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Bill Mauldin: Drawing Fire

The cartoonist’s 35-year fight for truth

American GI, cartoonist, Bill MauldinAmerican GI, cartoonist, Bill Mauldin

American GI and cartoonist Bill Mauldin holds a drawing board featuring some of his characters in New York City. Circa 1945.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Stop them damn pictures! I don’t care so much what papers write about me — my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures. — William Marcy “Boss” Tweed

Gilbert”Scoop” Giles stared at the one with the delicately etched face and the hirsute grin. It wasn’t every 13-year-old cartoonist who was asked to cover the Republican National Convention for the Children’s Express news team — and far fewer could ever have had this happen.

Scoop was sitting in a Kansas City bistro with some of the best political cartoonists around — and the one with the grin was looking at his latest convention cartoons. He tried to look comfortable as tables of Republicans peered toward their table to see who was making all the noise. In another part of town the convention was being brought to order, but the rounds of drinks kept coming to the rowdy table in the corner. The volatile profusion of talent continued to carouse and tell stories about their lives as professional troublemakers.

The one with the grin has been making trouble all his life. In over 5000 cartoons drawn over the past 35 years, Bill Mauldin has produced a steady stream of inspired trouble. He is known as a consummate master of an art that is practiced professionally in America by fewer than 130 people, and done particularly well by only a handful of them.

Gilbert Giles hadn’t known why he was bouncing into the bar in the Muelbach Hotel that evening, but Mauldin had specifically asked to meet him. Mauldin would comment several times over the ensuing weeks that he’d seen something special in Giles’ eyes.

“Don’t you ever let anybody tell you how to draw,” Mauldin told him. Then Giles got up reverently and said goodbye to the other cartoonists. He took a few slow steps toward the door before breaking into a wild sprint. Mauldin nodded at Oliphant and passed him one of Giles’ cartoons. “The kid’s all right,” he said, and he should know. Mauldin had decided to become a great cartoonist when he was only eight. Mauldin says he could draw before he could talk. “It came so naturally,” he once wrote, “that when a teacher would berate me for drawing in class, I would reply that I had only been thinking.”

Pat Oliphant, undoubtedly one of the hottest young political cartoonists today and, in Mauldin’s opinion, a “bone-ah-fide-dee” genius, picked up a clean bar napkin and uncapped his felt-tipped pen. The conversation at the table had deteriorated, so when Oliphant took out his pen, they all knew what was going to happen.

Ralph Steadman grabbed another bar napkin and quickly drew a bizarre bovine figure with horns. The creature was pure Steadman — it wore a three-piece suit with a button on the lapel. Nobody needed to say a thing — they all knew it was a Republican. Ralph passed it to Oliphant. “Steadman,” he said, “you’re an evil son of a bitch.”

Oliphant finished his cartoon and handed it to Steadman. Ralph handed it to me and beer shot into my sinuses. I handed it to Village Voice cartoonist Stan Mack, and Mack handed it to Mauldin, who frowned at Oliphant’s outrageous depiction of Jimmy Carter violating a GOP elephant. Mauldin grabbed his pen and drew action lines behind the crouching candidate and Carter was suddenly in motion. That incredible grin spread over his face again.

The drawings were coming faster and faster, each more brilliant than the last in its utter obscenity. No one spoke until Art Buchwald joined the group and started to tell a story.

Mauldin has known Buchwald for a long time; they’d hung around Paris together in the early Fifties. But after the punch line, it became clear that Buchwald, a professional troublemaker himself, was not quite attuned to what was going on. Ralph Steadman had run out of bar napkins and begun drawing faces on peanuts. He handed Buchwald a peanut and asked for his autograph. Buchwald threw it back at him and said, “Troublemaker.” Then he left.

As we walked away from the bar much later, I felt the bar napkins bulging in my pockets and knew that I’d witnessed something special. The political discussion that preceded the drawing had been rare in its highly opinionated clarity. Every day Mauldin and Oliphant draw cartoons that appear in over 300 papers around the country, making public statements without the luxury of verbal equivocation — something most people will never do. Their well-known signatures appear in the corner of each drawing, thus ensuring the power and audacity of their incessant bitching.

“This really isn’t a business,” Oliphant explained, “it’s a cause. I’m an outcast because of it. A writer can’t really say, ‘This man’s an idiot,’ because the law holds him back. We can say it.

“That guy over there,” Oliphant said, “Mauldin. You be good to him. He’s not just a cartoonist — he’s a legend.”

The night before the barroom cartooning contest, Mauldin had dragged Oliphant to Kansas City’s venerable Savoy Grill to have dinner with the “Brass Hats” of the Chicago Sun-Times and the directors of Mauldin’s huge cartoon syndicate. Mauldin sat at the big table amid the Victorian elegance and marbled meat in a wrinkled Chinese fishing shirt. Oliphant puffed on his pipe and looked bored.

