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THE QUEST FOR ALFRED E. NEUMAN Carl Djerassi Back to Introduction 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. 165
"That Way Lies MAD-ness Carl Djerassi Confronts His Past"