Friday, November 06, 2015


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter Three Part Two

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

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. Woolf, W. 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 uncomfortable position.

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 been mended!

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 Temperance.

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 discovery.

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 four reminders.

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.


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