Friday, March 04, 2016


This is the Life by Walt McDougall: Chapter 10 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Ten (Part 2) - THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

For now the new [New York World] building was being erected after much hesitation and debate. We all had a hand in devising this, which was to be the most impressive structure in the city. I often think of our ambition as I survey the little golden pippin over by the Bridge and recall our gasps of wonder as we pored over the plans in the rat-infested old office. J. P. was already so sightless that a nine or ten-foot drawing had to be made of the building for his inspection. I picked out for my studio half of the top floor, up in the dome; nobody else seemed to yearn for so lofty a perch; in fact, few speculated with keen avidity on the prospect of spending eight hours daily so far from terra firma.

When the building was ready for occupancy, but before the elevators were running, a man climbed to the twelfth or thirteenth floor, where some compositors were working, and halting with his head just above the flooring, he stared into the dimly lighted room and asked in an awed tone: "Is God in?" From the terrific height of fifteen stories men lost stature and became crawling bugs. Ballard Smith, editor for a period, would never approach the windows, and Doctor Parkhurst once confessed to me that when up there he always thought of Satan tempting Christ on the Mount, and in a vague way suggested that there was some relation between the temptation and the impulse to throw oneself from a height. Being short-sighted, altitude never had this effect upon me; two miles up in an airplane never bothers me half as much as ninety feet!

One of the many memorable conveniences in the new building was Charley Perry's drug store, wherein there soon developed a beneficial new cult, that of moderating one's whiskey with orange juice. This effete unmanly innovation was derided by the old-timers like Coffin, Wheeler, Eggleston and Doc Cohen, but Charley's prescription grew in favor with the years to the material benefit of the Florida orange trade.

About this time George B. McC. Harvey joined me in establishing a weekly paper called the Suburban in Newark. Harvey was then editor of the New Jersey edition—lank, lean, preternaturally austere, although at heart as frisky as they make them. He was too busy to pay any attention to the little Suburban beyond giving advice, and it languished unobserved for a few months and died. George even then was possessed of stupendous assurance, the gravity of an Asbury Park undertaker, and with a manner as imposing as Woodrow Wilson's. You could tell him a story, a new one, in fact, one that you had just devised, at luncheon today, and on the morrow he would begin with his regular formula, "Once, up in our little Vermont town, there was a man," and he would tell your story with local names and dates and get away with it! In an editorial conference he would sit wrapped in gloomy silence until every possible suggestion had been made, and then, selecting the most potential ideas that had been submitted, he would calmly and solemnly present them as his own. It takes a master of audacity and a command of boundless nerve to succeed at this game, and I think Harvey caught the trick from Pulitzer himself. It requires a certain stony heartlessness and, perhaps, some discrimination, and Harvey had both.

When, a year or so later, he was managing editor, he had meanwhile been made a colonel on the staff of Gov. Abbett of New Jersey. I published "The Unauthorized History of Christopher Columbus" and suggested that we publish a few excerpts from the work, thinking that World readers might thereby be induced to spend a quarter for the silly little book. Next Sunday, to my amazement, I found that he had printed the entire book, pictures and all. I protested vehemently. "You have done for my book. Hamstrung it completely. Now not a World reader will buy it!" I mourned.

"Well, it wasn't copyrighted!" he retorted with a cool grin. "What are you going to do about it?"

Don Seitz states that George was fired because of absenteeism, etc. The truth is that although the skids had been already greased for some weeks, he walked the plank because he had permitted an article to appear in the paper criticizing Mrs. Richard Croker's table manners. I think that J. P. was less exercised over the resulting loss of 40,000 circulation following the Tammany Hall boycott than he was concerned over the paper's exhibition of bad taste, for he was just beginning to be touchy about such matters. At any rate, Harvey lingered at the gate no longer than it took to get the raspberry ready, and for a time he had rather hard sledding until he got in touch with Thomas F. Ryan and then J. Pierpont Morgan, who placed him in charge of Harper's Weekly. He enticed away two of our best men, Fred Duneka and William O. Inglis, wholesome cheery lads to whom I was greatly attached.

This period saw many pleasant gatherings of World men in my house in Newark. To meet them came a number of joyous, carefree actors, artists and musicians to whom an eight-mile railroad journey should have been a deterrent. Henry E. Dixey, Charles Ellis, Edward Milton Royle, Marshall P. Wilder, Gunn, Powers, Griffin, Fred Dey, Henry Guy Carleton, Eggleston, David Graham Phillips, Duneka, Inglis, Bill Sulzer, Langdon Smith, Peter Dailey, James Whitcomb Riley, Bill Nye, Frederick Villiers, Stephen Crane, even Teddy Roosevelt twice found time from his labors to join these informal stag parties that sometimes packed the old farmhouse to the cracking point. These parties engendered many others.

