That Way Lies MAD-ness Carl Djerassi Confronts His Past

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					                     THE QUEST FOR ALFRED E. NEUMAN

                                             Carl Djerassi
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In this memoir, Carl Djerassi, Stanford University, California, describes his errcmnrters with the grirming
face of Alfred E. Neuman, mascot of MAD magasine. For Djerassi, the face recalls anti-Seodtic posters
seen in his European neighborhood in the days prior to World War IL He discusses his persormt inquiry
into the origins of Alfred E. Nermran-an attempt to reconcile the comic-book face with the troubling irnsges
of his youth.


Nearly half a century has passed, but I still re-      of the black tie was visible. In a remsrkably
member every detail: the big ears projecting           succinct way his attire managed to stigmatize
straight out like a wary deer’s; the tooth miss-       him as a sly street peddler. The poster’s bmkd
ing just above the thick lower lip, its gross          messageconsistedof just three words: Tbd den
thickness accentuated by the virtual absence           .fuden!-fkath to the Jews!
of its upper partner; the eyes, big, yet hooded;          When I bumped into the face the second
the tousled black hair; the grin moronic, but          time, it was in a news vendor’sstall in the Mid-
also devious; and finalfy the nose-after the           west during the early forties. It may have been
ears, it was the boy’s most prominent feature,         Mount Vernon, Ohio, where, lie most of the
   HIS image occupied the center of a dirty            students from Kenyon College, I used to go
poster plastered on the walls in our neighbor-         to the movies; or perhaps Tarkio, Missouri,
hood in Vienna, just after the Nazis had taken         where I spent a semester as a seventeen-year-
over in 1938. The head was attached to a gan-          old sophomore at the local college. 1 was so
gly neck, itself protruding from an absurdly           shocked by the appearance of that face that I
adult suit. Even if the picturehad been in color,      did not even focus on its details. The fact that
one knew that this shirt had to be dkty white,         this grinning boy’s nose was somewhere be-
the coat and vest black. The latter was buttoned       tween triangular and bulbous, rather than
almost to the sternum, so that only the knot           sharply Semitic, escaped me.


                                                   162
   To most browsers, the magazines and com-
ic books surrotutding that face must have
seemed innocuous and commonplace. Tome,
who had arrived in the States a couple of years
earlier from Bulgaria, where I spent a year and
a hrdf after the Anschiuss waiting for a visa,
such camouflage made the face in its midst
even more threatening. I was still fantastical-
ly sensitive to evety real or imaginary anti-
Semitic innuendo. I did not touch the picture.
I knew exacdy what it stcmd for.
   At the time, I did not tell anyone what I had
seen, just as I hardly disclosed anything about
my past life. It was my way of attempting to
 “pass,” which even without my accent would
not have been too easy in this small Mid-
western town where I was the only Hitler ref-
 ugee; many of the locals had never even met
a Jew.
    ‘‘Where’re you from?” they’d ask as soon
as I’d finished a sentence or two.
   “My mother iives in upstate New York, ”         Compared to other Jews, we found it much
I’d reply, sometimes mentioning the hamlet         easier to escape from Vienna, because my
 near the Canadian border where she worked         father, who was divorced from my mother,
 as a physician’s assistant. Without an Ameri-     was Bulgarian and had been practicing medi-
 can license, her Viennese M.D. was useless        cine in Sofia. Soon after the Anschluss, he
 here.                                             came to Vienna, remarried my mother for a
   “Yes, but where’re youjhom?” they’d per-        couple of months, and took us out on a Bul-
sist. “What kind of an accent is that?”            garian passport.
   “Bulgaria,” I’d say, knowing it wasn’t so,        But my response always implied that “here”
and then toss them another morsel, hoping it       was this very village in Missouri housing the
would deflect the inquisition. “I went to an       hundred and forty-odd students of Presbyte-
American school in Sofia. ” Usually that           rian-supported Tarkio College, or Gambier in
worked. After all, how many youths were            Ohio, where some three hundred young men
there in northwestern Missouri who had gone        studied in an Episcopalian atmosphere. My
to the American College of Sofia, Bulgaria?        questioners were always flattered that my
   The next question, “But why did you come        parents had apparently chosen Tarkio or Ken-
here?” I fielded easiIy. I presented my reply      yon as the optimum site for their only son’s
in wrapping made opaque by local chauvinism.       xhrcation. In point of fact, I was there for only
“My parents wanted me to continue my               me reason: the colleges had offered me a
schooling here. ”                                  scholarship.
   The catch was that “here.” The word could         Of course, some of the inquisitors were more
refer to the specific city or school where the     persistent. (Was it my paternal Sephardic back-
conversation took place, or it could aak-with-     ground that invariably made me attribute to in-
out actually asking— “Why did you have to          mcent Midwestern curiosity fifteenth-century
leave Europe?” In choosing to answer the           Spanish inquisitorial motives?) “Why didn’t
former, nothing I said was untrue; I just did      you stay in Bulgaria?” (“Idiot,” I wanted to
not volunteer any excess information. What         retort but didn’t, because that would have taken
most of the questioners wanted to know, but        explanations incompatible with “passing.”)
rarely heard, was the following.                   “Were you born there?” Once I owned up to
   My mother and 1, like thousands of other        ~aving been born in Vienna, the questions
Hitler retigees, ieft Europe at the beginning      ;ended to become more precise and, worst of
of the Second World War to come “here.”            dl, more intrusive. Still, I equivocated. Only


