Friday, March 11, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life -- Chapter 11 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Eleven (Part 1) - But No Worse Than The Others

The various historic prize fights which I attended as part of my duties, usually accompanied by Peter Donahue or Howard Hackett, two gifted and amiable sports writers, established a sort of monopoly in the line of boxing cartoons that lasted for years, or until a little flock of artist-chroniclers, combining the two professions, sprang up almost overnight, of whom "Tad" Dorgan alone shines as producing anything original, which he did by abandoning standardized models and using his brains. From the days of John L.'s first triumph in New York to the day of that boisterous trip to New Orleans where Corbett gave him his first and only beating, Peter and I stole by night, with other low-browed slinkers, to fights in Long Island barns and offshore barges, Coney Island skating rinks and Hoboken picnic grounds.

For the sensitive and sickly souls who could not bear the thought of big, bone-headed, leather-bellied brutes weighing near two hundred each rudely slapping each other's faces in a ring somewhere down in Staten Island in the dark for five hundred dollars and a gaudy belt, had by their painful wailings made all prize fighting distasteful to nervous district attorneys and county sheriffs all over the land. I can think of no more significant change that has come in my time than the recent commercializing of a banned and reprobated sport which was often compared to cockfighting, bear-baiting and bullfighting by its opponents who never saw a fight.

At one of Tex Rickard's stupendous gatherings of representative men and women, the amused recollection never fails me of the ridiculous, even pathetic happenings connected with the nocturnal affairs in which Peter and I participated, which constitute the history of pugilism. One night a fight was pulled off in a barn up in Westchester County. Seats had been erected in circus style inside the flimsy structure, and when Pete and I arrived after a long tramp across the fields with no guide, the first round was on. Temporarily we took seats up against the wall and at the end of the round wriggled to the ringside, where I at once discovered that my watch had been lifted. Pete voiced an indignant and touching protest, and, as if by a miracle, in a minute the watch was restored to me through a score of helping hands! There were only three sports writers present, who were seated in a sort of elevated box stall under one of the big lamps, the pugilists fighting on the level ground. In the fifth round or thereabout a hoarse voice roared: "Cheese it! De cops!" which cry was instantly followed by the collapse of all the seats, and an avalanche of struggling, bellowing humanity dropped into the ring. I found myself on the ground under a jackstraw mass of timbers with my hand on a revolver that had fallen from the pocket of a sport patron. Men were hurling themselves through the thin shingled sides of the old barn into the calm starlight, and instinctively I followed their examples.

It proved to be a false alarm—there was not a cop nearer than Kingsbridge—and a profane but not ill-natured crowd immediately began to reconstruct the seats nearer to the heart's desire.

During an intermission I announced the finding of the revolver, and it was at once claimed by a gentleman who told me that he was a Yale professor, but I have always suspected from his accent that he was a Harvard man. He presented me with a half-pint of excellent Canadian whiskey as a reward.

On another occasion the fight took place on a coal barge out in Sheepshead Bay, and just as the entertainment reached its most interesting point the leaky old craft sank in six or eight feet of water, turning what had been a meeting of physical-culture adepts into a scene of horror. Only a few of the cab-drivers, burglars, gunmen, hotel-keepers, trainers and head waiters present could swim, and these promptly departed, leaving the terrified remainder standing petrified, knee-deep in cold water, and in Stygian darkness. An ancient hermit, an oysterman living in a waterside hut, was awakened by dismal howls, and he salvaged them with a rowboat at a dollar per head.

Boxing addicts were included by correct livers of that day as among the underworld classes such as grave-robbers, yeggmen, gamblers, hopheads and ad-writers, and were obliged to pursue this degraded form of amusement in the same secretive manner as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin pursued their vocations. But all this has been changed, the sport page is the most important of all, and the pugilist is the cornerstone thereof.

How has it happened? That is easy. It began to come about when we started to cartoon boxing in the World. Before that, all the home-keeping tabby cats thought a prize fight resembled a pig-sticking-and-dressing contest in the Chicago Stock Yards. Now the ringside is brightened by the fairest blossoms of Society.

