King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 16 Part 2

 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 16

Genius Rides the Lone Wolf (part 2)

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A policy cutting off a large part of the patronage open to the consolidated syndicates was iterated in oral and written statements from Hearst. Boiled down to a single instruction, the effect was: “Don’t want to fortify our competitors in any city with any features or any material of any kind, except routine news service. This regulation applies to everything prepared or supplied directly or indirectly.”

The time came when that restriction excluded these seventeen centers from the general market for Hearst features: Albany, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Syracuse, and Washington.

The reasoning behind the sacrifice of revenues from these communities was eventually proved illogical by its abandonment. In the ’30s the bars against sales to non-Hearst publications were let down. Again expedience had supplanted logic. A definite need for more income set aside a reluctance “to fortify competitors.”

The promptness with which top records were set by King Features Syndicate outsped my brightest hopes. The roster of clients soon represented a circulation surpassing that of any competitor. A whimsical estimation of this success was linked with a memorable encounter. It was my first meeting with Eamon de Valera. That was in 1919. De Valera had escaped from an English prison only a few weeks before. Twenty months earlier, an amnesty had saved him from the execution of a death sentence. Now, as President of the Irish Republic, he had come to the United States to organize the sale of bonds for his government.

In the rotunda of the Auditorium Theatre, the Chicago home of grand opera, I had passed Clarence Darrow, absorbed in conversation with a man leaning against one of the marble pillars. There was nothing about the appearance of Darrow’s companion to arrest my attention. A quick glance had set him down as an embodiment of moderate averages. A sallowish complexion, a careless posture and an attire almost as negligent as Clarence’s Bohemian outfit, confirmed a first impression of unimportance. Darrow called me back. His insistence on presenting me to his friend was puzzling. It became irksome when Clarence’s tongue seemed to twist the pronunciation of a commonplace name.

“Develin” was a good West Side moniker. It fitted this owner. Why try to make it sound classy, like something that wouldn’t become him? Darrow was plainly miffed over the perfunctoriness with which I acknowledged the introduction. That only quickened my desire to get away. As I turned to leave, Herbert Kaufman entered the theatre lobby. He stopped me. Holding my arm, he spoke in mock reproof to Darrow and the man beside him.

“What do you mean by letting Koenigsberg get away from you?” he demanded. “You need him in your business. Do you know that he is responsible for more printed words every day than pass through the hands of any other individual?” Two facts flashed from what Kaufman evidently intended as friendly humor. First, the “business” of Darrow’s companion was something about which an alert journalist should know. Second, my work had reached a responsibility of sobering proportions.

Eamon de Valera

De Valera’s sympathy eased my embarrassment over a seeming snub to a distinguished visitor. The utter simplicity of his manner is unforgettable. It set him in a special niche in my gallery of recollections of men who guided national destinies. Of the six presidents of the United States beside whom I have been privileged to sit, before or during their occupancy of the White House, one alone matched the simple ways of Ireland’s chief magistrate. He was Calvin Coolidge. But he amazed me with traits at complete variance with the prevailing conception of his directness and taciturnity.

President Coolidge sat for the greater part of an hour in the East Room of the executive mansion at Washington, one leg over a sliding shelf of his desk, talking to me without interruption save for three questions that I asked. And less than a minute was consumed in the propounding of each of those queries. One related to Prohibition, at the time the most critical problem confronting the country. At the end of thirty-eight minutes, when the interview ended, the President had not answered any of my inquiries. Nor had he expressed a definite opinion on any serious topic. It should be emphasized, however, that there had not been the slightest intimation that Mr. Coolidge would make a statement of any sort. He exceeded my expectations. He gave me a rare demonstration. It showed that a master of reticence may also be a master of volubility. And there was ample evidence that Calvin Coolidge found considerable enjoyment in furnishing the proof.

Whatever parallel I may have found between Coolidge and De Valera was totally absent from the ponderous dignity of Grover Cleveland, described in earlier pages in the account of my interview with him at breakfast in New Orleans; the motion picture personality of Warren Harding, suggesting at each of our meetings a Roman tribune of the people on vacation from antiquity; the frigid mien of Herbert Hoover, who could not bridge his aloofness even while granting me a favor (which happened to be an authorization to announce a presidential trip); the almost melancholy reserve of William McKinley; or the irresistible aggressiveness of Theodore Roosevelt.

My acquaintance with William McKinley began before his initial term in the White House. The Pittsburgh Times assigned me to interview him. He had just delivered an oration at a Grand Army of the Republic reunion. It included an apostrophe to Lincoln as “the pillar of a people, the center of a world’s desire.” McKinley seemed touched for a moment by my rhapsodic appreciation. Then, in gentle reproof, he said, “Young man, you must learn to bridle your emotions, or you will squander your devotions.” Outdated as may be the phraseology, it is still good advice.

