Friday, March 09, 2012
News of Yore: Kemp and Henrietta Starrett
Artists are supposed to be such very queer people. The popular conception of an artist is apt to be a temperamental eccentric who starves in a garret along with several lower class rodents. His nights are spent in ultra-bacchanalian orgies, popularly known as studio parties, his afternoons dedicated to his favorite model.
The Starretts—Kemp and Henrietta McCaig—are likely to upset the conventional idea. A bombshell, as it were, in the popular fancy.
Henrietta McCaig Starrett is the very same Henrietta McCaig Starrett whose delightful illustrations you find several times a month in the Saturday Evening Post. And Kemp Starrett's pencil furnishes Life, the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post with many of their sophisticated satiric sketches.
They are Brooklynites, now living in Forest Hills. It is in the charming living room of their red-brick, much bewindowed home that we find ourselves.
"Why do you think that the private life of the Starretts should make interesting reading? asked Kemp, as he sank still further back into his chair. "We are not leading especially thrilling lives at the moment. We haven't the time. We are too busy to indulge in flagpole sitting or iceberg exploring—the stuff that current reading matter is made of. Of course, there may be Richard Halliburtons among artists as there are among writers; but you can't swim the Panama Canal in the morning and draw pictures in the afternoon. At least I wouldn't care to try."
"I wouldn't even swim the Gowanus Canal in the morning," said Mrs. Starrett.
"But what about local girls?" asked Mrs. Starrett.
"Local girls, too," I assured her.
"One of the most prevalent fallacies about artists," observed Mr. Starrett, "is that they never work hard. It is true, of course, that some—myself, for instance—follow art to avoid going to work, but it usually turns out that they work harder than they might have if they had become traveling salesman for, let us say, a deep-sea divers' outfitting concern. Drawing requires an infinite capacity for taking pains, as well as an innate sense of the significant that is really nothing but good taste. Every line should have some thought behind it. One stroke may make or ruin a picture. For the work that seems the most casual is often the most careful.
"A similar mistaken idea is that drawing is easy because the artist can daydream. It should be obvious that one is not creating when working mechanically. You cannot do anything important while you are wool-gathering in New Zealand or Montana or wherever it is that wool is gathered. Let's see, what else does the popular mind believe about artists?"
"Well, you people are supposed to be very temperamental," I ventured timidly.
"Personally," said Henrietta Starrett, "I have tried so hard to be temperamental but it just doesn't seem to work out. Yesterday I had almost roused myself to a perfectly swell nervous breakdown, but then all of a sudden it sploshed out and I was feeling fine. I doubt if I will ever be able to faint like other women. I have tried but nothing happened."
So one more illusion was shattered.
"There is another thing," said Henrietta. "People are always asking me whether an artist must read the stories she illustrates. Anybody with the horse sense of a reasonably intelligent horse ought to know better. I am having Kemp invent some sort of bomb that will blow up those persons all at once."
"When I was seventeen," said Mr. Starrett in reply to a question, "I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist and I wanted to get on the Eagle."
"The best I could get was a position in the advertising department at six dollars a week. But while there I submitted several cartoons almost anonymously, and they were printed. So when I was fired downstairs, which didn't take long to happen, I revealed my identity and was taken into the art department. I stayed with the Eagle until I had to leave to make way for Nelson Harding. I worked for out-of-town papers for some time after and didn't return to Brooklyn to live until after I had married my first wife, who died in 1918."
"Kemp and I set up housekeeping in a duplex studio on Willow Street, on Brooklyn Heights," said Mrs. Starrett. "And speaking of housekeeping, the dinner dishes are piled high on the drain board. "Would you care to help with them?"
As we splashed around in the dishpan I became much better acquainted with the Starretts.
Kemp was born in New York City, the son of Dr. Heydon Starrett of Brooklyn. Henrietta was born on South Oxford Street, the daughter of the actress, Jane Burby.
Her father was a theatrical manager, Charles Collins; her stepfather, Charles Treavathan, a writer and newspaperman (he wrote, among other song hits, "The New Bully," for May Irwin). And her guardian was C.B. Smith, Sunday editor of the North American. So she should have been well taken care of.
