Friday, January 15, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 7 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Seven (Part 2) - NOTHING TO APOLOGIZE FOR

We were, no doubt, raw and often showed a lack of taste in the choice of subjects, things getting by that today would throw the School of Journalism into convulsions. We were young and newspaper ethics had not been codified. The episode of the act of sacrilege upon the Supreme Court of the United States is an illustration of our thoughtless ignorance. I wandered into the courtroom one day while in Washington, and, perhaps in order to keep awake, sketched all of the solemn justices in a row as they sat there in preternatural dignity and ugliness, gravely chewing fine-cut and affecting to be listening to an intricate argument that was as benumbing as a shot of morphine. I sent the picture to New York and it was printed, as nobody knew or cared about the dignity of the Supreme Court on Newspaper Row. Then came the deluge! We had committed lese-majesty, treason, barratry, tort, malfeasance, subrogation, blasphemy, scurrility, impiety and contempt of court, and from all quarters came demands for summary punishment. We, who had never suspected that the Supreme Court was human, if we ever thought about the august body at all, now found that it was as sensitive to caricature as a flea is to insect-powder.

The World was compelled to publish an abject apology and I had to listen to a lecture by one of the justices on an off day that took the wave out of my hair and made a better man of me.

I have had editors demand impossibilities; one asked for a drawing showing all four sides of a building at once, and it took an hour to convince him that such a thing was impossible. It was not until the hectic days of Emory Foster, a rum-inspired lightning-change performer, that editors began to dabble earnestly in Art. He was a city editor who, in the mad struggle for novelty and variety, inaugurated the "diagram-picture," a form of illustration in which the body of the suicide who leaped from the twentieth story was shown in six postures, each more convulsive than the preceding, all connected by dotted lines, like a Butterick paper-pattern, and the principal feature being a large "white cross marking the spot" on the pavement where the descent ended. Brisbane managed somehow to obtain a measure of credit for having a hand in this startling art-novelty, as he did later in the short-lived brainstorm during which pictures were extorted from distracted artists in the shape of triangles, tetrahedrons and other geometrical shapes without any regard to their matter whatever. During that spasm the poor artists suffered all the agonies of a modern crossword-puzzle addict, and their mental tortures laid the seed of dementia and megalomania in many an overtaxed brain, although it is probable that few of them realized the cause of their permanent disablement.

Foster's invention of the diagram inspired others to imitation, and was, likely enough, responsible for the sudden acute dip toward "Cubist" Art and its subsequent paretic forms of self-expression with which some of these artists became infected. George B. Luks, now a famous painter, then an ingenuous, innocent bucolic like Roy McCardell, scarce knowing evil from an ice-cream cone, was captured in the jungles of Philadelphia during this disturbance and, dazed, blinded and auto intoxicated by the glitter, rush and uproar of a lively city, fell an easy victim to the new art, and eventually the time came when he was referring to all of us who drew straight lines and used perspective rightly, as "T-square" and "Tracing-paper artists," and claiming that a heavy deposit of dandruff gave tone to a picture.

The moment a new editor got his desk in order, he sent for the art manager and confided to him his plans for improving the pictorial output, sat up nights devising new, unheard-of horrors in the way of "layout," and helped to create the still-prevalent myth that artists, like prima donnas, are difficult to "manage." The same process was gone through in later times when the once attractive photographic section was gradually debased and commercialized down to a deadly dull level of mediocrity and banality, and "the cross that marks the spot" is succeeded by the caption-writer's reminder to "note the hungry lion in the foreground devouring the elephant," with, in addition, a large white arrow.

