Al Capp: A Life to the Contraryby Denis Kitchen, Michael Schumacher
More than thirty years have passed since Al Capp's death, and he may no longer be a household name. But at the height of his career, his groundbreaking comic strip, Li'l Abner, reached ninety million readers. The strip ran for forty-three years, spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and originated such expressions as "hogwash" and "double-whammy." Capp/i>… See more details below
More than thirty years have passed since Al Capp's death, and he may no longer be a household name. But at the height of his career, his groundbreaking comic strip, Li'l Abner, reached ninety million readers. The strip ran for forty-three years, spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and originated such expressions as "hogwash" and "double-whammy." Capp himself was a familiar personality on TV and radio; as a satirist, he was frequently compared to Mark Twain.
Though Li'l Abner brought millions joy, the man behind the strip was a complicated and often unpleasant person. A childhood accident cost him a leg-leading him to art as a means of distinguishing himself. His apprenticeship with Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka, started a twenty-year feud that ended in Fisher's suicide. Capp enjoyed outsized publicity for a cartoonist, but his status abetted sexual misconduct and protected him from the severest repercussions. Late in life, his politics became extremely conservative; he counted Richard Nixon as a friend, and his gift for satire was redirected at targets like John Lennon, Joan Baez, and anti-war protesters on campuses across the country.
With unprecedented access to Capp's archives and a wealth of new material, Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have written a probing biography. Capp's story is one of incredible highs and lows, of popularity and villainy, of success and failure-told here with authority and heart.
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A LIFE TO THE CONTRARY
By MICHAEL SCHUMACHER, DENIS KITCHEN
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2013 Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
All rights reserved.
No one will ever know the precise, unvarnished details surrounding Al Capp's losing his left leg at the age of nine. He'd claim that it was the turning point of his life, and there is no reason to doubt it, any more than there is good reason to question his assertion that he never enjoyed a pain-free day over the next six de cades.
Capp, a first-rate storyteller, comic strip artist, humorist, inventor of tall tales, occasional liar, entertainer supreme, and hair-trigger wit, offered many versions of the accident that cost him a leg, each account slightly different from the others—each, one suspects, tailored for a specific audience or readership.
"Al Capp may have been his own greatest creation," Dave Schreiner, a comics historian and editor, once wrote. "He built around himself out of his personal history a pyramid of truth, near-truth, and myth which helped transform the already colorful and interesting Alfred Gerald Caplin into the controversial and legendary Al Capp, world's best-known newspaper cartoonist."
Schreiner, whose significant work in comics included editing all but two of comics giant Will Eisner's graphic novels, believed that Capp had the ability to make any story believable, including his account of losing his leg.
"Capp was one of the very best storytellers," Schreiner observed, "and he did not confine his enormous talent to the funny pages. He mixed plausibility and outrageousness in his work, and when he related anecdotes and incidents from his life, the same rules applied."
What is known about the accident that claimed Capp's leg is that Capp, then answering to his given name of Alfred Caplin, was in need of a haircut. The eldest son of Otto and Matilda "Tillie" Caplin, of New Haven, Connecticut, Alfred was five weeks shy of his tenth birthday and had a full head of thick black hair that, more often than not, looked as if it had been groomed with a mixing spoon. Alfred's parents would let it go until it had grown too long for the day's standards, at which point one or the other would hand him enough money for a haircut.
On this day—Friday, August 21, 1919—father and son were on their own. Tillie was upstate with the other children: younger sons Bence and Elliott and daughter Madeline, all afflicted with the mumps. She had rented rooms in a farm house, hoping the clean country air would do them good. That afternoon, Otto Caplin pressed a fifty-cent piece into the palm of Alfred's hand: thirty-five cents for the haircut, with five cents as a tip and ten cents to cover trolley fare.
But Alfred had other ideas. He knew something about money, even at that young age, and after some quick calculations, he figured that he could get more bang for his half-buck if he made a few adjustments to the plan. He knew of a Prof. Amoroso's Barber Academy, where, he later remembered, "you could get a haircut for fifteen cents and they'd bind your wounds," a place of wonder where tips were rejected—the perfect transaction.
There was one hitch to the plan. The academy was across town, a fair distance from the Caplins' Stevens Street house. Rather than catch a trolley and cut into his potential savings, Alfred decided to hitch a ride on the back of an ice wagon. The free ride, not to mention a sliver of ice on a hot day, seemed to be the ideal solution. "I hopped on that wagon, in a state of bliss," he'd write many years later.
