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 →

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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 www.DonMarquis.com.

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

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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:

 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.

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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: 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 DonMarquis.com 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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