By a sad coincidence, three preeminent American illustrators died recently. Even though they worked in the ephemeral media of journalism and film, the members of this trio commanded a draftsmanship far superior to many of their more “serious” colleagues, and they put their vivid, original, and indelible stamp upon the American imagination, earning an honored place in our popular culture’s pantheon. Hence this retrospective.
No one lives an entirely charmed life, but Al Hirschfeld came close. Still gainfully employed in his hundredth year, the caricaturist for the New York Times arts section spent his days at the drawing board and his nights at the theater (his self-portrait at 99, below). His career described a route as gracefully circuitous as his designs, beginning with his birth in St. Louis, his study at New York’s Art Students League, and his sojourn in Paris, where he arrived in black tie and tails because a prosperous uncle thought it the proper attire for a young man at the start of his Wanderjahre.
Al strolled the Louvre, lived la vie bohème, grew a full beard, and fancied becoming a sculptor. With romantic visions of Paul Gauguin in his head, he whimsically sailed off for the South Seas—and found disillusion and revelation. As he stepped off the gangplank in Tahiti, natives greeted him, strumming ukuleles and singing Tin Pan Alley hits. The once-exotic Islands had turned into “Bridgeport with palms,” he lamented. With one important difference: the dazzle of light was like nothing he had ever seen. “After Bali,” he recalled, “I decided that a sculpture was a drawing you tripped over in the dark. Something unusual happened: the sun bleached out the color, form flattened, and I fell in love with pure line.”
Something else of interest occurred in Bali. In his autobiography, Hirschfeld’s World, the artist recalls meeting Charlie Chaplin, then on a sightseeing tour. “To Charlie, movement was 'liberated thought.' ” For instance, as Hirschfeld recalls Chaplin saying, “ 'A Balinese dancing girl is like this,' and with the elegance of a ballet dancer he hopped about in staccato movement, his fingers nervously describing a delicate Chinese fan, his head imitating the detached, boneless, easy rhythm of a cobra. There she was, the little Balinese dancing girl, clear as a drawing.”
Clear as a drawing. There could be no higher accolade from Hirschfeld: lucidity became his touchstone. To achieve it, he studied the work of the Japanese masters Utamaro and Hokusai. And he briefly emulated naturalists like John Sloan and Reginald Marsh, right down to their radical politics. Back home, Al furnished illustrations for the New Masses but soon gave it up. “I would have been a lousy political cartoonist,” he later concluded. “You have to have too much venom.”
Hirschfeld was amorous, not acrimonious: and the object of his affection was the performing arts. In the mid-1920s, his own style fully developed, he sold a sketch to the New York Herald Tribune. An editor at the rival Times saw it and commissioned him to caricature Scottish vaudevillian Sir Harry Lauder. Pleased, the editor ordered another pen-and-ink work, and then a third. Thus began a theatrical tradition that ran for almost eight decades.
Hirschfeld’s newspaper work started at Broadway’s apogee, when four new plays could open on a single night. In those days, he noted, “There was room for kitsch, mysteries, boulevard comedies, but there was also a potpourri of good plays to balance them off.” There really were giants in those days: it was the time of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, of Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins, of Fanny Brice and John Barrymore, of Laurence Olivier and Katharine Cornell, of Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. Hirschfeld drew them all.
No Broadway or Hollywood actor, singer, or dancer worth watching escaped his pen. En route, he became someone worth watching—a living history of his art form. Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, those eighteenth-century masters of moral satire who elevated caricature from doodling to a fine art, had clearly influenced Al’s rococo vitality. In his use of the sinuous line and masses of black, Hirschfeld saluted the Edwardian Aubrey Beardsley. And in his close analyses of faces and physiques he acknowledged a debt to Max Beerbohm. That English wit’s definition of caricature perfectly fits Hirschfeld’s style: “On a small surface, with the simplest means, it most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner.”
The Incomparable Max’s notes for caricatures read like Al’s. Here is Beerbohm on Oscar Wilde: “Wax statue—huge rings—fat white hands—feather bed—pointed fingers—cat-like tread—heavy shoulders—enormous dowager.” And here are some of Hirschfeld’s notes to himself: Woody Allen: “A kind of dead eye”; Barbra Streisand: “A wild tropical bird” (page 103); Zero Mostel: “An exploded ventricle. Like a bundle of dirty laundry.”
