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How Jules Feiffer accidentally became a comic icon

A Q&A and an excerpt from his soon-to-be-released memoir shed light on the man, his career, and how the Vineyard has affected him.
BY KARLA ARAUJO
Jules Feiffer illustration

Jules Feiffer has been called witty, urbane, irreverent, subversive, acidic, sophisticated, wry, arcane, and a left-wing radical. And that was by people who like him.

His deftly drawn cartoons appeared in the Village Voice for forty-two years and were syndicated in more than a hundred newspapers internationally. If a prize were ever awarded for sheer persistence and unabated reinvention, Jules would surely have earned it. Instead, during his sixty-year career, his comic strips, plays, screenplays, novels, and children’s books have garnered honors including a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, a Tony nomination, and an Obie Award, to name just a few.

Politics, sex, business, love, anxiety, conformity, war, and family: No contemporary issue escaped his keenly observant eye or pen.

In March 2010, his memoir, Backing Into Forward, will be published by Nan A. Talese Books of Random House Inc. At eighty, Jules divides his time between New York City and his house on Martha’s Vineyard. Here he talks about his story – in his own inimitable way.

A writer typically builds a novel on a premise. Did you start with one for your memoir?

Yes. Success is nothing to sneeze at, but failure has many possibilities. I dreamed of being a great cartoonist from the time I was six or seven. I didn’t have the talent, but I found I could write. I had never considered it. Accident, luck, desperation, and the refusal to admit you’re beaten when you’re beaten – that’s what the memoir is about. Your ambitions can be thwarted time after time. Pick up the pieces. Try again.

You mentioned how grueling you found writing novels. How was writing your memoir?

It was completely comfortable. I teach writing at Stony Brook Southampton and I tell my students to create a voice that represents you. That voice is a fiction – a hell of a lot better, more organized, and wittier. But if it’s comfortable, if it seems natural, the voice takes over and tells the story. In my case, it remembers the things I forgot. When I started writing the memoir, I could fit all I could remember on ten pages. Suddenly, as I wrote, things kept piling in on me I hadn’t thought of in years. Whole chapters!

You wrote extensively about your parents, particularly your mother, and how difficult she was for you and your sisters to get along with. Was it cathartic or had you already worked through it?

I had written a play called Grown Ups years ago. It was about my family and it was quite cathartic. In the memoir, I try not to paint a dark, relentless picture of my mother but I tell the truth. She was a tough nut to crack. I tried to ferret out what was behind her character. She tyrannized her children but was terrified by outside authority.

Jules cartooning
Jules cartooning In his house on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1980s.

What kind of a father do you try to be?

I try to be the exact opposite of my parents. From the first moment of their consciousness, I tried to become a primary support system for my children. Kate is now in her forties and Halley is twenty-four. It moves me terribly that they call me to ask my advice or to confide in me. Julie is fifteen. Teenagers don’t want to listen to anything their fathers have to say.

You mention that your style of humor, along with that of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, was the precursor to the comic styles of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. What do you think people responded to?

It was the period after the Korean War and World War II. We had more social and cultural angst than we had ever suffered before. The U.S. was entering the world community. Sahl, Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Dick Gregorywe told the truth about relationships, sex, the economy, and politics, as opposed to relying on gags. We used the truth to evoke humor.

Fear, lying, cowardice, failure, anxiety, alienation, repression, self-pity, neurosis. These are all recurring themes in your memoir. Does that sum it up?

You just described my career.

You started coming to the Vineyard in the mid-1960s. You’ve stated how stimulating and wonderful your friends were then – William Styron, Lillian Hellman, John and Barbara Hersey, to name just a few. How has the Vineyard changed for you?

Well, most of them are dead. They were people I loved and they meant a lot to me. I value my newer friends, but there was a special magic then. It’s a little like first love. There’s a level of intensity and romance. However happy succeeding relationships are, it’s not the same sentiment or romance. In those older friendships, I was the young man. Now I’m the old man.

Your memoir reads like a who’s who of twentieth-century cultural icons, from Marlene Dietrich to Jack Nicholson. How did it feel to work and mingle with such luminaries?

There’s always a sense of pleasure and wonder when you encounter someone you admire, people like Nicholson or Mike Nichols. But beyond the pleasures of accomplishment and celebrity, when I move my Adirondack chair to the lawn with a pad and paper and a book to read, I look around at my property – the trees, the beautiful day, what is mine – it gives me a greater sense of profound pleasure. Relatedness – to the three generations of children I’ve brought to Seth’s Pond to swim – is more important, more vital, more to do with my core existence. My career wouldn’t have meant much without that to balance it out.

How did your own celebrity change you?

First of all, I got dates. It gave me the confidence to have opinions I was once too afraid to utter. Success gave me a sense of daring, the recognition that I could live the life I wanted to. Don’t be cautious. Part of being successful is not playing it safe.

Will anyone be surprised by what’s in the book?

