Ink-Slinger Profiles: Ken Kling

(Part five in the five-part series of profiles on cartoonists and their connection to Bud Fisher. Ken Kling was the youngest of the “Fisher-men” and the only one to apprentice for Fisher. –Alex)

Kenneth Lionel “Ken” Kling was born in New York City on October 18, 1895, according to his World War I and II draft cards. In the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, he was the oldest of two sons born to Jacques and Mary; they lived in Manhattan, New York City at 24 West 134th Street. Kling was profiled in the July 29, 1946 issue of Life magazine, which covered parts of his childhood.

…He was born in Harlem, the son of an Alsatian butcher who aspired to make an actor of him. Kling took elocution lessons from the age of 6, but these resulted in such violent nightmares that they were discontinued. He was a good ballplayer, and John McGraw, who used to buy meat from his father, made Kling a Giant mascot for a few years….

Ten years later the family resided at 124 West 139th Street in Manhattan. Kling was a high school student. Life magazine said:

…He was also a runner of some ability while in school and held the 50-yard dash record briefly. On leaving high school he got a job in a silk house whose main product was ladies’ veils. In those days veils had small chenille dots in them. Kling made the dots.

One day he suggested to his boss that sales could be increased by substituting stars, crescents, small bugs and other designs for the dots. He liked to draw and was put to work designing new and sales-stimulating dots. He was obviously a man to be watched, and his employer was, unbeknownst to Kling, watching him a few days later as he whiled away company time by drawing caricatures of the man who was watching him….

Although he was immediately fired, he left with compliments upon his artistic ability ringing in his ears and he was thus inspired to become a cartoonist. Despite his lack of experience and training, he wangled a job as unpaid apprentice to Bud Fisher, the creator of Mutt and Jeff…Kling watched Fisher at work and practiced furiously for about six months, at the end of which time he was entrusted with the job of blacking in the shadows that Mutt and Jeff cast on the ground. Fisher was anxious to reduce his two-hour working day to even less arduous dimensions, and it was not long before Kling was doing all the lettering and all the backgrounds as well as the shadows.

If Kling finished high school at age 17, it could have been between the fall 1912 to spring or fall 1913. He may have been employed and fired during 1913, then apprenticed with Fisher. His lettering and background work could have started in 1914, which coincides with Myer Marcus’ tenure on Mutt and Jeff. There is a second account of when Kling met Fisher in Maurice Zolotow’s book, Never Whistle in a Dressing Room or Breakfast in Bedlam (1944).

Kling attended the High School of Commerce. He excelled only in freehand drawing. He was fair at English and history, but flunked algebra and geometry—proving, perhaps, that a mastery of numbers doesn’t make superior handicappers. Kling also raced at track meets. He set a P.S.A.L. record for the 50-yard dash which stood for many years. He was captain of the 440-yard relay team. He was fired from his first job, clerk in a wholesale lace house, because the boss caught him drawing a satiric cartoon of the boss. The boss advised him to get a job as an artist. Kling enrolled at the Art Students League. He studied in a life class. He had no patience for the slow, careful craftsmanship that art requires. He would finish a sketch of a model in five minutes. The instructor advised him, none too gently, to resume a commercial career.

Unconvinced, Kling proceeded to write letters to his three favorite cartoonists, Ripley, Rube Goldberg and Bud Fisher. Kling offered himself as assistant apprentice at no salary. Nobody answered his letter. Finally, he learned where Fisher’s office was located. Kling swaggered upstairs and knocked at the door. A thin, dapper man with dreamy eyes opened the door a crack and peered out suspiciously.

“I wish to speak to Mr. Fisher,” announced Kling.

The man carefully scrutinized Kling. “Oh, Mr. Fisher,” he replied, “Mr. Fisher is away. For a year.”

