Modern Mehitabels

"There's a dance in the old dame yet"The New York Times today printed obituaries for two women whose lives could not have been more dissimilar.

Janet Wolfe, 101, was a New York socialite, “gleeful gadabout” and friend to some of the most powerful and creative men of the last century. Federico Fellini made passes at her, The Times noted, and Orson Welles sawed her in half in a magic show. Holly Woodlawn, 69, was a transgender actress who starred in Andy Warhol’s 1970 underground film “Trash” and was the inspiration for Lou Reed’s epic ballad “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Wolfe and Woodlawn had little in common except a rebellious spirit, bold and unstoppable, and a determination to wring every bit of life out of their time on this planet. So it’s no surprise that The Times has compared both women to Mehitabel, the brassy, bawdy alley cat whose adventures were captured in Don Marquis’s classic 1927 collection of tall tales and light verse, “archy and mehitabel.” The comparisons span many decades but are nonetheless fresh.

The Times’ Margalit Fox, in her obituary of Wolfe, wrote that to be in her presence “was to find oneself enveloped by an amiable hurricane, equal parts Holly Golightly, Auntie Mame and Mehitabel, the dowager cat at the center of ‘Archy and Mehitabel,’ Don Marquis’s celebrated World War I-era column in The Evening Sun.

“ ‘Toujours gai’ — ‘Always cheerful’ — Mehitabel would declare in her dotage; ‘there’s a dance in the old dame yet.’ (Ms. Wolfe, in fact, was drawn to strays: If she found a kitten on the street she might well take it to Schrafft’s for a bite.)”

Fox’s analogy was perfect. So too was a comparison of Woodlawn and Mehitabel in a 1971 Times review of the animated film “Shinbone Alley,” by Vincent Canby. Mehitabel, Canby wrote, was “a toujours gai old dame with the soul of Cleopatra, the airs of Emma Bovary, the artistic longings of Isadora Duncan, the hangovers of Dorothy Parker’s Big Blonde, and the sexual resolve of “Trash’s” Holly Woodlawn.”

Don Marquis first wrote about Mehitabel in 1916. Nearly a century later, it’s remarkable to see that Mehitabel remains a touchstone for women such as Wolfe and Woodlawn — brave, unrelenting and thoroughly fascinating. The world needs more of them.

(Icing on the cake: Fox’s obituary of Wolfe included a link to this website’s Archy and Mehitabel page. Thanks!)

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A New Look for Archy (Several, In Fact)

George Herriman’s drawings of Archy and Mehitabel brilliantly capture the spirit of their subjects: the inquisitive cockroach and the sassy, brassy alleycat. To many most readers, the drawings are as much a part of Archy and Mehitabel’s charm as Don Marquis’s stories about them.

But Herriman was just one of many artists to capture their magic. Edward Gorey drew Archy and Mehitabel, and so did cartoonists at The New Yorker and Collier’s magazines. Animators drew them in a feature film, and artists today continue to draw inspiration from cockroach and cat.

Here is a look at Archy the cockroach through the eyes and pens and pencils of 10 artists, drawn over the course of nine decades. Scroll further down the page for an up-close look at each of the images. And look for drawings of Mehitabel in a future post.

Archy the cockroach, as seen by 10 illustrators. This image is from

Click on the thumbnail images below for full-size views:

tribune-archyThe very first image of Archy appeared in the New York Tribune on September 11, 1922. The was the day Don Marquis joined the Tribune as its star columnist, and the newspaper took out half-page advertisements in rival dailies, including The New York Times, to brag about its new hire. Marquis had created Archy six years earlier at The Evening Sun and would remain at the Tribune until 1925.

colliers1926-archyThis image accompanied a retelling of Don’s classic story “the lesson of the moth” that ran in Collier’s magazine on June 5, 1926. After Don left the Tribune, he had a weekly column in Collier’s titled “If You Know What I Mean” that ran for one year. Archy, of course, made regular appearances in it. His story of the moth willing to fry himself on a lightbulb was a repeat; it had previously appeared in The Sun in 1922.

herriman-archyThe book “archly and mehitabel” had been in print for three years when, in 1930, Don’s publisher, Doubleday Doran, asked what he thought about a new edition with illustrations by George Herriman, who was well on his way to achieving cult status with his weirdly brilliant newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat. Don replied that if it would boost sales, he was all for it. It did, and the rest, as they say, is history. (For more on Herriman and the dust jackets he created for Marquis’s books, check out this recent blog post.)

