You were drafted in February 1943, is that right?
I thought it was earlier than that. I had quit Hallmark. I had talked with one of my high-school teachers who took an interest in me. He said, “Let’s go for a walk. What do you want to do?”
I said, “Well, I want to quit school and become a cartoonist.”
He said, “You know, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You’d be a much better cartoonist if you went on with your education.” We both agreed that it would be a good idea if I learned how to write my own strips instead of hiring a writer, which I guess a lot of people did back in those days. A writer would write and an artist would draw. I didn’t want to do that. So I decided to go to journalism school at the University of Missouri. They had the best journalism school in the country. So I quit junior college in Kansas City and enrolled at the University of Missouri, for $25 tuition.
You had to move to Columbia, then?
Yes I did. But then Hallmark said, “We didn’t know you were going to quit your job here!”
I said, “Yeah, I want to go and get educated.”
They said, “Well, will you go on drawing for us when you’re in school?”
I said, “Yeah, if you want me to.” So they offered to pay me a dollar a card, and they would send me the verses with the sentiments. I would do 75 cards in a week while I was going to school. I made more money than my father made! [Laughter.] I used to sit there drawing and everyone else would say, “Come on, Mort, we’re gonna go get a beer.”
When you were drafted, you were attending the University of Missouri.
Yeah, and I’d completed one semester and was president of the freshman class.
So the semester you completed would have been the fall semester of 1942.
Yeah, that’s right.
So if you graduated from high school in June 1941, you spent a little over a year at the junior college and working at Hallmark.
I only had one year at junior college, and Hallmark. So it was 1942 when I started at the University of Missouri, and I think by that time everybody’s getting drafted. I was drafted in January of ’43.
And for a considerable period of time, you were being sent around to different training camps.
It was like they didn’t know what to do with me. [Laughter.] I started out in the Army Air Corps in Florida. I was on the boxing team. See, my father was a real muscle-builder. In our basement we had punching bags and weights and chin bars … boxing gloves, you know. So I used to think I was a real toughie. If I didn’t like what somebody was doing, I’d sock them in the chin and knock them over backwards. [Laughter.] Until my best friend’s parents said they didn’t want him playing with me any more, because I was too rough. I began thinking about that, and changed my ways a little bit. But when I was in the Air Corps, I was on the boxing team, and I put on a display on the stage in the theater, and everybody was in line to box with me. I thought we’d just dance around. So I’m just prancing around this guy, and all of a sudden he went POW! He knocked me over, knocked me out, and they had to carry me back to the barracks to put me in the bed. When I woke up, I said, “To hell with that!” [Laughter.] I didn’t like getting knocked out.
Anyway, then the Air Corps sent me to Camp Crowder, Mo., to study — of all things — radio repair. I had no mechanical abilities whatsoever. I wondered what the hell I was doing there, studying radios, so I ended up doing posters for the class on the wall. Then I heard that they were educating soldiers through various jobs and sending them back to college. I applied — I wanted to study psychiatry, I guess — I was interested in it more than anything, so I applied for it. They sent me up to Laramie, Wyo. for college! [Laughter.]
How was psychiatry?
I don’t know what the hell that is! I never could figure out what I was doing there; we played football all day long until it snowed one day. Then all of a sudden one day, they sent me to Washington University in St. Louis, to study engineering. I thought, “Engineering? What am I doing studying engineering? [Laughs.] That’s not what I applied for!”
You were at Washington University for a couple years, right? You got a two-year diploma out of it.
Yeah, I got a two-year diploma with a major in engineering. It was a two-year program, but I don’t think that I was there for the whole two years. But you know, we studied from 8 o’clock in the morning till 10 at night. And I had a lot of catching up to do because I’d never taken any math. I avoided taking math by taking logic in high school. I didn’t think I was mathematically inclined at all. Anyway, I had some good friends that helped me. Guys who really knew their math. I even cheated a little bit. I had to! If you flunked out, they sent you to the South Pacific. [Laughter.] So that was quite an incentive there to cheat.
I eventually evolved into taking architecture. Then I excelled; I got all A’s then because I’d worked with my father in his office. I’d done drawings for him. I’d actually spend days in my father’s office helping out.
Then from St. Louis, the next thing you did was to go overseas. Is that correct?
No. They sent me — of all places after being in the Air Force Signal Corps, the ASTP (which was the Army Specialized Training Program for engineers) — they sent me to the infantry. Of all things, they made me first guy. The first guy who goes out in front and scouts around to see if he sees the enemy. It’s a very precarious job. When I was in high school, I’d gotten appointments to West Point and Annapolis. And I took the tests and everything. They turned me down, because my eyesight was poor. Here, they made me first scout! [Laughter.] I had terrible assignments all the way through the Army, forever. Anyway, we trained in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. We trained there in the infantry. When we got ready to go overseas, they sent me to California, San Francisco. Then we went to San Luis Obispo and we trained with the Navy in San Diego, on attacking islands. Right off the shore of San Diego, there’s a bunch of islands, and we used to conquer those damn things. [Laughs.]
