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The Alphabet of Satire

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The Alphabet of Satire

Rube Goldberg was a laugh machine for seven decades. Winter 2015
Goldberg at work

The name suggests a ghetto urchin along the lines of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and the Marx Brothers. And, indeed, like them, Rube Goldberg was born in the sunset of the nineteenth century; like them, he was Jewish, bright, creative, and wildly ambitious. But there, the resemblance ends. Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg was a native-born San Franciscan, the son of a prosperous businessman with serious money and powerful political connections.

Max Goldberg had come from Prussia at precisely the right moment. In the aftermath of the Civil War, he elbowed his way into the booming real-estate market, acquiring and selling oil-rich acreage and cattle ranches. Armed with profits, he backed local politicians. When they won, Max followed in their slipstream, working to shed his German accent, reading books by English and American writers, and serving, at various times, as the city’s police commissioner and fire chief.

In the 1870s, he married a fellow immigrant, Hannah Cohen, a delicate young woman who gave birth to seven children. Four survived. Hannah passed away, worn and prematurely aged, at 45. Bewildered and angry at his loss, Max became a rigid disciplinarian, thundering at his children in the tones of an Old Testament prophet. Despite his posturing, though, he was more dutiful than devout. Max attended synagogue only on the High Holy Days; Friday nights were reserved for poker. “The absence of any traditional religious baggage made Rube a free spirit,” observes biographer Peter Marzio, “an objective observer, willing to analyze facts as he found them, creating his own intellectual scheme complete with intricate iconography and wise sayings.”

The problem was that Max had his own intellectual scheme and wise sayings, and they didn’t coincide with his son’s. Early on, when the boy showed a talent for realistic portraiture and humorous sketches, his distressed father consulted Col. Daniel M. Burns, the Republican boss of California. In a memoir, Rube recalled the exchange: “ ‘Dan,’ muttered Pa, ‘my boy says he’s going to be an artist, and I just can’t get him away from the idea.’

‘Hum, that is serious,’ consoled Col. Burns. ‘There’s nothing hereditary about it, is there?’

‘That’s the remarkable part of it,’ answered Max Goldberg proudly. ‘Our family record is as clean as a whistle. We’ve never had a single solitary artist in it—not one.’ ”

Accordingly, Max directed Rube away from art school and toward a degree in engineering from Berkeley. The youth’s objections were countered with citations from history and economics. Rube was a southpaw; who ever heard of a left-handed painter? Okay, there was Leonardo da Vinci, but he knew more about designing catapults and bridges than he did about making pictures. And what about a paycheck? Who was going to pay for the lessons, the canvases, the tubes of oil paint, the easel, the studio? Not Max.

Rube sighed as an artist; he obeyed as a son. For the next several years, he commuted to Berkeley, studying for a degree in mining engineering. En route to the sheepskin, however, he signed up for a course in drawing. The textbook was Talks on Art, by William Morris Hunt, then a prominent teacher and theoretician. One sentence caught the student’s attention and stayed with him for the next 70 years: “No exaggeration can be stronger than Nature, for nothing is so strange as the truth.”

The more he sketched, the more Rube came to believe that all humans, and all human endeavors, could be rendered in cartoon form. He could hardly wait to show the world his ideas. But when he graduated in 1904, a large obstacle stood in the way of progress: the Old Man. Flexing some political muscles, Max had arranged a civil-service job for his son, mapping sewer pipes for the city. Rube would earn an entry-level salary of $25 a week, but he would have a future, moving on to map water mains, and who could tell? Perhaps reservoirs one day. The novice stayed on for six months, and then exploded. “I can’t stand it any longer, Pa,” he announced. Paternal threats and imprecations followed. The next day, Rube walked off the job and went crosstown to the San Francisco Chronicle, portfolio in hand. Something in the sketches he had made for the college newspaper and the art class appealed to the city editor. He hired young Goldberg for a munificent $8 a week.

Goldberg learned his trade the hard way, grinding out cartoons of prizefighters and ballplayers and attempting a few strips that never caught on. Then, in 1905, he learned of an opening on a rival paper, the San Francisco Bulletin. He tried out for sports cartoonist and won the position. Before long, though, he realized that he was running in place. Illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson had become famous, commanding large salaries and holding high social positions. Cartoonists, on the other hand, were still considered quick-sketch ruffians—the low men of the newspaper staff. Goldberg described the situation in an autobiographical short story. The hero drily remarks, “He’s an illustrator. I’m just a genius.”

