Gregor Duncan: Pictures of Life

The Second World War cut millions of lives short. One of its victims was a cartoonist and illustrator whose future appeared assuredly bright, but a German artillery shell ended his life. Rob Stolzer traces the life and times of Gregor Duncan.

Gregor Duncan in uniform (click to enlarge)

At the end of the 1944 wartime edition of Sad Sack, next to the biography of creator George Baker, is a piercing pen and ink portrait of Baker. The pen work making up the portrait is fluid and classic, from the loose and lively drawing on the collar and hat, to the beautifully formed shadows making up the planes of Baker’s head. It is a masterful drawing, executed by a young illustrator named Gregor Duncan, who was assigned to the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes in Naples, Italy, at the time. The portrait in this book was this author’s first encounter with Gregor Duncan’s work. For more than 30 years, the only thing I knew about Duncan was that “The drawing opposite was done by a very good friend, Sergeant Gregor Duncan, of the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes, a short time before he was killed in the Allied advance on Rome.”

But there is more to Gregor Duncan’s story. Much more.

By the time he joined the Army in 1942, Duncan was one of the rising illustration stars in New York City, with work in many major magazines, newspapers and books. During their few years spent in New York, Duncan and his wife Janice worked tirelessly in support of the National Maritime Union and the Newspaper Guild and were founding members of the Cartoonists’ Guild. The Duncans were early patrons and supporters of Barney Josephson’s groundbreaking Cafe Society, the jazz club where lines of color were erased and where Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. During the war, Duncan was befriended by Bill Mauldin, who drove him around Italy in his Willy Jeep in a get-acquainted tour. It was Mauldin himself who delivered Gregor Duncan to Janice, who was a Red Cross volunteer stationed in Naples, a week before Duncan’s untimely death in 1944. By the age of 34, Gregor Duncan had accomplished more in his short lifetime than many do in twice that lifetime. He was destined for much more, but war cut his destiny short.

A Duncan drawing of a welder done in crayon

Gregor Keane Duncan was born in Seattle, Wash., on Feb. 12, 1910, but grew up in Sausalito, Calif., the eldest of Charles and Constance Duncan’s three children. The Duncans were a family of both great vitality and great tragedy. Charlie Duncan was a gregarious man who counted author Jack London as one of his San Francisco drinking buddies. He was a colorful, larger-than-life character who wore many hats during his lifetime. Early in his career, Duncan worked as the sales manager of outdoor advertising for Foster and Kleiser. The Foster and Kleiser Outdoor Advertising firm pioneered the business of outdoor signage, moving from the usual posters pasted upon any available surface to designated structures meant for outdoor advertising: billboards. In the mid-1930s, the elder Duncan became the press agent for Joseph Strauss, the engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1939, while working as the art director for the McCann-Erickson Advertising Agency in San Francisco, Duncan created the famed red “X” label design for Lucky Lager, a new beer brewed in San Francisco; Duncan’s label design is appreciated by beer can aficionados to this day.

With no formal background in the theater arts, Duncan had a flair for the dramatic and directed the 1927 Tamalpais High School senior play “The Goose Hangs High.” Constance Dixon Duncan was an accomplished pianist, born into a family of artists. One of her four siblings was Maynard Dixon, the noted Western painter who was married at one time to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Dixon and Lange were good friends with cartoonists George Herriman and Jimmy Swinnerton and spent most of August 1922 with them on a John Wetherill-led expedition from Kayenta, Ariz., to the Betatakin Ruins in Tsegi Canyon, in what is now the Navajo National Monument; a good deal of the trip was spent drawing and painting in Monument Valley.

Duncan illustrations for the Sept., Oct. and Dec. 1937 issues (l-r) of For Men Only magazine: (click to enlarge)

Constance Duncan’s other brother was Harry Dixon, a noted Arts and Crafts coppersmith and jeweler who was Dirk Van Erp’s first apprentice when Van Erp opened his first studio in San Francisco in 1908. Dixon went on to teach and eventually opened his own studio in San Francisco. Gregor Duncan’s sister Dulce was a photographer who helped document the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during her father’s tenure as Strauss’ press agent. Dulce Duncan Ray later died from cancer, followed by her husband and two children, all of whom committed suicide.

