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Irwin Hasen’s Final Interview

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Irwin Hasen was born July 8, 1918. He began drawing comic books in 1940, so he worked professionally almost from the beginning of the industry. He worked in both comic books and newspaper strips, drawing The Goldbergs strip in 1947, and co-creating and drawing his own newspaper strip Dondi in 1954, which ran to 1986. In 2009, Vanguard published his autobiography Loverboy, which included an 88 page “graphic memoir” chronicling the romantic adventures and misadventures throughout his life and his obsession with women a foot or so taller than him (Irwin was notoriously short, at 5’ or 5’1”). This was an unusually revealing and honest account for a commercial cartoonist of Hasen’s generation, both sincere and sweet, written and drawn when he was in his late 80s. The rest of the book was composed of 30 or so text pages of breezy, almost random anecdotes.

I don’t remember when or on what occasion I met Irwin, but I was probably introduced to him at a convention. I would only see him at cons and when I did, he was always friendly and effusive and I would always end a frenetic conversation by telling him that we should take some time to do an interview and he would always amiably agree and then we wouldn’t do it. Finally, when I was in New York in the spring of 2013, I decided the time had come and that I really ought to at least break the ice, visit him, and get a preliminary talk on tape. Irwin was living history and it was important to capture his recollections. I visited him at his Upper West side apartment and we spent a couple hours together with the tape recorder running. I was not prepared to do a carefully chronological interview with him because I’d only read Dondi and his autobiography (which is woefully incomplete) and hadn’t yet done the research, though I knew the broad contours. I regret that I wasn’t able to follow up with another couple, more formally structured sessions, but, as anyone who read his autobiography can attest, Irwin did not have a formally structured mind. His mode of expression was cheerfully stream-of-consciousness, so this, his last interview, perhaps at least reflects his genuinely exuberant mode of expression and the pleasures of living a long and eventful life, reveled in at age 94. He told me he enjoyed it and I think it’s obvious we both had a good time.

IRWIN HASEN: Did you know Joe Kubert?

GARY GROTH: Very well—I was a good friend of Joe’s.

HASEN: Me too.

GROTH: I know you were.

HASEN: I was in the hospital a few months ago, and Arnold Roth came with his wife and he told me, “Irwin, we’ve got bad news for you,” he said. “Joe Kubert died.” Joe was the healthiest son of a bitch: energy, charisma, success. And I laid in bed bawling, crying my eyes out. You know, it’s like saying to God, “He’s not supposed to die.” And I cried like a baby, because he and I were very close, right from the beginning.

GROTH: And you taught at his school. He recruited you.

HASEN: Oh sure, about 30 years. So when I heard—it’s “why are you crying for a thing like that?” I mean, you gotta cry for your father, you cry for your mother…

GROTH: You cry for those you love.

HASEN: That’s right. Absolutely.

GROTH: And you loved Joe.

HASEN: Absolutely. I really mean it. Because we were so close.

GROTH: Tell me a little about Joe. Tell me when you met him.

HASEN: I met him about forty years ago, at DC, when I worked at DC. Tight family. Five kids. So we got to be friends and then he said, “How would you like to go to Hollywood, California? The Three Stooges’ daughter is getting married to my partner, Norman Maurer.” We were invited, and he said, “I’ll drive,” and he said, “Can you drive?” and I lied—told him I couldn’t. [Groth laughs] I had driven, I was in the army driving, but for some reason or other I lied. And we drove all the way out to Hollywood and God gave me a terrible sunburn for lying. [Groth laughs] That’s all.

GROTH: Did you tell him you couldn’t drive because you didn’t want to drive?

HASEN: I don’t know why I did it. I told him later, I said, “By the way, Joe, I drive.” That was all, and that wedding was a hell of a party.

GROTH: Now was that in the ’40s? When would that have been?

HASEN: When Bugsy Siegel was alive.

GROTH: Bugsy Siegel?

HASEN: When we were on the road, we drove through Las Vegas. I went to the Flamingo Hotel. I said to Joe, “I gotta take a leak. I’m gonna do it in that hotel down there.” He said, “Irwin, you can piss all over in the desert. All over the world.” I said, “No, I wanna go there.” [Groth laughs] So I went into the Hotel Flamingo to take a leak. A gangster was there, in a gray suit, and he said, “What do you want, kid?” I said, “Could I take a leak?” [Laughs] Am I boring you?

GROTH: No, no. This is good.

HASEN: So that’s the story with Joe Kubert. And he never forgave me, though.

GROTH: For going into the Flamingo.

HASEN: Yeah, alone.

GROTH: In the ’40s, you would have been in your 30s.

HASEN: 30s, yeah.

GROTH: Joe was about ten years younger than you. He was 85.

HASEN: Well at least he had a fairly long life. But he was the most private guy I ever met in my life.

GROTH: But you got close to him?

HASEN: Oh yeah, we never lost that spark. He’d call me Irk—I-R-K—and I taught for him and that’s Joe, Joe Kubert. But no one touches him, his private life. His family was his whole thing. His sons, his family, his daughters, and that was Joe Kubert. You don’t get anywhere near him.

GROTH: Where were you raised?

HASEN: Manhattan, west side of Manhattan.

GROTH: Were you born here?

HASEN: Yeah, I was born in Brooklyn. Bensonhurst. And we moved to Manhattan, lost all of our money, my grandfather went broke and we all lived together in an apartment. It was terrible, awful…

GROTH: During the Depression.

