VIEWING LIFE THROUGH A TWINKLE
The Life and Art of Eldon Dedini
ELDON DEDINI WAS KNOWN for the last four decades of his life for his painterly cartoons that regularly depicted frolicsome forest scenes inhabited by lascivious satyrs and plump, wanton wood nymphs, naked flesh glowing in Rubenesque hues in the pages of Playboy.
But Dedini’s quirky cartoon comedy appeared first in Esquire, then in Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and others in the general interest market, then in The New Yorker (in boldly lined black-and-white with a wash) before it debuted in Playboy (in steamy luminous watercolor).
Gus Arriola, another supreme stylist whose Gordo comic strip was a stunning fiesta of design and color, counted Dedini his closest friend in a friendship of over fifty years that was grounded firmly in their mutual passion and respect for the visual art they practiced and in a unique camaraderie they shared, living in Carmel, California.
“Even his signature was a design,” Arriola once said. “—bold, succinct, an autograph as distinctive as the rich humor it identified. Simply, Dedini —much as one would say Bernini, Modigliani, Dali—Dedini—all those ending in -I appellations signifying high art. Few humorists can draw passably, if at all. Eldon was both an accomplished illustrator and a proven humorist. His pictorial and literary recording of international events and domestic culture through his award-winning years was always timely, always cogent and always remarkably funny.”
Quoted in the Monterey Herald’s front-page obituary for Dedini in January 2006, Lee Lorenz, cartoon editor at The New Yorker for many of the years Dedini’s cartoons were published therein, said: “While a million people can draw, very few can cartoon well. To be a cartoonist you have to be a stylist, and that’s not easy to come by. It transcends technique. And he was an excellent idea man. He had a wide-ranging imagination. He was tough to edit because he didn’t need much editing. I never asked him to redraw, which at The New Yorker is quite unusual. If 20th century cartooning is ever looked at seriously,” he concluded, “Eldon Dedini will be one of the outstanding figures of American comic art.”
“He could do anything with paint,” said Playboy’s cartoon editor Michelle Urry, who knew the cartoonist for over 30 years. “He knew anatomy brilliantly and he could throw away all those lines. And he was funny, very funny. I think it was wonderful he came down to earth for us.”
Recognized four times by the National Cartoonists Society as the year’s best magazine cartoonist (1958, 1961, 1964 and 1989), Dedini was a master of his medium. He was influenced by the radiant color of E. Sims Campbell, who specialized in those harem cartoons at Esquire. The severe simplification and commanding bold line of a Dedini drawing came, he said, from studying Peter Arno’s cartoons and Whitney Darrow, Jr.’s in the venerable pages of The New Yorker.
But in the last analysis, his artistry was uniquely his own. He abstracted human anatomy, redesigning and simplifying it to suit the pose and the picture. And then he cast the cartoon, creating the characters for their roles. All his men have bulbous noses and pop-eyes, but each is an individual caricatural design: the noses are not all the same size and shape—they curve and hook, and bend and bulge differently, from face to face. And the women, if they’re old, are usually lumpy and frumpy, with noses to match the men’s. The young women, however, are erotic exaggerations, bosoms and buttocks galore, legs that go on forever, and perfectly oval porcelain faces, mostly heavily lashed eyes and smiles all tooth.
Dedini loved drawing crowd scenes and elaborate costumes and architectural detail: after simplifying the elements of a composition, he decorated it with visual complexities—patterns of lines and shapes and colors, varied textures, clothing that draped and swirled, building interiors with lofty vaulting ceilings and arched aisles and exteriors with antique sculpted knots and furbelows. Here’s a medieval castle, looming in its crenelation, being stormed by an unruly army, described by the king on the parapet as “two hundred thousand peasants from permissive homes.”
Dedini’s sense of humor was as antic as his pictures: typically, it quirked, yoking a commonplace utterance to a fantastically unlikely speaker in a place neither belonged, creating a new and always hilarious scrap of existence, and shedding thereby a liberating laughter and light on the human predicament. A vintage full-rigged sixteenth century sailing vessel, perhaps a Flemish man-of-war or Danish pinnace, its majestic stern toward us, with a fair wind and a following sea, flying the Jolly Roger, its captain on the quarterdeck, saying expansively, “I love the Caribbean in February.”
Thus, our incongruities make us human and unite us all in a common weal. But the cartoonist Dedini was more than a cartoonist; or, rather, the more that he was made him a great cartoonist.
After Dedini’s death, Arriola wrote to me: “I still can’t believe our beloved friend Eldon Dedini is gone. And as someone says, I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to. When I was introduced to Eldon in 1953, I sensed I was meeting someone of heartening substance. The following five-plus decades of neighborly activities in Carmel and Monterey more than proved that sense. Calling Eldon a cartoonist just christens the tip of an impressive iceberg. Beneath the surface is a superb painter, a remarkably inventive illustrator, philosopher, and humorist—a keen observer, revealing life’s little truths with his unerring brush. His chief reward was the viewer’s invariable burst of laughter. He was a walking repository of eclectic knowledge about art, history, jazz, wine—you name it. I gave up using my encyclopedia on a subject search: it was faster to pick up the phone and call Eldon.
“Too many of today’s comics stand up and then sit down, seemingly motivated by anger. Anger is not funny. Eldon was motivated by love, love of the visual arts, music, sports, literature, and nature—all revealed in his painterly treatment of man’s ridiculous foibles. Those of us lucky to receive his personally designed birthday cards, year after year, noted they were always signed con amore. He was a man as giving of his time and his talent, aiding friends and organizations in need, as he was to his craft. He graced every social gathering with his delightful, informative sought-after company. Among his peers, he was hailed as King not because he hailed from King City but for his unique multi-talented persona and courtly demeanor. Famed names of Salinas Valley should in future read Steinbeck, Ricketts, Jeffers, and Dedini”—referring to the vicinity’s celebrated novelist, biologist, poet, and, now, cartoonist.
