Requiem For The home Front
Nearly three-quarters of a century in the past, my mother positioned a message in a bottle and tossed it out past the waves. It bobbed alongside through tides, storms, and squalls until just recently, nearly four a long time after her demise, it washed ashore at my feet. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Still, what occurred, even stripped of the metaphors, does astonish me. So here, on the day after my 71st birthday, is somewhat story about a bottle, a message, time, battle (American-fashion), my mom, and me.
Lately, based mostly on a Google search, a girl emailed me at the web site I run, TomDispatch, a couple of 1942 sketch by Irma Selz that she had purchased at an estate sale in Seattle. Did it, she wanted to know, have any value
Now, Irma Selz was my mother and i answered that, to the best of my knowledge, the drawing she had purchased didn’t have much financial value, but that in her second in New York Metropolis — we’re talking the 1940s — my mom was a determine. She was known in the gossip columns of the time as “New York’s girl caricaturist.” Professionally, she kept her maiden name, Selz, not the most common gesture in that long-gone period and a world of cartoonists and illustrators that was stunningly male.
From the nineteen thirties by means of the 1940s, she drew theatrical caricatures for just about every paper in town: the Herald Tribune, the new York Times, the Journal-American, PM, the Daily News, the Brooklyn Eagle, not to talk of King Features Syndicate. She did common “profile” illustrations for the new Yorker and her work appeared in magazines like Cue, Glamour, City & Nation, and the American Mercury. In the 1950s, she drew political caricatures for the new York Post when it was a liberal rag, not a Murdoch-owned right-wing one.
Faces were her thing; in truth, her obsession. By the point I made it to the breakfast table most mornings, she would have taken pencil or pen to the images of newsmakers on the front page of the new York Times and retouched the faces. In restaurants, other diners would remind her of stock characters — butlers, maids, vamps, detectives — in the Broadway plays she had as soon as drawn professionally. Extracting a pen from her purse, she would promptly start sketching those faces on the tablecloth (and in those days, restaurants you took children to didn’t have paper tablecloths and plenty of crayons). I remember this, of course, not for the remarkable mini-caricatures that resulted, but for the embarrassment it brought about the young Tom Engelhardt. At this time, I would give my right arm to possess those sketches-on-cloth. In her old age, walking on the beach, my mother would pick up stones, see in their discolorations and indentations the same set of faces, and ink them in, leaving me all these years later with bins of fading stone butlers.
She lived in a hard-drinking, exhausting-smoking world of cartoonists, publicists, journalists, and theatrical types (which is why when “Mad Men” first appeared on Tv and no character ever seemed to lack a drink or cigarette, it felt so familiar to me). I can still remember the parties at our house, the liquor consumed, and at perhaps the age of seven or eight, having Irwin Hasen, the creator of Dondi, a now-largely-forgotten caricature about a World War II-era Italian orphan, sit by my bedside just before lights-out. There, he drew his character for me on tracing paper, while a celebration revved up downstairs. This was just the best way life was for me. It was, as far as I knew, how everyone grew up. And so my mother’s occupation and her preoccupations weren’t something I spent much time eager about.
I would arrive home, schoolbag in hand, and find her at her easel — where else did mothers stay — sketching below the skylight that was a unique attribute of the new York apartment we rented all those years. As a result, to my eternal remorse I doubt that, whilst an adult, I ever asked her anything about her world or how she acquired there, or why she left her beginning city of Chicago and got here to New York, or what drove her, or how she ever turned who and what she was. As I’m afraid is usually true with parents, it’s only after their deaths, only after the answers are long gone, that the questions begin to pile up.
She was clearly driven to draw from her earliest years. I still have her childhood souvenir album, including what must be her first professionally revealed cartoon. She was sixteen and it was part of an April 1924 strip referred to as “Harold Teen” in the Chicago Day by day Tribune, evidently about a young flapper and her boyfriend. Its central panel displayed possible hairdos (“bobs”) for the flapper, including “the mop,” “the pineapple bob,” and the “Buster Brown bob.” Somewhat note underneath it says, “from sketches by Irma Madelon Selz.” (“Madelon” was not the best way her middle identify was spelled, but it surely was the spelling she all the time cherished.) She would later go on to do theatrical sketches and cartoons for the Tribune before heading for brand new York.
