One of the most endearing portraits of Don Marquis was drawn by the brilliant 1920s book and magazine illustrator Ralph Barton. This image appeared in Liberty magazine on Sept. 26, 1925, one of two illustrations for Don’s light-hearted essay “The Curse of Efficiency.” (Scroll down the page for another view of Don by Ralph Barton, from the April 1922 edition of Vanity Fair magazine.)
At long last, your editor has fixed a number of bugs that have bugged him, and most likely you, too (and we’re not talking about Archy). Chiefly, the Chronology has been updated so that it now actually is a chronology of Don’s life, and accurate, too. Also, the Checklist of Books has been updated to include some recent additions, with a distinction made between trade editions — in all, thirty-one principal books and plays written in his lifetime, plus thirteen omnibus editions and translations — and notable editions that were privately published.
More changes and additions are in the works. Please check back soon!
Here is brief clip showing actors Alan Reed (left) and Eddie Bracken reading lines from the 1971 animated movie “Shinbone Alley” — with a glance at Carol Channing, too. The clip is from “Animation: A Living Art Form,” a 10-minute feature that was released with “Shinbone Alley” to explained the intricacies of the animation process. (Coming decades before computer animation, the 85-minute film required more than 400,000 drawings!)
Reed is known to many as the voice of Fred Flintstone, but he also gave a memorable performance in “Shinbone Alley” as Mehitabel’s tough-guy tomcat boyfriend, Big Bill. Bracken and Channing were Archy and Mehitabel, reprising their roles on a remarkable concept album released by Capitol Records in 1954, “archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera”—the predecessor of the 1957 Broadway show “Shinbone Alley,” starring Eartha Kitt and Bracken, as well as the 1971 animated movie.
“Shinbone Alley” confounded critics, who were impressed with the voice actors and with the movie’s bold animation, unlike anything seen in Hollywood in years. But they rightly pointed out that the movie’s premise — a cockroach infatuated with an alley cat, a love affair that Don Marquis never suggested in his original stories 40 years earlier — was preposterous.
“Animation: A Living Art Form” is impossible to find today. The clip is taken from an original 16mm film that was acquired 20 years ago (on eBay) and converted to digital format. “Shinbone Alley” is much easier to find, on old VCR tapes and on DVD. It’s also available on YouTube, here.
Don Marquis ranked in the top tier of Broadway celebrities in early 1922, even though his own comic masterpiece, “The Old Soak,” was still months away from its Broadway premiere (on Aug. 22, 1922). He is pictured here, fat and happy, surrounded by fellow first nighters in a classic Ralph Barton illustration that appeared in the April 1922 edition of Vanity Fair magazine titled “A Typical First Night Audience in New York:—The Scene Which Invariably Confronts the Actor.” Don is seated between Vanity Fair publisher Conde Nast and actress Elsie De Wolfe. In front of him are actress Irene Castle and arts patron Otto Kahn, with the tall, gangly Robert Sherwood in the row behind, to Don’s right. The old sourpuss in the lower-right corner is Don’s nemesis, the Rev. John Roach Straton, an angry fundamentalist minister who eagerly predicted the impending doom of heathen New Yorkers.
The complete, two-page illustration presents 91 spot-on caricatures. It is linked here, with its original key identifying all the celebrities of the day. Barton was famous for his group caricatures, and this one was a precursor to a similarly mammoth piece that appeared in the Jan. 4, 1923, issue of the old Life magazine (linked here) that once again shows Don in the thick of the action. (He’s on the left page, a bit off-center, with Robert Sherwood once again in the row behind, next to a bemused Robert Benchley!)
We know Don Marquis today as a humorist (a satirist, really), but perhaps he should be remembered as something more—a humanist? The following lines are from an occasional column Don wrote in 1915 for Outlook magazine.
A LITTLE SYRIAN GIRL
I saw a little Syrian girl in a Brooklyn slum the other day who was sporting a pair of lavender-colored spats. Her stockings were somewhat out of repair; her toes were somewhat out of her shoes; the spats themselves had seen better feet; they had begun life as the spats of some one else, and they were too large for her. But they were spats—and she was happy.