HASEN: Awful, yeah. Awful. You can’t believe. People had money and lost everything.

GROTH: And what did your parents do? What did your father do?

HASEN: My grandfather was in the furniture business down on the lower east side of Manhattan. He had a big shop, rich car, chauffeur. The chauffeur would drive me downtown every morning and I learned how to use the typewriter in those days. I was living in a house, an apartment, with people who lost everything. And I survived, I guess. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. I became a cartoonist there. I wanted to be an entertainer, [I wanted to be] Maurice Chevalier. That entertaining thing rubbed off on those pictures. I don’t want to segue too much.

GROTH: No, no, I’ll reign you right in. Let me talk to you a little about your upbringing. Now, you’re talking about the ’20s when you were chauffeured around.

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: And then I assume your grandfather and your father lost money during the Depression.

HASEN: Everything, everything. We lived all together in one apartment. It wasn’t easy…

GROTH: How many were there of you? How many siblings, how many people?

HASEN: Three. I was the only child. There was the grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, and a despicable—now you don’t have to print this—uncle.

GROTH: A despicable uncle. That sounds interesting.

HASEN: Despicable. [Groth laughs] He was making money, he kept all of us on a string. Pay the rent, pay the rent. They put him in the bed next to me where he slept to save money for himself. He was disgusting, he was awful. His name was Harold, his son despised him, his son disowned him. So that’s the kind of a life I had with these people. Screaming, yelling. How the hell I got out of there I don’t know. But I did.

GROTH: You went to public school.

HASEN: I went to public school, DeWitt Clinton High School, the Art Students League.

GROTH: What kind of a student were you in school?

HASEN: I was a so-so student. I failed miserably in math. But I went to art school and that’s where I learned how to draw. The Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design.

GROTH: When did you know that you had artistic inclinations? Did you always draw as a child?

HASEN: I think maybe when I was a kid, five years old, I looked at the newspapers my father brought home, and in the World-Telegram there was the comic strip, Wash Tubbs, I don’t know if you remember—

GROTH: Roy Crane.

HASEN: Roy Crane. And for some reason—listen to this, this is a good story for you—for some reason or another I said to my father, I said, “I want to draw like him.” Twenty years later I go to a cartoonists’ convention, with Ham Fisher, all of them. And I’m sitting in the audience with a group of cartoonists, and I didn’t know who he was. A skinny little man with a little moustache, comes from Georgia, he sits next to me and he says: “I like the way you’re doing it.” While I was doing Dondi. And somebody said to me, “You know who that is? That’s Roy Crane!” That was the highest point in my life, next to a few of those women. [Referring to pictures of him and various women hanging on the wall.]

GROTH: That’s nice, yes.

HASEN: But that was the highlight.

Dondi

Dondi

GROTH: That would’ve had to be the 1950s.

HASEN: Yeah, ’50s. To me, he was the greatest cartoonist. But the point is to be able to be that young, and spotted. I said to my friends, “That’s the greatest cartoonist in the world.” The greatest. Simple. So that’s what happened there, I was having an affair with a beautiful six-foot woman.

GROTH: This is at the same time, in the 1950s, when you were with the Cartoonists Society.

HASEN: Yeah, the ’50s, yeah. I had one hell of a life, as you can hear. I met them all. Willard Mullin was my idol.

GROTH: We’re publishing a big book of Willard Mullin’s work.

HASEN: Really? Well, you can mention my name because he was my idol, and the way I met him was beautiful.

GROTH: Tell me.

HASEN: He became my idol after Roy Crane and for some reason or another I was a pissy kid. I went on the subway down to the World-Telegram and I went around with samples of my work—you’ll get a kick out of this—and I said to the secretary at the office, “Can I see Mr. Mullin?” Nobody was allowed to go into the main room where Mullin was. But she got a phone call from somebody, and I lurched in. I ran into the city room and I looked for Mr. Mullin. And I sat down with him and he liked what he saw and he started to play chess with Will B. Johnstone, another cartoonist, and while he was playing chess he said, “Fill in the blacks [on this drawing], Irwin.” To make a long story short, we became friends at the Cartoonists Society. One night Willard Mullin got bombed. You know what bombed means?

GROTH: Yes I do. [Laughs]       

HASEN: And I said, “Willard, you can’t go home to Long Island. Call your wife and tell her you’re staying at my place.” I had one room. One room and a bathroom. And this is the master. Irwin, let me call Eleanor,” his wife, “I’m staying with Irwin Hasen.” She probably thought I was a wealthy cartoonist. I bring him home to the couch. I had one couch, which I slept on, and I got his coat off and put him on the couch like this. I said, “Willard take your coat off.” I swear to God. Am I boring you?

GROTH: Not at all.

HASEN: And he gets on top of the couch and I’m on the floor. And there’s my idol. [Laughs]

GROTH: Sleeping on your couch. In a drunken stupor.

HASEN: I wake him up in the morning—I don’t know how he was able to get up. But he got up and left. That was the story of Willard Mullin. But he never mentioned it ever. Anyway, he was my idol. He and Roy Crane.

GROTH: Mullin was one of the greatest sports cartoonists of the twentieth century.

HASEN: Absolutely, absolutely. I got drawings of his I copied. I worked in the fight business. That was a hell of an experience.

GROTH: You worked in the fight business?

HASEN: Yeah, as a boxing cartoonist. In the Forrest Hotel, 49th street and Broadway. Damon Runyon worked upstairs and I was on the third floor with this, not crooked, but sleazy manager of whatever… And I worked for this guy, Billy Stevens, Bang Magazine, you can look at it. I got out of school and I was a damn good cartoonist.