Mauldin’s hobbyhorse for the evening was the fate of Harry Reems, who’d been arrested for costarring in Deep Throat. Mauldin contended that Reems’ only crime concerned his hypertrophic anatomical attributes and that he deserved public support. “I’m gonna draw a cartoon about it,” he said.

And abruptly the conversation shifted to less embarrassing topics. Several minutes later Mauldin sat upright, grinning: “I’ve got it. I’ll show him hangin’ himself by his own dick.”

He had said it so naturally that there was a distinct gap between statement and reaction. One executive’s wife left for the ladies’ room. Several reporters shaded their eyes. I began thinking about all manner of pain and death to avoid laughing. Oliphant shook his head — and Mauldin just grinned sheepishly at the whole thing.

At the end of the meal, Mauldin said goodbye to his editors. He hadn’t seen them in weeks and had no specific intentions to see them in the near future. His desk at the Chicago Sun-Times is almost always empty. He likes it on the fringe: “I’m living away, sending stuff in, and being as independent as a hog on ice.”

“You have to be your own man in these things,” he said later. “I’ve never attended an editorial conference in my life. A political cartoon is signed opinion — unlike an editorial — and I don’t think that it should ever be subject to editorial direction. If a cartoonist needs editorial direction, then he is simply inadequate.”

Early in the morning on July 20th, we took off through the mist above the Johnson County airfield in Kansas. Mauldin gently banked the twin-engine Beechcraft and pointed its nose toward New Mexico. “I got this plane five years ago when a Book-of-the-Month check came in,” he said. “It was within $50 of the asking price of the plane and I couldn’t pass it up.”

His deftness around the plane had inspired my confidence well before takeoff. Once in the air, his colorful syntax, reminiscent of an articulate Walter Brennan, gave way to the exactitude of airplane acronyms.

We soon passed over an ugly cloud somewhere in the Texas Panhandle. “That’s Dalhart, Texas,” Mauldin said. “Look at that town. This is why I’m such a nut on pollution in my work. I started flying in 1950 — I’ve watched the rivers turn green. If they ever give the world an enema — Dalhart is where they’ll put the tube.”

The Beechcraft thrust into the dry air of New Mexico and the countryside began to show the burnt hues of the high desert. “See that compass?” he asked, pointing to a large Kollsman compass. “It’s vintage World War II — from a bomber.”It sat on the dash like another man’s plastic Jesus, a memento of the war that had established Mauldin as the most important American war cartoonist of the century.

At 18, Bill Mauldin joined the 45th Infantry Division because they had a newspaper. The division, which was drawn from the southwestern states, collected more Congressional Medals of Honor and suffered more casualties than any other and earned a reputation for being a “bunch of killers.”

The soldiers in the 45th became invasion specialists. Mauldin was with them on the beaches of Salerno and Sicily before being transferred, halfway through the war, to the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He returned to the 45th for the invasions at Anzio and southern France. Mauldin holds that everyone in their original K Company was killed except a cook and a cartoonist.

At 23 he won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1945 he returned home more famous than most generals. And the two mudcaked dogfaces named Willie and Joe, in whom Mauldin personified the pathetic existence of the men who fight the wars, were more famous and infamous than all of them. Mauldin’s brilliant war drawings ensured that for the rest of his life, his name would conjure up images of the war. “I guess you either live with it,” he was to say later, “or accept oblivion.”

“I run into people now and they say, ‘Listen, I was in WW II and your stuff really gave me such a kick. I laughed my head off.’ Any time I run into somebody who says that, I know he’s full of shit. If he laughed, I know he didn’t understand those cartoons.”

As the war progressed and the fighting got heavier, Willie and Joe grew beards and got holes in their helmets, gradually becoming every soldier’s image of men at the front. They were smelly and dirty and bored. They didn’t seem to want to die for the flag — they wanted to go home. In one cartoon, Willie asks Joe why he wasn’t born a beautiful woman.

They were real, and millions of people loved them for it.

By the time the war ended, Mauldin had immortalized the two characters in Up Front, a collection of Willie and Joe drawings with an accompanying text that became a number one best seller for over a year. And it remains on American bookshelves as a documented account of the nature of war. Willie and Joe and the other dogfaces, as well as the German infantrymen, all sort of look alike. That was part of the magic of Mauldin’s wartime work: he refused to partake in the propagandistic, gung-ho editorializing that usually attends a major war.

Mauldin wrote in Up Front that he had tried to “picture this war in a big broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about. . . .” He was 23.

Now he’s 54. I asked if he could still dash off a Willie and Joe: “Yeah, but there’s a significant difference. Now I draw them with little grins on their faces; when I drew them during the war, they never smiled.”

At the end of the war, Mauldin considered killing them. Their deaths would have been national tragedies at the time. “I should have killed them . . . the people they represented were mostly dead. To me they were genuine people and they were dead too. They were really dead anyway, why not kill them? It would have been an easy way out. The one thing that every soldier dreads is getting killed on the last day of the war — so I thought I’d have them get hit by a shell.”