colliers1933-archyCollier’s magazine published many of Don’s short stories and poems throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and this image of Archy scuttling away from a tin of insect repellant was part of a rhyming alphabet by Don that appeared in the July 22, 1933, issue.  The alphabet is tremendously funny, and begins, naturally, with the letter A: “a is for Archy, which becomes / a synonym for roaches / an archy neither stings nor hums / but subtly he encroaches / some persons heed him and cry louder / others reach for the insect powder.” Read the complete poem here.

newyorker-archyThis squib appeared in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column on January 14, 1950, accompanying a story on the death of The Sun newspaper. The magazine noted bitterly that in all the obituaries published by other newspapers, “there was only one mention of the most distinguished Sun man of them all, Don Marquis. The fact that the Sun office was the place where the lower-case Archy, the bug with the soul of a poet, subsisted on stale paste and apple parings and performed his nightly labors on the typewriter keys proved not worth a passing notice. Ah welladay!”

shinbone-archyArchy came back to life, gloriously, in 1970 with the release of “Shinbone Alley,” a feature-length animated movie directed by John D. Wilson. It was based on a 1957 Broadway musical of the same, and it featured the voices of Carol Channing as Mehitabel, Eddie Bracken as Archy, and Alan Reed Sr. (“Fred Flintstone”) as Mehitabel’s tomcat boyfriend, Big Bill. It’s an enjoyable movie, with tuneful music and animation nothing like the standard Disney fare of that time.

gorey-archyAny literary character would be thrilled beyond words to be drawn by a master craftsman such as George Herriman, but Archy has the distinction of being drawn by two of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century. That second honor came with the release of the October 1986 issue of The Atlantic magazine, which featured a four-page spread of “lost” Archy stories illustrated by Edward Gorey.

frascino-archyThose lost stories mentioned above had been found by one Jeff Adams, who purchased the contents of an abandoned trunk of Marquis papers. Ten years after the Atlantic spread, Adams published a more robust collection of Archy stories that had never been included it books before. This new book was “archyology,” and it features a new set of illustrations by illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist Ed Frascino. More stories, and drawings followed in 1998 with “archyology ii.”

hostetler-archySome years back, a fortuitous mix of Google search terms revealed a webpage featuring the art of Paul Hosteler, an illustrator in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had posted several pages of unfinished sketches, including one from 2009 with drawings of Archy as a smart, sophisticated cockroach dude — wise and a bit world-weary. This is one of those sketches. Here is a link to Hostetler’s Facebook page.

cates-archyAnother lucky Google search uncovered the art of Isaac Cates, editor of Cartozia Tales, a clever magazine featuring stories by independent cartoonists. (And, oh yeah, Cates is also a Ph.D. poetry and writing lecturer at the University of Vermont). This image of Archy was part of an alphabet drawn in 2012 for his Satisfactory Comics blog.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s 10,000 that says Archy is alive and well as his 100th birthday approaches in March 2016 (see my archyFest! page). In fact, Archy has never looked better!

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Barsotti Draws Archy in The New Yorker

Archy the cockroach has reappeared quite a few times in newspapers, magazines and blog posts in the decades after Don Marquis’s death. Check out this classic scene, drawn by the ace New Yorker cartoonist Charles Barsotti in 1973:



Barsotti was one of the most prolific and best-loved of The New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists. He drew 1,400 cartoons for The New Yorker, from the 1960s until his death in 2014, and was famous for simple line drawings of dogs and kings, outlaw snails and talking pasta. Here’s an appreciation, with lots of classic images, from the magazine’s cartoon editor.

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‘My Dear Miss Snook …’ — An Incredible Letter

Letter to Vera SnookSome of Don Marquis’s most fantastic, imaginative pieces of writing never earned him a dime. They were the private letters he wrote to friends and strangers alike — long, winding affairs, full of whimsey and wild surmise, sometime punctuated with shockingly dark humor.

If you read a letter published on this site earlier this year, “My Dear Miss Hickman …,” you get an idea of what I’m talking about. But perhaps no letter of Don’s can match the current submission: a five-page, single-spaced reply to the librarian of the Little Rock (Arkansas) Public Library, who had innocently inquired, in a letter dated February 7, 1927, if Don would please identify a sampling of his best works and also who did he regard as his contemporaries in the field of humor writing. The librarian, Vera J. Snook, was to give a talk at the library on “Wit and Wisdom of Modern Humorists,” and the date of the program, February 18, was fast approaching — less than two weeks away. Could Don help?

