I Remember Abner: An Interview With Al Capp’s Biographers

al-capp-bioMonster. Genius. The P.T. Barnum of the comics. Or the Rabelais of the comics. Call “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp any of the above, but right now you can call him the subject of a new biography, written by cartoonist/publisher/editor Denis Kitchen and professional biographer Michael Schumacher. Their book, “Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary,” is a compelling, insightful and thorough examination of Capp’s life and career, from his infancy through his sad final years, when he died having alienated nearly everyone in his personal and professional life. We recently asked Kitchen and Schumacher about their book and its subject, the confounding, brilliant, libidinous, generous, miserly, self-destructive, larger-than-life Al Capp.

HA: Al Capp is one of the most famous cartoonists of the 20th century, and he kept a high profile for his entire career. Yet you obviously felt there were enough unanswered questions about him to merit a biography. What was the impetus behind this book?

MS: Well, the obvious answer to the question is that there hadn’t been an Al Capp biography to this point. Elliott Caplin, Al’s brother, had written a book-length memoir, and Capp had published a small volume of short pieces (My Well Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg), but there had yet to be a full-fledged biography. Capp, as one of the most successful and influential artists in comics history, certainly merited one.

HA: Denis, as a publisher you’re best known as a champion of underground and alternative cartoonists. Yet you’ve had a long fascination with Capp and “Li’l Abner.” What’s behind your intense, decades-long interest in one of the most popular mainstream cartoonists in American history?

DK: My fascination with Capp started as a young boy. Like so many, I was hooked on newspaper strips and comic books in the early ‘50s. I loved most available strips, but what I turned to first every day was “Li’l Abner.” The beautiful women and otherwise grotesque cast of characters, the fanciful plots and Capp’s very effective cliff-hangers were irresistible. It remained my favorite until I entered college, about the time Capp made his 180-degree political turn rightward. So as I was developing an anti-Vietnam War stance, Capp was deriding students, hippies, and anything leftward both in personal campus appearances and in his increasingly strident strip. My love-hate relationship was intensified whenever he’d say something really clever, like his set-up of Joan Baez. Then I watched his public fall from grace with his public sex scandals, the primary one in my own back yard in Wisconsin.

An example of the long-running ad campaign featuring Fearless Fosdick (click to enlarge)

An example of the long-running ad campaign featuring Fearless Fosdick (click to enlarge)

But some years after his death, I still loved most of “Li’l Abner” and as a publisher wanted to collect the strips. I published nearly 30 volumes before Kitchen Sink went under. Simultaneously, I was collecting everything Capp-related and swore that someday I’d tell Capp’s whole crazy story. When Mike and I discovered our mutual fascination, the book became real.

HA: Can you discuss some of the biggest challenges in researching Capp’s life?

MS: The biggest challenge was getting to the truth. Capp, as a biography subject, could be very elusive, partially because his memory wasn’t always the best, but mostly because he modified his story to achieve is own purposes. He’d tell a story one day, only to change it significantly the next. He wrote two drafts of an autobiography, and while most of the material was similar, some of it was not. He couldn’t even get the date of his accident (the one that cost him his leg) accurate. Similarly, he couldn’t remember his wedding date. As it turns out, he inherited this trait of fudging the truth from his father: Otto Caplin wrote a lengthy memoir about Al’s childhood, and it was incredibly self-serving and inaccurate. Our job, then, was to sift through all the materials, from the autobiographies to the interviews and such, and find the areas where there was at least partial agreement. On a number of occasions, we were able to corroborate the stories with family members or others we interviewed. At times, it felt as if we were on some kind of archeological dig, finding bits and pieces of information here and there, and then trying to assemble what we discovered into something useful and coherent. There seemed to be a never-ending challenge. When we received Capp’s love letters to Nina Luce, his longtime mistress, Luce’s daughter had separated the letters from their envelopes, and there was the issue of piecing everything together from what we knew about Capp’s life, matching this with what was in the letters. It was quite the challenge.

HA: As you note, Capp was famously malleable in recalling events. How were you able to separate fact from fiction in his retelling?

MS: It wasn’t easy. Denis and I went over and over the events, sorting through the various tellings and retellings, looking for consistencies amidst the inconsistencies. In some cases, we were able to get corroboration elsewhere. In others, we decided that we should present several versions of the story, which let the reader in on how Capp the storyteller would spin a story to suit his purposes. On a few occasions, when a story wasn’t significant, we decided that it would be best to leave the story out entirely.

