This is the Life!
Chapter Three -- Living By One's Wits (Part 2)
I was scarcely sophisticated enough,
when I started to invade the newspaper offices, to sense the secret of big circulations
nor to perceive that the lowbrows form the great majority of mankind. It was a
long and tiresome task to sell ideas or sketches to either Puck or Judge, ideas that
germinated in an almost bucolic environment, for Newark was then merely a big overgrown
country village. One day I produced an absurd series depicting various methods
of getting home with an alcoholic incubus. It was accepted, and the pay-clerk
told me to report to Mr. Keppler, who assured me that I was now on the right
track. I learned my lesson.
After that the value of grotesque
ribaldry became perceptible and the lowbrow joke my quarry, but from that period
Puck perceptibly declined!
It is difficult for a lover of
Nature and Beauty to fetter a desire to improve his drawing or composition, and
between the need of the meal-ticket and the urge to do better work I was
permanently crippled. After all, Nature probably designed me, if not for an
Episcopalian bishop (for I had splendid legs), at least for scientific pursuits.
Archaeology is still my favorite study, and I am hoping to be able to revisit
the ruins of Yucatan
and do some valuable work yet.
I had managed, by showing some
sketches, to obtain the position of "Fire Artist" on the Daily Graphic, although I anticipated
little profit from the connection other than exercise. Quite a large proportion
of the pictures in that paper seem to have been, in my backward glance,
confined to fire sketches. Previous to my appointment, conflagrations in my
State had been as rare as savings-bank failures or bankrupt saloons, but no sooner
had I arrived home than the big celluloid factory caught fire. At six o'clock
precisely the great explosion occurred, but I had been stationed at the corner
of Mulberry Street for an hour as if anticipating this added feature, and by
ten that night I was over in the Graphic
office with a sketch which was printed next day, although the art manager had
said on first seeing it that it looked as effective upside down as in any other
position, which, after all, is precisely what might be said of any sizeable explosion.
At any rate, good-sized fires seem
to have broken out one after another in Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City in
rapid succession, so that my new vocation became quite a dependable one, and it
is likely that I might have made a fairly good living, with industry, had I not
aspired to do comic pictures. Another strange coincidence which went unmarked
by all was that when I ceased to make fire pictures, conflagrations in my
territory fell off ninety-three per cent, although, it may be stated, these two
facts were in no sense correlative.
On the Graphic's staff were a host of the best artists in this country.
Among them were A. B. Frost,
C. J. Taylor, Dan Beard, Thomas Wust,
R. Piquet, Ed.
W. Kemble, Gray Parker, C. D. Wilder, M.
A. Rogers and the great L. Hopkins. James A. Wales had come from Cincinnati, Charles
Graham was just beginning to make his wondrous big scenes, Timothy J.
Sullivan was one of the newsboys who sold the paper, as occasionally did Steve
Brodie and Chuck Connors, while Charles and Daniel Frohman handed out the damp
sheets to the boys down in the basement.
At that time the plague was
prevalent throughout Europe and there was much apprehension as to its invading
the United States,
a loud demand for a quarantine being voiced by the Graphic. I came upon a tiny heading in a French paper representing
a skull rising above the horizon over the sea, upon which floated a coffin, one
of those naive Gallic ideas so full of suggestion, and from it I constructed a
cartoon of full-page pretension showing a classic America with a sword labeled
"Quarantine" warning off a death-ship shaped like a coffin, with the sun-skull
peering over the sky line.
I suppose that this was my first
actual cartoon-idea, although I had published in '76 in Harper's Weekly a "design for a dollar bill" with Ben Butler's
face upon it, apropos of the greenback campaign.
When I showed this plague cartoon to
the Graphic's editor, he regarded me
with amazement for a moment, and then led me silently into the room of Miranda,
their distinguished cartoonist, into whose hand he put my picture. Miranda
gasped, stared at me, scratched his bushy black head, and motioned me to
examine the cartoon on which he was working. To my intense astonishment, it was
precisely the same, even to the minor details, as my own. There was the classic
figure wielding the sword "Quarantine," the coffin and the skull,
just as if we had each copied from the same picture.
