— Chapter Fourteen : “If youth knew; if age could.” —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
Stewart’s next semester at Temple Tech began in June of 1967. When he went into the city to register, he was informed that his state-supported scholarship ONLY covered spring and fall semesters. He had saved most of what he had earned at the chewing gum factory, so he had the money to pay for enrollment, but not with him. He called his father, who was at home, and asked him to bring enough money to get him reinstated.
His father complied and met Stewart at Mitten Hall, and Stewart was able to register.
By having worked in the creative department of the factory during the winter and spring months, Stewart had learned a great deal about the tasks involved in commercial art preparation. He also had made friends in the department and realized that many of his goals were similar to theirs, but perhaps not so lofty. During his time in the co-op program, he was able to use his own skills to improve some of the products the company produced, and was very pleased that his boss, Doug Seiler, had requested him back in the fall for his third co-op assignment.
With the knowledge that he wasn’t locked into mechanical engineering, he used the summer semester to improve his drafting skills, and became relaxed enough in his courses to improve his grades in subjects he previously found confounding.
In his spare time, he continued to develop a series of higher quality trading cards that he had begun to work on after hours while still employed by the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation.
A friend of Stewart’s, Jim Vankoski, a.k.a. Jim “V,” only a year older than Stewart, had begun coaching a Little League baseball team in another Philadelphia suburb, Aston. From a very early age, Jim had been a fan of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and even soccer, which wasn’t played professionally in the states. Jim was a collector of sports cards, and had been since the age of ten. Although Stewart had also collected baseball cards in the late ‘50s, he never developed a true love of sports, so his assignments at work opened a dialogue with Jim “V” beyond what had existed before his employment.
During one of their conversations, Jim mentioned the Delaware County sports hero, Emlen Tunnell, who had grown up in Radnor and was the first negro to play for the New York Giants. Tunnell had achieved fame by being acknowledged as one of the best pass defenders and punt returners in the NFL. Even more impressive was that Tunnell, who had been rejected for military service during World War II because of a back injury, had joined the Coast Guard and was responsible for saving the life of a fellow crew member who had been set afire in a blast from a torpedo dropped from a Japanese airplane. In 1946, Tunnell, who didn’t swim, again returned to the spotlight by rescuing a drowning shipmate who had fallen overboard while on the USS Tampa.
Jim’s story stimulated Stewart’s interest in finding other people in sports who also became heroes outside of their game, and was surprised that there were a number of athletes who stood out, including Ted Williams, who twice interrupted his career in baseball to serve in the armed forces, and was awarded medals for his efforts in World War II and Korea. Despite his absence from pro-baseball, Williams continued to maintain the highest lifetime batting average of all time, a record he held until many years after his retirement from the game.
Jackie Robinson was the first negro baseball player since 1884 to enter the major leagues. In addition to becoming a long ball hitter and being considered the father of base stealing, he subsequentially became a political activist and advocate for civil rights.
Other sports heroes, such as Jim Thorpe, a native American who was outstanding in many fields of athletics, received proper recognition only after retiring or, like Thorpe, were members of a repressed racial group. Thorpe had his Olympic medals taken from him due to a technicality in the rules, and didn’t receive acknowledgment and reinstatement until long after his death.
Stewart didn’t know whether the concept of “Sports Heroes” would have a commercial application for the trading card industry, but he used the skills learned at his chewing gum factory to design a sample card of Emlen Tunnell. Guided by Vankoski’s input and a photo he provided, Stewart set the type for the card after hours at the factory, and then created the graphic images for the card using pen and ink and gouache before returning back to school. He gave Seiler the enlarged prototype he had made of both the front and back of the Tunnell card as a parting gift, along with an essay on those athletes he had found who were heroes off the field as well as on it.
Seiler was impressed, and knew that the card was far too sophisticated and too limited in content for the company to produce, but he appreciated the skills that Stewart had learned and the hubris Stewart exhibited to expand on the sports concept during the few months he had worked at the factory.
“You’ve got some great ideas, Stewart,” said Seiler, after being shown the card. “Just keep going working at whatever you believe is important to you, and maybe the world will catch up. I’ll keep this Tunnell card, and we’ll see when a moment might be appropriate for the athletes you’ve selected to be acknowledged by the world, beyond the color of their skin or their skills on the playing field.”
Seiler asked Stewart to take a seat across from him at his desk. “Life is a river, Stewart. Sometimes it becomes destructive, as when its banks overflow and homes are flooded and people swept away. At other times it’s a lifeline for travel and the moving of people and goods from place to place. Like a river, life’s unpredictable, and we must try to accept the benefits it affords us, as well as the times when it can become our enemy. Either way, we must strive to make the best use of it.
