Becoming Percy Crosby

Cartoonist Percy Crosby has long been acknowledged as one of the great early cartoonists, both for his precision draftsmanship and as the first cartoonist to place philosophical ideas into the mouths of children. Crosby's "Skippy" was, of course, a major inspiration for Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." But Crosby's life before and after "Skippy" was remarkable, as I've learned from Jared Gardner's introduction to Percy Crosby's Skippy Volume 1: Complete Dailies 1925-1927, edited by Gardner and Dean Mullaney and out this month from IDW/The Library of American Comics. What follows is an excerpt of Gardner's text and accompanying images, courtesy of the publishers. Scroll to the very end for a "Skippy" gallery.-DN

Percy Crosby’s paternal grandfather, Christopher, was born in 1829 in Bankerstown, County Louth, on a small farm house leased, as was common throughout the region, from one of the large Protestant landowners in Ireland. County Louth was the smallest county in Ireland, and its relative isolation allowed it to retain its unique identity (and dialect of Gaelic) for longer than neighboring counties. It was, however, by no means immune to the conditions facing the vast majority of Irish Catholics in the nineteenth century, who were forced to lease farms too small to grow effectively any crop other than potatoes. The 1820s and ’30s witnessed an extended recession, severely dragging down the economy in the region, so long before the potatoes began to turn black there was already reason for a young man raised for the farm to wonder if there was a future for him.

By 1850, when Christopher turned twenty-one, the Famine was almost a decade old with no end in sight. So in April, accompanied by his nineteen-year-old bride, Margaret Cooney, Christopher Crosby traveled from the nearby port city of Drogheda to Liverpool. From there the young couple boarded the George Washington for New York, leaving behind the rural life they had been born to for the possibilities of work and food across the ocean.

New York was a city going through painful and thrilling transformations when Percy Crosby’s grandparents arrived in 1850. The city had a population of more than a half million, easily doubling its numbers from only twenty years earlier. But it was a city divided by bitter tensions, especially between “native” and “Irish,” as the new immigrants escaping famine and economic deprivation had come in a short time to make up as much as a quarter of the population. There was no end in sight to the growth of the city.

The newly arrived Crosbys settled in the northern-most reaches of the fast-growing metropolis, in the tenements that sprang up along the Hudson River at the edge of what would soon become known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” After initially settling in a boarding house and working for a time as day laborers, by 1870 the couple was living on 33rd Street between 11th and 12th Avenue, with four children, including Thomas—Percy Crosby’s father—who was born in 1859. Christopher had by this time found steady work as a dyer working in the textile factories that, fueled by cheap immigrant labor, transformed New York into the center of the nation’s new market for ready-made clothing. Their neighbors in the apartment building were all very much like them: recent immigrants with New World children born into a city that was pulling them ever further away from the parents’ Irish childhoods.

Given this background, it remains a mystery how young Thomas, born in the rough and tumble of Irish New York, found himself in love with Frances Anna Greene, four years his junior. Crosby’s mother was the child of an immigrant herself, but one claiming a very different genealogy. As Crosby wrote in 1938, “my grandparents, on my father’s side, papists to the bone, chanted the rosary every wave of the way to a New York dock”—while Johanna Thomas, his grandmother on his mother’s side, “was born at sea ‘under the American flag’ my mother always screeched.”

Johanna arrived from England in the midst of the greatest tidal wave of immigration the world had ever known, an immigration overwhelmingly dominated by Irish Catholics. From the start Crosby’s maternal grandmother was determined to differentiate herself from the Irish—a determination passed down to her daughter Frances. This “bit of class distinction,” Crosby recalled, remained one that his father “could never dodge.” To make matters harder for Frances’s future husband, Johanna had married Thomas Greene, who was said to have been born in a log cabin in Ohio (not long after Abraham Lincoln performed the same feat in Kentucky) and who vaguely traced his family back to the Green Mountain Boys of revolutionary Vermont. That the New York-born Irish Catholic Thomas Crosby married into this rustic Protestant Anglo-American genealogy seems both romantic and improbable.

Despite the geographic, religious, and historical divides that might have conspired against their union, there were clearly qualities Thomas and Frances shared, most prominent being a love for the arts. Frances’s father had been an actor, and from him she had acquired a love of the stage and of music. Thomas Crosby had been possessed of an artist’s soul from an early age, having grown up surrounded by the fabrics and dyes of his own father’s trade. Considered in these terms their courtship makes considerably more sense—and surely for the young Frannie, New York City would have offered theatrical attractions not easily found in the small-town Pennsylvania of her childhood.