Later, Kling learned that it was Bud Fisher who had given him this misinformation. Fisher had mistaken Kling for a process server. Fisher, with good reason, always went on the assumption that any stranger was a man with a subpoena. In 1910, when barely sixteen years old [Kling was 15 years old on October 18, 1910], Kling became Fisher’s apprentice and was permitted to stand behind the master and look over his shoulders as he drew Mutt and Jeff. One day, Fisher drawled, “Y’know, m’boy, you’ve got ambition. You’re very perserverin’. But you’ll never get t’be a real cartoonist unless you get some India ink in your veins.”

“Wh-what— ” stammered Kling, starting up.

“In other words,” said Fisher, “you ought to drink a bottle of India ink.” Kling forthwith hoisted a bottle of India ink, as cheerfully as if it were a beaker full of the blushful Hippocrene, and managed to down most of the ink before Fisher could stop him. After this inky baptism, Fisher permitted Kling to black in the coat of Little Jeff. Ken considered himself an important personage and boasted to all his playmates that he was now helping the great FIsher draw Mutt and Jeff. “Yah,” they sneered, “and you also kiss Lillian Russell every night.” In order to prove his claim, Kling now and then would sneak a tiny white “k” into Jeff’s coat. Then he would say to his doubting friends: “Watch next Friday’s Mutt and Jeff and see if there isn’t a k in Jeff’s coat. The k stands for Ken Kling.”

It’s possible Kling “worked” for Fisher beginning in 1910. The length of the apprenticeship is not known but it might have ended during 1913, when he turned 18. Myer Marcus drew Mutt and Jeff from 1914 to 1915, and, presumably, he did his own lettering and backgrounds.

In both accounts, Kling did not draw the Mutt and Jeff characters; his role was limited to lettering, backgrounds and filling areas in black. I think his time on the strip happened within a six-year period, from 1910 to 1915; exact dates are difficult to determine at this time. A third account was in Martin Sheridan’s Comics and Their Creators: Life Stories of American Cartoonists (1944).

Ken Kling never had any formal art training but always wanted to become a cartoonist. He decided to approach the top-ranking comic strip artist of his time — Bud Fisher — and ask him for a job.

“My plan worked and Fisher made me his assistant,” Kling revealed. “After three years I created a feature called Katinka for the New York World.”

In this account, the least likely of the three, Kling started work for Fisher in 1920. Whichever account you believe, Kling steadily made progress and sold his first strip, Hank and Pete, to the National Cartoon Service; it began in the Fort Wayne News (Indiana) on April 10, 1916.

Kling signed his World War I draft card on June 5, 1917. He lived at 1864 7th Avenue in Manhattan. His occupation was an operator of leggings for Rosenwasser Bros. Inc., which had a contract to manufacture goods for the U.S. military. His description was short, slender, with brown eyes and hair. Life magazine said, “During the first World War Kling enlisted in the Navy.” After the war he did the comic strip, Buzz and Snooze; it ran at least October 6, 1918 to March 23, 1919. Kling applied for a passport on June 18, 1919 (see photo). His residence was at 1815 7th Avenue in New York City and occupation was artist. He planned to visit England and France on newspaper business. His traveling companion was Bud Fisher; they sailed aboard the S.S. Lapland on June 21 as reported in the Belleville News Democrat (Illinois) on July 28. They returned on September 13, 1919 aboard the S.S. Aquitania.

In 1920 the Klings lived at 1878 7th Avenue in Manhattan. Kling was a cartoonist for a newspaper. On February 1, 1923 he applied for passport to visit England, France and Germany for “newspaper business for the New York World and London Daily Express.” The date of his return is not known. He was very busy in this decade with the strips, Those Folks (1922-23), Katinka (1920-23) and Joe Quince (starting 1923). Life magazine said

…Fisher persuaded Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World to try Kling out as a cartoonist with a strip called Katinka….Klings’ artistic debt to Fisher was evident in the fact that both Katinka and her employers were virtually indistinguishable from many of the minor characters in Mutt and Jeff.

But interest in Katinka dwindled, and Kling was told he would have to produce a better idea if he expected to continue on the World. He took a week off to think of something and was invited by Fisher to spend it with him at Saratoga. Fisher loved horses and had a large racing stable of his own. Kling accompanied Fisher to the track the day after he arrived at Saratoga. It was the first time he had ever seen a race….

