ART SCHOOL ON UNCLE SAM’S DIME
GROTH: Now I believe after the war—in ’47—you hooked up with Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder and got a slot in their studio. Between the time you got home and the time you did that, what did you do?
SEVERIN: There was. You’re right. What did I do?
GROTH: [Chuckles.] The lost year.
SEVERIN: No, I remember what it was. Good Lord! Colin Dawkins, a friend of mine, told me that… Before that, the first thing I actually did—now it’s all coming back—I signed up at Art Student’s League. I was going to study under Frank Reilly and another guy. They told me it was a year’s waiting list, so Colin had become aware of a little school uptown New York in the ’70s, I believe. I was in Seattle, Washington, by the way, before I took off for the Pacific. I liked the town. I liked the town a lot.
GROTH: Oh, is that right? Well, it’s probably changed, but it’s still a great city.
SEVERIN: Oh, everything’s changed. You can never go back, no matter where. You cannot go back, and don’t! It’s terrible. And I didn’t read that in Thomas Wolfe, you just can’t go back.
GROTH: You knew that.
SEVERIN: What we did, was the two of us, [Colin Dawkins and I] went up there and we signed up on the G.I. Bill of Rights—what a terrible name. We spent several months, I think altogether four months, studying art and so-called art. Well, let’s call it six months for the sake of argument. And in that six-month period, I ran into some great people. They had the Soyer brothers. Two of the Soyer brothers came in as instructors because I think the guy who ran the place, Glickman, was a friend of theirs. And that other guy, that funny little fellow… Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there. The point is, we had some pretty good instructors.
GROTH: What school was this? Was it the School of Industrial Arts?
SEVERIN: No, it wasn’t. This guy Glickman, Maurice Glickman, decided the G.I. Bill was out there, he knew how to teach art, he knew a lot of guys who were willing to come in as instructors, and he set up a school in a loft up in the lower 70s. It was just a loft, and he equipped it with easels. And you could buy your art equipment there. It was OK. It was a great place to study and do some more practical stuff than what I had been doing naturally and in high school. I brought some great books from them, because they had a lot of books that you could buy on the G.I. Bill there. Because you were allotted, I forget how much money a month, for supplies and so forth. Sometimes I took it out in books. To hell with the supplies! I’d almost rather have the books. I still have the books, I don’t have any supplies.
GROTH: At this point did you decide that you might want to try to make a living with your drawing skill?
SEVERIN: Well, I decided that it would be a damn good idea. But I hadn’t the vaguest idea. I didn’t have a clue! I was just drifting in my head, trying to cool down. Getting out of the service did present certain problems but they weren’t really especially bad. It takes a while sometimes to get the fog cleared away. Little things were happening here and there. One of the things was that the High School of Music and Art was having an alumni exhibition, and I brought down a couple of my pieces of art to the guy who was in charge, which was Charley Stern, the third member of the Charles-William-Harvey Studio. We got talking, they were all really glad to see me—I was glad to see them, I should say. I ended up coming in to the studio under the conditions I told you. I dropped out of that school, and started devoting myself to real dopey small-dime commercial art. Bubblegum illustrations, boxes for toys… all this kind of goofy stuff. Until I became aware of the comic-book business and discovered they were really, truly paying money for people to draw things. It started to come together all of a sudden.
GROTH: You were sucked in.
SEVERIN: It was a good thing to get sucked into at the time… well, anytime, but at that time I was floating. I didn’t know up and down.
GROTH: Did you meet Kurtzman, Elder, and Stern in that school?
SEVERIN: Yeah. Jaffee, Dave Berg—all these people went to that school, Al Feldstein went to that school. In the early days the comic-book business was… [Laughs.] Joe Kubert came from that school. It goes on and on and on. Yeah.
GROTH: Did you know all of those guys during that time?
SEVERIN: Yes. Although I’d seen Dave Berg, I didn’t actually know Dave Berg. And Jaffee. Although I had seen Jaffee around the halls, I was actually friends with his younger brother, and not him. His younger brother, however—I don’t have any history on him, whatsoever—but he drew World War airplanes like nobody’s business.