GROTH: Was that a cheesecake magazine? Bang Magazine.

HASEN: C’mere. Do you want to look at it?

GROTH: Sure. Want me to get it?

HASEN: Go. Go turn around, over there.

GROTH: OK. I’m walking across the room [narrating].

HASEN: There it is, right there on the left, on the left. No that’s the one I did…yeah that’s it, that’s it.

Hasen's first published work

Hasen’s first published work

GROTH: So it’s a boxing magazine, [reading the sub-title] “Boxing’s Weekly Wallop.”

HASEN: Yeah, yeah. Yep.

GROTH: Did you do this portrait?

HASEN: I did everything.

GROTH: Joe Louis?

HASEN: Everything on the wall. Long before Dondi, that kind of stuff.

GROTH: 1937 [reading the year].

HASEN: Yeah, that’s it.

GROTH: That’s fantastic.

HASEN: I met them all. So you can see why, in a way, I have something to feel good about. [referring to photos of women on the wall].

GROTH: Absolutely. We’re going to talk a lot about that.

HASEN: What’s to talk about? Why they were attracted to me, I don’t know.

GROTH: Tall women.

HASEN: But what about them? Short men. And they were the loves of my life. I remember every moment with them. So I’ve been lucky—so glad.

GROTH: Have you been married?

HASEN: No, never.

GROTH: How could you not?

HASEN: I don’t know, I look at them [drawings on the wall he’s done of women] and I say to myself, “How did I get away with it?” Because I was very close to those women. And I was trying to figure out, how did it come about? That’s the way it came about. They were exquisite, beautiful women in terms of man-to-man talking. But it happened and I must’ve loved every one of them because we stayed together for 10, 15 years.

GROTH: Each?

HASEN: Each. [Laughs] I like the way you say each. I never thought of it as each.

GROTH: So it wasn’t like six months here, a year there. It was longer term.

HASEN: When you mention it that way, no, they were love affairs, and they’re more inside.

GROTH: Did you live with any of them?

HASEN: They lived with me. And I like the way you’re mentioning that. Oh yeah, we lived together. [Laughs] They lived with me. No I never lived with them, they lived with me.

GROTH: I see. That was your preference.

HASEN: That’s the way it turned out. There were stories I could tell about each one of them but I’d rather not.

GROTH: So why did you never marry one of them?

HASEN: Well, I told you about my family life.

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: That probably had a lot to do with it.

GROTH: You mean you were psychologically unprepared…

HASEN: I went to a psychiatrist. And all he said to me was, “Your mother, your mother.” He said, “I want you to get married.” I went for five years and then he went to Europe and hung himself. [Groth laughs] Really.

GROTH: Really. You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?

HASEN: As a matter of fact, no, I didn’t.

GROTH: OK. [Laughs]

HASEN: He was a strong little old man. He hung himself on a chair in the fanciest hotel in London. And he was a very—he probably could’ve been a city Jew, but he was very elegant. You’re going to get stories from me.

GROTH: That’s what I’m here for. I’m not even sure where to start. I’m just going to pull stories out of you right now. When you met Willard Mullin, was that the goal, to meet one of your idols?

HASEN: I was a very tenacious kid. I must have been, to schlep all the way down to the World-Telegram and meet him and the girl said, “he’s busy” and I watched her go answer the telephone… and I walked right in. I walked into the city room and I said, “Where’s Mr. Mullin?” I must have been a feisty—not feisty but what do you call a guy…?

GROTH: Well you had chutzpah, right?

HASEN: And even Albert Dorne was one of my idols, and I went to visit him.

GROTH: You did?

HASEN: Oh yeah, he was a pisser. I met him at his apartment.

GROTH: Explain how that happened.

HASEN: His father was a friend of a funeral chauffeur and was working next door to me in a funeral parlor. And we were talking one morning, having coffee, and he says, “You’re a cartoonist.” He said, “My son—the rot-gut bastard [Albert Dorne] is my son.” Everybody has a story. I said, “Jesus, you know I’d love to meet him.” So I took a cab or a bus or whatever and went to his apartment on 59th street, the beautiful apartment of Albert Dorne, who was the classic artist of the world. We talked and he said, “How’d you get me?” I said, “Your father gave me your address.” He said, “That rat-bastard, son of a bitch.” I said, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” Apparently his father deserted his family, which happens. “That dirty son of a bitch,” and then we talked about my work.

GROTH: Did you learn from him?

HASEN: You don’t learn in an hour. All he said to me was, “Oh, you’re fine! It’s good! It’s good stuff!” I said, “Why do I draw so sloppy—so dirty?” And he said, “You’re a young man! First you’re gonna get dirty and then you’re gonna clean it up.” That’s what he said.

GROTH: How old would you have been when you met Albert Dorne?

HASEN: I was going to high school.

GROTH: The School of Visual Arts, that didn’t start until 1946 or ’47 something like that.

HASEN: You know your geography.

GROTH: When you went to—I’m just going to hop around—but when you went to School of Visual Arts, Burne Hogarth would have been there.

HASEN: Burne Hogarth was there, yeah. He was a guy and a half, unfortunately a great bore, B-O-R-E. When he got up to talk [Hasen makes a snoring sound].

GROTH: In a lecture, yes. So you don’t think he was a good teacher?

HASEN: He was a bore. And there were wonderful teachers that weren’t bores. But we became friends.