Under Al’s ceaselessly inventive hand, Teddy Hart and Jimmy Savo, playing identical twins in The Boys from Syracuse, shared a single eye; Cole Porter’s face included a treble clef; Arthur Rubenstein did not merely sit at the piano—he played it, as his hands traversed the keyboard, banging away with a confidence that approached solipsism (page 100). Humorist S. J. Perelman, Hirschfeld’s close friend, composed a prose caricature of the artist: “A pair of liquid brown eyes, delicately rimmed in red, of an innocence to charm the heart of the fiercest aborigine, and a beard which would engulf anything from a tsetse fly to a Sumatra tiger. In short, a remarkable combination of Walt Whitman, Lawrence of Arabia, and Moe, my favorite waiter at Lindy’s.” The artist returned the favor by illustrating Perelman’s books, usually showing the author in a comically embarrassing situation.
After all his early globetrotting, Al decided, in the end, that for his purposes real scenery was inferior to the kind done by stage designers. “I find Nature a great place to visit,” he confessed, “but I would hate to live there. It would never occur to me to sit on the lip of the Grand Canyon and copy it in paint on a small canvas. I consider the Grand Canyon already painted and as pure subject matter it holds no more interest for me than a decayed molar dramatically lit. The only difference from a visual point of view is that the Grand Canyon is bigger.”
Which is why so few natural objects found their way into his work. Too static. Moving objects were his focus: performers who could brighten a stage with their kinetic talent. Though most caricaturists were content to render one individual at a time, Hirschfeld, when the Times granted enough space, would often draw an entire group—all the members of the Algonquin Round Table, for example, or every player in Porgy and Bess. Soon, performers vied for room in his view. Some even used their caricatures as role models. Ray Bolger, for example, once announced that he was modeling himself and his dances on Al’s elongated, hectic portrait.
In time, art critics perceived his genius. Briton John Russell wrote that Hirschfeld “can make us tell tweed from broadcloth, mink from sable, and a clip-on bow tie from one that is made by hand. His black inks can look blacker than black, and he can make the untouched white of the page work for him as a henchman and a friend.” Lloyd Goodrich, an ex-director of the Whitney, burbled about the caricaturist’s “designs of such complexity, completeness, and control.”
But Hirschfeld never showed the slightest sign of hubris, even of self-satisfaction. For more than half a century, he and his wife, Dolly Haas, a long-retired German actress, lived in quiet splendor in the East 95th Street townhouse they had bought for $27,000 in the 1940s. There, in his third-floor sanctum, Al sat drawing and revising, seated on the Koken chair he had purchased from a retired barber. He submitted each caricature for Dolly’s approval before sending it to the Times.
The Hirschfelds turned producers only once, when their daughter, Nina, was born. As the world knows, Al began to hide the child’s name in his drawings, often in the wardrobe or hair of the actors being portrayed. Soon, the Ninas became as familiar as the artist’s surname, printed in spidery capital letters in the right-hand corner of the frame. Almost every celebrity who had shared space with Nina came to call when the Hirschfelds threw a party—one of Nina’s adolescent friends fainted dead away when she confronted Louis Jourdan bounding up the stairs.
Alas, the parties stopped when Dolly died, in 1992. Al was shattered; during their 52-year marriage, she had been his editor as well as his wife and confidante, praising when she thought Al deserved it, pointing out excesses when he didn’t. No doubt it was she who caused him to observe, “Exaggeration is exaggerated,” and prompted him to draw a caricature of Jimmy Durante sans nose to prove the point.
Al’s view of the theater remained that of a lover—but a disenchanted one. “Except for Stephen Sondheim,” he commented, “the musical today, from my point of view, is not music at all. You could take the songs out of Les Misérables and put them into Cats, or Phantom of the Opera, or Miss Saigon. I don’t think it would make any difference. It all sounds like the same piece of music. There’s nothing in these million-dollar productions outside of steam and laser beams.”
But Al couldn’t stay melancholy; it was not in his nature. Two years after Dolly’s death, he announced to the world that he had decided to rob the cradle. The nonagenarian took as his new bride a fiftysomething museum director, Louise Kertz. Within a week of the wedding, he was back at the theater, ensconced in his customary aisle seat in the third row, and the next morning he sat down in his Koken and went to work. Al drove his beloved blue Cadillac during the last week of his life, and he was still sketching on his final day, in January 2003. The unfinished piece on his drawing board was a sketch of the Marx brothers (all of whom he had known personally).
