Friday, January 29, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 8 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Eight (Part 2) - BLOSSOM TIME IN BOHEMIA

There was another memorable meeting place for years, the top floor of Mouquin's in Fulton Street, where the "Hammer Club" grew, by degrees, into an institution. Beginning with a daily gathering of a few jealous souls who discussed at noon the foibles of their heartless masters and their own unselfish efforts, it acquired in some unknown manner the name and character of a club. I was its permanent president, probably by right of my unearthly beauty and flow of language (with the exception of an interval of revolt—brief and cruelly suppressed), during its long career. Although we had no constitution or by-laws, I had the power to fine any member a bottle of Pommard at my option. This insured a flow of sentiment and good feeling, hence the club endured. Police captains, bishops, priests, conjurers, judges, theatrical managers, brokers and poets mingled with editors and artists at these daily luncheons, for in those golden days before Prohibition, income taxes, balloon-tires or hardened arteries men took life less seriously. Nor were these meals drinking bouts. Undoubtedly, much time was often lost at them by individuals who should have been at work, but grand ideas were often gained.

Not so very long ago I dropped in on Franklin P. Adams, then on the Tribune. He invited me out to lunch and we went around to Whyte's. There a number of young fellows joined us one by one, and at the end of the meal there was the usual gentle skirmish for the check until it was proposed to match for its payment. I had come to town with about ten or fifteen dollars in my pocket, plenty for the average farm-hick's afternoon enjoyment, and I viewed this suggestion with ill-concealed dread. As may be guessed, we matched and I paid the check. It was for eleven dollars and thirty cents without the tip, but, thank Heaven, I had enough to get back to Goshen on. Now a thing like that could not have happened at the old Hammer Club.

Since then I have shied at all luncheon invitations except those of publishers, who have some sense of the value of money.

In these days of huge circulations, unbounded advertising and universal commercialism, newspaper individuality or personality has become almost extinct and it is difficult to comprehend the sort of popularity which the World so swiftly attained. It was read in the Tennessee mountains and in Mississippi valleys, and while it had its enemies it had a thousandfold more friends. When in my enthusiasm in '86 I predicted a million circulation I was gently derided, but its phoenix-like rise warranted the prediction. Of course, I did not foresee that ten years later the young and opulent Hearst, the best judge of sure-fire hokum living, would buy Albert Pulitzer's Evening Journal and proceed to do everything J. P. had ever done, and in a bigger and more sensational manner.

Which leads me to relate a most curious and amazing bit of personal history to illustrate this point. Raymond Duy Foster, a boyhood chum, had joined me in buying a thirty-foot sloop of ancient lineage from ex-Gov. Leon Abbett, and we spent upon her all our spare time and much of our cash. When the Puritan was to race the Genesta in '85, Pulitzer ordered George W. Turner, his business manager, to engage a steamboat for the occasion. This boat bore a gigantic banner on port and starboard with the legend "THE WORLD" in letters four feet high. Everybody who could escape from the office was on board with a host of the paper's friends.

As we moved slowly down the river amid a tangle of vessels, Turner asked me: "Where is your yacht today, Mac?"

"Foster has her down the bay somewhere," I replied, noting a hint of satire. Then, seeing far over toward the Jersey shore a long black yacht sailing northward, I added, unconcernedly: "There she is, I think, sneaking up the river."

Everybody within hearing concentrated his gaze upon the distant craft, and some uttered jealous and malignant comments upon the fact that a mere cartoonist could afford such a plaything. Suddenly the beautiful, costly craft luffed and ran, half-off the wind, straight for us. As she neared us, I discerned a group of guests in yachting attire about her stern and fifteen or twenty white-clad sailors scattered along her hundred-and-twenty-foot deck. My heart flopped as I realized that presently she would cross our bow and all would read on her gilded stern the name of a famous yacht and my reputation for veracity would be a total loss. She flew nearer, the cynosure of jealous eyes.

Only a cable-length away, however, she came about cleverly with every face aboard of her fixed upon the World's modest banner, and as she passed us like an albatross in flight, a hoarse voice from her deck roared: "Three cheers for McDougall!" which cheers rang out with a will across the rippling waters. We returned the salute with interest, I being the cheermaster.

She bore no name astern, nobody aboard of us recognized the peerless beauty, and I never learned to whom she belonged, but, of course, he was a World admirer. I came, in time, to believe she was the Flying Dutchman of seamen's fables; certainly, if not a miracle, it was a marvelous coincidence.

Airily I waved my hand at her, made some comment upon the fit of her sails or the like, and turned to enjoy with diabolic zest the expressions upon the faces of my envious confreres. This inexplicable happening made me a yachting authority on the World and firmly established my credit with a couple of Fifth Avenue tailors who were the guests of Jim Townsend, our Society Editor, that day. Also, it may teach young and aspiring cartoonists the value of signing their names in large plain letters so that they may get as much advertising as the owner of the paper.

After J. P. had, so to speak, erected the Statue of Liberty pedestal, I was called upon to design a new heading for the paper and substituted the figure of Liberty for the globe, Jay Gould's selection. This is the basis for a boast that although I left the paper in 1900, not a day has passed that I did not have a picture in the World.
McDougall's Statue of Liberty NY World Masthead

An exciting experience of that year of the Puritan-Genesta race was the blowing-up of Hell Gate, which operation it was feared would seriously jar the old town, but the jolt was as nothing compared to the awful Seeley Dinner. Seen from the press boat, it was only a majestic, foam-laced curtain with deeply serrated edges raised against the summer sky for perhaps two seconds and falling in dull thunder. Realizing the impossibility of drawing its outline correctly, my pencil flew automatically across the paper following the rising peaks of green water, but lo! when the picture was printed and afterward compared with the official photographs, my hasty sketch was found to correspond almost line for line!

This, of course, was purely accidental. The only man to whom the gift was given to draw accurately a scene merely glimpsed was Dan Smith, who came later upon the World to enormously raise the prestige and status of the downtrodden but patient toilers, not only by his piety and sobriety, the same being the son of a parson, but by his marvelous technique. He did not need to make sketches, this wizard of the pen and brush, one swift squint at the scene was enough. He is going strong still, but I wonder that our envy did not poison him in early life!

Among the many admirable qualities attributed to the mythical Joseph Pulitzer by his secretarial biographers who saw him through the larger end of the telescope, was a marvelous initiative. As a matter of hardpan fact, eager and energetic as he was, his genius was mainly evinced in his capacity for extracting loyal, hard work from his crew, and this was effected by office oratory of a sort I have never seen displayed by any other newspaper proprietor. I have known no other boss who personally infected his employees with fiery ardent energy; each one whom I have studied shot a jolt into his managing editor when and as needed, and left the transference of the enthusiasm to him. Thus Bennett, Dana, Hearst, Munsey and Wanamaker managed, and none of them was served as was J. P.

When he first came to New York, both he and Cockerill knew very definitely just what their policy was to be in order to electrify the corpse. A little gum-shoeing and thought sufficed to show them that all New York needed to set its monetary glands flowing was a daily dose of new, tingling sensations, and thenceforth the main demand was for novel and striking ideas. Circulation! Yet more Circulation! Big Ideas and more of them! And ideas were as plenty then as mushrooms in an Orange County pasture, being trampled underfoot unnoticed by the editors of the sedate, old-fogy papers, who thought that a bit of snappy personal repartee on the editorial page was a humdinger and that pictures, for instance, were degrading, if not actually improper.

Once, in a moment of pique, I went to Charles A. Dana in the Sun office and proposed to him that he take a plunge into illustration as J. P. was doing so effectively. He listened with increasing disgust plain upon his fine features, and when I paused, he almost shouted, pounding his desk vigorously:

"Splash the Sun with penny valentines! McDougall, I'd see the Sun in hell before I'd permit a frowzy woodcut to deface it!"

I sneaked to the door, opened it, and looked back at him across the big room; then my personal feelings overcame me and I retorted quite as loudly:

"It looks as if you'd be in hell if you don't!"

Then I slammed the door and almost fell downstairs in getting away from there. Dana came to using pictures ultimately, and very good pictures, but without any enthusiasm, yet he employed superior artists like C. J. Taylor, W. A. Rogers and Wilder. The trouble was that he would not splash and use penny valentine effects and J. P. took his scalp, although not without a long hard fight that left permanent scars on the hides of both. Some of the bitter personalities indulged in by the two able scrappers on their editorial pages would read now like a ruckus between two movie magnates, and the staffs of both sheets were kept in a constant state of expectation and delight.

J. P. always cherished in his heart a sincere if unacknowledged veneration for rank and family. This was probably atavistic, coming as he did from a land where rank meant all that is desirable but, to a peasant, unattainable. He showed this feeling by an exaggerated contempt for persons of wealth and standing, yet the truth is that he was moved by quite different feelings, a strong hunger for wealth, luxury, power, predominating over all other emotions. This was manifested many times by certain trivial circumstances in those days when I was in constant contact with him and studying his words and actions. These betrayed that he was moved by a keen desire to establish amicable relations with New York's Four Hundred and their guide and counselor, McAllister. This was the source of his keen interest in a heavily manned society page headed by James B. Townsend, aided by Gil van Tassel Sutphen, a pair of live wires who acquired the fluttering Town Topics only to sell it to old Col. Mann, who made a public nuisance of it for years. Townsend was the scion of an old New York family and knew everybody in town who owned a dress-suit. It was claimed that he was the first New Yorker to kiss the hand of the Infanta Eulalie on her arrival here, but I think Ward McAllister beat him to it by hours.

I am convinced that very few of the "Big Ideas" ever germinated in Pulitzer's harassed brain. I know that certain memorable achievements when first submitted as suggestions were greeted with scorn and often quite stubbornly opposed, and others of lesser importance, even trivial and silly schemes, such as Brisbane's proposed crusade against the cigarette or Grozier's plan to communicate with Mars, were hailed as genuine whales.

The Grozier idea was sprung at a conference at which I happened to be present, for I abhorred those time-wasting meetings and avoided them. E. A. Grozier, afterward the owner of the prosperous Boston Post, was city editor, and he proposed to signal to Mars by means of enormous letters of fire on the desert plains of Nevada or Arizona, signs that would make the blasé inhabitants of that distant planet sit up and take notice. Eddie had his scheme elaborated in detail and it impressed one and all. It was surely a Big Thing in Ideas.

The conference discussed the mechanical and physical difficulties, ways and means, costs and supply problems, with animation until, at last, in my irreverence for massed brain work, I threw a monkey wrench into the works by asking Grozier what language he would use on his colossal billboards, for, strange to say, nobody had thought of this important detail. There was a great silence.

"I'll tell you what I think!" I suggested in mock seriousness. "I'd make them in Hebrew letters, for there certainly must be Jews up there, and you'll get quick action."

J. P. fell back in his chair with a sudden spasm of genuine laughter, a rare event, and in a few minutes there was nothing left of the Mars idea but a pile of papers.


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