GROTH: Was Bess Myerson in that school?
SEVERIN: Yeah. I knew her.
GROTH: What was she doing there?
SEVERIN: Playing viola.
GROTH: Didn’t she go on to win the Miss America Beauty Pageant?
SEVERIN: Yeah, right. She was a girlfriend of my girlfriend. Well, that doesn’t sound exactly right in this day and age…
GROTH: I think I know what you mean. How did you stumble onto the Charles-William-Harvey Studio?
SEVERIN: I didn’t stay in that G.I. school very long. It was all right. We had a couple of damn fine painters there, the Soyer brothers—two of them anyhow. And Mort Sol. The alumni society, of which Charles Stern, of the Charles-William-Harvey Studio, was the president (or at least he was taking care of the artwork), was having an art show, and I brought a couple of paintings up to them, and I didn’t realize that the other guys were there. They propositioned me: Why don’t I come on in the studio and work there for a month until I got my feet under me? Which was damn kind of them. So I dropped out of the school, because I had no big drive to do fine art. I wanted to go into the commercial field and make some money, so I took them up on it and worked there for a while, and they began dropping off parts of jobs to me. It went on like that. I was earning a certain amount of money, paying my way, at least.
GROTH: You knew all three of them in high school.
SEVERIN: Yes. Oh, yeah. Harvey was a really—my last year in high school, he—I don’t know how to say it, but he sure was following me around a lot. We got to be real friendly. We corresponded in the Army and before the Army we corresponded quite a bit.
GROTH: Were you typical high school pals, then?
SEVERIN: No, not typical: atypical.
GROTH: How would you describe that then?
SEVERIN: I don’t know how. That’s why I was stuttering there. I had really good high school pals. Some of them stuck with me for years. Harvey was just one of these people who—he was just sort of there. Every time I turned around, we’d be talking about artwork. The kind of artwork he was doing—cartooning. I did cartooning, but that wasn’t my main interest. I never even thought of making money at cartooning, it just was something that I did. You know, not real money. Naturally, I had been making money with cartoons through the years, but it was just a sideline.
GROTH: Would you say that Harvey was more obsessed about cartooning then you were at that point?
SEVERIN: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. And he kind of liked my style, which was very, very loose. I don’t know where it came from, but it was looser—well, I’m not going to compare myself with anyone. It was just plain, outright loose.
GROTH: It seemed like you guys must have been fairly close to have had an extended correspondence when you were in the Army?
SEVERIN: We actually got closer through our correspondence than we had been in high school. It was sort if a surprise when I went up to the studio and found Bill Elder and Harvey Kurtzman there along with Charlie Stern. Charlie Stern I was acquainted with in high school, but I just knew he was there.
GROTH: So you were all roughly the same age, too?
SEVERIN: Yeah. Just about.
GROTH: Did you know Will Elder in high school as well?
SEVERIN: About as much as I knew Jaffee. Bill Elder was the kind of a person that everybody had to know because of the experiences he put people through. He did the GD’est things in school. [Laughs.] Unbelievable!
GROTH: Even in high school he was —
SEVERIN: Yeah. Oh, he pulled gags that were fantastic. We had an English teacher, Mr. Sayers, who was a—[searches]—a rather sensitive type of guy, if you know what I mean. He was a very nice guy. A very nice guy. As a matter of fact, I was up to his house with two of my buddies listening to Africa records one time. Had dinner up there. His mother cooked the dinner and all that. Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there. The gag that I remember that Elder pulled on him was that he appeared to be absent in the class when role was called. This was after Mr. Sayers had hung his coat and everything up in the locker, which was right there next to his desk. Well, the bell rang—I forget, it must have been the last class of the day. Mr. Sayers went over and opened the locker, and Will Elder had been hanging inside the locker on a hanger. [Groth laughs.] It sounds unbelievable. Mr. Sayers, of course, gave out the usual E-E-E-K—Eeek!—and nearly fainted on us. [Laughter.] I could go on and on with Bill Elder, but you know—
GROTH: I heard that you could. Yes.