I still have her accounts e book, too, and it’s sad to see what she obtained paid, freelance job by freelance job, in the struggle years and past by main publications. This helps explain why, in what for so many Americans were the Golden Fifties — a period when my father was generally unemployed — the arguments after I was officially “asleep” (but after all listening carefully) had been so fierce, even violent, over the bills, the debts, and how you can pay for what “Tommy” needed. But apart from such memories and the random things my mother informed me, I know so much less than I want to about her.
“A Lady Drew It for Me”
As I turn 71 — two years older than my mom when she died — I can’t tell you how moved I was to have a small vestige of her life from the wartime moments before my birth wash ashore. What my correspondent had bought in that estate sale — she later sent me a photograph of it — was a quick portrait my mom did of a young man in uniform evidently being educated on the U.S. Coast Guard Machine School on Ellis Island (then occupied by that Stone Island product service). On it, my mother had written, “Stage Door Canteen” and signed it, as she did all her work, “Selz.” It was April 1942, the month of the Bataan Demise March and Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo. And maybe that Coast Guardsman was quickly to head to battle. He signed my mother’s sketch “To Jean with all my love, Les” and sent it to his sweetheart or wife.
”Les” sketched by my mother at the Stage Door Canteen on April 20, 1942.
Later that April night within the midst of an amazing international conflict, Les wrote a letter to Jean in distant Seattle — the framed sketch from that estate sale contained the letter — crammed with longing, homesickness, and desire. (“Well, I see it is time for the ferry, so I will have to close and dream about you, and can I dream. Oh boy.”) And here’s how he briefly described the encounter with my mother: “Well, I said I would send you a picture. Effectively, here it is. I was up to the Stage Door Canteen, a place for servicemen and a lady drew it for me.”
That institution, run by the American Theater Wing, first opened in the basement of a Broadway theater in New York City in March 1942. It was a cafeteria, dance hall, and nightclub all rolled into one, where servicemen could eat, listen to bands, and relax — free of charge — and be served or entertained by theatrical sorts, together with celebrities of the period. It was a hit and similar canteens would quickly open in other U.S. cities (and finally in Paris and London as effectively). It was just certainly one of so many ways by which home-entrance People from each stroll of life tried to help the war effort. In that sense, World Warfare II in the United States was distinctly a people’s battle and experienced as such.
My father, who volunteered for the military right after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, grew to become a major in the Army Air Corps. (There was no separate U.S. Air Force in those years.) In 1943, he went overseas as operations officer for the primary Air Commandos in Burma. In Terry and the Pirates, a preferred comic strip — cartoonists of every kind “mobilized” for the battle — his unit’s co-commander, Phil Cochran, turned the character “Flip Corkin.” Strip creator Milton Caniff even put my father jokingly right into a May 1944 strip using his nickname, “Englewillie,” and in 1967 gave him the original artwork. It was inscribed: “For Major ENGLEWILLIE himself… with a nostalgic backward nod towards the large Journey.”
My mother did her half. I’m certain it never occurred to her to do otherwise. It was the time of Rosie the Riveter and so Irma the Caricaturist lent a hand.
Here’s a description from her publisher — she wrote and illustrated children’s books years later — about her function at the Stage Door Canteen. “During the conflict, she was chairman of the Artist’s Committee of the American Theatre Wing. She helped plan the murals, which decorate the Stage Door Canteen and the Merchant Seaman’s Canteen. Miss Selz remembers establishing her easel and turning out caricatures of servicemen. Some nights she did effectively over a hundred of these skillful, quick line drawings and lots of servicemen nonetheless treasure their ‘portraits’ by Selz.”