That the thing was pure coincidence
was apparent to both Miranda and myself, for, knowing the facts, we saw that
nothing else would account for it, but the others endeavored to seek causes in
thought-transference, telepathy, clairvoyance and similar absurdities, not
neglecting the possibilities of chicanery, but as I had the visible evidence of
many hours' work on my paper and Miranda had begun to do his that morning, this
explanation was the most absurd of all. The solution, in a measure, was found
when he asked me how I happened to think of the idea and I told him about the
tiny French heading, whereupon he produced a copy of it which, he admitted, had
suggested the cartoon to him also. Even then the coincidence in the composition
and the drawing of the details was quite sufficient to make the occurrence
remarkable, but when with the instinct of the modern newspaper man I suggested
publishing the pictures with a story about this perhaps hitherto unprecedented
happening, all the interest flopped. I was revealed as one of those office pests
with a novel idea who, until Pulitzer arrived and made them all welcome, were
the curse of the moldy, bat-infested old-time newspaper office. The Graphic and, indeed, all of them, except
the Sun, got up a daily paper just as
one fills a garbage can, without discrimination or undue mental effort—just so
many pigeonholes to be filled, each with their specified contents—and perhaps that
is the only way the editor of a big paper can avoid destruction, for that is
the method of today. The old Graphic,
slowly dying from the head down, never knew why the patient, long-suffering,
stupid public grew tired, soon after Hopkins took his coruscating comics away
to Australia and the Sydney Bulletin
to become a millionaire and left them as flat as tarpaper.
Today we are seeing the very same
passing phase; the indiscriminate, meaningless dumping of pictures, simply pictures,
without even the sentimental value of postcards, in the old garbage-can manner,
pictures not chosen for their interest as such but to fill spaces under such headings
as "Babies," "Divorcees," "Movie Stars," "Husband-killers,"
etc., a daily photograph album of nonentities to make up a page. This, the
easiest and speediest way to construct a daily paper, pays for a time, but the
unfortunate part of the process is that the men who make that sort of paper
never have brains enough to adopt new ideas in order to keep afloat; such men
know but one method, that of buying the brilliant men from their competitors
and exploiting them, but alas, these stars never seem to shine with the same
refulgency when shifted into new orbits.
The owner of the Daily Cross-word Puzzle, having erected
a journal on that foundation and thereby exhausted his ingenuity, sees in more
and better puzzles the only logical method of holding his circulation and his advertisers,
which is natural, as most men have but one idea in their lives. The man who is
cursed with more than one, beside being uncomfortable and lonely, never has
time to concentrate, and dies poor, but the one-idea man nurtures his little
pet like a boy raising his first calf, giving all his time to it, and, three
times, out of ten, he builds it into a money-maker, whereupon his competitors seize
on the idea and proceed to trim him according to the rules of the game.
The old Graphic in desperation tried many devices to stave off disaster,
many of them along the line of attracting public attention to the paper without
having any goods on its counter that were not shopworn. Their plan for sending
a giant balloon to Europe was one of these
schemes. Pages of the paper were filled with plans and drawings of the great
project, and much interest was excited, but nothing happened. I never knew
whether or not the whole thing was purely advertising, but I was imbued—how, I
have forgotten—with a belief that I was to be selected as one of the aerial
voyagers because I was a lightweight athlete who could draw and write a little.
This delusion vanished with the fading away of the "Graphic Balloon." Such expensive advertising devices should
only be adopted by very prosperous papers, not by those already on the rocks,
and the Graphic was in that
Late in the sixties
portrait-photography assumed the aspects of a craze, and several prominent
photographers had found it expedient to import artists of more or less eminence
from Germany and France to satisfy the demand for colored portraits. As this
demand was satisfied and the business became commercialized, these artists opened
studios or took to illustrating. They established the Palette Club (or their
employer did), and then came the Kit Kat Club, and finally the Salmagundi Club, which is still virile
but showing signs of arteriosclerosis. The Tile Club, an organization of live
ones which promoted outdoor sketching and the drinking of beer other than that
from local breweries, thrived about this time and secured much precious
advertising, but all these were beyond my years and my purse.
We had a Technik Club in Newark well
up into the nineties which was of great benefit to a few steady workers, mostly
jewelers with a few real honest-to-God artists who needed practice, its method
being a well balanced division of time between drawing from life and the
consumption of crackers, cheese and beer at ten cents per quart, known as the
"growler rate." A professional model from New York was one night
posing in the nude before a dozen men who were intent on getting every second
of the fleeting hour, in a silence broken only by the nervous scratching of
charcoal on paper, when an incident occurred which throws an odd light upon
feminine psychology. Only a minute or so remained before the period of rest,
when with a sharp shriek of genuine alarm the lovely model leaped from the
stand and fled outside of the circle of light focused upon her form.
"I saw a man looking down upon
me from that window next door!" she managed to explain when her agitation had
subsided. Strange to say, it was impossible to convince our greatly shocked
model that there was anything humorous in the situation, and, in truth, we made
the matter worse by our inability to see that her attitude was quite
consistent, but we were all much younger then.
I have forgotten to mention that
after my cruel discharge by heartless employers I was sent to the drawing school of August
Will at 202 Broadway, four flights up. Will was the foremost teacher of
drawing and coloring in the city, and he numbered among his former pupils many
well-known painters and engravers. He was a bearded, gruff-looking German,
smelling most abominably of strong snuff, and his experience with stupidity and
conceit had given him a sort of truculent bearing that was very disconcerting
to beginners. When I came to him, he asked me, as if casually, if I could
draw, and with ingenuous confidence I assured him that I could. Smiling
sardonically, he laid a sheet of paper on the table and said:
"Draw me once a circle on that,
a large one."
