Hubris and Chutzpah: How Li’l Abner Kayo’d Joe Palooka and Both Their Creators Came to Grief (Part 8)

Previously, the introduction, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven of our story.


Al Capp’s mutually hostile relationship with the younger generation of the late 1960s is reflected in this album cover for a 1968 recording of Capp’s Q&A appearance at Fresno State College. According to writer/blogger Mark Evanier, who was in Capp’s audience at a different campus, Capp “responded” to the same set of prepared questions regardless of the questions submitted by students.

VII. The Sordid End of Al Capp

BUT CAPP WAS NOT FINISHED. In the fall of 1956, eight months after Fisher’s suicide, Al Capp took up the question that the Fisher episode had left hanging over his head. He wrote to Caniff, who was still chair of the Ethics Committee:

Coming back from Alex Raymond’s funeral the other day [Raymond died Sept. 6, 1956], I thought that most of us, as he did, leave so many questions in our lives unresolved from day to day, never knowing when the last day will come, and the chance forever gone.

Fisher’s suicide left the most important issue of my career unresolved. It prevented the National Cartoonists Society from performing its final honorable act — the expulsion of that poor criminal for the criminal forgeries of my work, an act that brought dishonor for a while on my career (and on all of us, actually).

With the FCC business ended and Fisher gone, the final act of the Society — to say plainly what its findings were and to say plainly that the stigma attached to my work by one of its members was a crime against the Society and against me — has one value and that is that my kids, and my grandchildren, will know that I was an honorable man and no discredit to my profession.

Can I ask you, as a member of the Board, to propose that a final finding be written on this matter. It means a lot to me, as every one of you will understand.

Caniff promised to bring the matter to the Board: “I will be glad to propose that a final finding be written on this matter and do all I can to bring it about,” he wrote Capp on Sept. 19, 1956. Caniff approached Walt Kelly, still NCS president, and Kelly consulted the Board, which decided that Kelly should respond by saying that the Board considered the matter closed and would take no further action on the issue.

Capp moved on.

Not content with the outlet Li’l Abner afforded him, Capp had branched out into other venues all through his career. In 1937, he had launched another comic strip, a somewhat more serious narrative about a crusty old spinster and her manly nephew called Abbie and Slats, which he wrote and Raeburn Van Buren drew; after nine years, Capp’s brother Elliott took over the scripting, continuing until the strip ceased in 1971. And in 1954, Capp started writing yet another strip, Long Sam, starring a female version of Li’l Abner. Drawn by Bob Lubbers, it ran until 1962.

Capp’s creations ventured beyond newsprint, too. An RKO movie adaptation, Li’l Abner, had appeared in 1940, but the characters were a bigger success on stage with a Broadway musical that ran for 693 performances, starting in November 1956; it was turned into a motion picture at Paramount in 1959. There was an amusement park, Dogpatch U.S.A., and a fast-food chain.

A master at creating publicity about himself and his strip, Capp enjoyed a second albeit simultaneous career as an after-dinner speaker and newspaper columnist, leaving most of the drawing on the strip to his assistants while he concentrated on writing the scripts. Capp was also a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows, regaling his audiences with his analyses of contemporary events, outrageous commentaries punctuated with his characteristic jubilant hoots of self-appreciative laughter.

In the 1960s, his target was often student protest against the Vietnam War: In the strip, college youths were all members of S.W.I.N.E., “Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything.” Touring college campuses as a speaker, Capp was on a crusade against what he saw as morally bankrupt youth. He seemingly delighted at the outrage he provoked among the students in his audience with such pronouncements as:

“Colleges today are filled with Fagin professors who don’t teach; they just corrupt.”

“President Nixon showed angelic restraint when he called college students bums.”

“Princeton,” he told the student body at Princeton, “has sunk to a moral level that a chimpanzee can live with, but only a chimpanzee. It has become a combination playpen and pigpen because it disregards the inferiority of the college student to every other class.”

