Archive for Newtown High School

Crockett Johnson in New York: A Walking Tour, in Honor of his 106th Birthday

David Johnson Leisk (Crockett Johnson) in an undated photo (c. 1916?)David Johnson Leisk was born 106 years ago in an apartment at 444 East 58th Street, New York City.  If you’re in New York today, you might give yourself a walking tour (aided by the subway) of where the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and Barnaby (1942-1952) grew up.  Dave Leisk — better known by his pen name (and childhood nickname) of Crockett Johnson — enjoyed the outdoors, and it’s a nice day in New York today. Sunny, predicted high of 70ºF (21º C).  So, why not?


  • 444 East 58th Street, Manhattan.  Start a block south of the 59th Street Bridge (under construction when Johnson was born), and a block west of the East River.  His earliest childhood experiences took place here.  At this point, you’ll want to get on the no. 7 train to Queens.
    • Note: I intended to provide a GoogleMap of this whole tour, complete with walking directions.  But the street address (on Google) didn’t match each building, and I couldn’t get my markers to match up.  So… this walking tour is imperfect.  But I have marked each residence on a GoogleMap, and you can use that to plan your journey.  I’m also providing photos of some of the houses (as I say, GoogleMaps’ addresses don’t always correspond with the image of the correct building).  View Crockett Johnson’s New York: A Walking Tour in a larger map.
  • 104-11 39th Avenue, Corona, Queens. This was 2 Ferguson Street, when the Leisk family lived there.104-11 39th Avenue, Corona, Queens.  By the time Johnson was 6, he and his family had moved to the second floor of a two-story wood frame house at 2 Ferguson Street in what was then a new suburb — Queens. Today, 2 Ferguson Street is 104-11 39th Avenue, and right next to the Corona Branch of the Queens Public Library.  While you’re there, you might consider that, when the Leisk family moved in, the streets were unpaved, there were no sewers, and Queens had more chicken owners than any other borough.  The Corona Elevated Railway (which today carries the no. 7 train) wasn’t there yet either: construction began October 1915, and the station for the Corona El (a block south of the Leisks’ home) opened in April 1917.  This was a different world than what you see today.  But much is still there.
    • Public School 16, where young Dave went to school, is at 41-15 104th Street, in between 41st and 42nd Avenues, and right across the street from…
    • Linden Park (a.k.a. Park of the Americas), where, when he was a boy, there was skating in the winter and swimming in the summers.  That was in Linden Lake, which is no longer there.  But there is a baseball diamond, trees, and greenery.
    • Newtown High School (53-01 90th Street, Elmhurst, Queens) is where Johnson published his first cartoons.  They appeared in the Newtown High School Lantern as early as that publication’s second issue — March 1921, when Johnson (then publishing under his given name, David Johnson Leisk) was only a 14-year-old freshman.  Incidentally, that March 1921 magazine is the second issue of the Lantern.  I’ve been unable to locate a first issue: it’s possible that an earlier cartoon is in there.  For more on Newtown, you might enjoy the Newtown High School Handbook of 1921 (Johnson attended from 1920 to 1924) or the school’s current website.
  • 33-43 Prince Street, Flushing, Queens.  This building (which then had the address of 53 No. Prince Street) no longer exists.  By 1925, the Leisks had moved here — the beginning of a period of sadness and instability. The death of Dave’s father required him to leave college (to support his family) after less than a year, and prompted the move into this 10-foot-wide house.  Sharing this small space were Dave, his sister Else, their mother Mary, cousin Bert Leisk (from Scotland), and Bert’s friend Jim McKinney.  Bert and Jim had been living with the Leisks since 1923. Hyacinth Court, at 146-26 Hawthorne, Flushing. Of course, for part of each weekday, Else was at school, and the other four were at work — Dave in Macy’s advertising department, a job he thoroughly disliked.  After quitting that, he worked in an icehouse and played semi-professional football.  In 1927, he became first art editor of Aviation magazine, and this change in his professional fortunes enabled the family to move into…
  • Hyacinth Court, a brand-new building, at 146-26 Hawthorne, Flushing.  (Then, it was Hyacinth Place.)  The stock market crash of 1929 resulted in a reduced salary for Johnson, as Aviation (recently acquired by McGraw-Hill) struggled to weather the Depression.  But Dave remained employed, working as Art Editor for a half dozen McGraw-Hill publications.
  • Rose Court, 83-24 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, QueensRose Court, 83-24 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, Queens. The Leisks moved here in 1930.  Dave and his first wife Charlotte Rosswaag married during the first half of the 1930s, and likely lived here early in their marriage.
  • Bank Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan. I couldn’t find an exact address for Dave and Charlotte, but I did learn (from a friend who knew them then) that they lived in a garden apartment on Bank Street, in Greenwich Village.  So, after spending most of his youth in Queens, Dave returns to Manhattan.  During this period, two items of significance: (1) Dave begins contributing cartoons to the Communist weekly, New Masses.  (2) His pseudonym, Crockett Johnson, makes its debut — also in New Masses.
  • 423 West 21st St, Manhattan.  By 1936-1937, Dave and Charlotte are living here.  Dave — as Crockett Johnson — becomes Art Editor for New Masses.  Marxist Internet Archive has a few of his New Masses cartoons.  You can also see some in “Before Barnaby: Crockett Johnson Grows Up and Turns Left,” an extract of my biography published in The Comics Journal last month.
  • 36 Grove St., Manhattan.  This is Crockett Johnson’s final New York residence.  He moved here by 1940, at which point he was drawing a popular cartoon for Collier’s. He had left New Masses and divorced Charlotte.  He’d also fallen in love with a Columbia Anthropology student 5 years his senior: Ruth Krauss, who moved in with him later that year. In 1942, they moved to Connecticut.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)
Free public lecture on Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss, 27 Oct. 2012, 2 pm
One week from today — Saturday, October 27th — I will be speaking on Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss at the New York Public Library’s Stephen Schwarzman Building’s South Court Auditorium, 2 pm.  Free admission.  Book-signing afterwards.  If you’ll be in the area, stop on by!

