— Chapter Seventeen: Man’s Destiny —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
After meeting with his attorney and gaining a broader perspective of the offer proposed by Whitney, Stewart called the phone number the publisher had provided in his letter. After only a few rings, a woman answered, “John Whitney’s office, may I help you?”
Stewart explained the request by Whitney for a call, after which the woman put Stewart on hold, soon returning on the line and saying,“Mr. Little, Mr. Whitney is in a meeting right now, but said that he will call you as soon as it’s concluded. Where may you be reached?”
“At the moment I’m calling from a pay phone at work. If he’s available an hour from now, he can reach me at this number: 215-Flanders 2-8161. If I can’t answer, I’ll call from that number as soon as possible. Please let me know if he’s not still available, and we can make other arrangements.”
“I’ll let Mr. Whitney know, Mr. Little. Thank you for your patience.”
Stewart returned to his office and explained to his boss that he had requested an incoming call on the pay phone in the cafeteria in one hour. Seiler nodded, and Stewart went back to work cutting overlays for the printing of some Lone Ranger tattoo transfers which had recently become part of the company’s promotional offerings. The minutes seemed like hours as Stewart kept glancing at his watch while trying to concentrate on the overlays he was cutting.
Five minutes before the appointed time, Stewart signaled his boss, and left the room under the watchful eyes of his office colleagues who hadn’t been notified of the publisher’s proposal to Stewart.
On reaching the lunch room, Stewart kept his eyes on the phone, hoping that no one in the building would rush to it prior to the call meant for him.
With a minute remaining until the hour mark, the phone rang, and Stewart answered it with an “Hello.”
“Yes. Is this Mr. Whitney?”
“Yes, Stewart. I apologize for delay, but I’m very pleased that you called in response to my letter.”
“I was surprised to hear from you,” said Stewart. “I never expected a response of any kind from anyone concerning my cartoons.”
“Well Stewart, The New Yorker is well read, and your cartoons are thought- provoking. After the second Kafka panel was published in the magazine, I had a gut feeling that they might strike a chord with a wider audience, especially during these tenuous times with Russia. Nuclear armament is terrifying, as is the thought that roaches may outlast us all –– humans and non-humans alike.”
“We must have read the same article. I’ve been worried about the prospects since I read On the Beach, and then more recently an article about roaches taking over. Because I grew up around roaches, I’m even more terrified of them than I am of Russia or the bomb.”
Whitney responded, “I had hoped that we could meet in person at my office to discuss your project, and the possibility of lunch afterwards, if you can find the time. I’d like to know more about you and see what else you’re working on. I assume you have a daytime job, so we could meet on a weekend, if you’d prefer.”
“I told my boss about your letter and he’s agreeable to me taking a day off from work, if that’s more convenient for you. I’ve only been to New York City twice, when I was 9 and again at 14, and it would be nice to have a reason to revisit it.
“I think it’s only fair to tell you, I had little knowledge of syndication when you wrote to me, so I consulted with a lawyer in order to better understand the principles of what you’re proposing before we were to meet.”
“That’s a very positive step, Stewart. It’ll save time knowing that you are informed about the industry and it may simplify any possible negotiations. Would next Wednesday at my office, work for you. Say...11:00?”
“I’ll check with my boss and get back to you if I can’t make it, but otherwise, next Wednesday seems fine to me.
“As I said before, I’m not familiar with the city. I assume I’ll be taking the train from 30th Street Station. Once I arrive, can you tell me how far your office is from Penn Station?”
“I suggest that you take a cab, since we’re quite a walk from the train.Give yourself a half an hour for the cab ride and if you arrive earlier, I’ll make an adjustment to meet you earlier.
“And don’t forget to bring the two Kafka drawings I’ve requested.”
“I’ve already had them matted,” answered Stewart, “with cutouts for the typeset captions underneath each one.”
“You’re quite thorough, Stewart. I look forward to meeting you. I’d also like to see more of your work, so please bring your portfolio.”
“I’ll bring the remaining drawings I have from the Kafka series, and the artwork completed for The Cargyls series.”
“So unless I hear otherwise from you, Stewart, I’ll look forward to meeting you next Wednesday,” said Whitney.
“Likewise, Mr. Whitney.”
That evening, Stewart went to the Gimbels department store, located at the top of the hill on 69th Street, to buy a new sports jacket, slacks, a white shirt and a fashionably thin necktie. He hadn’t consulted with his mother about the meeting or how he should dress, but after the alterations were completed on the pants and the sleeves of the jacket, he reached out to her for an opinion on his new look.