Although he sold cartoons to the nation’s most sophisticated magazines, all headquartered in Chicago or New York, Dedini lived all his life in California, most of it within a few miles of King City, where he was born Eldon Lawrence Dedini on July 29, 1921. “The Dedini family,” he once wrote, “were originally butter and cheese makers. Immigrants in 1873 from Lavertezzo, Canton Ticino, Switzerland, on the Italian border. They made butter and cheese in Corral de Tierra for thirty years, leasing from David Jacks, the land baron. Then the family moved to King City in south Monterey County where I was born and escaped the butter and cheese business. It was with the blessings of my father and mother, who said, ‘Go! The ranch will always be here if it doesn’t work out.’ I had been copying the funny papers since I was five years old, and by the age of thirteen, I’d discovered cartooning was a profession and decided to be a cartoonist.”
DEDINI GREW UP in the Salinas Valley, “playing accordion at Italian-Swiss weddings and Mexican fiestas,” he said. Very early, his art education began: “I copied the comic strip characters—Barney Google, Popeye—all of those, but I always liked magazine cartoons. And when Esquire came out, those colored drawings really impressed me. I didn’t exactly copy them—I made my own. Barbara Shermund, Syd Hoff, Abner Dean—you can copy them, but you become them, you sink into them. And everybody said, Be original. So I did my own.”
After high school, Dedini enrolled at Salinas Junior College—now Hartnell College—whiling away the long daily bus ride with a deck of cards that he brought along to play Pedro in the back of the bus with friends. He took art courses at SJC but majored in general studies so he’d have something to fall back on if cartooning didn’t work out. Thanks to his art teacher—Leon Amyx—Dedini never needed to fall back. Amyx, an accomplished watercolorist, had aspired in his youth to be a cartoonist, and he suggested that Dedini plug the cartooning hole in the art curriculum by volunteering at the local newspaper.
Interviewed by Lisa Crawford Watson at the Monterey Herald, Dedini explained: “I went to the Salinas Morning Post and the Salinas Index Journal—now the Salinas Californian—and made an appointment with publisher Paul Caswell and editor Nelson Valjean to offer my cartoon services free in exchange for the experience. And it worked. They’d tell me the news, and I’d illustrate the point in a cartoon. My first was about the train depot in Salinas and how it was falling apart.” He paused before concluding the account with just a nudge of a punchline: “You’ve gotta start somewhere,” he said with a characteristic grin.
At eighteen, still a student at SJC, Dedini sold his first cartoon to Esquire magazine. When he graduated, he took advice again from Amyx and went to Los Angeles and enrolled at the Chouinard Institute of Art, where many of the animators at Disney were training. At Chouinard, he met the woman he would marry, Virginia Conroy, a painter and etcher.
“We were both on scholarships,” Dedini said. “I was a janitor, and Virginia was a librarian. We got married the year we graduated, 1944, July 15. I went to work for Universal Studios. Three months later, all the studios except Disney went on strike, so I went over to Disney.”
During his first week at Disney, Dedini worked on model sheets, and another Disney artist gave him some advice: “Don’t draw Pluto. Draw what Pluto is doing.” Said Dedini: “For a cartoonist, those are key words to live by. Good advice for all time.”
Dedini honed his comedic talents doing storyboards. “I worked with writers. What they wrote, I put in a storyboard—a giant comic strip, which was perfect. It was a wonderful education. You draw maybe a hundred drawings a day—staging, laying it out. All day long. And if they rewrite the story, you re-draw the storyboards. You learn never to throw the drawings away because a week later, they say, ‘You know—what we had last week was better.’ So I always kept the drawings in a drawer that I could go back to. I had another drawer in my desk that Disney didn’t know about—full of drawings I was trying to sell to Esquire. I also sold to all the little magazines—Click, Pic, Nifty, Judge—five or ten dollars a drawing, and I thought I was in heaven. But I liked the full pages, not the small cartoons in Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post. I did some of them, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
He also joined a southern California watercolor group and learned about painting in color. At Disney during the day, he worked on such epics as “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” “Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” and “Fun and Fancy Free.” Nights and weekends at home, he drew cartoons and sold them through the mail. “When the nights began running into days,” as Watson put it, “he knew it was time to commit to magazine cartooning.”
In 1946 , he was helped to a decision by Esquire’s publisher, Dave Smart, who phoned the cartoonist and offered to double his Disney salary if he would work exclusively for the magazine, generating ideas for the other cartoonists as well as being featured himself. Dedini took the job, knowing that the gags are the most important part of cartooning.
“The gag idea is the whole secret of cartooning,” he told Lisa Watson. “Style alone will never sell a bum joke. So you can draw. A million people can draw. The question is, are you funny?”
Dedini was funny for Esquire for the next four years. He sent in 100 ideas every month, tailoring them for the proclivities of specific cartoonists—hillbillies for Paul Webb; working class men in their undershirts at home for Syd Hoff; the frilly-witted young things, Barbara Shermund; the heavy-set set, Dorothy McKay. Any ideas that weren’t farmed out to the Esquire stable came back to Dedini to draw.
In 1950, he gave up the Esquire gig, taking Smart’s advice when the publisher told him that he was ready for The New Yorker. Dedini was back in Monterey County by then, and he was soon one of The New Yorker’s contract cartoonists: he showed all of his cartoons first to The New Yorker; any that the magazine didn’t buy, he could offer elsewhere, and in return, The New Yorker provided some employee benefits like health insurance. He continued selling also to Esquire. Then came Playboy.
Playboy’s first issue was published at the end of 1953, famously undated so it would stay on the stands until it sold out. Publisher Hugh Hefner, a frustrated cartoonist himself, aspired to muster a troupe of distinctive talent to work exclusively at his new magazine, and he had his eye on Dedini almost from the start.
Dedini remembered: “In 1954, Hefner started writing me to say he wanted me at Playboy. But Esquire had put me on the map, and I felt a certain loyalty. Hefner wrote four or five years in a row and kept upping the price. By that time, Esquire had been sold, so that did it.”
