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Political Cartoonist, Critic Jules Feiffer Talks About New Memoir

4 years ago
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For more than a half century, Jules Feiffer has defined a distinctive New York sensibility – bemused, honest, romantic, self-deprecating, left-liberal, non-doctrinaire and bitingly funny. First as chronicler of downtown neurosis as a young cartoonist for the Village Voice and then as a mocking critic of the Vietnam War, Feiffer's canvas expanded far beyond the printed page, even as he won a Pulitzer Prize for his weekly strip.
As a playwright ("Little Murders" and "A Bad Friend"), as a screenwriter ("Carnal Knowledge" and "Popeye") and as a children's book illustrator ("The Phantom Toll Booth") and author ("The Man in a Ceiling"), Feiffer has managed (like his hero Fred Astaire) to make the difficult seem almost effortless.
Now the 81-year-old Feiffer has just published his wry-not autobiography, "Backing Into Forward: A Memoir." The New York Times said in a review that the memoir "succeeds in sounding like the best of Mr. Feiffer's cartoons: funny, acerbic, subversive, fiercely attuned to the absurdities in his own life and in the country at large."
I sat down with Jules Feiffer last week for a late-morning coffee on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We talked about his life, his book, Barack Obama, Fred Astaire, J. Edgar Hoover and growing up in the Depression. He brought muffins and scones from Zabar's. I provided the coffee and the tape recorder.
Our hour-long conversation (shortened by editing) is reproduced below. Since Jules has been a close friend for 20 years, I am far too much in the tank to claim objectivity. But there is no one I know who is a better conversationalist or who has lived a richer life.
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Q: So much of this book is about the Fifties. That was the decade that you went from an Army private to a struggling young cartoonist, to a roaring success at the Village Voice. What do we get wrong these days about the Fifties?
A: I don't think about the book or my career as being about the Fifties. I think of myself as a Cold War cartoonist. When the Cold War ended, I found myself rudderless in terms of what I think, where do I go now, what can I tell the reader that I know, and he or she doesn't.
In the Cold War years, I felt like I had grown up in this Cold War family like "The Sopranos." And I knew the ins and outs of everything they did. "Tony Soprano" Dulles I knew well. And "Big Pussy" Kissinger I knew well. And I could tell my readers what they were doing and why they were doing it. And I was more often right than wrong. And it didn't matter if I were wrong because I was a cartoonist. I wasn't an authority. But the authorities were often more wrong that I was.
So I date myself as a Cold War cartoonist. The Fifties were where I began. In the Fifties, the rules were still being established for this post-McCarthy era, which still had a lot of McCarthyism in it, a lot of sense of suppression, a lot of domestic fear of expressing an opinion that might be different from the official institutionalized government-Pentagon view.
Q: You end the book happily with the election of Obama.
A: And the question is....Dot, dot, dot. Oh you investigative journalists, the probing questions.
I didn't really have a crush on Obama until his acceptance speech in Grant Park the night he won the election. That speech just blew me away and made me feel that I love this man. And this could be another age of Roosevelt and all my romantic mentality.
I was a Cold War cartoonist but I was a Depression child, I was a New Deal child. I was born in 1929. And Roosevelt was elected when I was three years old. And I grew up seeing the things that government could do for you, and did do for you. And the idealism that was rampant at the time in the midst of poverty and living in hopelessness -- except nobody was hopeless. People seemed to have an enthusiasm and optimism and knew that they were going to get out of this. Even if we didn't until the war. And that would be -- for your readers who lost count of wars – World War II.
Q: What role did J. Edgar Hoover play in the fears that dominated the 1950s?
A: I say this in the book: The jokes about Hoover over the last 15-20 years – about wearing skirts and being gay and all that – do not seem to convey any memory at all of how terrified the media was and most Americans were, except for the right-thinking ones, of J. Edgar Hoover. You could attack Eisenhower, you could attack John Foster Dulles. And Mort Sahl on a nightclub floor made jokes about him, which made us all think that the cops would break in any minute. That Hoover was a holy figure. That he was standing alone virtually between us and the Red Menace.
Q: How did that affect you?
A: The atmosphere of government-propagated propaganda and media-propagated propaganda fear hit me when I got out of the Army [in 1951]. This is the period where you're young and you want to fly free – and all around you, you see nobody flying anywhere except very close to the ground, hoping they won't be noticed. So there is not just an unconscious politics involved. In my twenties, I was going through my period of adolescent rebellion since I was a very good boy in my teen-age years in the Bronx.
When I got out of the Army and saw this around me, I just went bananas. And I had this delayed adolescence that led to the cartoons where I was striking out. And I didn't give a damn – they were not going to control me. And I was not going to be a good boy any more as my mother would have preferred. And I was not going to stay out of trouble as my whole family would have preferred, except for my Communist sister.
Q: Who was disappointed that you weren't in enough trouble?
A: She was disappointed that the trouble I was in wasn't her kind of trouble. That I had incorrect views. Correct. Incorrect. Concrete. Wonderful phrases on the Marxist side.