SEVERIN: These kinds of things were unbelievable.
GROTH: Well, Harvey, I gather, was not as exhibitionistic as Elder.
SEVERIN: Oh, no. Harvey was very quiet.
GROTH: Very quiet.
SEVERIN: Very quiet. Went about his business. He had his own little group of friends and all, and he didn’t make any fuss anywhere.
GROTH: Would you describe Harvey as being intense?
SEVERIN: Intense? No. Very easy-going. A very friendly guy.
SEVERIN: Yeah. He just—like one time, he just out of the clear blue sky invited me over to his house for a Seder. One of his brothers recited the whole thing in Hebrew. And I sat there like a fool. I didn’t know what was going on. Actually, I knew what was going on. I wasn’t aware what they do. It was very nice of him to do that, because that’s a special day for Jewish people.
GROTH: So you knew Elder and Kurtzman when you visited the studio, and of course you had corresponded with Harvey and I guess got closer to him—
GROTH: —during that period—can I ask you what prompted you to correspond with Harvey, specifically?
SEVERIN: He wrote me first. It was his fault. [Both laugh.]
GROTH: You must have been overseas at the time?
SEVERIN: No, I hadn’t gone yet. This was right after I got out of school, and it wasn’t more than—well, I won’t be exact. It was a very short time after I got out of school that he dropped me a letter, so I dropped him one. We kept doing that back and forth. It continued when I went into the service.
GROTH: Where were you when you were writing to Harvey before you got info the service?
SEVERIN: At home.
GROTH: But both of you lived in New York, right?
SEVERIN: Oh, yeah. Well, no. My family had moved there from the island. And he was on the West side off Broadway or 7th Avenue, whichever one it is that goes up there. I’m talking to—You know New York, right?
SEVERIN: Oh, OK. Good. Then you do know what I’m talking about.
GROTH: But I’m not sure if I understand. You would write Harvey from Brooklyn and he was in Manhattan?
GROTH: Isn’t that a little odd?
SEVERIN: Odd? You know, when you live out here [in Colorado], people say, “Let’s go up to Cheyenne.” When I lived on the East Coast, if people said something like, “Let’s drive out to the island,” everybody would say, “We’ve got to prepare and make sandwiches and telephone everybody and do—” So in order to see Harvey personally, it was a matter of getting on subways and making transfers and so on. So we wrote letters.
GROTH: Harvey mentioned to me that you would draw on the envelopes of the letters you sent him.
GROTH: And in fact, I have copies of a lot of those.
SEVERIN: You’re kidding me! [Laughs.]
GROTH: Harvey loaned them to me, and I Xeroxed them.
GROTH: And they’re absolutely gorgeous. Harvey praised them, too.
GROTH: I’d like to print some of them in the interview.
SEVERIN: Sure. It’s all right with me.
GROTH: It looks like you drew on virtually every envelope you sent Harvey.
SEVERIN: Well, in those days I got to a point where I started water coloring—after I’d do the drawings I’d use water colors on them. I don’t know if you have any of them, but I started doing that on them years later. Colin Dawkins had a batch of those.
GROTH: Just for the sheer joy of it?
SEVERIN: Well, yes I did. Then, surprisingly, that’s how I got interested in the Western artist Charles Marion Russell. A girlfriend that I had knew that I—well, I had done drawings like that for her. And she ran into a book of illustrated letters from Charles Marion Russell. It turns out that he did the same thing. So I got interested in this Western artist and I started looking up his stuff, Dawkins started looking up this stuff. From then on, I was totally, completely in love with Charles Marion Russell. In fact, he influenced me a lot after that.
GROTH: What a great and unusual way to connect with an artist.
SEVERIN: It was really weird to find a guy who—well, I guess a lot of artists do this, but in those days I wasn’t aware of anything, you know? And to suddenly find a guy who not only did this but was interested in the same genre and all this Western stuff—oh, man! I went out of my mind. I liked him so much better than Remington. They can say all they want about Remington being an artist but I find him pretty dead and uninteresting. Beautiful work and all, but I mean—nah. Leonardo did beautiful work, too, but I’m not impressed.