Just about then, Dedini heard from another cartoonist who had just sold a cartoon to Playboy and had been advised by Hefner to apply color “in the Dedini style.” Said Dedini: “I figured that if they were going to teach people to work in my style, I’d better get in on some of it.”
Most issues of the magazine subsequently featured at least one full page color Dedini cartoon, and Dedini was soon a contract cartoonist with Playboy as well as with The New Yorker, the seeming conflict resolved by the simple fact that cartoons for the former wouldn’t be appropriate for the latter. (Or weren’t, then.)
In his Dedini obit for the New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote: “Dedini’s Playboy cartoons helped establish the magazine’s image in the 1960s, from take-offs on classic Japanese erotica to urban hipsters. His sexually brash satyrs in joyful pursuit of astoundingly proportioned, equally lusty nymphs became as much a Playboy trademark as lascivious advice columns”—and as familiar to readers as the centerfold pin-ups, he might have added.
“My first cartoon appeared there in 1959,” Dedini told Watson in October 2005, “and I’ve been with them ever since. I guess, since I still feel funny, I’ll just keep going.” He paused. “Until I don’t.”
DEDINI LOVED THE SOPHISTICATED WIT of Esquire, and he loved the opportunity to work in color that Hefner’s magazine afforded him, but for him, Playboy’s focus was a trifle narrow. All the cartoons seemed to be focused on boys chasing after girls—and catching them, to the randy delight of both, which was not exactly Dedini’s cup of tea. He reveled in life, his son Giulio told me: “He appreciated food, wine, people, humor, history, travel, family, sex, beautiful women, and the outdoors.”
He gleefully manufactured ribald comedy in his Playboy cartoons, but, according to a brother-in-law, Charles Carey, he was very conservative in his own relationships. Moreover, to Dedini, the usual Playboy cartoons were boring in the tautology of their constantly beatific carnality.
During a formal presentation at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University in 2001, Dedini showed slides of his cartoons for both The New Yorker and Playboy. One of the latter depicted an orgy, a writhing pile of naked bodies—what Dedini called “the standard cartoon” for Playboy. “I try not to do these too often,” he said.
He tried to vary the standard, he continued, to reduce the monotony of the routine tableau of boys chasing girls all the time. “I discovered I could go to mythology and use satyrs and so forth, and it opened up more ideas. The captions could voice very contemporary ideas but if you put them back there in those mythological times, the result is an extra dimension of humor.” He showed a slide of a leering centaur saying to his amply-rounded playmate, “Remember, what’s an unnatural act for you is a natural act for me.”
“I love to draw,” Dedini said. “I often start with a scene and no idea. I just draw a mythological scene, and then leave the drawing lying around, looking at it every once in a while, keeping it in mind, and maybe I come across a line in a newspaper article that fits, and I have a cartoon.”
Continuing his search for ways to escape the standard Playboy cartoon, he came across Japanese erotic prints. “Well, no,” he corrected himself. “They’re not erotic. The ones I make are erotic. I sometimes copy Japanese caligraphy into the cartoon, but I always change something a little in case it means something I don’t want to say,” he said with a sly grin.
He resorted to history often, mimicking in caricature a well-known painting—for instance, the famous scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, wherein a Dedini patriot, his quill pen poised, says, “Frankly, some of those truths don’t seem self-evident to me.”
Bruegel is a favorite of his. On one occasion, he imitated a Bruegel painting, cramming people into a typical multitudinous throng except that most of these Dedini Bruegelians were engaged in revelry of a more licentious sort than the Dutchman usually contemplated. In Dedini’s version, one lone man stood in the midst of the orgy, raising his glass and saying, “Say—this is a nice light beer.”
Two cavemen in animal skins watch an extremely statuesque young woman strut by in naked splendor, and one of the men says, “The things you see when you haven’t got a club.” While looking at this cartoon, Dedini commented that he tried to get some socially redeeming stuff into his Playboy cartoons. Maybe, he wondered, this was feminist?
About a cartoon that didn’t get a laugh from his audience, he said:. “Maybe it’s not so funny. But it’s got girls in it. If you draw the scene with girls in it, Hefner and Michelle most of the time go for it.”
Dedini didn’t meet Hefner until he’d worked for the magazine for over twenty years. “I got letters, all the time,” he said, “but I never met him. And I said to Michelle one time, ‘I’d like to meet him.’ And she said, ‘You wouldn’t like him.’ And she’s his cartoon editor!” he marveled. “But I have met him, and I liked him,” he beamed, “—of course, our life styles are entirely different.”
DEDINI WAS A DISCIPLINED worker. He drew every day, starting at about 5 a.m., and every three weeks, he sent 25 cartoon roughs to Playboy and 25 different ones to The New Yorker. He estimated that he’d published about 1,200 cartoons in Playboy and over 600 in The New Yorker.
In 1963, his contract with The New Yorker stipulated that he be paid $4.30 “per square inch” for the first twenty-five square inches of a published cartoon (for a 5x5-inch cartoon, he’d be paid $107.50) and $2.85 for “each square inch above twenty-five.” The agreement went on to specify bonuses that would be added to the basic rate depending upon how many cartoons the magazine accepted: after ten cartoons had been accepted, he’d get a bonus of 12% added retroactively to what he’d been paid for those ten cartoons; on each of the next ten cartoons, 10%; and so on in ten-cartoon increments until, after forty cartoons had been accepted, he’d get a 50% bonus. In 1968, the basic rate went up to $4.75 for the initial twenty-five square inches; $3.15 for additional square inches. And the elaborate bonus schedule disappeared. By 2004, the Byzantine scheme evaporated: he was paid $1,300 per drawing, covers starting at $4,500. His Playboy rate at the same time was $1,700 for a full-page cartoon.
“I’ve had good years and bad years at The New Yorker,” he said. “Once I went for a whole year without selling one there. I thought I was just out of business with them. I couldn’t make ’em laugh there. And then, all of a sudden—I sold one, two, a half dozen. What they take and what they don’t take is still a mystery to me after 50 years.”