“You may never become the best at any one thing, Stewart, but you are creative and have survival skills, passion and endurance, and I look forward to working with you towards your goals, whatever they might be.”
Seiler’s words stayed with Stewart as he handed over the money he’d saved for another semester at Temple Tech. His boss’s message enabled him to look further down the river of his life and also to look back on the experience he’d gained and the possibilities ahead. It was shortly after he returned to his classes at Temple that he met a young woman whom he’d seen months before Sharon’s death in a locally produced performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner. The show was presented by the Stagecrafters, a thespian group similar to The Playmakers, who were affiliated with St. Giles church and who performed musicals such as The Sound of Music and Camelot, directed by Sharon’s mother. In her search for a lead actor in My Fair Lady, planned for the following spring, Sharon’s mother was introduced to George Ferguson, who would soon be appearing as the radio host, Sheridan Whiteside, in the Stagecrafters’ upcoming performance of the 1930s-era drawing-room comedy.
Sharon’s father, Charles, had little interest in his wife’s church activities, so Sharon’s mother instead invited Stewart to attend the show with her, along with her daughter and Brian.
The Man Who Came to Dinner revolves Whiteside, who’s been invited to dinner and while arriving, slips on the ice at the entrance to the home of his host and hostess, and injured his hip. After an examination by a doctor, Whiteside is confined to the house for a month, during which time he humorously drives his hosts mad with insults as well as by a barrage of uninvited guests that includes his eccentric older sister Harriett. She was played by a young woman with streaks of gray in her black hair, who was very amusing, and stole the stage when performing.
Although the character of Harriett was only a supporting role, and appeared infrequently in the play, Stewart found the actress playing her captivating, and learned from Sharon’s mother that the woman was quite a bit younger than the role she had taken on. Ferguson knew her from work at the telephone company, and learned that she was a dancer and had appeared on stage, so he invited her to try out for the part.
Since Stewart had played bit parts in The Playmakers’ productions and had appeared at the age of 17 in the role of Rolf the messenger boy in The Sound of Music, he was considered part of the group and happened to attend a meeting when Harriett arrived with George Ferguson. In person, Debra, who had played Harriett, appeared to be older than Stewart, but was quite attractive and demure. Stewart had little opportunity to speak with her, except to let her know that he had seen her on stage and enjoyed her performance. During the meeting, Sharon’s mother provided a date for auditions for roles in the upcoming musical My Fair Lady that were limited, since the lead actress, who had played Guinevere and would be appearing in Camelot in that year’s production, was already assigned the role of Eliza Doolittle. It also seemed a foregone conclusion that George Ferguson would be playing Henry Higgins opposite her.
Auditions were postponed after Sharon’s untimely death, but were finally held by the musical director. Debra was given a role in the chorus, where she was part of an ensemble, and Stewart was assigned the role of one of the “buskers,” or chimney sweeps, who were also street performers in the play. Over the course of weeks and months, Stewart got to know Debra, but she remained a mystery to him. When they talked he spoke of his life and was very open talking about his love of cartooning, the co-op job he had, his courses at Temple, the books he most liked, and his difficult relationship with his parents. Debra revealed only that she lived in an apartment that she rented with a friend, that she had worked for the telephone company since high school, and continued to take dancing lessons every week. She was also proud to reveal that she had received the Stagecrafters’ award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Debra had long black hair, a slim figure, and dressed in mini skirts and colorful tops. She was shapely with muscular legs, and though she never revealed her age, he could only estimate that she was old enough to have been dating, or perhaps was even engaged. When he found out that she wasn’t attached, they grew close enough that he began visiting her at her apartment, and although never entering the bedroom, they made out on the couch in the living room.
Stewart couldn’t afford to take Debra many places, since most of his money was being used for his summer tuition, and even after he returned to the chewing gum factory in the fall, he paid his mother $25 a week for board, which came from a salary of only $65 a week after taxes. Debra didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t afford to take her places, and the two continued their romance, watching TV together at her apartment with every now and then a trip to a movie or dinner at her apartment.
The apartment became too great an expense for Debra, who paid for dancing lessons and had a fairly sizable wardrobe. She had never been promoted from her job as an accounting clerk and didn’t make a great deal of money. When her roommate found a smaller place of her own, Debra moved back to her parents’ house.
