Friday, October 30, 2015


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

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Three -- Living By One's Wits (Part 1)

The Angel of the Centennial ... The Brooklyn Theatre Fire ... Artists of the earlier days ... Mat Morgan's studio ... Notable habitues ... Father's atelier for chess-players ... The Rev. Hannibal Goodwin ... Breaking into Puck ... Value of the grotesque ... A remarkable coincidence ... The Graphic and its ballooon ... The sensitive model

The Centennial Exposition, which now seems as remote as Tut-ankh-amen's first birthday party, exercised an incalculable influence upon the inhabitants of nearby regions, and it must have been an enormous incentive to me, albeit I seem to recall plainly only a few of its outstanding features. One was the gigantic Corliss engine, the other a marvelous statue, entitled, I think, "The Flight of Time," a beautiful concept of a lovely woman, just blooming into matronly perfection, being hurried along by Father Time, a piece of Italian sculpture which has lingered in my mind's eye all these years.

One of my engraver friends named Billy Black, who now is, I believe, the Superintendent of the Pennsylvania R.R. station in New York, had become an "extra" conductor between Philadelphia and New York, and he used to carry me to and from the Exposition whenever I wished to go. Many happy and fecund days I spent within the Exposition grounds, and I had many curious adventures in the City of Brotherly Love, which harbored more dives and disreputable joints than any I have ever visited. The number of naughty pictures showing completely nude women exposed behind the bars of saloons seems to me to have been legion. George Folsom, Will's brother-in-law and afterward manager of the World's art department, was then a silver-engraver. He used to play pool with Francis Wilson, a slight little variety actor with a pair of concentric legs which Gene Field has made immortal, who seemed rather to patronize me on the score of my youthful appearance, for it has always been my misfortune to appear perhaps ten years younger than I am. Yet it may have been a year or so earlier that these meetings occurred, for I went to Philadelphia frequently. Pool, however, never was attractive to me, and most of my time was spent in seeking adventures.

One night I sat down to rest myself on a tiny marble stoop and went to sleep, awaking to find myself lying in the daintiest and most exquisite bed that I had ever seen. Almost instantly there came to my mind the story of the tailor in the "Arabian Nights," and I was not at all surprised when a fairy appeared. She was as beautiful as she was kind-hearted and clever, but my Scotch instincts warned me against her wiles. She made me stay to breakfast, and was more wistfully charming and lady-like than any woman I have ever met, I think, but I was intent upon guarding my virtue, and like any Sir Galahad—or did he guard his?—I was cold to her charms every moment while under the roof of this Phryne, and as soon as I could manage to escape from her clutches I bolted. There is no fool like a young fool!

That winter, while visiting a friend in Brooklyn, a servant rushed in, crying: "The theater is on fire!"

We ran around the block to witness, from the rear of the Brooklyn Theater, the memorable disaster. Next Sunday, on one of the coldest days that I remember, we went out to the fields and saw that lengthy procession of funeral coaches, the funeral of more than two hundred victims of the fire. The event produced upon me a profound impression, but I imagine it also hardened me, as it were, for I was never again unduly excited or moved under similar circumstances.

That year I also saw the production at Booth's Theater of "Sardanapalus," unless my memory fails me as to the date. It was so superbly impressive and so realistic that it has always remained, with the sole exception of Fox's "Humpty Dumpty" (which appeared to me to be actually supernatural in its amazing transformations), the very highest pinnacle of theatrical endeavor. That I must have gone often to the theater is attested by the fact that I recall Fanny Davenport, Agnes Booth and Charlotte Cushman, the Albaughs and Ada Rehan in their best days, but "The Big Bonanza" and "The Three Orphans" were the only plays that I retained long in my memory.

Living by one's wits, which exactly describes the profession of the cartoonist and caricaturist, who has to produce something new every day, at least tends to develop habits of observation and induce something akin to cerebral activity. I happen to recall that once when I had prefaced a remark with the words "I think," Arthur Brisbane, in the pride of having written a five-thousand-word story of a society wedding in one day, interrupted me.

"Think! You don't think!" he said contemptuously. "Why, you haven't a wrinkle on your face!"

Arthur had, even in his early twenties, a plexus of deep-lined cryptic creases in his lofty dome's front like those of a newborn setter pup, and quite naturally connected them with mental action. Instead of delivering a lecture upon these palpable evidences of cerebral deficiency, I merely replied that I "did not think with my skin." Age will tool the brow as does a bookbinder's tool, but wrinkles in youth are atavistic blemishes like the short simian thumb and the canine incisors of the half-developed Neanderthal man, and they usually indicate, if they denote anything, a difficulty in thinking.