“You look respectable,” she stated matter-of-factly, also suggesting that he get a haircut and a new portfolio for his work. He also asked her to look through the artwork he’d be taking, and to pull out anything she thought looked amateurish, immature or offensive. He knew that she was a good critic of art, and after a quick scan through his portfolio, she removed two of the more oblique and challenging panels in the The Cargyls series.
Stewart was happy to bond with his mother, and comfortable enough with their conversation to respond to his mother’s question regarding Debra, about whom he hadn’t spoken recently.
He answered honestly, “Our relationship is in limbo right now. I’m not sure how it will play out, but I think it may be coming to an end.”
Dottie declined to provide an opinion, and instead said, “Well, give her my best when you see her,” before returning to their previous conversation concerning his needs for the meeting with Whitney.
The following day at work, Stewart’s colleague, Carol, asked him what was up with his mysterious disappearances at work. “You leave your table for half an hour and Doug doesn’t comment when you return. Is there something he knows that the rest of us aren’t clued in on?”
His reasons were valid for not revealing his possible good fortune, the first being that he had nothing concrete to report, and the second being that he didn’t want to distance himself from the others by appearing better than them, especially since nothing might come of his visit.
But since hearing of the death of Carol’s husband in Vietnam, Stewart had become closer to Carol, and they often talked during the day about the plans they had, and the grief she felt whenever she thought of Andy. Once, after a particularly tough day, she invited him out for coffee, and then burst in to tears in the middle of the conversation. Stewart responded empathetically, and hugged her to him for a moment until she settled back down, and then changed the subject.
So it seemed the right time to let her know the reasons for his disappearances.
“It will probably come to nothing, but I’m meeting a man who has connections in the publishing business about syndicating some cartoons I’ve been creating, on my own time... away from work.”
“That sounds exciting, Stewart,” said Carol. “Are you thinking of leaving the gum company?”
“Not really. Even if I do get syndicated,” explained Stewart, “there are no guarantees that the public will relate to my work, or that any publications will choose to include them in their comic sections. Whether I do get picked up, or not, I will need to spend more of my free time creating content, but will still need a steady job in case nothing comes from my cartooning.”
“Well I wish you the best, but also wanted you to know that I’d consider spending more time with you, if you have any to share.”
“Do you mean... like dating?” asked Stewart, who was calculating the reported date of Carol’s husband’s death, and whether it was too soon for her to even consider entering into another relationship.
“But what about Andy?” Stewart asked. “Isn’t there a waiting period you are required to go through before dating somebody else?”
“It’s been pretty boring at home with my parents, and I don’t have a child to care for. I work all day and then watch TV at night. All of my girlfriends have dates, even some who are married and waiting for their husbands’ return from overseas.
“And it’s not like I’m planning to jump your bones, but you’re a nice guy, and you’ve been sweet to me during this time.”
Stewart wondered whether he should bring up Debra, but he thought it was best not to. Instead he said, “Maybe when I get back from New York... we can either celebrate, or I can cry on your shoulder.”
“I’m good with either one,” said Carol, who ruffled Stewart’s hair and called him a “goofball.”
Stewart had a difficult time sleeping the night before his trip to New York. He had pre-purchased a ticket on the local train, had a long conversation with his lawyer about contract negotiations, and after not being able to sleep, got up and sketched a concept for a single-panel cartoon of a young man climbing a surrealistic mountain in order to reach a bird-like creature perched with its talons at the apex. He used markers to create colorful wings attached to large female breasts atop which he drew a circular head with a black hole at its center. He titled the drawing, Man’s Destiny, and added no other copy.
Stewart knew the source of his inspiration, but wasn’t sure that it would be an a appropriate beginning for his “Zella” series. He decided to keep it in his portfolio and see what Mr. Whitney would think of it. It might be perfect for a magazine editorial such as one Psychology Today, or Scientific American, or perhaps even Playboy!
The next morning Stewart arose early and dressed in his new clothes and shoes he had bought the day before at Florsheim. His mother had already left for work, and his father had begun his day by laying out two packs of cards for solitaire. Jim wished his son well as Stewart walked down the stairs and out the door.
According to the train schedule, Stewart would arrive in New York by 9:45.First he caught the elevated line at the 69th Street Terminal that would take him to 30th Street Station well ahead of the arrival of the local train on which he’d reserved a seat. He brought along a copy of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and Loren Eisley’s The Immense Journey, and decided on the Eisley book only after grabbing a cup of coffee in the club car and settling down in the train.
