Unknown Unknowns about Post-War Gag Strip Cartooning in New York

by John Holbo on July 30, 2012

A family friend, Susi, just turned 90. Since I’m home in Oregon, I attended the B-Day party. Her Jewish family got out of Germany in ‘39 and she found herself a teenager in the US. Got an education, got married, raised a family. She was – is – an artist, and she ended up teaching. But she worked as a gag strip cartoonist in New York, from ‘46 to ‘50. I’m interested in the history of comics, so she loaned me a rather large file box (which I am being very careful with!) Lots of old clippings, old battered bristol board with typed captions taped on. Neat!

I have an undated piece of paper here stating that, ‘during recent months cartoons by Susi Steinitz have appeared in: Holiday, Colliers, This Week, Ladies Home Journal, American Legion, Look, True, Esquire, Argosy, Saturday Review, American Weekly, Nation’s Business, Parade, 47, Parents Magazine, Everybody’s Digest, The Woman, Pathfinder, Everybody’s Weekly, Judge.’

I talked to her for a while at her party, and have talked to her about this stuff once before. She and her husband worked out the gags. He was an aspiring playwright but that never went anywhere. She did the drawing, and Wednesdays was the day you shopped them around New York to the two dozen editors who might be buying. You also mailed them around the country, but mostly you did it in person in New York. Apparently her husband was good at figuring out who might be buying, so after a while the other cartoonists started following him around. On the other hand, Susi was the only female cartoonist in town, so she couldn’t attend poker night with the editors and cartoonists. It never worked out great, career-wise. She ended up working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, later, teaching art in St. Louis.

Here are a few Susi cartoons from the clipping box:

I’d like to say she’s an undiscovered cartooning genius but, honestly, it seems like pretty standard post-War magazine cartooning. (But this isn’t exactly an era of comics history I consider myself expert about.) Some of it is pretty good. Some ok. A lot of corny, rather dated material – how not? Some of these jokes I do not get. She apparently got work from FM magazine (?), so she had to make jokes about … FM radio? Several of those here. That’s a narrow row to have to hoe. (There’s a lot of stuff in this box. I love this stuff, but, then: I love comics.) I’m planning on interviewing her in a couple days. Ask questions. Record the answers. She’s got to be the oldest living post-WW II New York female gag cartoonist Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. I’ve got this list of magazines and I’m planning to run down it, trying to jog her memory for good stories. I really should get in contact with historians and other obsessives who would really like to know things about this small world. Who was who? How did it all work? What should I ask her, do you think? Some of the questions are obvious, but, for me, there are a lot of unknown unknowns. What do we not know about this world that we would like to know, and that Susi might know?

I should probably email Seth and ask him what I should ask. Anyone have Seth’s email?

{ 28 comments }

1

garymar 07.30.12 at 11:30 pm

The second cartoon especially got me — I’ve been reading Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels compulsively for the past year. His Too Many Chefs is even more obsessive about food than the others, which is saying quite a bit.

2

John Holbo 07.31.12 at 12:58 am

Checking the back of that one, it appears to be from later. Address is MO not NY, so maybe she drew that one in the 50’s. I’m a bit unclear. Anyway, I liked that one, too.

3

bianca steele 07.31.12 at 12:58 am

What is that little box thing in the second cartoon?

4

Antti Nannimus 07.31.12 at 1:36 am

Hi Prof. Holbo,

Wow! What a great primary resource. After you’ve asked her everything else, maybe you could ask her this: What does she think about “Hans und Fritz , The Captain and the Kids, and The Katzenjammer Kids”? That Sunday cartoon strip is one of the earliest of my memories. Were we being indoctrinated then with Fascism?

If so, in the end it didn’t work on me. Maybe it was just fun though, and that’s how I remember it, because I got it almost as much mischief myself.

Have a nice day!
Antti

5

JanieM 07.31.12 at 1:36 am

Bianca — is it a library card catalog drawer, or the cards from the backs of library books that have been checked out?

There are a couple of words in the caption that I can’t make out, even at full zoom in my browser. “I hope this isn’t one of those ______ that’s always talking about ______.”

??

6

Mike 07.31.12 at 1:51 am

“I hope this isn’t one of those detectives that’s always talking about food.”

7

Warren Terra 07.31.12 at 2:38 am

Janie,
Did you try clicking on the cartoon to open it in its own tab?

In any case, the text is: “I hope this isn’t one of those detectives who’s always talking about food.”

8

JanieM 07.31.12 at 4:23 am

Mike and Warren — thanks.

9

mike shupp 07.31.12 at 7:56 am

Bianaca — perhaps you’ve seen an old-style card catalog at a library? My recollection from those days is that librarians always had trays of cards sitting on their desks that were being updated as books got added to the collection or deleted.