So they were thinking you would be going to the Pacific.
Yeah. Then we came back to San Luis Obispo and packed our bags, all ready to go. Then I heard they were giving tests for OCS, Officer Candidate School. The Battle of the Bulge has just occurred, and they’d lost a lot of officers. Killed. So they had to replace them. So I said, “Huh, I’m going to apply for OCS.” My brother was a major in Alaska, and I wanted to at least show him up. So I went to my sergeant and said, “I’d like to go and apply for OCS.”
He said, “They don’t want privates like you, they want sergeants that have experience.”
I said, “You can’t stop me from taking the test, can you?”
He said, “No, go ahead.”
I went into this big auditorium, like a football stadium, and there were about 100 guys in there taking this test. I went and got it and sat down and looked at it and said, “I think I’ve seen this damn test before!” I went bing, bing, bing, bing, and when I went to turn it in everybody looked at me like, “Where’s he going?” [Laughter.] An hour later, I was being interviewed by a board of about six officers, and they were asking me all kinds of questions. An hour later I got a notice to catch the train that night, and go to OCS.
Well, had you seen that test before?
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. I’d taken so many tests.
Oh, that’s right. Every time they send you to another place they’d give you another test. [Laughter.] So they sent you to OCS.
I went to Fort Benning, Ga., and I don’t even think I excelled there. I’ve always been a little bit of a rebel, just like Beetle Bailey. When I was at Washington University, we used to have a “lights out” and bed check. I used to stuff my bed so it’d look like a body was in there, and down the hall there was a closet where there were pipes that went down into the furnace room. I crawled down through there, went into the furnace room, and the guy down there, a lieutenant, said, “Ah, ah — where are you going?”
I said, “See you later!” and walked out the door.
I went and had a date, came back, came through there, and he says “Wh-where you going?”
I said, “See you later!’ Crawled up the pipes, and got back in bed. [Laughter.] I used to do that several times a week.
I went to Fort Benning as a second lieutenant, and they sent me to Hot Springs, Ark. I went to Little Rock, and taught weaponry. [Laughs.]
That had nothing to do with radio repair!
Nothing! Or architecture, or anything. Anyway, they gave me a choice of going overseas and getting out of the Army in one year or staying in for three years. So I applied to go overseas. I went to New York, got on the Mariposa — it used to be a luxury cruise ship — and being an officer, I got to eat in the regular dining room with waiters and flowers on the table and everything. The poor GIs are down in the slums, vomiting all over the place and sick. [Laughter.] Also, they had 100 nurses onboard ship who were going overseas with us. So we had a little bit of fun and recreation, if you call it that. [Laughter.] I had a favorite girl, and I’ll never forget her. We were out to sea, and everybody’d say, “Where are you going?”
I’d say, “Italy!” There were guys onboard ship who didn’t know where Italy was.
And when we passed Gibraltar, they’d say, “What’s that big rock there?” It was so stupid. [Laughs.] Everybody was. We played bridge on deck. It was like being on a cruise ship.
Was the war still going on?
In Italy, by then — what year are we talking about, 1945?
Yeah, the war was over in Italy. It was beginning to wind down in Europe also. I got off the ship and there was a jeep that was going to take me to my destination. I put my bag with all my belongings on the back, and we went through the crowded streets of Naples. I got to my destination and looked back — my bag was stolen. I’d lost everything. [Laughs.] I always travel with books because I was an avid reader from the time I was 5 years old. I used to check out five books from the library every week. I tried to read a whole British Encyclopedia. I think I only got to the third volume. [Laughter.] Anyway I always had books with me. I lost all of those.
I got to my destination and it was an ordnance depot. They dropped me off and all the officers there and the colonel says, “Why are they sending us this inexperienced officer? What are we going to do with him?” So they decided to give me all the stuff that they didn’t want to do. They made me fire chief, I was head of the security force that guarded the depot, and they put me in charge of the prisoner-of-war camp so I had 10,000 German prisoners of war. [Laughs.] I was the only guy doing that, and in order to guard the German prisoner-of-war camp I had a company of Italian soldiers and I was in charge of them, and they made me an intelligence and investigating officer. I investigated robberies, rapes, we had a murder … anything that went wrong in the camp, I had to sit down at my typewriter and put out a five-copy report of everything I did. And back in those days we had carbon paper, so if you made a mistake you had to go through five things and erase it! [Laughter.]
You told a story once about this time in your career when some Italian soldier was caught asleep on duty and his officer just beat him up something savage, like Sarge beats up Beetle in the strip.
