ABOUT SYD HOFF
I was born in 1912. Sometimes when I appear at schools and libraries around the country, children ask me how old I am. I’m always careful enunciating the nineteen, lest they confuse it with the War of 1812.
My father was a salesman. Like Willy Loman he went around with heavy suitcases loaded with samples, showing them to proprietors of small dry-goods stores. If he got an order for a few dozen pairs of ladies’ hosiery, his day was made. He’d call it in to his bosses in a wholesale place downtown.
My mother was a housewife, naturally, because in those days before women’s lib, ladies were most likely to be found in a house or apartment, cooking and cleaning. Most of Mom’s time outdoors was spent hauling home shopping bags from a distant market where prices were a few cents cheaper than right around the corner. Summer evenings, she and Pop would sit outside the tenement where we lived, praying for a cool breeze and chatting with the neighbors. Among those neighbors was Mr. Schoneberg, a fruit-and-vegetable peddler, who once gave me a ride on his horse and wagon; and a lady on the fifth floor who was always complaining about the mice. I’m sure those two people were responsible fifty years later for Barney’s Horse and Mrs. Brice’s Mice. Writers are always filing ideas away in the their minds to be used at a later date; for instance, a dachshund on the next block bringing on Lengthy, and a doting relative from Jersey City becoming My Aunt Rosie, twenty years after she died.
Did my father hand out cigars when I was born? I doubt it. he was a frugal man and would have preferred smoking them himself. Besides, didn’t he already have a son, my brother Danny, who had preceded me into the world two years before? (Later on I was to use my brother’s name when I wrote my most popular book, for he was my great protector from bullies, and once even saved me from drowning in a country lake where our parents had taken us on an outing.)
Mom and Pop didn’t draw, nor did Danny. I remember one day when we came home from a trolley-car ride; I drew a picture of the conductor, resplendent in his uniform with brass buttons. “Sydney is the artist of the family,” my mother proclaimed, immediately hammering the picture into the wall with a tree-inch nail. When my sister, Dorothy, arrived eight years later, it was just as well that she didn’t draw, either. By that time, there was no room left on the walls for anyone else.
Had I inherited the “gift” from my mother’s side? I never got to know Mom’s parents, and she could hardly remember them herself. As for Pop’s side, Grandpa Harris was a baker, extremely corpulent, who used only a pencil to add up the prices of bread and cake on a paper bag. Grandma Pauline was the usual housewife, pathetically short and squat. It pains me to recall hiding in the street whenever I saw them coming because I was ashamed of Grandpa’s big belly and the way Grandma walked. By the time I was old enough to atone for this, Grandpa Harris was dead and Grandma was living alone with a parrot that an uncle of mine had brought back fro South America to keep her company. That parrot ate gefite fish, blintzes, and matzoh-ball soup. Once he almost chewed off my finger when I stuck it in his cage. “Would he eat me friend Eugene?” I asked Grandma. “Not if he’s a Gentile,” she answered. She had taught her parrot to yell our names. If you ever hear of a parrot yelling, “DANNY! SYDNEY!” please let me know.
In 1917, during World War One, I remember drawing Kaiser Wilhelm’s likeness in the gutter with chalk. When I finished, all the boys would pee Germany’s leader off the face of the earth, while the whole street cheered. When the war ended, Pop took Danny and me downtown to see the big parade on Fifth Avenue. “There’ll never be another war,” said my father.
My life in elementary school was miserable, except when I distinguished myself by drawing. Arithmetic threw me, as did history and geography. How I envied Jacob Selkowitz who had the Palmer method of handwriting down pat, or Jacob Levy, who could recite the Gettysburg Address without a hitch. There was no end to the things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even climb a rope up to the ceiling in phys. Ed., when the gym teacher played a Sousa march on her phonograph.
Mr. Tomberg, our home-rule teacher, had a summer camp. When spring came, he started pressuring us to get our parents to send us there. He’d talk about the fresh air, great food, canoes, marshmallow roasts, and hunts for Indian arrowheads. Please God, make my father send me to that camp, I prayed. Pop never did. It was a miracle Mr. Tomberg ever let me out of his class.
One day our principal entered the room and help up a silver medal. “Guess who just won this in the John Wanamaker intercity drawing competition, bringing honor to P.S. 51?” he asked. Everyone turned around and looked at me. I’m sure Leonardo da Vinci never left prouder.
A subject I didn’t mind was English, especially when we were asked to wrote a composition on fire prevention. I came up with a great opening sentence. “Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the fire engines.” Strangely enough, more than half the class wrote the same thing. Had we all copied it someplace? The kid, whose composition I couldn’t stand, wrote, “They poured water on the conflagration.” I had to say something. “How could they put out the fire, if they only poured water on the conflagration?” I asked, without raising my hand. Even our teacher couldn’t keep a straight face.
At least me joke wasn’t as bad as when our teacher was reading Silas Marner and another boy in front of me slipped out of his desk and stretched out on the floor, “I’m having an epileptic fit, too,: he said. Hardly anyone laughed at that.
I was in the fourth or fifth grade when my sister was born. It stated out as just another day. Danny and I had been sent to St. Mary’s Park in the East Bronx to play. Of course, I knew the park hadn’t been named after our mother, whose name was Mary too, but I didn’t know that she had been pregnant. I found out when we came home. “Hey, your mudder had a baby,” a kid leered at us. Instantly, Danny chased after him and gave him a good shellacking for daring to hint that some kind of hanky-pank had taken place between our parents.
I ran upstairs and found a crowd in our three-room flat. I pushed into the bedroom. Mom was lying there holding something in a pink blanket. Pop was swallowing a number of schnapps. “That’s your sister. How do you like her?” he asked. I ran back downstairs without answering. I wanted a sister like I wanted a hole in my head.