Theodore Roosevelt, whom I met in successive stages of reportorial and editorial work, filled an important chapter of my syndicate experience. It was a negotiation for his literary services. Incidentally, it exemplified the limitless objectivity of William Randolph Hearst. No man in high station had shown greater hostility to Hearst than Theodore Roosevelt. As president of the United States, Roosevelt directed Secretary of State Elihu Root to speak for him in opposition to Hearst’s candidacy for governor of New York in 1906. Charles E. Hughes was the Republican candidate in that campaign. Root’s speech attained the superlative in vitriolic denunciation. Professing to quote Theodore Roosevelt, Root said that Hearst, arraying labor against capital and capital against labor, poverty against wealth and wealth against poverty, “spreads the spirit, follows the methods and is guided by the selfish motives of a revolutionist.”

The bitterness of the attack provoked countrywide astonishment. It was stressed by the unusual action of a president of the United States in meddling so vigorously in a state election. The normal man in Hearst’s position would have been imbued with an implacable hatred for Roosevelt. But we find Hearst trying at the earliest opportunity to enlist Roosevelt on his staff of writers. The apostle of the strenuous life had not left the White House before Hearst’s emissaries tackled him. First Morrill Goddard was detailed to sign him up. After a time the assignment passed to me.

Roosevelt agreed to discuss the matter with me at the office of the magazine, Outlook. He was winding up a term as contributing editor of that periodical. We were standing together in a doorway at the edge of a mass of more than two hundred persons packed in a room too small for the comfort of half their number. Suddenly, the former president shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Hey, McCarthy!” rang the call. At the same time, Roosevelt’s famous campaign hat was swinging around his head. The former president had just noticed a comrade of his Rough Rider days. The thrill that ran through the crowd left me cold. McCarthy was wedged between several women less than ten feet away. He was close enough to hear what was said if his colonel had spoken in the subdued tones of a private conversation.

There was no hint of a poseur at my next meeting with Theodore Roosevelt. Arriving ahead of schedule at his Oyster Bay estate, I set out to surprise him on the walk he was taking through the woods. The tables were turned. He startled me. Crashing through brush and foliage, the noise of his approach suggested a bear on a honey scent. It was a pleasant relief to hear his greeting.

The former president frankly admitted that the terms I proposed differed so much from the offer in favor of which he had practically decided that “the entire matter would be reopened for further consideration.” When we parted he assured me that “except in the event of an adverse outcome of a pending development,” he would comply with my request. The adverse outcome eventuated. It was the decision of a family conference. Mr. Roosevelt accepted the proposal of the Metropolitan Magazine at a rate of compensation much smaller than the figures I submitted.

It is interesting to scan the staff which narrowly missed the inclusion of Theodore Roosevelt. Eventually, King Features Syndicate, as the central distributing agency, listed these stars: Elinor Glyn (discoverer of “It”), Rita Weiman, W. L. George, Damon Runyon, Gene Fowler, William B. Seabrook, Rex Beach, Maria Jeritza and Lucrezia Bori (who wrote about beauty), Helen Rowland, Helen Wills (world-champion tennis star), Kathleen Norris and Charles Norris, J. P. McEvoy, H. C. Witwer, Ford C. Frick (afterward president of the National Baseball League), Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, Elsie Robinson, Lilian Lauferty (Beatrice Fairfax), Ward Greene, Elenore Meherin, Frazier Hunt, Grand Duke Boris of Russia, Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Norman Hapgood, George Bernard Shaw, Gabriel d’Annunzio, Sir Rabindranath Tagore, Marshal Foch, Guglielmo Ferrero, Maxim Gorky, William Jennings Bryan, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Fannie Hurst, Peter B. Kyne, Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, Jr., Ray Long, Vincent Richards (Olympic tennis champion), B. C. Forbes (noted authority on finance), Ogden Armour, Karl H. von Wiegand, Charles F. Bertelli, Otto Tolischus, Louise Bryant (who, as the widow of John Reed, married W. C. Bullitt), H. R. Knickerbocker, Isaac Don Levine, Duke N. Parry, Edna Lee Booker, Baron George Wrangell, Robert J. Prew, Than V. Ranck, Dr. Charles Fleischer, Sidney S. Lenz, William Phillip Simms, James J. Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney.

