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The Mystery Of The Caniff Nude!

I first became aware of the large chalk drawing of a naked woman by cartoonist Milton Caniff on the Comic Art Fans board around 2013.

Duane Capizzi had stumbled upon the artwork in a pool house bathroom in the Hollywood Hills. Although not particularly a Caniff enthusiast, he did recognize it as something unusual, snapped a photo and posted it to CAF in 2009.

It is an unusual image. Not just because of the subject’s lack of clothing, but that it’s so big and in a format the artist typically reserved for speaking engagements in front of large groups of people.

Milton Caniff, creator of the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comic strips, was known for drawing beautiful women. The Dragon Lady, Burma, and Copper Calhoun were among his most popular femme fatales. Even Male Call, his wartime strip, featured a lovely heroine named Miss Lace, who charmed and entertained America’s boys in uniform.

As one of the most popular comic strip artists of the era, Caniff received many requests from fans for pin-ups of his female characters. Usually, he complied by sending along a print, which he signed and hand colored. Occasionally, though, he would create an original drawing. Ever the promoter, Caniff saw these interactions with his audience as a way to reward a loyal reader and keep his work in the public’s mind.

During World War II, Caniff joined other artists in presenting “chalk talks” for soldiers recovering at military hospitals in U.S. These affairs gave the artist an opportunity to converse with his fans, perform in front of an audience and promote his work. The artist continued to do chalk talks throughout the rest of his career, drawing characters first from Terry and Male Call and then Steve Canyon, at a variety of public speaking events.

So, when I first saw the drawing on the CAF board I was rather perplexed. Did Caniff draw this in front of a group of people? What were the circumstances behind the creation of this unusual piece of artwork?

I probably would’ve spent the rest of my days wondering about the artwork's origin, if I hadn't bought it in eBay auction in September 2014.

The auction was handled by James Snidle Fine Art & Appraisals of San Francisco. The drawing was part of a collection of more than 100 pieces of erotic art assembled by a single collector. The nude was the largest piece of art in the collection and the only one drawn by Caniff.

As an avid collector of Caniff artwork, I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to purchase unique pieces. I was shocked to see this nude drawing come up for auction. I acted quickly and paid the “Buy It Now” price, then arranged to have it shipped across the country.

A week later, a huge box arrived at our house in Virginia. Since I was working late, my wife and daughter had to muscle the box into our foyer. That’s where I found it waiting for me when I got home.

Quickly opening the box, I dragged it into our living room where I could get a better look at its contents.

I paused a moment in slight embarrassment. My wife and daughters, after all, were curious about what was in the big box in the hallway.

“Um, it’s a nude,” I said, standing it up on one of our couches.

I felt like the “Old Man” in A Christmas Story, unveiling my “major award” to a horrified family.

My wife frowned and shook her head. One daughter went back to playing her video game. The other wrote “censored” on a piece of paper, which she then placed over the nude’s bare chest.

“Ok,” I said, closing the box before dragging it back into the hallway.

I had the same hesitant moment a few days later at the frame shop. Seconds before I revealed the art to the shop owner, I uttered apologetically, “It’s a nude.”

Unfazed, he measured the art and helped me pick out a frame. A couple of weeks later, I had it back at my house hanging in our bedroom.

While the nude drawing is not my wife’s favorite piece of artwork hanging in our house, she recognized it was an unusual drawing and tolerated its presence. Still, it would be much easier to love if it weren’t so damned big.

The audaciousness of its size is one of the things that intrigues me most about the drawing. There are other nudes by Caniff out there, but most are small drawings done for friends or as a special request. This drawing is large and has all the earmarks of having been created for a chalk talk, perhaps even in front of an audience. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances behind its creation.

I reached out to James Snidle Fine Art & Appraisals for some background information, but all they could tell me was that it was part of an estate sale.

Then, I contacted Duane Capizzi, who’d posted the picture on the CAF board in 2009. He told me that he’d taken the picture at a random party being thrown by somebody housesitting at a Hollywood Hills mansion. The house was filled with artwork, mostly African in origin. The Caniff piece stood out, which is why he took its photo. Since he didn’t have the owner’s permission to publish the photo online, Capizzi used PhotoShop to blur out the names on the drawing before he posted it.