As Mauldin drew for the soldiers who did the fighting, the ones who directed the war became more and more uneasy about the little troublemaker’s power and prestige. One of his favorite cartoons pictures two generals looking at a spectacular sunset. “It’s a beautiful view,” says one. “Is there one for the enlisted men?”

His personal war against arbitrary and irresponsible authority eventually landed him in the office of General George S. Patton himself. Patton threw down a drawing of Willie and Joe throwing tomatoes at their own officers during a liberation parade. “What are you trying to do,” Patton barked, “incite a goddamned mutiny?” The general threatened to ban the military daily paper from his area unless Mauldin’s cartoons were cleaned up, but Mauldin never changed a thing.

Patton decided to leave Mauldin alone. He must have known that the Mauldin cartoons pinned in bunkers and tents throughout Europe were drawn for the small percentage of men at the front. The army didn’t want to have to explain to the dogfaces why Willie and Joe suddenly looked healthy and clean while they were still tired and dirty.

After his triumphal return in mid-1945, Patton was asked what he thought of Mauldin. The general compared him to the brilliant British WW I cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, and added that he hadn’t liked Bairnsfather either.

By 1948 it looked like Bill Mauldin was on his way to becoming an American Keats, a star-spangled hero who’d simply done so much so fast that he was done. Besides being the youngest ever recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and the author of the best seller Up Front, he’d written two other books and an autobiography by the age of 26. Between 1944 and 1945 alone he was featured in the Saturday Evening Post, the Nation, the New Republic, four times in Life and five times in Time — once on the cover. His postwar cartoons were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. He had been married, had two sons, and been divorced. He was not only America’s paramount symbol of the returning soldier; he was also a walking example of that “only in America” mystique that makes a religion of success.

But things hadn’t been easy, cartooning-wise, since the war. While under contract with the United Feature syndicate, he turned out controversial cartoons on the plight of the veterans, the GI bill, the KKK, the atom bomb and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was erratic and bitter. Editors started dropping him out of their papers at a rate of one a day. He was being edited heavily by the syndicate and becoming more bellicose all the time.

It was during this period that Mauldin launched his first attack on veterans’ organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He detested what he called “professional veterans.” “A man who’s seen combat firsthand,” he told me, “doesn’t want to be reminded of it.” His rejection of these groups has lasted. In 1971 he publicly suggested that the American Legion be drafted to finish the war in Vietnam.

In his postwar book, Back Home, Mauldin expressed the frustrations of many of his huge following. Returning veterans — especially those with anything approaching a progressive outlook — were shocked by what they found at home and embittered by the treatment they received. In Back Home Mauldin wrote: “We have more provincialism and bigotry and superstition and prejudice per square mile than almost any other nation.”

When Mauldin joined the board of directors of the leftish American Veterans Committee (although he basically hates joiners), the American Legion leaders were relieved that the famous soldier who consistently attacked them had finally shown his true color — red.

So, at the age of 27, Mauldin retired and for ten years fell back on his “spare abilities.” The only time he did political cartoons was when he’d get so mad at Senator Joe McCarthy that he’d drive a cartoon down to Manhattan in order to make the New York Post‘s deadline.

He bought an airplane and learned to fly; went hunting regularly until someone opened up on him with a Browning automatic rifle (at which point he became a master archer), wrote two plays and three novels, wrote freelance articles regularly for Life on everything from power tools to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and was a war correspondent in Korea. After a few years he’d developed a new following of readers who loved his rough-hewn, first-person style of journalism.

In 1950, he went to Hollywood. After all, it was one of the few things he hadn’t tried. He was a technical adviser and actor on a film called Teresa. Then one day director John Huston called and asked him if he wanted to play the loud soldier in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Mauldin had met Huston during the war and he liked the idea of a realistic war film. He figured that “everybody should star in at least one movie.”

Mauldin costarred in the film with another war veteran, Audie Murphy. I asked Mauldin if he thought heroes like Murphy, who’d received the Congressional Medal of Honor and unprecedented fame for single-handedly holding off 250 Germans in one battle, weren’t a bit crazy.

“No, they weren’t crazy. These were good shots, very good hunters. They were good fighters — not good soldiers . . . Murphy was a little, tenacious guy. He had this pretty little female face on him. Can you see this kid fighting his way through school every day? A recess probably never went by that he didn’t have at least two fights. For all of his life he was just scrappy.”

Mauldin downed a margarita and looked across the table. We both knew that Mauldin understood a lot about people who were continually fighting. For all of his life, he was just scrappy.

