Syd Hoff at 100

Syd Hoff (1912-2004) would have been 100 this year.  As readers of this blog will know, I corresponded with Syd (here’s one letter & here’s another) while researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (coming this September)!

In commemoration of Hoff’s centennial, Sarah Lazarovic has created a wonderful cartoon, based on Dina Weinstein’s exhibit at the Miami Public Library (June 14-October 1, 2012).  Here’s the first page of her cartoon (click to enlarge).

Sarah Lazarovic, "Syd Hoff's Cartoon Life," p. 1

The entire comic is on-line at Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life.  See her website for more of her work.

Syd Hoff posts (on this site):

Syd Hoff links (elsewhere):

Hat tip to Julia Mickenberg for Lazarovic’s comic.

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Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me: Part II

Inspired by BoingBoing’s notice of my post on Syd Hoff’s leftist cartoons, I’m sharing another letter from the late Mr. Hoff, along with a cartoon from 1939.  As those who remember his first letter to me might recall, he and I corresponded — and spoke over the phone a few times — when I was working on Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due out in fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi).

In the 1930s, Crockett Johnson was New Masses’ art editor, and Hoff contributed cartoons under the name A. Redfield — a pseudonym he reserved for his New Masses and Daily Worker pieces.  Here’s the first page of his third letter to me, followed by a transcription of the same.  He dated it July 1, 2000, but he intended to write August 1, 2000.  (His first letter was July 8, 2000, and his second was July 15, 2000; the one below was posted August 1st.)  The “Dave” you’ll see mentioned is Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Johnson Leisk and who was known to his friends as “Dave.”

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 1

Here’s the transcription, with “[?]” marking places where I’m unsure if my transcription is correct, and brackets [] indicating my own interpolated text:

July 1, 2000

Dear Phil:

To repeat, I never got to know Dave personally, perhaps because I was awfully young.  I got into the “movement” in my teens, was influenced by a student at the Natl. Academy of Design, where I studied for 2 years, starting when I was 16.  The student, Boris Gorelick, with whom I had been in Morris High School in the Bronx, was hurrying out of the Academy one day, just when the NY Daily News has having page 1-3, front page words[?] and photos of “Red” meetings in Union Square, NYC, with mounted police attacking protesters, etc.  “Where ya going, Boris?” I asked innocently, “to one of them Red meetings?”

He gave me an answer I never forgot: “Don’t you know, a Russian tree is just like an American tree?”  Sounds funny, but in one second, I had a universal feeling.

Back to Dave.  Prior to him at N.M. there had been a “Butch Limbach,” whose art was not great, perhaps because he seemed to have just gotten a jolt as an art editor.  Either before him or after, there was Mischa Richter, who was already appearing in The New Yorker, doing a syndicated panel for King Features, and soon to become a successful NYer cartoonist.

[Marginal note, running horizontally next to the above three paragraphs:] I did read the NY Times review of Lewis Allan’s book My “Locomotive History” — + NM showed ex-leaders of the Left, “jumping from a train..  It was said to be a remark of Lenin’s, and Max Gordon of Village Vanguard almost bought it as a curtain trim[?].

By the way, the business manager of N.M. was George Willner, with whom I became very friendly in 1939, when my wife and I took a vacation in Los Angeles, perhaps because Tiba Garlin, of the Garlin family, his wife (Sender sometimes occupied Mike Gold’s space in the Daily worker, with a brother member of the family owned and ran Green Mansions, in the

The “Locomotive History” comment references a Syd Hoff cartoon, published 28 November 1939.  It comments on all those who, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, left the Communist Party.  Riffing on Marx’s idea (and Lenin’s claim) that revolution is the locomotive of history, Hoff shows the locomotive leaving behind all those who have deserted the Party — suggesting that they’ve made a mistake in doing so.

Here’s page two:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 2

The transcription of page two:

Adirondacks, when the Group Theatre at least one summer was the entertainment, with Franchot Tone, its richest and one of its most talented stars.  Such guys as Morris Carnovsky, da Silva, John Garfield, and Elia Kazan etc. were always there, as well as S. Edna Bromberg[?], who eventually would die in London, probably because of a heart attack from being blacklisted in the U.S.A.

Another celebrity in stage and screen, was Philip Loeb, star of the Gertrude Berg TV show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”  Red Channels named Philip, demanded that he be dropped from the show, etc.  This was wonderfully done in Woody Allen’s movie, “The Front,” with Zero Mostel checking in at the Taft Hotel in Manhattan, calling room service for a bottle of wine, then dropping out of the 20th floor window, exactly like Loeb had done!

