Requiem for the Home Front
A Cheer for Irma the Caricaturist
By Tom Engelhardt
Almost three quarters of a century ago, my mother placed a message in a bottle and tossed it out beyond the waves. It bobbed along through tides, storms, and squalls until just recently, almost four decades after her death, it washed ashore at my feet. I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. Still, what happened, even stripped of the metaphors, does astonish me. So here, on the day after my 71st birthday, is a little story about a bottle, a message, time, war (American-style), my mom, and me.
Recently, based on a Google search, a woman emailed me at the website I run, TomDispatch, about a 1942 sketch by Irma Selz that she had purchased at an estate sale in Seattle. Did it, she wanted to know, have any value?
Now, Irma Selz was my mother and I answered that, to the best of my knowledge, the drawing she had purchased didn't have much monetary value, but that in her moment in New York City -- we're talking the 1940s -- my mom was a figure. She was known in the gossip columns of the time as "New York's girl caricaturist." Professionally, she kept her maiden name, Selz, not the most common gesture in that long-gone era and a world of cartoonists and illustrators that was stunningly male.
From the 1930s through the 1940s, she drew theatrical caricatures for just about every paper in town: the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Journal-American,PM, the Daily News, the Brooklyn Eagle, not to speak of King Features Syndicate. She did regular "profile" illustrations for the New Yorker and her work appeared in magazines like Cue, Glamour, Town & Country, and the American Mercury. In the 1950s, she drew political caricatures for the New York Post when it was a liberal rag, not a Murdoch-owned right-wing one.
Faces were her thing; in truth, her obsession. By the time I made it to the breakfast table most mornings, she would have taken pencil or pen to the photos of newsmakers on the front page of the New York Times and retouched the faces. In restaurants, other diners would remind her of stock characters -- butlers, maids, vamps, detectives -- in the Broadway plays she had once drawn professionally. Extracting a pen from her purse, she would promptly begin sketching those faces on the tablecloth (and in those days, restaurants you took kids to didn't have paper tablecloths and plenty of crayons). I remember this, of course, not for the remarkable mini-caricatures that resulted, but for the embarrassment it caused the young Tom Engelhardt. Today, I would give my right arm to possess those sketches-on-cloth. In her old age, walking on the beach, my mother would pick up stones, see in their discolorations and indentations the same set of faces, and ink them in, leaving me all these years later with boxes of fading stone butlers.
She lived in a hard-drinking, hard-smoking world of cartoonists, publicists, journalists, and theatrical types (which is why when "Mad Men" first appeared on TV and no character ever seemed to lack a drink or cigarette, it felt so familiar to me). I can still remember the parties at our house, the liquor consumed, and at perhaps the age of seven or eight, having Irwin Hasen, the creator of Dondi, a now-largely-forgotten comic strip about a World War II-era Italian orphan, sit by my bedside just before lights-out. There, he drew his character for me on tracing paper, while a party revved up downstairs. This was just the way life was for me. It was, as far as I knew, how everyone grew up. And so my mother's occupation and her preoccupations weren't something I spent much time thinking about.
I would arrive home, schoolbag in hand, and find her at her easel -- where else did mothers stay? -- sketching under the skylight that was a unique attribute of the New York apartment we rented all those years. As a result, to my eternal regret I doubt that, even as an adult, I ever asked her anything about her world or how she got there, or why she left her birth city of Chicago and came to New York, or what drove her, or how she ever became who and what she was. As I'm afraid is often true with parents, it's only after their deaths, only after the answers are long gone, that the questions begin to pile up.
She was clearly driven to draw from her earliest years. I still have her childhood souvenir album, including what must be her first professionally published cartoon. She was 16 and it was part of an April 1924 strip called "Harold Teen" in the Chicago Daily Tribune, evidently about a young flapper and her boyfriend. Its central panel displayed possible hairdos ("bobs") for the flapper, including "the mop," "the pineapple bob," and the "Buster Brown bob." A little note under it says, "from sketches by Irma Madelon Selz." ("Madelon" was not the way her middle name was spelled, but it was the spelling she always loved.) She would later go on to do theatrical sketches and cartoons for the Tribune before heading for New York.
I still have her accounts book, too, and it's sad to see what she got paid, freelance job by freelance job, in the war years and beyond by major publications. This helps explain why, in what for so many Americans were the Golden Fifties -- a period when my father was sometimes unemployed -- the arguments after I was officially "asleep" (but of course listening closely) were so fierce, even violent, over the bills, the debts, and how to pay for what "Tommy" needed. But other than such memories and the random things my mother told me, I know so much less than I would like to about her.
"A Lady Drew It for Me"
As I turn 71 -- two years older than my mother when she died -- I can't tell you how moved I was to have a small vestige of her life from the wartime moments before my birth wash ashore. What my correspondent had bought in that estate sale -- she later sent me a photo of it -- was a quick portrait my mother did of a young man in uniform evidently being trained at the U.S. Coast Guard Machine School on Ellis Island (then occupied by that service). On it, my mother had written, "Stage Door Canteen" and signed it, as she did all her work, "Selz." It was April 1942, the month of the Bataan Death March and Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo. And perhaps that Coast Guardsman was soon to head to war. He signed my mother's sketch "To Jean with all my love, Les" and sent it to his sweetheart or wife.
Later that April night in the midst of a great global war, Les wrote a letter to Jean in distant Seattle -- the framed sketch from that estate sale contained the letter -- filled with longing, homesickness, and desire. ("Well, I see it is time for the ferry, so I will have to close and dream about you, and can I dream. Oh boy.") And here's how he briefly described the encounter with my mother: "Well, I said I would send you a picture. Well, here it is. I was up to the Stage Door Canteen, a place for servicemen and a lady drew it for me."
That institution, run by the American Theater Wing, first opened in the basement of a Broadway theater in New York City in March 1942. It was a cafeteria, dance hall, and nightclub all rolled into one, where servicemen could eat, listen to bands, and relax -- for free -- and be served or entertained by theatrical types, including celebrities of the era. It was a hit and similar canteens would soon open in other U.S. cities (and finally in Paris and London as well). It was just one of so many ways in which home-front Americans from every walk of life tried to support the war effort. In that sense, World War II in the United States was distinctly a people's war and experienced as such.
My father, who volunteered for the military right after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, became a major in the Army Air Corps. (There was no separate U.S. Air Force in those years.) In 1943, he went overseas as operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma. In Terry and the Pirates, a popular comic strip -- cartoonists of every sort "mobilized" for the war -- his unit's co-commander, Phil Cochran, became the character "Flip Corkin." Strip creator Milton Caniff even put my father jokingly into a May 1944 strip using his nickname, "Englewillie," and in 1967 gave him the original artwork. It was inscribed: "For Major ENGLEWILLIE himself... with a nostalgic backward nod toward the Big Adventure."
My mother did her part. I'm sure it never occurred to her to do otherwise. It was the time of Rosie the Riveter and so Irma the Caricaturist lent a hand.