While elevating the tone of Society, there were other things happening in rapid succession, so rapidly that all perspective in the view is lost, work and play running in parallel grooves like spectrum lines and merging. Only major events survive in the memory. The Blizzard, the Charleston Earthquake, the Johnstown flood, the Park Place disaster which occurred as I stood looking from an "L" railway window, the Hotel Royal fire where a falling man narrowly missed hitting me, the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, where I became a hero by diving overboard in cold water and gallantly rescuing a strange fat woman and next day was challenged by her jealous husband who suspected me of being her companion on the sight-seeing steamer from which she flopped; the Homestead Riots, the Minneapolis Convention, the Boodle Aldermen Trial, my discovery of Florida, and a page story that barred me from that State for years, the Caffrey Spiritualist exposure. The comedy "A Summer Boarder," written in collaboration with Henry Guy Carleton, the publication of "A Hidden City" and "The History of Christopher Columbus," a journey with Fred Dey (Nick Carter) into Vermont to interview the only survivor of the Oneida Community, another to the home of Mrs. Eddy with Dr. Graham Dewey of the World, where I drew her portrait while she talked to him, she taking me for an assistant reporter, the abortive flight of the Langley airplane over and into the Potomac, the going of George Harvey on to the open spaces of banking and statesmanship, the production (in Sept., 1893)* of the first of all colored supplements after weeks of toil and experiment, the "art work" of which was all mine—these were a few of the events of the first few years of the World's unopposed climb.

The World's Fair, scheduled for 1892, but postponed, stirred up New York to excitement hitherto unprecedented. I have an old prospectus made for this event that shows that all the land above Columbus Circle, seemingly an uninhabited desert, occupied by none but reservation Indians, beer gardens, road houses, fishing clubs and goat corrals, was to be given over to exposition purposes, including structures that would make the Centennial look like a Port Jervis washout. Apprehensive that the virile and audacious go-getters of Chicago would beat us to the prize, efforts were inaugurated by the World toward showing up the smoke-infested, pig-packing, prairie-dogged, upstart city with its big-footed women and shirtsleeved, hustling boosters.

So Langdon Smith, the author of "Evolution," and myself were sent in 1891 to Chicago with instructions to get busy and make that city ridiculous in prose, verse and pictures, also to portray it as unsanitary, immoral, uncultured, undeserving and uninhabitable. This was the period when the "dude" first appeared, and at the seashore men wore the monkey-like striped "blazers" and caps, with wide scarfs as trouser-supports, when colored socks and spiffy hatbands were novelties, but we left all these at home, or, rather, we bought suits at Rochester from a dealer who assured us that they were correct Chicago scenery, styles made especially for that city by a local concern. In these disguises we entered the city on a Sunday night. It was raining and we took a hack for the Palmer House, and after being driven about for half an hour were dropped at the hotel. After I had paid the cabby three dollars, I perceived that the railroad station was just across the street.

"Have you got the gall to soak us three dollars for driving us half a block?" I asked the driver.

"That ain't gall, that's genius!" he retorted, grinning devilishly. Then he hopped into his vehicle and splashed into the gloom.

We entered the hostelry's famous foyer, then the pride of the city, to find it crowded with eager-looking, animated citizens, in black, even to their shirts, having worn them for eight hours at least, all smoking Pittsburgh stogies. The tessellated marble floor was deep in tobacco juice through which occasionally a lady tripped with upraised skirts and downcast eyes. We registered simply as "L. Smith and W. McDougall, New York," and, unquestioned and unsuspected, were assigned rooms and went to bed. There were, however, insect tenants with a sense of proprietorship from whom we defended ourselves until morning.

Next day we sallied out, unostentatiously, even furtively, probing into the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Chicago, and when we came upon some flagrant instance of gaucherie or a leaning tower of trade or an especially odorous smoke-screen, we sketched or recorded it, but we did not advertise our mission. We cherished the peculiar zest of the gumshoer, that sense of secret power that irradiates the ironbound faces of Department of Justice men, amateur detectives and railroad spotters.

On the following Sunday the Chicago Tribune, I think it was, came out with a whole page devoted to us! The clever article was written by Charles Seymour, and illustrated by Tom Powers, Charley Lederer and Hy. Mayer. Its pictures included crude sketches alleged to be mine, in some instances signed twice to indicate my conceit, with the statement that they had been seized by Bath House John for nonpayment of room rent in his rowdy lakeshore dive, a resort much frequented by these debauched journalists of Chicago. There were contributions personal and derisive by one Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade and other unknown youngsters, but fortunately Gene Field was absent from town, I think, and we were spared his subtle satire.

The malicious and utterly impossible caricatures of ourselves accompanying this avalanche of diabolical abuse were so unlike us that we felt they would be regarded by all lovers of the beautiful and refined as mere atrocious, vindictive and inartistic insults, but, alas, we knew there were no lovers of the beautiful in Chicago. I would give much to see that page again, but I am not sure that I could stand the shock at my age. We knew that we were licked and that a city which could do a thing like that to two experts in insult would take the World's Fair away from New York without half trying, and it did. Langdon and I crept from the city that night, dumb and humble.