Duncan’s youngest sister, Nancy, was also an accomplished pianist who moved to New York City in the 1930s to study modern dance. During her time in New York, she stayed with Consie Dixon, Maynard Dixon’s daughter, who was a writer for the WPA. Nancy Duncan eventually married Hubert Sorenson, a violinist with the Portland Symphony String Quartet and the Neah-Kah-Nie Quartet. The visual and musical arts coursed through the veins of Gregor Duncan’s surroundings, no doubt having an impact on his future path.

Janice and Gregor Duncan (click to enlarge)

An online biography states that Duncan’s uncle Maynard provided his nephew with his only formal art training, but that was not the case, according to Duncan’s widow, Janice Duncan Goodhue. “Oh no, Gregor never had any formal training,” she said. “It was all instinctual.” Duncan did help his famous uncle in Dixon’s studio near the Montgomery Block in San Francisco. “Gregor used to be his water boy,” Mrs. Duncan Goodhue explained. “In other words, he cleaned up the studio and kept fresh water for the brushes.” In describing Dixon, Mrs. Duncan Goodhue continued, “Maynard was very difficult. Most people feared him. So even Gregor was a little nervous with him, which surprised me.” Becky Jenkins, the granddaughter of Maynard Dixon, was unsure of the actual student-teacher relationship between her cousin and grandfather, but noted a definite shared sensibility in their art. She commented that Duncan had “…developed the same skill set as Maynard; the mastery of the quick sketch.”

Duncan showed an early talent for drawing, as evidenced by his work in high school. In the 1926 Pai, the Tamalpais High School yearbook, there are two full-page illustrations and one chapter heading by Duncan, all depicting scenes of medieval knights. The style of drawing is reminiscent of Howard Pyle’s pen and ink work, which would be no coincidence as Pyle’s four-volume set on the adventures of King Arthur had been published from 1903 to 1910. A young Gregor Duncan very likely grew up on these adventure books and was familiar with Pyle’s work. In the 1927 Pai, from Duncan’s last year in high school, he seems to have forgone the adventure illustration in favor of cartoons accompanying jokes. These pieces don’t have the degree of finish as his works in the previous yearbook, but it should be noted that Duncan took a much more active role during his senior year of high school. He was the Yell Leader at rallies, a staff member on the Tamalpais News and a member of the program committee, for which he presented an “entertaining speech on ‘color,’ ” which “opened a new field of thought to many.”

Duncan also seemed to inherit a bit of the charismatic character of his father, a trait that will be commented on throughout his short life, but the pages of the Pai yearbook give a hint of what was to come. In describing their new Yell Leader, the Pai stated, “Many new faces have been seen the past year in the yell-leading field, the most prominent one belonging to Gregor Duncan, who piloted the Tam supporters in vocal calisthenics during the second semester. Gregor is one of the snappiest leaders it has been our good fortune to have and he deserves a lot of credit…” Duncan’s nephew, Peter Sorenson, the son of Nancy Duncan Sorenson, commented on his uncle’s popularity in high school; a popularity stemming in part from his personality but also from the school sweaters he would illustrate for classmates. Duncan had that ability to draw people towards him, both through his artwork and engaging personality.

Duncan illustrations accompanying “Alice in Wonderland: (click to enlarge)

Duncan left Tamalpais High School during his senior year, before graduating, to start working professionally. At 17 years old, he started with the Sausalito News, but before long he began commuting across the bay to San Francisco, where he started working for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1928. Duncan spent five years at the Call-Bulletin, specializing in sports cartoons but also covering politics and the occasional trial. The sports and trial drawings, often done from life, helped hone Duncan’s ability to capture figures and action quickly. He maintained a small studio in the famed Montgomery Block, also known as the Monkey Block, mingling with the other artists and poets in the building during a very bohemian time in San Francisco’s history.

In 1933, Duncan decided to move to New York City to tackle the publishing and illustration world where it lived. His time in Manhattan would prove to be a period of tremendous personal, professional and political growth. Duncan hit the ground running in New York when he was hired by the old Life magazine in 1933 as an editorial cartoonist. Life was an early and strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected president in 1932. And for Gregor Duncan, who was on the political far left, the subject matter was in his wheelhouse.