Si Pickering, the jeweler, father of Theodosia Garrison, the poetess, worthy peer of the wittiest, gave one that was memorable. He transformed his basement dining room into a typical German beer saloon with beer kegs, sawdust on the floor, and old-fashioned free lunch of pickles, cheese, sausage and crackers. The affair was a grand success, and when toward midnight John "Rolling-mill"Kelly arrived, it became certain that the session was to be an all-night one. John, an expert, pronounced the imitation saloon perfect and proceeded to tell stories, while Pickering, in a bedtick apron, impersonated a German saloon-keeper to the life. Fred Dey, the author of the Nick Carter books, had dined at my house that evening but was under peremptory orders to produce a story for Street and Smith by morning. He began his task at seven-thirty in my library and completed it about midnight, perhaps ten thousand words. Every twenty minutes he would dart across the street to Pickering's, lap up two or three beers, and rush back. He assured me it was the best of his tales.

Just as Kelly had overcome all opposition and silenced all rivals and Pick had opened a fresh keg, a thundering rap at the door sounded. Pickering opened the portal without suspicion, to admit a stern-looking police sergeant and three cops, who arrested all hands, bundled them into a patrol wagon, and drove away. At the police station Pickering was charged with keeping a disorderly house, having no license, being open after hours, and other offenses, and his guests were held as witnesses. Not a man suspected that it was a cruel practical joke, and the reaction of the victims to rage, disgust and anxiety was extremely comical to a hard-hearted observer. Also, nobody remarked that a number of jolly Newarkers who should have been in bed turned up opportunely to plead Si's cause, but when my brother Harry appeared with his crony Van Riker, the District Attorney, both notorious jokers, the rat became odorous. When Van Riker solemnly proposed to return at once to Si's saloon to start the case properly, and the police captain promptly assented, a blinding light illumined the gathering. So heartless and unfeeling is human nature that there were some among the indignant prisoners who plainly intimated that the whole affair was concocted by the jeweler himself.

Back went the overburdened patrol wagon, the saloon was reopened, and joy was unconfined, but the hours were haunted by a feeling of more dynamite in the air. Staid New Yorkers, all unused to practical jokes, and among them Brian G. Hughes, not yet famous and a fellow member of the Thirteen Club, learned that night how small-town parties amuse themselves.

We always had meetings, when either Kelly or Dockstader was in town, that lasted until the whistles blew. Lew, a Rahway boy, I had known since boyhood. His name was George Clapp but he assumed an uncle's name for the stage. Much of his comicality was impromptu; he had a clever mind and a rare gift of repartee, and would have made a humorous writer if trained. His whimsicalities were his greatest asset, his sudden freaks convulsing his audiences and providing material for years. Now and then he fell upon a song like "The Brand-new Shovel" or "Everybody Works but Father" that lifted him to new successes, yet, although he earned large sums, he somehow never contrived to achieve the financial success he deserved as a great entertainer. Never did he attain to the prosperity of Al Jolson, whom he discovered and employed; indeed, he never had a successful theater of his own. Mrs. Dockstader was his financial guide and guardian; without her he would never have been two months ahead of the game.

When, about '86, he took the theater on Broadway, he was at the height of his popularity, yet in this venture, in which Henry Guy Carleton and I aided him on the literary side in producing "The Boodle Aldermen," perhaps the most ambitious of all attempts to lift dying minstrelsy to a higher plane, he failed to make money. The audacious tricks and desperate devices to which we resorted to obtain publicity would of themselves make an interesting chapter, yet three fairly gifted brains could not work the miracle. He was fain to go back to old-time clowning, wherein by merely shaking up his voluminous old dress suit and drawling out a well-worn gag he earned the highest salary then paid. His so-called imitation of Roosevelt, while to the eye a replica of Teddy, was far more. It was Roosevelt as The People imagined him, a satire, but lovingly done. Twice I saw the ex-President almost weeping over the caricature.

John Kelly was the reverse of Lew. He attracted little attention to his personality, using few gestures but exuding a stream of quaint humor that was irresistible. Nothing funnier than his casual droppings into boyhood reminiscences was ever offered to vaudeville audiences.

His recital of his return to his father's house was not one of his stage gems, but he told it that night. During the years he had been acquiring fame, he had never revisited his home town. His aged parent knew nothing of his career except that John was on the stage. On the night of the performance John saw that he was provided with a front seat, but was pained and puzzled to see that his act, although convulsing the audience, afforded the old man neither pride nor pleasure. He never unhooked a smile, and at the finish he arose and left with evidences of disgust visible.

After the show John went home, to find his father smoking by the fire. "You didn't seem to like my stunt," he remarked.

"Aw, go to bed!" snarled the old man. "I seen the show!"

"Wasn't my act any good?" demanded his son.

"Aw, go to bed! 'Twas a turrble exhibition. Ivery wan in the whole damn house was laughin' at yees!"

