Alex Raymond’s Last Ride
Stan Drake talks about surviving the fatal car wreck that took Alex Raymond’s life—was it an accident or suicide?
By Arlen Schumer
The September 7, 1956, edition of The New York Times gave it nearly 11 inches of space, headlined “CARTOONIST DIES IN WRECK OF AUTO” and treated it in a straightforward manner: Alex Raymond, then known as the creator of Rip Kirby, had died the previous day in a single-car accident. Objectively yet respectfully, the account briefly summarized Raymond’s accomplishments, among them the creation of the landmark feature Flash Gordon and the co-creation of Secret Agent X-9. And buried in the story was a mention of Raymond’s gravely injured passenger, fellow cartoonist Stan Drake, then working on The Heart of Juliet Jones.
It was an accident like so many others: a driver losing control on a rain-slicked road and wrapping his vehicle around a tree. But was it like so many other accidents?
The Alex Raymond that Stan Drake recalls was a striking figure: matinee-idol handsome with a pencil-thin mustache, virile, hugely talented and admired among his peers, having served as president of the National Cartoonists Society (its third chief, succeeding Rube Goldberg and Milton Caniff).
Apart from being a man in firm control of his art and career—King Features offered Raymond $35,000 a year to produce a Sunday Rip Kirby page, only to have Raymond decline the offer, citing the extra work the page would impose—Raymond liked to play hard. Then 46, he was always ready for an opportunity to indulge his passion: racing cars.
One day, Raymond paid Drake a visit as he was working on a Juliet Jones strip. “Back in those days, I was doing The Heart of Juliet Jones, and I was using Polaroid references of models. I gave them all kinds of expressions—fear, anguish, happiness—and Alex never did. And he came to me and said, ‘What is this thing with expressions you’re doing? It looks great.’ He complimented me on doing these real people in Juliet Jones. I couldn’t believe that the greatest artist in the world was asking me about expressions!”
Drake, as it turns out, was paying a price for introducing human expressions into his work: Sylvan Byck, then comics editor at King Features, was admonishing the 35-year-old Drake to drop the use of emotional expression in his characters’ faces. “Byck asked me, ‘What are you doing with these expressions? We don’t usually do that.’ He tried to put me down, believe it or not,” Drake said. “He said, ‘Just draw people.’ And I said, ‘I’m going to draw people the way they are. If you want to buy Juliet Jones, that’s what you’re going to get.”
Raymond, while a master of cartooning, was also an eager student of the form, and he had dropped by Drake’s Westport, Connecticut, studio to talk shop. “He would come up to the studio, and we would talk and discuss things, and suddenly it dawned on me, ‘Here is the number, one artist in the world, coming to my little studio, I had only started Juliet Jones three years ago in 1953, asking me about expressions.’ So I was very honored and thrilled, and I told him that people are people, that they have expressions. And I couldn’t believe that it was all new to him, couldn’t believe it. I don’t know what he did with it, because he died shortly thereafter.”
Drake’s new sports car—a 1956 Corvette convertible—also came up as a topic of conversation during that visit. Raymond said he wanted to drive the Corvette, which boasted 450 horsepower and a four-second acceleration from 0 to 60 miles per hour, to compare it to one of his cars, a gullwing Mercedes that was then in the shop to have platinum plugs installed. Drake readily agreed to allow Raymond to take a spin in his car, so they jumped in Drake’s other car, a rather more austere Chevrolet, to travel from his studio to his home, where the Corvette was parked.
September 6 was a typical fall day in Connecticut—a steady rain was falling, and the top was up on the Corvette. At first, Drake took the wheel, traveling around Westport while Raymond admired the automobile. “Finally, we were on a road over by the highway, and he said, ‘Can I drive?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ “