Sunday, September 9, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Harry Hershfield

– Self-caricature with Ghosts –

Harry Hershfield, the Mensch

by Rick Marschall

Harry Hershfield was a blessing to know. Part of this crazy Forrest-Gump like existence, where a guy writing to you in 2018 (me), actually knew or met, corresponded with or visited, pioneers like Rube Goldberg and Harry Hershfield and Rudy Dirks and Jimmy Swinnerton. Pioneers, yes, but relics, really, in the temporal scheme of things. But holy relics!

My initial cartooning contacts, Al Smith (Mutt and Jeff) and Vern Greene (Bringing Up Father) not only took me to monthly meetings of the National Cartoonists Society in New York City, beginning when I was 11 or so; but they introduced me to other cartoonists, or arranged my visits to them.

–Harry Hershfield and Gus Mager–
Harry Hershfield was a legend similar to Rube Goldberg, in terms of longevity and the dizzying variety of jobs, roles, accomplishments, and professions in their biographies.

After a career drawing sports cartoons, Desperate Desmond, Dauntless Durham of the USA, Homeless Hector, Meyer the Buyer, and Abie the Agent, Harry became a big name in radio as a panelist on the popular comedy game show Can You Top This? Still later he served as the “Unofficial Toastmaster” of New York City. He wrote movie scripts; newspaper columns; was head of the story department at MGM Animation; and was a frequent guest on radio and early TV shows.

When I was a teenager I would take the bus into Manhattan from New Jersey, sometimes to visits the syndicates; sometimes to visit Gene Byrnes, or Jay Irving, or… Harry Hershfield. My friends at school didn’t know these names, but their parents and grandparents did. Mine did too; and I surely did.

–San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 25, 1908–
Harry invited me to his studio in the Chanin Building, opposite Grand Central Station, many times. He liked, rather than resented, my many questions about the early days of the comics business. Some days he would close the blinds, sit back in his chair, and reminisce with his eyes closed. Those are times I wish I had recorded the conversations!
Both rooms of his office were piled high with papers and memorabilia, photographs and original artwork. He had two faux fireplaces – one had belonged to Chauncey Depew, and I recall his being surprised that I knew who Depew was – and a hand-colored Yellow Kid original by Outcault. He promised it to me “some day,” but he evidently promised it to many people (it found a home with the Museum of Cartoon Art). 

On the walls were inscribed photos of Hershfield with Einstein; Hershfield with Chaplin; Hershfield with FDR; etc. One day, talking about old comics as we were, he picked up the phone and called Sylvan Byck, Comics Editor at King Features Syndicate. “I’ve got a young boy here who likes the old timers, believe it or not,” he explained. “Can you send him some old drawings?”

–San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 27, 1908–
A week later in the mail I received a package with vintage original artwork by Herriman, Segar, Swinnerton, Opper, Jimmy Murphy, Chic Young, McManus, Alex Raymond, Westover, TAD, Hershfield himself, and others. Can someone hum, “Those Were the Days, My Friends”?

Random memories. One day I brought my friend Michael Goldberg to meet him, and Harry jumped on the fact that a fair number of Jews had the un-usual name of Michael…  and went into a lengthy history (or theories) of Lost Tribes and historical migration. On another day, he suddenly asked me how old I was; I had attained the mature mark of 18 years. He chuckled when he observed the numerical palindrome of sorts – I was 18; he was 81. (Do the arithmetic – Harry’s years were 1885-1974).

–Sketch by Harry Hershfield 1973–
One day he he asked me, impromptu, if I would like to attend the NCS meeting that evening in the Lambs Club. I called to my parents to announce – I didn’t have to ask. Neither did I have to change: I always wore a jacket and tie when I visited Mr Hershfield. It was a memorable evening. Part of the entertainment was a friend of Harry, the Irish tenor Jimmy Joyce. At one point in the evening Jimmy sang “Danny Boy,” a sentimental favorite of Harry – there’s that Irish connection again – and the venerable cartoonist Ken Kling (Joe and Asbestos) was in the audience, drunk and with some rent-a-babe “showgirl,” making a ruckus. I never heard so many “shushes” as that evening...

Harry signed one of his books to me, “To Rick – may you live to be as old as some of my jokes!” I’ll take it… I’ll take it, living to his own great, and ripe, old age of 89. I will share, here, a couple of drawings, a sketch he did for me, and photos from the beginning and end of his amazing career.
–Harry Hershfield at 87, at an NCS dinner–


1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite cartoonists. What a great experience, and what a lucky young fellow you were! Hershfield really deserves some renewed attention.