Monday, March 2, 2009

Today is Dr. Seuss's birthday, a Bolles connection?

As those of you who have passed through the portal of Google today already know (meaning 99% of the population) today is Theodore Geisel’s birthday, known to millions of children and adults as Dr. Seuss. You may wonder why I am writing about Seuss in a blog dedicated to Enoch Bolles. Well, there is at least an indirect connection between the two. While I have no evidence that they ever met, they did travel in some of the same professional channels, and each got their start with Judge magazine, though 13 years apart. Suess had a mighty struggle getting his career out of the dock but finally in 1927 he sold two illustrations, the second to Judge. As thrilled as the Geisel was, particularly because had a new bride to support, was soon hired as a staff artist. But he soon regretted his enlistment as the flagship of the Leslie-Judge fleet had been slowly sinking for years, the result of poor management and the lack of ad revenue. In desperation they sold Film Fun off to Dellacorte publishing to pay the bills, who ended up making a mint from it. Our man Bolles had jumped ship four years earlier. He knew full well that artists were treated the worst of all at Judge, they even tried to stiff the great Monty Flagg, leading to a nasty squall with the editor.

But Geisel was a plebe and didn’t have the option of moving to another magazine. Besides he’d signed a contract for $75 a week, which allowed him to go ahead with his marriage plans. But Judge was heading toward insolvency and it wasn’t long before he had his salary reduced to $50 a week. Still Geisel was doing what he wanted and from what I can tell, it while he was at Judge that he began signing his work as Dr. Suess (and soon dropped his first uname of “Theophrastus”). But then things got even worse and he along with the other staff were paid with what were called “due bills” from advertisers who had not paid up. So instead of money Suess was compensated with cartons of Barbasol shaving cream, boxes of Little gem nail clippers and crates of White Rock Soda. By the way, Bolles contributed his final cover illustration to Judge appeared in August of 1927 with Geisel’s first illustration in October of that year. Two ships passing in the night.

It wasn’t long, however, before Geisel’s career took off. His illustrations for a couple of silly books received good notice. Then the wife of an ad-man who had Flit bug spray as a client happened to see one of Geisel's cartoons and insisted he use Geisel. The husband eventually relented and what was to be just a single ad ended up a 17 year campaign. So there was our first near miss between the two illustrators, whose lives were already taking very different routes. The next connection between them is more tenuous, and one that I only learned about earlier this week.

For a long time I’ve collected the names of the models who were listed as Film Fun models (I’ll be devoting an entire post to this). In its later years the magazine ran photo features of these so-called cover models. I’ve got names of over 25 models and while I can’t rightly say they all actually posed for Bolles, many were photographed by the publicist, Murray Korman against the same dingey studio backdrop. Why am I so interested? Well if just one of these models were still living she could be a potential goldmine of information about Bolles. So from time to time I run searches on their names. Most just draw a blank, others turned out to have bit parts in a few movies or were line dancers on broadway, but two days ago I seemed to hit paydirt. Running a search on a model named Phyllis Fraser I learned about a woman by that name who was related to Ginger Rogers, and who with her help got some small parts in Hollywood films beginning in 1932. Fraser’s biggest role was opposite John Wayne in 1936, but she decided acting wasn’t in her future. So she moved to New York in 1939 to work at an advertising agency, sharing a desk with one Theodore Geisel. Now whether she was also moonlighting as a model is uncertain, and 1939 was a bit late for Bolles. So it's possible that a Film Fun editor ran an old publicity photo of her and concocted the story about modeling for the magazine (I’m still going through my collection to see if I can find the photo reference). At any rate Fraser ended up collaborating with Geisel for over a decade and worked on several books including Cat in the Hat, before they ended their professional association, apparently not amicably. In 1940, Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker introduced her to Bennett Cerf and they were soon married. By the way it was competition from The New Yorker back in the late 1920s that drove Judge magazine to the edge of bankruptcy and resulted in Geisel’s paycut.

Fraser was married to Cerf until his death in 1971 and a few years later married the former mayor of New York, Robert Wagner. She was active with various social causes and was in the center of New York high society. She passed away in 2006. Of course there may well have been more than one pretty Phyllis Fraser who made her way to the Big Apple in the late 1930s and if I learn more, one way or another, I’ll follow up on this story.


Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Such interesting details of lives and crossover connections. Such a wonderful era for investigation, with so much that's been documented but with so many holes to fill. And you're working hard to catch personal detail before it passes away. Love what you're doing.

Jack R said...

I'm glad you are enjoying this. Sometimes I feel like these stories are a bit contrived but they are fun to 'assemble'. By the way I love your art and your illustration blog, which I've linked.

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Thanks Jack, I appreciate the link.

Contrived is a relative term. What you are doing is helping to keep that era alive for those of us who love it. Showing the connectivity of the times, that influence many of us to this day, is a valuable service.

I look forward to purchasing your book when it's published!

Jack R said...

It's been fun and I'm looking forward to doing more of this, especially being able to combine written and visual material. It makes my 'job' a lot easier (though it takes extra time). Just yesterday I found a photo of the Illustrator's society ball in New York taken back in 1936. Rube Goldberg was standing between two models who posed for Bolles. Now all I have to do is figure out a story line :)

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Ah, Rube Goldberg. I've got a couple of his original cartoons from the nineteen teens. And I met him once many years ago in Chicago. No pressure, but it'll be fun to see your story.

Jack R said...

Really!! That's great. Both he and Seuss did a lot of adult themed (I mean this in the benign sense) work in their day but most people today think they just did kid stuff.

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