Which reminds me: “A baby’s head is very soft,” Mom kept warning us. How soft could it be? I wondered. The first night Danny and I were left alone to baby-sit, I went over to the crib and pressed a thumb against Dorothy’s skull. Nothing caved in. I was relieved when she woke up and started crying, but years later I wondered if I had pressed hard enough.
By that time, I was copying the comic strips in the newspaper Pop brought home every evening. I copied “Jerry on the Job,” “Little Nero,” “Mutt and Jeff,” “Si and Maude,” “Happy Hooligan,” “Boob McNutt,” and, of course, “Abie Kabibble,” humorist Harry Hershfield’s wonderful cartoon character, whose insecurity reminded me so much of my father. For example, in one Sunday strip, after Abie had been working in the same place for twenty-eight years, the boss told him he was fired. “I thought this was steady job,” Abie moaned. Or another time, Abie went into a restaurant because he saw the waiter serving sandwiches that seemed so well-packed, meat was hanging from the sides. Of course, when the waiter brought Abie a Sandwich, there was no meat in the middle.
How my father laughed at those jokes. I laughed tool. I was such an Abie Kabibble fan, I once made a cardboard effigy of him and brought it to school. “Is that man registered in this class?” the teacher asked, proving that teachers could be funny too.
Pop also laughed at jokes on the radio and always had his ears glued to a loudspeaker, listening to the Happiness boys, Ukelele Ike, or Stoopnagle and Budd. Nor would he ever let a raging snowstorm stop him from taking us to the vaudeville show miles from home, with all of us slipping and sliding every inch of the way.
“What’s your name?” asked the first hoofer.
My brother and I would scream wit laugher, while everybody around us glared because they couldn’t hear the next lines, but Pop enjoyed seeing us have a good time and even Mom laughed, although she always complained that thirty cents was to much for a seat, even if her two sons got in for half price.
“What happened in 1492?”
Years later when I stayed up nights trying to think of ideas for magazine cartoons, or a children’s book, I got in the habit of writing two-liners myself for a change of pace:
Eventually, I wrote a half-dozen books wit such material, never feeling quite sure I hadn’t heard some of it before. Perhaps I should have dedicated at least one of those books to Joe Miller, the legendary vaudevillian.
Was I [a] good kid? I’m not sure. Book-wise, my favorites were the Frank Merriwell paperback, written by Gilbert Patten, alias Burt L. Standish. (Ironically, years later I would lend my name to a charity drive for Patten, who had been found broke and hungry after influencing a whole generation of kids to lead an exemplary life.) Frank never smoked, drank, or used foul language, could throw a baseball curve no batter could touch, and dispatch with steel fists and lightning footwork any band of ruffians that ever beset him. How I yearned to be exactly like Frank Merrill!
Yet, one Fourth of July in the twenties, the Bronx Home News printed a photo of a dozen youth riding bicycles on the Grand Concourse in the wake of Mayor John R. Hylan, I among them. His Honor could not have known we had just stolen those bikes by the simple expedient of paying fifty cents apiece to a dealer, and leaving jackets from old suits as a deposit. Even had he known, it’s doubtful that “Black Mike” would have done anything about it, for a short while later a grand jury found him guilty of malfeasance in office. (This might have been another incident I had filed away in my mind when I wrote a children’s book, about another politician and Thomas Nast, the father of American political cartooning, whose work brought him to justice in the 1860’s.)
By the time I entered high school, I was naturally into Balzac and Maupassant, having heard they were naughty, and these were followed more seriously by Theodor Dreiser and those two Sinclairs, Upton and Lewis. My brother Danny was not a reader. He had quit school and gone to work, helping Pop support the family. He tried one job after another, even opened a small dry-goods store wit a partner, over my father’s objections. “The location is bad, the timing isn’t right, there’ll never be enough profit for two people,” Pop said, and he was right. Danny would up driving a taxi, getting a hack license the second he could qualify for one.
Afternoons, I jerked sodas in a pharmacy and doubled as a bus boy, getting myself fired eventually when I forgot to wring out a wet rag before wiping a customer’s table with it. On Saturdays, I got another job as copy boy at the Daily News, which was then on Park Row. My boss was Paul Gallico, the six-foot-six sports editor, who let his readers know what it felt like to be hit by Jack Dempsey, by stepping into a ring with the heavyweight champ, and getting knocked out cold. “Boy!” Gallico would yell, and I’d take the typewritten sheets from his hand and send them up to the composing room by pneumatic shoot. It was also a thrill to see Mark Hellinger, the Broadway columnist everyone said wrote like O. Henry, at his desk, typing away. I felt very proud Saturday nights after work, when I’d join my chums at the corner candy store, carrying a Daily News marked “SAMPLE COPY.”
There were new gods in my life now, illustrators McClelland Barclay, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Henry Raleigh, and Arthur William Brown; although I still adored my childhood idols on the comic pages, Harry Hershfield, George Mc Manus, T.T. “Tad” Dorgan, Bud Fisher, and Rube Goldberg. Was having all those artists on my mind ruining my chances of making good academically? In addition to math and history, I now had French driving me up a wall. “Combien de pieces de sucre mettez-vons dans votre café?” I asked y startled family one afternoon. They were so impressed I didn’t have the heart to tell them the trouble I was having with conjugation.
If only I could have made the baseball team, I thought! But how could I? A fastball pitch scared me when I saw it coming. And in football, I feared I might get killed because there weren’t enough helmets to go around. Our best player, whose nickname was “Iron Head,” often got stepped on by eleven opposing players and came up smiling.