By 1956 Mauldin was finished with movies and living on a ten-acre estate about 35 miles north of Manhattan. It was then he realized that there was yet another job he hadn’t conquered. So, in 1956, Bill Mauldin became the Democratic candidate for Congress from New York’s 28th district, a Republican stronghold run by Hamilton Fish, or various other fishes, since 1842. “It’s a bad district,” Mauldin said of his would-be constituency. “They were Tories during the Revolution, Copperheads in the Civil War, and Nazi lovers during World War II — a bunch of really raunchy assholes.”

Mauldin’s opponent was a right-wing protégé of Fish’s named Katherine St. George whom Mauldin admits was “a rather formidable broad.” She apparently tried to ignore Mauldin’s impudent campaign at the beginning, but ended up taking out newspaper ads which called him a pinko.

Mauldin’s grin got even bigger when he talked about the campaign: “I think I got as many votes as hands that I shook. I worked for eight months on the thing. I’d fly my plane up and walk around in fields kicking cowshit. I was sort of the John Connally there. I never lied to those assholes, but you do find yourself getting economical with the truth.

“I knew I was gonna get slaughtered, but I thought that I should do it. Most newspaper people have this contempt for politicians — most of them should be forced to run for office just to see what it’s like.

“I lost big [27,814 to 18,983].”

“What if you had won?”

“It would have been awful. I did play to win, though. I even put 50,000 bucks into it — and it surely scared ol’ Katy St. George.”

A Few hours after our arrival in Santa Fe, Mauldin came in out of the sun and began leafing through the Chicago Sun-Times. Outside, the three Mauldin dogs and various relatives and friends lounged around the pool that sits in a terraced backyard overlooking wildflowers and miles of mountain peaks. He took off his weathered redneck’s hat with the Navajo hatband as his wife put an Emmylou Harris album on the stereo and continued to read.

He lurched forward in his chair and began reciting aloud from an Evans and Novak column concerning the involved selling out of Kissinger’s foreign policy by Ford to the Reagan forces back in Kansas City. He read the article with an affected sarcasm and sat back: “Can you believe how pompous those guys are?” I didn’t know it at the time, but Mauldin had just come up with an idea for the next day’s cartoon.

Mauldin sot up and strolled through his bright, airy house. As he showed me through the huge darkroom he’d built, I noticed that his hands are twisted and bent from arthritis. The Santa Fe climate and constant manual activities such as guitar playing minimize the pain so his work is not affected. “One thing’s for sure,” he said, flexing his hands and grinning, “my street fightin’ days are over.”

There is continual fascination in the fluidity of Mauldin’s face. It speaks of a warmth that all his acquaintances are quick to point out. By all accounts, Bill Mauldin is a nice guy.

He was born in 1921 in a logging train whistle stop called Mountain Park. New Mexico. “It was on the train run; now the train is gone and so is the mailing address. It’s a lonesome feeling to have your birthplace go off the map.”

The Mauldin family spent much of the Depression traveling between Arizona and New Mexico in an old Maxwell with a truck bed wired on the back and a goat named Nanny in the back seat, à la The Grapes of Wrath.

Bill left home early after he was kicked out of high school just before graduation for smoking. He returned to the Southwest at intervals before settling here on the outskirts of Santa Fe in 1972.

He loves to talk about the desert and the land. He has a horticulturist’s understanding of the ecology of the region and he’s developed a Faulknerian respect for the land’s integrity. He can spend hours explaining how the land can heal itself or why wolves and snakes are noble and important. He even likes coyotes: “You know they’re almost extinct because a few years back there was a price on their hides. Nixon stopped that — the only thing that he ever did that was good. Nixon saved the coyotes.”

Mauldin knows an embarrassing amount about things: he’s an expert mechanic who services his own airplane; an expert flyer; an expert helicopter pilot (he’s written and illustrated an Air Force instruction manual); an expert plumber, electrician and a fine photographer. The 18th century grandfather clock in the hallway of his Santa Fe home hadn’t run in 150 years until Mauldin bought some books on clocks.

He moves as easily around machines and tools as he does at the drawing board. I watched him install a doorknob from scratch in a few minutes. As he put the final touches on the doorknob, he told me that the oil from the jojoba bean has the same viscosity as whale oil. His jojoba crop was doing well . . . .

Mauldin retains a consciousness of the complicated world around him that is rare in a simple rural environment, and a conscientiousness extremely rare in an urbane political milieu.

It was at this point that I noticed the da Vincian overtones of his myriad abilities: “I’m not trying to be a fucking Renaissance man you know. I’m not trying to be John K. Galbraith or something. I just like fooling around with things. All of these hobbies I’ve got — it’s just something to keep my hands busy. Machinery demands less of me than people.”

He was already scratching away with a pencil when I walked into his workroom the next day. Photographs of Henry Kissinger were spread all around his large drawing board, but the Kissinger that stared out from Mauldin’s sketch said much more. As Mauldin penciled in the wrinkles on Kissinger’s forehead, his face started to take on an incredulous, sort of quizzical look. It was a fitting expression considering that the secretary of state’s head was mounted on Ronald Reagan’s wall.