So in my twenties, I was dealing with this country that was sitting on everybody, especially me. And I was not going to put up with it. And there was very little they could do about it because they couldn't take away my way of making a living because I didn't have a way of making a living. They couldn't destroy my career because I didn't have a career.
It was just this odd meeting. The times happened to mesh perfectly for someone of my sensibility and, at that time, meager talents.
Q: I've heard you lecture on cartoon history. You've talked in the book about how influential cartoons were for you growing up. Does it make a difference that this isn't there any more?
A: Comics had disappeared long before the iPod came in. Really the starting of this new technology – and I am about to start a book about this – was in the years of the Depression. The years when the economy went into the tank were the years when we first had coast-to-coast network radio, which could unify an entire nation. We were all listening to the same radio shows. We were all going to the same black-and-white movies that were coming out of Hollywood that just recently had begun making talkies in the last few years.
There was this cultural explosion that engendered this feeling of optimism and excitement at the same time that the country was sinking economically. So at the same time we were sinking economically, we had Fred and Ginger lifting us up. We had Nick and Nora Charles entertaining us in their tuxedos. These Hollywood movies, far more than now or since, showed us people in tuxedos and private clubs.
Q: My Man Godfrey.
A: And the great social life. And limousines and Fifth Avenue, side by side with the have-nots. And not for a second were the have-nots discouraged. There was much more bravura and humor in those years applied to the times than you see today.
I came of age along with my generation at a time when everything was falling apart economically and everything was rising up and becoming splendid in terms of entertainment. And that's what carried us through.
Q: Let's just stay with the Depression for a moment.
A: I feel much better thank you.
Q: About the comics you read.
A: I was reading these comics from age three or four. The Sunday supplements, the newspaper strips, there were no comic books that early. I lived and learned. This was in a rather drab life living in a cramped apartment in the Bronx when everyone around you was poor and there was no color -- there were these fantastically colored, huge comic strips all over the place that engaged the imagination, just as radio engaged the imagination.
And the imagination was the escape hatch. That's where it was, that's where I was going. "I don't like it here -- I'm going there." Wherever my mind takes me. And my mind takes me wherever the Sunday supplements and newspaper strips and radio shows and the movies tell me I can go.
So it was Errol Flynn in the movies and Fred and Ginger in the movies, and William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the cowboys, Tom Mix. All of this becomes my real life. And the real life goes on hold. I would hide out in the Bronx or underground – "They'll never find me, they'll never get me alive" – until my twenties when I could start acting out my imagination and aspects of my life that I had made up when I was a kid. And what was astonishing is that I managed to get away with most of it.
Q: You just said the magic word, "Fred," as in Fred Astaire. In the book, you talk about how Astaire made what is exceedingly difficult look exceedingly easy.
A: I'm doing a talk in a few weeks at the Smithsonian in Washington on Fred Astaire. And my theory, which I've had for years, is that, what made Fred so unique (outside of the genius, of course) was his non-bravura style. Most of the dancers – the great dancers – were show-offs. Nobody was a bigger show-off than Gene Kelly. Even the quieter dancers like Bill Robinson, he twinkled and he was showing you stuff.
Fred's whole style was to pretend not to show you anything, while he was doing everything. "Who me? I could do this?" Only in Fred's movies were there scenes – at least, several times – where nobody thought he could dance and he goes out on the dance floor with Ginger, or he goes out alone, and he blows the cover off the whole thing. You would never see a scene in a Gene Kelly movie where people didn't think that Gene Kelly could dance. Because he just looked like he could do anything. You never saw a scene in a Gene Kelly movie where he had to dance in order to woo the girl. Because what girl wouldn't fall in love with Gene Kelly? He was handsome and he was macho.
But Fred without the dance looked like Stan Laurel. Who would date Stan Laurel?
So there was that self-effacement that was the key to his style. And I think that where that came from is that he was with his sister Adele when he was her backup. She was the star. She got the reviews. He was mentioned and sometimes he was liked. But mostly he was ignored. Sometimes he was panned. He was the lifter. But then she quit. And he never left that part. He was showing all of himself. But he did that on Broadway too with Adele. It was always with a who-me attitude. And, "Oh, you're looking at me? Oh, you think this is nice? Well, I'm just doing my job here."
And I think that was the key to so many of us liking him because we see ourselves, we identify – not with the Gene Kellys, who are bigger than we are and stronger than we are, but with the Clark Kents. And Fred was a Clark Kent who, when he got on the dance floor, was the equivalent of getting into a telephone booth and taking off his garb. His tap shoes were the telephone booth.
Q: I hope you're using that at the Smithsonian.
A: I just thought of it now.
Q: In the early 1990s or so, you began drawing dancers based on Astaire.
A: My memory is that it began because on Martha's Vineyard I have, as you know, this separate studio, this barn-like structure, and I could go in there late at night and put on some jazz. Or put on Fred, or put on Art Tatum or Duke Ellington. And pour myself a glass of something and just start dancing on paper.