I was in the fourth term at Morris High School when there came an electrifying announcement from the dean’s office. Milt Gross, the creator of such comics as “Looy Dot Dope,” “Dave’s Delicatessen,” “That’s My Pop!,” and “Count Screwloose,” as well as author of the Sunday World column, “Gross Exaggerations in the Dumbwaiter” would be the guest at our next assembly! The Special Art teacher, Miss Parker, promptly selected me to draw on the stage as part of the entertainment; after all of her other students declined the honor.
For days I palpitated. Should I have declined too? Where did I get my nerve thinking I could draw in front of the master? Was it too late for me to back out? Could I possibly get a doctor’s note asking that I be excused from school on account of illness? It was too late. Mom and Pop were already on the phone telling relatives about their amazing son. Every my kid sister was bringing in friends to look at me. “Atta-boy,” said Danny, when he came home, as if I had already done something.
The appointed day arrived. Our guest, a curly-haired fellow with a boyish grin, sat on the stage between Miss Parker and the dean. Other seats were occupied by PTA persons and members of the Board of Education. Our school orchestra played the Star-Spangled Banner, and after a few lengthy speeches, Milt Gross stepped to an easel on the side, talked briefly about himself, then drew his most famous character, “Count Screwloose.”
There was tumultuous hand clapping and whistling, and Milt drew a few more of his characters before resuming his seat.
Miss Parker took the floor and described the Special Art class, and the importance of culture in a civilized society. “One of our students will now illustrate a talk by Felix Hendrix, a member of the Drama Club,” she said.
She hadn’t mentioned my name, but I was too nervous to care. After all, this was my first public appearance since I gave my bar mitzvah speech before two hundred guests, mostly my father’s customers. With knees shaking, I ascended the steps and started drawing pictures representing “The History of Locomotion” –Man walking, running, riding a car, a boat, a plane, while Hendrix talked faster and faster to keep up with me.
The moment I finished, Milt Gross leaped to my side and embraced me. “Kid, someday you’ll be a great cartoonist!” he proclaimed, loud enough for the whole school to hear. Later, he made a sketch in my notebook, while everyone was begging him for autographs. It was all like a dream.
Unfortunately, if I had been a sensation in that assembly, I was less than that in my classrooms. Monthly report cards I was bringing home indicated that I was setting back education in New York State more than a hundred years. “Have you really tried applying yourself to geometry?” the dean wanted to know in his office.
The Great Depression was on and my father was walking the floor nights, brooding over his life’s savings that had been lost in the stock market. “Perhaps you ought to consider leaving higher mathematics to Professor Albert Einstein,” Pop suggested. My mother concurred.
My brother Danny, however, was more hopeful for me, perhaps fearing that there might be another taxi driver in the family. “Try your best,” he said. “Try, try.”
I tried, poring over my textbooks at night with a flashlight, while Pop walked back and forth in the dark to save money on the electric bill. It was in vain. After flunking again and again, I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps and leave school. It was a decision the dean deplored, but he held the door open for me. (Fifty-two years later, at a class reunion, my former classmates would honor me with a special diploma from the “Bored of Education.” A TV interviewer asked if I had advice for school dropouts. I replied there was never any danger of them getting run over in traffic, as long as they stayed in a classroom.)
What to do now? I had been earning a few cents by making signs for local merchants, announcing their sales or latest prices. I would study sin painting. Perhaps I’d even wind up painting billboards. Accordingly, I went downtown and registered for a six-month course at the Baron de Hirsch Trade School on Sixty-Second Street where they also turned out electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics in that length of times. It was an interesting course, with me learning one-stroke lettering, show-card writing, and five different kinds of alphabets; as a result, sign I had been doing for a laundry suddenly started sporting Old English script. When I graduated, I was able to step right out and get myself a job in a small shop as an “apprentice.”
My duties were simple. All I had to do was construct wood and sheet-metal sign frames with a hammer and nails. As I have never been handy, it didn’t take the boss very long to notice that most of my hammering was on my fingernails. He delayed firing me long enough to have me decorate a friend’s nightclub with pictures of dancing girls. I worked far into the night drawing such pictures, hopeful that the boss would relent when I finished. All he did was peel off an extra ten-dollar bill and tell me to get lost. My conservative father few so incensed about this, he demanded that I give up sign painting entirely.
A meeting took place in our living room to determine what my next step should be. “Bricklayers are making fifty dollars a day,” said Pop. “What about plumbers?” asked Mom. My brother Danny had a different idea. He trundled me into his cab and drove me downtown to Amsterdam Avenue and 109th Street, the location of the National Academy of Design. “You’re always drawing, now learn how,” he said, and rode off leaving me standing there.
After an hour’s hesitation, I went inside and applied for admission, giving my age as sixteen when I observed nude paintings on the walls. “You may start on antique statues tomorrow and our instructors will decide when you’re ready for the life class,” a tall, blonde lady informed me. I rushed home to tell the family. “Ooh, you’re going to be an artist!” my kid sister giggled, as if she knew all about nude paintings.
Pop wasn’t enthusiastic about this new career of mine, lurid headlines having just informed the public about the prominent caricaturist Ralph Barton throwing himself out of a top-floor window. Weren’t artists always committing suicide, or starving to death in a garret? Hadn’t one of them once cut off an ear?
Bright and early the next morning, I presented myself at the Academy. The antique class was a room cluttered with busts and full-length statuary. “Take any place,” said a girl wearing a smock. I sat before a great marble cast, charcoal in hand and a drawing board in front of me, wondering how to begin. After all, they were asking me to forsake all those heroes of mine for a guy named Michelangelo.