That was one of the first things that happened when I took over the security office. The guards at the gate found this Italian stealing things. What we were doing, at that point, was running tanks over watches and compasses and stuff to destroy them because we didn’t want to ship them back to America, and we didn’t want to put them on the Italian market, because the Italians didn’t want us to do that. We’d ruin their business. So we were destroying stuff. The German prisoners of war were working, and they’d take it to the dump and dump it. The Italians that worked there were stealing stuff. So they would search them every night as they went home. This guy they caught stealing something. So they took him to the back office and they were beating up on him, slapping him. And then they turned to me and said, “Your turn, lieutenant.”
And I said, “No, stop that. I don’t want that. I don’t operate that way.” And the Italians smiled. [Laughs.] So, I became friends with the Italians.
My first trip to the concentration camp — the German prisoner-of-war camp — I said to the officer, “Show me around.” So he showed me how everything worked. I would sit down with the officers — a lot of them spoke English — and they started to ask me questions about America. I remember they said, “In America if you want to move, how do you get permission?”
I said, “We just … move.”
They said, “You don’t get permission?”
I said, “No. You pack up your car, and move somewhere else.”
They said, “How do you keep track of everybody?” [Laughter.] We had this freedom. I talked with them too about how they put up with Hitler and they said, “Well, we had no choice. If you had a spy on every block, and if you said anything against Hitler, you just disappeared. And nobody would have the courage to try and find where you went. You just obeyed and shut up.” Almost all these guys weren’t Nazis or soldiers, they were just transportation people. They put on exhibits, they did a lot of handiwork in the village, projects and artwork. One night they invited me to come see a play they were putting on. They had built their own stage. So I went out and one guy was pretending to be a woman. He came out in a dress. And then I thought, “Where’d they get all this stuff?” One guy came out with a gun, and I started panicking. I said to my commanding officer, “I don’t feel well.” I was the only American in that audience. And the guy had a gun … [Laughter.]
Then somebody came in my office and told me, “You know, there are German guys escaping from camp.”
I said, “Really?” They told me where they were escaping from. So I got some of the other officers and we went out and sat down by the road in the dark. Pretty soon, I heard this scuffling noise. You’d see these silhouetted figures running down the road. We all fired in the air and said, “Halt! Halt!” They halted. I found out they were escaping every night, spending the night with their girlfriends, and then in-scaping in the morning again! [Laughter.] And it all happened when the Italian soldiers were asleep in the towers. They never knew anything.
[Laughter.] What happened when you got out? Were you discharged in Italy, or were you sent back to the States?
I was sent back to the United States, and boy, I’ll tell you — that was the biggest thrill to come through that harbor and see the Statue of Liberty. Guys had tears in their eyes. We just commandeered the Liberty ship. So there were only five officers onboard. One guy brought his jeep with him, roped it down on the deck, and he cleaned it up and painted it. We’d have dinner with the captain, and we played scrimmage and stuff like that. It took us a long time. We almost had a shipwreck along the coast, when we got near the North Carolina coast. I was up on deck throwing up, the only time I ever got seasick. I thought that ship was going down. We got to New York and they sent us to Chicago to get discharged. I got my discharge. The girl said, “I’d go stand over there, in that line.”
I said, “What’s that line?”
She said, “That’s where you sign up to be in the reserves.”
I said, “No thanks, I don’t want to be in the reserves.”
She said, “You’re going to give up your commission?”
I said, “Yep.” [Laughter.]
When are we talking about now — 1946?
Yeah, I guess it was ’46. So I immediately went back to the University of Missouri, to continue my education. They had a welcoming area where they would sign up new students and interview them, and put the courses you wanted to take.
You were able to take them under the GI Bill, weren’t you?
Was it in the fall of ’46?
Yeah. The semester was just starting. The guy says, “What do you want to do?”
I said, “I’m going to go to the journalism school.”
He says, “Well, did you take the prerequisite course, ‘Histories and Principles of Journalism’?”
I said, “No, but I don’t want to go back through a whole semester waiting to get in. I just spent four years in the service. I want to just enroll.”
He said, “OK, you’ll probably get away with it.” So I enrolled; they made me editor of the school magazine, gave me an office in the journalism building —
This was ShowMe magazine?
Yeah, and I became a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi, and I took the journalism courses and got straight A’s. One day this professor said, “What are you doing in the journalism school?”
By this time, I was pretty headstrong after taking 10,000 German prisoners of war back to Switzerland on a freight car and sleeping with them, and I didn’t want to put up with any of this shit any more. [Laughter.] I said, “I’m getting educated, sir.”
He says, “But you didn’t take my ‘History and Principles of Journalism.’”
I said, “I was too busy saving the world for democracy, sir.”
He says, “Get the hell out of here.” [Laughter.] So they kicked me out journalism school. They closed my office up, took all my possessions and put them out in the hallway. They kicked me completely out and they wanted to take over the magazine themselves. I said, “You can’t do it. We sold all these ads, and I’ve got a staff of people. You can’t take it away from me.” And they didn’t, really.