Somewhere, somehow, Alfred tumbled off the wagon. It might have occurred as he was dismounting near the academy, as Alfred would claim in his accounts, or he might have simply walked in front of the trolley without looking, as Otto Caplin later suggested. What ever happened, the result was horrific: Alfred wound up sprawled out on the tracks, directly in the path of an oncoming trolley. Unable to stop, it rolled over Alfred's left leg, crushing his thigh well above the knee. Mercifully, the boy blacked out.
When he regained consciousness, he was in a hospital emergency room, surrounded by people in white, all trying to bring him around long enough to determine his identity. Alfred stole a peek at the damage. The sickening mess reminded him of scrambled eggs. "There was just nothing that you could call a 'leg' left of it," he'd remember later.
Indecision was the rule of the hour. Hospital personnel didn't want to take action until they had talked to the boy's father. Otto Caplin didn't want to make a decision until he'd talked to his wife. Tillie Caplin, stuck in the middle of nowhere with three kids under the age of nine, didn't know what to think.
Elliott Caplin would never forget the call from home. His mother, in the kitchen of the farm house, was handed the phone, and she struggled to get details while a group of people stood around the kitchen, listening to Tillie and trying to piece together what had happened. Something was wrong, and it had to be bad. No one called long distance in those days unless it was serious.
"Her expression never altered," Elliott recalled. "Her face had lost all color, but her hand remained steady throughout what must have been a nightmare."
Otto told her someone would be picking them up as soon as he could arrange the ride. Then he rushed to the hospital and joined Alfred, who lay on a table near the emergency room. Alfred, sweating profusely, stared ahead in a daze.
"How are you doing?" Otto asked.
"All right," his son answered. He looked like he was about to nod off, but suddenly opened his eyes. "Don't you tell Ma," he implored.
Doctors didn't immediately remove Alfred's damaged leg. Instead, he was given painkillers but very little hope. When the hospital emergency physician insisted that Alfred's leg would have to be amputated, Otto Caplin demanded a second opinion. Two other doctors confirmed the original finding, but rather than allow the hospital staff to work on the leg, Otto insisted that another specialist handle it. Hours passed. The doctor couldn't be located. Finally, the following morning, the doctor arrived and Alfred's left leg was amputated well above the knee.
In writing about the procedure in his unpublished autobiography many years later, Al Capp played down the trauma. "There is no more drama about the amputation of a leg than about a pedicure," he wrote. "The offending mess is lopped off, and the remains sewn up. It makes no difference whether it's down near the ankle or six inches from the hip, as mine was."
At the time, however, the boy was in agony. Alfred was not immediately told that his leg had been removed, and for days on end he lay in a daze, heavily medicated, in and out of consciousness. Tillie refused to leave his bedside. When Alfred finally discovered that he'd lost his leg, he was angry and accusatory.
"They took my leg off!" he shouted at his mother.
"We had to, to save your life," she assured him. She attempted to explain how they had consulted the best doctors, how they had prayed for him to survive, how he was now like the brave soldiers who came home from wars without arms or legs.
Alfred wasn't interested in explanations.
"But they have lived," he said of the soldiers. "I'm only a kid. I've just started to live!"
Alfred healed quickly, and three weeks after the accident he returned home. His childhood, at least the one he knew, had ended.
Alfred hated being a one-legged curiosity. Classmates who once had no interest in him at all were suddenly overflowing with concern and pity.
"With two legs I had been a nobody," he observed bitterly. "With one leg I was somebody."
Nor did he care for the smothering he received from his mother, who fretted over his condition and cooked him heaps of steaks and lamb chops, protein-laden foods that doctors recommended for the healing pro cess. He was relieved when the money ran low, as it always did, and she was forced to serve the usual meals.
Alfred could be a terror around the apartment. He'd always been temperamental, but following the loss of his leg, he became even more stubborn and surly, prone to explosive fits of rage, usually directed at his mother. He did not attend school for a prolonged period following the accident, and his sense of isolation and immobility fueled his dark moods.
"Alfred fidgeted," his father later wrote in his own account of his son's life. "He hated dark days; he hated monotony. He had an insatiable urge to keep moving."
