tell you, “but I had no real gift for drawing and no thought of caricature. Instead I had a very real desire to write, forced myself later on to a stiff course of reading as a preparation, and worked much harder at it than I did at drawing.”

“After that summer on the Herald I went to Indiana university. In my second year there I decided to earn part of my expenses and I made a dicker with the Herald to send them a cartoon a day for $12 a week. I not only had to find time to work out the cartoons, but I had to stay up until one o’clock every morning to mail them on the Monon (sic) train.”

“I had done well enough after seven years to get a contract from a syndicate and move to New York. In drawing for a hundred scattered papers instead of one, I realized the need of identifying myself in the mind of my readers with a series of characters, and making each cartoon’s appeal as sure in Spokane as in Providence. In Chicago I had begun to evolve some stock characters, such as ‘Thomas Edison, Jr.,’ ‘Sissie,’ and ‘Grandma, the Demon Chaperone,’ but I wanted new, more, and better ones.”

The Toonerville Trolley was one of these, and my most successful. It has been done in the movies, will be put in vaudeville next season, and has been made into a toy. In…(undecipherable sentence)… around the city known as the Brook-street line. It gets all the cast-off equipment of the trunk-lines. I lived on it, as did my managing editor, A. T. McDonald. He lampooned the service in his daily column of paragraphs and had me draw some sketches to support his campaign. These memories were stored in the back of my head.”

“Soon after coming to New York my wife and I went up in the Pelham neighbourhood and found a rattletrap trolley at the station. The car and its combination conductor-motorman were a pretty close approximation of the Toonerville trolley and the skipper. When we got back home I worked out the idea.”

“My wife says that I am the original of the Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang. Back in Louisville they recognized my father. He was a very irascible man, his temper furious, though short-lived. We had a cook named Lizzie who had worked for us sixteen years with great satisfaction. My father and Lizzie disagreed about the weather one morning and he fired her on the spot. My sister and I hurried out and rustled another cook. The next morning the new cook brought in a batch of fine biscuits. They were generally admired and more bespoken. After some delay a second platter of biscuits was brought in, not by the new cook, but by Lizzie. We all gasped and waited.

My father said, “Good morning, Lizzie;” she replied, “Good morning, Jedge,” and Lizzie had returned to work. I hunted up the new cook and asked her how she came to quit.

“Lizzie, she discharged me,” she told me.
“But we hired you, not Lizzie,” I suggested.

“Yes, sir,” was the answer, “but Lizzie had that job sixteen years and I ain’t disputin’ it with her. She’s a blue gum nigger and her bite is death.”

“ ‘The Little Scorpions’ and ‘Micky McGuire’s gang’ were the boys I played with in Louisville and the boys ‘across the tracks’ respectively. Everywhere in America where a railroad runs through a home district the property on one side of the tracks is cheaper than on the other, with a corresponding social distinction. I hit the prototype of Mickey McGuire in the stomach with a rock one day and knocked him out. A death-like silence fell over both camps and I hurried home to find out if there was any chance of our moving soon.”

“ ‘The Powerful Katrinka’ is a combination of two cooks we had and a ‘Dear Old Siwash’ story of George Fitch’s’ One of these cooks, Sally, was a powerful negress. She saved me more than once from Mickey and his gang. The other was as stupid as Sally was strong. While I was trying to put them together I read Fitch’s story of Ole Oleson, the giant Siwash fullback, who while at the bottom of a heap of players suddenly had an idea. Why not simply get up next time and carry both teams and the ball down the field for a goal? Which he did. That suggested making my strong woman a Scandinavian.”

“Cartoonists are supposed to work by inspiration. I do not, nor any I have known, We get our background from our own lives. In my case the particular idea almost invariably is the result of the impact of two disassociated ideas, produced after much thought and experiment. I first noticed the trick in the stories of O. Henry, who, like a cartoonist, first thought out his climax, then worked back. My last Fourth of July cartoon is an example. I thought over all the hackneyed subjects of the day; no idea there. I remembered a last-year’s cartoon contrasting the stealthy home-brewer with the title ‘Independence Day.’ That conception had been exhausted. Home-brewing and exploding firecrackers bear no relation to each other, but suddenly they came together and produced a cartoon.”

“Why not have the home-brewer’s still explode, but in the midst of the usual racket of the Fourth and thereby escape notice? There it was. It was original, it was laughable, and it was possible. That’s all there is to it.”

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