For to me, I wasn't doing dancers, I was dancing. The whole attraction was to break away from text as the guiding principle of my work. As a cartoonist, the words always had led me. The words led the dance. Everything I drew was ordered by the language I was using, the story I was telling, the narrative. So the layouts, the lines, everything was controlled by the text. And I wanted to just do movement. I just wanted to get away from the control of text. So I began doing all these dancers because in the beginning they were all Fred Astaire because he was the model for me, since I was a kid. In black tie and tails.
Then I got interested in how black tap dancers like Gregory Hines move differently from white dancers. And the differences in how their bodies acted and moved. So I did that, and did fat dancers, and women, and this and that. But I always came back to Fred in white tie and tails.
Q: You reinvented your career as an artist and a children's book writer after the Village Voice fired you at age 69 after you had been there for 42 years. How do you keep doing it?
A: It's part of the lifelong habit of under-accepting your fate. When [cartoonist Will] Eisner wanted to kick me out because I had no talent, I wouldn't leave. My pathetic illusions could not give way to reality because I would be gone. I would now be working as an assistant to an assistant to an assistant at an art agency turning out crappy ads of one kind or another.
So if the alternative to accepting my fate was to surrender to a life that was unlivable for me, I was not going to do that.
Q: How many regrets do you have that back in the early 1960s you never did that musical about your work with that Stephen Sondheim fellow? The musical that was going to be directed by Mike Nichols.
A: Oh, it's an enormous regret. I think my reasons for not doing it were valid then. And, as I say in the book, I would have been so overwhelmed by Sondheim's contribution to my show and Nichols' contribution that their talents so dwarfed what I had to bring to the party. So until I wrote "Little Murders" [in 1967], I didn't think I was ready to get into the game at all. That was two or three years later. And then I was all right.
But not to have Sondheim as a collaborator is one of the great regrets of a career in which I had virtually no regrets.
But I don't regret not having written "Dr. Strangelove." Because although [Stanley] Kubrick first offered it to me, I couldn't have done what Terry Southern was able to do.
Q: It was much broader comedy than you had in mind?
A: What I wanted to do -- this was the age of Kennedy -- even though by the time it came out LBJ was president. But it was still the age of Kennedy. What I was intrigued by was not the kind of general that George C. Scott was or [the] Jack D. Ripper that Sterling Hayden was. I was much more interested in the Maxwell Taylors. The urbane sophisticated very polished generals like Petraeus. These generals at the time, like [Robert] McNamara and [McGeorge] Bundy, were prosecuting a war with great sophistication and vanity that was insane. And executing a nuclear policy that was insane. The insanity of the educated and the over-educated. That was hardly the blockbuster that Strangelove was, so I think that Stanley made the right decision.
Q Let me end with the word that we started with...Obama.
A: I think Frank Rich got it right: All of the people who think they were sold-out by Obama weren't paying attention in the first place. He's not that much different from what he said he was in the beginning.
The only objection I have, and it's a strong one, is that clearly the smartest man who's been in this office since Clinton, and much savvier than Clinton and much more effective than Clinton, has a far smaller learning curve than I had anticipated. There's almost a need to draw in the opposition, the Republicans, beyond all proof that they're not going anywhere where he wants to go. It's that community organizer's zeal that softens and weakens him. And I hope that he's learning something, although I'm not sure that he is.
Of course, the inability to understand that Afghanistan is going to turn out just the way we all know it's going to turn out. And sending these troops? Maybe this presidency had no choice -- it would have been a shambles if he hadn't done it. I don't know.
Anyhow, I'm still quite enamored of him. And those hopes may simply be my own dumb illusions. But we'll see.
Q: So many people I know who were just over the moon about him after election are now much more critical of him now. I am.
A: Yes. They created this fantasy figure. And we're not talking about 20 year olds. Is it just Americans [who do this]? The inability to use experience -- whether it's one's own personal experience or history -- to inform them of what's going on at the moment. We have a long history of falling in love with Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson.
It's important to find heroes. But, at the same time, it's important when you get these heroes to be able to measure them against what you know based on the past. And we seem to trash the past. George W. Bush once famously said, when called out about a lie, "Well, that's history."
Q: Or Henry Ford saying, "History is bunk."
A: "History is bunk. There's nothing in the past that we can use." Every day is a tabula rasa. We start fresh. When our children do that, we lecture them. But we do it politically all the time. And that's what so scary. And that's what scares me about being in this state of permanent war that we're in. After Afghanistan, where do we go next?
Q: I think you had Brazil.
A: But we don't seem to learn. When I was in my twenties and I learned we had done the Scopes Trial back in the 1920s, I was amused that this insane stuff was going on back then.
Q: The idea that people didn't believe in evolution.
A: It was absolutely wacky. And that could never happen. What I've discovered since is that I was the wacky one. Whatever insane theory we've outgrown, we've outgrown only for 15 minutes – and then it comes back stronger than ever. And that's what worries me about not just evolution, but race and poverty. We didn't know levels of poverty in the days of Lyndon Johnson that we know now. And we didn't think that was good. We didn't think that was acceptable. Now we don't really have that much of a problem with it.
I'm sorry to depress you.
Q: Don't you want to leave us singing the title tune?
A: (Sings) We're in the money. We're in the money. Old man Depression will be on the way.

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