10

Phil 07.31.12 at 8:05 am

bianca – YM the box full of library cards?

11

bianca steele 07.31.12 at 1:48 pm

Oh yeah, I think I remember those from when I didn’t need to take my glasses off to read.

12

bob 07.31.12 at 1:58 pm

The third comic is a parody of the Calvert Whiskey “Man of Distinction” advertising campaign of the late 1940s through the 1960s. Via Google, I found this excerpt from the book The world through a monocle (about The New Yorker) crediting the idea for the comic to E. B. White.
http://books.google.com/books?id=lQnL_6yk-DIC&pg=PA200&lpg=PA200&dq=%22man+of+distinction%22+Calvert+whiskey&source=bl&ots=8Mcs-lowL3&sig=X8K_fM0RMjezYgz-lAvq6Yuz-kQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=J-MXUO3VEIHm9ATs04CwCA&ved=0CFcQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=%22man%20of%20distinction%22%20Calvert%20whiskey&f=false

13

zencomix 07.31.12 at 2:09 pm

Wow what a treasure! The folks at Drawn might be able to help with the direction of your questioning. Did she know George Price?

14

Cranky Observer 07.31.12 at 2:28 pm

That box didn’t just hold the catalog cards for checked-out books; it usually had a series of grooves so the cards could be sorted via long metal rods slipped through holes punched in the cards (McBee Keysort or equivalent).

Cranky

15

Jeff R. 07.31.12 at 4:41 pm

The box has the cards from the checked out books. My first library card had a little metal tab. The librarian would slip my card in the machine, the card from the book in another, and KTHUNK, my card number would be impressed on the books card. Then the card goes into the box.

Here’s a photo I found of the charging machine and a box of cards (from 1999!):

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kgs/30024441/

16

Western Dave 07.31.12 at 5:56 pm

Doing life history/oral history interviews one rarely gets what one is directly looking for and often when you ask a direct question about what you are interested in, the answer is “why would anybody want to talk about that, this other thing is really what you are interested in.” So, she’s going to control the interview, you are just along for the ride. Try to find the leakages and exploit them (a quick refresher with The Death of Luigi Transtulli and other Stories by Allesandro Portelli would help).

17

garymar 08.01.12 at 12:34 am

When I was a kid the papers still carried one-frame cartoons like “There Oughta Be A Law” and “They’ll Do It Every Time”. I remember a lot of the action occurring in urban boarding houses — noisy neighbors, eating at the common table with these same neighbors, people reading the note you pinned on the door, etc. A glimpse into the world of my parents.

18

chrismealy 08.01.12 at 5:05 am

This might be too obvious but I’m curious about what she brought from the old country to her work.

19

UserGoogol 08.01.12 at 10:23 pm

garymar: “They’ll Do It Every Time” ran until 2008, actually.

20

garymar 08.02.12 at 5:29 am

UserGoogol, yeah I saw that in the Wikipedia article. But I stopped reading the funny papers around 1969 or so.

21

notjonathon 08.02.12 at 6:04 am

Afraid I’m old enough to have understood “man of distinction.”

22

e julius drivingstorm 08.02.12 at 8:27 am

Second time through, I noticed the Studio B background in the first cartoon. I did see the statuette the first time.

23

engineer27 08.02.12 at 9:11 pm

I assumed bianca was asking about the box-like thingy in the larger lady’s hand. I was going to inform her that it’s what we used to call a “book”. It’s what we used to read before we had Kindles.

24

engineer27 08.02.12 at 9:13 pm

Question for Susi:
How long did she have to wait before drawing gags about the war? Did she ever? Did publishers ask for them?

25

Trina Robbins 08.03.12 at 2:53 am

I found this fascinating because of all the research I have done on Golden Age comic book cartoonist Lily Renee Wilheim, who signed her comics either L. Renee or Lily Renee. Lily was also a Viennese Jewish teenager who escaped the zis to England in 1939 via Kindertransport, and who eventually got to America and drew comics. I believe she is approaching 90. Are all these 90 year old women cartoonists suddenly showing up?

26

Trina Robbins 08.03.12 at 2:54 am

Sorry, that should be “Nazis,” not “zis.”

27

Belle Waring 08.05.12 at 2:10 am

I think the middle cartoon is directed directly at LizardBreath. Not because she cruelly writes such novels, but because she reads enough old detective novels to understand kvetching about Nero Wolfe. Or Lord Peter Wimsey maybe, although that’s more often wine.

28

Belle Waring 08.05.12 at 2:12 am

Also, Trina, John has intended to do this for some time but has lacked the opportunity, but clearly they had the chance to chat during this visit, which has now drawn to a close as my family has already boarded their aircraft for Singapore from Eugene via SF and Narita. Blegh. A mere schmear 28 hours or so.

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