We used to have a campus hangout called The Shack. It really was a shack. It was just where everybody would cut loose and drink beer and have fun. Anyway, we used to have our staff meetings in The Shack. One of the guys lived in town, so we used his basement as a temporary storeroom/office. We went on publishing.
So the magazine became an off-campus magazine.
Yeah. We put out the sex issue. We did political cartoons. They made me tear them out of the printed magazine. The campus had some sort of imitation state legislative session, and I drew Stalin as a teacher, and every single person in the class was Stalin. Somebody thought we were just a bunch of communists. They made me tear that out. I edited the sex questionnaire we were going to pass out with the magazine. We were going to write a sex history, eventually, you know, if we ever had sex. They got after me for that. [Laughs.]
If you were an off-campus magazine, how could they ever do anything to you?
They just called me in and said, “You’ve got to do that.”
But you weren’t a journalism student any more.
So what were you taking?
I took the easiest courses I could get. Anything I thought I could get away with. I took some art courses, I took some literature courses, writing courses. I had been studying cartoonists and photographers and everything like that, and I thought, “I don’t want to split my money with a writer! I want to learn how to write!” My father, remember, was a poet as well as an architect, so writing was sort of in my family. So I thought, “I’m going to go to college and study writing. I don’t need to take art, because I already know art.” I did take some art courses, though, to ease up on my curriculum. [Laughter.]
I was a pretty well-respected writer at school. I was editor of the school magazine. I won the Midwest contest on writing and things like that. But anyway, I had this very astute professor who liked my work very much, and he invited me to come back and have dinner with him and his wife. And we talked about writing throughout the whole dinner. Then he pushed his chair back and said, “Well, I guess you’d like to write the Great American Novel.”
And I said, “No, I’d like to write the Great American Comic Strip!” And he looked like Ignatz had hit him with a brick. [Laughter] I never had any prestige after that. No, it was the awfulest thing you could have said to a professor. [Laughter.]
Were you writing short stories, and things of that nature?
All different kinds of things.
Do you think that it helped?
Oh yeah. Sure. To have somebody say, “No, you should construct your sentences this way ... don’t give away this point of the story till the end” — all kinds of things like that a lot of people don’t know. I remember working real hard to please the teachers. Then I had another teacher who thought I was the one in class. She came over one day and says, “Boy, what a weekend I had. Somebody gave me a couple bottles of wine and golly!” And I sat down and wrote an essay against alcohol. I was very much against alcohol back when I was a kid. Because you know, we had Prohibition. I don’t think you could have open bars in Kansas City. A lot of the local places around college, you couldn’t buy a bottle of liquor, but you could get a case of beer! [Laughter.] We had what we called our “beer busts,” where somebody would go out and get a case of beer, and we would all go out in the back of the woods with our girlfriends and drink, and that was fun.
Sounds pretty much like my college. What was campus life like? Were there a lot of ex-GIs going to school?
Oh yeah. It was really overcrowded. I looked around for a place to live, and a friend of mine said, “I think there’s a basement apartment in our house.” So I was down in the cold then. [Laughter.] I stayed there for a while until my fraternity, Kappa Sigma, elected me president. Then I had a room over there at the fraternity house.
How did you get into the fraternity?
This goes back to 1942, I guess. After I left Kansas City to go to the University of Missouri, I didn’t know where to go or what to do. Till David Hornaday and I went to my brother’s fraternity. Phi Psi, I think it was. We didn’t like it. They assigned some dopey guy to take us around and he was an absolute bore. So I said, “Let’s go over and try Kappa Sigma, I have a friend that went there.” So we walked up to go to Kappa Sigma, and the guys all came out of the house to greet us. “Hi, how are you doing?” We had our suitcases and all of a sudden my friend came out and told them who we were, and it was like, boy, they’d really found somebody. So we stayed there.
I learned how to write, because it came in handy. Like I said, I was the editor of the school magazine, and I wrote a lot of the articles and did a lot of the cartoons. I revamped the whole magazine. They appointed me editor. Before school started, all summer long, I stayed home and I studied magazines. Especially The New Yorker — the “about town” column. I had little tidbits of news about what was happening around the campus. I wrote that. I wrote a bunch of the stories and essays and so forth. We became famous because they kicked us out of journalism school, they censored our magazine and we had a sex issue. These things became national news. Everybody’d heard of our magazine.
And then when I came to New York and I was showing my cartoons around, Chuck Saxon, who was a cartoon editor for This Week magazine, looked down at my work and said, “I used to see your magazine that you did at University of Missouri!” He went to Columbia. “That was a great magazine. How’d you like to have a job, get some work? Dell Publishing is looking for an editor.” I said I wanted to be a cartoonist. He says, “No, come on. Come on, you can be both.” So he took me down and I got the job. I edited about four or five different magazines. 1,000 Jokes magazine, Western Star, Family Album — things like that. They published some sort of movie magazines — they had Modern Screen, which was a big magazine. And I wrote a lot of the articles for them.