GROTH: What is it that you prefer about Russell?
SEVERIN: Russell was—well, he was loose, very accurate. He didn’t do these wonderful artistic paintings of a pioneer leaning against a Conestoga wagon at nighttime by a fire, which is beautiful, very nice. What he did was some guy out in the weeds somewhere having a difficult time dismissing, or disposing of, I should say, a bear. Or being attacked by Indians. Or, in turn, attacking Indians. Well, no he never did that because he was very friendly to the Indians. But at any rate, he did something that was more illustrative. In fact, I think people would consider him an illustrator much more than an artist. But to me, he’s an artist.
GROTH: It sounds like he’s more narrative-oriented.
SEVERIN: Yeah. As a matter of fact, he did an awful lot of Lewis and Clark illustrations just for his own benefit, not for books or anything. Although he did illustrate books: black and white, a lot of wash drawings, and a lot of pen and ink.
GROTH: Let me get back to the studio. So when you hooked up with Harvey, was there a hierarchy at the studio? Was Harvey in charge of it, or was it all…
SEVERIN: No, the three of them had put 20 bucks apiece. [Giggles.] No, I don’t know. The three of them were equally involved in the studio.
GROTH: Now, did they all get their own individual jobs?
SEVERIN: Yes. And they would sort of spread it around. For instance, if Charlie Stern got a job, he would take it, whether he could do it or not, knowing that Bill Elder or Harvey might be able to do it. They would spread it around that way. Ordinarily, though, they got their own jobs. The purpose of the studio was to have a studio.
GROTH: Like the Three Musketeers.
GROTH: “One for all and all for one.” [Severin laughs.] So then it became the Four Musketeers —
SEVERIN: Yeah, I was D’Artagnan.
GROTH: And they invited you to join them—
GROTH: And you were looking for commercial work. Can you tell me what you started doing there initially?
SEVERIN: Bubble gum cards, toy box illustrations—all sorts of dopey stuff like that. Gum wrappers—
GROTH: Would you go out and hunt these jobs down?
SEVERIN: No. People would—I just sat there, and Charlie would come up with a job or something. Paul Glaser was an entrepreneur who was involved in a number of things, and he eventually came into the studio with us. In the meantime, he would pick up these things and bring them to me. He was the one who got me started with the bubble gum companies. I forget the name of them. I don’t know, but—
GROTH: I understand that your plans prior to moving into the studio was to go to Australia with Jerry DeFuccio and start a studio.
SEVERIN: Oh, geez, you heard about that, huh? [Laughs].
GROTH: I did.
SEVERIN: Yeah. He had a friend over there who was an artist. We thought, “What the hell? Australia’s a great place. Lots of open space.” It never amounted to anything, because just about the time we were considering it with any seriousness whatsoever, I began to get more and more business, and it was kind of stupid to leave. Because the point of going there was to work. It wasn’t to enjoy the scenery and chase after kangaroos.
GROTH: But had you been serious about doing that?
SEVERIN: It never got to a real serious point. No. We hadn’t even gotten into the planning stage. He had asked this fellow some questions about whether it was feasible, or so forth. I even forget what the answer was on this. But he was a nice guy, and he seemed to have a lot of connections. So we wouldn’t have starved when we first got there. But in a way, I’m glad I didn’t. [Assuming an Aussie accent]: “I down’t know how to tak that way.”
GROTH: When you were doing commercial work at the studio, at that point you had not considered doing comic books. Is that correct?
SEVERIN: Oh no. I didn’t even read comics to tell you the—oh, I shouldn’t say that. My wife told me, “Never tell anybody that.” [Groth laughs.] I got into the comic business the same way I got into the bubble gum business: somebody gave me a job. This time I did go out and get my own. But up until then, I hadn’t been involved in comics. I knew nothing about it at all.