Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society: Part II

Posted by on June 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

THEY MET ON THE FOURTH WEDNESDAY of each month, and the meetings were always dinners and mostly social. They met at the Barberry Room, Toots Shor’s, 21, Moriarity’s, “and a few other saloons” (as Goldberg put it) before finally settling in on a more-or-less regular basis at the Society of Illustrators Clubhouse on East 63rd St., where they found the bar convivial and the atmosphere homey (particularly for 40 of their number for whom the Illustrators Clubhouse was an alternative organizational home, because they were members of both groups). In the custom of such clubs, each monthly dinner featured a guest speaker, a notable in a career or profession of interest to the cartoonists.

Although the fraternization of the evening was the principal attraction for most of the members, some of them began to urge taking some sort of action on various matters of serious import for cartoonists. They talked about creators’ rights and what the proper relationship should be between a syndicate and the author of one of its features. They talked about engaging legal counsel to draw up a model contract for syndicated features. And they talked about an emerging threat of censorship from external sources.

IN THE SPRING OF 1947, Caniff achieved another distinction in a career of distinctions. His peers had been watching his performance with fascination and appreciation. He had left Terry and the Pirates at the end of 1946 and had started a new adventure strip, which made its debut in 234 newspapers (162 of which had said yes before any promotional material had been produced). For Caniff’s colleagues, the ascendant Steve Canyon represented much more than another vivid demonstration of Caniff’s technical facility and storytelling virtuosity. It was all of that, but something else about the strip’s triumphant progress gave them all a special pleasure. For Caniff had pulled it off. He had done it. He had broken free of the bonds of syndicated servitude and had successfuly launched a new strip without the usual indenture. He had proven anew what Gene Ahern and Roy Crane had proven before him: that a cartoonist could leave a popular feature and start another one equally popular, this time owning the creation himself. That such a thing was possible needed to be reaffirmed — so much else that cartoonists encountered in their professional lives seemed to deny it. And what made it all so richly gratifying with Steve Canyon was that Caniff had done it so well: His new feature seemed every bit as great as its predecessor. Caniff had more than survived his transition from the old to the new: he had surpassed himself. And on the evening of May 11 at the monthly dinner meeting of the National Cartoonists Society at the Society of Illustrators Clubhouse, Caniff became the first cartoonist to be formally honored by the group as “the outstanding cartoonist of the year.”

The trophy was a handsome silver cigarette box, its lid engraved with pictures of the characters in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, the strip that Billy DeBeck had brought to immortality before he died after a long illness in 1942. DeBeck’s widow, Mary, made the presentation to Caniff that evening.

It had been her idea that the Society institute an annual award recognizing the cartoonist who was the best of the year. She would furnish the prize, she said, if it could be awarded in the name of her late husband. Known officially as the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award, it was also briefly called “the Barney” — in imitation of the film industry’s practice of referring to its most prestigious prize by an informal first name.

As long as DeBeck’s widow lived, the selection of the “cartoonist of the year” was made by a committee of one. “Mrs. DeBeck arbitrarily decided who would win,” Caniff told me years later. “I’ve never talked with anybody who was ever consulted about it. I’m not absolutely certain, of course; she may have consulted people, but no one I talked with knew of it if she did. She never consulted me — naturally, she didn’t consult me on the first one. And never after that. She just made the choice and presented the Award, and that was that.”

(In 1972, Caniff was again named “cartoonist of the year” for 1971 — arriving at the designation, this time, by a selection process that was put in place after Mary DeBeck died.)

In the record books, the strip coupled to Caniff’s name for winning the first Barney is Steve Canyon, but the award officially cites him as cartoonist of the year for 1946, Terry’s last year. A certain poetry lurks in this anomaly: that a single portmanteau citation recognizes both the works for which he is most famous seems history’s quirky way of validating the fitness of the award. But practicality not poetry determined the oddity. For hard-headed promotional purposes, every cartoonist wants to be identified with the feature by which he earns his bread. And since the recipient of the DeBeck Award was urged, as a matter of stated policy, “to enjoy any amount of personal publicity which may accrue to him as a result of national interest in the bestowal of the honor,” it was virtually Society doctrine that Steve Canyon be mentioned in the same breath as Milton Caniff. And preferably as often as possible.