My first efforts at antique drawing must have been dreadful. Other newcomers arrived, sat down alongside me, then got moved upstairs to the life class. Only I remained, drawing and erasing, never using a fixative on my work because the instructors acted as though it would be a waste of money. At last, after almost a month, I won their approval and was on the way upstairs myself.
Was I the only male student without a beard? I hated myself for having to shave only once a week. Certainly, these new classmates of mine hadn’t had to lie about their ages. They were at least in their twenties.
More discouraging to me was their sophistication. They seemed to have the answer to everything, political or otherwise. They loathed the establishment, vowed never to draw or paint for money, adored only Groucho Marx, a comedian who poked fun at upper-class society. If they got hungry, they simply went to a hospital and sold a pint of blood. They only printed matter they seemed to respect was the New Yorker, a magazine with snobbish appeal.
Nevertheless, I was eager to be part of these bohemians and when a group of them decided to take up residence in some old law hovels in Harlem, I felt gratified when they consented to have me come along and stay with them once in a while. It was a dismal place without heating or plumbing facilities. If we had “to go,” we simply hurried over to an empty store on the corner, or opened a window. Once night it got so cold, we poured kerosene on an old crate and lit a match. In five minutes we had visitors, the New York Fire Department. “How the hell did they let you guys in this rat trap?” asked a policeman. I was all for leaving, but stayed when the others did.
Perhaps on account of their dead seriousness, nearly all of them could draw or paint better than me. Sometimes they even snickered at my work, as did the Academy instructors. “What’s that, ‘Spring in a Rectangle’?” Ivan Olinsky, a true academician, asked after I finished a picture of a buxom model, thinking I had duplicated one of Rubens’ Three Graces. Was there something naturally funny about my work?
Onestudent who never laughed at anything was George Byron Browne, who had a job as bouncer at Roseland Ballroom, on Broadway. A powerful, golden-haired fellow, he was awarded a scholarship to Europe, and on his return started the Academy by having gone Modern. Another student called Roger seemed satisfied painting models. None of us ever suspect that Roger Tory Peterson would one day make birds his exclusive subjects.
My best friend was a boy named Bernie Sacks, who operated an elevator at the Hotel Barbizon for Women. Bernie sold blood, but he also got commissions to copy old masters at the Metropolitan. He’d set up an easel in front of a Rembrandt or Titian and dab away until he achieved a reasonable facsimile. I’m sure many of the Rabelaisian stories Bernie told about ladies at the Barbizon were fabricated, but I certainly enjoyed hearing them at the time.
Other students at the Academy I would long remember were Frank Ruggeri, who insisted on painting like Leonardo da Vinci; Hutton Webster, Jr., who also worshiped “Lenny,” and whose favorite song was “Drink t Me only with Thine Eyes”, Lee Krasner, a good painter herself, who subsequently married Jackson Pollock, inventor of the “drip method” of painting; and a chap named Dayton, who kept swearing he’d kill himself before he was thirty.
Also unforgettable to this day was E.C. (Elmer) Campbell, one day to become Esquire magazine’s most prolific watercolor cartoonist, but who had to move to Europe eventually because his neighbors in a New York suburb couldn’t tolerate a black.
To augment the limited allowance Pop was giving me, and the occasional dollar or tow my brother Danny could spare from his meager tips, I had taken a gob ushering at Loew’s Spooner, on Southern Boulevard. Movies now had sound or talking sequences, so there were always packed houses. A fellow usher I envied was Big Red, who could rush down an aisle, yank a pervert out of his seat when a lady screamed, and toss him out in the alley. One day Big Red came to the theatre and showed me a drawing he had made. It wasn’t bad, but I turned up my nose. I was that afraid of competition.
Watching the same movie over and over, I was able to study the actors on the screen and get to know their distinguishing features. I began drawing caricatures of them right on my aisle between servicing patrons. Big Red and the other ushers had no trouble recognizing Jack Oakie, William Powell, Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, and Myrna Loy. “Why don’t you try selling those to the papers?” asked Mr. Goldberg, our manager.
Forthwith, I tried the Daily News, now on Forty-second Street, because I had once worked for them. Burns Mantle, the drama critic, took one look at my caricatures and, quoting the logo on the News masthead, said, “We are ‘New York’s picture newspaper.’ That means we only use photos.” Everybody n his office laughed, except me. After a few more tries at other newspapers, I gave up caricaturing and resumed attempting to draw things the way they really looked.
I even drew in the subway, like most art students, hopeful that the other passengers wouldn’t guess what I was doing. If they did guess and started to look hostile, as though their civil rights were being violated, there was only one thing I could do, move into the next car and start all over again. It was a lot easier sketching at the zoo.
The Academy was a great place, though depressing in appearance. Less expensive than the Art Students’ League on Fifty-seventh Street, it nurtured many talents, including Pollock himself, who left as I entered. Before him there had been other names I would get to know better as I went along: Eugene Speicher, John Sloan, Leon Kroll, and George Bellows, who painted that thrilling picture of Luis Firpo, the Argentine fighter, knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring, into the laps of spectators. Supported by philanthropies, the Academy probably had the same daily programs as when Samuel R.B. Morse, an artist more famous for inventions, founded it way back in 1825. models would assume a pose and hold it all week, except for one afternoon when they’d change positions every ten seconds, giving us a chance to capture the action of the human body with a few, deft lines. I liked those quick sketches. Nobody laughed at them.
One day a group of students decided to favor the New Yorker with samples of their work. I went along with them just for the ride. Certainly, I didn’t expect to sell any of my ten-second sketches. “Come back on Thursday, after the committee has seen these,” a receptionist told us. When we returned tow days later, the students stepped up one by one and got their drawing back. Only I was invited to step into an inner sanctum.