“It’s the Evans and Novak thing,” I said. Mauldin looked up for a minute and grinned.

Ronald Reagan stood next to his new trophy with an unctuous and contented look on his face. The caption read, “Consolation Prize.” It was the essence of the involved political act.

He draws quickly, almost violently, starting from the upper right corner and moving down across the page. Mauldin is left-handed and, as any fellow lefty knows, you can’t do it any other way. Mauldin has further avoided the problems of sinistrality by lettering from right to left — he became an expert mirror reader painting window signs as a youth.

The bright workroom is cluttered with guns, bows, a small, computerized flight simulator and piles of books and photographic material. The floor is speckled with last week’s ink. A movable mirror protrudes from the wall so he can look at wrinkles and facial expressions. On the shelf behind him are copies of Gray’s Anatomy and a Sears Roebuck catalog.

“That Sears catalog is the best goddamned resource in the world. . . . Now let’s see, how would Ronald Reagan’s lapels look? . . . There, I’m not gonna touch that mouth. It looks like ‘im, doesn’t it?

“I really think that a drawing should be drawn like a play should be written — there shouldn’t be any spare parts, or spare words, or even sounds — everything should move toward putting the idea across.” His attention returned to the Reagan-Kissinger drawing.

“Here,” he said, “I’ll show you what the brush does to the thing . . . see . . . there’s a certain casualness to that line. It adds a nice looseness to the damn thing. I used to only use a brush. All that wartime stuff was totally with the brush.

“There. You see how it still has a look of a slapdash drawing? There’s this new pictorial system of transmission that is based on style — they’re too hung up on style these days. I’ve always believed, ‘Screw style.’ Make the best picture you can.”

While the ink was drying, Mauldin walked over to the little flight simulator and flew for a few minutes. He turned the disturbance control on the machine all the way up and successfully flew the computer through hurricane-force wind. Then he went back to the drawing and took out a shading pencil. Again, he moved right across the page. The pencil moved without hesitation to specific corners and curves. Within seconds he had pulled Henry Kissinger’s head out into Ronald Reagan’s living room: “I needed that shadow to show that this is a head and not a portrait.”

At 11:45 he was done. He knew that the twelve o’clock mail was the last one that would get the drawing back to Chicago in time to make his deadline. He threw on his good-ol’-boy hat and we jumped in the pickup.

Riding through Santa Fe, Mauldin talked about Indians and adobe housing structures. The style of a house in Santa Fe is dictated by law. Even the more opulent homes are camouflaged by the adobe style and earth colors — “that’s shit colored,” Mauldin corrected.

Mauldin can talk about his work with a rare lucidity. He defies the image of the touchy artist. He seems so relaxed and at peace with his art. “Bill, you don’t agonize over these decisions; you make these involved analyses. I want to know how you decide. . . .”

I’m reactive.”

“What?”

“Reactive. You see the problem with me is that I never really studied it enough or learned enough about it — it’s really a crippling thing. I have a very strong moral code and a very strong ethical code and I simply try to apply them.”

Mauldin put down the copy of Arcade Comics he was reading at 11 that night and turned on Mary Hartman. He had heard that Dennis Foley was due “to have a heart attack in the saddle,” and he wasn’t about to miss that for anything. But it soon became obvious that Mary (“woman’s got teeth like a chain saw”) and Dennis (“that Foley’s a cool one”) weren’t even going to hold hands during the episode, let alone get back to his apartment. So Mauldin started talking about John F. Kennedy:

“You know, I never was one of those Kennedy suck-ups. Herblock blew it there. He was a huge Kennedy man. I went to Berlin with Kennedy in 1963. That was when he stood in the square and said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ “I puked. Soured on Kennedy right after that speech. I stood there in this square with these screaming Krauts, the same square where Hitler used to speak. You know, ‘Sieg Heil!’ They’re all goin’ ‘Ke-ne-dee! Ke-ne-dee!’ The fucker was inciting them and he knew it.”

Despite his feelings about the Kennedy style — a visceral reaction that is somewhat tied up in the imagist aspects of Kennedy’s Harvard entourage — one of Mauldin’s most important cartoons appeared the day after the assassination. The captionless drawing of the weeping statue in the Abraham Lincoln Memorial appeared all over the country. Mauldin has always considered it a failed drawing because of the problems he had with Lincoln’s hairline, but it’s a hard person who, even now, doesn’t feel a chill from that drawing. It will always transcend any verbal description of a nation’s grief. Thousands of people stood in line at the Sun-Times on November 23rd, 1963, to get a copy of the masterpiece.

At one point I noted that some of Mauldin’s more brilliant cartoons had come at the passing of a great leader. When Eisenhower died, he received wide acclaim for a simple drawing of a military cemetery. The caption read: “it’s Ike himself. Pass the word.”