It goes without saying that Hirschfeld was sui generis; he had the famous Nina, but no artistic heirs. Interviewing Al for The Line King, Susan Dryfoos’s illuminating documentary about Hirschfeld’s life and art, I spoke to him offscreen about current caricaturists. He professed some admiration for David Levine but added, “To tell you the truth, I never did think there was anything funny about big heads and little bodies.” As for the exuberant portrayers of Bush & Co., “Labels on cartoons is a toe-curling admission of honest incompetence.” Hirschfeld said he would have liked to have taught an apprentice, but he had no way of conveying the mysterious process of creation. “I keep trying to figure out what it is that I do. But I am no better at analyzing it than I was when I began.” Perhaps, he concluded in the manner of a scientist in a 1940s horror movie, “it’s better not to know.”
Maybe. But just as in those films, the itch to find out keeps nagging. I would guess that Hirschfeld’s secret was not so much in the hand as in the eye—that he saw, as few others did, a person whole. I suspect that he, in contrast to Levine, did not draw many writers, because writers really do have small bodies and large heads—which is to say that, with the exception of a gland here and there, literary people are more expressive above the neck. Performers use the whole mechanism and thus give a great artist a large and various field. And then there’s the matter of color, something Hirschfeld used very sparingly. True, the stage offers a wide spectrum of hues, but it stresses glare and shadow. It is those elements that stay with us, not the shade of a costume or the tint of a gel. Theatrical light is unnatural, tropical, almost . . . Balinese.
But these are mere speculations. Whatever the reasons for Al Hirschfeld’s genius, they lie outside the 20- by 30-inch oblong of the newspaper page and are nowhere near as accessible as the drama and humor within it. Long ago, when Al was a mere stripling of 83, the Players Club gave him a testimonial. Celebrities from José Ferrer to Garson Kanin paid tribute. The most durable accolade came from cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Hirschfeld, he maintained, “is to his colleagues who draw as Fred Astaire is to those who walk.” Like the man he praised, Feiffer knew just where to draw the line.
Chuck Jones, who departed last year at the age of 89, was a Hirschfeld fan. The admiration was mutual. Indeed, Hirschfeld once did the impossible—a caricature of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, two creatures Jones had immortalized in his animated cartoons. Like Al, Chuck showed his gifts early, but didn’t quite know what to do with them. His father, a Micawberesque speculator who failed in business after business but always believed that something would turn up, kept purchasing reams of stationery marked with the logos of his various enterprises. As each venture went belly-up, it furnished Chuck with all the drawing paper a boy could want.
Jones père kept moving around Los Angeles, hoping that a new house would bring him luck. Many of those furnished rental homes came with shelves of books, so Chuck devoured the collected Dickens, Austen, Poe, Trollope, and Twain, along with rows of reference volumes. Novelist Ray Bradbury, his old friend, recalled, “Chuck always read the encyclopedia as if it were the latest best-seller. Whenever he called me up and asked, 'Did you know that when the engineers on the trans-Egyptian railway ran out of fuel they burned mummy cases?' I knew he’d been at the Britannica again.”
Hollywood was still in development during Chuck’s youth, and, when he wasn’t reading or sketching, he was peering through a fence, watching the Keystone Kops, Buster Keaton, or Charlie Chaplin inventing their comedy before the cameras. Their pratfalls, along with the literary classics, became the cornerstones of Jones’s art. “I have always begun with reality,” he once recollected. “It’s something I learned from that great exponent of reality, Charles Dickens. People thought of him as an inventor, but the fact is that all his great characters have their feet firmly grounded on the streets, and sometimes in the gutter. I’ve met my share of Mr. Bumbles and Bill Sykeses in London, and there are plenty of Veneerings and Uriah Heeps right here in Hollywood.”
And, indeed, reality was what Chuck stressed in his animated cartoons. “Those characters were all based on believable emotions, and on attributes—and the lack of same—that I discerned in myself. Take Pepé Le Pew, the libidinous skunk. I needed his self-assurance, his absolute certainty of his male desirability. In the same way, I needed Bugs Bunny’s confidence, his heroic ability to outwit enemies against enormous odds. In high school, I was not only a wimp. I was a wimp-nerd-nebbish. I was 6'1” and weighed 132 pounds. I was transparent to the other sex; girls could look through me to admire other boys.”