GROTH: Really?

HASEN: Oh, sure. Burne? I met them all.

GROTH: Did you get together with Burne, did you socialize?

HASEN: Occasionally. He was a very formal person and when you belong to the Society of Illustrators or the Cartoonists Society, you get to know everybody. You hug and you kiss, you hug and you kiss, and you drink, and you drink. They drank a lot. Walt Kelly, killed ’em. So anyway.

GROTH: Now, Burne doesn’t strike me as a hugger and a kisser.

HASEN: He was. He was not a drinker. He was the most uptight—ugh—you know him?

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: He was an incredible talent, but very uptight, you know? But the most talented of all them. He was really talented.

GROTH: Did you like his Tarzan?

HASEN: Yeah, I didn’t fall in love with that stuff, though. Mullin, that was my style.

Dondi

Dondi

GROTH: Now, did you learn from studying Mullin’s work?

HASEN: Yes. Freedom, freedom, loose, loose. I learned everything from Mullin. He taught me how to leave things. Roy Crane—he taught me what it was to be a cartoonist, but Mullin was something else. I’ve been so blessed, when I’m talking to you now, I’m glad I can say this to somebody: I’ve been so blessed. Including them, those and the ladies, because they weren’t tramps, they were lovely, respectable, and [when] I look at them, I see laughter.

GROTH: So looking back on your life, you’re very pleased with how it went?

HASEN: That’s why I’m 94 and I’m laughing!

GROTH: It’s a good feeling.

HASEN: It’s a good feeling because it’s almost like I said to myself, “Son of a…” I always say to myself, “You little son of a bitch, you got away with it.” In terms of life.

GROTH: Any regrets?

HASEN: Not getting married, maybe. Well, I’ll tell you, knowing me, knowing what I went through in my life, I have no regrets. No, I didn’t miss any of those women, they were all there for me. You saw my book? Loverboy?

GROTH: Yeah.

HASEN: Did you really?

GROTH: I read your strip yes, yes I did. I thought it was terrific.

HASEN: Really?

GROTH: Oh yeah.

HASEN: Coming from you, because you’re in the business, that means a lot.

GROTH: No other cartoonist of your generation would’ve done a comic like that.

HASEN: Joe Kubert said to me, he was the last guy in the world I would ever show it to, because you know Joe Kubert?

GROTH: Very straight.

HASEN: And he looked at me, and he said, “Irwin, we gotta get that published.” I said, “Joe, you like it?” He said, “I’m getting it published.” He got it published, by Vanguard. But I thank you very much, I appreciate that, ’cause that was my last hurrah.

GROTH: Like I said, I don’t think any other cartoonist of your generation would do a strip like that. Now in the 1960s, underground comics started and they were doing work…

HASEN: No, no, no. Never got close to it.

GROTH: Did you look at them? Did you read them?

HASEN: I looked at them, yeah. I admired them, but it was not my milieu. Oh yeah, it was great. Of course I admired those guys.

Loverboy

Loverboy

GROTH: Skipping back to when you were at the Art Students League, was it your ambition to be a cartoonist, because it also sounds like you wanted to be a performer.

HASEN: Right I wanted to be a performer mostly.

GROTH: More than a cartoonist, you wanted to be a performer?

HASEN: Would you believe it?

GROTH: Yeah, I’d believe that.

HASEN: I was told by directors doing the shows for the Cartoonists Society, “Irwin, you should give up your cartooning, and go into show business.” I was very good.

GROTH: Did you want to be a song and dance man?

HASEN: I wanted to be a humorist. Not song and dance because I couldn’t sing, but thank God I didn’t become a neurotic actor. [Groth laughs] I mean it, I didn’t want to be one of them.

GROTH: Were you neurotic?

HASEN: Yes, I wanted to be applauded all the time from people. Clap, clap, I understand being an actor, I understand being a humorist, I wanted to hear the sound of whatever it was.

GROTH: Did you go to vaudeville shows?

HASEN: Yeah, I fell in love with all those naked women. And there’s the humor.

GROTH: Now wait a minute, did you work in vaudeville?

HASEN: No.

GROTH: But you attended vaudeville shows and watched the acts.

HASEN: Occasionally, but only for the art of it. Thank God I didn’t go into vaudeville. But you see there’s some pictures there [on the wall], you’ll see pictures of me dancing and all that. And…it’s not an enigma is it?

GROTH: No.

HASEN: I’m a cartoonist, I’m an actor. I want to be an actor.

GROTH: No, that’s not enigmatic.

HASEN: What is it? Tell me!

GROTH: Well, you wanted to express yourself, you wanted to…

HASEN: Very much so, I wanted to be on the stage. I wanted to get rid of the enigma of my mother and father and family and that was my escape.

GROTH: You wanted to break out.

HASEN: That was my escape: get the hell out, get on the stage. Get the hell out, get on the stage. I did all the amateur hours. All of them, and I won two of them. Walter Winchell [pointing to a photo of Winchell and himself] gave me one. Imagine a young kid, a neurotic young kid of course, I had to be, getting up at night, nine o clock at night, sneaking out of the house, getting out on the stage, winning whatever I won… a case of beer…but the point is I got close to segueing into being an actor. “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships are sinking.” All alone getting out on the stage…

GROTH: How old were you when you did that?

HASEN: 14.

GROTH: Who were the humorists and other performers you looked up to?

HASEN: Walter Winchell, Maurice Chevalier, Cab Calloway.