Special thanks to the Queens Public Library’s John Hyslop, who took me on a walking tour of Johnson’s childhood homes in Queens.  Indeed, he did this twice!  During my first tour, I failed to load the film in my camera correctly and so all photos failed.  By the second time, I was (fortunately) using a digital camera, and that worked a-OK.  So.  Thank you, John!

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Going Back to High School — 90 Years Back

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: coverWhat was high school like 90 years ago?  This Newtown High School Handbook provides some sense of what it was like in Newtown, Queens in 1921, when Crockett Johnson (a.k.a. David Leisk) was a student there.  No yearbooks from the Newtown class of 1924 (Johnson’s graduating class) survive, but plenty of things do: The Queens Public Library’s Long Island History Division has a class of ’24 photo, and one issue of the Newtown H.S. Lantern from the period. Via eBay, I obtained other copies of the Lantern — in which you can find Crockett Johnson’s earliest cartoons (see this earlier blog post on the subject).  Reading through copies of the Daily Star (the local paper) also helped.

I had to do a lot more of this sort of work for Crockett Johnson than I did for Ruth Krauss. She wrote about herself, and attended private schools that kept records. He did not write about himself and attended public schools. The children of the wealthy leave more traces than the children of the working class.  Anyway, this little book only yielded a couple of paragraphs in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi), but it’s a fascinating document.

At 5 ½ in. (14.5 cm.) tall x 3 3/8 in. (8.5 cm.) wide x ¼ in. (7 mm.) thick, the book fits easily into a pocket — which perhaps contributed to the rounded and slightly frayed edges of my copy.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 2-3

Note that the aims include “Training for American citizenship” (patriotic), “Training for a life career” (vocational), and “Training for service” (civic).  I’m not sure whether Newtown High School still publishes a handbook, but the school’s website now describes it as “a school that consists of ambitious and intellectual students who are willing to do the best they can in order to accomplish their goals in life.”  That strikes me as roughly parallel to the “aims” section of the handbook.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 4-5

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 8-9

Then, the school day began at 8:55 a.m. and ended at 2:57 p.m.  Now, the day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 3:51 p.m. – about 1 hour and 20 minutes longer than it used to be.  So, whether education now is less rigorous than it once was (as some contend), students at Newtown do receive it for a greater period of time than they once did.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 12-13

I find this inter-period exercise drill fascinating:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 16-17

Also: though regimented nature of the “two-minute drill” has an oddly military flavor, a little calisthenics between periods strikes me as a promising idea.  It would help wake students up a bit.  I know that, as a student, I often needed a bit of waking up.  (Since adolescence, I’ve been chronically short of sleep.)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 18-19

Note the expectations conveyed by “Home Study” and “Employment,” above.  The handbook recommends 2-3 hours (no more, no less) of study each day.  Students seeking remunerative employment “after school or on Saturdays” need to be at least 16 years old.  If they are not, then they require “working certificates.”  And check out the strict prohibition against cheating (below): “Any pupil detected in cheating will receive ZERO FOR ALL HIS TESTS THIS SESSION.”  They don’t mess around at Newtown.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 20-21

The current Newtown High School’s rules has a prohibition against cell phones.  In 1921, “The office telephone may not be used for any other than official business.  Pupil will not be summoned to answer any telephone  calls whatever; nor will telephone messages be delivered to pupils except in cases of extreme emergency, and then only through the principal.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 22-23

And the curriculum! Unlike today’s Newtown High School, there’s Biology, Chemistry,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 24-25

… and Freehand Drawing. Given his work for the school literary magazine and his later success as “Crockett Johnson,” I imagine that young Dave Leisk took these classes.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 26-27

More curricula: Mechanical Drawing, General Science,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 28-29

… History and Civics, and Household Arts — which, you’ll note, “may be elected by girls in all courses, as a substitute for an academic subject, and counts toward graduation.”  Just by girls, mind you.  Boys have to take the “academic subjects.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 30-31