After arriving at Penn Station, Stewart surprisingly had little problem hailing a cab. He thought about Eisleys reveries of meditations on nature as the cab wove through the modern world of glass and steel surrounding him.
He got out of the cab at the entrance of the Mies Van der Rohe building, erected at 375 Park Avenue just a decade earlier. He checked in at the security desk to await an escort who spirited him upward by way of the elevator to an interior world that merged structural solidity with minimalistic design.
His original escort was replaced by attractive woman in her thirties, who asked him to follow her along a long corridor adorned by large canvasses, some of which seemed familiar from photos he’d seen in books and magazines. The paintings were all contemporary, and many of them entrancing, while others were disturbing, most notably a Francis Bacon portrait that was chilling yet masterful in its execution.
As he reached the end of the hallway, he was ushered into a corner office illuminated by irregular-shaped panels of glass that divided the room by shards of light that shadowed the planes of carpet, shelving and other furnishing while leaving sections brightened by the sun, revealing poppy, tan and aqua surfaces. Behind a Danish writing desk he spotted Whitney, a man in his late 50s who, as if caught by surprise, stood up and graciously welcomed Stewart into the office.
“So good to meet you, Stewart. And please call me ‘John.’”
Whitney gestured for Stewart to take a seat in one of two teak chairs that faced his desk. He then asked Stewart if he had any difficulty finding his way to the building before offering him coffee, juice or water. Stewart replied that he was fine for now, and began to speak about his cab ride and how fascinating it was to experience the growth and modernity of the city since his last visit.
“Yes, construction has been on a tear since the ‘30s and New York definitely is a shining star of the modern world, but it’s still a city with problems. As the ambassador to England in the late ’50s, I saw a great many cities, both wonderful and hopeless, and learned just how far our planet needed to come to...how should I put it...even itself out.”
Stewart then commented on the paintings or more specifically, the Bacon work. Whitney told him of his life-long fascination with the arts and his own lack of skill in anything outside the areas of business and sports.
Stewart responded, offering a brief history of his trials as a student, touching only lightly on the poverty he experienced growing up.
“Well, let’s see what you have in your portfolio, Mr. Little. (he snickered)My, I do love your name.”
Stewart pulled out the matted and captioned Kafka cartoons and presented them to Whitney, who immediately left his desk with them and searched the walls for an available space for each of them. Before returning to his chair, he buzzed his secretary from a credenza to the side of his desk, and asked her to make out a check out for $2,000 in Stewart’s name. “That’s Stewart (S-T-E-W-A-R-T) Little.”
Then Stewart brought out several more sketches from the Kafka series, that had not been seen before by Whitney, including one featuring two roaches standing alone on a dystopian landscape of broken trees, collapsed buildings, and an apocalyptic sky. In the panel, one roach says to the other,“Where are all of our companions?” And the other roach answers, “I’m confident that they’ve all found walls to run to, and will eventually lead us to their new homes.”
After viewing a number of the cartoons, Whitney looked up, smiled at Stewart, and said. “These are even darker than the Bacon painting in the hallway. I like them!”
Stewart then revealed a few panels of The Cargyls series, and lastly his latest, titled Man’s Destiny.
“And what prompted this panel?” asked Whitney.
“A recent relationship about which I’m still unsure.”
“Have you submitted it anywhere?” asked Whitney. “It reminds me of the artist, Peter Blume. We have one of his works at the Modern. Do you know of him?”
“Yes. I have a poster of The Rock, that apparently is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, though I’ve never been there.”
“We have Blume’s Eternal City. Have you seen it?”
“In print, but not in person.”
“We can speak more about that at lunch, Stewart. I gather from what you’ve indicated that you have little or no training in art?” questioned Whitney.
“I studied engineering, and have only had a few liberal arts courses: semantics, psychology, and a single course in English at Temple.”
“One wouldn’t know that you weren’t a psych or philosophy major from the insights you’ve expressed in your cartoons.”
“I’m a late bloomer,” answered Stewart.
“But you’re only, what, 21?”
“I’d like to make you an offer. We can talk about it during lunch. As I told you in my letter, I ran the Publishers Syndicate that was part of The New York Herald Tribune which closed in ’66 and was taken over by Field Enterprises, which still maintained its most popular strips such as Pogo, Dennis the Menace and the cartoons of Jules Feiffer. But, like everything else in life, changes need to be made for any syndicate to remain current and to compete in the marketplace. That’s why you’re here.