In concocting New Yorker cartoons, he used much the same tactics as he used with Playboy cartoons but without the amorous emphasis and torrid color. He made historical allusions and sometimes imitated famous paintings. Once he invoked Chagall. “He always has people flying around in his paintings,” Dedini said.
What could they be doing up there? And why? So he drew a nightscape with a Chagallian man and a woman in horizontal flying position over the rooftops below, the man saying, “I don’t love you any more, Lucille, and I’m dropping you off at your mother’s house.”
“I like the subtle ones,” he said, showing a cartoon depicting a beach with people seated on the sand, sunning themselves, the waves breaking in the distance. In the foreground, a father is answering his son’s question: “Generations of our people have sat by the sea, my son, and when you are older and have sat by the sea, you will understand.”
Said Dedini: “It might be funny, eh?”
And here’s Toulouse Lautrec, standing in all his three-foot-high majesty before a mirror in a hat shop where he’s trying on a towering top hat. The clerk says, “The derby is better: that makes you look like Abraham Lincoln.”
In addition to the cartoons by which he earns his living, Dedini contributed artwork to numerous local Monterey enterprises and did posters for various civic events, including the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a celebrated antique car show.
On November 4, 2005, a show of his work opened in Salinas at the Sasoontsi Gallery. Entitled “Broccoli and Babes,” it ran until January 3, 2006. Dedini’s work belongs in museums: it satisfies museum-goer expectations in ways that much comics artwork on display in museums does not. In the first place, single panel cartoons can be experienced in a gallery in exactly the way that paintings and etchings are: the viewer strolls down the gallery, casually looking at the pictures on the wall, occasionally stopping to read the captions just as he or she might stop to read the information placards affixed to the wall next to a Rembrandt or Watteau.
And expectations about comics are also handily satisfied: Dedini’s cartoons make you laugh. So the desires of both art lovers and comics lovers are gratified, you might say. But there’s more here, even greater benefits to be savored. You don’t laugh unless you read the caption and grasp its relationship to the picture it accompanies. Your laughter thus signals your appreciation of the verbal and visual blending of the cartoonist’s art. So a third objective, one closer to my own aesthetic heart, is realized in an exhibition of single panel cartoons.
What’s more, with Dedini’s cartoons we can take yet another step in appreciation, this time, back to the art lover who enters a gallery to enjoy the pure unadulterated visual artistry on display. Dedini’s cartoons are not just funny; they’re not just adroit blends of words and pictures to comedic ends. They are also works of visual art. Dedini’s pictures can be enjoyed in much the same way we enjoy Lautrec or Monet—as feasts for the eye and heart. Even more: it’s clear that many of Dedini’s cartoons were inspired by his enjoyment of a picture or objet d’art that he saw somewhere, something that he wanted to, not copy, slavishly, but emulate, joyfully, in the manner of homage. We see this in his cartoons rendered in the style of Japanese prints and in the mocking evocation of famous paintings and artistic styles. Looking at the lush richness of Dedini’s watercolors, we can often find objects in them depicted so lovingly that we know they represent the well from which Dedini drew the refreshment of the picture he made.
Oh, the broccoli? The babes are from Playboy, of course, but Dedini has done a lot of humorous advertising paintings for Mann Packing in Salinas since 1985, when the president of the company persuaded the cartoonist to create provocative pictures promoting the product of the world’s largest shipper of fresh broccoli.
The Salinas exhibit included cartoon originals spanning his entire career, even some of the cartoons he did for the Salinas newspapers. “It really does come full circle,” Dedini said, “from my start in Salinas to my return to Salinas.”
IN RETURNING TO THE SCENES OF HIS YOUTH in 1950, Dedini joined a colony of cartoonists who made their homes on the Monterey Peninsula. Virgil Partch, the famed “VIP,” lived nearby in Carmel Valley, as did Bob Barnes, both magazine cartoonists. Hank Ketcham of Dennis the Menace fame was established in Monterey, and editorial cartoonist Vaughn Shoemaker, on the cusp of retirement, lived in Carmel and mailed his cartoons to his newspaper, the Chicago Daily News. And Jimmy Hatlo produced his syndicated panel cartoon They’ll Do It Every Time from a place called Tally Ho in downtown Carmel. Gus Arriola soon joined the colony. Dedini met Arriola when they served with Ketcham and Hatlo as judges of a beauty pageant during the Monterey County Fair soon after Dedini moved to town.
In their judicial roles, the cartoonists were driven in the parade down Alvarado Street in brand new, shiny convertibles with the tops down. Their names and pictures of the characters they drew were plastered on the sides of the cars. “Our wives were there,” Dedini remembered when we talked, “sitting in the cars. Some beautiful girl was driving. None of us were used to any of that. There were actually people lining the street.”
The contest took place in the State Theater. The girls went strutting by in their swim suits, and the judges (and their wives) looked at them, and then one of them was declared the winner.
“We were all there, huddled in the first row of seats in the theater,” Dedini said. “I even have a photograph of that, our wives and ourselves, looking very young, looking up at the stage. We’re all smiling and laughing. The judges look a little serious, but not too serious. It was great fun. I remember Jimmy Hatlo especially—a great bon vivant, great drinker. Very happy.” He paused. “None of us can remember the name of the girl who won.”
It may have been the beauty contestants that supplied the crucial bonding catalyst, although it is just as likely that Dedini and Arriola, both gifted stylists at their craft, shared a passion for art. And a love of fellowship that would flourish at Doc’s Lab. They became fast friends for life.
THE PLAYFUL SENSE OF HUMOR on display in Dedini’s New Yorker and Playboy cartoons serves as a convivial introduction to the man, but knowing him requires that we also know about Doc’s Lab. Doc’s Lab achieved its first blush of fame in the pages of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, Cannery Row, which was about life at the tattered edges of the sardine fishing industry in Monterey in the 1930s. Doc was a character in the book, but he was more than a friendly fiction.