HA: Michael, you’ve written a number of biographies of creators with complicated personal and professional lives. What research challenges did Capp present you with that were unique or especially challenging?

MS: Aside from Capp’s habit of bending the truth to suit his purposes and the problems that presented us in our research, there were other issues that I wasn’t accustomed to dealing with in my research. In all of my previous biographies, I was able to talk to many, many of the subjects’ family members, friends, co-workers, students, etc. There was a wealth of interview material. That wasn’t the case here. Capp and most of his contemporaries are dead, which made corroboration difficult, and I can only imagine what anecdotal material we missed. Capp was terrible with dates—and he almost never dated his letters—so putting a precise timeline together was more difficult than usual. Then there was the issue of access: with almost all of my biographies, I had access to my subjects’ papers, archives, letters, journals, and so on. I did not have this with [Eric] Clapton, but with the others, this access gave me a terrific into the artistic mind and the process of creation. The Capp family was generous to a point, but they held back a fair amount, including all of Catherine Capp’s journals and papers, and almost all of Capp’s business papers. We obtained some of the business papers elsewhere, but we really had to work to piece together the workings of Capp Enterprises. I admit that I was spoiled by the past. I had complete, unfettered access to all of Allen Ginsberg’s archives. I was given access to all of Phil Ochs’ unreleased recordings and concert tapes. Denis had a wonderful archive of Will Eisner’s correspondence with his editor, Dave Schreiner. These kinds of materials gave me a bird’s eye view of the creative process—a view we did not have with Capp.

HA: Capp’s problem with women is well known. Is it too facile to say that his handicap drove him to assert his masculinity in ways that veered into predation?

MS: That’s hard to say. I agree that it’s tempting to say it’s true, but Capp was a complex individual, even as a child. He could be surly and difficult before he lost his leg, and it’s likely that this was a personality trait that would have been prevalent throughout his life. The same could be said about other aspects of his personality, including his overworked libido. We do know that Capp consciously sought out ways to prove that he was no different from anyone else, and we know that he worried about how his losing his leg might affect his relationships with women. But it’s also probable that he traded on his celebrity status. It certainly put him in the position to meet young, attractive women who would have been out of reach if he were not well known and wealthy. He certainly would not have met Grace Kelly, Goldie Hawn, Edie Adams, and other actresses. It very well could be that he felt a certain entitlement with his celebrity, a misguided notion that he could make aggressive sexual advances that might have been frowned upon under other circumstances. We know of a number of occasions when he tried to force himself on women. How many times was there a successful consensual arrangement precipitated by such advances? And, given such successes, at what point did Capp perhaps believe that his advances were acceptable as part of the sexual “game”? These are not easy questions to answer.

DK: Mike and I, as amateur psychologists, found it very tempting to think Capp was overcompensating for his early loss of a leg. It would seem reasonable to think he was continually driven to prove he was “a complete man.” But Alvin Kahn, a Boston psychiatrist and close friend of Capp’s—though not his personal psychiatrist—told us that there was no medical basis for that assumption. We suspect many readers will speculate similarly, but we couldn’t make such an assertion.

HA: I knew Capp got married to Catherine, but I have to confess that I wasn’t aware that he stayed married. Do you think he compartmentalized his behavior so that his serial humiliations of Catherine were something he could live with? Or was he a sociopath who didn’t need to perform any mental gymnastics to look in the mirror?

DK: Catherine had a hysterectomy fairly early in their marriage, and a family member who did not want to be identified told us that Catherine lost interest in sex after that. That was apparently a common side effect in the era before estrogen pills could be prescribed.

We’ll never know exactly when Catherine caught on to Al’s affairs. But it was clear that the two made an arrangement. Catherine evidently accepted that Al’s sexual needs far exceeded her own and tolerated his womanizing, as long as he was discreet. They presumably also thought it was best to stay together for the children’s sake. Catherine enjoyed the rich social life of a celebrity’s wife and a high living standard. And for Capp there were PR benefits to having an attractive wife and stable home life.

Despite their “arrangement” we think they still loved each other. The surviving daughter assures us they continued to show affection toward each other. But when Capp’s aggressive sexual behavior finally became public, Catherine was mortified. Each talked of divorce but never proceeded there. At the end of his life Catherine attentively cared for him at home. But when Al died she almost immediately married a mutual friend, suggesting there may have been something more to Catherine’s personal life as well.