One time I got a request from Milton Berle’s writing staff, to send him over a dozen of my latest issues, which included a big story about Milton Berle and how he stole gags from everybody, and all the comedians brought him to trial. That was completely phony, but funny. And they based a whole show of The Milton Berle Show on it. [Laughs.] Never gave me any credit.
So you graduated, I think, in June of 1948.
Yeah, I didn’t even wait for graduation. I just finished my course so I could get a diploma and came to New York. From the earnings of ShowMe magazine I had about $500. I parceled out the profits to everybody and gave up the magazine.
When you went to New York, trying to sell magazine cartoons, you must have known something about the routine; you must have known that cartoonists took their stuff in once a week, making the rounds to all the magazine cartoon editors — it was on Wednesdays when I tried it. Every Wednesday.
I didn’t really know about that — no. I had mailed stuff in and sold it through the mail, and I didn’t know the regular routine they had. But somebody says, “Oh, I know a guy who does gag cartoons; he’ll take you and show you how to do it and take you around.” This guy made the rounds. He took me all over, took me to lunch, told me what to do and who to see — everything like that. Un-competition. Anyway, I just had one experience like that after the other and Chuck Saxon gave me that job down at Dell, and then I started selling gag cartoons. And the first thing I remember is going up to The Saturday Evening Post. They had a waiting room, and there was somebody who had put up a big sign: “Stop Henderson!”[Harvey laughs.] I guess the minute some guy got really successful, it really encroached on everybody else’s opportunities. Tom Henderson was the big shot then.
He was funny stuff. I loved his cartoons.
He defeated himself. He had a belligerent idea about it somehow. He and I used to lock horns all the time.
I remember when I first moved up here to Connecticut, where all the cartoonists were. And he said, “Why’d you move up here?”
And I said, “I wanted to be with other cartoonists, but I didn’t realize they drank so much.” And he got really offended at that. He got mad at me. And that wasn’t the only time. In those days, I did everything I could think of to enhance my chances. Everybody was doing a batch of 10 gags per week that they would show around to the editors. They were showing sketches, pencil sketches. And I thought, “Well, nobody knows what kind of finish I could do — I’m brand new.” So I got some good paper and I did up ink drawings, actual ink drawings, with blue shading on them — you know, for Ben Day [a gray tone made by tiny dots] — and guys got mad at me for doing this, and Tom hated it. And then I thought, “Well, 10 gags is not enough, because maybe if I did 11 gags, it might be the 11th gag they’d like.” So I used to do 20 gags a week.
And I got away with that for a while, until finally John Bailey said, “Mort, this is too much, showing me 20 week.”
I said, “You want 30?” [Laughter.]
“No,” he said, “just bring me 10, 10’d be the best.”
But Tom Henderson said, “Twenty gags a week?! There aren’t 20 gags a week. You can’t do 20 — there aren’t that many gags.” He said, “I can hardly get 10!” Actually I was doing 30 or more and would bring in only 20. After that, I still did 30, but I’d bring in only 10. And they were all finished.
The gag cartoonists used to collect at the Pen and Pencil on Wednesday for lunch. Did you do that too?
Yup, after making the rounds in the morning, we’d meet, usually, at one of those places. I remember when I started selling stuff and selling it pretty good, I walked into The Usual Haunt where everybody would be. And there were all the guys at the bar there, a bunch of the old-timers. I walked in to join them and they looked at me as if, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” [Laughter.] They were mad that I was selling and
So they were not … kind, like so many of the other people that you met? [Laughs.]
I think they were kidding, but it still made an impression on me. They were a little jealous.
Did you know John Gallagher?
I always tried to be friendly with him and he just never seemed to respond. He was always in the background somewhere. One time when I going down Greenwich Avenue, all of a sudden there he was. I says, “John, what ya doin’ here?” I forget exactly what he was doing, but he had some kind of a part-time job in Greenwich. I said, “Well, let’s get together!” I gave him my phone number, he never called.
I interviewed him one time and I asked him about all the lunches, and I said, “I bet those were pretty wild,” but he said, “No. We didn’t do that much drinking, we had another half a day to go around, we weren’t going to get blotto at lunch!” So that destroyed my idea of what that was like.
Well, some of the guys did a lot of drinking, but I didn’t, because I didn’t drink that much then.
And then sometimes they’d gather at the end of the day someplace. Would they have dinner?
Oftentimes we’d go to the movies together and have dinner. I remember Jerry Marcus was always playing jokes on people. One time we had dinner and then went to at the Radio City Music Hall for the show. And they’ve got a big bank of telephone booths there, a whole wall full of them. So, I went to the men’s room and came out and one of the phones rang. I think it was Dick Cavelli picked it up and said, “Yeah? Mort, it’s for you.”
I says, “For me? At Radio City Music Hall?? How’d they ever find me??” [Laughter.] So I picked it up and said, “Hello?”
A voice said, “Mort, this is John Bailey.”