She spent most of the first seventeen years of her life in a convent. She went from the convent to the stage (to play with James K. Hackett in "the Prisoner of Zenda"), then back to the convent. Twenty-four hours after she left the convent permanently she was in a life class in the Art Institute of Chicago.
She used to save her pennies to bet on horses recommended by her stepfather. Then she bet nickels till she had dimes, and dimes till she had dollars. Then she would have to start all over again.
She did fashion drawings for a while. But frocks and hats and doodads didn't enthuse her, for no imagination was allowed. So when she had been fired by practically every department store in town she decided to give up.
She has been illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post for three years and is gaining in popularity with every issue in which she appears.
Both Henrietta and Kemp have been married before. Mrs. Starrett's first husband was Robert McCaig, who also used to illustrate for the Post.
Kemp is forty, but not fat.
He has been on two other papers beside the Eagle which are now owned by Frank Gannett, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the Albany Knickerbocker Press.
In Philadelphia he has worked on Munsey's (now defunct) Times, the Public Ledger and the Evening Ledger. At twenty-five he became cartoonist for the New York Tribune.
He has never had a lesson in his life and never expects to take one. He likes humorousillustration best of all, although for some years he did serious illustrating for theSaturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Red Book, Good Housekeeping, and we could go on and on.
The toughest break in his life occurred when one of his magazines discovered it was overstocked, another dropped illustrated fiction, and two others failed, all in one week.
When he married Henrietta McCaig he had a check for sixty dollars from a well-known magazine in his pocket. When he cashed it, it was worth twenty-five cents on the dollar. Henrietta says that Kemp ought to have gone to the bank that day instead of The Little Church Around the Corner. She could have waited.
They work in the same house, but in separate studios. (So they won't get their paint brushes mixed.) Henrietta has only one. It's as sacred as her toothbrush.
And the only place they have ever been homesick for is Brooklyn Heights.
[William Kemp Starrett was born in New York, New York on October 6, 1889, according to his World War I and II draft cards. In 1900 U.S. Federal Census, he was the oldest of three children born to Heydon and Emma. They lived in Brooklyn, New York at 805 Herkimer Street. His father was a doctor.
In the next census, they remained at the same address. Starrett was a newspaper cartoonist. He signed his World War I draft card on June 5, 1917. He was a self-employed cartoonist and illustrator who lived, with his unnamed wife, in Brooklyn at 54 East 17 Street. His description was tall, slender with gray eyes and black hair.
He was part of his father's household in the 1920 census. They lived in Brooklyn at 30 Midwood Street. Starrett, a widower, was an illustrator and cartoonist. He remarried to Henrietta McCaig in the early 1920s. A passenger list, at Ancestry.com, recorded them, having returned from Bermuda to New York City, on November 8, 1923. Their address was 30 Willow Street, Brooklyn.
In the 1930 census they lived in Forest Hills, New York at 27 61st Drive (Pilgrim Street). Both of them were magazine illustrators. A list of some of their work is at The FictionMags Index. His mother-in-law lived with them. The January 10, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted their move to Connecticut: "Mr. and Mrs. W. Kemp Starrett of Pilgrim St. have taken up their residence at their new home at Comstock Hill, Norwalk, Conn." He was the first artist on the 1937 strip, Roy Powers, Eagle Scout. (The first weeks are here 1 2 3 4 6 6a 7 8 9 10 11) In 1939 he took over Vignettes of Life from J. Norman Lynd.
Phoenixville, Pa.—Cartoonist W. Kemp Starrett, 62, died July 9 at his farm, "The Grindstone", near here. His first cartoon was published in the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Eagle when he was 18. He drew the "Vignettes of Life", a feature which has appeared in many newspapers. He started his career as a political cartoonist on the Philadelphia Times about 1916. Later he held similar positions on the New York Tribune and on papers in Albany, N.Y., and Providence, R.I.]
Labels: News of Yore