Friday, January 01, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 6 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Six (Part 2) - WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG

I learned many things that first year about human nature—far more than ten years of engraving had taught me. One thing was the surprising and mortifying fact that even the greatest men, almost without exception, were sensitive about being caricatured. This petty foible of celebrities has been exposed to me so often that I long ago stopped trying to spare the victims' feelings, just like a doctor or a dentist. I think that during, say, thirty-five years I must have affronted thousands. To this day several hoary-headed actors in the Friar's Club scowl venomously at me, stirred by dim memories of a daily dramatic column which I ran for a lively year in the Evening Journal, brightened by sketches from life.

Not that all persons resent the liberty taken by a caricaturist. I myself, indeed, enjoy it. Yet many who, it would seem, should be above this weakness show tender feelings. The elder J. P. Morgan once asked Pulitzer by letter to restrain me from depicting his nose in such extravagant proportions, and to my surprise, for I had believed him to be animated by the bitterest of feelings against the great banker, J. P. advised me to moderate my zeal. I learned how small can be the great, the near-great and the would-be great.

One day I was crossing the park as Mayor Grace descended the steps of the City Hall. I had met him in a crowd of politicians several times but had not the least notion that he remembered me. However, I said:

"Good morning, Mr. Mayor," with the unctuous deference with which one should always greet the mayor of any city.

"Ah! Good morning!" he responded affably enough, and added: "One minute, Mr. McDougall. Will you please do me a favor?"

"Certainly, Mr. Mayor, of course," I gasped, detecting a hint of asperity in his tone.

“When you next make a picture of me, will you be good enough not to make my pants bag so damn much in the knees?"

Of course, I instantly promised to conform my frolicsome pencil to his ideas, but I never had the same respect afterward for that eminent merchant.

I had many other illustrations of the pettiness of great men. I had gone with Julius Chambers as his guest to a dinner given by the Lotos Club to Mark Twain, and after the banquet Clemens had held forth in his usual drawling manner for about two hours, standing with an elbow on the mantel as he talked to the members grouped about the room. When he had concluded, many of them gathered about Chambers, while Clemens still stood with one or two at the big fireplace, and in my youthful bumptiousness, recollecting a brand-new yarn, I told it to our little group. It was a genuine new-model pippin, a "wow," as John Drew and Otis Skinner call them, and it knocked them for a row of traffic-towers, as the banal vaudevillians say.

Mark Twain's resentment was instantly apparent. He moved quickly away, evidently greatly shocked, and for several years he took pains to let me see that he held a grudge against me for my presumptuous crabbing of his act.

A similar exhibition of a strange and inscrutable pettiness occurred at Lake Champlain when President McKinley was summering there. On leaving the hotel one morning with a railroad manager, I perceived a man on the opposite side of the road busied with a bicycle equipped with a novel kind of tire. I went over to his side and asked:

"Isn't that one of those new Vim tires?"

Glancing at me with scowling brows, he grunted incoherently, snatched up his bicycle hastily, and carried it across the road. I was amazed and greatly disconcerted, naturally.

"Did you see that exhibition of politeness?" I asked of the railroad manager.

"Sure. Do you know who that pickled cucumber is?" he replied.

"I don't, nor do I want to!"

"That's Rudyard Kipling. He lives across the lake yonder, and has biked over to call on President

I charitably concluded that the great writer was saving his politeness for that important occasion.

One more instance. At the banquet, before mentioned, given by Erastus Wiman, I was introduced by William Arkell to Thomas Nast, who had been my boyhood's ideal and whose fame as the destroyer of the Tweed Ring was as yet merely dimmed by time. I was rather overcome, and for an instant did not observe the animosity plainly perceptible on his countenance. He did not extend his hand, but in a loud angry tone snarled:

"I know you! You're the first man who ever swiped one of my ideas! Only last week you put a card on the coat-tail of somebody in one of your cartoons. That was my specialty in the B. Gratz Brown pictures, and nobody ever had the nerve to use it but you!"

I could see on the faces of all those about me a certain astonishment and disapproval, but as I did not then know of Nast's personal unpopularity and unpleasing manners, I could not know its cause. As he followed up his charge with other bitter remarks, I grew slightly angry. Knowing that many of his cartoons were really originated by a clever brother-in-law, with whom he had quarreled, with a resulting speedy fade-out, I saw in a flash the real man, a vain egoist. Looking him in the eyes, and with my left arm crooked for a short-arm jab in case he put his threats into action, I said in pretended contriteness:

"I'm sincerely sorry, Mr. Nast, that I, unwittingly, through pure carelessness, borrowed the only original idea you ever had, but I won't do it again, I assure you."