GROTH: Jack Benny?

HASEN: No.

GROTH: Did you ever see Fred Astaire in the theater?

HASEN: He was the best of all the singers, am I right?

GROTH: And Adele.

HASEN: He’s my idol of all the song-singers. Am I right?

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: Why did you say that?

GROTH: Fred and Adele Astaire.

HASEN: But why are you saying that, because a lot of people in show business when they saw Fred Astaire up in the air, playing golf, the professionals would say, “There’s the master.”

GROTH: Yes, he was brilliant.

HASEN: Why do we think that way? I mean we have that in common.

GROTH: Because he was so brilliant at what he did, no one could touch him. I mean he was so masterful.

HASEN: I got tapes.

GROTH: Of his films? Yeah, me too. There’s a new book about he and his sister.

HASEN: Really?

GROTH: Before he actually made it big in film.

HASEN: He married this younger jockey.

GROTH: He married a woman that his parent’s were opposed to him marrying.

HASEN: Well his parents opposed the jockey.

GROTH: He had a repressed family life.

HASEN: Well I know he married a jockey, I don’t know why. I don’t even want to sully or say anything that would put him down. Absolutely, when he moved on stage, and even singing…

GROTH: Well the thing is, he wasn’t a great singer, but he was still so good, that you didn’t care that he wasn’t a great singer. He somehow made it work, right?

HASEN: I’m glad you agree.

GROTH: So, you were torn between being a performer and being a cartoonist?

HASEN: Yeah, a little bit.

GROTH: Did you create your own humor? I mean, monologues or…?

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: And you wrote these?

HASEN: I wrote them. I did imitations of Toulouse-Lautrec art for the Cartoonists Society. I built a bunch of staircases, and I had a long coat, a beard, wine, and I would walk backwards up those staircases. It wasn’t easy. And I had a cape, like a Toulouse-Lautrec character, and I walked slowly, and the girls were dancing at the café, whatever the name was.

GROTH: What kind of films were you watching in the ’30s? How about movies with someone like Herbert Marshall?

HASEN: Of course! From the older time, yeah. Why do you bring him up?

GROTH: Well you mentioned the ’30s and you mentioned comedies. He was great in romantic comedies.

HASEN: Yeah, you’re mentioning great guys.

GROTH: Ernst Lubitsch, Herbert Marshall.

HASEN: Who’s the little guy, the Englishman? What the hell was his name? Character actor. Played husbands—lovers and husbands. What’s his name, I forgot his name. An older gentleman, short, very short. He played with… Ingrid Bergman in a murder mystery.

GROTH: Claude Rains.

HASEN: Claude Rains.

GROTH: Are you referring to Notorious with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant?

HASEN: Yes, that’s the movie. It’s funny that you talk about somebody and you give homage to ’em, because you smile and I smile. Claude Rains.

GROTH: We know what we’re talking about and he was, of course, The Invisible Man in the ’30s.

HASEN: Yeah. He was a little guy.

GROTH: So you were out watching movies. You were going to the theater.

HASEN: But baseball was my favorite. I used to go with my father. I would say thank God. I loved it, I loved it. I was a fan of the New York [baseball] Giants. My father loved the Yankees and we had that wonderful father-son relationship where, “Dad, the Yankees [makes spitting sound] New York Giants—ptui! ” And he would stick to his and I would stick to mine. But I was a fan of the baseball players. When they’d come to New York I’d follow them.

GROTH: Did you play baseball when you were a kid?

HASEN: Yes I did, up in Fort Tryon park.

GROTH: Did you play stickball?

HASEN: Occasionally yes. Yeah, I was a New Yorker: stickball.

Dondi

Dondi

GROTH: Any other stories from the old days you want to tell?

HASEN: I went to a whorehouse one night. I came back to my buddies and said, “You bastards, I got laid.”

GROTH: How old were you?

HASEN: Around 17 or 18. A prizefighter took me up there. The gangsters sent me up there. I mean it. [When] I worked for a boxing magazine called Bang Magazine, gangsters were all over. One day I’m sitting at a typewriter while the boss is in bed with some woman, and this guy comes into the office, wearing a gray suit. That was Bugsy Siegel’s partner. I’m sitting at the typewriter. He’s a famous murderer. Forgot his name. How quick you forget famous murderers. And as he’s leaving he turns around to me and tells Billy Stevens, my boss, he said, “The kid’s got pimples, get him laid.” [Groth laughs] And he turned around and left. Izzy Singer was a prizefighter—right there, his picture’s up on my wall [pointing to a photograph]. He was sitting and reading the comics and my boss says “Izzy, here’s ten bucks, get the kid laid. Take him uptown.” He took me uptown and I’m shaking like a leaf, I’m 17. I felt like I was gonna crap in my pants. Izzy Singer took me uptown on the subway and he takes me to an apartment building up on 97th Street. I’ll never forget it: whorehouse. And a girl opens the door and says, “What’s this?” “Billy wants to get him fixed up.” And she took me into her room—and a gentle lovely lady, it could’ve been worse. I’ll never forget her, and she says, “Take it easy, relax.” And I got through and it was a gentle sex thing for a young kid. I go up to my buddies who were playing cards on the floor in their home. And I come into the room with them sitting there, and I’ll never forget their look, I said, “You sons of bitches, I got laid this morning.” This is from the gangster. He’s a tiny guy, murderer. One of the worst murderers—I forgot his name. So that’s what happened.

GROTH: Your benefactor.

