Monday, August 27, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Al Smith, Jack Dempsey, John Cullen Murphy

Two Champs

by Rick Marschall

Still back in Old Testament days, so to speak, I remember Christmastide 1973. The National Cartoonists Society New York chapter for all intents and purposes was the NCS back then, in terms of number of members and activities, Orlando and northern Ohio and southern California notwithstanding.

There were monthly meetings in the Lamb’s Club, with first-rate panel discussions; the annual Reuben awards festivities invariably were at the Plaza or the Waldorf-Astoria; the officers, workers (for instance, editors of the publications), and the “Scribe” who held us all together, all were New Yorkers; Marge Duffy Devine was a former King Features employee. Many “outside” events were still “close in” to New York City – for instance, the annual bash hosted by legendary bandleader Fred Waring was at his Shawnee Country Club… on the New Jersey/ Pennsylvania border.

(Fred, by the way, whose big band Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians was a middle-level success on stage and in recordings. But his tinkering hobby led him to invent the Waring Blender – the first of kitchen devices of electric mixers, blenders, food processors – and made his real fortune. He could afford to throw the generous cartoonist weekends. Drawings on easels, especially on tablecloths, were saved by Fred and framed and eventually displayed.)

 Al Smith (1902-1986) NCS Biography 
A different NCS than today. I was in the right place at the right time. Getting to know many of the cartoonists in NYC area, I was a guest at NCS meetings from an early age. Implausible, but true, I was 11 when Al Smith (Mutt and Jeff) brought me in, after getting my parents’ permission. My father, a comics fan, would say no? Subsequently Vern Greene and Harry Hershfield and Rube Goldberg were among others who invited me.

One of those traditional and oh-so-New-York events was the annual NCS Christmas party at Mama Leone’s, the legendary Italian eatery in the Theater District. The year I recall here was 1973, even before I worked for any of the syndicates, but I had become a familiar face; and I was the political cartoonist for the Connecticut Herald. I think I was also writing for Cartoonist PROfiles and other publications.

 Big Ben Bolt, John Cullen Murphy, Dec 25, 1953 
 Big Ben Bolt, John Cullen Murphy, Dec 20, 1956 
Anyway, these monthly get-togethers not only were populated by the virtual Who’s Who of the top cartoonists… but there were celebrities, too, who were welcomed to crash the parties, or were amateur cartoonists themselves. Like Fred Waring. And another Fred, Fred Gwynne, who actually illustrated several books, and was a regular (prepping around this time for the Broadway revival of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof). Margaret Hamilton – not a cartoonist but a hilarious (!) friend to us all, not typecast as the Wicked Witch of the West after all, a jolly gal – lived on Gramercy Square and was a regular. Will Jordan, when he was in the mood, would join us and, of course, be asked to “do Ed Sullivan,” his claim to fame.

 Jack Dempsey shows Doug Fairbanks the punch that
took the heavyweight championship from Jess Willard 
Then there was Jack Dempsey (1895-1983). The legendary heavyweight champ, the Mannassa Mauler, was still around (with the help of a cane) as was his great restaurant on Times Square. There are still multitudes of people – I am one of them – who swear that the best cheesecake ever in New York City, or anywhere, was from Dempsey’s.

He was heavyweight champion of the world from 1919 to 1926 (and some say still the greatest) – a bygone era? Yet here he was in our midst. To me this was like strolling around Mount Olympus. Jack was always friendly and happy to recall old times, old boxers, and… old sports cartoonists, which I managed to ask about, despite the hubbub and singing and drinking and the usual boy’s choir from St Pancras Church and their Christmas carols.

 John Cullen Murphy, August 5, 1961 
At one point that evening I looked through the cigarette and cigar-smoke haze and spotted Jack Murphy. John Cullen Murphy (1919-2004), the eventual successor of Hal Foster on Prince Valiant, was then drawing Big Ben Bolt for King Features, written by Eliot Caplin, Al Capp’s brother. John Cullen Murphy’s son Cullen, who among other credits like editing at The Atlantic and at Vanity Fair, wrote the Prince Valiant continuities for 25 years. He recently wrote a memoir, Cartoon County, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Jack seemed an unlikely artist for a rough-and-tumble boxing strip (“lace curtain Irish,” was Rube’s characterization of him, as opposed to “shanty Irish”). I had an idea for another collaboration.

 —Jack Dempsey and John Cullen Murphy at a National Cartoonists Society party—
I asked Jack Murphy, famous boxing cartoonist, to do a drawing of Jack Dempsey, famous boxer. Both were happy to oblige. Both… remain Champs in every way.

 John Cullen Murphy Self-Portrait


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