When Col. Charles H. Jones, the St. Louis word-wizard, vamped J. P. into putting him into the managing editor's chair, he was a pompous half-portion with the verbal output of an Atlantic City auctioneer who became inflated to the dimensions of a Zeppelin on attaining this position, rattling around in his widened orbit like a twenty-two-caliber cartridge in a fourteen-inch gun until he was pushed out into the open spaces. He was an exception to J. P.'s usual catches, which were, in the main, all tall, lean and with a tendency to flat feet like himself. Col. Jones informed me before he had been many minutes in the office that he intended to "publish four-column cartoons and compel the elevated railroad to run all night." When in my confusion I informed him that both these details had long before been attended to and were now permanent fixtures in the metropolis, he was actually astonished and was only convinced by ocular evidence.

Once Morrill Goddard, when editing the Sunday World, told me that he contemplated killing the "Yellow Kid" feature with which Dick Outcault, later the creator of "Buster Brown," had been rollicking for two or three weeks, on the ground of "lack of humor."

"Lack of humor in whom?" I demanded. "You, or Outcault?"

My protest retained the feature for another fortnight, when the popular voice proclaimed it the first of the great comic-supplement successes. Arkell, owner of Judge, voiced his doubts to me one day as to the value of "Zim" to that weekly, and when I warmly assured him that Zimmerman was his one best bet, to lose whom spelled a total loss, this astute businessman needed strong arguments before he was convinced.

William R. Hearst, in his daily contact with his fellows, effectually conceals any sense of humor, yet he has been the most successful of all newspaper proprietors in establishing a stable of funny-picture makers and in retaining them in docile contentment for a protracted period, with the exception of Rudolph Dirks and Bud Fisher, both of whom he trapped when very young but lost at the end of their adolescence.

I have fancied that Hearst is, at heart, more deeply interested in his comic-art department than in any of his numerous enterprises, either political or journalistic. He had not been successful in discovering another embryo cartoonist as potential in circulation-getting as was Davenport in his heyday; his three great headliners, Powers, Opper and McCay, were captured from the enemy in the fullness of their glory, and he had no hand in developing their talents. It must be a source of gratification in his declining years that his solicitous care of his galaxy of pictorial stars has been rewarded in far greater measure than have his political endeavors, for the "Katzenjammer Kids," "Happy Hooligan," "Krazy Kat," "Jimmy" and "Bringing up Father" were all germinated in his hothouse of hilarity and brought to fruition by him, with the assistance of Rudolph Block ("Bruno Lessing").

I have to my own credit the distinction of making for Hearst's American the two largest cartoons ever printed in newspapers, double pages in colors, in 1898, as well as another singular circumstance. This was that on the Sunday on which I departed from New York, after a short period of general free-lancing, the colored front page of the World, the Herald and the American were each my handiwork. It was a fitting farewell!

Conan Doyle on his first visit to America came with a letter of introduction to Edward S. Van Zile, then on our editorial staff, and Van Zile, after a time, brought him down to my room. Doyle was a ruddy-cheeked, brown-mustached, stoutish Briton, rather inexpressive, it seemed, but eagerly lapping up all the praise that his Sherlock Holmes stories were eliciting. Van rather cruelly left the popular but somewhat stodgy author for me to entertain awhile. Others came in, three or four, and the slight tenseness which Doyle's stiffness always produced had materially lessened when Bill Nye entered and, without preface, said:

"I hear that Conan Doyle is upstairs with Van Zile!"

"So I understand," I answered, winking at Doyle, who smiled, modestly expectant.

"Well, he must be a fast traveler!" drawled Bill. "He only landed last Saturday, and I heard of him in Connecticut yesterday! I was in Waterford, where I had dealings with a man named Riordan. This man said to me: 'Sherlock Holmes is here in town.'

"'How do you know that?' I asked.

"'It's like this,' he explained. 'You see that sign, "Riordan R. Riordan," over the door? Well, this fella reads that and says he:

"May I arsk what the middle 'R' stands for?" and when I says: "Riordan, sor," he smiles wisely and says: "Riordan Riordan Riordan. I should judge, sor, that you was Irish." And then I knew he was Sherlock Holmes!'"