I says, “John Bailey? How’d you find me?”
He says, “I’ve been callin’ all over town.” Then I heard some laughter and I looked up: Jerry Marcus was in the next booth calling. [Laughter.] We had fun. God, we had fun …
Who are some of the other people that you knew from that period? Did you know Henry Boltinoff?
They kinda hung out together, I think.
Yeah. George Wolfe and I were pretty good friends. I’d always admired his work. He was very friendly and nice. And we’d go back to Pen and Pencil sometimes and he was always there afterwards. But then sometimes, we’d meet in — I can’t remember the name of it — there used to be a place right near King Features where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out, where he hit himself over the head with a bottle and broke it all over. You know, when he got drunk, he got wild.
Costello’s, yeah. Anyway, we were there, the whole bunch of us, and we ordered dinner. And while we were waiting for our dinner, John Bailey came in and sat at the bar. I said, “I’d better go up and say hi to John.”
So I went up, sat next to him and ordered a drink. We were sitting there talking and then, Dick Cavelli says, “Hey Mort! Your dinner’s here.” So I looked over and they’d served my dinner, so I said to John, I said, “Good to see you, but I’ve got dinner over there.”
So I left him and went back to my seat, and he was sitting there with George Wolfe and he said, “Oh, too good to sit at the bar with us, is he?” And he didn’t buy a cartoon from me for about three or four months. He just went from buying two or three or four a week to nothing.
Did you ever run into any of the New Yorker artists or cartoonists? Carl Rose for example?
Yeah. And of course, Chuck Saxon was one of my best friends.
Carl Rose did a lot of book illustration. He illustrated a Bob Hope book and did caricatures of Bob Hope. He was awfully good at that stuff.
There was a guy, I think his name was Clyde Lamb —
He was in jail, wasn’t he?
Yeah, that’s what I heard — that he was a convict, sending his stuff in by mail. Yeah. Strange drawings, weird noses and lips; but you saw him everywhere.
He did pretty good. I never met him, of course — so I don’t know him, but he used to sell quite a bit in those days. Remember, I think it was 1948 when they did a survey and I was the number-one selling gag cartoonist? Sold more than anybody else. That was when my wife Jean said, “You were the top seller? And you only made $8,000?” And she said, “You’re in the wrong business.”
That’s when I said, “Yeah, ya know, I’m gonna go back and try a strip.” So I sat down. In one day I drew up samples of Spider and took it to King Features and Sylvan Byck. I got out the elevator and they sent out someone from the bullpen to talk to me in the elevator lobby, and I left him with my strips and I almost got mad at him. They called me up a few weeks later and said, “We’re gonna take the strip.” [Laughs.] [Beetle Bailey began Sept. 4, 1950.]
Had you tried any other strips or did you just start out with Spider?
That was the only one I tried then, but before that, I’d tried several other ones.
His original name was Spider and then there was another character named Spider in somebody’s strip, so you had to change the name.
Yeah, Big Ben Bolt had a manager, or one of the trainers, who was named Spider, so they said I had to change it. So, I made a list of bugs and we chose Beetle.
And his last name was originally Botts?
Yeah, but then I named him after John Bailey: It was he who had inspired me to do it.
But he never really appreciated it. Again, I think that people are jealous sometimes when you get ahead. I just never had any relationship with him after that.
Gosh — that’s very strange because in every biography or article that covers this period of your life, you always say nice things about John Bailey.
Oh yeah, he was a great friend. He would give advice and encouragement. He had been a gag cartoonist himself but hadn’t been successful at it. So, there could’ve been a little jealousy there, just like the guys at the Kansas City Star. You just sensed that there was something changed in their attitude.
Did you go to Collier’s magazine?
He used to buy my work occasionally.
Was Gurney Williams there?
Gurney Williams, yeah. I’d ask him every now and then. I’d say, “You know, I’m selling very well to The Saturday Evening Post, and I hope that I would sell to you, too.”
He said, “Yeah, well, we have a different attitude over here,” or he’d make some excuse like that.
You also appeared frequently in the Saturday Review of Literature. I’ve seen some cartoons in that magazine.
Yeah, I sold a lot of Beetle cartoons to them, or Spider cartoons.
Your friend Dave Hornaday was supposedly a model for Spider.
Yeah, he was tall and lanky and lazy and everybody liked him, he was just a good-natured kid. Just as an example of how he was, once I went by to pick him up for a golf tournament; we had a tee-off time and I went by to pick him up, and his mother says, “He’s still in bed.”
I said, “Oh? We got a tee-off time at 9.”
She says, “Well, go wake him up!”
So I went upstairs to his lair and I shook him and said, “Come on, Dave, come on, get up. We got a tee-off time.” He just turned over, grabbed his pillow. So I took his bed, he had this cot-like bed, I took it and I turned it upside down, and he rolled out on the floor — and grabbed his pillow! [Laughter.] And I said, “David, you ought to be in a comic strip.”