“I come up with that stuff and I sometimes wonder if I’m a necrophiliac or something — I get moved by people dying, especially if they’ve had long and heavy careers. Some of them I’m glad to see die. . . . Ike was a nice guy. I figured that I really did have to do something. He did save my ass a couple of times.

“I remembered that before D-day, a bunch of para troopers were lined up with greasepaint on their faces and Eisenhower’s standin’ there with his hands in his pockets  — very relaxed. I remember sayin’ to myself when he died — what would these paratroopers have said? They would have said, ‘Hey, it’s Ike. Pass the word.’ You know, ‘He come to visit.’ It seemed to grab everybody.”

When he collected his award for the Eisenhower cartoon, this one coming from the Sigma Delta Chi professional journalists’ society, it said that Bill Mauldin “speaks for the nation with a stroke of his pen.” Through the beginning of the Sixties, Mauldin was finally beginning to lose the legacy of his war fame. In 1958 he came out of retirement and went to work for the liberal St. Louis Post Dispatch. By 1959 he had won his second Pulitzer Prize for a cartoon concerning the plight of Soviet writer Boris Pasternak. His syndication level soon reached 300 papers. He has been turning out at least five cartoons a week since then. He has only used Willie and Joe once since his return to cartooning, and that was when General George Marshall died.

Much of Mauldin’s life has involved the city of Chicago. He bought a house on Chicago’s South Side in 1966 — just down the street from Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, an occasional target for a Mauldin jab, and across the street from Joe Louis’ ex-wife. He had always harbored warm feelings toward Chicago. He attended art school there, and in a particularly Mauldinian, almost perverse way, he loved Chicago politics. It was as if residence in the city helped to refine his detestation of corrupted power and the pudgy little fellow who runs things there:

“Chicago still reminds me of Mussolini’s Italy. It’s not at all like Nazi Germany. It’s the difference between Fascists and Nazis. I consider Richard Daley basically a Fascist and the town is sort of run that way. If you tangle with the boss, you get castor oil poured down your throat.”

Mauldin usually draws Daley wearing a Keystone Kops outfit. The giant helmet covers his eyes so that only his flabby lips are showing: “Daley has a mouth that looks like a baby’s when the bottle’s been taken out of his hand. I was once forced to shake hands with him — one of the slimiest handshakes of all time. He’s really a vile little son of a bitch.”

On May 23rd of last year Mauldin and some friends were walking down Stone Street on Chicago’s Near North Side. Mauldin began taking pictures of a typical Chicago scene: cars were illegally parked and policemen on the street were doing nothing about it because of the relative clout of the people who owned the vehicles.

Mauldin snapped a picture of a man in one of the cars who was giving him the finger. According to Mauldin and his wife and friends, the guy got out of the car, pulled the camera off his neck, punched him in the nose, threw the camera back in his nose, and kneed him in the groin.

The alleged attacker was identified as Thomas Flanagan, an insurance executive with the company that once employed Mayor Daley’s son. When young Daley originally got the job, the company suddenly got the City of Chicago’s insurance business and Daley Jr. got $150,000 in commission. When Daley Sr. was asked about this at a closed meeting of local Democrats he was reported to say, “If I can’t help my sons, then they [his critics] can kiss my ass. I make no apologies to anyone.”

Flanagan was on Stone Street that night to attend an engagement party. It appears that young Daley was marrying one Mary Lou Briatta, the daughter of Louis Briatta, an old crony of Richard J. Daley’s and a reputed crime syndicate boss in Chicago.

The day after the incident, the Chicago papers carried a photograph of Mauldin with blood all over his face. His nose was badly broken. People thought of Chicago and 1968.

Five days later, Chicago columnist Mike Royko took up Mauldin’s case. Royko has been Richard Daley’s, most persistent and vehement critic for the past 15 years. He often refers to Daley as “The Great Dumpling.” On May 28th he wrote: “The beating of Mauldin, who is a friend of mine, was one of the finest events to occur in Chicago in many years. The sound of his nose breaking was sweet music. . . . All those nameless people who can be freely punched in the nose, pushed around, kicked, stomped, walked on — thousands of them all over the city. But this had to be Bill Mauldin.”

When the criminal case finally came to court, Flanagan testified that Mauldin had attacked him. A police captain, whom Mauldin and friends swear wasn’t even there, testified that he saw the whole thing.

The papers reported that the judge had taken no notes during the final session. He had simply picked up a legal pad and read his decision.

Royko’s final column rang with defeat: “I have to admit,” he wrote, “that before the trial was held I was convinced that Thomas Flanagan, the Daley crony, had indeed worked over Bill Mauldin, the cartoonist.” Royko explained that he had trouble figuring who did attack Mauldin:”. . . Others I briefly considered were Richard M. Nixon, Adolph Hitler, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and George Meany, all of whom Mauldin has criticized in his cartoons.”Royko resigned himself to the obvious fact that Mauldin had broken his own nose and kneed himself in the groin.

