Jules Feiffer is talking about his childhood. Inevitably he evokes the image of one of his own angst-laden cartoons. Perhaps a wan little boy sits forlornly in a corner. The caption says, “I didn’t enjoy childhood because, for one thing, I was very small, very skinny and I felt totally powerless. The banality of everyday life was unbearable. I can remember being made to feel totally unimportant. My opinion never seemed to be worth anything. At my bar mitzvah I was only allowed to have one of my own friends. I felt invisible.” The last panel of the cartoon, of course, is blank.
At 47, Feiffer has become an institution mining the rich mother lode of American anxiety. In his weekly cartoon strip, his plays (Little Murders, Knock, Knock), his movie scripts (Little Murders again and Carnal Knowledge) and his novel, Harry the Rat with Women, Feiffer has told his countrymen (and women) they are frightened, neurotic, bitter, hypocritical—and he has gotten rich doing it.
He is now finishing a second novel, a detective story called Ackroyd, as well as shepherding the book version of Knock, Knock—an off-Broadway hit last year—into the marketplace. And he is doing it lately with an incongruous aplomb that makes people wonder if this can really be the Jules Feiffer.
Says author Robert Crichton (The Secret of Santa Vittoria), a close friend, “Jules seems more secure as a human being, easier to talk with than he used to be. He used to be very restless, but now he not only gets great fun out of his work, he also likes the notoriety he has had.”
There was little fun in Feiffer’s genteelly impoverished beginnings. He is the son of Polish immigrants, a longshoreman and a freelance fashion designer who raised him and two sisters in a Bronx apartment. They were the only family in their lower-middle-class neighborhood to have books and a piano. He recalls his mother’s “possessiveness and manipulation” and says, “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to leave the Bronx.”
The boy in the cartoon is a little older now. He is saying, “The movies had an enormous influence on me. I loved Fred Astaire. I loved Ginger Rogers. In the movies I found an escape from the Bronx. I had a vision that I would meet the girl of my dreams and our eyes would lock. All of my ideas of romance came from the movies.”
Unathletic and shy, Feiffer struggled through Public School 77. Ginger Rogers aside, his real passion was the comics—Wash Tubbs, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Abbie ‘n’ Slats. Soon he was blending all his fantasies into cartoons of his own. “Drawing proved to me that I had a function,” he says. “I stayed sane.”
He graduated from James Monroe High School, but because he was a half credit short of NYU’s requirements, he enrolled in Pratt Institute in Brooklyn instead. “They had utter contempt for cartooning,” he says. He dropped out to apprentice with Will Eisner, his idol and creator of a weekly comic book called The Spirit. Soon Feiffer, then 17, was writing the stories—about a crime fighter who hid out in a cemetery. When he asked for a raise, Eisner instead let him use the back page of the comic book for his own strip about a philosophical 7-year-old, Clifford.
The cartoon shifts to a soldier in uniform. “In 19511 was drafted. From the time I put on fatigue clothes I was so full of rage I couldn’t speak. All the powerlessness I was made to feel was without logic. I crystallized my attitude toward authority. Authority was saying, ‘WE ARE DOING THIS FOR YOU.’ I was a thing to them.”
Feiffer’s talents were apparent even in the Army, and he was transferred into an animated-film unit. There, he recalls, “Everybody but me had a Jr. at the end of his name, and they were all put in the unit by the power of the phone call or by being someone’s son.” Feiffer ended up at Fort Monmouth, N.J. and created his own comic strip, Munro. (Munro was a 4-year-old boy who had been mistakenly drafted into the Army and couldn’t get discharged. He was later turned into a book and an Oscar-winning animated film.)
After the Army, Feiffer began working on satiric cartoon strips about nuclear bomb testing, conformity and psychoanalysis (which Feiffer was undergoing). They were biting, 30 to 40 pages long, and no publisher would touch them. (Later he published some in a collection, Passionella.) In 1956 he offered a much-condensed version of his work to the Village Voice, the weekly newspaper in which New York’s bohemian-beatnik-freak population celebrated its alienation.
The Voice editors were impressed by his cartoons, even more by the fact that he was giving them to the paper free. This, he once explained, was not out of generosity: “If the Voice had paid for the strip, it couldn’t have afforded more than $5 a week. So by getting paid, I would have been a $5-a-week cartoonist. By donating it, I was a philanthropist.”
The strip worked. Feiffer’s parodies of Eisenhower speeches, his psychoanalytic jargon and man-woman confrontations caught on. Soon they were being published in newspapers all over the country and even in Britain. The man is now hunched over a drawing board. “I was deeply involved in the struggle of creating my own drawing style. The problem was how to say important things in six or eight panels. I agonized at first whether or not to syndicate my work. I was afraid to. I was afraid I would end up writing for the mass appeal, rather than doing what I do best. I found out it doesn’t matter.”
