Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society Part One of Three

Posted by on June 7th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Part I

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, March 1, 1946, 26 cartoonists assembled at the Barberry Room on East 52nd Street in Manhattan. They met at 7 p.m. for drinks and dinner, and after dinner, they waved their inky-fingered hands and conjured into being the National Cartoonists Society. Then when the voting was over, they started a heated argument about how to define a cartoonist and retired to pour cooling emollients on the conflagration.

The Society may have been formally founded on that Friday night, but it had been gestating for years. Accounts about the birth of the Cartoonists Society vary — as is their wont among the regularly imbibing band of bon vivants who put on chalktalk  hospital shows during World War II with the American Theatre Wing. Even those who were present on the legendary night in question couldn’t agree later as to exactly where they had been. Rube Goldberg said it was Quantico, Va. Gus Edson alleged it was Charleston, S.C. But the Cartoonists Society, everyone agreed, had been born far from the comforts of home on one of those long-range junkets the group made to military bases along the southeastern seaboard.

It had all started in 1943. In the early months of that year, the early results of America’s entrance into the European conflict began to trickle in from North America, filling beds in five huge hospitals in the New York area. And almost immediately, the United Services organization and the Red Cross started drumming up entertainments for the recovering GIs. Among those who heeded the summons was C.D. Russell (who drew Pete the Tramp), who mustered a small entourage of fellow cartoonists to do chalktalks for the wounded under the auspices of the USO In addition to Russell, the group usually included Bob Dunn and Paul Frehm from the King Features bullpen, and Otto Soglow (Little King) and Gus Edson (The Gumps).

“We played two spots,” Edson recalled. “Fort Hamilton and Governor’s Island. And then we quit the USO”. They were not driven out; they were lured away. By a chorus girl.

Once a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, Toni Mendez was now a choreographer as well as a dancer, and she was an active member of the Hospital Committee of the American Theatre Wing, an organization of women in the entertainment and communications fields, which was then sponsoring several enterprises for the morale of soldiers. The Hospital Committee devoted itself to the wounded, meeting once a week to plan shows to give at armed-services hospitals.

At just about the time that C.D. Russell and his troupe started feeling mutinous under U.S.O.’s wing, Toni Mendez had offered to help put together a show about New York that would use the talents of New Yorkers who were not necessarily professional entertainers. In a conversation with the director of public information at the telephone company who was a friend of Edson’s, she learned about the cartoonists and their chalktalks. She met with Edson, and they arranged the first of the A.T.W. sponsored cartoonists’ shows.

They expanded Russell’s original group to include Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle), Ray Van Buren (Abbie ’n’ Slats), Ad Carter (Just Kids), Ernie Bushmiller (Nancy), Bill Holman (Smokey Stover), Al Posen (Sweeney and Son), and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates). Russell recruited an emcee for the act — Bugs Baer, humor columnist and after-dinner raconteur. Russell Patterson soon joined the more-or-less permanent ensemble, and when Baer’s other obligations side-lined him, Rube Goldberg, then doing editorial cartoons for the New York Sun, was drawn into the act (again by C.D. Russell).

The inaugural performance at Halloran Hospital on Staten Island was a unqualified success — and not entirely as a result of easel artistry. Several of the cartoonists were born comedians: They gloried in the spotlight of performing before an audience, and they augmented their drawings with waggish verbal wit and farcical flourishes that betrayed a more than nodding familiarity with burlesque houses and an almost defunct vaudeville stage. And Toni Mendez was quick to arrange an encore.

“I soon learned,” she told me, “that one way to get them to assemble on time was to arrange to meet at a bar instead of at the Wing building.”

A typical evening’s expedition began in Child’s restaurant at 57th and Fifth Avenue, where the cartoonists (some with their wives) collected to await the arrival of the bus that would transport them to their destination. As they waited — and while their number assembled — they oiled their vocal chords for the forthcoming performance. At the appointed hour, Toni Mendez (in her trademark giant chapeau) appeared at the door and beckoned.

They all clambered into the bus — a no-frills military conveyance with back-breaking springs and memorable seats of the unpadded variety — and when everyone was safely ensconced therein, it lurched into gear and headed for South Ferry en route to the distant clime of Staten Island.

THE AMERICAN THEATRE WING trips to military installations resulted in a certain quantity of lore being generated. And having created some history of their very own, the members of this dirty-fingernail fraternity delighted in regaling themselves with it for years afterwards in the meetings and publications of the Society.

It wasn’t long before some of them began to talk about finding a way of perpetuating their fellowing, of assuring its continuance after the end of the War presumably wiped out the need for the hospital shows, thereby eliminating the excuse for their periodic convenings. It may have been C.D. Russell who first put the notion into words. Tour leader Toni Mendez remembers the trip on a military transport plane during which Russell, well fortified for the flight, patrolled the aisle of the plane, advocating a club for cartoonists:

“He said, ‘Everybody has a club or an association or some kind — lumber jacks, undertakers, rug weavers, even garbage collectors — so I don’t see why we can’t have one, too.’ All during the flight, Rube kept saying, ‘No — leave us alone; we’re doing fine.’ C.D. turned to me and he said, ‘And no girls. Only boys.’ And he went up and down the aisle of the plane, repeating that this club would be just for boys.”