When I emerged from the building fifteen minutes later, they were waiting for me, their faces etched with jealously. I was so choked up, I could hardly speak. “I sold a drawing to the New Yorker!” I shouted.
Had I found the road to success? That afternoon, the bohemians toasted me with wine in our Harlem hovel, but the reception when I called the Bronx was more subdued. “Who? The New Yorker? Why didn’t you sell it to Literary Digest?” Pop wanted to know. Mom was equally unimpressed. “Are you eating?” she asked.
Danny wasn’t home, and only my kid sister sounded as if she understood the significance of what had happed. “Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!” she screamed. “I hope you signed your name big!”
My own enthusiasm ebbed when I recalled they had told me at the New Yorker my drawing would only be a “spot,” a tiny reproduction used for decorative purposes on a page. My parents, my friends, everybody was certain to be disappointed when they saw it, that is, if they could find it.
I read a copy of the magazine more carefully. Yes, it was snobbish, but smart. Indeed, I found myself laughing at almost every page. What an honor it would be to appear in an issue with Peter Arno, Richard Decker, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Carl Rose, William Steig, and others! But those artists didn’t do “spots,” they did real cartoons with saying underneath. How could I think of such a cartoon?
It happened that we were showing a movie at the Spooner starring a French entertainer who had taken the country by storm with his warm smile, protruding lower lip, and delightful accent. He was being mimicked on stage and radio. Patrons were imitating him, even coming up the aisles when a show ended.
In a flash, I had an idea. I drew a picture of a Bronx lady hovering over her bashful little son, in the presence of company, saying, “Morris, make like Chevalier for the Schwartzes.”
Bingo! I hit the jackpot! Not only did I receive a larger check from the New Yorker this time, I also received a message from Mr. Ross, the editor. He wanted me to submit more drawings and, above all, to “please stick to those Bronx types.” There was no need for him to worry. They were the only types I cold draw.
Had it been only beginners’ luck? I got another idea almost immediately. I showed a scene I a men’s clothing store without a single article of apparel I sight, the salesmen standing around in their underwear, with one of them saying, “Best suit sale we’ve ever had, I should say.” They grabbed up that drawing too.
I was floating on air. Angels also floated on air, but angels never had jobs, did they? Why should I? I went straight to Mr. Goldberg at the Spooner and tendered my resignation. He was sure he’d miss me, but delighted my artistic career was now assured.
Flushed with victory after a few more sales to the New Yorker, I bade farewell to that hovel in Harlem, and went straight to the Bronx to gather up my things. Was I happy to be leaving Mom and Pop? How could I be? They loved me and I loved them. Besides, there was my kid sister, who was growing up fast. Danny wasn’t always home. Who would keep an eye on her? “Get in the house early,” I told Dorothy as I left 158th Street with one of my father’s old suitcases packed to the hilt. “It’s only three-thirty in the afternoon! May I please stay out until four o’clock?” she snapped.
I moved into a large, comfortable studio apartment on Riverside Drive and Seventy-third, the city’s high-rent district. Alas, six weeks later I was back in the Bronx with the family, having been unable to sell another drawing. I was grateful the neighbors refrained from hanging up a sing over the front door, “LOCAL BOY DOES NOT MAKE GOOD.”
Call it writer’s block, or what you will, I just couldn’t think of another cartoon. I sat in the house doodling endlessly, even doodled on Mom’s shopping bags before she had a chance to check the prices on them to see if she was being gypped. Oh, Bronx, beautiful Bronx! Mr. Ross was waiting to buy more cartoons about you! Wasn’t there one more idea about our borough I could draw?
I had been puffing on an occasional cigarette since I was twelve, just to impress the girls. Now, to buoy myself through the long hours spent thinking and thinking, I was up to three packs a day. Between Pop’s cigars and my cigarettes, the house smelled like a chimney. “Smokey the Bear should see both of you!” Dorothy hollered at both of us.
The slump continued. I remembered what Milt Gross had said at that Morris High School assembly. “People are always me where I get my ideas. If I knew, I’d be there right now getting them.” I was growing desperate, maybe because I had no job now and there was too much time on my hands. My brother Danny kept offering me a few dollars. I refused them. Now that I had tasted success, I was too proud to accept charity. A girl at the Academy offered me a job taking care of her invalid father. I grabbed it, then quit the second time the poor man asked me to take him to the bathroom.
Maybe it was my mother’s chicken soup. Suddenly, the drought ended and I was selling again, not only to the New Yorker, but to Liberty, Collier’s, College Humor, and Judge; also there was a newspaper, the New York American, that wanted my stuff, and William Randolph Hearst, the publisher, had sent word from California, that he not only wanted more of my cartoons, he wanted me to do a comic strip. Did I mind if Field Marshall Herman Goering of Germany had columns appearing alongside my funny pictures on the “March of Events” page? I had never bothered with politics, but I couldn’t help reading them.
I experimented with a comic strip, “Leo the Lifeguard,” drew up two weeks of samples. Mr. Hearst’s editors turned them down. “Read ‘Blondie,’” they said, referring to their most popular comic, which was then appearing in nearly two thousand newspapers daily. I read it and tried another strip about a stenographer, but they said this one was too much like “Tillie the Toiler.” I felt frustrated because it would have been wonderful being on the same pages with Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater” (starring Popeye), Billy de Beck’s “Barney Google and Spark Plug,” and, of course good old Harry Hershfield.