No, I stayed away from my sexual adventures. There weren’t as many as I would have liked.

You say in the book that you discovered long ago that age has made you stupid. Can you elaborate?

When we’re younger, we think we’re smarter than anyone else. As I get older, I’ve got less conviction about politics, people. It’s easier to admit that you’re wrong. It’s not a blow to your pride. When I start a new book, I think that a dozen people could do it better. It turns out that I now embrace ignorance. If something is too easy, I don’t think I’m doing a good job.

classic Feiffer cartoon
The eternally optimistic modern dancer is classic Feiffer and provides a recurring theme in his cartoons.

Do you miss cartooning on a regular basis?

Not at all! Not for a second. Deadline, deadline, deadline. When you can’t do it, you know you have to. It’s a relief to concentrate on other genres.

If you were still producing cartoons like the ones you did each week for the Village Voice, what themes would you tackle today?

How the media is manipulating us about issues like healthcare, Afghanistan, Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” I’m going to write a play about it – a satire.

I thought you had sworn off playwriting.

No, I’ve sworn off regular cartooning. I can’t swear off more than one thing at a time.

What work are you most proud of?

Whatever I’m working on at the moment.

Do you create in a structured, scheduled way?

I have no schedule at all. It’s a system of avoidance. When something is demanding my attention, I do the next thing instead.

Imagine they’re going to film your memoir. Whom would you choose to direct it?

[Federico] Fellini.

Who would play Jules Feiffer?

It’s a toss-up between Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

A chapter from Jules Feiffer’s memoir Backing Into Forward, to be released in March 2010.

Backing into Forward

What I did on my summer vacation

Robert Brustein wanted Little Murders for his theater at the Yale Rep. Brustein, the theater critic for the New Republic and the newly appointed dean of the Yale School of Drama, was an old friend. It was Bob and his wife, Norma, who, in the late spring of 1966, introduced Judy and me to Martha’s Vineyard. They invited us for a weekend, along with Philip Roth and his girlfriend, Ann Mudge. Getting to the Vineyard in those years was a nuisance, especially for a New York boy who didn’t drive and had no affinity for car culture. The Brusteins drove us up from New Haven. The drive took five hours or more, at the end of which we boarded a ferry that took another forty-five minutes. By that time I had settled into an early judgment that any place that hard to get to wasn’t worth it. And then we got off the ferry and it was love at first sight.

From the early fifties, I had been spending my summers on Fire Island, a long strip of sand bar particularly convenient to New Yorkers on vacation who didn’t drive or didn’t want to. I fit both categories, but Fire Island had its shortcomings. It was jammed, particularly on weekends, because of its easy access to the city. You had to love the ocean because that and the beach were its only attractions. I was scared of the ocean. The ocean had surf, sometimes pounding. It could slap you around, knock you into the ground. Surf had no respect for me or my family or my future. We understood each other very well, the surf and I. Surf was out to sweep me out to sea and drown me.

I was a bad swimmer, hardly a swimmer at all, twenty-five strokes and I moved a couple of feet. While I thought I was swimming, an observer would think I was standing up in the water, waving my arms.

But the Vineyard had an ocean too, so it wasn’t my dread of water that made me leave Fire Island, it was my dread of the volleyball game. Unathletic in the extreme, I nonetheless enjoyed taking part in the Ocean Beach Sunday morning volleyball games. For years they were considered not a contest but a way for both sexes to get together on weekend mornings, to meet, get acquainted, have fun. Winning was not the point, it was not competitive. It was a game for diving at the ball, missing it, and falling on your face in the sand. We inept players thought of that as a good time.

Then in the summer of sixty-five, the good times stopped. There I was on a fine Sunday morning, playing my usual sloppy game, and I noticed something different. I was being yelled at. I was being ordered to shape up. Wall Street and Madison Avenue had discovered literary, showbiz Ocean Beach, the scene of our game. They had come to expel soft-bodied weak-kneed fun for hard-bodied kick-ass fun. Laughter was replaced by grimaces and gritted teeth.

The aim now, at all costs, was to win. Win! This new volleyball with its new players was a contest to crush the opposition, to incorporate the aggression and hostility of the marketplace, the worst of Madison Avenue and Wall Street pugnaciousness. The spirit of the city, which I’d left to escape, had advanced on the beach in full fury. “That was an easy shot! What the hell is wrong with you?!” Eyes bulging in rage. Fun on Sunday mornings had turned into another day at the office.

I was out of there. I said to Judy, “Either we find another place to go to next summer or we stay in New York.”

As has happened so often in my life, at exactly the moment we were out of ideas for where we could spend our summer vacation, the invitation came from Bob and Norma. In the spring of the following year, 1966, we found ourselves backing into the Vineyard. When we arrived, what we found was a continent scaled to the size of an island. Within a few minutes, one traveled from Hampton beachiness to Connecticut countryside to upstate New York farmland. Romantic lakes and ponds inland, and on the ocean side, vibrant red-and-orange-and-purple clay cliffs supplementing the eye-popping grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean.