HASEN: They were still playing cards, they didn’t pay attention to me. And I did a lot of traveling in my life. I went through Italy. I traveled all over the world. That’s what I insisted on.

GROTH: How were able to travel all over the world?

HASEN: You know when people ask me that—I wasn’t rich. I don’t know.

GROTH: So how were you able to afford that?

HASEN: I don’t know, I don’t know. London, Paris, Sweden, everywhere. Italy. I don’t know how I afforded it, but I was lucky, Lou Gehrig was lucky but I was lucky.

GROTH: Well, Lou Gehrig wasn’t that lucky.

HASEN: I was gonna say, he really wasn’t. No, but I was lucky. Jesus. I don’t know how I did it with the family I came from, they never went anywhere. They went to the Alps, the “Jewish Alps”—the Catskill Mountains.

GROTH: Well it was probably because of that, that propelled you into the world, right? You wanted to get away from that.

HASEN: I was so… that’s why you see me laughing and happy. I went all over.

GROTH: It sounds like you really wanted to live life. You know?

HASEN: I’m so glad—it’s why when I say I’m grateful, I’m grateful for that, not those women, they’re beautiful, but to travel all over the world despite coming from a poor family. They lost everything. How the hell I managed I don’t know.

GROTH: That seems almost the opposite of someone like Joe. He was very stable, he wasn’t going to do something like that.

HASEN: No way, no way.

GROTH: And it’s funny how you guys got along so well even though in some ways…

HASEN: We were two very different human beings. But I cried for him when he died. Because he was so family-oriented, he missed out on what I was able to do—to get the hell out of the family. I was able to get the hell out of the family.

GROTH: Well maybe that’s why you didn’t marry because families were toxic to you.

HASEN: That’s right, very good, the word toxic.

GROTH: Families are tough. So…were you drafted?

HASEN: Drafted? Yeah.

GROTH: In what year?

HASEN: 1942.

GROTH: Were you in the Army?

HASEN: Yes, of course I was. What do you mean was I in the Army?

GROTH: You could have been in the Navy or another branch of the service.

HASEN: No, I was in the Army. Played, did guard duty, I did all the stuff. I was marching with some fuck-ups from the American Army at Fort Dix. And in back of Fort Dix were the German prisoners of war. And I’m walking in back of these six-foot guys from America. I was on guard duty, with a gun, and we’re walking past the German camp prisoners [in mock German] “We vin the var!” And they screamed, “Look at the little shrimp with the big soldiers! That’s who we’re fighting?” I’ll never forget those bastards; I couldn’t do anything about it.

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GROTH: Couldn’t shoot them. So you were drafted in ’42 and you do your training at Fort Dix?

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: Where did you go from Fort Dix?

HASEN: Nowhere. I stayed there and then I was discharged. My mother died when I was in the Army.

GROTH: What year were you discharged?

HASEN: Maybe 1945. That’s when I went down to The New York Post to get a job drawing The Goldbergs strip—based on the radio show.

GROTH: So they didn’t send you to Europe? Why is that? Do you have any idea?

HASEN: I was too short. You ask a foolish question.

GROTH: Your height has served you well.

HASEN: Oh yes it has, with women and war.

GROTH: What did you do in the Army?

HASEN: I was an editor of the newspaper, worked my ass off, all the lazy musicians who get sent to Fort Dix—well you know what a gold brick means?

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: They were the biggest gold brick bastards. Jack Leonard, the singer was there—handsome, he was a winner—he should have been as big as Frank Sinatra, but he missed out and went to Hollywood to become an agent. I’ll never forget his words about me, “That fuck-up Hasen.” I’ll never forget him. And thank God, God got even with him and gave him Frank Sinatra, but he said, “Hasen, you know, that fuck-up.” Could be nasty, Broadway nasty. ’Cause I was working all the time.

GROTH: So you edited the newspaper.

HASEN: Yeah I worked at the newspaper, it was my newspaper.

GROTH: You must have liked Bill Mauldin’s work.

HASEN: One of the best.

GROTH: I thought Bill Mauldin was to war what Willard Mullin was to sports.

HASEN: Absolutely. Touché.

GROTH: Did you know Mauldin at all?

HASEN: Mauldin? No. He had a sad life. His wife left him and all that other stuff. I think he was destined to be what he became.

GROTH: He became a big drinker, yeah. Now, were you a big drinker?

HASEN: No, no I was strictly a business man: newspaper, drawing, and writing. And that’s what I did.

GROTH: Were you disciplined? I mean as an artist, were you a highly disciplined person?

HASEN: Yeah, yeah. I’ll show you some pictures I did of me at the Art Students League.

GROTH: I’d love to see those.

HASEN: I did some beautiful drawings. I was a talented son of a bitch, I mean I wasn’t just a fly-by-night.

GROTH: You went to the Art Students League after high school?

HASEN: Yeah, and before that, I went to The National Academy of Design, which was across the street from where we were living. I don’t know, all I can say is, I got the hell out of my apartment, my house, my family and I wanted to be an actor—Maurice Chevalier and all that. But then there was something that turned me onto the school. My mother paid for it. I never knew where she got the money.

GROTH: How old were you when you actually left home?

HASEN: When I was 16. Maurice Chevalier.

GROTH: You remind me a little of Maurice Chevalier.

