From the TCJ Archives

The Will Elder Interview

The Funny Papers

GROTH: What were you interested in as a child?

ELDER: I was captivated by the Saturday matinees and the funny papers. I would try to copy the things I was attracted to and my father always made a big deal. He would pick up the comics. He didn't read English too well.

GROTH: What were your favorites growing up in the late '20s, early '30s?

ELDER: Katzenjammer Kids. I loved them because they were so mischievous. I saw myself in that damn strip. What else? Smokey Stover was one of my favorites, Wash Tubbs...

GROTH: You had an affinity for the newspaper strips?

ELDER: Yeah, because during the week, they were black and white, and in the Sunday paper, it would be color. And the colors were beautiful. It was beautiful! It was like a hand-painted film. It's like the colorful scene in Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. There's the scene at the ball, did you ever see that? The Phantom comes down dressed as Death in a red robe. That was a hand-tinted scene. And what was the other one? I think, the pirate with Douglas Fairbanks — The Black Pirate. Anyway, the insertion of color added so much to the strip; it was like a blind man seeing for the first time. That's the feeling I got.

GROTH: There was much less media available back then to compete for your attention.

ELDER: I didn't know it, but now that I look back, you're right.

GROTH: So, you had radio?

ELDER: Radio was my life. I used to come home every day just to listen to my programs, The Witch's Tale and Chandu the Magician. I used to sing the introductory music that goes with those episodes. Like Chandu the Magician: How does it go? I forgot. It was a lot of fun, and a few chapters of Sherlock Holmes was one of my favorites.

GROTH: Dramatized on the radio?

ELDER: Yeah. And then I Love a Mystery. The author of I Love a Mystery lived outside of San Francisco. When [Elder's wife] Jean and I went to San Francisco a number of years ago we passed his house on a tour, I was impressed. The bus driver thought he was funny, but he wasn't. That was a great trip, very picturesque. I painted Jean near a tree in Carmel by the sea. It was fun.

School Days

GROTH: You told me you'd go on trips sponsored by the school.

ELDER: Yeah, we'd go to Westchester, and we'd sort of stand in line and shake hands with Eleanor Roosevelt. That was the highlight of my life. I thought she was somebody special.

GROTH: So you entered the High School of Music and Art, and was it there that you developed your passion for...

ELDER: The High School for Music and Art at one time was called the Wadleigh Junior College for Women where they had a two-year course for teachers. We were the first graduating class in Music and Art — if you stuck it out, of course, or weren't thrown out, like some friends I know. If I mention his name, I'm afraid you might repeat it, so I won't say anything.

GROTH: You know I would.

ELDER: I was thrilled to be in that school and had so much mischievous fun that I nearly didn't make it through myself. But it was a real turning point in my life, that school. My life and many other kids too. If you look at the people who have graduated from that school it reads like a Who's Who of American cultural icons, musicians, artists, amazing people.

Anyway, it was a junior high school and it was in a park. It was a lovely location. They had to destroy a baseball field to put the school there. I thought that was a mockery of education. But it wasn't. It was a good thing it happened, because I wouldn't have gone there and been entitled to a scholarship in music and art. So, little things, little nuances of society kind of change your life. You don't know when it's happening, but when it does, you appreciate it.

GROTH: How long was Music and Art's program?

ELDER: Four years. And the teachers were special too. They were culled from the neighborhood and they showed their talent. They were very good; they made you feel like you were part of a big, very important movement.

GROTH: Is it at the School of Music and Art that you developed your passion for drawing?

ELDER: Yeah, I'd say so. We had the typical live models and still lifes. It was the place where I found myself. It was the first time I visited a museum and was exposed to the art of the masters and that really opened my eyes.

GROTH: Tell me about the curriculum and the atmosphere.

ELDER: We had a long, long, long day in school because we had both music and art. If you were an art student, you'd have a course in music and vise-versa, or versa-vise. You had five hours of regular studies and you had the rest, three hours or so of music and art. An hour and a half of music and an hour and a half of art. Both areas were covered pretty well. The only thing that I missed was in music; they didn't have enough opera singing and I thought I wanted to cover the field entirely. But otherwise it was an inspiration.

GROTH: What were the music courses like?