At best, free-lancing was a cruel and heartless business. One week an editor greeted you with wide open arms, the next he act6ed like you were bringing a plague. Would I ever achieve the security that kept eluding my father and Abie Kabibble?
At a meeting of the Cartoonists Guild, of which I was a member, it was decided that College Humor was paying some of us below scale. My prices were high enough, but I joined the others marching back and forth on the sidewalk at Forty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. An officer materialized out of thin air and we found ourselves being hauled off to the Forty-seventh street police station on a charge of “obstructing pedestrian traffic.” In our cells we sang “Solidarity Forever,” as though we were pawns in the struggle between capital and labor. “May I please have a copy of War and Peace?” asked Gregory d’Alessio, who later became an instructor at the Art Students’ League, settling back for a lengthy incarceration. The case was dismissed in night court in sixty seconds.
When I got home, I learned the repercussions. Pop had been listening to the five o’clock news on radio. “Among those arrested was cartoonist Syd Hoff,” the announcer said. My mother, who was preparing dinner in the kitchen, immediately fainted dead away. “How’s Alcatraz?” my sister asked, as I hurried to Mom’s side.
Perhaps free-lancers should keep knocking on wood. College Humor started cutting down on cartoons and a short while later, Judge went out of business entirely. If those weren’t blows enough for me, several new names began popping up in the New Yorker. Hadn’t I been discovery enough? What was Harold Ross lolling for now?
I tried to see Ross, to find out. He never saw artists, I was told, fearful that they might ask for more money. How about writers? Did he ever se them? If it had been so easy crashing the New Yorker as a cartoonist, maybe I should be doing some writing myself. I decided to ask a few writers I knew.
Wolcott Gibbs, the play reviewer, who relayed the opinions of Ross, always seemed uncomfortable at this chore, and impatient for me to leave. William Maxwell, the novelist who preceded Gibbs at the same job, laughed when I met him on Sixth Avenue, and said I was a writer since every good cartoon was a story in itself. I brought it up while having lunch with S.J. Perlman in the Algonquin, and our greatest humorist since Mark Twain, had to be funny. “Not during lox and eggs,” he said later changing the subject. I might have gone to see y old boss Gallico, at the News, but he had retired to write books, like The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure, and would be staying in Europe permanently.
It was my good fortune to know Arthur Kober, from illustrating his book Thunder over the Bronx. We met as his new play, Having Wonderful Time, was about to open on Broadway. “You want to write? Write,” he said, and rushed backstage. So, I went home and wrote a novel, but I only got as far as the first page because it was harder than writing a composition on fire prevention. Would I ever meet Harold Ross, so I could ask him?
As the tenth anniversary of the New Yorker in 1935, at the Waldorf Astoria, Otto Soglow, the cartoonist who created “The Little King,” slightly inebriated, took me over to him and introduced us. Ross smiled, showing the celebrated space between two top teeth, and said, “You’re a genius.” I was flattered until I heard him telling the hatcheck girl the same thing an hour later.
Miraculously, around this time, Pop had switched jobs and was doing better. He, Mom, and my kid sister were up in the Catskills, vacationing while I continued my studies at art school. I might have gone on forever there, if a certain event didn’t take place. The annual exhibition sponsored by the National Academy was about to be held at its gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, and I, along with two other students, was selected to help with the hanging. Once painting received was an aerial view that looked the same every way we turned it. When the exhibit opened, the artist responsible arrived and let out a bloodcurdling scream. We had hung his painting upside down! The Academy became the butt of countless jokes all over the world, and rather than face Olinsky and my other instructors, I quit.
I called my folks in the mountains and told them the news. “Come on up and join us,” said Pop, perhaps worried that I might fall in with the wrong companions again and steal another bike. I told him I had other things to do. “There are girls up here,” my mother added, meaningfully. In an hour, I was on a bus heading up to South Fallsburg, a hundred miles from the city.
Oh, that summer hotel! The guests were either in wheelchairs, or too tired from their yearlong travails to get out of their rockers. Naturally, they all knew me because Mom and Pop had been passing around clippings of mine. “So you’re the artist! Wonderful, wonderful! Keep up the good work! I have a grandson…”
I played softball that first day with a couple of hired hands, then went into the ramshackle building that passed for a social hall to listen to a fourteen year-old kid practicing piano. “You’re good,” I told him. “Wait till you hear my sister,” he said.
That weekend I didn’t notice the newcomers arrive. While chasing a fly ball across the pasture, I heard the familiar arpeggios of the Rhapsody in Blue, sounding exactly the way I had heard the composer himself play them a moth ago at City College’s Lewisohn Stadium. Was it possible the great George Gershwin had become a guest here, too?
I burst into the social hall and beheld a vision with dark hair and eyes, the shapeliest of noses, and two delicate ankles, one of which was lightly pressing a pedal. She finished the Rhapsody and continued playing. Now her lips were moving, “Take me in your arms before I take my love always, take me in your arms before we part…” I took here in my arms. “They’re only the words of a song,” she explained.
That evening, the fourteen-year-old kid was back at the piano, while I danced with his sister. “Will you marry me?” I asked. “Not for another four years,” she answered prophetically. The golden agers were closing in on us. I took her down to the lake. I chased my kid sister away and learned all about the vision.
Her name was Dora, but everyone called her Dutch, for reasons she couldn’t remember. No, she was not a professional pianist, merely secretary for a large, scrap-metal firm, who had been playing since she was three. Her father, an upholsterer, would come home after work and sit in the parlor, singing songs of his native Russia, and even Enrico Caruso. One night, little Dutch climbed down off his knees to accompany him.
“Won’t you please make that four months?” I begged. She refused, pointing out that I had admitted to being only twenty, and probably needed much seasoning. “How old are you to be so wise?” I asked. “Nineteen,” she replied.