The real Doc was Edward F. Ricketts, who moved to Monterey in about 1923 and set up the Pacific Biological Laboratory at 800 Ocean View Avenue. He operated the Lab there until he was killed in his car at a railroad crossing in May 1948. Ricketts made a living furnishing live marine specimens to high schools, universities, and medical research facilities. His occupation permitted him to do the things he loved most—comb the beaches and inland waterways of California for exotic creatures and pursue his own researches on marine life and the evolutionary process, about which he wrote numerous scientific papers. His research led him inexorably to the conclusion that all living things were part of an organic whole, the parts of which cannot be understood in separation from one another. Ricketts was, in short, one of the first ecologists.
From the outside, the weathered clapboard building on Cannery Row looks more like a garage with a room on top than anything someone might mistake for a laboratory. Doc’s lab equipment was located in the basement—the garage part; he lived in the four upper rooms. The place stood vacant after Doc’s death until 1951, when Harlan Watkins took up residence there, renting it from Yock Yee, the owner of Wing Chong Market across the street who had acquired the Lab from Steinbeck, who had acquired it from Richetts.
Watkins had come to Monterey in 1946 to teach English at the high school. He was a bachelor and so he had plenty of spare time to soak up information on a vast array of topics. And he was passionate about jazz—the Dorseys, Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Shaw, James. Soon after Watkins moved in, he started inviting people over for drinks and conversation and jazz late on Wednesday afternoons. Some of the people were friends and colleagues. Some were not.
Said Dedini: “The best thing that ever happened to me happened the evening Harlan telephoned and said, ‘Report to Doc’s Lab—you have friends here.’ I went. Until that moment, I’d never met him.”
The remark captures the essential Dedini like no other: he was open to life, unquestioning in his acceptance of it in its various manifestations.
Watkins created a Wednesday ensemble of local personages—doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, a sculptor, even a judge, and, with the addition Dedini, Arriola and Ketcham, cartoonists. On any given Wednesday, a crowd of men eddied through the second-floor rooms, filling the air with smoke and talk and laughter while a record player tried to make itself heard.
Arriola recalled his first visit there: “We were awash with the bonhomie explicit in those rooms. The repartee so glib, so sharp, it sounded scripted. There was Harlan, stentorianly holding forth behind the bar with his good friend and fellow teacher, Ed Larsh, the two seemingly conducting a seminar on everything. Politics, sports, jazz, literature, education, martini jokes—you name it. And all with a scholarly control that welded your attention to the point so well you could have passed a written exam afterward. Skirting pedantry, the operative phrase was always—enlightening fun. It was a club that didn’t like to be called a club. It was a men’s club for men who didn’t like clubs. It was just a group of—what’ll I call them?—just guys that enjoyed being together.”
Watkins gave up the place in about 1955 when he got married. And the Wednesday group was thrown into a state of panic.
“There were about eight or nine of us,” Dedini told me, “and we said, Where are we going to go every Wednesday night if we lose this place? So Harlan told us that he was paying $40 a month rent, and the Chinese landlord across the street had often told him that for $60 a month, he could buy the place. I’m a little hazy: Harlan may have started proceedings to buy it, but we took over his option. We incorporated under the name Pacific Biological Laboratory in 1956.”
And the Wednesday evening gatherings continued unabated.
At first, the PBL numbered less than a dozen, but it eventually reached nineteen or twenty. A typical evening at the Lab commenced after work on Wednesdays. Members, still mustered by Watkins, would begin collecting at five o’clock or five-thirty in the back room at the bar. After a drink or two and some conversation about their days’ adventures, they’d begin to play jazz records. Watkins might well launch into a lengthy disquisition uncovering some obscure bit of vintage jazz lore, but his lectures were not confined solely to jazz. He was widely read, and what he hadn’t read about, he could fake. He could fake such things because he was forever curious about whatever hove into view. He could fake such things because he was forever curious about whatever hove into view. Dedini remembered taking a short trip with Watkins:
“Every trip with Harlan took a long time. Getting gas for the car, he’d have a long conversation with the station attendant about the three choices of gasoline at the pump—pros, cons, politics—until I went nuts. Then we had to stop at Castroville at a drug store to get a chapstick or something, and he’d engage the salesgirl in some unbelievable conversation, asking about her life, the store, Castroville, if she knew this book, that movie, and so on. Sometimes late at night, I realize a lot of my humor was honed by this intellectual lunatic. Harlan was a straight man. A satirist with a straight face, a ricochet man who fit in everywhere and nowhere. What can you say about a guy who was capricious, imperial, funny, shrewd, mercurial, ever ready, lordly, principled, windy, nocturnal, competitive, gallant, hilarious, a bull-shitter and smart, smart, smart.”
As the afternoon faded into evening, the Wednesday denizens of Doc’s Lab listened less to the records and talked more. Sitting around that tiny room, they talked about politics and civil rights and books and their various professional triumphs and complaints. The variety of occupations and interests in the room widened perspective. “I learned about medicine and the law,” Dedini said, “and they learned about cartooning. And we all learned about literature from Harlan.”
Gradually, the music was background music. “Every now and then,” Arriola remembered, “Harlan would get up and stamp his foot and say, Listen to that—listen to that!”
About eight or eight-thirty, the group would rise and go together to dinner at a restaurant down the street. “There were one or two restaurants,” Dedini said. “More like joints. Neil de Vaughn’s wasn’t bad.” The group ate at de Vaughn’s and continued their conversations. For several hours, Dedini remembered.
Members often brought guests to the Lab. After a three-day workshop on “creativity” at the University of California at Berkeley, Arriola showed up with Max Shulman and Dedini with Art Buchwald. Not all the guests were famous. One time, Watkins invited a Cannery Row habitue named Grant Mclean, nicknamed Gabe. Gabe was Steinbeck’s model for Mack in the novel. At de Vaughn’s, Watkins seated Gabe next to Dedini, who was a sort of factotum (secretary-treasurer) of PBL and therefore sat at the head of the table. Later, Dedini reported that during dinner, Gabe (or Mack) wet his pants and some of the byproduct found its way into Dedini’s shoe. Being a club officer has its drawbacks.