He was tormented by phantom pains and itches in his missing leg and toes. He'd experience these sensations—not uncommon for amputees—for the rest of his life.
Getting around on one leg at home was relatively easy. Alfred could hop from room to room in the apartment. When he had to leave home, he'd use crutches, his left pantleg pinned up and out of his way. But traveling any kind of distance, like to his school on Davenport Avenue, was problematic. Otto Caplin would take Alfred on those occasions when he was at home; otherwise, the job fell to Alfred's Uncle Ellie, whose difficulties meeting car payments made the week-to-week arrangement precarious.
Alfred's parents plotted to rearrange their finances in a way that would permit them to buy him an artificial limb. The nearest supplier, a man with the unfortunate name of Butcher, worked out of Hartford, and his ser vices weren't cheap. Otto managed to come up with a twenty-five-dollar deposit, and Butcher began custom-designing a prosthetic leg that would fit Alfred.
Alfred hoped the artificial limb would allow him to walk around with little effort—and look normal while he was doing it. Those hopes were dashed as soon as Butcher showed up in New Haven with the leg. The older man led Alfred into a bedroom and, while the Caplin family waited anxiously in the living room, instructed him on how to use the leg. Alfred strapped it on.
There was nothing natural about moving with the leg, and after a few tentative, stumbling, uncomfortable steps, he grew frightened. He could barely maintain his balance, let alone move around smoothly and naturally.
In his memoir, Al Capp Remembered, Elliott Caplin recalled his older brother attempting to demonstrate the device. Alfred slipped and cursed; he was held on his feet by Butcher. He shook off Butcher's support and promptly fell to the floor. Tillie Caplin screamed. "Shut up, Momma," Alfred said.
"My brother never mastered the art of walking with a wooden leg," Elliott Caplin wrote. "He would sway precariously with every step like a damaged airplane making an emergency landing."
Later in his life, when he was a wealthy comic strip artist with a face instantly recognizable from magazine covers and television appearances, Al Capp would speak of a recurring nightmare in which he fathered a son born with one leg. One might escape the immediate effects of an accident such as his, but its residual effects were never distant.
In the first years following the accident, Alfred grew intimately acquainted with just how much he'd lost. He could make light of the fact that, as a marginally gifted athlete, he would no longer embarrass himself on the playing field. But there was no joking about what the loss of a leg meant to his choices in career or even his relationships with others. His limitations were spelled out every time he took a step or tried to negotiate stairs.
Bitter realities and lessons hit him in unexpected ways. For instance, he was always aware that his parents had very little money. It was a reality he accepted without much thought—until, that is, he lost his leg. When something went wrong with his prosthesis, and it often did, he couldn't simply consult with the company that sold him the leg. That would have eaten more money than the Caplins could afford. Of course, the fact that Otto Caplin hadn't been making timely payments on the leg didn't help, either. So, instead of having the leg repaired by a specialist, Alfred would take it to a garage where an automotive mechanic would put it back together properly.
Then there was the issue of growth. Alfred's right leg was growing at the normal rate; his left leg, fashioned out of wood, was going nowhere. By the time Alfred was reaching his teen years, one leg was substantially shorter than the other. His walking, awkward to begin with, became almost grotesque.
There was also the problem of shoes. Alfred wore out the sole and heel of his right shoe at a very quick pace, due to the exertion placed on his "good" leg, whereas the left shoe wasn't nearly as worn. As an adult, he'd buy three pairs of shoes at a time, storing or tossing out a couple of the left shoes while wearing out the right ones, but this wasn't an option when Alfred was a boy.
The physical problems compounded the psychological suffering that Alfred did his damnedest to deny. He would be able to shrug off a lot of it in later years, but he felt isolated at the time, removed from his friends and schoolmates, with no hope of ever really belonging. He addressed this feeling in a brief autobiographical fragment, written in 1922 and 1923, and published posthumously in the collection My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg. In the fragment, "The Autobiography of a Freshman," Alfred wrote about living an Eden-like existence for his first ten years, when he had companions and an uncluttered life in the garden. That changed dramatically when he lost his leg and suddenly found himself outside the garden gate:
To this day, I sit at the gate, vainly waiting for the day when I may enter. Sometimes the children come to the edge of the gate and speak a few words of pity to me—but not for long. They hear the call of health and, hastening back, resume their play.