HA: What sort of person was Catherine? You knew her, and your book depicts her early on as a strong-willed person with a strong sense of herself. How did her marriage to a troubled person like Capp affect her? 

MS: I never met Catherine, but as Denis noted, we know that Catherine was very unhappy with her husband in the later years of their lives together. We also know that Capp considered divorcing Catherine, but he couldn’t bring himself to file the papers. For whatever reasons, Catherine declined a formal breakup of the marriage.

Catherine enjoyed all the trappings that came with her husband’s success, but she was not the extrovert he was. She was more of a homebody who enjoyed being with her children, painting in her studio, and taking family vacations. She supported her husband’s work and even made an occasional public appearance with him at, say, a Sadie Hawkins dance, but she had her limits. When Al announced that he was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, she told him she’d divorce him if he won. She had difficulties with his political move to the right and wanted nothing to do with Nixon, Agnew and that bunch. She had a life apart from her husband, and I get the sense that she liked it that way.

HA: Capp was one of the comics’ great satirists, seemingly with a great gift for insight into the human condition, hypocrisy, relationships, not to mention other comic strips. So he obviously devoted some effort to observing the absurdity of the world around him and depicting it in “Abner.” But how introspective do you think he was? Do you think he ever considered the consequences of his actions on those close to him? 

DK: Our only real clues to this are the surviving letters he sent to his lover Nina Luce in 1940-41. In those we see genuine introspection and concern about Catherine and his young daughters, as well as an almost schmaltzy, romantic side. To be honest, had these letters not surfaced, we could easily have concluded that he was an out-and-out cad, but as we tried to show, he was an enormously complex and contradictory man.

MS: These are tough questions to answer. At first glance, Capp doesn’t appear to be introspective at all. He was, by nature, very funny, brash, extremely intelligent, loud, self-centered, ambitious, cruel, and hyper-talented. He did indeed have a tremendous gift for insight into the human condition, but he seemed to except himself from his studies. He loved to draw attention to himself, and it wasn’t always in a flattering way. However, just when you’re about to dismiss him as the kind of person you wouldn’t want to know, he would show a gentle, sensitive, generous side that seemed to fly in the face of the public persona. There was clearly some introspection there. This was also clear in the confessional tone in some of his letters to Nina Luce, as Denis noted. He could be very hard on himself, and despite the long-running dalliance, he could not leave his wife and kids for her, even though he clearly loved her. In short, one cannot judge this man too quickly or easily.

One of the numerous strips skewering Capp's former employer and lifelong nemesis, Ham Fisher (click to enlarge).

One of the numerous strips skewering Capp’s former employer and lifelong nemesis, Ham Fisher (click to enlarge).

HA: Capp, of course, had a legendary feud with “Joe Palooka” creator Ham Fisher, who was a cruel, self-centered misanthrope, and you go into their relationship in delicious detail in your book. So were you struck by the irony of his eventually becoming appallingly similar to Fisher in many ways?

DK: Yes, it’s a delicious irony indeed. We determined that Ham had to have come up with the hillbilly concept because Big Leviticus appears almost immediately after Capp was hired literally off the street. So that explained the basis of Fisher’s righteous indignation. But Capp, while maintaining the hillbillies were his, had other reasons to loathe Fisher, and neither ever backed down. Capp was much cleverer and considerably more talented. So it was never an even match. He even crowed over Fisher’s suicide and continued to insert snide Fisher references in “Li’l Abner” long after the death of his nemesis. I think he missed their feud!

MS: Absolutely. Denis and I talked about this from the beginning. There were some differences between Capp and Fisher—Capp was a lot funnier, for one—but they were unbelievably similar. I don’t want to do the “armchair psychiatrist” thing to any great extent, but you can’t help but wonder if Capp took out some of his own self-loathing on Fisher. He was too bright to not have noticed the similarities.

HA: Capp spent many years as a progressive champion, but he famously took a sharp rightward turn in the mid-’60s. Not to get you to rehash the possible reasons behind this shift—his contempt for pampered college-campus activists, his dislike of rock and roll, his support of the Vietnam War, etc.—you observe that “Li’l Abner” began to deteriorate creatively with his attitudinal change. Do you think this is pure coincidence, or was there a cause-effect relationship between how he viewed the world and his creative output? 

