Tuesday, November 17, 2015


H. L. Mencken on Newspaper Artists

In H. L. Mencken's Newspaper Days 1899-1906, a very highly recommended memoir, he recounts his days as a reporter and editor at the Baltimore Herald. When Mencken took over the editorship of the newspaper's Sunday edition, he became de facto supervisor of the comic strip artists, as the Herald had not yet switched from local production of the Sunday color comics to a syndicated section.

Mencken mentions comics and cartoonists quite often in this book, showing a haughty disdain for their capabilities. In fact, he claims that he ended up writing most of the comic strip material as the cartoonists were unable to come up with gags.

Though newspaper art and artists are discussed throughout the book, Mencken devoted one chapter of the book to the subject specifically. I think you'll enjoy this taste of the muscular Mencken prose style ...

Slaves of Beauty

It was not until I became Sunday editor that I had any official relations with the fantastic Crocodilidas known as newspaper artists, but I had naturally encountered a number of them in my days as a reporter. The first one I ever saw in the flesh, so far as I can recall, was an Irishman wearing a seedy checked suit, a purple Windsor tie, a malacca stick, and a boutonniere consisting of two pink rosebuds fastened together with tinfoil. This was in a saloon near the Herald office in the year 1899, and I remember saying to myself that he certainly looked the part. It appeared at once that he also acted it, for when the bartender hinted that the price of beer was still five cents a glass, cash on delivery, the artist first snuffled up what remained of the foam in his schooner, and then replied calmly that it was to be charged to his account. I was still, in those days, a cub reporter, and full of an inno­cent delight in the wonders of the world. The de­caying veteran at my side had invited me out, as he put it, to introduce me to society, and while he did the introducing I bought the beer. He now nudged me, and whispered romantically that the artist had spent his last ten cents for the boutonniere: it had been bought, it appeared, of a street vendor in front of police headquarters — a one-armed man who was reputed to get his stock by raiding colored graveyards by night. This vendor trusted no one below the rank of a police lieutenant, so the rose­buds had to be paid for, but bartenders showed more confidence in humanity. After the artist had filled his pockets with pretzels and stalked out grandly, flirting his malacca stick in the manner of James A. McNeill Whistler, the old-timer ex­plained that he was honorable above the common, and always paid his reckonings in the long run. "Whenever," I was informed, "some woman with money gets stuck on him, or he sells a couple of comics to a syndicate, he goes around town settling up. Once I saw him lay out $17 in one night. He had to beat it from England in a cattle-boat. There was a rich Jewish duke packing a gun for him.”

I never saw this marvel again, for a few days later he was shanghaied on the Baltimore waterfront, and when, after a couple of months of bitter Winter weather down Chesapeake Bay, he escaped from the oyster fleet by legging it over the ice, he made tracks for Canada and the protection of the Union Jack, leaving more than one bartender to mourn him. But in the course of the next half dozen years, first as Sunday editor, then as city editor, and finally in the austere misery of manag­ing editor, I made acquaintance with many other artists, and acquired a lot of unpleasant informa­tion about their habits and customs. They ranged from presumably respectable married men with families (sometimes, indeed, with two families) down to wastrels who floated in from points South or West, remained only long enough to lift an over­coat and two or three bottles of Higgins's drawing ink, and then vanished as mysteriously as they had come. A few of them even neglected to draw their pay -— always to the indignation of the office cashier, who had to carry a small and incredible overage on his books until he got up nerve enough to buy the city editor a couple of drinks, and so discharge his debt for theatre passes. But whatever the differences marking off these jitney Dürers into phyla and species, they all had certain traits in common, mostly productive of indignation in editors. Each and every one of them looked down his nose at the literati of journalism, and laughed at them as Philistines almost comparable to bartenders or policemen. One and all had an almost supernatural talent for getting out of the way when fire broke out in a medical college or orphan asylum, and there were loud yells for illus­trative art. And so far as I can recall, there was never one who failed, soon or late, to sneak some­thing scandalous into a picture at the last moment, to the delight the next morning of every soul in town save what we then called the Moral Element.

I write, of course, of an era long past and by most persons forgotten, and I have no doubt that artists are now much changed, whether on news­papers or off.  Some time ago a man in charge of the art department of a great metropolitan daily told me that fully a third of his men read the Nation, and that many of the rest had joined the C.I.O. and were actually paying their dues. He even alleged that there were two teetotalers among them, not to mention a theosophist. In my time nothing of the sort was heard of. The artists of that day were all careless and carnal fellows, with no interest in their souls and no sense of social re­sponsibility. Their beau idéal was still the Rodolfo of "La Bohème," and if not Rodolfo, then some salient whiskey drummer, burlesque manager or other Elk; for the contemporaneous Roosevelts, Willkies, Hulls, Ma Perkinses, Bishop Mannings and John L. Lewises they had only razzberries. Long before naked women were the commonplaces of every rotogravure supplement — indeed, long before rotogravure supplements were invented — large drawings of ladies in the altogether, usually in the then fashionable sepia chalk, decorated every newspaper art department in America. It was believed by young reporters that artists spent all their leisure in the company of such salacious creatures, and had their confidence. Even the most innocent young reporter, of course, was aware that they used no living models in their work, for every­one had noted how they systematically swiped from one another, so that a new aspect of the human frame, or of a dog's, or cat's, or elephant's frame, once it had appeared in a single newspaper in the United States, quickly reappeared in all the rest. But the artists fostered the impression that they did hand-painted oil-paintings on their days off, direct from nature unadorned. They let it be known that they were free spirits and much above the general, and in that character they sniffed at righteousness, whether on the high level of political and economic theory or the low one of ordinary police regulations.