HASEN: I used to do him so good. [Imitating] “Ladies and gentlemen, if the nightingale could sing like you, they’d sing much…” Oh, I met him one night, one afternoon at a luncheon. And I said, “That’s my idol, not Mullin—Maurice Chevalier.” He sat at a table next to me and I’m sitting like this. Handsome son of a bitch, Maurice Chevalier.

GROTH: What was his appeal? Because I never quite understood Maurice Chevalier’s appeal.

HASEN: His appeal? You had to see him.

GROTH: Did he have a sexual appeal?

HASEN: Yeah, to men and women. He was a handsome six foot four. His appeal was appeal, you know when you ask questions like that you’re not going to get anywhere. Appeal is appeal, you don’t know what it is. You don’t know what it is. I didn’t have appeal, I just did what I did up there. But he had appeal.

GROTH: So you were in the army for three or four years. You did a newspaper strip in the army?

HASEN: I did a strip based on Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs radio show. I had the great treat of getting to meet her, Gertrude Berg.

GROTH: Tell me who she is and how you met her.

HASEN: She was a little girl, a woman from the Bronx, writer and actress, she became famous, was on the stage, and one day—do you want to hear one little incident?

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: I’m working on her strip at the New York Post, and we became friends because I had to work with her. And I get a call from her secretary, Margaret. “Mr. Hasen,” she said, “Gertrude wants you meet her at the Hotel Edison, down on 47th Street. She’s having a little birthday party.” So, Jesus Christ, I’m a kid! Gertrude Berg wants me to come to her party! So I get dressed up and all that jazz and I take a cab down to the hotel. I was sitting at the table, small table. This is during the week. A skinny guy walks in the door. She introduces me, “Mr. Hasen, Irwin Hasen, this is Frank Sinatra.” He took off the day to go to her birthday. Those two people being friends? Those two people? The Jewish woman from the Bronx and him from Hoboken. And Irwin Hasen is there, too! Sinatra came all the way from the Paramount Theater to give her a hug. When you have things like that to remember: you’re rich!

GROTH: So did the three of you…

HASEN: So we decided to talk, just briefly. She had to go back, he had to go back.

GROTH: Did you like Sinatra’s singing?

HASEN: Who, Sinatra? Oh yes. Astaire first. Then Sinatra.

GROTH: Is that right?

HASEN: Well I love a lot of Sinatra’s work, he was the best there is, the best. He was my favorite, Astaire was my secret love.

GROTH: So tell me a little about the strip you did in the Army, which I am not familiar with. What was it about?

HASEN: I did this thing in the army, “Sgt. O’Mally.”

GROTH: Was that the first significant comic strip you did?

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: That’s it right there? On the wall? I see you used Zip-a-tone.

HASEN: Yeah, that’s right.

GROTH: It’s actually pretty accomplished. You were good.

HASEN: I wasn’t bad. Yes.

Hasen (right) at Fort Dix, 1942

Hasen (right) at Fort Dix, 1942

GROTH: How did you learn to do comics? I mean, what did you do before this?

HASEN: I went to whorehouses.

GROTH: I’m not sure you were taught how to do comics there, though.

HASEN: I don’t know how I learned how to do it.

GROTH: Was it all self taught?

HASEN: Self-taught.

GROTH: Was the Art Students League useful to you? Did you learn how to draw, did you learn anatomy?

HASEN: The Art Students League, I didn’t learn how to draw. I learned how to draw pictures. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know, it just came out there.

GROTH: You learned how to draw pictures.

HASEN: I learned how to draw pictures.

GROTH: You mean compose an image.

HASEN: Not there. At the National Academy of Design. My mother brought me there by foot, holding me by the hand, and I never knew where she got the money. As I got older, [I realized] she could’ve been a hooker. She loved me very much. And I loved her very much. But it was kind of a love—very strange. I don’t know how to express it. “Where did you get the money, Mom?” I didn’t ask that.

GROTH: OK, were you looking for work in the late ’30s, because the comic…

HASEN: No ’40s, maybe… the National Academy. Very, very conservative. My teacher was a drunken, old Russian—we would smell his breath. I would smell his breath on my back.

GROTH: What kind of art instruction did you get there?

HASEN: Very serious.

GROTH: And then you had to adapt this art instruction to comics. Because they didn’t teach how to do comics, they just taught you how to draw.

HASEN: No, I just did the comics because there was money. And I became damn good at it.

GROTH: And you learned how to do comics by just looking at other comics.

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: Like Crane and people like that. So how did you learn how to compose a panel and stage a scene?

HASEN: It’s my business. I don’t know. Some things come natural. How do you do this? How do you do that? Some things come natural and you do it. The minute you start to question, “What the hell am I doing?” you go into some other business. I just made that up, by the way.

GROTH: That’s true. Was the Sgt. O’Mally strip a humor strip?

HASEN: Humor. Yeah, come here I’ll show ya. This right here is Fred Astaire’s. That’s Jack Whitaker, Bill Gallo, Jules Feiffer [pointing to a photo].

GROTH: It looks like you and Jules are soused.

HASEN: Both of us were drunk. What the hell did I want to show you?

GROTH: That’s Bill Gallo, the sports writer.

HASEN: Yeah, that’s Bill Gallo, Jack Whitaker also. They were dear friends. What the hell did I want to show you? There’s the first thing to go.

GROTH: The memory, yes.

HASEN: That’s what I did at the old one, the Art Students League [showing Groth a drawing from the ’30s].

GROTH: The National Academy of Design?

HASEN: That’s where the teacher said, “Very good, Hasen.”

GROTH: It looks like it’s from a model; is that right?