Even so, the cartoonist knew that his talents lay in comedy, not in realistic images. The caricaturist continued; the genius remained unseen. By 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake, Goldberg was earning $50 a week and had become one of the city’s notables, recognized in every sports arena. But he wanted more, and for that, the young man knew that he would have to go to the place he called “ringside”: Manhattan, home of a dozen newspapers and font of American journalism. He stayed through the devastation and the rebuilding of Frisco, and then bought a one-way ticket to Grand Central.

Rube arrived in October 1907, ready to conquer the city. He was promptly turned down by the Morning Telegraph, the Sun, the Globe, the Evening Telegram, and the Evening World. Eventually, he caught on at the Evening Mail but only as a sports cartoonist. Goldberg didn’t come to New York to run in place. He tried strips, fillers titled “Life’s Little Jokes,” and vaudeville gags—like the panel showing an immigrant grousing as he laces up his wife’s enormous corset: “She vas built ven meat vas cheap.”

Nothing quite caught the public fancy, and Goldberg remained just another pen-and-ink comedian until autumn of the following year. In the lavishly illustrated Art of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist’s granddaughter, Jennifer George, cites October 1, 1908, as the epochal day when fame came to call. As Rube remembered it, “I was drawing a picture to fill in the daily cartoon—a man who had fallen out of the window of a fifty story building and a woman, who was inquiring sympathetically, ‘Are you hurt?’ He replied, ‘No, I am taking my beauty sleep.’ ”

He titled the drawing “Foolish Question Number 1.” The next week, letters poured in from readers with their own suggestions. Goldberg grabbed the best ones and inked them in. Between November 1908 and February 1910, he drew 450 Foolish Questions and punch lines, ranging from “Oh, look, is that a snake?” “No, it’s a lost shoelace looking for a home,” to “Is that a folding bed?” “No, it’s a box for my new harmonica.” Following these was another series, called I’m the Guy, as in, “I’m the guy who put the hobo in Hoboken,” or “I’m the guy who put the sand in sandwich.” The phrase went as viral as possible in those pre-radio days; it appeared on pins and cigarette premiums, popped up in ads, and even inspired a hit song, “I’m the Guy,” with lyrics by Goldberg and music by Bert Grant, a charter member of ASCAP.

Syndication followed, and soon William Randolph Hearst, ever ready to outbid any and all newspaper rivals, offered this Goldberg phenomenon $50,000 per annum—this when the average yearly salary was less than $1,000. For once, Citizen Hearst was thwarted. The Mail matched his offer, and Rube stayed on. Commented the New York Times, “Goldberg has a following of 300,000 readers split up among forty-two different newspapers in all parts of the country. . . . [T]he aggregate of their payments to the Daily Mail, which was fortunate to get hold of Goldberg first, enables the paper to pay the artist what seems to be offhand a fabulous figure.”

The fabulous figure grew exponentially when Reuben Goldberg married Irma Seeman in 1916. Irma was the daughter (and, eventually, the heiress) of S. W. Seeman, owner of the burgeoning White Rose Tea and Grocery Company. The gilt-edged couple became the parents of two boys, Thomas and George, and bought a dwelling at the corner of 75th Street and Riverside Drive. Themes of domestic life began to appear in Rube’s drawings, but they rarely suggested the high lifestyle of the Goldberg family.

Not only did they own a chauffeur-driven car and a luxuriously renovated town house; their New Year’s Eve parties also became the stuff of legend. Each year, hundreds of guests packed the house. The A-list included sports figures, artists, and Broadway headliners. Under the Goldberg roof, George Gershwin and Groucho Marx traded lines; Houdini performed magic tricks; and Mayor Jimmy Walker performed his original song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”

Yet today, Goldberg would be a forgotten celebrity—like hizzoner himself—had he confined himself to comic strips. Though his gags rapidly found their way into public conversation, they dated just as quickly. The pictures were amusing enough, but character was never his strength. “Mike & Ike—They Look Alike,” for example, concerned two morons who punned on standard phrases: “Ike, use the word ‘icing’ in a sentence.” “Sure, Mike—the patriotic gentleman rose and sang, ‘Sweet land of liberty, of thee “I sing.” ’ ”

But all along, the graduate engineer had been waiting for an opportunity to express himself. From college onward, Goldberg had been fascinated with the devices that were changing America—vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile, the airplane. Finally, as the Roaring Twenties ended, a national magazine gave him the space for comic commentaries. “The Inventions of Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts” first appeared in the January 26, 1929, issue of Collier’s. “In my cartoons,” Rube noted, “Professor Butts invented elaborate machines to accomplish such Herculean tasks as shining shoes, opening screen doors, keeping moths out of clothes closets, retrieving soap in the bathtub and other innocuous problems. Only, instead of using the scientific elements of the laboratory, I added acrobatic monkeys, dancing mice, chattering false teeth, electric eels, whirling dervishes and other incongruous elements.”