Duncan wielded a powerful litho crayon for his early Life cartoons, depicting FDR as a vibrant hero, setting the stage for his controversial New Deal. In a cartoon from April 1934, which remains as contemporary today as it did when published, Duncan portrayed Roosevelt as the subject of Jean-François Millet’s painting, “The Sower,” with FDR spreading money along the landscape, belching factories in the background, a Johnny Appleseed trying to revive a devastated economy. The following month, Duncan portrayed a muscle-bound Roosevelt, sleeves rolled up and bursting with energy, as he holds up two Wall Street villains as if they were ragdolls. A biblical caption from Mark 11:15, “—To cast out them that sold and bought—,” accompanied the cartoon of FDR’s cleaning up the economic house.

However, not all was picture-perfect for Roosevelt in the editorial offices of Life. As time went on, the magazine’s view of the president began to shift, moving from a do-no-wrong savior to just another bloated political bureaucrat. An editorial on the various Social Security plans in the works appearing in the March 1935 issue paints a muddled and confusing portrait, with blame laid at the feet of the government for not being more proactive. Duncan’s powerful editorial cartoon, titled “Ol’ Rockin’ Chair,” depicts a senior citizen in his rocking chair, whittling away, a burden being carried by a powerfully built figure, now bent and trudging along. The landscape is no longer one of optimistic growth but one of barren desolation.

A Thanksgiving menu featuring Duncan artwork (click to enlarge)

As Life’s editorial viewpoint became more anti-Roosevelt, so followed Duncan’s imagery, which must have been difficult for one with such left-wing leanings. But it was height of the Depression, and freelance artists had to work in order to survive. In May 1936, Duncan began a series of full-color anti-Roosevelt cartoons, which were based upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The cartoons were accompanied with text by Arthur L. Lippmann and took sharp aim at the Roosevelt administration until November 1936, when Life ceased publication. There is little doubt that Duncan was a supporter of Roosevelt. He had the opportunity, in the 1930s, to draw a commissioned portrait of the President, but to Duncan’s dismay, a previously arranged assignment stood in the way. According to Mrs. Duncan Goodhue, her husband was quite disappointed at the missed opportunity.

Even though Life magazine closed its doors in 1936, Duncan had built up a steady client base in the magazine business during his first three years in New York. He drew cartoons and illustrations for a number of major publications including Reader’s Digest, Collier’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan. He also drew and painted covers for the Literary Digest and Judge magazine. Much of what Duncan drew for the magazines was sports related, done in his quick, nearly gestural fashion, reminiscent of some of the earlier Ashcan School drawings by artists like George Luks, Robert Henri and George Bellows. Duncan was a big fan of boxing and spent a good deal of time drawing at both prizefights and Lou Stillman’s fabled gym on Eighth Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. Stillman’s Gym was known primarily for two things: the champions who trained there and its unsanitary conditions. Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Benny Leonard were among the boxing greats who spectators could watch train for two bits. Stillman wanted the gym kept as unsanitary as possible, fearing that the boxers could “catch a cold from cleanliness,” so cigar and cigarette smoking was encouraged, as was spitting on the floor. Much like Tad Dorgan, Duncan reveled in this environment, doing pen and ink drawings and watercolor paintings of the boxers and prizefights.

A Duncan illustration for Stars and Stripes (click to enlarge)

The June 1937 cover of Judge magazine features a watercolor cover by Gregor Duncan. The cover pictures a couple sitting on a tree limb, the woman leaning into the man’s shoulder, with a “Keep Off the Grass” sign below them. The model for the man was actually Duncan himself, and the woman is Janice Karner, who would become Duncan’s wife a year later. Karner, a good friend of Dulce Duncan’s, had known Duncan for a number of years in the Bay Area, though he was a couple of years older than her. She came out East in the mid-1930s to study nursing at Johns Hopkins University and soon started dating Duncan. She didn’t finish her nursing education but moved to New York in 1937 and worked as a secretary to the art director of Compton Advertising, a large firm in the city. The Duncans were married at New York City Hall on May 17, 1938, and celebrated their nuptials at the recently opened Tavern on the Green, in Central Park.