After the ritual dinner at de Vaughn’s, the group always returned to the Lab for an after-dinner drink. And more jazz. “We’d play jazz,” Dedini said, “I would say until midnight, one o’clock—sometimes two or three in the morning. Not everybody. The doctors would say, I’ve got an operation in the morning; I’d better go. Sometimes cartoonists, who don’t know what they’re doing, stayed later. But we had deadlines, too. Many a time, one of the doctors would get a call and say, I gotta go deliver a baby. He’d say, I may be back; I may not. And if everything went well, he’d come back. The music, the jazz, was the key thing. We would bring our own records that we liked from home, and play them for the others. And we’d discuss the music. We became authorities. At least on cool jazz, West Coast jazz, bop—music was changing in those days. The Monterey Jazz Festival started in the 1950s,” he continued. “And a good many of the Lab members were on the Board of the Monterey Jazz Festival when it started.”
THE MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL was born in the imaginations of disc jockey Jimmy Lyons and newspaperman Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle, who, at the time, was conducting the only newspaper column devoted exclusively to jazz. They dreamed of an outdoor jazz festival. And they started talking about Monterey as the site for it after having visited and imbibed both drink and jazz lore at Doc’s Lab. “The Jazz Festival was born right here at this bar,” Arriola told me. The first Festival opened on October 3, 1958, and among the performers were Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Billie Holiday, just nine months before she died.
During an intermission at one year’s Festival, Dedini and some other PBL members went up on stage to have their photograph taken. Duke Ellington was still on stage, seated at the piano, putting eye drops in his eyes. When Dedini was introduced as “a cartoonist who sometimes draws jazz cartoons,” Ellington got up and, without saying a word, pulled out his wallet and started looking through it as he meandered, aimlessly, around the platform. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a folded up magazine clipping. He carefully unfolded it and spread it out on the piano: it was a cartoon Dedini had done for Collier’s.
The cartoon depicted two Russians in Red Square, one of whom is obviously a dealer in blackmarket phonograph records: he has opened his coat to show the other fellow the record that he has tucked inside, saying, “ ... Cootie Williams, trumpet; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone sax; Duke Ellington, piano ...” Said Dedini: “Ellington loved that cartoon because when he toured Russia the people of Russia loved his music, but they couldn’t buy the records.”
For years thereafter, Ellington sent Dedini a Christmas card. “I have about twenty,” Dedini said. “He sends them in June.”
Dedini cartoons turned up everywhere. On a trek to the wineries in Napa Valley, the PBL crew visited Martini’s old winery, and they noticed one of Dedini’s cartoons neatly tacked to a door. When they introduced the cartoonist, their escort declared, “Don’t leave” and went to get his boss, Louis Martini. After Dedini autographed the cartoon, the old man invited all five of the group into his home for a spaghetti lunch.
During the Kennedy years, Dedini drew a cartoon in which a couple of tourists in Egypt are contemplating the Sphinx, which looks remarkably like the First Lady. One of the tourists says, “I don’t know. Lately, everything looks like Jackie Kennedy to me.” Soon after the cartoon was published, Dedini got a note on White House stationery, requesting the original. He complied. After Jackie’s death, Dedini’s cartoon was among her personal items that were sold at a celebrated auction.
When the Jazz Festival was in session, some of the musicians would come by Doc’s Lab after their performances and jam into the wee hours.
“We’d have a few drinks and talk about starting our own Cannery Row Jazz label,” Dedini said. “And Gus and I would sit in the party room at the Lab, drawing up logo designs and record jackets.”
The walls of the second floor rooms were eventually plastered with colorful souvenirs of these efforts—these and others. Posters and other artifacts designed by Arriola or Dedini for community events often became a permanent part of the decor, remaining on the wall long after the events they were intended to advertise.
The organization of PBL was ferociously informal. In writing about Doc’s Lab years later, Ed Larsh took pride in the realization that no one in the group ever thought of it as a club. Yet the corporation that owned the place had a membership: these were the people who paid dues sufficient over thirty-five years to buy the Lab. Men became members by unanimous acceptance; but there was never a vote. They decided to restrict their number to about twenty, but they accepted many “permanent guests” who were not members but were always welcome.
The group held numerous parties at the Lab on days or nights other than Wednesdays. Many of these affairs were in honor of their wives (or, perhaps, to pacify them for putting up with their husbands’ coming home in the wee hours every Thursday morning after a Wednesday bout at the Lab all night). The group also had its own wine label, and various of its members made periodic trips to Hecker Pass, where they bought cases of gallons of wine or, even, barrels of it. Then in the basement of the Lab, they’d bottle the wine and affix their label, using second-hand bottles from de Vaughn’s.
Doc’s Lab was more than a place. It was a feeling, an ambiance. “We were just going there to listen to music and have a beer or two,” Larsh wrote. “But we discovered that the place has a kind of magic about it.”
For Larsh, the spell was cast by the shade of Ed Ricketts, charismatic advocate for ecology and non-teleological thinking. For Ricketts, everything was connected: it was all part of a communal wholeness, a glorious web of being in which all living as well as inanimate things had a place and function and depended upon one another in a grand harmonious scheme. In Doc’s Lab under the aegis of Harlan Watkins, the additional conjuring was done by the music and the drinks and the fellowship. Sitting together silently listening to jazz, the men were enveloped by an oceanic feeling; all other concerns evaporated in the sound, and a transcendent sensation of at-one-ness in some sort of separate universe bonded the group. A sense of community and fellowship prevailed and remained with them even after the sound of the music faded.
BY THE TIME I MET DEDINI and Arriola in 1997, the PBL no longer convened regularly. Concerned about the historic associations of the place, the members were eager to assure its preservation, and to that purpose, they sold it to the city of Monterey several years ago. “It’s still our club,” Arriola told me. “The city owns it, but we have the use of it until the last one of us goes. We’re all aging. We kid about it being a last man club.”