In 1953 — after the death of DeBeck’s widow — the Barney was retired and replaced by the Reuben. It was named in honor of NCS’s first president, and the trophy is pure Goldberg. In fact, it was cast from a sculpture that Rube himself made. He didn’t create the sculpture to serve as the NCS award; when he made it, he thought he was making a lamp. Happily, Bill Crawford saw this objet d’art in Rube’s home at just about the time the Society was looking for a trophy for the Reuben, and he recognized at once that Goldberg’s lamp was destined for greater things. He substituted a bottle of ink for the light bulb and made a cast for the trophy. The first to receive the Reuben in all its glory, trophy and fanfare, was the sports cartoonist Willard Mullin, who was named cartoonist of the year in 1954. Rube received the trophy named for him in 1967, three years before he died. (The eight cartoonists who had won the Billy DeBeck Award for the years 1946-1953 were subsequently presented with Reuben statuettes and are termed Reuben winners in the annals of the Society.)

A QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP was settled by the Cartoonists Society in 1948. On the fourth Wednesday in March, numbered 24 that year, in the theater on the first floor of the Society of Illustrators Clubhouse, Rube Goldberg was presiding over the ticklish business of nominating officers for the coming election.

Goldberg had been re-elected by acclamation the year before. And he had enjoyed the occasion hugely. Never one to stand on ceremony, Goldberg relished the spontaneity and informality of an absolutely uncontested re-election by voice vote: it heightened the sense of all-embracing fellowship he felt in the conviviality of the Clubhouse bar. Although he delighted in such shenanigans, he knew the Society could not last long if all its elections were to be conducted as cheering contests: however convivial they might be, shouting matches encouraged a herd instinct and prevented new people from holding office. Congenitally opposed to most of the formal apparatus that accompanied the organizational impulse (which, as a cartoonist, he saw as a vastly amusing eccentricity of the human species), Goldberg nevertheless had been persuaded by less satiric heads that the Society must follow a prescribed routine in electing its officers.

It hadn’t taken much persuading. He had become passionately devoted to the Society — as a group of genial colleagues and as an organization. He was proud of its growth, and he wished for its continued wellbeing. And for that, new leadership would be beneficial. Moreover, he felt he had served his turn; he was ready to step down and make room for someone else. And he was afraid one of those spontaneous demonstrations of allegiance by shouted nomination from the floor would stampede those present into another coronation by unanimous voice vote. He therefore informed the group that officers would not be elected by acclamation. They would follow the by-laws, he said, and name a nominating committee which would select a slate of candidates to be voted on by secret ballot through the mails.

He met opposition immediately. Jay Irving didn’t see why nominations couldn’t be made from the floor that very evening. Frank Robbins agreed, adding that the voting could still be done by secret ballot. Lively discussion ensued. Finally, Irving moved that nominations be made from the floor but that the election itself be conducted through the mail. The motion passed.

Goldberg then announced that he would entertain nominations for President. Predictably, he was promptly nominated. Al Posen put Goldberg’s name forward, and Raeburn Van Buren seconded. Then John Pierotti nominated Caniff and was seconded by Jay Irving. At that, Goldberg declined his nomination in favor of Caniff. And then Greg d’Alessio moved to close nominations. Seconded by Joe Musial, the motion carried, and Caniff, now unopposed, was effectively the new President of the Society.

By the end of the evening, Caniff’s de facto election was formally declared. After collecting nominations for all the other offices, Goldberg retreated from his earlier resolve and suggested that Caniff be elected by acclamation. Dudley Fisher, in town from Columbus, Ohio, for the occasion, made the motion, and John Pierotti seconded, and the motion carried.