At 18, the triple non-threat took his feelings of inferiority to the studio of Ub Iwerks, then Disney’s principal competitor. With a predictable inability to sell himself as an artist, Chuck signed on as the lowest of the low in the nascent animation industry: he washed “cels”—the celluloid squares on which drawings had been painted, so that they could be recycled for the next cartoon. (In that pre-computer, labor-intensive age, the studio needed 24 of them for each second’s worth of screen action.) Even Chuck could not hide his skills for long, however; Iwerks eventually allowed him to draw a few characters. In 1936, Jones jumped ship to a small studio, soon to be purchased by Warner Brothers. The ramshackle place had few amenities, and one of the wags dubbed it Termite Terrace. The sobriquet stuck.
After a long apprenticeship, Chuck got the chance to direct his first short film at age 25, and he went on to become a leading figure in animation’s Golden Age. The 1940s and fifties rightfully esteemed Walt Disney’s feature-length cartoons, packed with special effects and memorable songs, as things of beauty. But even at its best (Snow White, Pinocchio), Disneyana was never truly comic. Funny business belonged to the gang at Termite Terrace, led by Jones, who turned Bugs and Daffy, and later the Coyote and the Roadrunner, into creatures as ingenious as the silent comics he had so carefully observed.
Jones’s timing was metronomic; he knew to the instant how long the Coyote should walk off a cliff before noticing that there was nothing beneath him but air; or precisely how much braggadocio Daffy might be allowed before getting his comeuppance. The Coyote perfectly exemplifies Jones’s welding of literature to slapstick. He originated in a Mark Twain description: “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a wolfskin stretched over it. He has a general slinking expression all over. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.” Chuck made that stretched skin into another Buster Keaton, forever undone by elaborate schemes ordered from the Acme Co. (The door of Chuck’s studio read ACME CORPORATION: WE BUILD FINE ACMES.)
A certain perversity attended the birth of many Chuck Jones cartoons. He concocted the hilarious “Bully for Bugs” because a Warner Brothers executive stated that there was nothing funny about a bullfight. He created Pepé because no one thought of a skunk as the least bit amorous. And he encouraged Mel Blanc to imitate a mogul’s lisp for the voice of Daffy Duck. Fortunately Leon Schlesinger was deaf to his own speech defect. Watching the rushes for the first time he exclaimed, “Jeethuth Chritht, that’th a funny voithe! Where’d you get that voithe?”
This whimsical attitude influenced Jones’s finest efforts—and there are a slew of them. “What’s Opera, Doc,” which heads the Motion Picture Academy’s list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons, simultaneously parodies Wagner’s Ring cycle (page 105) and Disney’s Fantasia. The standard cartoon of the period used some 60 different views of the action. “What’s Opera, Doc” had 140 because, in Jones’s words, “Basically what I wanted to do was squeeze all 14 hours of the cycle into a single cartoon, and drop in the X Factor—Bugs Bunny. To do all that meant that I had to give Wagner his due: elaborate sets, melodramatic lighting and a lot of different viewpoints. Plus a cast of superstars. After all, when a major figure is being satirized, he demands an outsize lampoon.”
Literary critic Hugh Kenner pronounced the effort “Joycean.” Audiences, he wrote, “know that when the figure who casts huge shadows on orange cliffs turns out to be Elmer Fudd, they’re simultaneously regarding a Fuddy emulation of the demon through whom Fantasia dramatized Moussorgsky’s violent music, and watching one more Fuddian attempt at grandiosity, and coping with an inept impersonation of Siegfried, and engaged with yet another episode of 'Kill the wabbit!' That’s four layers at least.” Such musings made Chuck Jones nervous, but he allowed there was some substance to them: “I know it sounds pretentious, but our most effective sequences always had literary, and sometimes theological, foundations. And we used classical music whenever possible. That’s why these little films have endured when so many longer ones have become antiques. We were cartooning on the shoulders of the great.”