I well recall the snobbish rage of a primeval comic-strip artist whom I once rebuked for using the office photographic equipment to make coun­terfeit five-dollar bills. It was on a Sunday morn­ing, and I had dropped into the office for some reason forgotten. Hearing me shuffling around, he bounced out of the darkroom with a magnificent photograph of a fiver, cut precisely to scale, and invited me to admire it. I knew it would be useless to argue with him, but I was hardly prepared for his screams of choler when I grabbed the phoney, tore it up, and made off to the darkroom to smash the plate. He apparently regarded my action, not only as a personal insult, but also as an attentat against human enlightenment. If the word bour­geois had been in circulation at the time he would have flung it at me. As it was, he confined himself to likening my antipathy to counterfeit money to Lynn Meekins's Methodist aversion to drunkards, and laughed derisively at all the laws on the statute-books, from those against adultery to those prohibiting setting fire to zoos. I fired him on the spot, but took him back the next day, for good comic-strip artists were even more rare in that age than they are today.

Another that I fired — for what reason I forget — refused to come back when I sent for him, and I found on inquiry that he had got a job making side-show fronts for a one-ring circus. He pro­duced such alarming bearded ladies, two-headed boys and wild men of Borneo that the circus went through the Valley of Virginia like wildfire, and in a little while he had orders from four or five of its rivals. By the end of a year he was the principal producer of side-show fronts south of the Mason & Dixon Line, and had three or four other artists working for him. Also, he had a new girl, and she appeared in public in clothes of very advanced cut, and presently took to drink. Undaunted, he put in another, and when she ran away with a minstrel-show press-agent, followed with a third, a fourth, and so on. Finally, one of them opened on him with a revolver, and he departed for Scranton, Pa. When he edged back to Baltimore a month or two later, glancing over his shoulder at every step, his business had been seized by his assistants, and the last I heard of him he was working for a third-rate instalment house, making improbable line draw­ings of parlor lamps, overstuffed sofas, washing-machines, and so on. Many other artists of that time went the same sad route. Starting out in life as painters of voluptuous nudes in the manner of Bouguereau, they finished as cogs in the mass pro­duction of line-cuts of ladies' hosiery.

In the heyday of this fellow I had a visit one day from a sacerdotal acquaintance — a Baptist clergyman who pastored a church down in the tide­water Carolinas. His customers, he told me, had lately made a great deal of money growing pea­nuts, and a new brick church was approaching completion in his parish. In this church was a large concrete baptismal tank — the largest south of Cape Hatteras — and it was fitted with all the latest gadgets, including a boiler downstairs to warm the water in cold weather. What it still lacked, said the pastor, was a suitable fancy back­ground, and he had come to see me for advice and help on that point. Would it be possible to have a scene painted showing some of the principal events of sacred history? If so, who would be a good man to paint it? I thought at once of my side-show-front friend, and in a little while I found him in a barrel-house, and persuaded him to see the pastor. The result was probably the most splendiferous work of ecclesiastical art since the days of Michel­angelo. On a canvas fifteen feet high and nearly forty feet long the artist shot the whole works, from the Creation as described in Genesis I to the revolting events set forth in Revelation XIII. Noah was there with his ark, and so was Solomon in all his glory. No less than ten New Testament miracles were depicted in detail, with the one at Cana given the natural place of honor, and there were at least a dozen battles of one sort or another, including two between David and Goliath. The Tower of Babel was made so high that it bled out of the top of the painting, and there were three separate views of Jerusalem. The sky showed a dozen rainbows, and as many flashes of lightning, and from a very red Red Sea in the foreground was thrust the maw of Jonah's whale, with Jonah him­self shinning out of it to join Moses and the chil­dren of Israel on the beach. This masterpiece was completed in ten days, and brought $200 cash — the price of ten side-show fronts. When it was hung in the new Baptist church, it wrecked all the other evangelical filling-stations of the lower At­lantic littoral, and people came from as far away as Cleveland, Tenn., and Gainesville, Va., to wash out their sins in the tank, and admire the art. The artist himself was invited to submit to the process, but replied stiffly that he was forbidden in con­science, for he professed to be an infidel.