Miles of enchantment with an older crowd to appreciate it than one found on Fire Island. More literary, more elusive when it came to competitiveness, wit displayed in place of muscle. Was this ever my turf! Clusters of Plimpton-like parties for the summer residents. Bill and Rose Styron next door to Lillian Hellman next door to John and Barbara Hersey next door to the Rahvs, a few doors away from Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale, up the street from Albert and Frances Hackett, who not only wrote The Diary of Anne Frank for Broadway but, far more impressive to me, wrote the first Thin Man movie.

This was the environment that Bob and Norma Brustein invited us into, the hideaway of the fortunate few, writers, artists, academics who could take two months off in the summer, not just weekends. First we rented, then we bought. And forty years later, I remain there, in my second marriage, three generations of children grown to womanhood on Vineyard beaches. Beatific summers followed by deadline summers, interspersed with political summers and even one Vietnam summer.

In 1967, at a Styron party for Robert Kennedy, I was introduced to Lyndon Johnson’s undersecretary of state, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who shook my hand warmly, beamed at me, and told me what a great fan of mine he was.

I was at a stage of life where I was unable to respond to flattery with a simple “Thank you.” So I replied to Katzenbach, “You can’t be a fan of mine. I’m against everything you stand for.”

Katzenbach, a balding, pleasant-looking man, was clearly taken by surprise. “What do you mean?”

“How can you be in an administration that’s fighting this war in Vietnam and say you are a fan of mine?”

Katzenbach, instead of walking off, stuck around to insist that he was as opposed to Vietnam as I was. And after a couple of minutes’ conversation, accompanied by a drink or two, he had me convinced that he was a fellow dove, working from the inside, where he could get so much more done. Katzenbach, I was assured by Katzenbach, was doing all in his power to end this carnage.

The next morning I was on the phone to Brustein, Philip Roth, and John Marquand, relaying the hot news that Nick Katzenbach was one of us. Or could be. If we got a group together one weekend when my new friend Nick took time off from the war, maybe, just maybe, we could convince him what a great move toward peace it would be if he resigned from the government as a matter of conscience. It seemed to me that this was possible. Katzenbach had become famous in the Kennedy Justice Department as a civil rights advocate, a man of conscience. Why not Vietnam?

If we found a soft spot in Katzenbach, if we talked him into leaving the government, denouncing the war that he hated as much as I did (he told me so himself), who knew who else might resign? A covey of doves hiding out in the State Department? In the Pentagon? The Feiffer Domino Theory of Resignations.

In the midst of feverish phone calls and late-night conspiring, I happened to turn on the TV one morning, no more than a week after meeting Nick, and – my God! there he was, standing before Senator William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raising his hand to take the oath. My new pal, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, testifying nauseatingly in support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave total war powers to the administration, a full-scale endorsement of open-ended escalation. Say it ain’t so, Nick!

Talk about a betrayal of friendship. My buddy Nick, whom I was going to get to quit because he hated the war, appearing as the government’s personal advocate for the war’s escalation.

What to do? I called a meeting. Some of us (me) wanted to picket Nick’s Vineyard home. Secretary of Defense McNamara also had a summer home on the Island. I suggested that we picket him too. They can’t screw around with me!

Except for myself and one or two others, the idea of picketing McNamara and Katzenbach, in shorts and flip-flops, in front of their summer houses drew more wisecracks than support.

We came to the not-surprising decision that, as writers, our best form of protest was a full-page ad in the Vineyard Gazette, the Island’s New York Times–like newspaper. Roth volunteered to write a first draft. It was gussied up by Brustein, with a final edit by John Marquand. John drew on his better-informed prep school sensibility to retrofit the language into a coded assault certain to offend all those in the Pentagon or State who had attended Ivy League schools – that is, the entire crew.

The ad caused a rift in the liberal Island community. Some, like Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, argued that the Vineyard was a sanctuary. Problems and differences should be deferred as one boarded the ferry at Woods Hole. We, the ad’s organizers, had violated basic Vineyard rules and ethics. Our act was nearly as offensive as the war itself.

Among the signers of the ad – an open letter to Katzenbach – the name that created the biggest stir was that of the venerable and widely respected editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, Henry Beetle Hough, a beloved nineteenth-centuryish Vineyard elder of dignity and rectitude who, when first approached about placing the ad, instead of turning it down, as we feared, asked deferentially, “Would you very much mind if I added my name?”

We created our share of noise, stories in the Times, The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek. Predictably the ad was dismissed as “frivolous” and “unserious.” Among those Vineyarders appalled at our behavior, our action was branded “that Village Voice ad,” although I had not written a word of it. u

Copyright © 2010 by Jules Feiffer. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.


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(Originally published in the Not Summer 2009-2010 edition of Martha's Vineyard Magazine)

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