The “Cookery and nursing” course in Household Arts “aims to make the girl a good homemaker and enthusiastic expert in home administration, who will put new life and interest into the old story of ‘Cooking’ and ‘Housekeeping.”  Ah, socialization — and, very likely, one reason that you’ve heard of Crockett Johnson, but not of his sister Else.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 32-33

On to English!  As a professor of English, I’m most intrigued by the one I don’t understand: “U — Unity.  Rewrite the sentence.”  Although I’ve certainly encountered sentences that lack unity, this directive doesn’t convey why the sentence lacks unity.  And I get a big kick out of “MS — Manuscript Slovenly.”  Sure, we’ve all seen these, but I expect that few of us have used this particular locution to describe their substandard condition.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 34-35

Following these rules, a “Spelling List” extends for eight pages, with groups of words in sub-lists identified by different types of common errors … all of which are (sadly) common at the college level today.  You can see the first two types above (“Possessives,” “Apostrophe for Omission”).  Below, “Capitals,” “Groups,” “EI and IE,” “Compounds,” and “Homonyms”:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 36-37

That Newtown High School was racially integrated makes particularly interesting the inclusion (in the 7th item of “Groups”) of “mulattoes, negroes.”  Such words would have been viewed as “neutral” to the faculty who assembled the handbook — “mulatto” indicated someone of “mixed race,” and “negro” described someone “black” or “African-American.”  I’m placing all of these racial terms in inverted commas because they’re social constructs: When it comes to human beings, “race” is purely imaginary (we’re all part of the human race).  However, as this handbook suggests, people deploy such imaginary categories in very real ways.  That two of fourteen examples are racial classifications suggest that these racial designations were in common use.

In addition to serving as a grammar textbook, the Newtown High School Handbook was a literary anthology.  Its “Memory Selections” offer a sense of what were considered “canonical” literary works for high school students in 1921:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 42-43

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 48-49

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 50-51

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 52-53

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 54-55

Here’s a breakdown of canonical works by author:

  • 3 from William Wordsworth.
  • 2 from Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare.
  • 1 from Samuel Francis Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Russell Lowell, John McCrae, Robert Browning, Francis Scott Key, Henry Van Dyke, Edmund Vance Cooke, George Eliot, Thomas Gray, Abraham Lincoln, John Masefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Rowland Sill, John Milton, Daniel Webster, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Winifred Mary Letts.

By gender:

  • Works by men: 24.
  • Works by women: 2

By nationality:

  • Works by English authors: 15
  • Works by American authors: 10
  • Work by Canadian author: 1

By date:

  • The most recent works are Letts’ “The Spires of Oxford” (1916) and McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), both patriotic poems in support of the Allied effort in World War I.
  • The earliest works are the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603-1606) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-1596)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 56-57

An on it goes, up to page 128 — the final six pages are advertisements.  Had we but world enough and time (a poem not included here), I’d take you through the second half.  But we do not.  Indeed, I would be surprised if anyone is reading these final few sentences.  This is, I know, a rather long post.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: back cover

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He Was a Teen-age Harold: Crockett Johnson’s High School Cartoons

During the ten years it’s taken me to write The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming in 2012), I’ve gathered far more material than I can fit in the book.  From time to time, I’ll post here some of what I could not include.

Long before he thought up Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and Barnaby (1942-1952), Crockett Johnson was drawing cartoons. As a freshman at Newtown High School, Johnson — whose real name was David Johnson Leisk — became one of the artists for The Newtown H.S. Lantern. Indeed, he may have been one of the founders of this thrice-annual magazine. I have been unable to locate a copy of its first issue, but its second lists David Leisk is as one of three artists on the editorial staff. Published in March 1921, the Lantern’s second issue includes what may be the first published cartoon by Crockett Johnson.

That and two other high school cartoons will appear in the book, but this one will not:

Crockett Johnson, "Love Thy Neighbor," cartoon from the Newtown H.S. Lantern, Dec. 1921

David Leisk (Crockett Johnson), Newtown H.S. Lantern, December 1921

Published during the fall semester of his sophomore year, Johnson — a.k.a. David Leisk (note the signature of the cursive D transposed onto a cursive L) — conveys a bemused skepticism towards loving one’s neighbor.  The 15-year-old sophomore dryly reminds us not to “forget the little freshman who is still as green as ever” because, you know, Leisk is now a full year older than those freshmen.

Since we are heading into the start of a new term, here is David Leisk, now a high school senior, drawing a portrait of a freshman student:

David Leisk (Crockett Johnson), cover for Newtown H.S. Lantern, October 1923

David Leisk (Crockett Johnson), Newtown H.S. Lantern, October 1923

As readers of his adult work will note, he’s not yet developed the crisp cartoon minimalism that will become the hallmark of his style. But all aspiring cartoonists and illustrators have to start somewhere….

Finally, I’ve started Facebook groups for both Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  If you’re on Facebook, stop by.

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