Stewart continued to wonder about Debra’s age, but never asked about it, and she never told. He had seen some early photos of her in the upstairs hallway. In the older shots, Debra looked quite different. Her hair was curlier and reddish brown, her front two teeth were wider and somewhat crooked, and her nose was wider than it now appeared, as well as it did in later photos. Most photos of her were apparently taken in the last few years with friends, including one of a couple holding a baby daughter, no older than one year old. Stewart guessed that she might not be as old as her friends, even though Debra had said that they’d all gone to school together, but had added that they were a few grades ahead of her.
Stewart and Debra continued to date through the remainder of his days at Temple. She was a good listener, but at one point confessed that she took guitar lessons and that she liked to travel. She mentioned that two years earliershe had gone on a work-sponsored trip to Hawaii, but neglected to tell him that she was accompanied by a male friend who was a pilot and from whom she had learned to fly to gain certification. Debra only casually mentioned the pilot at a later time, and Stewart questioned the relationship, with Debra merely saying that it ended abruptly. She never said any more about the man, except that she had continued flying lessons on her own, but that the rental of a plane was too expensive for her to continue after receiving her certification.
As their relationship developed further, Debra confessed to attending Catholic school through twelfth grade, and that her father had retired a year before she met Stewart. Since their sexual relationship never went all the way, Stewart assumed she was a virgin, as he was, and believed that her being Catholic indicated that she was saving herself for marriage.
Debra knew that Stewart was a reader, so she decided to take an Evelyn Wood reading course to help her read more quickly. Stewart encouraged her efforts to improve her reading skills and thought that it was a positive step towards them bonding over books, rather than him doing most of the talking. Every now and then, Debra would bring up a subject that indicated a lack of thoughtfulness that Stewart couldn’t believe came out of her mouth. The most revealing incident was when she told him about her uncle, who had recently passed away. Stewart said he was sorry to hear that, and wondered if she was close to him. Debra said she wasn’t real close, but that her father was very upset. She also told him that the funeral was the previous Saturday.
“What did he die of?” asked Stewart.
Debra looked at Stewart blankly and said, “He just died.”
Stewart responded, “Yes, I know, but was it cancer, or a heart problem, or a long-term illness?”
“Sometimes people just die. That’s what he did.”
Pressing the issue, Stewart stated, “Nobody just dies. There has to be a cause.”
“Well, I guess his time was up, and he passed away.”
“Wasn’t his illness brought up at home or at the funeral?”
“No. Little was said about the funeral or his death at home, except that he was my father’s favorite of his two brothers.”
“How was it....the funeral?”
“I didn’t go. I had a dance class that afternoon, and my parents said the funeral may be sad, so I went to class instead.”
Stewart couldn’t imagine that Debra wasn’t even curious as to why or how her uncle had died. She had just accepted his death as a fact.
Bothered by her lack of empathy, Stewart probed for more of her history. He learned that Debra considered herself a homely girl, and that her one desire was to be a beautiful dancer and be on the stage.
“Well, you grew up to be quite attractive,” said Stewart. Debra smiled, then went on to speak about her sister, who was 13 years older, and a brother 11 years older, whom he had not yet met. Both were married, and neither had children. Her sister was a whiz at mathematics and worked for Bell Telephone, and she had helped Debra get an interview for her job in the accounting department after graduating from high school.
After Stewart met Debra’s brother and his wife, he realized that her brother had mental issues, and Debra mentioned that she was told that they resulted from an accident he’d experienced while in the Navy.
“Is anything being done to help him?”
“His wife, Dolores, works, and he’s a letter carrier. My parents think he may drink too much.”
“No. That’s not my place.”
“Have you ever spoken to your brother about his issues?”
“Not to me. Maybe to him.” But that’s their business.”
“Have your parents spoken about him to you, or to him?”
“I haven’t. Maybe they have. But that’s their business.”
Debra’s sister, who Stewart had met several times at dinner at Debra’s parents’ house, was also quite strange. Her hair was cut like a boy’s and she dressed much like a man. She had entered the military after college and then married and left the army for a reason never revealed, or acknowledged by the family.
Stewart wondered whether the sister was a lesbian, but she and her husband appeared to be happily married. She was also unequivocally entrenched in Catholicism and went to church three times a week, and every day when on vacation.
As the relationship continued, Stewart began putting pieces together but suspected that Debra might have issues of her own, but since he was in a relationship, and she accepted him for who he was, he continued in the relationship, suspecting that perhaps Debra was either dishonest about motives, or clueless as to many of the realities of life.