My mom and father in entrance of a mural she painted for the Stage Door Canteen.
Imagine then that, on the April night when she drew Les, that “lady” may also have sketched another a hundred or more soldiers and sailors, mementos to be sent house to household or sweethearts. These had been, after all, portraits of males on their method to battle. Some of those sketched were undoubtedly killed. Lots of the drawings have to be lengthy gone, but a number of maybe nonetheless cherished and others heading for property sales as the final of the World Battle II generation, that mobilized citizenry of wartime America, finally dies off.
From images I have, it’s clear that my mom also sketched various servicemen and celebrities on the set of The Stage Door Canteen, the 1943 dwelling-front propaganda flick Hollywood made concerning the establishment. (In case you watch it, you may glimpse a mural of hers for the time being Katharine Hepburn all of the sudden makes a cameo appearance.) In these years, my mother also seems to have often volunteered to draw people desirous to support the war effort by buying battle bonds. Right here, as an illustration, is the text from a Bonwit Teller division store ad of November sixteen, 1944, announcing such an upcoming event: “Irma Selz, effectively-known newspaper caricaturist of stage and screen stars, will do a caricature of those who purchase a $500 Battle Bond or more.”
Bonwit Teller ad — my mother “at battle.”
While my father was overseas, she also mobilized in the most personal of ways. Every month, she sent him a little hand-made album of her own making (“Willie’s Scrap-E book, The Magazine for Smart Young Commandos”). Each of them was a remarkably intricate mix of news, theatrical gossip, movie ads, pop quizzes, cheesecake, and cartoons, as well as often elaborate caricatures and sketches she did especially for him. In the “March 1944 Annual Easter Difficulty,” she included a photo of herself sketching below the label “The Working Class.”
I still have four of those “scrap-books.” To my mind, they are small classics of mobilized wartime effort at the most personal level imaginable. One, for instance, included — since she was pregnant at the time — a double-page spread she illustrated of the long run “me.” The first page was labeled “My daughter” and showed a little blond girl in a t-shirt and slacks with a baseball bat over her shoulder. (My mother had indeed broken her nose enjoying catcher in a youthful softball game.) The other is labeled “Your daughter” and shows a pink-cheeked blond girl with a giant pink bow in her curly hair, a frilly pink dress, and pink ballet slippers.
Inside one of those little magazines, there was even a tiny slip-out booklet on tracing paper labeled “A Pocket Guild to SELZ.” (“For use of military personnel only. Prepared by Special Service Division, Jap Representative, Special Challenge 9, Washington, D.C.”) It started: “If you start worrying about what goes with Selz, here is your reference and pocket guide for any time of the day or night.” Every tiny page was a quick sketch, the first displaying her unhappily asleep (“9. A.M.”), dreaming of enemy planes, considered one of which, in the second sketch (“10 A.M.”), goes down in flames as she smiles in her sleep. The micro-booklet ended with a sketch of her drawing a sailor at the Merchant Seaman’s Membership after which, in entrance of the door of the Stage Door Canteen, heading for home (“11:30 P.M.”). “And so to bed” is the last line.
The cover of considered one of my mother’s “scrap-books” sent to my father at warfare.
I do know that my father wrote back fervently, since I have a letter my mom despatched him that begins: “Now to answer your three letters I received yest[erday]. No. 284, 285 & 289, written Apr. 26, 27, and 29th. It was such a relief to read a letter saying you’d had a pile of mail from me, eventually, & also that the first of the Scrap-Books finally reached you, & better yet, that you loved it.”
For both of them, World War II was their moment of volunteerism. From 1946 on, I doubt my parents ever again volunteered for anything.
Here’s the strange thing: the wars by no means ended, but the voluntarism did. Consider it this way: there were two forces of note on the house entrance in World Conflict II, an early version of what, in future years, would change into the national security state and the American folks. The militarized state that produced a world triumph in 1945 emerged from that battle emboldened and empowered. From that moment to the present — whether you’re talking about the Pentagon, the navy-industrial complicated, the intelligence services, private contractors, special operations forces, or the Department of Homeland Security and the homeland-industrial complex that grew up around it post-9/11 — it’s been good times all the way.