We all laughed except Doyle, who did not seem to see anything to laugh at, and then I rather dramatically introduced Bill to him. Poor Nye reddened and squirmed in distress, for he was as gentle as spring lamb, and he muttered some feeble phrases, rather mystifying the placid author, and then hastened out.

Doyle lost much of his insular stuffiness in later years. At that time he was the typical slightly suspicious but rather inflated British author. Invited to a dinner at Montclair, he checked his suitcase and it was carried on to a distant station. Finding it temporarily lost and that he could not "change" for the dinner, he refused to appear in his everyday attire and remained in his bedroom. As a natural result an element of hilarity was added to the cheerful occasion of which he remained oblivious, but I suppose Doyle consoled himself with the thought that he had taught the provincials a lesson.

Edgar Wilson Nye's quaintly twisted expressions and oddly worded paragraphs had been lighting Puck for a number of weeks when J. P.'s attention was turned to them and he suggested that I go out to Laramie, Wyoming, where Nye was publishing a little sheet called the Boomerang, but something prevented the journey and Nye was induced to come East by a letter from Cockerill. He proved to be a tall, well-built man with myopic blue eyes, eight years my elder, with a lounging gait, seemingly stooped from a habit of bending down to lesser mortals, and a sweet, wry smile. We came to be very intimate, partners, in truth, in his weekly articles syndicated by the American Press Association, for nine or ten years. He came, as did his lecturing partner, James Whitcomb Riley, to my home in Newark almost weekly, and I lived with him in North Carolina for months. Yet, close as was our daily contact, Bill concealed from me his one failing.

I had seen him in company with the most expert booze-absorbers of the metropolis, such as Nat Goodwin, Barrymore, Fred. Dey, Riley, Jeremiah Curtin, then our foreign telegraph editor and afterward the prosperous translator of "Quo Vadis," Herman Oelrichs, Clay M. Greene, Ham Marshall, Bill Gilder, Cockerill and dozens of others, but I had never seen him drink anything but beer, and only after his tragic end did I learn that he was one of the rather rare class of “periodics." And this was the one defect he had always complained of in James Whitcomb Riley, but Jim's weakness was proverbial.

Nye looked, spoke and acted like a humorist, and, withal, he was lovable; often really witty, he was rarely satirical. His daily portrait made his face the best-known in town. Often in his lectures, which I attended whenever possible, he complained with mock seriousness that I drew his head without hair in order to avoid work, and as often referred to me in various ways as sleeping in my office instead of putting in time studying his features. I once drew his head on an envelope, stamped it, and he received it within a few hours.

Bill Nye and Julian Hawthorne, alike in soul, devoid of affectation or conceit, diffident, shy of strangers yet compelled alike to meet them with a pretense of geniality secretly abhorrent, made my room their daily lounging place—and that brought many others there. Nye was more loquacious than Hawthorne, far more whimsical, as deep and straight a thinker, both were merry, wholesome souls. After Bill had been lecturing for a period with Riley, who was a natural actor as well as a poet and an A-1 sign-painter, he began to apply an acquired, dry platform tone to his daily speech and we watched with secret awe the transformation of a raw country editor into a cosmopolitan "raccoonter," as Nye called it. Yet he never succeeded in looking like a city man.

Hawthorne was an extremely handsome man, a perfect athlete, walking many miles daily, and a connoisseur in gastronomy. He had Thackeray's keen delight in bills of fare and wine lists, and wrote with sincere feeling upon the delectable dishes he discovered here and there, in a way that made dyspeptics gnash their teeth. Nye's appetite was almost equal to Julian's, but untrained; he was in the "corned-beef-and" class, yet he swiftly adapted himself to the viands at Delmonico's and the Waldorf and often used French culinary terms with reckless abandon. Hawthorne would describe certain dishes so vividly and alluringly that the hungry Nye would suggest that we adjourn to Nash and Crook's, in the Times Building, and sample the dainty at his expense. Yet his canniness was such that I have suspected him to be well aware of the confidence game.