The idea had been voiced. But everyone knew no club for cartoonists would succeed without Rube’s participation. “They kept after him,” Mendez said, “until they made him agree.”

It was Russell Patterson who lobbied most convincingly for the cause. He shared a room with Rube on that storied night the Cartoonists Society was born (in either Charleston or Quantico.) Neither man could sleep, so they talked. And Patterson availed himself of the opportunity to urge Goldberg to endorse the idea of a cartoonists’ club. Rube continued to scoff at the idea at first, declaring that cartoonists were such anarchists they’d never come to meetings. They’d tried it once before in the thirties, he said, and it hadn’t worked. But Patterson was not to be put off. He persisted. Rube’s resistence began to crumble. According to Patterson (as reported by Stephen Becker), Rube finally yielded as the two climbed into bed: “All right,” he growled, “but no more than 25 members.” Patterson continued the story (in italics):

We’d been in bed about 10 minutes when Rube raised himself to one elbow, snorted, and said, “All right. But no more than 50 members.” After that, he went to sleep. I waited for him to bring it up in the morning, but he didn’t say a word about it. Then we got on a plane to go back to New York, and when we were in the air a couple of the spark plugs turned out to be faulty. Rube was a little worried. He was mangling a cigar and looking out at the engine. Every once in a while he’d look down, as though he were estimating the fall.

“Why don’t you be the focal point of a society, Rube?” I asked him. “We can send out invitations in your name.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Anything.” He peered out at the engine. “There’s no way to get out of this damn machine, I suppose.”

“Sometime when the war ends,” I said, “we ought to call a dinner meeting.”

“Absolutely,” Rube said. “How high up do you figure we are?”

“We’d have to get it well organized at the first meeting. Officers, bylaws, and maybe a regular meeting place. You’re the logical man to be president for the first year.”

“Whatever you say,” he said. “You think this pilot’s ever flown before?”

Thus was a cartoonists’ club born. It needed only a name and some semblance of formal organization. For those, it awaited the war’s end. By February 1946, a group of six of them succeeded in bullying Rube into sending out letters to call a dinner meeting for the purpose of organizing the club. The letter went out on Feb. 20 (in italics):

Fifteen of us cartoonists were thrown together pretty often during the last few years when, as a unit, we entertained at Army camps, Navy bases and various hospitals.

Strangely enough, we grew to like one another. We looked forward to these meetings — and still do. There was no spirit of competition. There was plenty of glory for all. We had a swell time. Now we know that cartoonists have something in common besides a bottle of ink and a sheet of drawing board.

So we got the idea it might be a very natural thing to have a cartoonists’ club or society. Acrobats have clubs. Ski jumpers have clubs. Upholsterers have clubs. Why can’t we have a club? We can.

Any cartoonist who makes his living at it is eligible to join. But he doesn’t have to. Nobody is going to coax him. The idea is to bring a bunch of nice guys together for a little real, informal association. We can have an occasional dinner. Perhaps we might have a club room where we can make out-of-town cartoonists feel at home. We think New York is the logical headquarters for the club.

Your name has been selected to join a group to sit down at dinner to make some plans — select a name, determine the dues, elect officers, and other such nonsense.

Rube signed the letter as “temporary chairman.” At the top of the epistle appeared the names of the “temporary committee” (recognized in subsequent histories as the founders of the Society): Rube Goldberg, Ernie Bushmiller, C.D. Russell, Gus Edson, Russell Patterson, Otto Soglow, and, at the top of the list, the best-known of their number in those days, Milton Caniff, who had been an active promoter of the organization from the very first.

Caniff had been involved with clubs and similar groups all his life. His membership in the New York clubs in particular had given him a clear notion of what such organizations could do. Although with their emphasis on camaraderie, these clubs were chiefly social (and that alone had sufficient value to the members to justify the clubs’ existence), the very fact of organization tended to give stature to the profession thus embodied. The clubs therefore represented their professions in some sense, and they were positioned to speak for their members’ interests without being unions or anything like unions.

Caniff could see that a similar club for cartoonists could perform some valuable services for its members and for the profession. It didn’t have to be a union to do so. And while its main purpose might be fellowship, the club wouldn’t have to be exclusively a social organization. Apart from a predilection to purposefulness, Caniff would bring to the infant group an even more important quality: He had a good feel for what makes an organization cohere, for what gives it its being. And in the early years of the National Cartoonists Society — indeed, throughout his life-long association with it — he would work long and hard to implement both his vision and his instinct. He soon became a guiding force in the group, and he remained so for life.