Jones’s characteristic impertinent affection marks “The Scarlet Pumpernickel,” featuring Daffy in a sendup of Warner Brothers’ overstuffed costume pictures (page 104). (“This never happens to Errol Flynn,” complains the feathered hero, after he leaps from a window, misses his horse, and crashes to earth.) After such ventures, it was a short step for Chuck to venture into the cinema of the absurd. In the widely praised “Duck Amuck,” Daffy again enters with cape and sword: “Stand back, Musketeers, they shall sample my blade!” The background and music abruptly vanish. “Hey, psst,” he asks in a stage whisper, “whoever’s in charge here, the scenery, where’s the scenery?” By the finale, Daffy has been dragged to the North Pole and Hawaii, been rendered as a web-footed animal with flower petals growing out of his head, been forced to jump out of an airplane with a parachute weighted down with an anvil, and been split in half, thereby precipitating a quarrel with himself. An unseen hand is doing all this, as mysterious as Godot. Only at the last moment is the auteur revealed: Bugs at an animator’s drawing board, looking down and musing, “Gee, ain’t I a stinker?”
After Warner Brothers closed Termite Terrace, Jones went on to adapt Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and direct the Academy Award–winning short “The Dot and the Line” (he had won an Oscar earlier, for a Pepé Le Pew cartoon), as well as a series of brilliant Kipling adaptations including Rikki Tikki Tavi and The White Seal. Like Al Hirschfeld, Chuck was married for decades, and like Al and Dolly Haas, Chuck and Dorothy Webster had one child, a daughter. When she grew up, Linda Jones thought she could make a little money by peddling cels of animated characters her father had drawn; today the business grosses more than $4 million a year and employs 26 people. In 1978, Dorothy Jones died; five years later, Chuck, like Al, remarried, his new wife a beautiful woman 16 years his junior.
In his last years, Jones wrote two profusely illustrated autobiographies, Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks, continued to produce animated cartoons, and lectured at colleges across the country, a tall, elegant figure in Brooks Brothers suit and bow tie, as if to remind his T-shirt-and-jeans audiences that decorum and fastidiousness are not the enemies of art. On the contrary, he stressed, quoting G. K. Chesterton, “The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs.”
Tributes poured in: an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement; honorary degrees; a PBS documentary, Extremes and In-Betweens. I worked on that film as well, recording Chuck’s insights. Example: “Laughter is the process by which we indicate our response to another person’s trivial misfortune. If a person who slips on a fruit rind breaks his back, comedy quickly becomes tragedy. And it is that implicit possibility that gives depth to humor. When Woody Allen’s implied failures mirrored true failures and true humiliation, we found out how close to tears he had always been.”
Of all the compliments aimed his way, Chuck was proudest of the offhand remark of one little boy. When Chuck was introduced as “the man who drew Bugs Bunny,” the boy took offense: “He does not draw Bugs Bunny. He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny.” That child was not alone. Deep down, most of us still cherish the notion that the animated figures who tumbled from Chuck Jones’s paintbrush are as real as we are. Few “fine” artists of his era have left so vital a legacy.
Bill Mauldin died about a week after Al Hirschfeld. He was at once the luckiest and the unluckiest of this trio. Unlucky because the last years of his life were hard, thanks to alcohol and then Alzheimer’s. Lucky because he was famous earlier than the others and because he got more out of the limelight than the limelight got out of him.
The son of an itinerant mechanic, Mauldin spent his adolescence in New Mexico in the trough of the Depression. At 13, he borrowed $20 from his grandmother for a correspondence-school course in drawing. Five years later, he entered the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago. But Bill barely had time to sharpen his pencils when World War II broke out. Should he complete his education, he wondered, or aid his country in its hour of need? Wasting no time in hand-wringing, Mauldin signed up for the National Guard. The enlistee was small and undernourished—122 pounds soaking wet—and his legs were slightly bowed from a case of childhood rickets. But he made the cut. Five days later, his unit was called up.
After basic training, Private William Henry Mauldin, rifleman, contributed cartoons to the 45th Division newspaper. When the unit shipped overseas and into battle, Mauldin’s bold and sardonic drawings, based on his own frontline experiences, began appearing in Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper. The artist/soldier’s cast of characters was small: two “dogfaces,” unshaven, battle-weary men known only as Willie and Joe, uttered the terse remarks that served as punch lines for the Best Generation:
Willie to a medic: “Just gimme the aspirin. I already got a Purple Heart.”
Joe, digging a foxhole: “Me future is settled, Willie. I’m gonna be a expert on types of European soil.”
Sergeant to Willie and Joe: “I need a couple guys what don’t owe me no money for a little routine patrol.”
Captain to fellow officer as they regard the Alps: “Beautiful view.
