Ink-Slinger Profiles by Alex Jay: Merle Johnson

Merle DeVore Johnson was born in Oregon City, Oregon, on November 24, 1874, according to Who’s Who in America (1912), American Art Annual, Volume XIV (1918) and the American Literary Yearbook, Volume I (1919).  Johnson’s parents were William Carey Johnson and Josephine DeVore.

In the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Johnson was the youngest of three brothers. Their father was a lawyer. The family resided in Oregon City on Center Street.

Who’s Who said Johnson graduated from Stanford University in 1897. Johnson was on the staff of the school newspaper the Daily Palo Alto which noted his chess victory but team loss. Information regarding Johnson’s art training has not been found. The 1904 Stanford yearbook, The Quad, mentioned Johnson as an illustrator.

The Junior Quad was instituted by the Pioneer Class in 1894. In this annual the artistic talent of the University finds scope, and the various virtues of Francis, Culver, Bristow, Adams, Merle Johnson, Borough, Bowman, Miss Holly, Sterrett, and the later illustrators are abundantly attested in the ten picturesque volumes.

An 1898 San Francisco city directory listed Johnson as a Chronicle newspaper artist who resided at 1031 Vallejo. The following year Johnson was with the Examiner newspaper and at the same address. 

The 1900 census recorded artist and illustrator Johnson in San Francisco at 1317 Octavia. City directories dated 1901, 1903 and 1904 said he was with the Examiner.

Who’s Who said Johnson married Margaret Keough on September 7, 1905. The San Francisco Call said Johnson was a New York resident at the time.

American Newspaper Comics (2012) said Johnson produced two series in 1907 for the American-Journal-Examiner, When Antoinette Is on the Job and He’s Stuck on Angeline. From 1906 to 1910, Johnson produced several comics for the New York Evening Journal including an untitled series about clothes and fashion; Frog He Would a-Wooing Go; It Happens Every Day; Hint to Wooers; Something Always Happens; and When Women Are Stronger Than Men. Johnson drew The Boy Scouts—Bill and Bobbie which ran from November 29, 1914 to May 16, 1915 in the New York Press.

According to the 1910 census, Johnson was a newspaper artist who resided with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in Queens, New York, on Pine Street. In 1910, Johnson was the manager of the New York Evening Journal art department. The Stanford University Alumni Directory and Ten-year Book, Volume II, 1891–1910, said Johnson lived in Douglaston, Long Island, New York. Who’s Who had his office at 238 William Street.

The 1915 New York state census said the Johnson family and two servants were on Cherry Street in Little Neck, Queens, New York. Johnson’s occupation was illustrator. The Fourth Estate, February 20, 1915, noted Johnson’s new business deal. 

Merle Johnson, cartoonist of the New York Evening Journal, contributor to Puck and other publications, has contracted with Joseph S. Edelman, president of the Sterling Advertising Service, for the right to use his services of commercial purposes.

According to The Artist and the Child (1980), Johnson was a cartoonist for Puck from 1914 to 1917.

On September 12, 1918, Johnson signed his World War I draft card. His address was Cherry Street in Douglaston. He was employed as art manager at Wilson Service, 500 5th Avenue, New York City. Johnson was described as short, medium build with brown eyes and dark hair.

Johnson’s books include A Ball of Yarn (above), A Bibliography of the Work of Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens; A Bibliographic Check-List of the Works of James Branch Cabell 1904–1921; and Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

Johnson was a freelance illustrator in the 1920 census. His address had not changed.

The 1922 New York city directory listing for artist Johnson said he resided at 45 Washington Square South and worked at 1440 Broadway. Johnson contributed illustrations to the New York Tribune from 1921 to 1922.

Judge 5/27/1922

Johnson’s wife and daughter Marion applied for a passport on August 1, 1923. The family residence was on Second Street in Bayside, New York.

According to Who’s Who in New York City and State, Volume IX (1929), Johnson’s residence was 42 Commerce Street and studio address 243 West 34th Street, in New York City.

Johnson has not yet been found in the 1930 census.

The Stanford Illustrated Review, March 1933, published this item about Johnson. 

Merle DeVore Johnson, early an artist on the San Francisco Chronicle, then for fourteen years head of Hearst’s art department in New York City, and in more recent years a commercial artist in that city, has a bookstore across the street from the Pennsylvania Railway station and deals in first editions, in which he long has been a recognized authority. For years he was tennis champion of Long Island. His elder daughter, Helen, under the screen and stage name of Judith Wood, is now playing the part of Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight.

According to the New York Times, June 2, 1935, Johnson suffered a fractured skull when he was struck by an automobile.

Johnson passed away September 1, 1935, at his home in Manhattan, 65 East 53 Street. The cause was pneumonia. His death was reported the following day in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Times.

—Alex Jay

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