Gregor Duncan: Pictures of Life
The club mixed humor and music, with comedian Jack Gilford acting as its first emcee. A young actor named Sam Mostel got his start at the club, acquiring his nickname “Zero” in the process, because he started from nothing. But it was the music that was the true headliner at Cafe Society. Hazel Scott, Teddy Wilson, Meade Lux Lewis, Mildred Baily, Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan played and sang at the club. And Billie Holiday. Holiday sang in the club’s opening show in 1938 and remained there for a nine-month run. Two years earlier, Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher in the Bronx, wrote a powerful poem about the lynching of two African-American men in an effort to express his horror of the act. After the poem was published, Meeropol set it to music, and the song gained some success as a protest song in and around New York City. Barney Josephson introduced the song, titled “Strange Fruit,” to Billie Holiday, who sang it for the very first time at Cafe Society in 1939. Gregor and Janice Duncan were in the audience that night. “…[W]e actually sat there and listened to Billie Holiday sing ‘Strange Fruit,’ ” Mrs. Duncan Goodhue recalled. “How can I ever forget that?” she continued. “She was fantastic,” referring to Holiday, “but all of the lynchings and everything…”
Gregor Duncan took full advantage of all the city had to offer an artist. At the Metropolitan Museum, he enjoyed the work of his three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Goya and Daumier. Duncan shared a sensibility with those artists; that ability to size up his subject matter in quick and lively fashion, an ability that served him well as he roamed about the city, doing small pen and ink drawings on the backs of old checks or working on the shirt cardboard from his favorite Chinese laundry in the Village. The city teemed with life, from the newspaper hawker to the street walker, and Duncan captured them all on paper, as if weaving together a tapestry of city life.
The late 1930s to early 1940s was an incredibly productive period for Duncan. From 1939 through the first half of 1942, Duncan illustrated nine books. In 1939, he illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with a number of active fine-line, full- and partial-page drawings. That same year, Duncan illustrated what would became his personal favorite, Wacky the Small Boy, written by Fred Schwed Jr. Wacky, the main character, was smaller than most kids and tried making up for his lack of physical size with a more outsized personality. The end results did not always wind up in Wacky’s favor, but the rich pen and ink drawings, reminiscent of Louis Darling’s later work on many of Beverly Cleary’s books, show a true fondness for the character. Duncan went on to illustrate seven more books through 1942, mostly geared toward adults and young adults. His strongest work may have appeared in Geraldine Pederson-Krag’s The Melforts Go to Sea (1942), which contains richly detailed black-and-white illustrations. While some of the pieces maintained elements of Duncan’s active mark-making, most of the drawings have a sturdier quality to them, with a greater use of brush than much of his other work. Most of the books that Duncan illustrated were published by Simon & Schuster. Duncan had developed a strong relationship with Jack Goodman at Simon & Schuster, becoming his good friend and golfing buddy. Goodman had steady work in mind for Duncan over the coming years.
PM newspaper, a left-wing daily published by Ralph Ingersoll and bankrolled by the Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, began publication in June 1940. Duncan was with the paper right from the start. PM ran for only nine years but featured work by some great cartoonists. Dr. Seuss was a regular contributor to PM’s editorial page, Crockett Johnson introduced the cult favorite Barnaby in 1942, and Coulton Waugh’s experimental and powerful Hank ran in the paper for a short time, beginning in 1945. Duncan acted as an illustrator-journalist for PM, covering various types of events and stories and drawing them from life.
In the Aug. 11, 1940, issue, for instance, Duncan went to the Coney Island Velodrome, a structure with an eighth-mile wooden track and 45-degree banked corners, to cover the motor-paced bike races. The bicyclists would follow the motorbikes very closely, drafting behind the machines, which allowed them to attain speeds up to 50 mph. Duncan’s full-page feature captured the race itself, along with portraits of some of the more prominent participants. In the Nov. 13, 1940, issue, opposite a feature on Fred Allen, is a wonderful page of Duncan illustrations, capturing the football being played at the Thrift House Playground, on 89th Street and York Avenue. Drawn close to the style of his Wacky the Small Boy illustrations, Duncan masterfully portrayed the energy of the rough-and-tumble youths at play. And in the December 12 issue of the same year, Duncan was one of the lucky journalists able to attend a wedding reception hosted by RKO Pictures for stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Duncan did a number of illustrations from life, which appeared as a full-page spread, and even managed to bring home a piece of the wedding cake for his wife.
