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? 

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