HASEN: Yeah, oh yeah. This I did of a woman I loved very much. She’s since passed on.

GROTH: Now what year would that have been?

HASEN: This? 1930s.

GROTH: That’s nice, really nice.

HASEN: Isn’t that nice? That’s when the teacher said to me, “very good.”

GROTH: Do you still draw?

HASEN: Yeah.

GROTH: That’s a realistic rendering from life [pointing to another drawing]. Now did you have to adapt to the cartoon idiom, the more exaggerated style for cartooning?

HASEN: I think, everybody’s afraid to admit it, I was an artist. I was an artist. That’s where it showed.

GROTH: Well, it shows in your comics, you just have to be able to look for it. Do you paint?

HASEN: No.

GROTH: Because I see you have Art of the Real: Nine American Figure Painters.

HASEN: Every painter, every artist, cartoonist has something in back of them.

GROTH: And do you like Philip Roth [looking at a Roth novel on the coffee table]?

HASEN: Yes. I’m afraid to say that I haven’t read it yet.

GROTH: I just read this.

HASEN: Really? Oh really?

GROTH: Yeah, it’s great.

HASEN: That’s when I was going with the women when I was very young and I got that book. Really?

GROTH: Yeah, yeah.

HASEN: Denial of Death.

GROTH: Not too long ago, yes.

HASEN: That’s my book. That was the first book I ever read.

GROTH: That’s a big book. That’s a significant book.

HASEN: It’s funny that you mention it. I was screwed up with some woman and I had to read it.

GROTH: Now is this you [looking at a jazz drawing]?

HASEN: No, that—I bought that in New Orleans. I love jazz.

GROTH: Do you?

HASEN: Oh yeah, I went down there and had the greatest weekend in my life.

GROTH: Did you listen to a lot of jazz in the ’30s and the ’40s?

HASEN: All night long, yeah.

GROTH: Did you see some of the performers, like Artie Shaw or…

HASEN: Oh sure. Oh yeah.

GROTH: Who are some of your favorite jazz artists? Do you like Art Tatum?

HASEN: Oh, of course, yeah. All those guys I knew and loved and I can’t remember right now in my life, remembering them, but the black guy, the greatest black guy…

GROTH: Satchmo?

HASEN: Satchmo.

GROTH: Did you ever play an instrument?

HASEN: No, I missed out on that because I could’ve joined the Guitar Society down there and I became a follower of the Guitar Society. I played tennis.

GROTH: Really?

HASEN: Oh yeah, and I wanted to show those old skinny gentiles that I could play tennis.

GROTH: And you did.

HASEN: And I did and I won prizes. And I was this big, of course you had the same thing, and they were all tall guys and I can’t believe what I went through to play tennis. Not that—I didn’t go through anything, but the inclination to play tennis, five foot two, Jewish, how the hell did I get the nerve?

GROTH: Chutzpah.

HASEN: That’s right, that’s right!

GROTH: So obviously, you can become obsessive. You’re an obsessive personality. [Groth’s cell phone rings.] Can I take this? This is my son.

 

[Groth talks on the phone with his son.]

 

HASEN: Yeah I’m getting beat.

GROTH: That’s OK, I have an eighteen-year-old son, and he’s here. And I dropped him off, so I could see you.

HASEN: So you’re gonna see him?

GROTH: Yeah we’re going to get together. I mean, we both flew out together.

HASEN: Where do you live?

GROTH: I live in Seattle.

HASEN: I thought you lived in Queens.

GROTH: Close.

HASEN: You live in Seattle, Washington?

GROTH: Yeah.

HASEN: Very good.

GROTH: What I’d like to do is to call you and tape several short conversations…

HASEN: Oh sure.

GROTH: And I can maybe have a much more structured interview where I can ask you…

HASEN: So far it sounds good.

GROTH: Well good, I’m glad.

HASEN: I mean it. You’ve covered a lot of bases.

GROTH: I’m very happy about that.

HASEN: You should be. Are you doing this for a living?

GROTH: Yes.

HASEN: Good. Good, because you’ve covered a lot of bases and I appreciate it, because you’ve got me “coming out of the woodwork”—remembering a lot of things.

 

Transcribed by Conrad Groth and Tom Graham

FILED UNDER:

5 Responses to Irwin Hasen’s Final Interview

  1. I’m so glad that Gary did this, even as “short” as it is. Well, it would have been nice if they could have discussed Alex Toth, one great whose work reflects a lot of Hasen influence, but Hasen self-published a quite interesting spiral-bound collection of letters Toth sent to him, so their friendship has been captured for posterity. Anyway, with this and other interviews that have emerged recently and his Eisner Hall of Fame induction, Hasen got some appreciation before he passed. That photo of him at Ft. Dix is priceless.

  2. Mike Rhode says:

    Gary, I’m glad you got this done and put it out. There’s a good bit of interesting material here. James can we get the citation for the Hasen/Toth book? Thanks.

  3. It is titled “Alex Toth: Letters to Irwin Hasen”, dated 2006, self-published by Hasen in a 8.5″ X 11″ spiral-bound notebook format; no idea how many he made, I got mine directly from him at a NYC con—-here is a blog site with some scans:

    http://mikelynchcartoons.blogspot.com/2012/06/alex-toth-letters-to-irwin-hasen.html

  4. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Parent to appeal school district's 'Palomar' ruling - Robot 6 @ Comic Book ResourcesRobot 6 @ Comic Book Resources

  5. Best interview ever! Chutzpah!!

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