Janice Duncan was as politically left as her husband, and both were strong supporters of workers as they fought to form unions in the 1930s. Gregor Duncan had been a founding member of the Cartoonists’ Guild, a precursor to the National Cartoonists Society, in March 1936. The Cartoonists’ Guild, led by President Roland Coe and Vice President Ned Hilton, fought for better working conditions for artists, including a $15 minimum fee for magazine cartoons. The guild also kept a watchful eye out for “scab cartoonists” who would take the place of one of their own who went out on strike in sympathy with the unions. One of Duncan’s best friends, New Yorker cartoonist Charles E. Martin, who signed his work “CEM,” was also a member of the guild, along with another friend, Gregory d’Alessio. Duncan was an active member of the guild, both politically and through his contributions to OK, the official publication of the organization. He contributed ink and litho crayon portraits of Gregory d’Alessio, Garrett Price and Fritz Wilkinson to the “Thumbnails” feature of the magazine in 1937, as well as a lithographic image titled “Longshoremen.” The magazine regularly featured fine art examples of the cartoonists’ work, such as Duncan’s lithograph. The Cartoonists’ Guild patterned its constitution after that of the American Newspaper Guild, cofounded by journalist Heywood Broun. The two groups often met together, in support of causes that affected their respective memberships.

A Duncan self-portrait (click to enlarge)

The Duncans had been very familiar with the battles fought on the docks by the International Longshoremen’s Association in San Francisco, led by Harry Bridges and his “Albion Hall Group,” Bridges’ inner circle. In New York, the Duncans marched with dock laborers who fought to form a union, resulting in the creation of the National Maritime Union in 1937. Frederick “Blackie” Myers, the Vice-President of the NMU when it was formed, once told Duncan’s nephew Peter Sorenson that Duncan was so well liked by union members that he could never buy his own drink in a bar. It was that part of Duncan’s engaging personality that drew others towards him, whether on the docks or on the battlefield.

While the Duncans were ardent supporters of the unions in the 1930s, they were also strongly involved in the musical and visual arts in New York. When Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman from Trenton, N.J., opened the Cafe Society jazz club in the basement of One Sheridan Square, he had a number of Greenwich Village artists paint murals on the bare walls. The artists—including William Gropper, Sam Berman, Syd Hoff, John Groth, Ad Reinhardt, Adolf Dehn and Duncan—were not given much for their work. According to Mrs. Duncan Goodhue, “…Barney Josephson didn’t have a lot of money, so what he did, instead of paying the artists to paint the murals, he gave all of us a $75 due bill. Well, that doesn’t sound like much today, but it took forever to eat up and drink up that $75 due bill.” Duncan’s mural, which no longer exists, featured Elsa Maxwell. The grand dame of uptown society, Maxwell was dubbed “The Hostess with the Mostest” for her parties given for royalty and high society figures of the day. Mrs. Duncan Goodhue recalled that, “She was a big jolly woman, who arranged all of the high-level stuff uptown. She had nothing to do with Cafe Society. Gregor did a wonderful mural of this woman Elsa. It wasn’t identified as Elsa, but it was her, riding a chariot, striking the horses, going through what would have been Rome. The mural was making fun of uptown society. Oh, it was fabulous!”

One of Duncan’s illustrations for Look magazine, depicting the survival tests of the rubber rafts. The man with the “A” on his back was testing various sunburn preventions (click to enlarge).

Cafe Society was a ground-breaking club, as Josephson would not tolerate the segregation practiced at other night clubs. The Stork Club did not allow African-Americans in the audience, except for major celebrities, and there were many charges of racism brought against the club by celebrities such as Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. Even the Cotton Club in Harlem practiced segregation, limiting its African-American audience to the back third of the club. But Cafe Society was different. With the tagline “The Wrong Place for the Right People,” the club was a pioneer in race relations, admitting persons of all ethnic and racial backgrounds without any preference based on status or class. All performers were allowed to perform in a dignified fashion, without the usual stereotypical trappings found at the other clubs.

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