PM employed a number of radical journalists, some of whom were members of the Communist Party. While there were accusations that PM was dominated by communists, it was found that the paper frequently opposed the policies of the Communist Party and had editorial battles with the party’s own newspaper, the Daily Worker. In addition to his work for PM, Duncan contributed editorial cartoons to the Daily Worker, though he didn’t sign his own name to them. He kept his initials but signed the work as “George Dickson,” a variation on Dixon, his mother’s maiden name. It is unknown whether or not Duncan was trying to avoid being branded a communist or if he didn’t want to cause trouble by working for the two newspapers that didn’t exactly see eye to eye. This appears to be the only instance of his using a pseudonym for his work.
In 1941, Duncan’s mother passed away, and his draft status was changed to 1A. Duncan immediately reported to the draft board, was drafted into the Army Air Corps on July 9, 1942, and sent to Atlantic City, N.J., for basic training, which took place in the old hotels used by the Air Corps for ground crew training. Duncan proved to be as prolific an artist for the military as he was in civilian life. Within weeks of being assigned to basic training, Duncan was illustrating for BEAM, a military newspaper, drawing his own panel cartoon titled “At Ease”. “At Ease” was done in a mix of Duncan’s illustration and cartooning styles, and presented a humorous look at the life of a soldier going through basic training in Atlantic City.
Recognizing his artistic talents and background as an illustrator, the Air Corps next assigned Duncan to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Flight Control Command, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he produced a series of drawings for an official training manual and contributed features to Air Force, the official publication of the AAF. Next, while working for the Technical Training Command Public Relations office, Duncan was assigned to the TTC at Lowry Field, near Denver, Colo., where the AAF trained technicians and mechanics for all of the planes. Maintaining his ties with PM, Duncan was featured as the cover story in the April 13, 1943, issue, acting as a journalist-illustrator tour guide to Lowry Field. The feature is adorned with a number wonderful pen-and-ink, litho crayon and mixed-media illustrations, as well as Duncan’s narration of the scenes. While stationed at Lowry Field, Duncan also had the opportunity to do a portrait of General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the war, whose later plan as secretary of state helped rebuild Europe after the war and was named the Marshall Plan by President Truman.
Duncan was later transferred to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where he helped document a joint experiment between the Flight Control Command and the medical branch of the AAF School of Applied Tactics. The experiment tested eight Air Force men as they drifted on rafts in the Gulf of Mexico for six days. Different modes of survival were tested on different groups of the men to determine the most useful supplies to be stored in emergency inflatable life rafts for bomber planes as well as the best tactics for their use. Duncan, still attached to public relations, wrote and illustrated a three-page article in the Nov. 2, 1943, issue of Look magazine. The illustrations incorporate ink, ink wash, and charcoal and exhibit a vitality in Duncan’s work that famed New Yorker cartoonist Carl Rose later commented on, saying that Duncan’s work “had power, drama and well-crafted turbulence. It was alive.”
While Rose was not referring specifically to the piece appearing in Look, the description is spot-on. The illustrations show a power of form and mood, as strong as any work depicted during WWII. During Duncan’s time attached to the public relations office, he was also sent to Chanute Field, a Technical Training Command and Flying Training Command base in Illinois, where the core of the Tuskegee Airmen was trained. While at Chanute Field, Duncan documented various training techniques for manuals and public relations. The work done at Chanute Field demonstrates the breadth of Duncan’s skills, from the quick sizing up of various activities to the classic approach to portraiture. These pieces are well informed by the years Duncan spent sketching from life, both in courtrooms and on the streets of New York City.
In the meantime, Janice Duncan left her position at Compton Advertising and was now working for OWI, the Office of War Information and propaganda analysis. With her husband being moved around on various assignments, the couple felt it was only a matter of time before he was shipped overseas. It was decided that Janice would volunteer for the American Red Cross, with the hope of being shipped overseas as well. She was interviewed, accepted the position and went to Washington, D.C., for six weeks of training. Surprisingly, it was Janice who was shipped overseas first. She went aboard the Monterey, a former ocean liner that had been converted to a troop ship, on June 22, 1943. There were 30 Red Cross volunteers and approximately 5,000 troops onboard for the six-day trip to Casablanca. Upon arrival, Janice was assigned to the Enlisted Men’s Club in Algiers.