“No More Gas Problems,” written and drawn long before the establishment of OPEC, was typical: Driver opens trapdoor (A). Monkey (B) reaches for banana (C), upsetting basket of cotton (D). A large flock of ducks (E) on leashes tied to automobile, mistaking cotton for snow, think winter has arrived and fly south, pulling car forward. “Simple Idea to Keep You from Forgetting to Mail Your Wife’s Letter” was more elaborate but just as fanciful: As you walk past cobbler shop, hook (A) strikes suspended boot (B), causing it to kick football (C) through goalposts (D). Football drops into basket (E), and string (F) tilts sprinkling can (G), causing water to soak coattails (H). As coat shrinks, cord (I) opens door (J) of cage, allowing bird (K) to walk out on perch ((L) and grab worm (M), attached to string (N). This pulls down window (O), on which is written “You sap, mail that letter.”

Likewise, Professor Butts’s method of eliminating a noisome insect: Carbolic acid (A) drips on string (B), causing it to break and release elastic of bean shooter (C), which projects ball (D) into bunch of garlic (E), causing it to fall into syrup can (F) and splash syrup violently against side wall. Fly (G) buzzes with glee and goes for syrup, his favorite dish. Dog (H) mistakes hum of fly’s wings for door buzzer and runs to meet visitor, pulling rope (I), which turns stop-go signal (J) and causes baseball bat (K) to sock fly, which falls to floor unconscious. As fly drops to floor, pet trout (L) jumps for it, misses, and lands in net (M). Weight of fish forces shoe (N) down on fallen fly and puts it out of the running for all time.

These oblong-shaped satires took on a life of their own. Dr. Seuss acknowledged his colleague’s influence in a cartoon signed “Rube Goldbrick.” In the early 1930s, “Rube Goldberg” entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an adjective defined as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Engineering majors in colleges across the country began to sketch their own “Rube Goldberg” inventions. And in 1936, Goldberg fan Charlie Chaplin offered the ultimate compliment: the assembly-line lunacies of Modern Times could have sprung full-blown from the head of Professor Butts.

But Goldberg was too restless to stay with any project for long—even this one. In the late 1930s, he abandoned the inventions and returned to strips. They met with indifference. A new kind of comic spirit had entered the arena. Magazines like The New Yorker featured artists with lighter ink lines and sharper punch lines. Goldberg began to tell friends that he felt like a back number. Rumors circulated: the old pro was hanging up his pen, leaving the arena to younger men and women. Thus, colleagues were astonished to read an item in the December 5, 1938, Newsweek: the New York Sun had signed Rube Goldberg to be the paper’s editorial cartoonist. This was not as much of a breakthrough as it appeared. As Marzio notes, “While Rube did not take part in morning editorial conferences, his Republican sympathies kept him in tune with the Sun’s views. The paper’s mediocrity, however, seeped into his work, and there seemed to be no one prodding him to perfection.”

The cartoons were drawn with his customary vigor, and he remained adept at caricature. But Goldberg’s ideas tended to be rudimentary—one showed the Nazi leader in an empty room. The caption read: “This is a picture of Adolf Hitler celebrating his 54th birthday with all his friends.” Labels took the place of ideas: Tax Payer, GOP, Dems, Common Man, Prices, Taxes, and so on. He persisted, nonetheless, through World War II, through V-E and V-J Days, through the early years of the Cold War. Here, he hit a nerve: a 1947 cartoon showed a couple precariously perched on an atomic bomb as it teeters between World Control and World Destruction. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Ever the dutiful son, Rube said, “I had hoped to win a Pulitzer ever since I joined the Sun. I only wish my father could have been alive to see it.” (Max had died five years earlier, after suffering a heart attack as he ran after a cable car. He was 93.)