Such is truth in Chicago.

Royko’s brilliant book, Boss, which excoriates the Daley machine, sits prominently on Mauldin’s bookshelf in Santa Fe. On the inside cover is an inscription dated four years before the Stone Street scene:

Listen Muldoon,
The trouble with you is that you don’t know what makes a city great. Bricks and mortar, that’s what makes a city great. Bricks and mortar, that’s what. So someday this guy is going to put a brick through your window and shoot to kill you wit’ a mortar.
with respect, admiration, reverence, and awe,
Mike

The early sixties were halcyon cartooning days for Mauldin. He found the race issue to be easy. He contends that he equated the plight of blacks at the time with the exploitation of enlisted men during the war. His name became closely associated with the civil rights movement as he attacked the resurgent racism of those years, his favorite target being the white, Southern bigot:

“My favorite one was after they were beating up blacks with little baseball bats down in Montgomery. I just showed a couple of rednecks — no blacks onstage at all. One of them — and these are some of the most repulsive sorts — one of them says, ‘Let that one go, he don’t wanna be mah equal.'”

The war in Vietnam presented some problems. Mauldin’s work shows him to be a dove on Indochina throughout the Fifties. During the early Sixties he drew a cartoon depicting Kennedy carrying Diem in a sedan chair. On October 19th, 1962, a powerful and prophetic Mauldin cartoon appeared that showed a machine gun with American soldiers stuck in the gun belt. The caption read, “Live Ammunition.”

But in February of 1965, Mauldin went to Vietnam for the Sun-Times. On February 10th, he flew toward the northern perimeter of South Vietnam, to the base at Pleiku, where his son was stationed.

The night Mauldin arrived, the base was attacked and many Americans were killed. He moved out of his tent to take cover during the particularly brutal mortar barrage. After the firing stopped, he helped load the wounded soldiers into trucks. Despite all the wars in his past, the incident had a strong effect:

“After the attack, I was standing there — still with the blood around me — and I saw these big B-52s heavy with bombs, flying north for revenge. I got a patriotic feeling from it that stayed with me for quite a while.”

The attack at Pleiku proved to be the first substantive act of aggression during the Vietnam War. Mauldin returned a hawk. The American Legion gave him a plaque.

“I think I was on my way to following nature’s dictates. I think I was on my way to getting more conservative — I really do — without meaning to. My heart was in the right place — I got a little fucked up though.

“What really reradicalized me was the Chicago convention in 1968 — and just being in the same town with Daley. I figured that if that son of a bitch is on the right, then I wanna be on the left.”

After his conversion, he never received another plaque from the American Legion. They went back to considering him a “tool of the reds.” He began a determined series of attacks against the war and specifically against “ol’ Johnson”: “I was really very fond of the bastard, but then a time came when I wasn’t so fond of him. He would always try to buttonhole me. He liked me because of where I was from as much as anything else. He had this thing that most of the press were down on him because he was an old shitkicker — well, he knew that I was an old shitkicker too. He would say things like, ‘Well, Bill, yah learn na draw mah nose yet?’ or ‘That was a purty shitty thing yah did there, Bill.’ I would always try to avoid the guy.

“Now Nixon was a problem. He’s easy to draw. The only problem with drawing Nixon is restraint. Your tendency is to let your feelings come out. He’s such a loathsome son of a bitch, and he looks so loathsome. He’s a clown with evil eyes and Rudolph Hess eyebrows.

“The only guy that can make him look really loathsome and get away with it is David Levine. Feiffer can’t because he hates him so much he can’t even visualize him.”

As we spoke, Mauldin was working on two drawings at the same time. One of them concerned Jimmy Carter’s speech to the American Legion (“part of my continuing war against the Legion,” he smiled), the other showed red ink being poured under the wheels of an Amtrak locomotive, a rather esoteric reference to Amtrak’s financial problems. The train’s engine was replete with working detail that would still delight those students of Mauldin’s work who didn’t get the idea (“I love machines,” he said). As we talked about the various Sixties villains whom Mauldin had persistently skewered over the years, he seemed to draw more quickly:

Mitchell! Oh Christ, Mitchell! Eeewwww, what an asshole! He was easy to pick out early. He came on like gangbusters right away. Anyone who comes on strong for law and order I figure has sumpin’ to hide.

“I watched Dole, for example. I already knew he was a skunk, but I watched him refuting Carter. I thought, ‘Well, there it goes, the hard-nosed bit.’ Now what are we gonna learn about him? Who’s he taking bribes from? Dole is a sullen, surly Nixon type — same eyebrows. Watch out, he’s one of those. He always seems to say, ‘They owe me.’

“Law and order is like patriotism — anyone who comes on strong about patriotism has got something to hide — it never fails. They always turn out to be a crook or an asshole or a traitor or something.”