Cafe Society was to become the gathering place for the left in N.Y.  A short way downtown, opposite the Arch in the Village, the great writer (? — my memory fails me at times!) was writing articles for the Jewish Forward (Forvitz) for $5 a piece.  Eventually The New Yorker discovered these, ran them all (?) won a Pulitzer Prize.  His books are bestsellers yet!  He was always in Stewarts Cafeteria.

[Marginal note identifies writer:] Isaac Bashevis Singer

I never knew Seuss had drawn for N.M.  He first “rang a bell” with ads for FLIT, an insect repellent.  “QUICK, Henry, the FLIT!” Seuss character would yell.  I can’t recall “Doctor” ever being a red, though.

I’m trying to get around to answering some of your questions.  I drew for N.M. before my trip to the Coast in 1937, in fact, I

A correction: Dr. Seuss drew cartoons for PM, not for NM (New Masses).  Hoff’s misreading my letter to him, in which I mention Seuss’s work for PM.  Hoff is right about Seuss not “ever being a red, though.”  Dr. Seuss was a liberal Democrat, but he wasn’t a leftist.

And page three:

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 1 Aug 2000, p. 3

The transcription of page three:

had been doing a daily cartoon for the Daily Worker about right after I left the Academy.  “The Ruling Clawss” was the title Clarence Hathaway, its editor, who was coming up into the Party with Earl Browder gave it that title.  (How awful!  Hathaway would eventually be named in “Workers Enemies Exposed,” shortly before Browder himself, now obviously with “Alzheimer,” would appear on TV with Hamilton Fish of Congress, probably the worst reactionary person in American History.

[Marginal note with arrow pointing to above paragraph:] These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a “children’s author!”  Please refrain!

By the way, a very young Jack Gifford, was the MC of Cafe Society and he remained a close friend of Barney Josephson for the rest of his life.  Which reminds me, I finally tracked down the mural I had done, and have sent it to Mrs. J.  The widow of a friend of mine had it all the time, and unfortunately she folded it in an envelope.  I hope Terry can use it…  Oh yes, I recall in a bio of Judy Holiday, how she hated Comden and Greene, her old buddys at the Village Vanguard, for not ever sending word or coming to visit her when she was dying from Cancer.

Last words: I have done, am still doing “chalk talks.”  They are one-hour presentations, live drawings with commentary about my life, past and present, drawings of Danny and the Dinosaur, and some of my other books, plus a Weston Woods video of Danny.  Sixty minute shows with more particulars if any one is interested.

I apologize for mySmith-Corona. Best wishes,Syd hoffBox 2463

Miami Beach, FL 33140

You may be struck by the incongruity of the fact that Hoff writes, “These remarks should not be printed because they’d destroy me as a ‘children’s author!’  Please refrain!” … and yet you are reading these remarks on-line, in a public forum.  What do you think you’re doing? you may be asking.  Can you not keep the secrets of the dead?

Here’s my response.  First, Hoff wrote those words in 2000, five decades after the blacklist.  They show how thoroughly the blacklist imprinted itself on his psyche.  He himself was never blacklisted, though he does have an FBI file.  And, in 2000, the blacklist was history.  Uncovering the fact that an author or artist had contributed to the Daily Worker would not then be a career-ending revelation.

Second, this post does not break the news of Hoff’s political affiliations in the 1930s. I’m not sure who published that news first, but we might credit Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2006).  Julia and I also include this information in our Tales for Little Rebels (2008), which reproduces Hoff’s first children’s book, Mr. His (published by New Masses in 1939).  And, of course, two earlier blog posts on this site also divulge the information: “Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me” (Nov. 2010), and “Syd Hoff’s Teeth” (Feb. 2011).

Third, if we don’t know the past, then we cannot learn from it.  For example, Julia discovered that children’s authors were largely exempt from the blacklist because the blacklisters thought children’s literature too unimportant a field to monitor (in part because most of its creators were women).  If we keep hidden the Left affiliations of Hoff, Wanda Gág, Crockett Johnson, and others, then this understanding gets lost.

We are, at present, reliving some of the same political battles of the 1930s — the role of progressive taxation in maintaining the welfare of the many, of government investment in creating jobs, of government as a necessary regulatory mechanism (in curtailing corporate excess).  Though the Estate Tax applies only to people who leave $5 million or more, its opponents call it the Death Tax — as if it applied to everyone.  As Hoff shows in this 1939 cartoon, the Estate Tax affects only the wealthiest among us.

"It isn't poor pater, Doctor. It's the inheritance tax." Cartoon by A. Redfield (Syd Hoff). Printed in New Masses, 16 May 1939.