Hawthorne told us once that when a boy, after walking many miles, he found fourteen pies in his mother's pantry and ate them all. Upon which Nye sighed and said: "I hope she made you go without your supper for your greediness!"

Julian was low-voiced, yet impressive; with a partiality for the supernatural and occult. I have listened to him and John Habberton for hours as they recounted tales of weird happenings; both of them with less erudition might have been Spiritualists of the Brisbane type, but I think their interest in the Unseen was purely literary.

I fancy that Hawthorne found in the flippancy of Nye's and my conversation a sort of mental anesthetic. I have never known two such gentle, manly, undefiled souls, yet both were overwhelmed by heartbreaking disasters; Nye's career was meteoric, as it were, Julian's lasted thirty years, yet, as in New York a decade is as a generation, I find both men already dim memories, mere names.

Mark Twain was decidedly jealous of Nye, who, despite the uncouth presentment by which I made his figure known, was dignified and attractive, his gravity in delightful contrast to the absurd quaintness of his diction. Clemens always managed to avoid meeting Nye, and when compelled to by circumstances he was none too amiable.

Riley had a marvelous knack of making his audience laugh or cry at his will. Nye envied him this deft command of pathos, essaying on several occasions to attempt the feat himself with various devices, but his audiences invariably thought they had missed the joke and laughed uproariously at his conclusion, to Nye's disgust and Jim's glee, and Bill resigned himself to being merely funny.

For a short time our intimacy, and almost our business connection, was shadowed by one of those peculiar and silly accidents that so often ruin friendships. A Miss Elizabeth Tompkins, a writer on horse-society topics, had thoughtlessly asserted, in a Southern paper, that Nye's fame was due to my pictures, a statement the absurdity of which was perfectly manifest but which was copied and came under Nye's eye. He was led, somehow, to believe that I was responsible for Miss Tompkins' expression of opinion, and while a natural resentment tingled he was moved to demonstrate that his repute did not rest upon one artist. He turned over the illustrating of his "History of the World" to Fred. Opper, depriving me of a goodly sum of money. His sense of injury, however, did not interfere with our syndicate relations, and in time he managed to forgive me for knowing the lady, which was my only real offense.

In '94 or '95 or thereabout, Bill made the acquaintance of Paul Potter, once editor of Town Topics, a playwright who collaborated with him in the production of "The Cadi," a Sybarite with an unlimited capacity for alcohol, whose influence was soon visible. There was evidently no disputing over the question of drinking between the two, as had been the case when Riley was with him, each correcting and sustaining the other, but the result was far worse. Suspecting nothing, I laid poor Bill's more and more frequent absences and other derelictions to illness.

I have always drank on occasions—in fact, on all occasions—but, luckily, never felt the need or desire to get drunk, nor can I comprehend the desire in others. Even now, in old age, I fail to appreciate the strength of this craving. So it was with a shock that I read in the Sun that Nye had lectured in a Paterson church while intoxicated and had been assailed with rotten eggs by the enraged members of the congregation while on his way to the train.

He lived but a few months after the dreadful expose. All unused to criticism, sensitive as a flower, tender of any comment but the praiseful, he withered in the searing blast. With the publication of the story, all his contracts for lectures were canceled, and I verily believe that he died of a broken heart. It is a singular fact that the Sun, which alone published an account of the deplorable incident, has always been distinguished for the alacrity with which it seizes upon the mishaps and peccadillos of newspaper men and gives them publicity.

Nye left a large fortune, which his widow soon lost. Had he lived, he might have come near to shadowing Mark Twain's repute, but his flame was quenched at the age of forty-eight. Riley lived, conquering his weakness, until 1916. I have a letter from him dated only a day or two before his death. Both were sweetly, jovially companionable, devoid of malice or envy, and of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. As any medieval Roman Catholic would solemnly affirm, things were dull in heaven and the Almighty took Bill for company. Jim and I were spared to repent.


How did Nye's wife manage to lose his fortune?
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