“There are fewer syndicates than there were in the ‘40s or ‘50s and conglomerates have taken over the majority of the most popular cartoons.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I believe I can get your Kafka series into at least 900 newspapers. Some papers prefer strips over single panels and others require color for the Sunday editions. So here’s the deal, I can offer you 10% of what Field gets paid for syndication of your panel or strip. That means that if a paper has a readership of 100,000 viewers, Field may be able to invoice that paper $30, while a smaller, more localized paper, may only be able to pay $10. If you do the math, you can figure you’ll make $3 per cartoon in one paper and $10 in another, and together come up with number that can be quite large.
If the strip’s popular enough and subscriptions to a paper increase because of your efforts, the rate can grow higher. And if a paper has a Sunday edition, with a full-color insert for a strip, you could get paid three times that amount. You can easily see that you could make quite a killing for your cartoon IF and only IF it becomes popular.
If it flops, and is dropped from newspapers, Field may just decide that keeping the strip isn’t worth it, may discontinue it and find a cartoon readers like better, or a syndicate might compete for strip like the Creators Syndicate did just this past year, stealing The Wizard of Id away from Field.
Stewart interrupted Whitney at this point. “My lawyer told me that the syndicates often weren’t fair to the cartoonist, and that the syndicates owned all of the rights once the artist signed up.”
“That’s true, Stewart, and part of the gamble. Once you sign up, the syndicate may drop you, but if you succeed, you can renegotiate your contract to be paid what you believe is fair compensation.”
“So you’re prepared to make me an offer that may be unfair?“
“When taking on a new cartoonist or cartoon, there are no guarantees, since the syndicate and the newspapers have no idea of the popularity of the strip, so all it can do is maintain the amount the syndicate agrees to as stated in your contract.
“If you choose not to join a syndicate, you may spend the rest of your artistic life trying to market your cartoon on its own merits, or join Disney, DC, or Dell as a staff artist, an inker, or a character developer and have little control over your fate.”
Whitney’s description of the dilemma made sense, and in some ways sounded more difficult for a cartoonist to contractually maintain and implement than he had thought.
“Let me get this straight,” said Stewart. “In order for me to fulfill the needs of the papers, I’ll have to produce six panels or strips a week in black and white and create a longer one in color for every Sunday, with no guarantees that the syndicate will continue to publish me or my cartoon after my contract’s up?”
“That’s about as truthful as I can be, Stewart. By the way, let’s go get some lunch, and we can talk about it. Bring your portfolio with you and we’ll pick up your check for the two panels I just purchased on our way out.”
Stewart and Whitney departed down the elevator and continued a short distance to the Park Tavern. As Stewart followed Whitney, he lost any sense of how, why or what he was getting himself into. Whitney seemed to be an honorable man but based on what his lawyer had told him, he had to be careful for tricks or lies that would cloud his judgment. What if Whitney was another Debra, and had his own scheme to make a bundle on Stewart and the spit him out for any reason. Cynicism had played little part in Stewart’s evaluation of the world. As he saw it, he had usually received more than he deserved from rather than less.
He could have easily caved to Debra’s wishes to start a family, just as he ultimately gave in to his mother’s evaluation of his girlfriend, Carla.
He never envisioned himself being asked on a date by Carol, a widow not much older than himself, and despite his separation from his church he had established rules of conduct and was only recently learning that instead of being absolute, morality has nuances and is constantly changing with the times and personal circumstances of the individual.
During their walk to the restaurant, Whitney asked Stewart if he’d ever been to a horse race, and Stewart told him about the time he’d gone to Delaware Park with his girlfriend and her parents, and had come away with winnings after correctly betting on a perfecta.
“That seems to be the case, more often than not,” said Whitney. “I love everything about the racing game — the smell of the stables, the early morning walks across along the practice course, the muddy boots, and the strength and beauty of the steeds — but I must say that my passion has cost me much more in money, sadness and angst than I’ve ever gained from horses.”
Stewart thought about how much risk he’d personally be willing to take on to satisfy his passions, and wondered if he could afford to take a chance with this man who appeared kind, smart and worldly, but about whom he knew little. As he followed Whitney through the doors of the tavern, he suddenly understood that he had no real grasp of the “truth” of anything said by this man, or the motivations he may have had in singling Stewart out of hundreds or thousands of possible candidates, and that truth and morality are often fleeting, and easily cast aside in favor of excuses or expediencies.