It was a grand, a glorious knockout, but as we were compelled to live in the same house and eat at the same table for a week in Montreal, it may be imagined that he made life for me as unpleasant as possible. Several years later I bought some of his cartoons for the Elevated Railroad Bulletins of the World and completely mollified the old man by telling him how Major Hopkins, our Commandant at the Military Academy, had caught me making sketches on the blackboard in school hours and how, instead of reproving me, he had announced to the class that "this boy will be another Thomas Nast."

Early in that first year I suggested to the head of an engraving concern which did our work that they utilize an arc light for photographing at night. The hint was promptly taken and they changed the name of the concern to the Electric Light Engraving Company. Yet, when its owner offered me a half-interest at a very moderate price, I was foolish enough to decline on the ground that I was too busy to go into business. Similar hard luck has often pursued me. My many charms had so endeared me to generous ex-Governor Roswell P. Flower that one day he informed me that he was carrying for me a block of Brooklyn Rapid Transit stock, and a few weeks later he announced that there was a profit of thirty thousand dollars to my credit. I was jubilant, but had too much Scotch blood in me to do any public rejoicing. He had similarly favored George Arnold, a bright, lovable reporter.

Returning from a fishing trip one day, I found Park Row seething with the news of the collapse of B. R. T. and Flower's disastrous downfall. I promptly sought the Times Cafe, the first-aid resort of all salaried journalists, and there I found poor Arnold amid a crowd of ribald mock-sympathizers, a human watering pot, wetting down the marble floor with bitter tears as he deplored the loss of his thirty thousand. Saddened but somewhat buoyed up by the consoling thought that had my hard luck been really acute, some of the sum might have been in cash, I resolved to avoid all Wall Street miracle-workers thereafter.

This pledge I kept until the dazzling Napoleon Ives rose to brief glory, when I occasionally borrowed his steam yacht and with Henry Guy Carleton, the playwright, chaperoned a party of simple chorus girls on a moonlight sail up the Hudson. Carleton once advised Ives, at the height of his spectacular career, to grab all the cash he could get hold of and sail for a South Sea Island, but the infatuated man scorned this good advice and in the end he walked the plank in his B.V.D.'s.

Twenty-third Street was considered uptown then, Union Square the center of town, and the Rialto was still along Fourteenth Street. Even then, however, the northward movement was well started. The Eden Musee, a musty, red-plush chamber of horrors, was in Twenty-third near Sixth Avenue; farther along was Koster and Bial's Music Hall, beneath the stage of which was a secret and select wine room haunted by all the sugar babies and stage-door Johns of that period. This place was the subject of sermons in Brooklyn and Newark, and horrified newspaper protests against its "living pictures" of nude voluptuous women (in warm woolen tights and very stiff, painful, but too often suggestive poses) 

were very frequent, but nothing was ever done about it. Koster and Bial girls often figured in the divorce courts. Some of them were merely beauties, but others, like Dottie Neville, Delia Fox and Jennie Joyce, were talented. The place was actually nothing more than a Western variety house gilded and carpeted.

The Eden Musee was ultra-respectable and then some; to be sure, comment was made now and then by old fogies who wanted their horrors unrelieved, that too many lovers seemed to select its crannies as spooning places. This was true. The lovers discovered that by clinching and holding still, most of the hick visitors took them for wax groups of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, Romeo and Juliet, or Paul and Virginia, and with pitying glances passed on. Sometimes even one of the blear-eyed attendants who had grown old and purblind down in the subterranean dungeons where the wienerwurst of the horrors were installed, would stop and absent-mindedly dust off a pair of these lovers without detecting that they were of the quick variety.

In the Musee was one real marvel. This was "Ajeeb, the Mechanical Chess-Player," within which was concealed Pillsbury, afterward the great chess champion. The figure was wrapped in mystery, and the belief that it was unbeatable was firmly established in the minds of all chess addicts. I remember Vice-President Hendricks gloating over the fact that he had almost won a game from this "purely mechanical" effigy.
I knew Pillsbury very well and occasionally wasted my time playing with Ajeeb in order to encourage shy hayseeds to come forward and get something to brag about afterward. On one of these occasions I had him cornered, with but two moves, either of which, properly met, meant defeat for him. I was somewhat excited, of course. His wife used to stand beside the figure, in receipt of custom, and to remind slow players that even in the Eden Musee time had a habit of passing. She sourly cautioned me twice as I pondered that the rule was "a move a minute," although her skinny husband hidden within the concealing wires of Ajeeb's abdominal cavity had devoted several minutes to the preceding move. In my exasperation I looked up into the eyes of the solemn Arabian figure and bleated out:

"See here, Pill, your wife keeps me down to the limit, but you took a nap over that last move. All I want is a square deal, and only a little of that!"