MS: I think a distinction needs to be made here: Capp switched from being a New Deal Democrat to being a Nixonian Republican, but he changed very little in terms of his social outlook. For instance, he hated hypocrisy, whether it came from the right or the left. His attacks on, say, Joan Baez were consistent with his lifetime social views, as were his rantings against the student protesters. He changed politically, but his sense of social order remained intact. I realize that it’s is a very fine-line distinction, but it’s one I think needs to be made.

As for the deterioration of the strip, I believe that he let his anger get in his way. Again, a slight distinction: satirists use anger as a fuel for their creativity, but to be successful, they have to know what is funny and what is not. Capp could not make this distinction at times—it should be noted that some of his later strips were funny—and he was further hindered by the public figure he became. He was being paid handsomely for his grumpy invective on college campuses, and he was willing to milk this for all it was worth. I think some of this bled into the strip. Finally, I think it very well could be that he was running out of fresh ideas. He’d been doing the strip for decades, and it might be that he was running out of the sharp, creative ideas that he had early in the strip’s history.

DK: I would add that the deterioration of “Li’l Abner” also coincides with the loss of Al Capp’s two key assistants, Walter Johnston and Andy Amato, in the 1960s. They had been with Al since the late ‘30s. Walter and Andy not only contributed to the strip’s distinctive visual look, but they participated in regular and rowdy bull sessions in the shop. They were close, trusted friends, and genuine collaborators. So Capp was further handicapped to some degree without their input, their back-and-forth on story ideas, and their likely modifying influence. So I think the strip’s downward slide came in good part from Capp being increasingly isolated, from family, old friends and then in the literal sense in his own studio. That made it easier for his usual focus on humorous satire to be superseded by his politics and, as Mike notes, his anger.

HA: During the early years of his persona as a rock-ribbed conservative, he produced a satire of Charles Schulz and “Peanuts.” Whereas Capp had good-naturedly lampooned many comic strips in “Li’l Abner,” his shots at Schulz seemed less than amusing and more ad hominen in nature. Capp was always very forthright in understanding his role as an entertainer, but I wonder if he began to lose the distinction between his strip as a vehicle of entertainment and one of pursuing personal vendettas. 

MS: Capp was exceedingly competitive, and his shots at Schulz were personal, no doubt about it. I don’t know about his using the strip as a means of pursuing personal vendettas. He certainly did this on occasion, as in some of the nasty references he made to Ham Fisher in “Li’l Abner,” but I think it was a general nastiness that took over the strip in later years. (He couldn’t stand Baez, even though he’d never met her, but he hated what he thought she stood for.) Capp was an unhappy man, and it’s very likely that he forgot or stashed away the notion that his strip was entertainment, but I believe that he lashed out as a result of his general unhappiness. The world was no longer a place to lampoon; it was a bitter place and needed punishment.

DK: We know from surviving correspondence that Capp carefully watched the rankings of comic strips. He was always acutely aware of where Abner stood, whether from reader’s popularity contests, by the total of subscribing newspapers or their total circulations, or by the top rates the biggest papers paid. He also fought to get the front page of key Sunday newspaper comics sections. For example, he lobbied relentlessly—directly and via surrogates—to replace “Joe Palooka” with “Li’l Abner” at the the New York Mirror, Ham Fisher’s flagship paper. So there’s no question that as “Peanuts” increasingly became a dominant page-one Sunday strip, Capp viewed Charles Schulz’s ascendance with nervousness and envy. By the time Capp parodied “Peanuts” in 1968 he obviously couldn’t contain his disdain. He poked fun at the rampant merchandising, certainly a hypocritical jab, but he especially seemed to belittle Schulz’s simpler drawing style, as if to say to Schulz, “You may be getting more and more popular, but at least I can draw!

HA: You obviously received considerable cooperation from Capp’s family, even if they weren’t entirely forthcoming. When they realized your book was going in directions they would have preferred it not, did it affect your relationships with them? You maintain an intact relationship with Capp Enterprises, but was it strained by your research?

MS: Other than to say that I believe that the family—his daughter, Julie, in particular—felt that we were going to deliver a “Valentine’s card” of a biography, I’m going to defer to Denis on this one. I didn’t have the history with the family that he did, so I had no relationship to lose. We had considerable difficulty with the family when the family members realized that we were going to tell the whole story.