Similarly, though strategic spending by the government helped get the U.S. out of the Great Depression, opponents of such investment today allege (without evidence) that it does not create jobs.  Though reckless speculation undid the world economy in 2008, opponents of regulation allege that reinstituting rules such as those provided by the Glass-Steagall Act would somehow be deleterious to business — despite the fact that Glass-Steagall helped stabilize the economy in the 1930s.  In the 1930s, progressives carried the day, instituting many of the social programs (welfare) and legislation (Fair Labor Standards Act, which abolished child labor; Minimum Wage) that we once took for granted.

History offers a guide for our future — if we’re willing to learn from it.  Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding, it’s not yet clear whether we’ll learn from the past or repeat past mistakes.

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Artists for FDR

To support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election campaign, Syd Hoff, Crockett Johnson, Lynd Ward, Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, and fourteen other artists illustrated this booklet.

The President's Speech (1944): cover, illustrated by Hugo Gellert

The text is FDR’s speech made before the Teamsters Union on September 23rd, 1944 — also known as the “Fala speech,” since it features his dog, Fala.

Here is Syd Hoff’s page.

The President's Speech (1944): illustration by Syd Hoff

Here is Crockett Johnson’s page.  You’ll note that he drew the famous Fala himself.

The President's Speech (1944): illustration by Crockett Johnson

All artists were members of the Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt, a Popular Front alliance devoted to progressive causes.  Indeed, following the election, the group became the Independent Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (ICASP), which in December 1946 merged with the National Citizens Political Action Committee — becoming the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA).  The PCA became the Progressive Party, which ran Henry Wallace for President in 1948.

A long-time member of the Roosevelt administration, Wallace was FDR’s Vice President during his third term (1941-1945). He also served as Secretary of Agriculture (1933-1940), and Secretary of Commerce (1945-1946).  In that 1948 election, he came in fourth, just behind Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.  Dewey, who came in second in 1944, again came in second this year.  The winner was Truman, who had been President since FDR’s death in 1945.

A much earlier version of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from UP Mississippi in 2012) included appendices, listing members of progressive organizations to which Johnson belonged.  I find constellations like that to be fascinating.  Due to space, these appendices have been cut.  But I plan to post them at some point.

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Syd Hoff’s Teeth: The Leftist Satire of A. Redfield

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): title pageWhile he was contributing to the New Yorker as Syd Hoff, he was also contributing to the Daily Worker and New Masses as A. Redfield — the pseudonym he adopted for his radical work.  The Ruling Clawss (Daily Worker, 1935) collects his cartoons originally published in the Communist daily.  Contrary to what all published biographies (except for the one in Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels) allege, Hoff’s first collection of cartoons was not Feeling No Pain (Dial, 1944).  His first such collection — and, in fact, his first published book — was The Ruling Clawss.  Here are a few selections.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "I wish mother would let me live like that for six months so I could write a novel."

Hoff mocks this bourgeois “artist” as a voyeur with no understanding of true suffering.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "... we who turn the wheels of industry ..."

This wealthy, well-fed speaker attempts to align himself with the workers.  He’s also oblivious to how thoroughly he is failing.  The workers’ stony expressions make that failure quite clear to us, though.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "Anybody who says there's starvation in America ought to have his head examined."

If you tuned in to Fox News during the presidency of George W. Bush, you would have heard sentiments similar to those expressed above.

Redfield's The Ruling Clawss (1935): "Give him a nickel, sweetheart. After all, you made a couple of million on the war."

In what may be the most acid cartoon in The Ruling Clawss, Hoff aims at those who profit from war, but remain indifferent to its human costs.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): "I'm against unemployment insurance — it would make people lazy"

Hoff attacks the still-current conservative argument that suffering is somehow ennobling or motivating.  Only someone who has never suffered could make such a claim.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): "Aren't you exaggerating just a little bit, Mr. Redfield?"

In “Social Satire,” an essay by Hoff (as Redfield) included as an afterword, the artist argues that most contemporary satirists are not sharp enough: “Today we have a new group of satirists who, at the same time that they bite the bourgeoisie, use only their lips, but not their teeth” (180).  He singles out Peter Arno, Otto Soglow (The Little King), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), and Percy Crosby (Skippy) for particular criticism.  He praises only Art Young, “the greatest satirist of his day.”  Everyone else falls short.  They “are talented and funny, but . . . their comedy is all too often a whitewash for people and conditions that, in reality, are not funny” (183).

Hoff (1912-2004) was something of a renaissance man in the field of cartooning.  He wrote syndicated comic strips, satirical cartoons (both with and without teeth), children’s books, and even a 400-page illustrated history of political cartooning.  All told, he was the author, illustrator, or author-illustrator of over 100 books.  Only a few of those books betray the political commitment of his youth — notably, Gentleman Jim and the Great John L (1977) and Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him (1978).  The latter book is about Thomas Nast, another satirist who — like Hoff — created art that, sometimes, sunk sharp teeth into the powerful.

Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): left endpaper Redfield's Ruling Clawss (1935): right endpaper

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Syd Hoff, A. Redfield, and Me

Syd Hoff (from Carol Edmonston's website)Meeting interesting people is one of the benefits of writing a biography.  I never met Syd Hoff (1912-2004) in person, but we corresponded and talked on the phone in 2000.  You may know Hoff as the author of Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) or as the creator of over hundreds of New Yorker cartoons.  As A. Redfield, he also published cartoons in the Daily Worker and New Masses.  Indeed, his first children’s story (Mr. His, 1939) appeared under the name A. Redfield.  (You can read it in Tales for Little Rebels, edited by Julia Mickenberg and yours truly.)

In the 1930s, he knew Crockett Johnson, then New Masses‘ Art Editor.  Explaining that I was writing a biography of Johnson (the book had not yet become a double biography of both Johnson and Ruth Krauss), I wrote him.  Here’s page one of his first letter to me, followed by my transcription of the same.

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 8 July 2000

Here’s a transcription.

July 8, 2000

Dear Phil:

Old age is memories, of course, and I remember so much, not only Crockett J, my old editor at the New Masses, but Butch Limbach who inherited the job, as ever Mischa Richter of the NYorker, who used to call me up for NM drawings, until he started going big at the NYorker.

I was plunged in grief recently, because I didn’t know Ruth had passed away too.  Recalling a time long, long ago, when the old Cartoonists Guild a field day in Van Courtland Park, I wrote Ruth a letter about all us scriveners trying to show each other what great ball players we were.  I thought she’d be delighted to know that when Dave got up at bat, he was the greatest of us all.  He kept hitting balls at least as far as Yonkers.

Sadly, I rec’d a letter as from an attorney, informing me that Ruth had passed away, and that he is sure she would have been happy to hear that in my opinion her husband could have been at least another Babe Ruth.

I’m glad you found out about me through Terry Josephson.  Once a late daughter of mine insisted on going to “the Cookery” with her friends from Long Island.  When Barney found out she was my daughter, he picked up the check for all three!

I’m sure you must have known Sam Shaw, too, who got me together with Barney at Cafe Society, where I did a mural with Abe Birnbaum and others.  (Right now I’m trying to resurrect that mural for Terry who is writing a bio of him.)  Sam, who we always suspected of informing for Winchell, had caused Marilyn Monroe to pose for that photo in Times Square, never returned my phone calls in L.A. later, nor did an ex-young Philly worker photographer named Phil Stern.  Oh well, as I said, memories.

Right now TV is rerunning a series for which Sam is still getting credit as “Producer”!  His young wife in the ’30s was famous for chaining herself to the German ship The Bremen and making American realize we were dealing with Hitler.

You can see that Syd had somehow got the impression that I was also of his generation, and thus must have known some of the same people.  I suppose the fact that Terry Trilling-Josephson put me in touch with him might have conveyed that idea?  Well, subsequent correspondence confirmed that I was just a young academic.  Here’s page two of the letter.

Syd Hoff, letter to Philip Nel, 8 July 2000, page 2

And here’s a transcription of page two.


Another memory — me, jealous of Dave and Charly Martin having “steady jobs” at P.M., and telling Ingersoll I’d travel the country for the rest of my life, doing cartoon interviews from coast to coast, like Ed? (the World War 2 reporter).  Ingersoll asked what college background I had, and I couldn’t answer.

For the last 50 years, I have lived in Miami Beach, and just lost my wife of 54 years, five years ago.  I drew for King Features (Hearst) for a long time, a strip and a panel, “Laugh It Off.”

“Danny and the Dinosaur,” which I did for Harper in 1958, still brings in royalties, for which I’m grateful and surprsied.

If you ever do come to South Florida, please look me up!  We’ll have a great time remembering.

My very best,

Syd Hoff

Box 2463

Miami Beach, FL 33140

Excuse the handwriting.  My Smith Corona just passed away.

I’ve done chalk talks all over the world, and perhaps you could use me in S.C.

When I first wrote to Syd, I lived in South Carolina (hence the “S.C.” at the end).  We did try to bring him to Kansas State University, but that fell through, and then I fell out of touch with him.  Letters to his Miami address went unanswered, and I couldn’t reach him by phone.  I think he may have gone to California to spend some time with his sister — I’m not sure.  He was very generous in sharing his recollections (and his time) with me, and I suppose he had nothing further to share.

If you’d like to learn more about Syd Hoff, Carole Edmonston (his niece) has set up a very useful website, Syd Hoff: Cartoonist and Author.  And, to give credit where it’s due, the photograph at the top of this page comes from her site.

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