Thus began our long period of courtship, courtesy of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), for Dutch lived in far-off Brooklyn and I was two hours away by subway at the Hunts Point station in the Bronx. “She’s worth the travel,” said my brother Danny, who was going with a girl too. He also carried around clippings of mine and rarely dropped off a fare without boasting about me.
While I courted, I began taking piano lessons from the kid brother who, unlike his ear-playing sister, was into progressive jazz, with a thorough knowledge of theory and harmony. It pleased me that after long hours of daily practice (for years), I was able to overcome a frustration that might have bothered me for the rest of my life.
At last, in 1937, when Dutch could no longer stand the thought of me dropping another nickel in a subway turnstile, we were married. It was a somber affair, her oldest sister, who had made the arrangements, having just passed away. “Do you, Dora, take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?” asked a rabbi. “Not unless he cuts out smiling,” said Dutch. I quit immediately.
My bride did not give up her career in business for two more years, judging that my own income from free-lancing was too unpredictable for the long life that lay before us. Then we celebrated her retirement by commencing a 15,000 mile auto trip around the country. Those Hearst editors had renewed their pursuit of me, but this was the time to see America.
We tarried in Hollywood, California, for several months while agents kept insisting they could find me employment in films as a gag writer. It was hardly the time to start a career in the motion-picture industry, the House un-American Activities Committee having begun its witch-hunt and a producer wouldn’t even hire his own mother unless she had been “cleared.” Anyway, a phone call from Pop in New York informed me that although his stocks were still down, my mother’s blood pressure was up, so we turned the car around and headed back east. Dutch thought she was pregnant anyway. “Maybe it will be a little girl,” she said hopefully, as we checked into a motel in Phoenix.
A few days later, Dutch had another thought. “Maybe you could do a comic strip about our little girl.” By the time we were settled in an apartment in Upper Manhattan, I was at work on “Tuffy,” the comic strip I would be doing for the next ten years.
The daily grind of dreaming up gags for a comic strip, plus my concern that Dutch was still not actually impregnated, had me frantic. Would I have to start smoking again to sustain myself? Jogging had not yet become a national pastime, but I started doing it. I’d run miles through the city streets, glancing at my wristwatch ever second, so people would think I was merely hurrying to catch a train, rather than a crook on the lam. The thought of a cigarette when I was gasping for air was loathsome. Nowadays when kids ask me how they can break the smoking habit I tell them to start running.
I had also become a handball freak, playing the game almost incessantly. I refused to let Dutch take me anywhere unless she could guarantee there was a handball court on the premises. “Would you care to be fed intravenously?” she called to me one time, after I had kept her waiting for dinner sever hours.
We now had a home at the beach on Long Island, so it was natural that I should start swimming. When winter came, I resented it so much I stayed in the water until I turned to ice. I was also back on a bike after all those years, and walking a lot too. One morning, I let Dutch drive up to the Bronx alone, while I trudged across Jamaica Bay, all of Queens, and the Triboro Bridge, twenty-eight miles on foot. “I just w3anted to prove I live within walking distance,” I told Mom and Pop, as I pretended to fall into their arms. Nor was I neglecting my “glutes,” “pecs”, and other pars, as I bench-pressed and lifted a three-hundred-pound barbell hourly. “I’m married to Superman wit a double hernia,” my wife told her family.
In 1941, several months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, we were blessed with the arrival of our first daughter, Susan. Two years later, when Hitler already had most of Europe under his belt, we welcomed two more of the same, Bonnie and her twin sister, Nancy, who, to our sorrow, would survive only eleven weeks.
Did it bother me when my local draft board deferred me from military duty because “Tuffy” had been declared essential for the national morale? Yes, but I had joined the OWI (Office of War Information) and was drawing propaganda cartoons that were being dropped behind enemy lines; while Dutch was giving all of her spare time to the Red Cross and civilian defense. Besides, four brothers-in-law of mine were already in service: Private Abe, in North Africa; Corporal Harold, my music teacher, in London, awaiting the opening of the second front; Sergeant Dan, in the South Pacific; Lieutenant Jules on Wake Island. (By the time the war ended, two cousins of ours would have given their lives for their country –Benny, in the Battle of the Bulge, and Morty, on Guadalcanal.)
The moment peace arrived and my sister’s husband was mustered out of the Marines, he and Dorothy fled to California, where eventually he became a banker and financial adviser to the starts. My brother Danny, ever hopeful for a break in life, followed shortly after with his family. Even Mom and Pop gave up the Bronx in time, for the “land without snow shovels.”
That left Dutch and me alone in the East with her family, and our two daughters, because in addition to my magazine and newspaper work, I had taken on another project. I was starring in a series of television shows called “Tales of Hoff,” which became the first that CBS ever sold to a sponsor. The format was simple. Each week I would draw and tell a story for children. Midway, I made a long, upturned line from ear to ear, on the mouth of my principal character, saying “And so, Shorty smiled.” That would be the cue for my announcer to chime in with, “Yes, Shorty smiled the Ipana smile of beauty.” The show was very successful, according to the ratings, but there were so few television sets in 1947, if my wife and kids wanted to see a performance, they had to go to a neighborhood saloon. It was little comfort to learn that the president of Bristol-Myers Pharmaceutical Company was having the same problem. “I’ll always be on television,” I boasted to Dutch. “How long is always?” she wanted to know. Of course, she was right in being dubious. By the time millions of sets became available, viewers had better things to watch.
