Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sidney Smith (1877-1935)

There were two things in life that Sidney Smith reportedly loved; money and speed, so it was no surprise to his friends when he died 20 Oct 1935 in a head-on collision near Harvard Illinois en route to his summer home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He had just driven 3 companions to Chicago and was returning home. Shortly before his fatal journey Smith had renewed his “Gumps” contract with the Chicago Tribune - - New York News Syndicate for $750,000 over a five year period. The Rolls Royce Smith was driving had been thrown in to sweeten the pot by the syndicate. In 1922 Smith had been the first comic strip artist to sign to a one million dollar contract over a ten year period.

One hoary newspaper legend about cartoonist Sidney Smith said that at 3 o’clock in the morning Smith and the 3 men he was driving to Chicago stopped at a roadhouse called the Bubbling Over tavern. Smith made a pencil sketch of his first comic strip character, a goat named Old Doc Yak, for the proprietor and “spelled out “good night” with the eyes, ears and whiskers of “Old Doc Yak…”” This article was placed under the headline: GUMP’S AUTHOR SKETCHES LAST, DRIVES TO HIS DOOM.

One acquaintance recalled in 1935 Smith’s “penchant for high-powered cars and fast driving. His great pleasure was to drive a high-powered Dusenburg along good highways at 90 to 100 miles an hour -- so we were not surprised to learn of his meeting his death in that manner.”

Robert Sidney Smith was born in Bloomington, Illinois 13 Feb 1877. When he was 13 he was caught drawing in class and marched to the door by his collar. The teacher said “Young man, you go home. You’re not fit for anything but a cartoonist.” Smith began his career as a newspaper cartoonist on the Bloomington Sunday Eye in 1895. “Whenever the paper had any of my drawings in it I used to sit on the doorstep waiting for it to arrive Sunday mornings. After I had feasted my eyes on my pictures in print for awhile I would dress up -- I had a new suit at he time -- and go down to the Public Square to strut all day and talk about “the paper.””

Jobs were hard come by so young Smith packed up chalk and a blackboard and hit the freights with empty pockets and a lot of nerve for a lecture tour of the United States. He toured Texas, Tennessee, all over, giving chalk talks at churches for a quarter apiece, at the mercy of inclement weather and farmer’s dogs. He spent a year traveling while mailing weekly cartoons to a Boston newspaper that sent him small checks wherever he happened to be at the moment.

He went on to work for the Indianapolis News, Indianapolis Press, Indianapolis Sentinel, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post, Pittsburgh Press, Toledo News-Bee, and Chicago Examiner. “Hardly a day has passed when one or more of my pictures did not appear in a paper somewhere.” His first mildly successful character was “Old Doc Yak” begun at the Chicago Tribune in 1911. “I carried Doc with me for fourteen or sixteen years. It seemed a shame five or six years ago to have to part with him, after we had been pards for so long. But by that time the Gumps had come along. I couldn’t carry both. The Gumps, I saw, had elements of a wider popular appeal.”

Andy Gump was said to have been conceived by Captain Patterson of the Chicago Tribune but Smith claimed credit himself in newspaper interviews. The 3 principal characters were Andy, his wife Min, and his son Chester. Later rich Uncle Bim arrived from Australia, and when he became smitten with the gold-digging widow Henrietta Zander the whole world went nuts with speculation over his impending marriage. Faithful readers weighed in with their opinions by writing letters and a contest for the 3 best letters was hatched. Prize no. 1 was a bale of hay, no. 2 a nickel-plated mouse-trap, and no. 3 a bird-cage. Uncle Bim left the bride waiting at the altar and she sued him for breach of promise. Newsboys were sent out on the streets with the final verdict, bawling at the top of their lungs “Uncle Bim -- no marriage!”

“The family adventures of the Gumps now appear in one hundred and six daily papers and sixty Sunday editions. A peak of interest was reached not long ago during Uncle Bim’s engagement and approaching wedding to the Widow Zander. Some few people wanted to see the wedding through. But the great majority thought it was not a proper match; they were violently opposed to it, and they apparently got more and more excited as the day of the wedding approached and it looked as if nothing could prevent the ceremony. I got letters from everywhere about it.”

Andy Gump wasn’t always lean and lanky, with no chin. “When I first thought of him he was a fat little man carrying a cane and smoking a fat cigar…I tried various experiments. I put whiskers on him and that didn’t help. I tried sideburns and tortoise shell rimmed glasses. That didn’t help. At last I took him and squeezed him and stretched him out from his nose down. He lost his chin by the squeezing, and lost his bay window and gained his long neck and present height by the stretching. At last he suited me.”

Smith worked on The Gumps in a large 12 room house fronting the lake at Lake Geneva Wisconsin. The estate also housed a log cabin, a caretaker’s home and a four car garage. At the centre of the circular drive leading up to the house was a big fountain which lit up at night. Smith gave large parties and wandered his grounds in midsummer wearing a coonskin cap. A big statue of Andy Gump stood on the front lawn greeting visitors. The statue passed into the hands of the city in 1943 and then went through a series of disasters. The original statue was destroyed in 1967 during a youth riot and was replaced by a new one which was “kidnapped” in 1989 and again replaced. A plaque honoring Smith was stolen from Lake Geneva in 1952 but subsequently found.

Westbrook Pegler wrote on 18 Dec 1931 that “Sid erected a statue of Andy Gump on his estate. He had likenesses of Andy and Min emblazoned on his automobile, which was the most luxurious that money could buy. He took a house in Palm Beach and on one side of the foyer hung a plaster plaque of Andy, on the other side a plaque of Min. He hired a retired prizefighter to box with him, for he was a good-sized man with a childish desire to punch people on the nose and boast of the fistfights he had won.”

Smith enjoyed talking about his fortune which filled other cartoonists with envy. Once, when Smith attended the Artists’ and Writers’ Golf Tournament in Palm Beach, he approached James Montgomery Flagg, a “man of poisonous moods,” and called out “Flagg--” “Mr. Flagg to you Smith,” Flagg replied, turning his back on the cartoonist. The intelligentsia scorned The Gumps, other cartoonists envied his monetary success, but what mattered was that millions of people loved the comic strip that made Smith the highest paid cartoonist in the world.

Pegler called him “almost an absentee comic artist. He had a continuity man to write his material and a forger or ink monkey to go over the penciled outlines with ink.” This was not really an unusual situation; almost every successful comic strip artist followed the same path. Sol Hess, a successful Chicago jeweler, was one of the earliest collaborators. John Wheeler recalled that Hess’ anger over peanuts pay led to his creation of a Gumps clone called The Nebbs, for which Hess was guaranteed $800 per week. Harold Gray was working as a ghost on The Gumps when he created Little Orphan Annie, and Blair Walliser was his collaborator at the time of the accident. Another of his assistants was Lt. Wally Bishop who created the feature Muggs and Skeeter.

Smith, who was married twice, left a widow, Mrs. Katheryn Abel Eulette Smith who he had married in 1926. His first wife Gertrude Craddock of Pittsburgh bore him two children before she died in 1925. His son was involved in a near fatal beating, and when he died was found to have 38 cents in his pocket.

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