While records have not been located to pinpoint exactly when they were married, it’s known that Thomas and Frances Crosby soon moved to the relatively upscale Greenwich Village, where their first daughter, Ethel, was born in 1888. From there they moved to the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Thomas set up shop as a canvas maker supplying the art students at Pratt Institute. It was here that their son Percy Leo Crosby was born on December 8, 1891. The date was an auspicious one in his mother’s eyes, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—a holy day shared in common with her Anglican upbringing and the Catholicism of her husband. Family legend has it that Frances had heard from a fortune teller shortly before Percy’s birth that he would be destined for great things, and his birth date only seemed to confirm the prophecy.

A few years later, in time for the birth of their third child, Gladys, the family left their bustling Brooklyn neighborhood—recently connected to Manhattan by two bridges and about to merge officially with a larger New York City—for what was at the time a pastoral retreat in Richmond Hill. By the mid-20th Century Richmond Hill was a diverse and lively neighborhood in Queens, but in the mid-1890s, when the family arrived, it was still something of a world apart. This was the Richmond Hill whose streets young Percy would explore, and which he would imaginatively recreate years later in his many portraits of smalltown childhood. In later life, as his political commitments grew more intense and his vision of the future more apocalyptic, it was his memory of the idyllic America of his youth that he would come to see as the solution to the myriad problems he saw in the rapidly modernizing nation.

Given the tumultuous adulthood Percy Crosby would experience, it is not surprising that he would hang onto a romantic memory of his formative years in Richmond Hill. However, Richmond Hill was never quite the sleepy small town that would serve as the hazy, lazy background to Crosby’s most famous and enduring creation, Skippy. With
a population of roughly three thousand at the turn of the century, Richmond Hill was growing fast, responding to the population explosion in New York brought about by the parallel engines of industrialization and immigration. The Tribune celebrated Richmond Hill in 1906 as a “metropolis in miniature” and as one of New York’s “choicest and most attractive suburbs.” A few years later, ten thousand new properties were advertised for sale. Crosby and his family arrived in Richmond Hill just in time to watch the community transformed, like so much else in America after 1900, by forces that must have felt truly dizzying to a boy of ten. It was within this whirlwind that Crosby came of age as both an artist and a thinker.

For Crosby’s father, the forces transforming Richmond Hill seemed ideal to realize his own version of the American dream. With his brother Ben, Thomas Crosby had established an arts supply shop in Brooklyn, and he transplanted this business to Richmond Hill hoping to cater to the growing number of suburban families moving into the neighborhood. In addition to selling supplies, Thomas was a manufacturer of canvas and millboards, brushes and paints. It would be here that Percy would discover his love of art. From early on Crosby drew constantly, and on any surface available; when the art supplies were locked away, he would take to the basement with coal as his pencil and the walls and floor as his paper.

An undated photograph of a school-aged Percy Crosby (with arrow pointing to him).

However indirectly, Crosby’s childhood was surely touched by Richmond Hill’s most famous resident: Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives and champion of the reforms aimed at directly improving the life of the city’s poorest citizens, many of them immigrants. Most certainly, young Crosby was aware of their neighbor, especially when Teddy Roosevelt came calling. If Percy discovered his creative calling in his father’s art shop, his other ambition—to be a crusader on behalf of the powerless, and most especially for children—likely found an early inspiration in the example of Riis. It was a role Crosby would assume for himself in the years to come by taking on another Roosevelt, as well as the threats posed by Communism, prohibition, organized crime, and the increasing corporatization of America. Perhaps more urgently, in a family whose fortunes hung perilously between the poverty that drove their immigrant parents to cross the ocean and the elusive promises of the American Dream, Riis’s portrait of “the other half” would serve—even in Percy’s most prosperous days—as a reminder of how little separates the life of one “half” from the other.

Closer to home, there were reminders of the differences that all too often proved divisive in turn-of-the-century New York. When Percy was born, living with them in their Brooklyn apartment was Thomas’s younger brother, William. For Percy’s mother, Frances, the journey to the suburbs of Richmond Hill hadn’t done much to lengthen the distance from her husband’s family.