Is there one for the enlisted men?” [opposite]
Willie to Joe, as they slog along, burdened by equipment: “Ya wouldn’t git so tired if ya didn’t carry extra stuff. Throw th’ joker outta yer decka cards.”
Joe, peeking out from his tent at a puppy shivering in the rain: “Let ’em in. I wanna see a critter I kin feel sorry fer.”
Joe to Willie, crawling through mud under heavy fire: “I can’t git no lower, Willie. Me buttons is in th’ way.” [page 108]
Willie to an equally slovenly and unshaven Joe as a disapproving sergeant looks on: “He’s right, Joe. When we ain’t fightin’ we should ack like sojers.”
Asked to describe these “sojers,” the artist wrote: “Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other.” They “wish to hell they were someplace else, and they wish to hell they would get relief. They wish to hell the mud was dry and they wish to hell their coffee was hot. They want to go home. But they stay in their wet holes and fight, and then they climb out and crawl through minefields and fight some more.”
The first Axis of Evil never understood the character of the American G.I. Leaders of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan assumed that unprofessional grunts, caught in the draft and sent far from home, would be easy pickings—that these conscripts and enlistees would tire easily, become terrified and demoralized in combat, and fall before the well-oiled German and Japanese fighting machines. The enemy had not reckoned on the resilience of young Americans, whose grit, loyalty, and mordant humor saw them through the worst.
Historian Stephen Ambrose described the conditions our soldiers faced during the Battle of the Bulge. “A foxhole in Belgium in the winter of 1944/45 meant down to 10 below in the Fahrenheit scale at night, about 40 degrees in the daytime. That meant your foxhole was alternating between three and four feet of water and ice. The boots they had were all leather, so the boots froze at night on them. They didn’t have adequate overcoats. They didn’t have adequate sleeping bags. They weren’t getting any hot food, and it was dark starting at about 4:15 in the afternoon, and it didn’t get light again until about 8:30 in the morning. And they had to stay up all night, and they couldn’t move around, couldn’t exercise, couldn’t smoke a cigarette, couldn’t eat anything, had to be watching always for Germans coming on.”
And yet these grumbling, scruffy, unwashed troops triumphed. “How did they do this? The strongest motivating factor was their buddies,” Ambrose explained. “What was unacceptable to the G.I. in that foxhole was letting his buddies down.” Moreover, Ambrose went on, “They knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed.”
Mauldin’s gift was the ability to explain these young men to one another and to the folks back home. He had less success explaining them to some army brass, even after he had made sergeant. General George S. Patton, for instance, took umbrage at the portraits of slovenly and sardonic warriors. He summoned the artist to HQ in the European Theater of Operations. Mauldin recalled the encounter. The general’s “hair was silver, his face was pink, his collar and shoulders glittered with more stars than I could count, his fingers sparkled with rings, and an incredible mass of ribbons started around desktop level and spread upward in a flood over his chest to the very top of his shoulder, as if preparing to march down his back too.”
Patton demanded: “What are you trying to do, incite a goddamn mutiny?” He then launched into a lengthy dissertation about armies and leaders of the past, of rank and its
importance. Mauldin stood respectful but firm, defending his right to articulate the feelings of American men on the firing line. The general was having none of it, and stood ready to censor Willie and Joe. But the supreme commander of the ETO, General Dwight Eisenhower, wasn’t about to let a four-star officer mess with an American soldier/cartoonist. He ordered Patton to back off. Mauldin returned to the battleground and continued to draw it as he saw it.
What he saw was as real and as cruel as a bayonet. His reportage was 180 degrees from the Hollywood product that glamorized military life. A soldier’s face, wrote Mauldin, will tell you all you need to know. “If he is looking very weary and resigned to the fact that he is probably going to die before it is over, and if he has a deep, almost hopeless desire to go home and forget it all; if he looks with dull, uncomprehending eyes at the fresh-faced kid who is talking about the joys of battle and killing Germans, then he comes from the same infantry as Joe and Willie.”
Toward the end of the war, the Stars and Stripes cartoons came out between cloth covers, accompanied by a terse narrative by their creator. Americans bought some 3 million copies of Up Front and made Mauldin a celebrity. At the age of 23, the baby-faced veteran won his first Pulitzer Prize, for a cartoon that showed disarmed Germans under the guard of U.S. troops. Save for the rifles, there appeared to be no difference between exhausted captive and wearied captor. The picture provided an ironic contrast to the accompanying AP dispatch: “Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners.”