Instantly all the bystanders fled from the room, convinced that I had gone crazy, thus enabling Mrs. Pillsbury to reprove me sharply for risking an exposure of the secret. I lost the game, which I have always believed was owing to her interference. Pillsbury admitted that I had him guessing and showed me how I could have beaten him. Coming that near to winning from the unbeaten champion has always been something to be proud of.

About this period there came into being a modest, smoky little cafe in 36th Street just off Sixth Avenue, kept by one Nick Engel, where the food and the beer were perfect, and it attracted artists, writers and actors alike, but mainly actors. From its methods and customs, its atmosphere of good-fellowship and brains combined, came the first inspiration of the Lambs' Club, followed in time by the Green Room and the Friars', but none of them ever quite caught the real inherent quality of Engel's. There was a sociable homeliness about the place that must have clung to the famous old-time taverns we read about but have never seen.

Nick, a big-bodied, cheery chap—and when I last saw him three years ago in Florida he was the same—had the knack of keeping his cageful of lions at peace, although there was roaring now and then—once or twice a real ruckus—for actors are jealous creatures, strangely sensitive to praise of other actors. I had a portfolio for many years filled with sketches of notables, all gathered in Engel's; some were to be seen there only occasionally, others seemed to be always there at specific hours of the day or night. There I caught Booth and Barrett, William H. Crane, James A. Heme, Oliver Doud Byron, James O'Neil, Mark Twain, John Drew, Joseph Jefferson, Stuart Robson, Sol Smith Russell, Frank Mayo, Nat Goodwin, Henry E. Dixey, Maurice Barrymore, Wilton Mackay, Peter Daily—in sooth, these are only a few of dozens who frequented the place for years.

I heard there one afternoon what I have always considered the best bit of extemporaneous punning—if it were actually extempore, as claimed by the originators—that is on record. Mark Twain, Maurice Barrymore and Wilton Lackaye, the portrayer of Svengali in "Trilby," were seated at table, when Nat Goodwin strolled jauntily in and casually announced:

"I've just come from my publisher's. I have contracted to write my autobiography—"

"Damned interesting and very appropriate," interjected Barrymore, "with the accent on the buy!"

"No! No!" exclaimed Lackaye quickly; "with the accent on the oughto!"

It was on the way to Nick's, on the day when the news came out that Edna Goodrich had divorced Nat Goodwin, that Nat joined me and we walked down Sixth Avenue. After a few words he asked: "Seen the papers?" I nodded in silence, not being able to think of any proper comment under the circumstances.

"Good Heavens!" he exclaimed, pointing in mock excitement upward. "It's on the billboards already! Look!"

I gazed across the street, to read on a huge sign, in large red letters, the legend, "GOODRICH TIRES!"

At Engel's I heard of remarkable "spirit manifestations" in the home of one Caffrey, from an actor named Benson, who assured me that Mrs. Caffrey had summoned long-dead friends of his from the Beyond, which communications had convinced him that the lady could control spirits. I persuaded him to take me to Caffrey's that very night. There were about fifteen believers in spirit manifestation present, and among them I must have seemed to Mr. Caffrey the simplest yet introduced. He was a stocky man with a bald head, uneasy eyes and a large mustache. We sat in a ring, holding hands, while various and sundry slightly luminous forms appeared to float within the circle, introduced and welcomed with greetings as "Indian John" (whom I couldn't recognize), "Little Sunshine," "Doctor Edwards" and "Captain Barry," an alleged seaman with a rocked-in-the-cradle-of-the-deep voice.

During an intermission in the performance, my neighbor, an aged man and simple, told me that he and his wife were constant attendants and that they always conversed with the spirit of their dead daughter at each session. I eagerly conveyed to him my fervent desire to commune with my own dead sister Louise (still alive, aged eighty, at this date), and, as I fully expected, he managed to convey my desire to Caffrey, for, during the next series of manifestations, a filmy figure moved near me in the gloom and a faint voice breathed out "Louise" and vanished.