Gregor Duncan joined Stars and Stripes on Dec. 14, 1943, traveling overseas with six other newspapermen who had volunteered for duty with the paper in the Mediterranean theater. He wound up in Algiers, which was unusual for an enlisted man but not for a member of the Stars and Stripes staff, where rank did not matter as much. The Duncans were able to take some time off, spending a few days at a former French hotel at the edge of the Sahara Desert, which the Army had taken over for R&R. At the hotel, the couple met Richard Llewellyn, author of How Green Was My Valley, who was working with British military information and also on R&R. Duncan and Llewellyn became very good friends, going to the Arab quarter together.
Upon their return, Janice was sent to Sardinia with two other Red Cross workers while her husband stayed in Algiers, working for Stars and Stripes. Duncan worked on various assignments for the paper, from field studies and recreations of battle scenes to maps and comic strips. While stationed in Algiers, he put his previous experiences to work by doing courtroom drawings of the Vichy government war crimes trial. Duncan’s panel cartoons were humorous in nature though some had a touch of the Bill Mauldin outlook to them—not unusual, given the reach and popularity of Mauldin’s work, especially among the dogfaces. Duncan’s single foray into the comic-strip format was a multipanel feature titled Close Order Close-Ups. This feature would sometimes consist of individual panels woven together to give a varied glimpse of army life, while at other times it would be more of a narrative sequence based upon a single character. The drawing was again a combination of Duncan’s illustration and cartooning styles. There was a touch of H.M. Bateman in Duncan’s figures and storytelling, with a similar scene-by-scene narration, topped off by some beautifully exaggerated and graphic figure work.
In March of 1944, Duncan was sent to Naples, Italy, where he met and befriended Bill Mauldin. Mauldin took Duncan around in his specially assigned Willy Jeep to show him the areas he’d be covering. Mauldin later wrote about Duncan in The Brass Ring, stating, “I was asked to escort Greg until he knew his way around.… He was an entertaining companion, with a cheerfulness and serenity about him, which I thought were mainly due to his huge artistic ability. I would take him for a visit of an hour or two with an artillery battery or an engineer platoon and he would fill whole notebooks with sketches in pen and chalk.… He was the only journalist I knew who had immediate rapport with soldiers.”
Duncan’s personality was one of the keys to his life as a journalist-illustrator. He was someone whom people would open up to and share their stories. As Mrs. Duncan Goodhue later recalled, “…he also had the kind of personality that was very rare. In other words, some people make you feel that you’re the only person they’re listening to, whether you are or not; that you’re the center of attention.” That ability to get closer to his subjects allowed the readers and viewers a more intimate view of the people Duncan wrote and drew about. But as the staff of Stars and Stripes knew all too well, getting too close to the action sometimes resulted in tremendous loss.
In late May 1944, when the American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s club in Algiers closed down, Janice Duncan was reassigned to Naples. Bill Mauldin delivered Duncan to his wife, and the couple had a two-day reunion before Duncan was sent to Anzio. Duncan’s boss at the Anzio Stars and Stripes office was the longtime illustrator Ed Vebell, who had a strong impact on Mauldin’s work earlier in the war. Vebell was planning on heading out to the former beachhead at Anzio the day after Duncan arrived, but they decided to switch assignments to give Duncan a chance to familiarize himself with the area. Duncan and Sgt. Jack Raymond left for the beach head on May 29 to gather material for a new series of drawings. Duncan never returned. In the midafternoon, somewhere near the just-occupied town of Cori, with Duncan behind the wheel, the Jeep was hit by a German 88 shell. From his hospital bed, Raymond later said that “…a shell hole loomed up so suddenly that the jeep simply spun in and turned three times…” Duncan died from wounds from shell fragments.