One satisfaction the cartoonist has: he gets a quick decision upon his work. I kept afloat a number of comics among the New York weeklies while I worked and played, and I sold one frequently enough to prevent complete discouragement, each sale, in fact, filling me with renewed confidence and ardor.

Puck had a sort of organization in its art department, the others were less formal and more genial. Puck's artists and writers were inclined to have hauteur, swelled with the first pride of success, Harper's men were rather patronizing but kindly, and the Judge crowd brotherly and helpful. On Puck a new artist was confined to a small room, given a subject to illustrate within a reasonable time, and if he did not make the grade, was promptly given the gate. The other weeklies seem to have recognized latent talent and to have assisted it. Their art departments were readily accessible. I remember once seeing Edwin A. Abbey tear up a drawing in almost tearful disgust as he declared that he ought to be out in a wagon selling clams. Also, how James A. Wales, then a top-liner on Judge, wisely and very kindly counseled me about my work for more than an hour, pointing out defects and, above all, revealing to me the wonders of the work of Vierge. I was able, not so many years later, to give him the opportunity to do considerable work for the World.

The manager of Judge's art department ran a faro bank as a side line. All of the writers and most of the artists supported it, it seems, and it was an inducement to hard work, for it kept them poor. Syd. B. Griffin, afterward my own partner, was the most humorous of Puck's staff. His capable right hand became paralyzed, and then he quickly learned to do even better work with his left. Keppler, the most famous cartoonist after Nast, was a pompous German and a fair draftsman but whose knowledge of the rigging of a ship excited even my youthful ridicule. When I sold him a comic of a milkman to whom a cow was an unknown animal, he himself captioned it "No Wonder!" which shows that he had a real sense of humor and it was indeed a very poor cow.

The greatest comic artist of the Seventies, after L. Hopkins of the Graphic, was Eugene Zimmerman, a splendid handler of pen and ink, utterly unspoiled by an immense success, a few years my elder, who, like Hopkins, made pictures that were funny in themselves, regardless of the subject matter. Few artists seemed then to recognize the distinction, perhaps because few were really humorous. As years went on, "Zim" altered his style, growing funnier if less artistic, but through an inexplicable lack of recognition by the latter-day publishers he has retired into comparative obscurity. In those early days Fred Opper, now a brilliant star in the American's galaxy, was doing good work and aspiring to be a water-color painter, and was much more dignified and upstage in his twenties than he is now. He was always reserved and kept aloof from the dissipations of his confreres, and thereby he managed to acquire a reputation for nearness comparable to that of Sir Harry Lauder when he first came to this country, and productive of almost as many anecdotes. One was to the effect that when he was lunching at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago with Tom Powers, Swinnerton and Davenport, the others each placed a fifty-cent tip under a glass, obliging him to follow suit. It was said that he never afterward recognized any of them, but I know better.

An endeavor to list all the rivals that were set up against Puck and Judge would be barren of interest, for, with the exception of Life, they were short-lived. Each of them, however, was a bow of promise, while it lasted, to every peripatetic artist and writer. Farthest back in my memory is the Tomahawk, started by Matt Morgan, a dashing, handsome Englishman of the Herbert Standing type, whose studio was the daily resort of many of the illustrators, poets and actors of the time. There I first saw Walt Whitman on my only visit to the place with John Bolles, a Newarker. That afternoon there came Thomas Wust, Hopkins and Miranda, with Charles Frohman, then circulation manager for the Graphic, William H. Shelton, famous for his escape from a Southern prison, and the dapper Gray Parker, then on Harper's staff, with others no less distinguished but quite unknown to the two obscure Newarkers.

I had almost forgotten to mention among them one whom for many years I did not properly appreciate, Herman Melville, the author of "Typee," and whom I very often encountered, as I did Walt Whitman, lounging along Park Row, a rather moody, sullen man, I thought, but now I imagine that he was shy. Under the influence of the punch, perhaps, I invited Melville out to our house, to meet Marion Harland, and he accepted the invitation graciously enough but he never came.

I remember that both Bolles and I thought the conversation nothing much for such distinguished company, for we were both, no doubt, looking for pyrotechnics. We agreed that we had heard much more brilliant talk right in my own home. I thought Whitman a domineering old windbag who couldn't keep his tobacco out of his splendid white whiskers, but when I grew up I came to like him very much, and Horace Traubel, whom I knew very well after I went to live in Philadelphia, while he was still a bank clerk, told me that the old poet often urged him to bring me over, but I knew that the secret of his liking was the fact that I was the only man he knew who, like himself, chewed Mayflower tobacco, long since an extinct brand.