[Laughs.] That’s great. In some of the early sketches of Spider, he has eyes that are closed. Did he look like Hornaday?
No, he never really looked like Hornaday. Just that he was tall, with dark hair and lazy. But I think it was Sylvan Byck who said, “You should not ever show his eyes. It’ll be a kind of trademark.” We just never showed his eyes. We killed the strips that showed his eyes. So I got help along the way.
[Laughs.] Well, it was definitely a trademark. There was a strip just a week or so ago, where Miss Buxley wonders about the color of his eyes and goes and asks his barber. I’m surprised that never came up before — of course the barber would have to know what his eyes looked like, what color they were.
Well, you get away with a lot of stuff in comic strips. He takes a shower with his hat on. Nobody ever said anything about it. He sleeps with his hat on! [Laughs.]
And when your people would want to see his eyes, you’d draw two little dots on the paper.
Yeah, I do that sometimes when I’m making a speech. I turn around from the easel and the drawing pad on it and say, “Now! I’m gonna do something for you special, since you’ve been such a nice crowd. I’ve never done this anywhere for anybody before. I’m going to show you Beetle Bailey’s eyes.” And I turn around and draw two dots. [Laughter.]
The college that Beetle went to was called Rockview College, and there were features of the campus that came right out of Columbia, Mo.
They were direct steals. I’d get pictures of Missouri campus and I’d draw those landmark buildings.
The new book from Checker reprints all six months of the Beetle college strips for the first time. And reading them, it’s fairly clear to me that Beetle’s dwelling place has all the accoutrements of a fraternity but it’s called a dormitory. You didn’t have him in a fraternity even though it looked a lot like one. There was even a housemother. Dorms don’t have housemothers, but fraternities do.
Well, I forgot about that — he had a housemother. I need to go back and read my own strips. [Laughter.] I wanted to get way from the elitism of a fraternity. In actual college life, most kids don’t belong to a fraternity.
Just the snobbish ones like me. [Laughter.]
You mentioned that the strip wasn’t doing very well until you decided to get Beetle drafted. The thing that struck me about that when I was reading through the book was that Beetle’s personality is the same in the Army as it was in college. He just slipped right in there. Everything that made him a layabout college student was perfect for a layabout private in the Army.
Well, it was much the same as I was when I was in the Army. I was always trying to break the rules and get away with it and live my own life, no matter if I was in the service or not. When I was stationed in California, my sister lived in Hollywood, about a hundred miles from San Luis Obispo and I used to go down and spend the weekend with her and then when Sunday night would come, I’d say, “I don’t wanna go back to camp.” So I’d go into the MP office and I’d say, “I missed my bus. Would you write me an excuse?”
And they said, “Sure.” I’d stay at my sister’s for a coupla more days. And I learned when I went back that if the sergeant had a piece of paper in his hands so he wasn’t liable, you could get away with anything. As long as the MPs had said that I had missed my bus, the sergeant wouldn’t get hurt himself. So I did this everywhere. I’d make that my own agenda. When I was in Italy, I just thought, this is a great opportunity to learn about Italy. And I would travel all over that damn country in a jeep with my interpreter. I’d go and take photographs and eat lavish meals and visit the museums and the Vatican and all kinds of stuff. I was a tourist! [Laughs.]
We were talking a little bit ago about why Beetle Bailey as a college strip didn’t click, and, I’m turning the pages in this Checker book — and suddenly he’s in the Army and really all the things that he was before in college, now that he’s in the Army, they have a much greater significance, it seemed to me. It almost jumps off the page. When he goes in to get a uniform and it fits, and the supply clerk, he’s astonished that Beetle’s uniform fits. That’s so Army! And so Beetle. It’s perfect — he just slipped right in there.
I tell you, the Army was full of opportunities to make fun of ’cause it was usually run by stupid people. I went to a class where the sergeant teaching it was illiterate, and he would have me come up, because I was literate, and read aloud out of the instruction book. And then he would tell the class what I read. I would say, “You take the gun and put it to your shoulder …”
And he’d say [Shouts]: “You take the gun and put it to your shoulder!” [Laughter.] God, I got away with murder.
There was a much larger audience of people who had been in the military at that point, in 1951, than there were people who had been to college. So there were a lot of people who would read Beetle Bailey, and it would ring bells for them.
This is not bragging or anything like that, but when I look back, without even realizing it, wherever I was — in grade school, high school, college, the Army — I sort of did what I wanted to do. I mean, high school to me was just a center for all my other activities. I used to date five times a week; I had girlfriends all over the place. I bought property and made it into clubhouses — there was an old mansion on the boulevard and we went and got some support and I bought that as a teenage center. I went in and painted artwork to hang up on the wall, and there was a jukebox in there. And then, of course, I was shipped out — away from college and into the Army. So I left it all behind. I don’t know whatever happened to that place, the teenage center, but all that time, I was dating, I was selling cartoons, I was running a parent-sponsored dance, I had a comedy routine I was doing on stage, I designed the sets — it was a triangular stage, so you could change the sets just by moving it to the next panel, like that and I did ’em all by hand — the backgrounds for the stage — I was just into everything, you know?