The Brooklyn Bridge (completed the previous decade) and new train connections between Richmond Hill and the city also made it easy—far too easy for Frances’s taste—for the rest of the Irish family to visit from the city. The sign outside the shop read, “Thos F. Crosby, Manufacturer of Academy and Millboards, Artists Materials,” but working alongside Thomas in those early years was his youngest brother, Ben. No doubt aware of his wife’s dislike, Thomas’s parents often chose to speak entirely in Gaelic when they gathered in the house at Richmond Hill. Crosby would vividly remember the family tension surrounding “the Irish” in-laws and the clear distinctions Fannie insisted on between her background and that of her husband. However, as he recalled many years later, while the threat of violence hovered around these arguments, “as I look back on those, my early days, it is hard to recall any incident where a desk sergeant indulged himself with biographical data coaxed out of swollen lips.”

Indeed, by all accounts it would seem Percy’s early years were as close to idyllic as could be imagined. The fond memories of that childhood would be the well-spring from which he would draw throughout his long career to come. His parents were certainly of different temperaments—his mother outgoing, strong-willed, and opinionated; his father retiring and meditative. Yet they shared not only a devotion to the creative life that would nurture young Percy, but a devotion to their only son in whom they both rightly saw themselves and, no doubt, their unfulfilled ambitions.

From his mother Percy received his love of literature, storytelling, and a keen appreciation for music. With his father at the shop, Percy found an endless supply of art materials with which to experiment and explore. And from both he was fed a steady stream of the competing family legends and claims to honor: stories of the Irish titles robbed by the English invaders, of the Green Mountain Boys and the frontier life, of the martyrdom of Catholic saints and Protestant reformers alike. The result of all of it was to imbue young Percy with a romantic vision of himself as a knight defending family and nation from enemies at home and abroad. It was a vision he would maintain throughout his life.

Crosby was routinely acknowledged by all who knew him as intensely popular and social, a born leader of men. Appropriately, he started out as a leader of children, and one of his fondest memories from his childhood in Richmond Hill was his “gang” of fellow warriors, “The Liberty Boys.” Likely named after a popular storypaper of the day, The Liberty Boys of ’76, the gang of friends defended the neighborhood, robbing from rich fruit stands to give to the poor and hungry members of the crew, and generally following their sword-wielding captain wherever he commanded.

In fact, to get a sense of Crosby’s childhood one could do no better than to read his comics about childhood, his favorite topic throughout his career. Here we see days filled with adventures and heroic struggles, but also with metaphysical and ethical questions that clearly troubled Crosby’s otherwise happy childhood from early on. If he had learned one thing from his parents’ stories of the past it was how quickly fates could change and how perilously thin was the line separating legendary hero from forgotten victim.

He learned something else from his keen observations of his parents in the present as well, something that makes its way only quietly around the edges of Skippy. In many ways Skippy Skinner was, as almost every profile of Crosby would insist, a semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young rapscallion. His boss at Life magazine, the legendary artist and editor Charles Dana Gibson, would routinely refer to Crosby as “Skippy himself.” But in some important ways this was not quite the case. Skippy Skinner was the child of a physician, his mother a stylish hostess and socialite. Skippy was raised comfortably in the Protestant Church and his “Americanness” was never in question. Percy Crosby’s childhood was necessarily a more complex story. While Crosby would be largely raised Protestant under his mother’s guidance, Catholicism remained a vital part of the family’s spiritual fabric—not least in the form of the family whose visits so ruffled his mother’s feathers. And of course Percy did not grow up the son of a successful town doctor, but the son of an art supply dealer, one whose economic fortunes were far from stable.

With hindsight one might question the wisdom of opening an art supply shop in rural Long Island in 1900. In Brooklyn, Thomas Crosby had a captive customer base in the students at Pratt. In Richmond Hill he was forced to rely on the amateur housewives and summer tourists. But Thomas Crosby knew the city was coming to Richmond Hill, and what he had to offer went beyond simply the convenience his location might offer to his suburban customers. Thomas was also an inventor and had developed his own method for the production of drawing boards that promised to make the finished product both cheaper and more reliable. One of the family stories that would haunt young Percy alongside the loss of the Crosby family lands centuries earlier by the invading English was the tale of the theft of Thomas’s patent by an unscrupulous neighbor who had promised to file it on Thomas’s behalf. Years later, even in his final confinement, Percy Crosby would remember this story and the warning passed down from father to son: guard your creations to the death because there is a multitude determined to steal the fruits of your labor. Much in Crosby’s adult life—from his pioneering contracts to his deep distrust of lawyers, tax collectors, and anyone who he believed might be out to deprive him of his own intellectual and creative property—no doubt stems from Thomas’s bitter experience.