I visited Dedini in his hillside home and studio in the summer of 2004, during one of my annual pilgrimages to Carmel. One wall of his livingroom is windows that open onto a deck. From the deck, we could see, through some encroaching trees, Carmel Valley in the distance. Around the livingroom and the adjoining studio were stacks of magazines—“For research,” Dedini explained. And bookshelves in his studio were laden with books.
One wall was a bulletinboard on which were tacked photographs of friends (one of Dedini with Ketcham and Arriola) and famous personages (Louis Armstrong, Jean Belmondo, Phil Silvers), postcards, sketches, and numerous of his own cartoons, sometimes clippings, sometimes originals, matted for display but often overlapping each other and other fragments pinned to the wall. Scattered among the pictorial matter were various bits of paper, each neatly lettered with slogans or sayings: “Ideas cannot be owned; they belong to whoever understands them. Dying is easy; comedy is hard. Never go to a young doctor or an old barber. The more opinions you have, the less you see.”
On a shelf beneath this array were some record albums, a half-dozen unopened bottles of wine, and a radio. Leaning up against the cabinet under the shelf were several of his color cartoon originals, matted and framed—and, in several instances, unfinished.
Dedini explained that he almost never finishes a cartoon at a single sitting. After experimenting with various compositions, he selects the one that pleases him and sketches it with charcoal outlines onto watercolor paper. Then he begins to paint. He paints until he gets to a place where he hasn’t decided what color, say, or texture to deploy. Then he stops. He puts the unfinished art in a matted frame and lets it marinate for a while, sometimes for days, while he does other things. Sometimes, he said, he takes the framed unfinished cartoon into the bedroom at night and stares at it as he falls asleep. “I keep looking at it out of the corner of my eye,” he said. “I let it tell me, slowly, what it needs.” And when it gets through telling him, he finishes it.
Two of the unfinished cartoons I saw were intended for the Christmas holiday issues of Playboy. One showed a plump, naked Santa gamboling in bed with three naked women in glorious embonpoint. Santa is talking into his cell phone: “I’ll be a bit late, dear. Dancer threw a shoe over Greenland.” The women are all grinning. Santa was completely colored, but none of the women were. As he contemplated the picture, Dedini said, it seemed to him that if he applied flesh tones to all the women, there would be just entirely too much flesh color in the final rendering; so he stopped, hoping he would figure out a way to finish the coloring and avoid the monotonous hue. In the published cartoon, he made one woman’s skin lighter than another’s, and the third, positioned somewhat behind Santa, is tinged with green and gray as if in the half-light of the bedroom.
The other unfinished art depicted a couple standing aghast in front of an elevator, which has just opened to reveal a man standing inside, holding a bottle in one hand, with a zaftig woman sitting on his shoulders, her legs wrapped around his neck from behind. He says to the astonished couple, “Did you ever go up in an elevator and forget what you went up for?”
Complete nonsense, of course. The joke, Dedini said, originated in that familiar circumstance: “Did you ever get up to do something and forget what it was before you got to it? Well, this guy ...” and he nodded in the direction of the cartoon, his explanation dissolving into laughter.
When published, all the characters in the elevator cartoon had been colored; everything else was stark white still. The interior of the elevator and the walls were colored muted grays and browns, nothing, in other words, extravagant that would detract from the pictures of the people.
As we talked, I finally couldn’t resist asking the question that pesters every cartoonist: “Where do you get your ideas?” I said.
“I’ll show you,” he said, and he got up and went across the room and picked up a black, 9x12-inch square-spine sketchbook. He brought it back, sat down next to me, and opened the book to show me. On the pages of the book were pasted pictures clipped from magazines—advertising art, photographs of landscapes or odd buildings, picturesque cottages, famous paintings, portraits of medieval kings and queens, actors and actresses, elaborate costumes, random designs. On the pages facing the pasted-in clippings were Dedini sketches and notes. The sketches often echoed, without imitating precisely, the clipped art on the facing page.
“See here,” Dedini said, pointing to a clipped fragment of a picture of an Arabian potentate in elaborate turban and colorful cloak, “I thought there might be something in this ...” On the facing page was a drawing of a man’s head enveloped in a monstrous turban dripping with jewels. Not yet a cartoon, just a funny picture. Eventually, Dedini used the idea in a Playboy cartoon.
“I make these books,” Dedini continued, “and when I’m looking for ideas, I thumb through these.”
A couple years after Dedini died, I went through several of his sketch/scrapbooks, then in the collection at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. His sketches and pasted-in clippings were accompanied by notes, some of which elaborated on the pictures, but many of these jottings had nothing to do with them: they were simply Dedini’s notes to himself. “For a Mozart poster,” said one note, “—try inks, washes and acrylic. Hints of Kandinsky.”
“In painting Playboy cartoons,” said another, “try brush strokes in some areas a-la cubist-Cezanne treatment. Break up flat areas with different tones of color to get interest, movement, excitement to otherwise dull space. Even to the figures, furniture and whatever.”
“Try for a new look style. Try pen drawings. Try a collage of pen sketches. How much cross-hatch?”
In addition to notes about drawing techniques, there are pages recording candidates for cartoon captions; no pictures, just verbiage: First time caller; long time listener. I feel I’m slipping into significance. Bi-polar? I was double-parked in a no parking zone. Bi-polar zone? God’s American. Treated and released. Is there a Mrs. Saddam? Do you think I like being bald? He’s mostly grunts. Define success on her own terms. Legal steroids. I dreamed all night about frozen embryos. Air kisses. Inconspicuous consumption. Down with oatmeal! What churns my butter is ... A warlord’s work is never done. Right-wing drunks. I may be hapless, but ... Free range pork, beef, etc. Victoria’s secret, Veronica’s secret. Young lust—where the hell’s it gone? I think I was stolen as a child. Now, do you happen to have a glass of whiskey handy?
Later, in his customary manner, Dedini might draw a picture he liked, then, lacking a caption, he’d page through the sketch/scrapbook, finding, eventually, a caption that could be incongruously coupled to the picture.
