Friday, February 1, 2013

Joseph Keppler, political cartoonist, at 175

[1] A dashing Keppler in Vienna, 1867.
by Richard Samuel West

Today, February 1, marks the 175th birthday of Joseph Keppler, the Austrian-American cartoonist who was the driving creative force behind Puck (1876-1918), America’s first successful humor magazine. Incidentally, this date also marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of my biography of Keppler, Satire on Stone (University of Illinois, 1988).

[2] Keppler painting scenery at the Apollo Theater in St. Louis, 1870.
The world of research has undergone a revolution in the last 25 years. I will give you one example from my own experience. When I was researching Satire on Stone, I tried to pin down the exact date of Keppler’s arrival in the United States. It was generally known to have been in 1867 but no more precise date had ever been given. I was living near Philadelphia then. I took the train to Washington, DC, and spent six or seven hours searching microfilm records (anyone who has done this knows how much fun that is!) of the manifests of ships traveling in 1867 from Germany to New Orleans, Keppler’s purported port of entry. I found nothing. In my book, Keppler’s date of arrival remained vague.

[3] Keppler, now the famous cartoonist, in New York, c. 1880.
Flash forward seventeen years. While doing research on the San Francisco Wasp, which would become my second book, I decided to employ the resources of to see if I could turn up anything new on Keppler. Within a minute or two, right before my eyes on my home computer, was a picture of the passenger manifest for the recently built S.S. Cimbria of the Hamburg-American Packet Line, which sailed from Hamburg in early December and made port in New York City on December 24, 1867. The log contained the names of Keppler, his wife Minna (mistakenly recorded as “Anna”), and Keppler’s brother, Karl. What had been an expensive fruitless search in 1986 required a simple click of the mouse in 2003.

[4] Keppler late in life, c. 1892.
In Satire on Stone I quoted from a 19th century St. Louis source that said Keppler had arrived with Minna and her brother Harry. Now the story changed. Harry may have already been in St. Louis, awaiting their arrival, or maybe he came later, but they did not travel together. I already knew that brother Karl did not settle with Keppler in St. Louis; he chose to reside with their father, who had become a leading citizen of the little German-American town of New Frankfort, Mo. — located in northern Missouri, not southern Missouri as I said in Satire on Stone. (My error is perhaps understandable in light of the fact that the town no longer exists and finding information on it pre-computers was difficult.) There is still much to learn about Keppler. The facts are out there and they will eventually be unearthed, especially now that we are living in the digital age. Part of me is happy to have answered my simple question of so many years ago; part of me grinds my teeth over the laborious inefficiencies of the past.

[5] The front printer’s proof of the Liederkranz admission ticket, 1876
The internet also led me to several books and articles I did know existed in the 1980s. The first is a memoir published in 1910 by the Princess Helen von Racowitza, who was a friend of the Kepplers in the 1870s. The Princess provides us with a rare glimpse into Keppler’s home life. She became acquainted with Keppler and his wife Pauline in 1876, when she came to New York to perform the role of Clotilde in Sardou’s Fernande in a German-American theatre there. Later in the decade, after Puck’s success, the princess visited them in their grand home in Inwood Park on the northern tip of Manhattan. She recalls Keppler’s “dear little wife” saying to her: “Oh, Goldche” (she called me this in her strong Swabian dialect), “I often think all this glory is a dream; it can’t be true. I shall wake up one morning and find myself in my little house [of old].”

[6] The back printer’s proof of the Liederkranz admission ticket, 1876.
The second internet find was a tour of the Kepplers’ second home, a brownstone on East 79th Street, conducted in 1897 by the now widowed Mrs. Keppler for the New York Times (July 11, 1897). It provides us with a peek at Keppler’s lavish lifestyle: “Though portieres of sage velvet, brocaded with gold in French heraldic design, one passes into the parquetry-floored drawing room, embellished after the period of Louis Seize. The gold furniture is upholstered in Beauvais tapestry, and the walls are hung with shrimp pink and gold brocade, the frames of numerous oil paintings by Verestschagin, Kobalsky, Henner, Stiler, Rau, Kaulbach, with a life portrait of Wagner, by Gaul, blending into the background upon which they hang without a self-assertive shine. Some admirable examples of Italian statuary occupy pedestals places at effective points, and rival attention with that one cannot fail to give to a few wonderful colored terra-cotta figures by Strauss — an Arabian water carrier and a Japanese being full of life and expression. Two notable cabinets in this room, of antique Spanish fabrication, combine ebony, tortoise shell, and brass, skillfully intermingled, and are paneled with water colors executed by some deftly handled brush of a century or more ago. The grand piano, across which is thrown a fine specimen of embroidered silk, was especially constructed to harmonize with the decorative motif employed in this apartment and the second drawing room, which adjoins it.”

[7] The cover of the Liederkranz programme, 1876.
The third find was The History of the Liederkranz of the City of New York 1847-1947 (1948). (I committed the unforgiveable mistake in Satire on Stone of repeatedly misspelling the name of the society.) This book provided me with a better understanding of the centrality that this German singing and fraternal organization played in the lives of immigrants like Keppler. Keppler thrived on his connection with it. From at least 1876 to as late as 1889, Keppler played a leading role in the production of the Liederkranz annual masked ball. I have reproduced here his artistic efforts in support of the 1876 ball, including artist proofs of the elaborate ticket of admission, the cover and centerpread of the evening’s program, and the cover of the dinner menu. Clearly, this was a labor of love for him. His ties were so great to the club that he joined with other Liederkranz members around 1890 to build a cluster of vacation homes on a mountain top in the Catskills. I noted this in the book; what I did not say is now head-slappingly obvious to me: they named the community Elka Park after their beloved club (L-K, get it?).

[8] The centerspread of the Liederkranz programme, 1876.
So, in the intervening years since Satire on Stone was published, I have learned many intriguing bits and pieces about Keppler that add color to the story of his life. What has not changed for me are the big truths about Keppler. His work continues to astonish me with its polish and wit, and I still consider him the greatest draughtsman among 19th century American political cartoonists. I have however come to regard the work of his son Keppler Jr. in a new light, believing him to be superior to his great father as a political commentator. But that is a topic for another day.

[9] The cover of the Liederkranz dinner menu, 1876.
As for now, Happy Birthday, Joe. To all who wish to honor Keppler today, I suggest you indulge in a pastime close to his heart: slaking your thirst with a good German beer.

* Richard Samuel West’s latest book ‘Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling’ can be purchased HERE.

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