The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shining red through the cob-webbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to dis­cover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delin­quency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation, and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.

But it was not only artists themselves who suf­fered from the harsh uncharitableness of the world; they also conveyed something of their Poësque ill fortune to all their more intimate associates. I never knew an artist's girl, however beautiful, to marry anyone above a jail warden or a third-string jockey, and most of the early photo-engravers came to bad ends, often by suicide. The engravers used various violent poisons in their work, includ­ing cyanide of potassium. It was their belief that a dose of cyanide killed instantly and was thus painless, but every time one of them rounded out a big drunk by trying it he passed away in a tumul­tuous fit, and made a great deal of noise. The sur­vivors, however, no more learned by experience than any other class of men, and cyanide remained their remedy of choice for the sorrows of this world. They had in their craft a sub-craft of so-called routers, whose job it was to deepen the spaces be­tween the lines in line-cuts. This was done with a power-driven drill that bounced like a jumping-jack and was excessively inaccurate. If the cut was a portrait the router nearly always succeeded in routing out the eyes. Failing that, he commonly fetched one of his own fingers. Many's the time I have seen a routing machine clogged to a standstill by a mixture of zinc eyes and human tissue, with the router jumping around it with his hand under his arm, yelling for a doctor or a priest.

In those days halftones were not much used in newspapers, for it was only a few years since Stephen H. Horgan, of the New York Tribune, had discovered that they could be stereotyped. Most provincial stereotypers still made a mess of the job, so line-cuts were preferred, and relatively more artists were employed than today. Neverthe­less, photographs were needed, if only to be copied in line, and every paper of any pretensions had at least one photographer. The first I recall on the Herald was a high-toned German of the name of Julius Seelander, who had served his apprentice­ship in his native land. He wore a beard trimmed to display the large stickpin that glowed from his Ascot necktie: it was, in fact, two pins, with a fili­gree silver chain connecting them. Julius was an excellent technician, but had a habit of aesthetic abstraction in emergencies. Once, in bitter Winter weather, I took him along when I was assigned to go down the Chesapeake on an ice-boat, to cover the succoring of a fishing village that had been frozen in for weeks. We got to the place after a bumpy struggle through the ice, and Julius took a dozen swell pictures of the provisions going ashore and the starving oystermen fighting for them on the wharf. But when we got back to the office, and I was in the midst of my story, he came slinking out of his darkroom to confess that he had made all of the photographs on one plate. He said he was throwing up his job, and asked me to break the news to Max Ways: he was afraid that if he did so himself Max would stab him with a copy hook or throw him out of the window. But when I told Max he was very little perturbed, for he believed that all photographers, like all artists, were as grossly unreliable and deceptive as so many loaded dice, and it always surprised him when one of them car­ried out an assignment as ordered. The next day Julius was back in his darkroom, and so far as I know, nothing more was ever said about the matter.

But the most unfortunate camp-follower of art that I ever knew was not a photographer, nor even a photo-engraver, but a saloonkeeper named Kuno Something-or-other, who had a great many artists among his customers. When, in 1900, he opened a new saloon, they waited on him in a body, and of­fered to decorate its bare walls without a cent of cost to him, save only, of course, for their meals while they were at work, and a few drinks to stoke their aesthetic fires. Kuno, who loved everything artistic, jumped at the chance, and in a few days the first two of what was to be a long series of pre­dacious frauds moved in on him. The pair daubed away for four or five hours a day, and it seemed to him, in the beginning, to be an excellent trade, for they not only got nothing for their services, but attracted a number of connoisseurs who watched them while they worked, and were good for an occa­sional flutter at the bar. But at the end of a couple of weeks, casting up accounts with his bartender, Kuno found that he was really breaking less than even, for while the credit side showed eight or ten square feet of wall embellished with beautiful girls in transparent underwear, the debit side ran to nearly 100 meals and more than 500 beers, all consumed by the artists.

Worse, the members of the succeeding teams were even hungrier and thirstier than the first pair, and by the time a fourth of one wall of the saloon was finished Kuno was in the red for more than 500 meals and nearly 7000 beers, not to mention innumerable whiskeys, absinthes and shots of bit­ters, and a couple of barrels of paint. The easy way out would have been to throw the artists into the street, but he respected the fine arts too much for that. Instead, he spent his days watching the Work in Progress and his nights trying to figure out how much he would be set back by the time it was finished. In the end these exercises unbalanced his mind, and he prepared to destroy himself, leav­ing his saloon half done, like a woman with one cheek made up and the other washed.

His exitus set an all-time high for technic, for he came from Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, and was a Prussian for thoroughness. Going down to the Long Bridge which spanned the Patapsco below Baltimore, he climbed on the rail, fastened a long rope to it, looped the other end around his neck, swallowed a dose of arsenic, shot himself through the head, and then leaped or fell into the river. The old-time cops of Baltimore still astound rookies with his saga. He remains the most protean per­former they have ever had the pleasure of handling post-mortem.


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