Meanwhile, Stewart had been promoted to the position of Art Director at the chewing gum factory, and in his free time began working on a series of single-panel cartoons based on a dysfunctional family, The Cargyls, who believed that they were being watched by neighbors, harassed by hang-up phone calls, and who were suspicious of voices heard in their basement, attic and unused rooms of their house. Each member of the family possessed a specific peculiarity: the sister was afraid of heights, drowning, and living things that she believed were hiding in the food she was served anywhere but home; her brother was fearful of zombies, and fully believed they lived amongst certain neighbors who were, in fact, the living dead. The mother was documenting proof that people she met at the supermarket, hardware store and other retail establishments were plotting her death. And the father had fits of rage at which time he stormed out of the house with a baseball bat to take revenge on someone he believed was out to get him.
Normally, each cartoon was accompanied by a short caption that conveyed one or more of the fears of the family group, followed by a provocative response. Sometimes the humor was subtle, but often the outrageousness of the situation was hilarious to the viewer, and revealing of people who lived on the outskirts of humanity.
Stewart had learned that the market for cartoons was quite small, and that the style and message of a cartoon may not translate across different types of readers, meaning that a single-panel cartoon created for Reader’s Digest may not fit the more sophisticated style expected by a fan of The New Yorker. He also found that once a cartoon was accepted for publication by a magazine or syndicate, the likelihood of other purchases from the cartoonist was greater...if, in fact, the cartoon proved to be successful.
The reality was that there wasn’t much money to be made in the comic industry unless one had a flair, was exceptionally talented, and had contacts in the industry to land a job with major publishers, including Harvey, Marvel, Dell and Gold Key Comics, or if a creator could develop a rapport with a wide assortment of readers.
Stewart was thankful that after leaving Temple he had a job lined up in the creative department of The Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation, and could experiment on his own in developing single-panel and strip concepts or switch to producing complete books, later known as graphic novels. His steady income, though low in comparison to that of people he knew in more lucrative fields such as banking, engineering, architecture and education, was enough to finance a newer car and for him even to save some money, since he still lived at home, while assisting his mother with the rent he paid.
Still terrified of the roaches in his parents’ apartment, Stewart began to develop the Kafka series, the single-panel cartoons that featured roaches as protagonists who discussed the larger problems of the world, including poverty, greed, and environmental issues.
In June of 1968, The New Yorker purchased the initial single-panel cartoon in the Kafka series. In it, two roaches were seated together outside of a potato full of holes. One says to the other, “How many potatoes will it take to create a hotel?” “ I don’t know,” answered the second roach. “I’d worry more about how long it would take to make money on our investment before the potatoes rot and are thrown out.”
A second Kafka cartoon was soon purchased by The New Yorker that showed a wrecking ball destroying a block of tenement homes, and one roach saying to the other “It looks like the neighborhood’s going down hill. Guess we’ll have to cut our losses and move to the ‘burbs.’”
After the two cartoons were published and released to subscribers and distributed to newsstands all over the country, Stewart got a letter from John Hay Whitney, the former head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate that managed content for 1400 newspapers. Whitney was an art collector on the board of the Museum of Modern Art, and was an investor in Broadway plays and race horses. He obtained Stewart’s name and address from the editors at The New Yorker.
His letter to Stewart was formal, and printed on cotton rag stock with an embossed monogram:
Mr. Stewart Little
46 Richfield Road
Upper Darby, PA 19085
Dear Mr. Little,
I received an early release of the most recent copy of the New Yorker and was attracted by your rendition of roaches discussing a movement to the suburbs. Since it was the second in a series, I was wondering if you might have any others that we might publish along with others possibly yet to be imagined.
If you are interested in syndicating your series, please call me in New York City at 212-CO5-8161, and leave your name and number so that we may discuss how we might work together in the future.
On a similar matter, I would like to purchase the original art for the two cartoons you’ve published with us, for which I will pay you $1,000.
I look forward to hearing from you.
John Hay Whitney
After receiving the letter from Whitney, Stewart was elated at both of the offers presented by the publisher, and was proud to show his parents that his pathway to success may have been discovered. His mother was impressed by the name and the stationery, but couldn’t quite understand the reference to the “roaches,” in that Stewart had never shown her any of his drawings or copy for the series.
Stewart’s father was also impressed, but mostly by the substantial amount of money that Stewart was being offered for his drawings. Although Jim Little never made a cent from his own multiple series of postcards, he took pride in being an inspiration for his son, and was glad to have some purpose in life,
When Stewart called Debra to tell her of the news, she was overjoyed that Stewart might be headed for a higher paying job, and hoped that this might lead to Stewart asking her to marry him.
In July, Stewart would be turning 22, and Debra had just hit the age of 30, which she looked at it as the end of her youth, at a time when Stewart was just beginning to find direction as he was just coming to the end of his adolescence.