I expressed my gratification to my neighbor, and a little later was rewarded by the reappearance of the spirit form. I stood visibly trembling and held out my arms. Into them slipped a substantial warm form attired in a wisp of cheesecloth. My emotion was expressed by several fervent and unbrotherly kisses of the "Olga Nethersole" type, but they did not arouse the least suspicion in the alleged spook. Three times that evening did this hundred-and-forty-pound wraith return to my warm embrace. Very likely, it was an agreeable change from the senile goats who, in the main, comprised Mr. Caffrey's clientele. On leaving, I asked him for permission to bring an English friend on the following evening, and it was granted at once.

I took with me a reporter named Charles Hamilton, who was for years Hagenback's publicity man, a Briton of noble blood, who was unable to assume my look of absolute asininity and vacuity, not being a poker-player. He was greatly impressed by the cheerful and sociable manners of the dupes of the bald-headed Caffrey. He said that of these nuts I seemed the softest specimen. He had, he assured me, never seen quite such a bally ass. A few nights later I introduced another aid named Raisbeck, a paper-drummer. By this time my dear sister's spirit and I were on very agreeable terms indeed. I think it would have taken little to induce her to remain on earth permanently, provided I guaranteed the rent.

An old Newark picture-dealer named Campbell was one of the "regulars," and I induced Charles Meeker, a dentist friend, to accompany him on the night set for the exposé of Caffrey's fraudulent manifestations. Also, I informed Sheriff Hugh J. Grant, an old friend, one of whose deputies I was, all about my project. There were perhaps twenty-odd persons present on the night selected, my four assistants being scattered around the handholding circle, each with his duty assigned to him, but all alike quite dubious of the success of my plan, based as it was on human nature only, in other words, the amorous yearnings of my all-too-fleshly "spirit."

When she was folded tightly in my loving arms for the second time that evening, I hissed loudly. At this, the signal, Hamilton turned up the gas, revealing the scantily clad form of Caffrey's maid-of-all-work struggling desperately to escape. Caffrey leaped for a revolver hidden behind a picture on the mantel, but Raisbeck tapped him one and he took the count. Hamilton and others, seeing that the medium, Mrs. Caffrey, was not in the cabinet bound hand and foot, as specified in the bond, ran into the rear room to find her, completely nude, crawling under a bed.

I handed my now relaxed captive over to the old man and woman whose dead daughter she had been impersonating all winter, with a short sarcastic sentence, and joined the others in the rear room. I heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs from a restaurant which Caffrey conducted in the basement, and, opening the door, confronted five or six men, waiters whom he relied upon for just such emergencies. I drew my gun, and the foremost man recoiled upon the rest and they all fell downstairs as one man and made a swift get-away. All of the believers were leaving in great excitement, some feebly protesting, others indignant and disgusted with Spiritualism. One of them took my overcoat, but returned it next day. Hugh Grant told me that he was sitting on the front stoop when they began to hurry out, but, not wishing to be connected with the proceeding, left abruptly.

Caffrey, his wife and the maid, thoroughly scared, all confessed to the imposture, which confession was heard by several of their dupes, and they actually signed the document. We took away a few luminous gimcracks used in producing spiritual effects as illustrative matter for the story which was published, a page of it, in the World on the following Sunday.

This high-handed exposure of a cheap crook aroused among all the spook-believers everywhere many divergent expressions of opinion, and for some time made me the target of attacks by various Spiritualist bodies in meeting assembled. It also produced a new dogma that was found to be very convenient ever afterward, to the effect that when a spirit is seized during its "manifestation" it instantly resolves itself into the form of the medium or some other person! Needless to say, Caffrey resumed business before long under this novel interpretation of spookish methods, and continued to successfully summon Indian John, Little Sunshine and the rest for a long time to the complete satisfaction of a group among whom were several who were present at his exposure and heard his confession.

One of the Spiritualist "seekers" who loudly applauded my action was an aged man named Stillman, who never tired of condemning all so-called manifestations. He was a learned, competent, well-balanced attorney. He bequeathed me a number of books on magic, phallic worship, psychology and archaeology upon his decease. One day, after deploring the credulity and fatuity of these believers in manifestation, he concluded by saying:

"It is all due to the fact that men demand actual visible evidence of the unknown, and these tricksters supply them and always will as long as the demand endures. Now, spirit-rapping is another thing entirely. That I believe in, explicitly, but that cannot be faked!"

It came to me with a sort of shock that Belief is something that has no relation whatever to Reality, and from that day I have never concerned myself with spirits of any sort.



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