The rest of the slate nominated that evening was sent out to the membership by mail ballot, and the results of the election were announced at the April 21 meeting: Russell Patterson was elected First Vice President; Bob Dunn, Second Vice President; John Pierotti, Treasurer; and C.D. Russell was returned (again) to Secretary. Goldberg called Caniff to the stage to turn the presidency over to him, but Milton insisted that Rube carry on through the rest of the evening. Saying he’d take over the duties of the office the next morning, Caniff promised that he would not make the mistake of allowing Goldberg to retire. He said he’d keep Rube active. And Goldberg was subsequently named Honorary President, a post that kept him on the Society’s Board of Governors for the remainder of his life.

That same evening, Al Capp received the Billy DeBeck Award as cartoonist of the year for 1947.

The next morning, Caniff turned to the first of the duties he had set himself as the new president of NCS. He began a list of news items for a newsletter.

SEVERAL NCS INSTITUTIONS were established during the first half of 1948. At the February meeting, C.D. Russell was relieved of the most onerous of his tasks — taking minutes of the meetings. Henceforth, the minutes would be recorded by a real secretary, Marge Duffy. Marge worked as a secretary in the public relations department of Russell’s syndicate, King Features, and as the Society began to generate more and more correspondence, Russell had enlisted her help on an informal basis. Now it was official. Marge Duffy was eventually designated Scribe of the Society, and her name (Marge Devine after her marriage) appeared on all the Society’s publications: hers was the Society’s permanent mailing address for more than 30 years. “She practically ran the damn thing,” Caniff recalled. “A real autocrat,” he said with an appreciative chuckle. “And everyone was delighted to have her be an autocrat because that’s what we needed.”

That summer, NCS held its second annual summer outing at the Shawnee Inn, a posh retreat for the big city carriage trade since 1912 and recently purchased by “the man who taught America to sing,” Fred Waring. Mel Casson had featured the popular Waring radio show in a sequence of his Jeff Crockett, and Waring had subsequently invited Casson to appear on the program. There Casson found out that Waring had a passion for cartoons and comics that was second only to his devotion to the vocal orchestrations of his Pennsylvanians, and when Waring found out about the Cartoonists Society, he invited the entire ensemble to be his guests at his resort in the Poconos. A summer weekend for the cartoonists at the picturesque country club on an island in the Delaware River became an annual event, and then a tradition. The cartoonists expressed their appreciation in their usual fashion, and the corridor to the taproom beneath the Inn’s lobby was soon lined with original cartoons dedicated to Waring. In the taproom itself, the tabletops were decorated with cartoon characters drawn especially for the purpose (artwork protected by a lamination process concocted by the inventor of the Waring Blender).

Another noteworthy event of the summer was the June 17 dinner meeting at which British political cartoonist David Low was honored. The room was decorated with flags and cartoons from other nations, and the guest list included Whitlaw Reid, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, syndicate foreign sales representatives, Mrs. Low, and pugilist Gene Tunney. Low was nearly overwhelmed.

“I can’t start to thank you for the privilege of being here tonight,” he said. “I never saw so many cartoonists together in my life. In England, we only have a few cartoonists, and when we meet, it’s in a taxi.” Low had just spent several days with President Truman’s entourage, observing election-year preparations, so he made a few remarks about American politics (“your politics are more of a sporting event”) and then concluded with an anecdote about after-dinner speaking. “George Trubey and I were dining one night, and Mr. Churchill was present. George doesn’t like public speaking and said, ‘Whenever I have to talk, I feel as though I had a cake of ice four-by-six resting on my stomach.’ Churchill said, ‘By God, same size as mine.’ If ever you come to London, be sure to look me up. I shall be most happy to see you. I will never forget this evening.”

“We shall never forget this evening either,” said Caniff, resuming the rostrum. “We thought when you got back to England and in the lonely hours when you were sitting there trying to think up some ideas, it would be nice if you had a reminder of your visit to the National Cartoonists Society. We thought of many things and finally came up with this — the sword of our trade,” and he flourished a silver-plated T-square. “It is inscribed to you as follows: To David Low, whose pen melts borders and spans oceans, from his friends in the National Cartoonists Society, U.S.A., New York, June 17, 1948.”

