On February 8th of this year, Tomi Ungerer the famous graphic artist/satirist/cartoonist died. I count him, as well as Push-Pin Studios, as the major forces that changed American illustration in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He came to America from Alsace, in 1956, the year I started my own career. His work and that of Push-Pin convinced me to pursue cartooning and illustration rather than abandoning a profession that I thought had dwindled into a syrupy kind of mealy mush with no excitement anymore.
Ungerer hit New York with virtually no money and immediately got sick and had to be hospitalized. Fortunately he had landed an assignment from Esquire Magazine as soon as he had gotten here and it just paid his hospital bill.
He went on to create wonderful advertising campaigns for the New York Times, satirical anti-war posters and, his most remembered work, the children’s books which were revolutionary in their approach sometimes taking unlikely heroes such as Crictor the boa constrictor and making them funny and likeable.
At the height of his career, he was asked by one of his art directors, why he was having some other artist bringing his work around instead of himself as he always had done. He replied that he wasn’t. Then he was told that someone was doing work that looked exactly like his. He was infuriated. He tracked the culprit down and called him on the phone and threatened to kill him if he didn’t abandon his purloined style. It worked.
After he had established himself as one of the foremost illustrators of children’s books, one of his publishers discovered his other secret life. At the same time he was doing sweet, charming children’s work, he was also doing books of strongly, viciously satirical, erotic work. Word leaked out and it was his downfall. His children’s book work disappeared. Publishers wouldn’t touch him and his books were taken off the children’s market. He soon moved out of the country to Nova Scotia as a bitter recluse. Years and years later, this was all reversed and he, once again, became recognized as the genius illustrator he was. His old books were re-issued and he continued to create new ones.
Around the time he was still in New York, he also did a series of TV commercials which featured a little girl playing with a cute little dog. They were well liked by the public. At that time, I was doing animation and one day, I happened to be at a studio which was producing these commercials. The guy I was working with asked me if I’d like to see some storyboards that Tomi had submitted in jest. They depicted the famous little girl doing some, let’s just say, “erotic” things to her little dog.
After he exited the country for Nova Scotia, I had a young protege that I was helping to get in the illustration business. She was a young dreamer who would fall in love with the famous illustrators like Blechman and, of course, Tomi Ungerer. She asked me if I knew who his agent was and how she could get in touch with him. I couldn’t help her, but by some means she got his phone number in Nova Scotia. She talked with him on the phone and at the end of the conversation, he did what people often do and said, “If you’re ever in Nova Scotia, drop in and see me.”
The next morning, she grabbed a plane to Nova Scotia. When she arrived there, she was a little disappointed to see that he was married. Also, a German film crew was following him around shooting a documentary in the couple of days she was there. She also told me that he had erotic wooden handles on his knives and forks. Otherwise, she had a wonderful time.
While he was still in New York, I encountered him in an odd way. One day I was doing my rounds with a big black portfolio and I had jumped into a cab. We were stopped for a bit in Times Square and I glanced over to the sidewalk and saw a man in a long brown raggedy-looking overcoat rifling through a metal trash can. He was gleefully pulling stuff out and stuffing some of it into a bag he was carrying. I recognized him immediately as Tomi Ungerer. The cabbie also noticed him and remarked, “Look at that bum, God, I hate to see that!”
As Tomi lifted a battered doll out of the trash basket and deposited it in his bag, I delighted in telling the cab driver who he was and how much money he made as one of the most famous illustrators in the country. He looked at my big black portfolio and figured that he probably should believe me.