His reply sets a new standard for dark humor. Don’s letter was dated February 11, 1927, and before the end of the second paragraph he tells Miss Snook that she’s in over her head and can’t possibly complete her task in time, and her only recourse is suicide! He explores the pros and cons of various methods of suicide, while admitting that maybe there are a few other options still available to avoid giving that fast-approaching talk. A hastily arranged wedding, perhaps? Or maybe — c’mon, you knew this was coming — maybe she should just read Don’s letter to her audience at the library and be done with it.

This letter has never before been published. A carbon copy was found, along with Miss Snook’s polite missive, among the papers of Don’s biographer, Edward Anthony, in the special collections department of the University of Oregon library in Eugene. Phone calls to the Little Rock Public Library and searches of online databases and Arkansas newspaper archives have failed to provide the rest of the story: What did Miss Snook do? Was she shocked and appalled by Don’s outrageous suggestions? What did she tell her library audience?

We simply don’t know. There is a clue, however, that suggests Miss Snook wasn’t scared off by Don’s bold letter and may have enjoyed the exchange. A second letter from Don to Miss Snook is also among Anthony’s papers at the University of Oregon. It is dated a year later — March 30, 1928 — and in it Don answers several oddball questions that Miss Snook passed along presumably from a library patron. The letter is friendly and engaging and charmingly grumpy in spots, as if Don no longer needed to impress a trusted correspondent.

But back to the bilious letter that introduced Don to the apparently unflappable Vera J. Snook:

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February 11th, 1927.

My dear Miss Snook:

I have your letter saying that you have chosen as a subject for your program, “Wit and Wisdom of Modern Humorists,”—-and I think you have chosen a very hard subject to do anything with. If a magazine editor should ask me to write him something on that subject, in a short space of time, I should have to refuse, even though he dangled great sums of money in front of my eyes.

For a subject such as that can mean only one of two things: either a most wide, patient and thorough investigation and analysis, running into years of work, and resulting in a good-sized book; or else a paper that is merely a mass of perfunctory quotations from various writers. Quotations are usually a bore, and, in the way they are usually presented, apart from the text of their author, they are bores to read or hear. If I were in your fix and had to get up such an article by the third Friday in February I think I should commit suicide right away. It seems to me to be, on the whole, the easiest way out for you. Continue Reading →

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A Stunning Dust Jacket by George Herriman

Dust jacket for "archys life of mehitabel"Some of the very best commercial artists of the early 20th century were called in to draw distinctive dust jackets and illustrations for Don Marquis’s books. E.W. Kemble, who illustrated Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and many of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books, also did the cover and inside artwork for Don’s first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” in 1912. Tony Sarg did the cover and inside art for “Prefaces” and “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith,” and John Held Jr. did a cover for “The Old Soak” as well as illustrations for several of Don’s feature pieces in The Sun. 

But none compares with the brilliant, iconic drawings for Don’s three Archy books by George Herriman. The creator of the quirky, beloved Krazy Kat comic strip produced 93 illustrations plus dust jackets for “archy and mehitabel,” “archys life of mehitabel” and “archy does his part.” Herriman’s cartoons are an integral part of the books, and we imagine that Archy and Mehitabel look exactly as Herriman drew them., 

Among the three Herriman dust jackets, one stands head and shoulders above the others. The cover for “archys life of mehitabel” is a riot of color and characters that only could have come from the creator of Krazy Kat. In fact, except for Mehitabel herself, none of the characters on the dust jacket are in the book at all; they’re straight out of Krazy Kat’s Coconino County. (Archy, for that matter is nowhere to be seen.)

Few people today have ever seen the dust jacket for “archys life of mehitabel.” The last hardback edition appeared in 1938, and as a rare-books catalog might note, it is “extremely scarce in jacket.”

Click on the photo above to open an enlarged image of George Herriman’s masterpiece. And enjoy.

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The back story: Herriman’s covers were not the first to appear on two of the three Archy books. The first edition of “archy and mehitabel” appeared in 1927 with a stunning, minimalist cover by an artist identified only as “J.W.” It was replaced, for one printing only, with 20 thumbnail-size Herriman cartoons in 1930, before a full-size Herriman illustration was put on the cover, also in 1930. It shows Mehitabel in a garbage can, eating a sardine, while Archy types furiously on a small typewriter. This dust jacket  appeared from 1930 to 1943 before it was replaced with another Herriman drawing.