* * *
By the time he began attending Central High School in Bridgewater, Connecticut, Alfred was aware that he would never be regarded the same as his male classmates, especially when it came to dating. He was as rowdy and obsessed with girls as the next guy, but as he later complained, "My rooster toughness and rowdiness was forgiven with sweet understanding [by the girls] when all I wanted was the same thrilled contempt that was accorded two-legged rowdies for the same behavior."
To be successful, he decided, he would have to trick girls into seeing him as normal. But since he gave himself away as soon as he took a step or two, he had to come up with a way to be noticed while he was standing stock-still.
He began staking out street corners. A favorite was on the corner of the city's busiest intersection, at D. M. Read's Main Street storefront. He'd lean against the building, looking as cavalier as any other smart-ass high schooler, and call out to girls in passing cars or to those going by him on the sidewalk. Alfred considered it a victory if someone turned back and gave him a withering look. It would be a great day if he received several of these.
It was a technique that, by its very nature, was bound for failure. A time would come when he'd have to move, and later in life, Capp would recount one of these failures in a story whose tragic irony is almost too perfect to believe. The question of accuracy doesn't lessen its impact, though.
One day, while he was holding down his preferred spot, the boy's ritual took a new and intriguing turn. Three teenage girls pulled up in a car nearby and, waiting in traffic, presented Alfred with an opportunity. Alfred shot them a look—a leer, as he would describe it. Two of the girls would have nothing to do with him, but one, to Alfred's delight, smiled back. Then she did the unthinkable: she dropped her school pad out of the car window and into the street. It was a ruse; the girl wanted him to retrieve the pad and hand it back to her. Alfred froze, unwilling to hobble out to the street. The car moved on. The pad stayed in the street.
When it was safe to move, Alfred limped away from the building and picked up the pad. The girl's name and address were written inside, which, under other circumstances, would have been nothing less than a triumph. For Alfred, there were logistics to consider. The young woman hailed from the wealthy section of town, where all the houses had porches or verandas, with steps leading up to them. On flat ground, Alfred could at least make a noble effort to walk like the average Joe; steps required his reaching back and physically pulling his left leg to the next step. If she were to witness this ... well, it wouldn't be good. But could he really pass up this rare opportunity?
Alfred, in the end, concluded that the rewards might be worth the risks, especially if he could minimize the chances of her seeing him negotiate the steps. The plan he hatched was simply to call the girl, arrange the meeting, show up before the agreed-upon time, and try to make it up the stairs and onto the porch before he was noticed. He'd wait until the appointed time, they'd meet, and, if all went well, they'd spent the eve ning on the veranda.
The early portion of the arrangement went without a hitch. Alfred called and explained that he wanted to return her pad, preferably to night, and she invited him to drop by at seven o'clock for a glass of lemonade. Alfred arrived at the girl's house fifteen minutes early. He made it up the stairs without attracting any attention, and shortly before seven he was sitting on the veranda, waiting for her to come out.
His perfect plan blew up on him when she opened the door a few minutes before their scheduled meeting time, started outside, saw him, and stopped abruptly. She said nothing for a few moments. She finally told him that she couldn't see him that eve ning; she had somewhere else she had to be. She thanked him for his trouble and asked him to leave the pad on the chair. That said, she turned and walked back into the house.
Alfred didn't try to call her back.
"It would have been too much for both of us to bear," he wrote in his account of the incident,
for we both had been playing the same game. I had arrived early so she would not see me walk. She had planned to be waiting on the porch so I would not see her walk. For in the instant of her turning away at the door, I had seen the stiffening of her shoulder, the outthrust movement of her hip—the sure signs that she, too, of all sad, shy girls on earth, had an artificial limb.
Excerpted from AL CAPP by MICHAEL SCHUMACHER. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Denis Kitchen created Mom's Homemade Comics in 1968 as a self-published underground cartoonist in Milwaukee. A year later, he formed Krupp Comic Works, Inc., a hippie comix empire. Kitchen is also the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Since the '70s, he has been both an agent for and publisher of comics and books. He lives in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
Michael Schumacher has written biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Eric Clapton, Phil Ochs, Francis Ford Coppola, George Mikan, and, most recently, comics pioneer Will Eisner. His other recent books include Wreck of the Carl D. and Mighty Fitz. He lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
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