Capp was having great fun, but he was roundly criticized by his traditional constituency of liberals for the unyielding rigor of his attacks on the New Left. It was assumed that Capp had defected and gone over to the Right. But, arguably, Capp’s objective as a satirist remained constant: the fanaticism of the New Left was no less a human folly in his eyes than the rigidity of the Old Right in seeking to preserve the venerated conventions of its social order. Capp took folly where he found it and unceremoniously ripped the veils of self-righteousness away, roaring with sardonically joyful laughter all the while.

“The strip was about the way the powerful use power — and abuse the powerless,” Capp told William Furlong. “The possession of power must never be accepted as deserved or unarguable,” he continued, “ — you must always remain skeptical.” And in the 1960s, the power seemed to Capp to have changed hands, passing from the establishment to the shriekingly vocal anti-establishment.

So Capp changed targets, telling Rick Marschall: “My politics didn’t change. I’ve always been for those who are being shamed, disgraced, and ignored by other people. Now it’s the poor bastard who works who is being denounced by the liberals. For chrissakes, these working stiffs are keeping the country afloat. They were denounced, and it got me damn mad.”

On another occasion, Capp said: “A satirist has only one gift: he sees where the fraud and fakery are. I turned around and let the other side have it.”

In a letter to Time published in the April 18, 1969 issue, Capp said: “The students I blast are not the dissenters but the destroyers — the less than 4% who lock up deans in washrooms, who burn manuscripts of unpublished books, who make combination pigpens and playpens of their universities. The remaining 96% detest them as heartily as I do.”

As Capp saw the New “Student” Left — the 4% — they were making a cult of their dissatisfaction, Furlong said, quoting Capp:

“There’s an ugliness in American life today — you see it in the way some of the kids dress, the way some of them act. Somehow in the effort to atone for the ghetto, they’ve turned the whole world into a ghetto. I think this generation has made everything as ugly as the ghettos I lived in — not out of sympathy but as a form of punishment.”

He suggests that the cultists preach love but act out hate — that they “are using the people trapped in the ghetto to build hate for other people. They’re telling us, they’re telling them, ‘Hate and despise your neighbor and you’ll elevate yourself.’ But I grew up in a ghetto, a poorer one than most of these kids have ever seen, and I know the people in the ghetto aren’t as much interested in hating those who live better lives as in joining them.”

Not everyone would agree with Capp’s interpretation, of course; and, as we’ve seen, he was able to build a speaking career on the shoals of the anger he continually provoked among many of those who disagreed. And Capp did more than rail at these malcontents, Furlong says: he used some of the money he got from lecturing on campuses to send ghetto kids to college — as he had his own brothers.

Then in April 1971, the merry-go-round stopped. On the campus of the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, a young, married student blew the whistle on Capp, accusing him of sexually assaulting her in his motel room. The student’s story was that she’d gone to Capp’s room at his request to talk with him about the political climate on campus as preparation for his talk. Then, according to her description of the incident, he made suggestive comments, exposed himself, and attempted to force her to perform oral sex on him.

Caniff believed that the student and her "radical" friends had set a trap for Capp, hoping to disgrace the despised but articulate foe of the New Student Left.

Even if we were inclined to entertain such an explanation for the episode in Eau Claire, other incidents soon surfaced. In 1968, Capp had been asked to leave town by University of Alabama officials, acting on the complaints of four female students. By 1971, the cartoonist was under investigation on similar charges at other colleges.

Although out of loyalty and friendship, Caniff contended that Capp had been the victim in the incident, at the very same time, he strongly suspected that Capp was actually guilty as charged. His mistake, Caniff believed, had been in approaching what he called “amateurs.”

“Al was down in New York every week and sometimes for weeks at a time, having his fun,” he told me. “He had some good-lookin’ broads, believe me. They all flocked to him, thinking that he could do them some good in their careers. He seldom got caught because he didn’t have anything to do with amateurs: the women he squired around town here were obviously gals on the make — showgirl types, gals who wanted to be seen with celebrities. The old badger game he fell into in Wisconsin could have happened only in a place like Wisconsin — not around New York City.”