Feiffer considers himself a new species: “What I became didn’t exist then because I invented it”—the literate, socially conscious comic strip artist. In the late ’50s he encountered the similarly painful humor of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Chicago’s improvisational Second City troupe and Lenny Bruce. “I couldn’t believe,” he once said, “there were other people whose outlook was like mine, who thought an attack on society was necessary.”
Feiffer’s attacks soon became increasingly political. “I actually never saw cartoons as a political device,” he insists. “But it got to the point where I couldn’t resist.” He used his cartoons to oppose the Vietnam war as early as 1963. He then became active in antiwar demonstrations, was elected to the Democrats’ 1968 convention as a McCarthy delegate and backed the Chicago Seven during their trial. When President Johnson wrote to ask for the original of an LBJ cartoon he had done, Feiffer replied, “It isn’t my policy to send cartoons to Presidents making war. If you end the war, I will be happy to turn my whole library over to you.”
Feiffer had also been branching out artistically. He published his first novel in 1963 and started writing plays.
A man is holding a script. “I had gone to Yaddo, an artists’ colony in upstate New York, to work on Little Murders as a novel. When I got there, I just couldn’t write it. But I was ashamed to go home after my friends had given me a farewell party. I had to stay. So I began writing it as a play. Whether I liked it or not, I became a playwright.”
Little Murders was actually his second play, following the one-act Crawling Arnold, which was directed in 1963 by Nichols. After Little Murders flopped on Broadway in 1967, Alan Arkin staged a new version of it two years later off-Broadway. It is a black comedy about a New York family cowering in their apartment as they are besieged by obscene phone calls, random violence, perversion and other modern inconveniences. The play was a great success and led to a movie version (with Elliott Gould and Arkin) that Feiffer scripted.
He followed that by writing the screenplay for Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. The film got a mixed reaction; Feiffer loved it. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says, unembarrassed by his fan club approach. “I especially liked Ann-Margret. At first she was very shy because she thought she was working with ail these intellectuals—Mike, Candy [Bergen], me—but she relaxed and we got along wonderfully together.”
The same was not true of Feiffer and his wife, Judy, a novelist and editor who is head of the Warner Brothers story department. They separated in 1971 and later divorced, but now maintain a peaceful coexistence that revolves around their daughter, Kate, 12. They take turns living with Kate in the summer in a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and the rest of the year Judy and her daughter live not far from Feiffer’s apartment on Manhattan’s West Side.
For the last few years Feiffer has shared his time—but not his lodgings—with Susan Crile, 34, who paints and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. “I am terribly fond of Jules,” she says. “He is extremely helpful to me in everything I do.” But she adds: “We have our own priorities and go our own ways.”
The little boy in the cartoon has become a clapper, sophisticated bachelor. “I don’t want to get married again. Marriage may be all right for some people. It isn’t for me. I’m not a domesticated person.”
Feiffer purports not to know how much money he has (“I leave all that to a business manager-lawyer”), which presumably means he has at least enough. In spite of his increasing fame, he has kept a consistent circle of friends—and their respect.
Says playwright-cartoonist Herb Gardner, who raised his Nebbishes alongside Feiffer’s Bernard Mergendeiler and Co., “What Feiffer has done is to get into the sadness of things. He is able to write and draw about pain and vulnerability. As a friend, he is always willing to help another friend out. He is warm. And very generous.”
Adds Robert Crichton, “The essence of Jules’s humor is to turn things inside out, to strip the human condition of its pomposity and foolishness. He himself is happy leading a not very complicated life.”
Well, there are some complications. He became embroiled in squabbling this spring when his play Knock, Knock, a hit off-Broadway, changed its cast (to include bigger names such as Lynn Redgrave), moved to Broadway and closed after 19 weeks. Still, he was largely unruffled. Dan Seltzer, a Princeton University professor and actor who was fired from the original Knock, Knock cast, says, “Because Jules is a realist, he finds a great deal within his view of reality about which to be bitter. But I don’t detect what might be called hyperbolic pessimism. In fact, in some ways he is even a sentimentalist. He is easily moved.”
Being a sentimentalist isn’t what Feiffer gets paid for, however. So after he finishes Ackroyd—due out next spring—he wants to try a play on the theme of possessiveness. “I like working on several projects at once,” he says. “It’s almost as if one thing pushes me into another.”
The strip ends on a round bald head with glasses, wearing a look of resignation. “I’m occasionally morose. I’m occasionally hilarious. Most of the time I just hang around.”