But the biggest event of the Society’s summer was the New York showing of the NCS Exhibit at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street, August 17-29. Although New York was but the next scheduled city in the Exhibit’s national tour, the Manhattan stop provided the cartoonists with the opportunity for scoring propaganda points in the struggle with their critics. In press releases, the Society touted the show as a refutation of John Mason Brown’s charge on the “Town Meeting of the Air” that comics were major contributors to making “the brain the most unused muscle in the United States.” As President of the Society (and as chairman of the Exhibit), Caniff was quoted in the Editor & Publisher article on the exhibition: “We just want to show,” he said, “that all the psychiatrists anxious to make a buck are saying about the comics on the radio isn’t true — that we’re not all blood-thirsty goons.” The Exhibit now displayed the best work of about 120 cartoonists — comic-strip and comic-book artists, gag and “serious editorial” cartoonists, and animators. And the best work of such an array of professionals was not just amusing: it was also often socially useful and otherwise civilizing.

But Caniff and his minions were not content to let the show itself make their point. They used the Exhibit as a platform for mounting other good works. Proceeds from admission charges went to the Cancer Fund. Throughout the 12-day run of the show, cartoonists appeared daily to act as hosts and to do impromptu chalktalks. And they arranged special performances for various deserving groups. On the day before the official opening of the exhibition, there was a “preview” for a group of disabled servicemen, and Caniff and Goldberg and 15 other cartoonists did a reprise of the kind of chalktalk they’d done during the war. Later, they did special chalktalks for underprivileged children. And these efforts were not in vain. They generated favorable publicity for the Exhibit and for cartooning in national periodicals — Time, Newsweek, even Variety — and in every important New York newspaper —  Daily News, Herald Tribune, Post, Sun, World-Telegram, Journal-American, even the pontifical New York Times.

For all the public-relations purposes for which it had been designed, the NCS Exhibit was a success. It resumed its national good-will tour the next month in Chicago, but nowhere would it achieve the splash it created that August in the Town Hall in New York.

Since their hospital tours during the war, the cartoonists had been happy to wield their talents on behalf of benevolent enterprises. They had continued the hospital shows after the war, and that fall, NCS would start giving cartooning lessons to hospitalized veterans under the auspices of the American Theatre Wing. Later, NCS would sponsor an annual cartooning contest among permanently disabled vets as part of the Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project. NCS awarded the winners modest cash prizes and prevailed upon Albert Dorne’s Famous Artists correspondence school to donate drawing equipment and a complete course of study. Such endeavors attracted NCS participation for their inherent worthiness, and although the experience of the Town Hall exhibition convinced the cartoonists of the public relations value of such charitable acts (particularly in times of hostile publicity about comics), most of the NCS projects in this arena, by their very nature, generated little public notice. But when the Treasury Department launched another savings bond drive the next fall, the cartoonists threw themselves into it for all the publicity they could generate.

And at Bellevue Hospital, the year wound down in its usual uneventful way in every ward except the one in which juvenile boys were being held for 30 days’ observation. The week before Christmas, the institutional routine in these rooms was disrupted by Russell Patterson and a few of his NCS cohorts, who came in to decorate the walls. Patterson came away resolved to do what he could. As a first step, he reported his Bellevue experience at the next NCS meeting and was named chairman of a committee to develop an anti-juvenile delinquency program.

The enduring concerns of the Society as well as some of the various projects set in motion while Caniff was president were evident in the organization’s committee structure. In addition to such standard committees as Membership and Dinner Program, there were committees for the Veteran’s Hospitals Programs, for Government Projects (like selling savings bonds), and for the NCS Exhibition. Newer committees worked on the Anti-Juvenile Deliquency Program, Public Relations (an adjunct to the Newsletter, both under Alfred Andriola), and the Yearbook (a proposal to publish annually a collection of cartoons drawn by members as a money-raising project to finance the purchase of a clubhouse for the Society). And Caniff would soon solve the Newsletter’s perennial identity crisis by divorcing features from news. That spring, he started The Cartoonist, a quarterly magazine of feature articles, edited by Greg d’Alessio.

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