ELDER: Well, the lighter classical stuff: Music by Mendelssohn, the "Spring Song." [Sings "Spring Song."] Very appealing. In fact, we were bathed, so to speak, in classical music. We had no chance to listen to jazz; only when you went home and did it on your own. At least I have the taste of having both possible worlds flung at me. I learned to play the mandolin there.

GROTH: Did this open up a world of art for you?

ELDER: Yeah. I didn't think these things existed. I came from a poor neighborhood and the only thing we played on the block was stickball, and it doesn't take much brains to do that. This was a way of telling me there's more to the world than appears on the surface.

GROTH: Was it exhilarating?

ELDER: Oh, sure. I enjoyed it. It was one of those things that everybody's not going to feel the same. We're all made of different stuff.

GROTH: Now, at some point during those four years, you obviously moved more passionately in the direction of visual art than music.

ELDER: Yeah. Anything that's creative was something I envied very much.

GROTH: How did it happen that you focused more on art and drawing?

ELDER: Because I would go to the museum, more often than most of the other kids. That surprises people. But I found something that really resonated in me and I felt that I could paint and draw, so here I saw that there might be something I could do with this ability I had. I think that I had been drawing for a long time, but I never thought much about it. You know, drawing caricatures on the street never struck me as a real talent! But, I always knew I had this ability — talent I guess you would call it — but I never had the idea that it meant anything or I could really make something of myself by using that ability, until I got to Music and Art and was exposed to all these people throughout history who really made a mark. Plus all the other kids there could draw, paint or play instruments incredibly well and I thought, maybe in a small way I could do something with my art. And that's how I got my first feelings for music and art. It was a great move for me. It really was. Turned my whole life around.

GROTH: Now, you referred to the Museum of Natural History. That wasn't in the Bronx, was it?

ELDER: Manhattan. It was off of one of the wings of Central Park. There were stuffed animals, like bears. They looked very real to me. I'd never seen a bear before in my life.

GROTH: Can you tell me a little about the curriculum? They taught you drawing and painting techniques?

ELDER: Yeah, they gave you a variety of media to work with. You pick your own. Choose whatever comes easy to you, whatever seems to be effective. A lot of simple freedom. If you start piling things on a kid and he's trying to prove he can do things, they're under some kind of pressure. It doesn't work. They rebel against such stuff. It should be fun. That's the way I started out.

GROTH: At the time you were drawing and learning how to draw, did you know that you wanted to become a professional artist?

Self-portrait of the artist as a 12-year-old boy.

ELDER: After a while I did. After a while the drawing became, not an obsession, but a very strong desire to do something further. I took out my sketchpad and started sketching bears, the stuffed bears, on a mountain. Or a fox in the woods. These things remain in my memory. It's a backlog of things that you've seen and digested intellectually. It works for me.


GROTH: Now, you must have graduated from high school in '38 —

ELDER: No, '40. A long time ago. We had a 50th anniversary ten years ago, I think. We got some of the teachers. Some of them in wheel chairs. They're still around.

GROTH: Did you have any other notable classmates?

ELDER: Yeah, but they are gone. That's notable. Well, there was Jaffee, and Jaffee's brother went to the same school. He died rather young. Al and I and another friend, who's no longer with us, also gone. There was one or two of Al's friends at his birthday party, at the Society of Illustrators.

Bess Meyerson graduated the same year as me. After the war I was back in New York with some of my buddies, and Bess Meyerson was at Radio City Music Hall for some event or something tied in with being Miss America. We went past there and I said to my friends, "Oh Bess Meyerson, I went to school with her." None of them believed me, so I had to prove it to them: I went to the stage door and whispered into the guard's ear "Tell Bess that Wolf Eisenberg is here." We stood there for a few minutes and the guys really thought I was up to my old stuff, so they said "C'mon, let's go," when Bess came running to the door yelling at the top of her lungs "Wolfie, Wolfie, Wolfie Eisenberg!" She threw herself onto me giving me a big hug — you know it had been a while. The guys' mouths dropped open, I think they were saying, "Who's Wolfie?" But they got a big kick out of that. They couldn't believe it. But, yes, she was a Miss America and she got in a lot of trouble, which I can't go into because it wouldn't be etiquette.