Caprizzi said one of the names in the text on the drawing was the same as the owner of the mansion, who apparently was wealthy.

The full text of the drawing reads: “Murray Hill 4-4988 It’s a long way from 15th and High!! For my pals from State - Dick Wolfe & Dick Borel from Milton Caniff April 19, 1950.”

This is all the information I had when I decided to solve the mystery of the Caniff nude. Fortunately, it proved to be enough to get me started.

First, let’s break down the information with which Caniff has provided us.

“Murray Hill 4-4988” is a telephone number.

From the 1920s-1950s, the Bell System used a combination of letters and numbers to designate people’s phone numbers. It also served as a mnemonic device to make it easier for people to remember those numbers. The words used represent the central telephone office of a particular area of a city, in this case Murray Hill, which is located on the east side of Manhattan. You would dial the first two letters of the first word plus five numbers. Here, the number you would dial would be MU4-4988 (MUrray Hill 4-4988).

In 1950, Caniff was living in New City, which is located upstate in Rockland County, New York. The number could have some significance to him or it could’ve been some sort of shared joke. Either way, I don't think knowing whose number it is would shed much light on the origin of this drawing.

“It’s a long way from 15th and High!!” This is a reference to an intersection near the campus of Ohio State University — Caniff’s alma mater — in Columbus, Ohio. In fact, Hennick’s, a popular hangout for OSU students, used to be located at that intersection. “Dude Hennick” was a character Caniff created for Terry and the Pirates, modeling the character after his friend and fellow OSU alum Frank Higgs.

The intersection 15th and High is also the current location of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which I visited in March 2019 to do some research on the Richard Bauman collection that I wrote about for The Comics Journal. I even took a photo of the street signs!

“For my longtime pals from State - Dick Wolfe & Dick Borel.”

I think this is pretty self-explanatory, especially with the reference to Ohio State University earlier. These are two classmates of Caniff’s from when he was at OSU. So, they probably were present on April 19, 1950, when the artist drew and dedicated this large nude to them.

But who are they besides OSU grads?

In the early 1950s, Dick Borel was an executive at WBNS-TV in Columbus. He's mentioned in sportscaster Jack Buck’s autobiography, Jack Buck: That’s A Winner!

Dick Wolfe is the much more interesting name for solving our mystery. He was a member of the Wolfe family, which operated a media empire in central Ohio that stared with the purchase of the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in 1903. Coincidentally, Caniff got a job at the Dispatch while still in college and worked under the tutelage of famed cartoonist Billy Ireland.

A lengthy article in the February 2014 issue of Columbus Monthly details the rise of the Wolfe media empire. It mentions Richard “Dick” Wolfe, who managed the family's banking in the early 1950s. He died of an illness while on a cruise in 1953.

One of Richard’s sons, who is also named “Dick,” left the family business and moved to the Los Angeles area, where he became the vice president of a satellite company. This, I suspect, is how the artwork ended up in a Hollywood Hills mansion. But of course, this doesn’t explain the circumstances about how it was created.

It was during my March 2019 trip to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum that I dug into Caniff’s correspondence from 1950 to determine where he was on April 19.

Before I visited Columbus, though, I had done a little research online to try and answer that question. At first, I discovered newspaper stories about a cartoonists’ panel Caniff participated in with Al Capp (Li’l Abner), Leslie Turner (Wash Tubbs), Norman Isaacs of the St. Louis Star-Times and James S. Pope of the Louisville Courier-Journal on April 22, 1950 at the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) conference in Washington, D.C. My working assumption was that Caniff drew the nude during some part of that conference.

That assumption quickly evaporated as a perused the library’s files. I found several letters referring to the American Association of Airport Executives' meeting that was going to take place April 16-20, at the Neil House Hotel in downtown Columbus, when Caniff was scheduled to speak.

My confidence that this was where the artwork was created grew as I found two letters that mentioned Dick Wolfe in connection with the convention.