The result might be a cartoon like the one Playboy’s Michelle Urry wrote to Dedini about, commenting on a cartoon approved by Hefner: “‘Fresh figs are now being served in the bedroom.’ I love this, and I can’t believe he went for it. It is such an unlikely and ecstatically silly line but it’s so like you, poetic and knowing all in the same breath.”
From newspapers and magazines, clippings quoting scraps of wisdom or observations filled the sketch/scrapbook pages. “Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bull fights. Italy gets the Catholic church. America gets Hollywood”—Erica Jong
Quotations copied from unidentified sources: “Annibale Caracci was the first to use the word caricature. He used it to describe the drawings he made poking fun at the physical peculiarities of people he sketched during his walks.”
A clipping quoting an unknown source: “People who accept the evidence of their senses can be divided into three non-professional categories: saints, simpletons, and humorists. The mass of mankind is insulated from these several species of misfortune by virtue of the fact that they know better than to trust plain experience.”
And this: “‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when he is silent.’ Words found written on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, after World War II.”
And this one sounds like Dedini: “Why do they put pictures of criminals in the Post Office? What are we supposed to do—write them? Why don’t they just put their pictures on the postage stamps so the mailmen can look for them while they deliver the mail?”
Pasted in one sketch/scrapbook is an undated pencil draft of a letter to Irving Phillips, who was then producing the syndicated newspaper panel cartoon The Strange World of Mister Mum. Phillips had apparently approached Dedini about collaborating on a panel cartoon featuring pretty girls. I’m quoting the entire letter here because of the insight it offers into the workings of Dedini’s mind and his gentlemanly diffidence in turning down Phillips’ proposition:
Mr. Phillips—This has been a soul-searching time for me, thinking over your
offer of drawing the girl panel. It’s not an easy decision for I’m still
engrossed in the freelance concept of ‘my life.’ I’m honestly not yet ready to
let go of it and
“Nothing wrong with that! Except right now I’m fulfilled to a point (not money, unfortunately, but in desires and hopes!) within the magazine field. It scares me to death sometimes but until a drastic change occurs, I must continue for a while yet as I am.
“Recently I’ve thought seriously about doing (creating) a newspaper panel. It’s still too vague in my mind what or how it would be but the urge gets more urgent sometimes.
“You don’t know how close I came to saying, ‘Yes—let’s go!’ I am listening. It’s wonderful to hear that you’re wanted. But—
“I know well your past work, The World of Mr. Mum. ... I regret that we won’t collaborate on this, but please keep the faith. I’m a cartoonist for life, and everything changes.”
When looking for ideas, Dedini also consulted (in addition to the sketch/scrapbooks) his “research department”—all those magazines stacked throughout the house. Once he saw a spectacular two-page magazine ad for women’s clothes, gorgeous models marching across two-page spread in a parade of fashion and femininity. “And I thought, I’d love to draw that, the clothes, the girls,” he said, “—so I did.” Just for the fun of it. And then, he drew a man in the line-up, and that created a situation begging for a gag. He found the gag in the personal columns of the Village Voice, which he repeated verbatim in the cartoon, a deadpan recitation of the advertiser’s search for a liberated roommate.
Dedini’s creative process often began with visual images. Looking at other art or photographs, he played with the images and the connections he could conjure up between those and some fragment of conversation—all those candidates for captions in his sketch/scrapbooks.
“Michelle says I should make my women prettier,” he said, looking at the woman sitting on the man in the elevator. “My women aren’t all that pretty, not like covergirls. But they’re—okay. Just not beautiful. But they’re like real women that way. I told Michelle that fashions change. And today, women—in movies, on tv, in advertisements—look like ordinary women, not like movie stars. They look like my women,” he said with a grin.
There are doubtless still several Dedini cartoons in the Playboy inventory, awaiting publication. One showed up just the last year or so. The New Yorker also has quite a store of Dedini cartoons. One of the things that puzzled him at about the time we talked was that the magazine continued to buy cartoons from him but didn’t publish them. One summer, he vowed he’d spend the next month concentrating on New Yorker humor, determined to break into print there once again. But The New Yorker still hasn’t published a Dedini cartoon since. A puzzle.
For the last month of his life, December 2005, Dedini stayed at home under hospice care which kept him relatively pain-free and comfortable. He had been battling esophageal cancer for the last six months or so. His son Giulio came from his home in San Luis Obispo and moved in to stay with him and his mother. So did the cartoonist’s younger brother, Delwin, 80, who still lived at the family ranch near Altadena. Friends dropped by, and he enjoyed them, Giulio told me. Even though he hadn’t the stamina for long conversation, Giulio said, “He makes us laugh every day.”
And he continued to drawn in his sketch/scrapbook, formulating gags, listing conversational scraps that might be useful as captions for cartoons.
Dedini wanted his papers and original art to be archived at Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library. On Monday, January 9, Jenny Robb, then Visiting Assistant Curator of CRL (and now curator of the newly named Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum), arrived to arrange packing up and shipping the materials. When she came in to meet Dedini, he was delighted to see a pretty young woman, and, the eternal gentleman, he sat up in bed right away to engage her in conversation.
The cartoonist was extraordinarily meticulous in maintaining the most comprehensive of files. The White House note requesting the Jackie Kennedy cartoon is filed with associated clippings and other correspondence about the final disposition by auction of the original. So well organized was the material that it took only a day-and-a-half to pack it all up in about 100 boxes. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Giulio told me, the boxes and 2,000 originals were on a truck bound for Ohio.
“I went in to tell him that it was all done,” Giulio said, “—all his papers and his originals were safely on their way—and he could rest easy now. And sure enough, the next day, he did. That’s when he died.”
Reuben Pearson, a printer and poet and a PBL denizen, described Dedini as “gentle and Italianesque, a wielder of brush and Rapidograph, who viewed life through a twinkle and who must ever be counted as one of Heaven’s creatures who are splendidly whole.” His eye lost none of its twinkle: he kept on making people around him laugh every day, funny to the last.
Here’s a too short gallery of copies of pages from Dedini’s sketch/scrapbooks, glimpses of the inside of his playful and always congenial cartooning mind.