…Kling went to Baltimore, then a busy racing center, and succeeded in selling his idea on a trial basis to the Baltimore Evening Sun. He named his cartoon character Joe Quince and, to make his first strip as realistic as possible, he looked in the paper for the name of a real horse running at a nearby track the next day. He blindly picked one named Shuffle Along and had Joe put $5 on its nose. The next day he had just finished drawing a picture of Joe hocking a gold tooth to raise another $5 when he was informed that Shuffle Along had won and Joe’s bank roll was now $55. In desperation Kling tore up his drawing and looked in the paper for another horse. He decided on one named Aggravating Papa on the assumption that no horse with a name like that could possibly win a race. He put Joe’s entire roll on Aggravating Papa. But Papa did win, and Joe’s bank roll jumped to $220. Kling was stunned. He was sitting dejectedly in his hotel room, wondering whether to pack that night or the next morning, when the editor of the Sun got him on the phone and said that Baltimore was going crazy. If Kling would forget his original idea of picking losers and pick winners instead, he would raise him from $25 to $100 a week….

…Meanwhile the New York World had heard about Kling’s Baltimore gold strike and was frantically wiring him to come home with his new idea. Kling was soon syndicated in 83 papers.

Joe Quince was renamed Joe and Asbestos in 1924 and ended its first run in 1926. Kling then created Windy Riley, which began on December 12, 1927.

According to the 1930 census, Kling married Mayme when he was 26 years old. The family of three lived at 27 West 86th Street in Manhattan. He was a cartoonist for a syndicate. Kling revived Joe and Asbestos in 1932. At first it was syndicated, but later became an exclusive for the New York Mirror.

On April 26, 1942, Kling signed his World War II draft card. The card said he lived in New York City at 300 Central Park West, and his employer was the Daily Mirror. His description was “5′ 5″, 170, brown eyes, brown hair.” Kling passed away on May 3, 1970, in Great Neck, Long Island, New York. The next day, many newspapers, including the Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey), published the Associated Press story.

Ken Kling Is Dead; Horseplayer’s Pal

New York (AP)—Ken Kling, whose “Joe and Asbestos” cartoon was followed avidly by horseplayers for nearly 40 years, died Sunday after a long illness.

Kling’s last wish was that his pallbearers be beautiful girls and his age not to be revealed, according to a family spokesman, who said Kling was “in his 70s.”

“Joe and Asbestos” was a daily feature in the New York Daily Mirror for 35 years, then was seen in the Daily News for three years after the Mirror folded. Kling retired a year ago.

Hidden Horse Clue

The cartoon would contain a hidden clue to the identity of a horse running that day who was regarded highly by Kling. Kling was reputed to be one of the nation’s leading handicappers.

His widow, Mayme, survives, along with two sons, Heywood and Ken Jr., and three grandchildren.

Although he long insisted “I don’t know a thing about horses,” thousands of racing fans bet the way “Joe and Asbestos” did. Kling estimated once that $3-million was placed on the horses he picked each day.

“Luck is still 85 percent of winning,” he said. He said, too, that his tips “have paid off mortgages on old homes, paid for babies, bought tombstones, wooden legs, glass eyes and helped hundreds of kids make the mistake of going to college.”

Profitable Picks

His selections always showed a profit, a spokesman for the family said yesterday. He was once listed among the 10 most successful one-man businesses in the country in a magazine survey, the spokesman added.

The idea for the comic strip came when a conventional strip Kling was drawing for The New York World was sagging. Something of a racing fan, he thought of doing a strip with a bettor as the chief character—one with whom other $2 form scholars could identify who would regularly lose his shirt.

The editor of The Baltimore Sun agreed to try out the strip with “Joe” as the protagonist, betting on real horses. To Kling’s surprise, every horse he backed the first day won.

His luck stuck with him, and soon owners, jockeys, trainers and clockers began feeding him tips, which helped, and he gradually learned more about the science.

“You may think you can beat the races,” he cautioned once, “but remember, it’s the bookmakers who ride in Rolls Royces.”

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