Now, knowing that to be a quite
impossible feat for anybody, I saw my finish at once. Too late, I realized what
an ass I had been to pretend that I could draw. But there was no escape from
the test; I seized the pencil and with the recklessness of sheer despair swept
it around on the paper in a second and stepped back for the inevitable.
Will started as he glanced at it,
blew his nose, and stared at me. Then he grabbed a pair of compass-dividers,
centered the diameter, and, by the horn of the prophet! the outer point
traveled around on an almost perfect circle! He walked around the room with a
most curious expression on his face, then he took a huge pinch of snuff and
conducted me into his studio, where I remained for nine months. I traveled in
that time from the lowest to the highest class, for I worked from nine AM until
nine PM, the only all-day pupil among dozens, and when I left, compelled by
lack of funds at home to forego any more instruction, he suspected, I think,
the cause and told me that he would teach me free of charge, but this my pride
would not permit. Then the dear gruffy snuffy old fellow actually cried!
When, three years later, I opened a
little drawing school for twelve and fourteen-year-old infants in Orange, most
of them being relations, I taught Will's simple but effective method with
beginners, and it was a continual source of pleasure to witness its efficiency.
Children often may be easily taught drawing by any competent teacher, and the
process is one of increasing interest and satisfaction. I truly believe that
the self-control, observation and judgment exercised in learning to draw, far
transcends in benefit any other form of instruction for small children,
inasmuch as it exercises at once the eye, the hand and the brain. This balance once
early attained, the child is safe to go into any profession, politics, banking,
tailoring or bootlegging, with the assurance of a safe and steady poise; the
proof of this statement being that it is notorious that no artist has ever been
known to go to jail.
I joined, after the Centennial's
glories had faded, the Sons of Temperance,
in fact I became Secretary of my lodge, "Golden Star," or something
like that. Temperance meant then what Prohibition means now—total abstinence—only
with a difference: we had in our ranks no crooks looking for graft or offices,
nor did any of us carry it on our hips. Saloons were terrible evils, but the
Sons of Temperance never even dreamed of closing them up by a constitutional
amendment. We merely hoped to snatch a victim now and then, especially from the
German beer gardens up on the Hill where the shining white tables gleamed under
the shady elms and were waited on by buxom blond Valkyries with blue steins of one-half-gallon
size, and the sunset gold glinted warmly through the long amber necks of
Rhine-wine bottles, and purple-tinted pigeons strutted cooing about the feet of
the abandoned carousers, picking up pretzel crumbs. Thank God, all that has
One night "Star of the
Morning," or whatever it was, organized and launched a straw-ride. They
tell me that this form of diversion, once universally popular, has been
entirely superseded by the automobile, which is regrettable. We started off
about nine at night, each couple wrapped in several blankets, as the
thermometer had suddenly dropped to about zero, and until we arrived at a small
roadhouse up near Caldwell
we might have been taken for so many sacks of potatoes being shipped.
We danced for two hours, and then a
barrel of sweet cider was broached. This, however, had frozen on the outside,
and thus we innocently imbibed what is known in the remoter bucolic places as
"heart of cider," the same being a potent and invigorating
condensation of the inherent kick possessed by all cider when properly hardened.
Jack Frost can bring this kick to the surface by his alchemy in less time than
a distiller of applejack. It tasted bully, we were thirsty, and nobody warned us
that we were becoming too boisterous and indecorous for Sons and Daughters of
When we finally tumbled into our
blankets for the homeward ride, there were those among us who had lapsed into
complete barbarism and who made the trip a nightmare for those who wished
simply to sleep and dream, but not one of us suspected the cause of our tremendous
access of high spirits. Those who lapsed into peaceful slumber were the worst
sufferers, for these simply passed out and had to be carried into the lodge room
on our arrival there and cared for until morning by those of tougher fiber. By
this time we had all discovered what had happened to us, and daylight found assembled
a dolorous crowd suffering from headache, conscience and the dread of
We tried to hush the scandal up, but
it was too juicy to be kept covered, and a nasty little sheet called the Echo printed a highly colored account of
the affair which I considered as necessitating the beating up of the editor, but
he escaped across the canal bridge before I had administered more than three or
But the "Eastern Star"
seems to have faded from my memory with this sad episode, and now I could not
tell how to give the mystic knock in order to enter a lodge. Come to think of
it, the same may be said about lodges of Elks, the Grange and even the Masons,
in which I remain merely a long-forgotten and unnoted entered apprentice. I
only remember its name, Belcher Lodge of Atlantic City.
Labels: McDougall's This Is The Life