The list of King Features Syndicate’s 1,200 clients circled the globe. It included publications printed in twenty-seven languages. The syndicate’s greatest success was in the distribution of “funnies.” Its premier comic was George McManus’ Bringing Up Father. The central figure, “Jiggs,” attained popularity as far away as Buenos Aires, Stockholm and Shanghai. In 1928, Bringing Up Father was published in more than six hundred communities, the largest roster of clients ever obtained for a comic.

McManus, however, did not achieve the financial success won by Bud Fisher with Mutt and Jeff. Fisher’s earnings at one time reached $4,000 weekly. As has been told in earlier pages, the character, A. Mutt, may be traced to A. Piker Clerk, the first comic strip printed daily in America. That was the feature drawn, under my direction, by Clare Briggs for the Chicago American, in 1905. Fisher was living in Chicago at the time. He went to San Francisco. Two years later, he created Mutt for the San Francisco Chronicle. The character was a striking likeness of A. Piker Clerk. It is possible that Fisher made no conscious appropriation of the idea delineated by Briggs. But the similarity of Mutt and Piker was pointed out in a copyright suit in New York in 1913.

The popularity gained by Mutt and Jeff became so great that W. R. Hearst lured Fisher away from the San Francisco Chronicle. Fisher came to New York. J. N. Wheeler, one of the ablest managers ever to enter the syndicate field, persuaded Fisher to join him. Copyright history was made in the litigation that ensued. The Hearst case collapsed under weight of counsel—a craft overladen with legal giants. Wheeler afterward became the founder and president of Bell Syndicate, and still later the general manager of the North American Newspaper Alliance.

King Features Syndicate assembled the largest staff of comic artists ever gathered into one newspaper organization. Harry Hershfield, originator of Desperate Desmond and Abie Kabibble, and one of the most talented humorists with whom I have worked, was a member of this little army of laugh-makers. He dubbed the office, “The world’s biggest fun foundry.” Among his fellow workers, beside those mentioned elsewhere in these pages, were: George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat; Tad (Timothy [sic: Thomas] Aloysius Dorgan), famous for his sports cartoons and his ]udge Rumhouser dog series, and who enriched the English language with more slang words and phrases than were attributed to any of his contemporaries; Hype Igoe, whose comments on sports shared popularity with his cartoons; Billy DeBeck, originator of Barney Google; Russ Westover, discoverer of Tillie the Toiler; E. C. Segar, whose Casper [sic: Castor] and Olive Oyl were reinforced by Popeye the Sailor and Wimpy; Chic Young, the entrepreneur for Blondie; Rube Goldberg, who engineered Foolish Questions in countless numbers; Frederick Burr Opper, sponsor of Happy Hooligan, Maud, and Alphonse and Gaston; Frank Willard, afterward responsible for Moon Mullins; Percy Crosby who made Skippy famous; H. H. Knerr, whose Hans and Fritz have been just as funny under his superintendence as they were in the original Katzenjammer Kids of Rudolph Dirks; Walter C. Hoban, Pat Sullivan, A. C. Fera, Gene [sic: Jean] Knott, Jimmy Swinnerton, Hal Coffman, Tom Powers, Tom McNamara, Zere, Paul Fung, Paul Arnot, C. D. Batchelor, Walter Berndt, Carl E. Schultze (Foxy Grandpa), Darrell McClure, Jo Swerling (Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean), Ad Carter, Jimmy Murphy.

One of my greatest cares was occasioned by the prima donna dispositions that fanned the atmosphere in which we worked. The emotional content of a company of divas is probably subject to fewer explosions than the volatilities pent in a staff of syndicate stars. It was my task to tend the vents ripped by these pneumatic energies.

Perhaps the best available index to the temperaments of comic artists was furnished by their major effort at organization in New York. A permanent club was launched. There was no trouble about electing the first president. He was Frederick Burr Opper. His seniority in age was so pronounced as to entitle him to the honor on that ground alone. When the time came for the second annual choice of officers, the society of kindly humorists was disrupted. It crashed into as many fragments as there were members. Each was of the unalterable conviction that he merited the chieftaincy.

A more rational, but not necessarily a more revealing, insight into the minds of the makers of “funnies” may be gleaned from their methods of work. Once I attempted to gather a symposium of their theories of humor. It was the consensus that the comic artist’s supreme passion could be summarized in the phrase, “Anything for a laugh.” Under that title, each of the corps of gentle fun-makers was invited to write an essay. Here are extracts from several of the contributions:

E.C. Segar

By the late E. C. Segar (to whom the world is indebted for Popeye):

All ideas seem good until they are drawn up. But after they’re all finished, their mirth-provoking possibilities, in my estimation, drop to somewhere below sea level.