                                               163
 when asked point-blank. “Are you Jewish?”               Years passed while the boy’s face receded
 did I acknowledge that fact, and then prompt-        again from my conscious memory. One day,
 ly change the subject, In Tarkio, Missouri, I        I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memonaf
 was the onfy Jew, or at least I thought so, untif    in Jerusalem. As I stared at some of the en-
 the day that boy’s picture leered at me out of      larged photographs from that most despicable
 the newsstand.                                       and horrible period in European history,
    Years later–probably in Michigan where I          Alfred E. Neuman’s face seemed to surface
 taught, and where rabid anti-Semites like           here and there. That was when I decided that
 Gerafd L. K. Smith and Father Coughlin              the time had come to uncover the origin of the
 operated-I again came upon that face: on the         face that had never quite left me.
 cover of a publication with the implausible ti-         As soon as I returned to California, I went
 tle of MAD. But by thk time, having become          to a local news agent. “Do you carry MAD?”
 an American citizen, I felt more secure. 1          I inquired, not even knowing whether the mag-
 flipped open the magazine and was stunned to        azine still existed. “Over there,” the man
 find it filled with comics.                         pointed. I could not believe my eyes when I
    Even though I am approaching the end of          saw a happily grinning Alfred E. Neuman
 my fifth decade in this country, I have still not   dressed in a snowrabbit’s outfit stepping out
 adapted to three American infatuations: foot-       of a chimney, holiday cheer practically ooz-
 balI, peanut butter and comics. During my for-      ing from the January 1988 cover of the latest
 mative years in college and graduate school,        MAD. 1 handed over $1.35 and walked to a
 and the beginnings of my professional career,       corner of the store. Right then and there, for
 my reading was limited to one newspaper (the        the first time in my life, I read a comic book
New York l%nes), one magazine (the New               from cover to cover. In spite of my ingrained
 Yorker), a fair amount of fiction and literary      suspicion, it became clear to me that no Nazi
prose and many professional journafs in or-          had ever had his hands on that issue. [n fact,
ganic and medicinal chemistry. The one com-          it was not even obvious to me why kids would
 mon denominator to this hodgepodge of printed       read it: the political cartoon on the last page
 material was the total absence of comics. Still,    featuring Gary Hart and Ronrdd Reagan was
 it is curious that I was never attracted to com-    clever and biting. So much so that I would not
 ics, since my professional literature is so full    have been surprised to fmd it on the cover of
of the pictography of chemical structures.           a magazine like Mother Jones.
Opening the pages of MAD, therefore, did not            I was puzzled: how could I reconcile my
assuage my suspicion that it was just another        memory of that taunting face of forty years be-
publication of some anti-Semitic cabal.              fore with this benign comic? My first Ameri-
    I was too praxcupied with other matters,         can vision of Alfred E. Neuman’s face had
and also too impatient, to delve into the con-       been around 1942, give or take a few months,
tents of the magazine. The title itself seemed       Yet on telephoning the editorial office of MAD
to me conclusive. However, I did make some           to inquire when the first issue had appeared
discreet inquiries about the nature of that cover    and how I could secure a copy, I received a
picture. To my surprise, virtually every per-        preposterous reply: Number 1 of MAD had
son I asked knew the identity of that boy:           onfy hit the newsstands in October 1952. Even
Alfred E. Neuman.                                    more absurd was their claim that Alfred E.
    “Where does he come from?” It was my             Neuman-face       as well as name-had not
turn to ask that pointed question, onfy to be        graced the cover of MAD until 1956. Had the
told that nobody knew or even cared. He had          Nazis sold the originaf magazine to some in-
just existed as long as my informants could          nocent purchaser with the proviso that the
remember.                                            origin of the publication be disguised? Every-
    “N E W M A N?” I spelled the name.               one knows of notorious examples of the falsi-
    “No,” I wascorrwted, “N EU M A N.”               fication of historical facts. If MAD was just
    ‘‘Aha, ” I cried out triumphantly, ‘41knew       another such victim, it was time for me to cor-
it. It isn’t ‘nooman,’ it’s ‘noyman.’ German,        rect the record—if not for the public’s sake,
of course. ”                                         then at least for mine. Two weeks later, I flew


