Happy Anniversary, Archy and Mehitabel!

tribune-archyThe following story first appeared 100 years ago, on March 29, 1916, in The Sun Dial column of the New York Evening Sun. It was written by Don Marquis, the newspaper’s star columnist, and it introduced a fantastic fictional character: Archy the cockroach.

Archy was unlike anything that had been seen in print before. Sure, literature was already full of anthropomorphic animals — from the characters in Aesop’s fables to Br’er Rabbit. There was even a talking insect: the Woggle Bug in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz. But Archy was new and different. There were no illusions of grandeur for a lowly cockroach, and his stories had the immediacy of a daily newspaper deadline. More than anything that had come before, he was a product of his times. Reincarnation was a new topic in the early decades of the last century, and so was free-verse poetry, and Archy was the reincarnation of a free-verse poet.

Marquis, as Archy, used wry humor to comment on the most talked-about topics of the day: on flappers and bold women, on Prohibition and World War One peace negotiations, on new invention such as the radio and on the latest exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was topical and it was current, and it survives to this day, still fresh and on-target, still remarkably fun.

And this is how it began. The text below is slightly different from what you will read in the opening pages of “archy and mehitabel,” collected and published in 1927 by Doubleday Page & Co. There are a few extra sentences in this original version, and Mehitabel the cat wasn’t mentioned by name yet – that would come a few weeks later. Enjoy. Continue Reading →

It’s archyFest! 100 Years of Archy and Mehitabel!

archyfest logoIt was 100 years ago, on March 20, 1916, that Don Marquis added a fanciful bit of filler material to his daily newspaper column in The Evening Sun. He claimed that a cockroach had crawled onto his typewriter the night before and left a message by diving on the keys, one at a time. Many more messages would follow from the labors of Archy the cockroach, including wild tales of a neighborhood alley cat, Mehitabel. It was brilliant stuff, and it’s still with us today. Let’s celebrate!

Plans in New York City include performances of actor Gale McNeeley’s one-man show, “Archy and Mehitabel”; a walking tour of New York’s old Newspaper Row on Sunday, March 27; and a special gathering of Marquis fans on the evening of Tuesday, March 29, at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar/restaurant in the East Village, where tales will be told, Archy poems will be sung, and toasts will be raised to Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel.

Further events and exhibits will take place throughout 2016, all under the banner of archyFest! See below for event details: Continue Reading →

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. Continue Reading →

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 www.DonMarquis.com.

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

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:

 newyyorker1973

 

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.

‘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: Continue Reading →

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.

*  *  *

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

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.”)

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 →