And it all turned out to be something that was valuable to you?
Yeah, it was just whatever I wanted to do. Just fairly recently, a coupla years ago, my high-school art teacher who’s now in an old-age home, was interviewed by somebody who wanted to do a story about me and they went to her and they said, “Do you remember Mort Walker?” And she said, “Oh, yeah, Mort Walker — you couldn’t ever tell him anything!” [Laughter.]
When Beetle went in the Army, there was a surge of interest in the strip and it increased its circulation, but it wasn’t until the Pacific Edition of Stars and Stripes banned the strip in January 1954 that it really got a boost, if I recall.
Well, it gave me a lot of publicity. That was stupid for them to do that.
Oh yeah. [Laughs.]
Even the Pentagon felt that I was not helping discipline or the efficiency of the Army by criticizing it. I wasn’t really criticizing it; I just showed how guys could have fun, no matter where they were. [Laughter.] So finally, I went over to the Pentagon, because they did a book one time called How Not To Do Things and they used my strips in it.
How Not To Do Things?
“This is not the way we do things in the Army — don’t do this! Don’t do this!” And they used my strips. By then they realized that the strip is popular with the GIs and people who had relatives and friends in the Army. They began giving me big citations and medals, you know, for outstanding service to my country. [Laughter.] I got racks of stuff over there, in my office, over in the garage where I file them, stuff that they have awarded me. One time they had a whole parade for me in the South Lawn behind the White House. They honored me with a parade, marched all these people in front of me and saluted me, put me up on the stage.
You say you went down to the Pentagon.
Oh yes, many times.
To talk to them about the strip’s attitude about the Army? What did they tell you?
They kinda criticized me, just said, “This is not the way we like our soldiers to behave.”
Bad for discipline?
Yeah. I remember one time we had a party in the Pentagon and they asked if I’d like to have a martini. I said, “No thanks, I drink scotch.”
They said, “We can’t serve scotch.”
So, I said, “Why not?”
They said, “Because there’s a ban on liquor. They told us we couldn’t have scotch or bourbon in the Pentagon.”
I says, “Really?”
They said, “So we serve martinis!” [Laughter.]
I said, “You sound just like me — you’re getting around the rules.”
I think there was a period when you felt you needed to do some research on Army life?
Yeah, it had changed quite a bit since I had been in, so I went down to Fort Dix, and they sent me around with the publicity man, who showed me the new barracks and the new tanks and everything like that. I took a lot photographs. So, this guy was very nice to me, taking me around, bought me dinner and everything like that. So, we went back to the rooms that they had for us, and they had a girl in there for me! [Laughter.] So I told the officer that brought her, I said, “No thanks. I don’t do that type of thing.” And we looked out the window, and he was outside packing her off. [Laughs.]
Now that’s a different kind of research! But, it would be hard to … well, no, I guess you can make a cartoon tank, can’t you? Sure.
That’s what Milton Caniff taught me. Hank Ketcham had a strip, it was called Halfhitch, about a sailor and the Navy. Ketcham was drawing realistic ships and whatnot, and Milton said, “Don’t do that.” He said, “Just think of your idea of a tank and draw that in a cartoon form. It’s a caricature of a tank. You’ll be a lot better off that way.” So Milton helped me a great deal with a lot of stuff. He told me how to get rid of backgrounds. He said, “You don’t need a background in every scene, sometimes the points of the action are too important to confuse it with the background. Just draw Sarge and Beetle fighting in the middle.” That’s one of the techniques he employed, and he did very well with it. He was so good to me. In fact, all the old guys were. They would welcome me with open arms.
Well, did you know any strip cartoonists at the time that you started Beetle? You knew gag cartoonists, because you had been doing that, but had you met any strip cartoonists, like Caniff?
One of the first guys I met was John Cullen Murphy who was doing Big Ben Bolt at the time. When I went to my first NCS [National Cartoonist Society] meeting, I think it was at the Lamb’s Club, and I walked in and they said, “Come on over here.” So, I went over and I was talking with Bill Holman and Walter Berndt and Milton Caniff and — all these guys I’d revered and written fan mail to. All of a sudden, I was just there and they said, “Hi, howya doin’? How’s your strip doin’?” Cartoonists are like that — most of them are un-jealous, they’re just very friendly, they help each other. I can’t tell you how many people’s features I’ve taken over when they were sick. Dik Browne was sick — I drew Hi and Lois; Dick Wingert got sick, Dick Cavelli — I’d draw their strips for them. I’d use old artwork and new gag lines or something like that. Other guys did the same. We were all helpful to each other, we weren’t competitive. Just a few of them were competitive.