At least 25 of those to whom Goldberg sent his letter came to the Barberry Room on March 1, 1946. And the evening was a success. The organization was officially founded: It acquired a name and officers. If it was still a little unclear about its purpose, it was nonetheless lively, judging from the report in the Cartoonists Society Bulletin some months later (in italics):

We are not a union but purely a social group, which we proved the opening night by almost coming to blows twice. First in the selection of a name and again when we tried to decide just what the hell a cartoonist was. After much bickering, hemming, hawing, and speech making, we chose “The Cartoonists Society” over “The Cartoonists Club.” Nuts to euphony was the attitude. Nuts to euphony too, Gus Edson shouted at the temporary chairman merely to keep the harmony rolling.

Later, the Society would add “National” to its name as a way of telling cartoonists all across the country that they, too, were welcome in its ranks. The definition of cartoonist was an important preoccupation because it would establish eligibility for membership. The question was not resolved until it had been thoroughly discussed for several meetings. Finally, the NCS constitution defined cartoonists as “professional artists who portray by text and drawing a comic or adventure story or incident, or a commentary on politics, current events, or sports.”

The elections that evening were a much more perfunctory matter. Rube Goldberg was elected president by acclamation; Russell Patterson, vice president; C.D. Russell, secretary; and, as treasurer, Caniff. A second vice president was subsequently added (“to follow the first vice president around”) in the person of Otto Soglow. In recognition that the expenses of the Society would be greater per capita for cartoonists living within easy driving distance of New York, a dues schedule with a differential for out-of-towners was set that night: cartoonists living within 50 miles of the city would pay $25 a year; the rest, $15. The 26 cartoonists who attended the first meeting immediately paid their dues to Caniff and declared themselves members.

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ALMOST EVERY ENDEAVOR at which a cartoonist could ply a pen was represented among the charter members — comic strips, panel cartoons (both magazine and newspaper), editorial cartoons, comic books, advertising and illustration. Animation was the only branch of the craft absent from the roster of the first members.

No attendance was taken that first night; no charter signed. So there is no roster of the first members. But if we don’t know exactly who the 26 charter members were, we know they must be among the 32 names Caniff listed as having paid dues by March 13: strip cartoonists Wally Bishop (Muggs and Skeeter), Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle), Ernie Bushmiller (Nancy), Caniff, Gus Edson (The Gumps), Ham Fisher (Joe Palooka), Harry Haenigsen (Penny), Fred Harmon (Red Ryder), Jay Irving (Willie Doodle), Al Posen (Sweeney and Son), C.D. Russell (Pete the Tramp), Otto Soglow (Little King), Jack Sparling (Claire Voyant), Ray Van Buren (Abbie ‘n’ Slats), Dow Walling (Skeets), and Frank Willard (Moon Mullins); syndicated panel cartoonists Dave Breger (Mister Breger), George Clark (The Neighbors), Bob Dunn (Just the Type), Jimmy Hatlo (They’ll Do It Every Time), Bill Holman (Smokey Stover), and Stan MacGovern (Silly Milly); freelance magazine cartoonists Abner Dean and Mischa Richter, editorial cartoonists Rube Goldberg (New York Sun), Burris Jenkins (Journal American), C.D. Batchelor (Daily News), and Richard Q. Yardley (Baltimore Sun); sports cartoonist Lou Hanlon; advertising and illustration, Russell Patterson; and comic-book cartoonists Joe Shuster (the artist half of Superman’s creative team, who with partner Jerome Siegel, was now inventing a new costumed hero for comic books, Funnyman) and Joe Musial. Two of this number — Bishop and Yardley — were out-of-towners and may not have been present at the March 1 meeting. But which of the remaining 30 attended the founding festivities is a lost fact.

The Cartoonists Society was now a reality. Cartoonists at last had a home, an organizational roof over their heads — thanks to the American Theatre Wing,

By mid-May, 14 more cartoonists had signed up — including Harold Gray of Little Orphan Annie and the Society’s first animator, Paul Terry. In June, Caniff’s letterer Frank Engli joined and Popeye’s Bela Zaboly. And later in the summer, Li’l Abner’s Al Capp joined and Bruce Gentry’s Ray Bailey. When the National Cartoonists Society met to celebrate its first anniversary in March 1947, its members numbered 112, and in its ranks were most of the famous names in cartooning — Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff), Don Flowers (Glamor Girls), Bob Kane (Batman), Fred Lasswell (Barney Google and Snuffy Smith), George Lichty (Grin and Bear It), Zack Mosley (Smilin’ Jack), Alex Raymond (now, after his WWII stint in the Marines, doing Rip Kirby), Cliff Sterrett (Polly and Her Pals), Chic Young (Blondie), and editorial cartoonists Reg Manning and Fred O. Seibel and sport cartoonist Willard Mullin. And others. And more would follow in their ink-stained footsteps. In a year, the National Cartoonists Society had become a healthy organization, and it was slowly evolving a purpose.

All images are taken from ancient Reuben Awards programs, archives of the Society. ©2010 their respective copyright holders.

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One Response to “Tales of the Founding of the National Cartoonists Society Part One of Three”

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