Shortly afterward, Mauldin made the cover of Time. Hollywood bought his volume and then recruited him as an actor in John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage. Of his stay in Celluloid City, Mauldin remarked, “Every so often, while drinking coffee and gassing with famous people, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t feel like a tourist about it, but should accept such treatment as my due. I think maybe I was saved from drifting into this frame of mind by the realization that the other habitués of these places had established their reputations and fortunes over a long period of time, while my burst of glory was born suddenly and would probably die suddenly.”
He was correct. But the fear of a return to obscurity turned into paralysis. In later years, Mauldin looked back ruefully upon a prophetic appraisal by his agent at the time: “You remind me of a kid who has fallen into a cookie jar, and can’t eat the cookies. You think you’re rich, but you don’t dare spend it until you find out whether your tax is 90 percent or 91 percent. You have tremendous circulation for your cartoons, but you don’t know what to draw. You could sell an article to any magazine, but you don’t know what to write. You are successful, but you can’t relax and get used to living high, because it won’t last and you don’t want to let yourself in for too many disillusionments.”
He had a hell of a time shaking the jitters. Like many veterans, Mauldin found civilian life a tough adjustment. His marriage failed; he drifted from one assignment to another. The Korean conflict gave him a chance to be a war correspondent again, and he contributed pieces to Collier’s magazine, but somehow his art didn’t seem to be in it. He tried to write novels, but they failed to gel—or get published. He ran for Congress in New York and lost badly. His left-leaning editorial cartoons were, by his own admission, shrill and unconvincing. “Instead of trying to be clever or subtle,” he recalled, “I said the hell with everybody, and I climbed on a soapbox and let fly with a sledgehammer when I should have used a needle.”
Then in 1958, passing through St. Louis, Mauldin learned of a vacancy at the Post-Dispatch. He signed on, bringing with him a new, centrist attitude and a Hirschfeldian contempt for those “toe-curling” labels. The next year, he won his second Pulitzer Prize, for a cartoon about Boris Pasternak, the Soviet novelist forced to turn down an award from the West. The cartoon showed two prisoners laboring in the Gulag. “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature,” the tall one explains. “What was your crime?”
Four years later, Bill joined the Chicago Sun-Times and drew the most famous cartoon of
the 1960s. The day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the paper ran Mauldin’s portrait of grief: the Lincoln Memorial statue holding its face in its hands. Some 250,000 letters asked for reprints, and Jacqueline Kennedy asked for the original drawing and had it placed in the Kennedy Library. Award followed award, including a postage stamp to commemorate the 50th anniversary of WW II, which depicted Willie and Joe.
During this period, Mauldin described himself as “independent as a hog on ice.” He turned off conservatives by showing two government officials leaving the White House. Says the first: “Cable that idiot at the UN and ask him whether he’s working for us or the rest of the damn world.” Then he turned around and exasperated the other side when, after a trip to Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War, he portrayed Israelis in a series of trenchant drawings as valiant fighters surrounded by Arab predators.
Allied with no one, sometimes naive, sometimes overburdened with experience, Mauldin settled uncomfortably into late middle age, accepting the tributes with a modesty that bordered on bewilderment: why all this commotion about an ink-stained wretch? Along with the kudos came sorrows. Mauldin’s second wife was killed in an automobile crash while driving to meet his incoming plane. A third marriage, like his first, ended in divorce. Plagued with illness and infirmity, he left the paper and withdrew from public life. Fellow World War II veterans, recalling the man who had come through for them in the worst of times, had to institute a countrywide search before they found their buddy in a California nursing home. Word spread about his condition, and grateful letters flowed in to the uncomprehending veteran, who finally succumbed to his ailment in January. The father of seven sons, including a Vietnam chopper pilot, Mauldin was buried at Arlington, among the heroes. It is where he belonged. After all, a great many American battlefield correspondents and editorial cartoonists have tumbled—and are still tumbling—from Bill Mauldin’s old Ike jacket.
The popular culture that these three men and their brethren created became a wonder of the world in its endless vitality and invention, its scrupulous craftsmanship, and its yoking of wit and sophistication to a thoroughly democratic mass appeal. It is a remarkable legacy, to be cherished—and emulated.