DK: It was a mixed bag. I went back many years with the family, starting when Kitchen Sink published the first of 27 volumes of Abner in the ’80s. Capp’s widow Catherine died shortly before we undertook the biography, but she was always reticent to talk about Al. The attorney who represented Capp for many years was too ill and too respectful of client privilege to cooperate. Julie thus became the primary family source and keeper of the flame. I had visited her and corresponded with her for many years, so she probably assumed that our biography would be sympathetic, even when I warned her from the start that Mike and I would be objective and not avoid controversial areas. She gave us free access to her father’s surviving papers, and we are very grateful to her for that. There were many useful things in the correspondence she had, largely business related, and she had many great photos. But at the same time, we were denied access to her mother’s papers and diaries, which would have given us by far the best information about Al Capp’s relationship with Catherine, what she knew about Al’s philandering and when, and perhaps other important insights.

So full access was limited in that sense, and, regrettably, Capp himself ordered most of his papers and archival materials destroyed in his final days at the Boston studio while he was clinically depressed. So much of what we learned that was really meaty came from papers others had, such as Bence’s son Todd, or Nina Luce’s daughter Rita, or from some family members who demanded we be discreet about our source. What surprised me about Julie, a very well-educated and cultured woman, was how little personal knowledge she had of her father’s dark side. Even the public scandals that made headlines were known to her in only the vaguest sense. “I chose not to read that material,” she told me. So you can imagine that when we showed her our draft manuscript, she was shocked in many ways, and disappointed. We thought we had shown Al Capp in an objective manner, highly respectful of his genius, and very sympathetic to portions of his persona, but, to her, we had revealed too much uncomfortable information. She had seen her father through rose-colored glasses. So the process of doing this book with Mike clearly strained some pre-existing relationships, but it also strengthened others. Virtually all of the family had only fragmentary information about the career of their most famous member and are happy that we’ve revived interest in Al Capp’s career. Most appear appreciative that we pulled together all the aspects of his life—for better and for worse!

HA: There must have been instances of Capp’s life that you would have liked to put into print but couldn’t verify. Without asking you to violate the Biographer’s Code of Ethics, what would you cite as an example of something you would have loved to verify but couldn’t?

MS: We had a lot of information—largely from reliable sources—that we did not include because we insisted on corroboration. At times, the sex stories seemed to be endless, and we heard many more than we reported. Part of our reluctance was based on corroboration, part was rooted in the idea of we covered the major stories and really didn’t want to overdo it or be guilty of “piling on.” It was truly unbelievable. Just to give you an example, I was grocery shopping in my Wisconsin hometown one day, and when I reached the checkout line, the clerk, whom I knew, asked what I was working on. I said—and this is a direct quote in its entirety—”I’m writing a book about Al Capp, the creator of ‘Li’l Abner.’ ” The woman standing next to me in line, without missing a beat, said, “That son of a bitch tried to rape my roommate in college.” I was struck speechless. What were the odds of such a thing? Capp’s misbehavior was legend, and we certainly could have gone into much greater detail than we did. I feel that we wrote enough to get the point across, and whether the Capp family wants to believe it or not, we weren’t out to hurt the family in telling the story. We had some tough calls to make, and we made them.

DK: I laughed out loud when Mike told me his grocery store anecdote, but I had my own. I mentioned to a young local freelance designer that I was working on a biography of Al Capp. He immediately said, “Al Capp? My mother grew up on the same street in Cambridge. She wasn’t allowed to play outside when Mr. Capp was home!” So those kinds of unexpected and spontaneous incidents give a clue as to how only the very tip of the iceberg of his darker side could make our book.

The most tantalizing tidbit to me was a letter between a former Capp assistant and Capp’s attorney in which the assistant confirmed destroying many boxes of archival and personal material at the last studio on Beacon Street. The assistant wrote, “Al told me to ‘throw out everything,’ meaning boxes of old originals…correspondence, tape recordings, newspaper and magazine clippings going back years, books, phonograph records, carbon copies of things he’d written…[and] photographs, the latter of which items we shall mention no further.” Clearly there was something sinister about a stash of photos that both the attorney and assistant knew about, but the details remained unspoken. Was it “merely” a pornography collection? Compromising photos of women he had dalliances with? Perhaps blackmail material related to Ham Fisher? We’ll presumably never know.

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