In the center of Morgan's studio was parked a new washtub half filled with claret punch, which, it seemed, was a permanent adjunct of the apartment and which gave me an exalted idea of the owner's affluence. I remember seeing a similar punch bowl when a child on the occasion of a big baseball game, and, much later, on the dedication, or whatever it was, of Grant's Tomb.

The Tomahawk was several degrees above the other comic papers in many respects, but it soon died and Morgan returned to London. Another very good British artist, John Hyde, came here about that time who used to do the alluring front pages for Fox's Police Gazette, wherein almost painfully beautiful legs were always conspicuous, and I was informed that there was much jealousy between the two Londoners. Both of Hyde's sons, Clarence and Raymond, were on the World for years.

That gathering was somewhat different from the daily assembly of chess-players in my father's rather shabby studio three floors up in an old building on Broad Street. Father was a handsome man of lovable character and filled with information. He had an insatiable avidity for new methods and ideas, and was constantly experimenting with novelties in pigments, papers and mediums new in the arts. The latest of Newark's products, celluloid, appealed to him as a substitute for ivory, upon which he painted his miniatures. He was a leader in the art at that time, having painted Edgar Allan Poe, which miniature was reproduced in the Century Magazine in 1910, Henry Clay, Commodore Vanderbilt, General Scott and other celebrities. He devoted considerable time to ascertaining the fitness of celluloid for this purpose.

His studio was the resort of a number of men who, whether young or old, called him "Jack," to my intense disgust and mortification. Here came very often George Inness, with whom he went sketching in the Orange Mountains, Thomas Moran, just returned from the Colorado Canyon and painting his great pictures now in the Capitol at Washington, in a small house in South Street, Alex Drake, art director of the Century Magazine, A. B. Durand the painter, who had been an engraver, as had Moran and Drake, and who was then devoting all his energies to raising giant strawberries, Thomas Dunn English, who wrote "Ben Bolt" and was editing a Newark newspaper, Thomas A. Edison, then running an electrical shop around the corner, and Bill Gilder, afterward famous for his journey afoot across Siberia in aid of the Jeanette expedition. Gilder was a competent, even brilliant portrait-painter, but joined the Herald staff and gave me all of his material.

In this interesting group, mostly chess-players, was also the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin, rector of the House of Prayer, an uptown church of the swellest Episcopalians, who became interested in the celluloid plates upon which father was painting. Goodwin was a sweet-tempered, wholesome man, kindly and curious, who amused himself with chemical experiments but had no real scientific training, I believe. My more intimate contact with him began with his interest in the gelatine reproduction process, the method then in use for making pen-and-ink cuts for printing. He had me make him many drawings for his experiments. Finally, when he took up the new zinc-etching and its necessary photography, the result of his labors was the celluloid photograph film.

My worthy parent had overlooked the almost transparent plates right under his nose as he worked, but the studious cleric, although no photographer, had, as if by instinct, detected the latent meaning of that transparency. It made the motion picture possible and led to fame and wealth, but not for Hannibal Goodwin, for the invention was pirated by camera manufacturers. Long afterward the courts compelled the greatest of these to pay ten million dollars to his widow—a genuine romance with a happy ending!

Goodwin's discovery was of incalculable value to photographers and others. In that Age of Invention, during which celluloid collars, typewriters, electric lights, fountain pens, the hot dog, the xylophone, invented by a lad in Stumptown whom I knew, the linotype, bottled catsup, the burglar alarm, wood pavements and canned baby powder emerged from the cosmos, I was not neglectful of the opportunities, for I invented the tiny bent-wire device by which price tags are attached to ready-made clothing. I sold the patent for $350 to two men whose very names I have somehow managed to forget, probably because of the dull ache their memory rouses within me.

William O. McDowell, then president of the Seabeach Railroad and afterward prominent as a peace-promoter, counseled me to invest my wealth in Bell Telephone stock, then selling at a dollar a share, but when I asked Edison's advice he intimated that McDowell wanted to unload a burden upon me, and told me that the telephone was only a toy that would never be a commercial success. I fancy now that he was kidding me, but I took his advice. In 1907, John Wanamaker, for whose son Thomas I was toiling on the Philadelphia North American, informed me that he had borrowed six millions on that stock during that year's brief panic. That I had little business sense is shown by the fact that while making pictures every month for the struggling Prudential Insurance Company I could have received stock but preferred to be paid in cash!

** End of Chapter 3 Part 1


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