The first was from Tod Rogers of The Columbus Dispatch dated Feb. 6, 1950:

“Looking forward to the Airport Executives’ convention (for which I was “drafted” by Dick W. as chief poop turner-outer) I note you will be in town.”

The second letter was from Francis A. Bolton of the American Association of Airport Executives dated Feb. 22, 1950:

“Dick Wolf said he spoke to you recently in New York regarding the meeting so I imagine you are fairly well up to date on the information.”

Bolton was the manager in charge of the 1950 convention in Columbus and was requesting a drawing that Caniff had promised for the convention’s program book.

These two letters connect Caniff and Wolfe with the conference. The next piece of the puzzle was a handwritten memo from Caniff.

This memo provides a brief itinerary of Caniff’s visit to Columbus on April 19. He arrives at the Neil House at 1 p.m.; goes to Derby Hall at 3:45 p.m.; records an interview at 4 p.m.; and makes a stop at a cocktail party before recording a television interview with Chet Long on WBNS-TV from 6:30-6:45 p.m. At 10 p.m. he goes to “Wigwam” and then leaves town at 2:50 a.m. on Flight #50 at Port Columbus, which is what John Glenn Columbus International Airport used to be called. It’s a busy day. But when did he find time to draw the large chalk nude?

Fortunately, I found a more detailed itinerary in the library’s files that included some interesting handwritten notations.

Before coming to Columbus, Caniff and his wife Bunny first stopped in their hometown of Dayton to visit family and friends. Even so, he still managed to squeeze in a TV interview before going to a cocktail party and reunion in the evening.

On the 19th, the day starts at 1 p.m. with lunch at the Neil House with Dick Wolfe, (Dick) Borel and TWA executive Paul Straham. According to the memo, Straham was going to provide the Caniffs with tickets and credentials at this meeting. But more importantly, the itinerary places Caniff, Wolfe and Borel in the same place. Could this be where the artwork was drawn?

Perhaps.

If lunch was a private meeting between friends and Caniff had his large book of drawing paper and chalk with him, he could’ve easily created the artwork for them. But what if the lunch was a public meeting before an audience of airport executives and Caniff was doing a chalk talk — an event that might be covered by the press — would he draw a large nude for some friends in that scenario?

I doubt it.

Looking at the rest of the itinerary, it’s difficult to pinpoint another part of the day where Caniff would have time to draw the artwork. It wouldn’t be something he did on campus for the Fraternity-Sorority Radio Series or Chet Long’s TV series or the executives’ banquet at 7:30 p.m. Maybe at the cocktail party, but again, how private an event would that be?

The most intriguing item on both the memo and itinerary takes place at 10 p.m. What the hell is Wigwam? Could it be a party or get-together?

It turns out that Wigwam is a place. The Wolfes built a family retreat on a 60-acre piece of land near Pickerington, Ohio and called it Wigwam. It’s an historic property with a large banquet hall and theater, where these days businesses hold company retreats. But back in 1950, it was a place where the Wolfes entertained.

This is where I believe the artwork was drawn. Caniff and his friends met for a private party on the Wolfe’s property before he left town early on April 20. Confirmation of this comes in the form of a letter dated May 11, 1950, from R.S. Damon, president of TWA:

“Thanks to your courtesy and Dick Wolf’s [sic] help, I am now the possessor of one of the drawings which you made for the aviation gang at Wolf’s [sic] Wigwam on April 19.”

Caniff was drawing artwork for Wigwam attendees, according to Damon. Since he referred to it as Wolfe’s Wigwam, it’s fair to assume that Dick Wolfe was in attendance. We know that Dick Borel was scheduled to meet with Ohio State pals Wolfe and Caniff earlier in the day, so he was probably at the Wigwam party as well.

Even with all these pieces, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty which venue is the location of where the artwork was drawn, the Neil House or the Wigwam. But if I had to lay money on it, I’d bet on the latter.

For me, the mystery of the Caniff nude is solved. The artwork was drawn April 19, 1950 at Dick Wolfe’s Wigwam on the last day of the Association of American Aviation Executives’ convention.

Now, if I could just figure out who is the subject of the nude drawing — a Caniff creation or someone the trio of OSU pals knew — I’d be able to sleep more easily.

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