Janice Duncan had gone to Ischia after her husband left for Anzio but received an urgent message from Ed Johnson—a correspondent from the Chicago Sun-Times who had become good friends with the Duncans—to return to Naples as soon as possible. Upon her return, Johnson told her the news of Gregor’s death. After that, Duncan’s widow felt that she could no longer work in the enlisted men’s clubs and asked to be reassigned. She was sent to the 38th Evacuation Hospital in Rome, which had formerly been in Anzio. In August 1944, two of Duncan’s best friends, Sgt. Bill Estoff, the Circulation Manager for Stars and Stripes, and Sgt. George McCoy, a Stars and Stripes staff member, took Janice Duncan to visit her husband’s grave in Anzio.
In Duncan’s Stars and Stripes obituary, appearing on June 3, 1944, mention is made of a biographical sketch filled out by Duncan before he left Algiers for Italy. Under “hobbies and other pertinent information,” Duncan wrote, “Drawing pictures, listening to McCoy, and keeping Moonbeams happy.” McCoy was his buddy George (the Real) McCoy, and “Moonbeams” was Duncan’s pet name for his wife. The three toasted Duncan with a bottle of bartered-for brandy, Duncan’s favorite drink. Janice Duncan was shipped home in December 1944, but before she left, Bill Mauldin gave her a gift of a large ink drawing of his character Joe as a remembrance of better times.
In the mid-1940s, there were exhibitions of Duncan’s work throughout the country. The State Department contacted Janice Duncan, asking if she had any of her husband’s Stars and Stripes original drawings that could be used in a traveling exhibition. The exhibition contained gag cartoons, sketchbook drawings, field studies and pieces used for training. A write-up about the exhibition appeared in the March 27, 1945, issue of Stars and Stripes and referred to Duncan’s record of Army life as “…a kind of visual Ernie Pyle.” While a great many people got to see Duncan’s Stars and Stripes artwork, the originals in the show were never returned to his widow and are presumed lost. A Gregor Duncan Gallery, created in memory of the artist, was started at the California Labor School in San Francisco. Founded in 1942 as a worker’s school to provide education in the arts, language skills, union organizing and history, the school was directed by David Jenkins, Maynard Dixon’s son-in-law, for its first eight years. Two committees were the driving force behind the gallery: On the San Francisco committee sat Duncan’s two sisters, among many others, while the New York committee consisted of cartoonists Colin Allen, Gregory d’Alessio and Charlie Martin. The life of the Gregor Duncan Gallery was short-lived, though, as the California Labor School faced increasing political pressure following the war because of the communist leanings of some of the school’s founding members and their ties to unions. With the rise of McCarthyism, the school eventually closed its doors in 1957.
As Bill Mauldin so eloquently penned in the pages of The Brass Ring, “I’ve lost friends who were ordinary people and just wanted to live and raise a family and pay their taxes and cuss the politicians. I’ve also lost friends who had brilliant futures. Gregor Duncan, one of the finest and most promising artists I’ve ever known, was killed at Anzio while making sketches for Stars and Stripes. It’s a pretty tough kick in the stomach when you realize what people like Greg could have done if they had lived. It’s one of the costs of war we don’t often consider.” No one knows what Gregor Duncan would have accomplished had he survived the war. Half of his 34 years were spent working as a professional illustrator, and his star was only on the rise in the publishing world, but a German 88 shell cut that promise short. Duncan touched a great many people during his brief lifetime, and even today family and friends recall him with reverence, whether they knew Duncan personally or through the memories of others. To most people, his life was four short lines in a book of WWII cartoons published in 1944. While there is a great deal more to Gregor Duncan’s fascinating story, because of his untimely death so much will remain unwritten.
Author’s note: The author would like to thank many people and organizations for their help in writing this article. It is said often, but truly, without their help, this piece would not have been possible. My greatest thanks go to Janice Duncan Goodhue, who helped paint a fuller and richer portrait of her husband for me. In addition, my thanks and gratitude go to Sue Mayo and the Stars and Stripes Museum Library, Al Sheeter, Mary Crowe and Tamalpais High School, Becky Jenkins, Todd Huebner, Dana Carlile, Peter Sorenson, David Grossman and the Mill Valley Public Library, Jocelyn Moss and the Marin History Museum, Ed Vebell, the Ohio State University, Todd DePastino, Robert K. Wiener and the comic-strip-classics Yahoo discussion group.