Tuesday, March 10, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Tenors, Anyone?

Turnabout: Caruso as Pagliacci – 
James Montgomery Flagg’s preliminary sketch
 for a 1914 Harper’s Weekly cover
by Rick Marschall.

Back when old phonograph disks were common in antique shops and yard sales – where have they all gone? – Enrico Caruso records turned up everywhere. Collectors and aspiring dealers used to get excited to find them. A stack of records by the most famous operatic tenor of all time!

The excitement, and their scarcity, was misplaced. Caruso was SO popular at the dawn of the age of phonographs, when every home had to have a stand-up, carved-wood, music-playing piece of living room furniture, that every home also had to boast a set of Caruso’s favorite arias.

His records sold in such numbers that finding them a half-century later was akin to finding libraries with microfilms of the entire run of the New York Times or books sales with a table of old National Geographics: things that were common, and were seldom thrown out, survive in annoying multitudes. Don’t we wish that libraries in the 1890s subscribed to the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers (they shunned them; not proper) and saved them?

But for some people, as with me, the special aspects of Signor Caruso were not his vocal chords but his caricatures. Yes, the great Italian tenor was also an enthusiastic – and busy – published cartoonist. His recordings live… and so do his drawings, humorous personality portraits of himself, of celebrities, of passersby.

Caruso (1873-1921) was born in Naples to a family in what used to be called, euphemistically, modest circumstances. He seemed destined to follow his father and his first jobs, into random mechanical work. But music caught his ear, so to speak, and without training was attracted to opera companies. His rise was meteoric, from supernumerary roles to leading roles; from important venues to prominent character in debuts of major works; from Naples, where a bad review led him never to visit again (“except to visit my mother, and to eat spaghetti and clam sauce”) to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, hundreds of performances beginning in 1903; from bel canto to verismo – his peasant roots asserting themselves. The mature Caruso maintained vocal beauty but became more earthy, projecting emotion over sonority. His characters had character. He stooped reaching for tenors’ showy high notes and dropped to modulations and transpositions when he felt like it. He never read music well; and like pianists who play by ear, Caruso sang by voice; that is, feeling the music and communing with, not reading, the score.

He was the major media star of the 20th century. A perfect storm of celebrity, talent, and technology. Phonographs were new, and after his debut with Victor, recorded 488 separate disks. He starred in two movies – silent, of course, anomaly be damned. He endorsed products, hung with celebrities, lived high, dressed to the nines… and drew cartoons.

The number of caricatures Enrico Caruso drew are literally uncountable. He contributed weekly caricatures, beginning in 1906 and continuing for years, to the Italo-American publication La Follia di New York and its editor Marziale Sisca. He did caricatures on special request. In restaurants he drew on tablecloths, on napkins, on walls. His son once said that Caruso drawings would never be valuable, because there are so many of them. Not quite true, a century later.

Tablecloths and random sheets of stationery and receipts are legitimate “canvases” for caricaturists – or some of them, as the book of R Crumb’s attests. When I drew some great ones (I was told) in Italy my honor was being charged for the linen’s expected cleaning bill, and shown the exit.

Caruso’s caricatures have filled five anthologies. His son claimed that Joseph Pulitzer offered Caruso fifty thousand dollars a year to draw a weekly cartoon. It is hard to believe that the high-living Caruso would turn that down, but he did (if a son cannot further a legend, who can?) – and was famous for his charity and beneficence. He said in the regard,

Drawing is my hobby. I don’t sell it. I make my living with my voice. I draw for my pleasure. It has no price. – An artist in more ways than one, this genius Caruso. He continued: – Where there is pleasure, there can be no loss.

Some of his caricatures are reproduced here. But what is the connection with my own “crowded life” in cartoons? In one of my other blogs this week I am writing his connection to Theodore Roosevelt, but the story here is more personal.

One of the blessings of my life was to be a friend of Harry Hershfield. I visited him often in his New York office / studio; and he took me to meetings of the national Cartoonists Society. More, later. But Harry died in 1974, and whether he made a special list of names, or his successors went through his address book, I don’t know, but I received an invitation to a sale of items from his estate. The location was, oddly perhaps, a large room in an old building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the northeast corner of either Delancy or Houston Street, on the Bowery.

Well, piles and piles of books. Framed photographs and drawings. Correspondence. I knew what likely was there; I had visited his crowded offices in the Chanin Building uptown often enough. Well, this story proves that Mr Peabody’s Way-Back Machine does not exist. I did purchase many items that day, including multiple heavy volumes of Jugend magazine, my first introduction to Art Nouveau in cartoon magazines, and pre-War (WWI) graphic social protest.

And I saw a copy of Caricatures of Enrico Caruso on a table. A big book, good condition. I knew of Caruso’s operatic fame (see above) but not the second hat he wore. I set the bound volumes down, and leafed through the anthology of caricatures, hundreds of them; many really well done. Yes or no? Then I noticed several pages in, an inscription by Caruso in large and bold flourish, to a Miss Veneta S Cohen.

With a nod to Miss Cohen and a silent thank you, heavenward, to Harry, I left that magical “time and chance” place and returned to my desk at United Feature Syndicate (this was all in a rushed lunchtime).

Caruso’s caricatures were collected in books at least five times, and this 1914 edition is supposed to be the rarest. Large and thick, it has a great Foreword and it groups the drawings by the occupations or pastimes of the subjects. Dover published a reprint, but with drawings collected only from 1922, 1934, and 1965 anthologies.

The brilliant, colorful, talented, celebrity cartoonist – who also sang – lived life to the fullest. An overweight smoker who consumed quantities of the fine food he craved, Caruso left the world that embraced him, too early at the age of 48.

The brightest candles sometime burn the fastest. To think that Enrico could have lived to, say, 78, we realize he might have crossed from the age of acoustic recording, to electric or even magnetic; and could have made sound motion pictures. We don’t know, of course, how his voice would have held through the years. But his personality – and his second love (if not his first), drawing caricatures – would have continued.



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