From the little Kinney Street house I would start every morning with a general idea of catching the 9:15 train. Provided my course was unimpeded, I would have a few minutes at the barber shop under the station to act the part of philanthropist by handing out to Frank, the tonsorial expert, my notion of the day's best bets. Whether my tips lost or won, he regarded them as the output of an omnipresent prognosticate; in fact, the reverent attitude of the barber was a daily uplifter of self-esteem. He knew me, yet respected my judgment.

One June day, attired in a white linen suit, I halted at his door to find him eagerly awaiting me. My tip of the day previous had won, and he was in a quiver. When I had oracularly given my prediction for that day, he stammered:

"Could you take once a seat and watch the shop a minute while I skip over to the pool room and get a bet down? You got twenty-two minutes yet."

I was reading a paper a few minutes later, when a man entered. I did not look up until he rumbled: "Here, give me a quick shave! I want to catch that nine-fifteen."

I instantly recognized Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, who I knew had lectured in town the night before. He scrambled into a chair and I looked out across the street. Frank was invisible. The bald head rolled around and a dark eye glared indignantly at me. It did not for a second occur to me that he took me in my white suit for the barber. Then I felt that I was to blame, as I perceived that the eminent Agnostic was in real need of a shave. Regarding it as unfortunate for Frank to lose the chance to shave this great man, the natural thought of saving the situation by myself preparing that noble chin flashed into my mind.

I leaped forward, grabbed my own cup, and flew for hot water. I enveloped Ingersoll in the appropriate lingerie and began lathering him as I watched the clock and the shop door. The operation of lathering, even when conducted by a mere tyro, requires little time, but I prolonged it until his lower jaw looked like the foot of Niagara Falls in winter. Of course my audacity was unequal to any attempt to shave the great orator. I began to strop a razor with slow strokes that must have driven him frantic with impatience the while the clock speeded up to double-quick and the accursed barber remained aloof.

When the apostle of free speech was beginning to mutter and writhe in the chair and there remained but two minutes in which to catch my train, I ladled out another ridge of lather below his expressive eyes, stepped back, took up my hat, and tiptoed up the back stairs to my faithful train, which tore away with me to New York. Several days later I heard what befell that idiot barber when he strolled into his shop to a wild-eyed man awaiting him with a stock of language befitting an unheard-of outrage. Frank declared that he had not revealed my name to Col. Ingersoll, but as he calmed him and finally shaved him, I suspect he informed him who had thus abused him.

Not long afterward I was asked by somebody to accompany him to one of Ingersoll's famous Sunday evenings. I refused from a craven fear of meeting those flashing eyes.

Years later a Newark man came to me with a tale of how he had been deprived of the earnings of a dressmaking device by a well-known dry-goods concern, asking me to obtain publicity for his wrong. This was impossible, but instead I sent him with a letter to Ingersoll. That great-hearted humanitarian took the case, maintained his client's family for months, and finally secured a court's decision for twenty-five thousand dollars.

This man's name evades me, but I will never forget his tribute to Ingersoll's goodness when he came in to announce the verdict to me. He then revealed quite innocently that his benefactor had somewhat cryptically referred to me as "a great cartoonist but a damned bad barber!" I realized that he must have known all the time of my perfidy and had perhaps watched for a heartless publication of the story, but Fred Duneka told me that Ingersoll himself had related the tale to him with every evidence of amusement. Anyway, I lost a chance of becoming acquainted with one of the greatest of Americans of my time through a witless effort to assist an undeserving scoundrel of a barber, which was the sole origin of the prank.

One feels a sort of secret exaltation when the subject of a cartoon is broad and generous enough to express appreciation of it. Quay and Roosevelt secured and framed numbers of original drawings; indeed, Quay had a large collection which he enjoyed exhibiting. From the period of McKinley's first candidacy, when the Senator and Dave Martin, the cleverest vote-buyers of the time, came to New York with a carpetbag filled with big bills from which they were astutely separated in a few days by abler manipulators, to the death of Quay, ten years or so later, I must have made several hundred cartoons of him, yet the old man was always urbane and kindly, often inviting me to boating parties, even asking me to join one of his famous "Florida Revels." I doubt if Boies Penrose ever preserved a copy of a cartoon. Quay expressed a contempt for the influence of the press, which Penrose, more sensitive, did not share, and when one reflects that he won his battles over and over again against a mighty combination of New York and Philadelphia journals, one is inclined to admit that the old warrior read the public mind better than the editors.

New York Journal advertising poster featuring Li Hung Chang

In one of the early colored supplements was published a cartoon representing Li Hung Chang divested of all his garments, the Purple Button, the Scarlet Cap and the other tokens of Chinese officialdom, and a messenger boy with a telegram from the Empress ordering him to remove the Yellow Mustard Plaster. When the great statesman visited this country, I was presented to him at the reception here as the man who made a famous cartoon of him, and the aged man's little eyes twinkled as he said, in perfect English: "I have that cartoon framed and hanging in my palace."


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