Why not give birth to a new one right now? Let’s see——-Ha! Oh, baby! That’s what I call picking one out of the air! The above dashes represent three minutes of good, old, hard thinking. Why not have Rough-House, the cafe owner, talking to Popeye about how punk business is? He’s complaining that customers don’t eat enough.

“Blow me down!” sez Popeye. “I got a exter hot idear. Why don’t ya invent a appretizer wich’ll give folks a appretite? I means sumpin’ that’ll make a man so hungry he’d steal the spinach off’n his own kid’s plate.”

“Great!” exclaims Rough-House. “Let’s go over and talk to Professor Finklesnop about it.”

“Sure,” says the professor, “I can mix up some stuff that’ll make a mosquito eat a horse.”

The next scene shows many bottles of the powerful appetizer on the restaurant counter.

Enter Mister Wimpy—“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

If you are acquainted with Wimpy, you’ll know that he is the one man who should not have an appetizer. He’s a pest, always hungry, and always broke. And then he takes a swig out of one of the bottles!

This idea seems good now, and I’ll probably snicker a bit while I am drawing it up, but as soon as it is finished it will be like the others before it just something the cat dragged in.

Percy Crosby

By Percy Crosby, progenitor of Skippy:

When one is asked, offhand, “Can you recall your most interesting comic idea? How did it occur to you?” you grope around, lost and a little bewildered, sort of like the man with soap in his eyes, reaching for a towel; or the man in a strange dark room, groping for a bulb which is every place but at his finger tips. At any rate, I will plunge into the subject like a man diving into an icy pool. By thrashing out in every direction I might warm up to the subject.

When my little boy was three, and my little girl seventeen months, they sat with me at breakfast—one on each side. I share the orange juice and occasionally shove a piece of bacon here and there. They always remind me of a pair of little fledglings. The little girl pointed to a three-masted schooner which rests on the table. She said, “Trees, trees!” In a thousand years I never would have thought of trees on a ship; however, it amused me enough to get an idea out of it. It made a strip.

By H. H. Knerr, prompter of The Katzenjammer Kids:

How do you expect a comic artist to tell how he gets up his ideas? That would be giving away his groceries. And besides, half the time he doesn’t know himself.

To my mind, the best ideas are the most ridiculous ones—I mean, without being silly.

For example, I think one of the funniest comics the famous George Herriman ever made was when Krazy Kat runs up to Ignatz Mouse, all of a flutter, and says, “Oh! I have been ettecked by an engry engle woim!” The mouse replies, “Idiot! How were you attacked by an angry angle worm? What did he do to you?”—Kat, “I dun’t know whether he bit me or kicked me!”—Mouse, “What do you mean, you don’t know whether he bit you or kicked you?”—Kat, “Because fore and aft he was so much alike!”

When you analyze this it’s not as silly as it sounds, for who, I ask you, can tell the bow from the stern of an angle worm?

I suppose, to describe the “process of producing” a comic page, one might say that it is much like getting up a play—you have your cast of characters. You try to think up a plot and arrange a series of acts. These acts, or scenes, must have their stage settings, their composition, properties, dialogue and action, with a finale or climax and sometimes a moral. Some people don’t want to be bothered with morals these days. I guess the laugh is the most important thing, if any—and what may appear to be funny to one, may be just a pain in the gizzard to another—so there you are!

Billy DeBeck

By Billy DeBeck, who is proud of the paternity of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith:

Many years ago, W. R. Hearst wanted a good-looking gal in the Barney Google strip. Several weeks slipped by without any beautiful female. The reason: I’d rather take a beating than draw a fancy dame. Finally I turned out the most voluptuous blonde anybody could ask for. Then the fun began. I didn’t know what to call the little lady—Muriel, Jane, Eliza, Annie. None of them seemed to fit the charmer. I was stymied no end.

Finally I hit on “Sweet Mama.” Wow! That started something. Letters poured in. The readers wanted to know where her child was. How could a single gal be a mama? Was Barney the father, etc., etc.? We lost several clients. Brisbane phoned. “Cut out Sweet Mama,” he demanded. “Go back to Spark Plug.” But in two short weeks the expression “Sweet Mama” had swept the country. Songs were written about “Blonde Mamas,” “Red Hot Mamas,” etc. Brisbane phoned again. “Put the Sweet Mama back in the strip,” he said. “Don’t you know when you’ve got sump’n?” After that I started to play on certain expressions like “Heebie Jeebies,” “So I took the $50,000,” “Horse Feathers,” “Puddle Jumper,” etc. Anything for a laugh.

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