In those seven decades, the nationwide security state by no means stopped expanding, its power on the rise, its budgets ever larger, and democratic oversight weakening by the decade. In that same period, the American people, demobilized after World Battle II, by no means truly mobilized again despite the endless wars to return. The only exceptions may be in the Vietnam years and again in the brief period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq when massive numbers of Americans did mobilize, going voluntarily into opposition to yet one more battle in a distant land.
And but if its “victory weapon” robbed the planet of the power to fight World War III and emerge intact, war and military action seemed never to cease on “the peripheries.” It was there, in the Chilly Warfare years, that the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union or insurgencies and independence movements of many sorts in covert as well as open war. (Korea, Tibet, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Libya, to name just the obvious ones.) After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the wars, conflicts, and navy actions solely appeared to extend — Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq (and Iraq once more and but once more), Afghanistan (again), Pakistan, Libya (again), Yemen, and so on. And that doesn’t even cover covert semi-battle operations against Nicaragua in the 1980s and Iran since 1979, to call simply two nations.
Within the wake of World Warfare II, wartime — whether or not as a “cold war” or a “war on terror” — became the only time in Washington. And yet, as the American military and the CIA were loosed in a bevy of ways, there was ever much less for People to do and nearly nothing for American civilians to volunteer for (besides, in fact, within the submit-9/eleven years, the ritualistic thanking of the troops). After Vietnam, there wouldn’t even be a citizens’ army that it was your duty to serve in.
In those decades, battle, ever extra “covert” and “elite,” turned the property of the nationwide safety state, not Congress or the American individuals. It could be privatized, corporatized, and turned over to the experts. (Make what you will of the fact that, without an element of popular voluntarism and left to these specialists, the nation would by no means win one other vital warfare, suffering as an alternative one stalemate or defeat after another.)
My mother draws a soldier on the set of the movie The Stage Door Canteen.
In other words, in relation to war, American-style, the 73 years since Irma Selz sketched that jaunty young Coast Guardsman at the Stage Door Canteen might as effectively be a millennium. Naturally enough, I’m nostalgic in the case of my mother’s life. There may be, however, no purpose to be nostalgic in regards to the war she and my father mobilized for. It was cataclysmic beyond imagining. It destroyed important components of the planet. It involved cruelty on all sides and on an industrial scale — from genocide to the mass firebombing of cities — that was and undoubtedly will stay unmatched in history. Given the war’s final weapon that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such a warfare could never be fought again, not a minimum of without destroying humanity and a habitable planet.
My mother welcomes me into a world still at battle, July 20, 1944. My start announcement drawn by “Selz.”
Click on to enlarge
Nonetheless, one thing was lost when that war effort evaporated, when battle became the property of the imperial state.
My mother died in 1977, my father on Pearl Harbor Day 1983. They and their urge to volunteer not have a spot on this planet of 2015. When I try to think about Irma Selz right this moment, in the context of America’s new wartime and its countless wars, conflicts, raids, and air assassination campaigns, I think of her drawing drones (or their operators) or having to visit a Particular Operations model of a Stage Door Canteen so secret that no regular American could even understand it existed. I imagine her sketching troopers in items so “elite” that they probably wouldn’t even be allowed to send their portraits home to lovers or wives.
In these decades, we’ve gone from an American model of people’s war and national mobilization to individuals-less wars and a demobilized populace. War has remained a constant, but we have not and in our new 1% democracy, that’s a loss. On condition that, I want to offer one small cheer, nevertheless belatedly, for Irma the Caricaturist. She mattered and she’s missed.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Venture and the author stone island sale website of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold Battle, The end of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Authorities: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
[Word: I’d also like to offer a closing salute to Henry Drewry, one of the last of the World War II generation in my life and one in every of the nice ones. He died on November 21, 2014. Tom]
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