Early in 1950, Goldberg switched to the New York Journal-American—Hearst had him at last. Thirteen years later, Goldberg felt burned out. In June 1963, more than 100 like-minded celebrities gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to throw him a surprise party. Invited guests included Walt Disney, Barry Goldwater, J. Edgar Hoover, Stan Musial, Joan Crawford, Richard Nixon, and Helen Hayes. It was at once a gratifying and unnerving occasion. Retirement was mentioned. The guest of honor bristled at the word. In an unpublished memoir, he wrote belligerently, “I would never let the muddy waters of retirement swallow up my old carcass while my mind was still functioning and my hands were free of the stiffness of arthritis and inertia. I was only eighty years old. I had to keep busy.”

He found a new avenue for his talents a week after the birthday party. In addition to length and width, he experimented with depth in an unaccustomed art form. Originally, he agreed with artist Ad Reinhardt, who defined sculpture as “something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” But in his golden years, Rube came to a different point of view. Though he took a few lessons to learn about molding and armature, he was essentially self-taught, experimenting as he went along, working with clay and taking the object to a studio, where the figure was copied in wax and then cast in bronze. Predictably, he began by making sculptural cartoons but soon became a serious artist, rendering people and animals with surprising felicity and grace.

Between 1963 and 1970, Goldberg made some 300 bronze objects. He was less impressed with critics’ praise than with the price tags: most of the sculptures were quickly snapped up at prices ranging from $700 to $3,000 (today, they go for ten times as much). All this paled before the ultimate tribute: a 1970 retrospective of Goldbergiana at the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit, titled Do It the Hard Way, featured drawings, sculpture, writings, and memorabilia, as well as a documentary film about a career that spanned the century. By then, alas, Goldberg’s omnipresent cigars had caught up with him, and he was suffering from throat cancer. Nonetheless, he walked cheerfully through the exhibit, marveling at the opening-day crowd of 2,000, and remarking, “It’s like seeing my own obituary written large and bright.”

That’s exactly what it was. Two weeks later, Rube was dead. Every major newspaper ran a large appraisal, all concentrating on the devices that would outlast everything else he had done. The New York Times editorialized that Goldberg’s “message is a lasting one: Beware of the all-knowing computers, supersonic gadgets and the rest of the hardware. Beware, too, of the proponents who aim to dominate the human element in life.” The Chicago Sun-Times stated that Goldberg’s “fantastically complicated devices to achieve ludicrously simple ends are today more profound commentaries on our times than they were when his mischievous mind first conceived them several generations ago.” Other papers joined the chorus, and then the cartoonists had their say. Karl Hubenthal was typical. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he pictured Goldberg at heaven’s gate. Saint Peter operates it by means of a contraption involving a rabbit, a pistol, a sailboat, a candle, a boiling kettle, a spool, and a length of string.

Most objects diminish as they grow distant. Goldberg has defied natural law by becoming larger since his death. Theta Tau, the oldest and largest professional engineering fraternity in the U.S., initiated the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in 1989. According to the rules, said machine must be constructed of real materials and use at least 20 steps to accomplish its task within two minutes. Past winners include Screw a Light Bulb into a Socket; Toast a Slice of Bread; and Select, Mark, and Cast an Election Ballot. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp, “Rube Goldberg’s Inventions,” featuring the Automatic Napkin Machine, first drawn in 1931. In 2010, the alternative rock group OK Go produced a music video featuring a giant Rube Goldberg machine, incorporating marbles, dominoes, wheels, complicated tunnels, and, at the end of the song, paint guns that splashed the group with colorful dyes.

Today, when Frances X. Clines writes about the “Rube Goldberg Approach to Campaign Transparency” in the New York Times, or Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column focuses on the Rube Goldberg Democrats, or the Daily Beast warns of the “danger of Rube Goldberg legislation,” no one has to ask what they mean. Goldberg’s reputation is as permanent and visual as a mischief-making cartoonist (A) absentmindedly putting his pen in the cat’s dish of milk (B), thereby frightening feline (C), which caterwauls, making dog (D) happy. Canine wags tail, accidentally knocking over a bottle of Jack Daniels (E) on coffee table (F). Parrot (G) flies from his perch (H) and laps up bourbon drops (I). Inebriated, the bird flies off, grabbing cartoonist’s nameplate (J) and dropping it into a shelf of reference books (K). It finds a home in there—for journalists, for engineers, for biographers, for humorists, for readers—forever.

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