No matter, I was now completely devoted to our two daughters who were so beautiful; everyone kept assuring us that someday we would be the parents of at least one Miss America. At home I played with the girls daily, read stories to them in the evening when it was time to go beddy-bye. I read all the classics, the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. Once in a while, to break up the monotony, I’d tell them a story of my own invention. Faithful to their father, the little insomniacs insisted they liked my stories better. Had I hit on a rich vein of something? “Why don’t you try writing those stories?” Dutch suggested.
I tried. The result was several stories that almost destroyed a publishing company. I gave up writing children’s books. My wife didn’t’ care. She had enough copies left over from “remainders” to hand out to friends and relations. In spite of these literary failures, my reputation was still intact, and “Hoff cartoons” were even being featured in national advertisements for the likes of Standard Oil, Chevrolet, Maxwell House Coffee, and Arrow Shirts. Equally gratifying was the fact that I had begun writing short mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen.
The wood we had been knocking on must have been made of plastic. “Tuffy” began slipping in newspaper clients. Mr. Hearst, who had fathered so many successful strips was gone, as were Harry Hershfield and Abie Kabibble. Harold Ross, of the New Yorker, was also among the missing, and his successors seemed less and less interested in me. I felt a kinship with animals who are driven to higher grounds in their quest for water, as I launched a new daily newspaper cartoon, “Laugh It Off.” Dutch and I still had high hopes. We were better off than most people, weren’t we?
Suddenly, our bubble burst, Susan was ten when we noticed that she was limping slightly. “Just a muscle stiffness,” I ventured, because we had been playing tennis; Dutch was apprehensive. She took the child to an orthopedic specialist. His prognosis was grim. Our daughter had suffered a “slipped epiphysis”; her left femur bone had moved out of the hip socket from fall in our house that seemed insignificant at the time. “She needs immediate surgery and will never walk again,” said the specialist.
Now began the series of operations in New York and Boston that would continue for the next twenty years. We moved to Florida in 1958, so that Susie could swim and thinking warm sunshine would benefit all of us. Bonnie attended better schools. Dutch played piano and sang for golden-age groups. I went on writing and drawing.
One afternoon, as I took a breather from my job as Susie’s second-string physiotherapist, I drew a picture that I hoped might take her mind off crutches. I drew a picture of my conception of a prehistoric creature, with my brother as a boy, sitting on its back. “Danny and the dinosaur!” exclaimed Susie. My wife and Bonnie returned from shopping and joined in the merriment. That night while Dutch and the kids slept, I wrote:
Was I reliving a visit to the Museum of Natural History, on Central Park West in New York City, more than forty years ago? In a week, Ursula Nordstrom, senior editor of books for young people at Harper and Row, and grand dame of children’s literature, had seen my script and the rough sketches I sent with it and the rest became history. In the thirty years sine it was published, Danny has sold over ten million copies, has been translated into a half-dozen languages, and its popularity never diminishes.
The floodgates were now open. In short order, I produced a dozen more children’s books for Harper, one of which about a walrus almost got me in trouble with the IRS. Since the story was set in the frozen North, I figured I needed a trip to Alaska for purposes of authenticity. “You didn’t have to go via luxury ship, you could have flown directly to an Eskimo village,” the authorities reasoned when they saw my tax return. I didn’t argue. There were other books to do for Putnam, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Simon and Schuster, Little, Brown, Grosset and Dunlap, and Random House. With Nordstrom egging me on t Harper, I also wrote Irving and Me, a juvenile novel of about 65,000 words, without cartoons. This, incidentally, became a unique experience for me, requiring that I turn my mind back to the distant past. Could I resurrect my thoughts about such things as love, religion, and promiscuity, so that modern adolescents would relate to them?
Irving and Me was selected as one of the year’s ten best children’s books by the New York Times in 1967, and the Kirkus Review noted: “Artie Granick is the funniest fall-guy since Herman Wouk’s City Boy. Highly recommended.” Although it went into remainders twelve years later, I was still proud of it. now, with royalties rolling in, I was able to give up “Laugh it Off,” and all my magazine work, and concentrate on books for younger readers.
In 1961, my father died of throat cancer, a victim of the cigars he loved so much. Mom followed a few years later. The Grim Reaper had not spared Dutch’s family, either, taking her parents and two brothers, in addition to that oldest sister. Truly, our numbers were growing fewer.
It was a shock when my brother Danny died. He had finally made his escape from taxi cabs, becoming a California State Motor Vehicle Examiner, in Van Nuys. I would cherish his memory forever.
Becoming a children’s author meant making personal appearances. I traveled all over the country, meeting young people and giving them pointers in the art of cartooning. Now cruise liners were after me to do the same with their passengers. Dutch and I sailed the seven seas, while I entertained senior citizens. On one such cruise, a lady approached me at the end of a session and said, “I remember reading Danny and the Dinosaur when I was a child.” Good grief, I had thought, she looked old enough to be a contemporary of mine!
Eventually, Susie married a boy in college and moved back up North. She died in 1986, just short of her forty-fifth birthday, in the midst of a bitterly contested divorce. Dutch and I were the big losers. We would never again see her two children, either.
Our daughter Bonnie remained in Florida, comforting us and running a flower shop in nearby Fort Lauderdale, with her husband and their faithful German shepherd, “Lady.” Will there be any more children’s books from me? Yes, I’m working on one right now. As for Dutch, there will always be golden-age groups waiting to hear her play piano and sing.
Images/Text/Data from Something About the Author: Autobiography Series by Joyce Nakamura (Editor), 1987 used here with the permission of Gale, a division of Thomson Learning. All rights reserved. Text and images may not be cut, pasted, altered, revised, modified, scanned, or adapted in any way without the prior written permission of the publisher: www.thomsonrights.com