She might have been happier if she could have danced. There was an organ-grinder on the block and other children were dancing. But when this particular little girl tried to dance the spats tripped her, So she gave it up and stood on the curbstone, spatted and superior, conscious Fashion queening it over Terpsichore. Her attitude conveyed that it was all very well for spatless children to dance in the streets, but that she had a certain position to maintain; she felt her social responsibility; if one has spats, one must live up to them. This was her outward attitude; this was the affectation forced upon her by the fact that with those particular spats she could not dance.
But all the while, deep in her ingenuous soul, there must have been stirring a conflict; she must have been debating whether she really wanted to miss the fun for the sake of the spats. In short, were spats worth while after all? Was dignity, eminence, worth the price?
Finally, nature won; affectation succumbed. She removed the spats and joined the dance. But it was too late. In a moment more the organ-grinder was gone. She resumed her spats; for a moment her face conveyed that she felt that she had lost both ways. But only for a moment. Presently the spats reasserted their sway; they communicated to their wearer a strut; she actually managed to strut standing still; to look at her now you would not have guessed that even a momentary doubt concerning spats had ever entered her mind; she became superior again.
I fancy the incident might be worked out on another plane and another scale in other streets. But what I enjoy about human beings is the fact that, no matter where one finds them, they are so human.
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WIT AND WHIMSY: Follow this link for a wonderful birthday tribute to Don Marquis by Bill Knight, a syndicated columnist appearing in the Pekin Daily Times in north-central Illinois. It’s an excellent piece, and well-researched, with quotes from E.B. White, Heywood Broun and Stanley Walker, along with a fine biographical profile.
Yes, Archy’s name is misspelled in the column, but that’s nothing new. Archy’s name has been consistently misspelled going all the way back to 1916, just a few months after it first appeared in print. And look at any dust jacket of “archy and mehitabel” from 1930 to 1943 and you’ll see “archie” printed on the inside rear flap — an unforgivable error from Don’s publisher, Doubleday.
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BIRTHDAY BASH: Don’s 141st birthday was Monday, July 29, and it was celebrated in New York with a gathering of the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society at Keens Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan, one of Don’s old haunts. We are happy to report that the toast of Walnut, Illinois, was toasted in proper fashion — repeatedly — and a good time was had by all. (Click on the photo at right for a closer look.)
We have also received correspondence from several far-flung friends of the Society, both foreign and domestic, reporting that they, too, lifted glasses in Don’s honor on his natal day. Anyone with photos (or stories) to share would do the Society a favor by submitting same.
(What is the Double Scotch and Prohibition Society, you say? Follow this link to join the party.)
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BRONZE EFFIGIES:The New York Times Book Review gave a nod to “archy and mehitabel” in its New & Noteworthy section on Feb. 3 when food writer Melissa Clark called out the carvings of Archy and Mehitabel that sit high above the entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza. Clark told the story of how this bronze cockroach and cat came to be, and who Don Marquis was, and why they, and he, deserve another look today. Here’s a link to her story.
And for more on those one-of-a-kind bronze carvings, read the story we posted here in 2011.
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Poring over reels of microfilm at the New York Pubic Library occasionally reveals unexpected treasure. A case in point is the following bit of light verse from Don Marquis’s “Notes and Comment” column in The (New York) Evening Sun — a forerunner to his famous Sun Dial column — on Sept. 24, 1912. The verse is unsigned but the words are unmistakably Don’s. Proof of his authorship can be found in an earlier version of the poem that appeared in the Atlanta Journal on Jan. 28, 1904, in a newspaper column, Rings From the Shop Pipe, written by a young editorial writer on the staff, Don Marquis.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the verse seems appropriate somehow on Valentine’s Day.
If you are in New York City, please meet at the bar of the venerable Keens Steakhouse, 72 West 36th Street (between Fifth and Sixth avenues) starting at 5:30 p.m. and continuing until we complete the prescribed toasts. We will order appetizers, and whoever can stay for dinner (individual checks) will be grateful they did — the mutton chops are out of this world. Trinkets to mark the occasion will be provided.
Remember, Repeal Day is one of the Society’s three High Holy Days — the others being Don’s birthday (July 29) and the anniversary of the first appearance of Archy (March 29).
Please join us! For more on the Society, go here. More questions? Email johnbatt (at) me.com.