As soon as he heard of the Wisconsin student’s charges, Caniff fired off a telegram to his old friend. Just four words: “Who do we slug?”

“It was just what he needed,” Caniff remembered. “He wrote me a long letter about that little telegram, about the impact the incident had on him and everybody around him. It rocked him much more so than he ever would have admitted. Al had a strangely naive attitude about himself: he thought he could come down here to New York and play around with these babes and no one would say anything. Once when a gossip column mentioned his being seen with Miss Hootenanny or some such, he was shocked. He thought the ‘boys’ would protect him. He thought the Winchells and all the others would — out of professional courtesy — not mention anything. But those guys would turn on their own mothers. So it got to be sticky: [his wife] Catherine also read the papers. Everyone just kind of avoided the subject.”

But there was no avoiding the fallout from Eau Claire. Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson published a column on April 22, about three weeks after the Eau Claire affair, detailing the episode at the University of Alabama. Writing later about Capp’s campus peccadilloes in his book Inside Story, Brit Hume said he did all the legwork on the Anderson piece not knowing about the Wisconsin incident. A conservative of the religious-right persuasion, Hume was enraged by Capp’s reported conduct in Alabama. He also recognized the deliciously scandalous irony in the situation: all the time Capp was rampaging against the lax morality of the student left, he was “a goddam sex criminal,” attempting rape. Hume was gratified that the Eau Claire student pressed charges after the April 22 column persuaded her that she was not alone.

The Eau Claire district attorney charged Capp with indecent exposure, attempted adultery, and attempted sodomy. Formal charges of indecent exposure and attempted sodomy were subsequently dropped when Capp agreed to plead guilty to attempted adultery. The D.A. subsequently amended Capp’s guilty plea to nolo contendre (no contest) when Capp said that he would end his lecture tours and never again appear on a college campus.

Eventually, it emerged that Capp’s behavior in Eau Claire and Tuscaloosa was typical of him rather than unusual. Hume reports getting several letters and phone calls from young women who had experienced Capp’s crude advances as early as 1967. In the January 1985 issue of Playboy, Goldie Hawn told about Capp’s propositioning her in his hotel room in New York when she was an unknown actress looking for a career.

Newspapers began canceling Li’l Abner, and Capp was no longer invited to appear on talk shows. Capp was also ill, suffering from emphysema, which was getting worse as he continued his daily cigarette consumption. “I enjoy smoking more than breathing,” he quipped to Marschall. By the fall of 1977, he knew he was no longer up to the task of doing a daily comic strip. And he knew the quality of Li’l Abner had slipped.

“If you have any sense of humor about your strip,” he said, quoted in Time’s obituary, “and I had a sense of humor about Abner, you knew that for three or four years Abner was wrong. Oh, hell — it’s like a fighter retiring. I stayed on longer than I should have.”

He toyed, briefly, with the idea of passing his burlesque bumpkin on to another, younger, cartoonist. “I thought about ghosts,” he said to Marschall, “but I said — screw it: I’m not going to give Abner to some kid to change. Let him do his own stuff while we bury Abner honorably.”

He discontinued the strip that fall: the dailies with the Nov. 5 release; Sundays, a week later on Nov. 13. Li’l Abner was then being published in fewer than 400 newspapers, less than half its peak circulation.

“It would have been nice,” Capp said, with a sentimental flourish, “to include a final note on the last strip: On Monday, this space will be occupied by a fresh new cartoonist.”

Exactly two years later, on Nov. 5, 1979, Capp died after a long illness complicated by emphysema. It was sad, Caniff said, but he and his wife Bunny had also felt a sense of relief, he told me: The ordeal for Capp’s wife, Catherine, was now over.

Next: Joe and Abner