There was a bill in the New York Legislature at this time, aiming at the abolition of the cartoon in the papers, over which there had been much discussion. It failed to pass, but after the Chicago incident I could easily appreciate the fervent desire of men like Jake Sharp, Dick Croker, John Morrisey, Tom Gould, Jim Blaine and other pretty good-looking men to exile all caricaturists. To men like Henry E. Dixey, Fred Gebhart, Barclay Warburton and Berry Wall, the desire must have been poignantly maddening. I could now see their viewpoint. It may be a bit painful to be humorously distorted, but to be represented as the progenitor of the Neanderthal man with an attack of acute peritonitis, in garments of Jamaica, L.I., cut, is apt to stir up truly savage emotions difficult to restrain, yet no cartoonist has ever been murdered or even sent to jail!

Of the Fair itself, where I was obliged to remain for five or six weeks to the detriment of my morals and clothes, I must write a whole book—or nothing. Of that vast aggregation of eye-popping marvels, all has faded in the succeeding glories of the St. Louis, Buffalo, Jamestown and San Francisco shows except one rare and sometimes pathetic memory. This was of a humble but fairly affluent couple from some prairie town with whom I came in contact and who supplied me with more genuine bucolic comedy stuff than I had encountered in all my life. We were inseparable during their stay in the newest, biggest hotel, opened a day before the Fair, in which the first night I killed a medium-sized rat in my bed!

They were green as lettuce, charming and expressive as two kids, and had a hundred comical adventures daily. Every time they got out of my sight, for I was obliged to work occasionally, they got into trouble; nothing serious, but for them embarrassing and confusing. God knows what benefit they derived from their experience, but it was a truckload. One of my recollections is that of the lady after reading the notice in her bedroom, "Ring twice for ice water," patiently holding her pitcher to the push button for an hour waiting for the water. Another was that of her husband, ignorant of the method of extinguishing an electric light, placing the bulb in his boot. These are ancient jokes, but they had their genesis there. One morning when she was fatigued he went out alone and hired a rolling chair at a dollar an hour, fell asleep, and was quietly shoved away in a shed until near twilight, when he was wheeled out, awakened and almost shell-shocked by a charge of eight dollars.

As I saw them off on their train she said: "Lord knows we tried, but I don't think we ever did anything the right way since we came here except pay the hotel bill!"

"Not even that," said he, "for I've just discovered that they gave me ten dollars too much change! I was just thinking of going back—"

"If you went back for such a purpose you'd be arrested and sent to an asylum or exhibited in the Midway as a freak! You get away before they discover the shortage," I counseled.

I never heard of them again, and I have often wondered if they ever thought of me, their preserver.

The World published a daily edition at the Fair for some weeks. It seems to have been regarded as an annex to the Pleasaunce by the visitors, and a fountain of free publicity by the Midway folk. Nautch dancers, rug merchants, Turkish Delight venders, Siamese rope-walkers, bear-trainers from the Urals, Kurdish wrestlers, Japanese glass-blowers, South Sea cannibals, Cossack riders thronged our office daily, and from each I learned some wickedness, I suppose. The Jap glass-blower was a Milburn, N.J., boy who had an exaggerated idea of my social standing, having seen me being photographed at Coney Island with John L. Sullivan's brawny arm around my neck, and from him I learned many little tricks of manipulating glass. I could have gone into the business, I think.

I met there the genial Moses P. Handy, who had charge of the Fair publicity, one of those artless wizards who weave a spell about everyone they meet. In his office one might meet the great people of the world informally and on equal terms, for he played no favorites. Mose had been all over creation in the interest of the Fair for two years, and knew everybody from Patagonia to Iceland by his front name; indeed, many exhibitors had sent their stuff personally to him to add to his troubles. He thought as much of a crazy-headed cartoonist as he did of the Viceroy of India, but unlike Roosevelt or John L., who were brusque in their address, Handy was as adroit as a snake-charmer. He wore fairly long yellowish side whiskers that enhanced his dignity and fenced a poker face effectually, baffling the self-seeking schemer, but within he was a riotous infant. John Mitchell, the labor leader, possessed similar characteristics. To their intimates, neither ever grew up.

*  The first color supplements were published in 1892 by the Chicago Inter-Ocean, a fact McDougll undoubtedly knew, having been there at the time. His inclusion of the qualified "all colored supplement" perhaps indicates that the World had color on every page of the supplement. The Inter-Ocean did not -- color was on just the covers, and then later, centerfold). The New York Recorder, first paper in that city to print a color supplement, also didn't include color on every page. Not having seen the World's early color supplements, I'm afraid I don't know if McDougall is remembering correctly or not. However, other historians date the World's first color printing to 1894, so McDougall's claim is questionable on several fronts -- Allan Holtz


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