The first-edition cover of “archys life of mehitabel,” in 1933, had a drawing of Mehitabel by the artist “Jay.” It was replaced later that year by the cover above. The final book in the trilogy, “archy does his part,” in 1935, was the only one to have an Herriman drawing on the cover from the first edition through the last (the fourth printing, in 1936). It shows Mehitabel peering through a brick wall at Archy, clearly both at home in Coconino County.

Photos of all the covers will be coming soon.

Three Archy books

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Happy Birthday Don Marquis!

Caricature of Don Marquis by Tony SargToday is the birthday of Don Marquis — born Robert Perry Marquis on July 29, 1878, and given the nickname Don when he was a small child. The nickname stuck, and then it doubled in size in 1909 when his fiancee, Reina Melcher, sent out wedding invitations and assumed that Don was short for Donald. The new name also held, although only on formal occasions. Don was simply “Don” to his many friends.

Don was born and raised in Walnut, Illinois, a small, dusty town on the Midwestern prairie. Walnut, he wrote, is “one of those towns that prop two cornfields apart.” Don was known for telling tall tales, and perhaps one of them — or perhaps not; who can say for sure? — was his claim that he was born during a solar eclipse, which he believed had imported some special significance to his life, although he could never find direct evidence of that.

You can read much more about Don in the page on this website titled “His Life and Times.” Suffice it here to simply join other folks in wishing a hearty happy birthday — number 137! — to the spirit of a writer who made untold numbers of people take a moment out of their busy, difficult lives and laugh. And keep on laughing today. Here’s to the jesters! Happy birthday, Don!

P.S. My favorite biographical description was by Don himself, written in 1916 at the request of a young writer and admirer, Christopher Morley. If you haven’t read it before, please take a look.

(The illustration accompanying this post is by the great Tony Sarg, one of the most in-demand illustrators in the 19-teens and ’20s. His whimsical drawings can also be found in Don’s 1919 book, “Prefaces.”)

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Coming Saturday: Archy’s Typewriter in Boston

Shift Key on the Blunderwood PortableNote: Location update!

If you will be anywhere close to Boston this weekend, be sure to see the Blunderwood Portable typewriter in the Rose Kennedy Greenway. It’s a massive art installation on display Saturday and Sunday, part of Boston’s Figment Festival. Look for it where High Street intersects with the Greenway, northeast of South Station.

The Blunderwood, a 24:1 scale 1927 typewriter measuring 20 feet square and 8 feet tall, is an homage to Don Marquis’ Archy the cockroach.

Much like Archy, who dove head-first on the keys of Don’s typewriter to tell his stories, visitors to the Blunderwood will be able to walk on huge typewriter keys and see their own messages projected on an overhead screen made to look like an oversize sheet of typing paper. Several of Archy’s poems will also be projected.  Continue Reading →

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Musicians: Marquis-Based Compositions Are Waiting

FrustrationThe sad truth is this: The editor of has absolutely zero musical abilities. He can’t read a note of music, and he probably couldn’t play a player piano if he could even find one.

This is a shame, because two songs based on light verses by Don Marquis have been written by a world-renowned composer and are waiting to be heard and enjoyed, but they need someone to perform them.

“A Seaside Romance” and “Frustration” are short, silly poems in Don’s 1921 book “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith.” They were set to music (for piano and tenor) in 2010 and 2011 respectively by Gary Bachlund, who won fame as an opera singer in the 1980s (Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera, etc.) before switching to composition.  Continue Reading →

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Archy Was Real, but That’s Not His Original Name

170 Nassau St., NYC

170 Nassau Street: “Vermin Castle.”

Here’s a thought that might keep you up at night: The real, live descendants of Archy the cockroach may be scurrying around the streets and alleyways and high-priced real estate of lower Manhattan at this very moment.

That’s right, Archy, the most famous insect in American literature, was based on a cockroach that once was very much alive. His home was in the newsroom of the old Evening Sun newspaper, but his real name was Erasmus, not Archy. Don Marquis revealed Archy’s origins and commented on his enduring appeal — and his frequent reincarnations — in an essay he wrote in 1934 for The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper at Cornell University.

“Archy crawled into my life about twenty years ago, when I was doing a daily column on the New York Evening Sun,” Don wrote. “There was a story in the news columns about a garage up town somewhere that was haunted, . . . the type-writer in the garage office would keep clicking of nights, when no one was in there. So they thought it was a ghost, which is about what a lot of garage loafers would think. It didn’t occur to any of them to put a sheet of paper in the machine and give the ghost a chance to have his say. One night they found a mouse running back and forth on the keyboard; he was the ghost.  Continue Reading →

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