                                                164
to New York and headed for 485 Madison                      He could almost have beerI a neighborhood
Avenue, the current perch of MAD.                           school kid. The three most nitwitted ones had
   The bemused tolerance with which the small               him wear hats of various descriptions; the rest
editorial staff received me was reflected in the            started to approach my image from Nazi days.
genial disarray of their offices, in which, after             These letters and many other fascinating ex-
very little searching, they located the bound               ~ibits were in a huge binder containing back-
volumes of the magazine starting with the first             ground material from a copyright suit that had
issue. Its cover featured a terrified family, the           mm filed against MAD in the 1950s. I found
man yelping. “That thing! That slithering blob              nyself rooting for MAD—my belated and, by
coming toward us!”; the woman screaming                     low, favorite introduction to American com-
“what is it?”; rmd the small child at their feet            cs. Therefore I was relieved to find that the
exclaiming, “It’s Melvin!” Melvin Coznow-                   nagazine had won by demonstrating an abun-
ski, 1 was told, was Alfred E. Neuman’s pre-                iance of prior art with that face and with leg-
decessor.                                                   mds such as “Me worry?” or “Da-a-h.. .Me
   The face I’d remembered-the face that had                worry?” There were references to a publica-
remained with me for decades and had brought                tion of that face by Gertrude Breton Park of
me to MAD’s New York ot%ce-first surfaced                   Los Angeles around 1914; to a 1936 adver-
in MD in November 1955. It appeared above                   tisement from Brotman Dental Lab in Winni-
the masthead in Number 26 (surrounded by                    Eg; to a somewhat corny book, Hall of Fame,
Socrates, Napoleon, Freud and Marilyn Mon-                  xrblished in 1943 in Toronto by one J. J. Car-
roe), but so small that it occupied less than hrdf          ‘ick. There was no question that at least in
the space of the centrrd letter A in the titie.             .erms of chronology that face existed when I
The next issue, Number 27 of April 1956, had                was a teenager in the Midwest.
a somewhat larger boy crouching at General                    I had almost forgotten my role as a Nazi
Eisenhower’s feet amid a bewildering crowd                  lunter, but then I got warmer. Not hot, not
of at least sixty characters ranging from                   ~uitethere, but warm enough: a postcard with
Dewey, Stevenson and Nixon to Churchill,                    .he Nazi version of the face, except for the
King Farouk and Khrushchev. It took until the               rooked nose, and the legend ‘‘Sure—I’ m for
December 1956 issue before the likeness of                  Roosevelt. ” The reverse side read: “If you
Alfred E. Nerrrnarr-tbe famous Norman                       ue opposed to the Third Term send these to
Mingo portrait apparently familiar to all Amer-             /our friends. 15 cards for 25c. Send coin or
icans but me-ftlled the cover in lonely splen-              Xarnps. Low, quantity prices on request. Send
dor. He was featured as a write-in candidate                .OBob Howdale, Box 625, Oak Park, Ill. ”
for President under the slogan “what-Me                       I suppose I could have flown to Chicago,
Worry?”                                                     ;earched the old phone bceks, and tracked
   I was totally paplexed by the incompatibility            iown Bob Howdale. Maybe he was one of
between these facts and my memory until the                 Father Coughlin’s followers. But I had lost my
first glimmer of vindication arose. An eariy                .aste for the chase for the real Alfred E.
Letters to the E&tor section, an amusing col-               Neuman. I was certain that neither MAD nor
lection of feisty and succinct missives, con-               Bob Howdale could make me forget the spec-
tained no less than eleven different images of              ~rs of my youth. As to my own memory of
Alfred alii who knows who, sent in by readers               Alfred’s face, there is a line in a poem by
claiming to have known the ur-Alfred. In three              Bruce Bawer that says it all: “The past can-
pictures, the hair was actually slicked down.               Iot move into the present uncormpted. ”

                     +‘The quest for Alfred E. Neuman’,   was first published in Grand Street.




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