As he worked on Jimmy Carter, Mauldin’s wife Chris banged away on a typewriter a few doors down. She came to work at the Chicago Daily Mail, which shared the office building of the Sun-Times, as a summer intern in 1969 and returned to the paper after graduating from college. A Sixties politico, Chris found the “on the other hand” editorial musings of her superiors rather disgusting. But one of the Sun-Times heavies was different, that crusty fellow who sat off by himself.

He started asking her for technical advice for his drawings of hippies and longhairs. She didn’t learn until much later that he had six sons, a few of them with very long hair. In 1972, she married him anyway.

The next morning, the phone rang early:

“Hi. I’ve got Jerry over here . . . .”

“What?”

“I’ve got Jerry over here with this highly intelligent look on his face wavin’ a big stick around with a spike through it. He’s got Korean reports in his back pocket. I’ve got ‘As Teddy Roosevelt said — speak loudly with a big stick’ underneath. Come over and take a look.”

By the time I arrived, he was finished. He held up the drawing, again proving that he really can make our president look dumb: “It’s that big, broad, endless expanse of football player’s face,” he explained.

We hopped back in the pickup for another trip to the post office. I ran the cartoon in and two postal employees asked me to say hello to “ol’ Bill.”

Back in the truck, Mauldin had been thinking about the world for a change. On several occasions during our time together, Mauldin would begin to answer questions that had been asked days earlier. He seemed to be able to store random thoughts indefinitely:

“You know, we really don’t have the smarts to be a world power. We’re not quite cynical enough. We’re mean enough all right, but we’re not tough enough. I want someone else to fight the next war.”

Personally, Mauldin is through with wars. He’s seen four of them up close. He thinks he’s too impressionable. Although the Israeli army inspired an abiding respect, he’s had enough. All the blood finally got to him.

“Bill,” I said later in the day, “are you a liberal?”

I knew it was an insult. He speaks from a very complex pulpit — and he hates labels.

Mauldin spent days answering the question. He called my hotel room to supplement a previous point; he’d interrupt himself in the middle of another subject or look up from a drawing:” . . . about that liberalism question.”

He thinks that old liberals are “bubbleheads.” He does admit to being a “cottage industry capitalist.” He has a strong sense of “puritan ethic” which extends to his belief that America is the best place to achieve as long as you’re not handicapped “by being black or something.” He is somewhat conservative on domestic fiscal policies but hates illiberal governments and people like the shah of Iran. He doesn’t believe in inheritance because it “perpetuates dynasties of cretins.” He is against gun control. He is antisnob and antielite, but does not object to individuals he considers elite by virtue of their talent.

He’s one complicated fellow.

One night in Chicago I saw Mauldin give a cabdriver a two dollar tip for a one dollar ride. I decided that I’d finally found the true scale of judgment. The man’s a liberal. To Sun-Times columnist Bob Green he’s more than that. According to Green, Mauldin’s “the last of the liberals.”

Mauldin used to own a dog named Big Boy. Every night this dog would come home with his guts hanging out. Every night he’d fight and every night he’d lose. Thus, the ceaseless fulminations of his daily cartoons. Mauldin sits down every day and knocks his head up against it all. It’s as if he’d stop functioning if his reactions ever got soft. I asked him if he’d ever approved of something in a cartoon:

“You can’t ever approve in a cartoon. It is essentially a destructive device. What are you going to do, put a halo over a guy’s head? All you can do if you want to be constructive is find out who a guy’s enemies are and go after them.

“You ask yourself once in a while,” he said, “are you really going to play the string out? Are you going to become a pathetic old son of a bitch grinding out his sausage?”

Doubtful. Under the curmudgeonly crust and the “cuss words,” Mauldin may be too sensitive and too open. Five days a week, he becomes a little kid with eyes as bright and open as Scoop Giles’; but with a head that was too big from a bout with rickets and ears that stuck out, he had to fight every day. He always lost, but he only cried when he was mad. During the war what made him draw with a brilliance beyond his years was certainly his substantial talent, but he says it was also that he so hated the look in a young infantryman’s eyes: “The eyes were just too old for those young bodies.”

Mauldin’s cartoons may someday be recognized as the most perceptive of our postwar histories.

The cartoons will keep coming. Another collection is due in book form soon, as is a brilliant book which he wrote and illustrated concerning the world of the Revolutionary War infantryman. For the past two years he has taught political cartooning at Yale. The American Legion recently asked him to draw the cover for their magazine.

One evening we sat on the porch, watching gum-ball-sized hail bounce on the grass and talking about the desert and snakes.

“Do you know how a constrictor actually operates?” he asked. “Everyone thinks that it actually crushes its prey. They don’t squeeze you at all. All they do is throw a couple ‘a three coils around ya and wait for you to exhale. Every time you exhale, he cinches you up a little tighter.” 

In This Article: Animation, Coverwall

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