As I wrote last week, Saturday the 23rd was The Lovely Anna and my 18 year wedding anniversary. We had a lovely dinner in an excellent french restaurant in Minneapolis… it’s nice to be married to someone who’s company is still the best thing about any day. We exchanged gifts as well, of course. In the last 18 years, I’ve given her diamonds, furniture, collectors statues, trips and more diamonds… I try to spoil her. Still no matter what I come up with or how much it might cost I will never be able to top the present she got for me for our 10 year anniversary. On every anniversary since, I remember the surprise like it was yesterday. In the years since I’ve come to understand how incredibly rare that gift is, beyond even the obvious uniqueness of it. I’m talking about this original caricature of me by the great Mort Drucker:
Here’s the amazing story which gives people a little insight as to what Anna is all about:
I went to the National Caricaturist Network convention in February of 1998 specifically to meet the scheduled guest speaker, Mort Drucker. This was several years before I began drawing for MAD, and I had just started getting reasonably steady freelance work for small publications and clients. Mort is one of my all time heroes, and getting a chance to meet him was something I was not going to pass up. Unfortunately Mort was unable to make the convention at the last minute due to a family member’s health problems, and I did not get that chance. I was disappointed, but he had videotaped a presentation complete with a tour of his studio with NCN member Debbie Schafer. Debbie was a friend of Mort and Barbara‘s, and she was instrumental in getting him as a speaker, securing a number of his originals to auction off at the convention and arranging a telephone Q&A with him live and the event. I asked him a question during that teleconference, but to this day I do not remember what I asked… I was incredibly nervous speaking with him. I was able to talk with Debbie quite a bit at the convention, and she could see how much admiration I had for Mort. When the weekend was over, I came home with one of Mort’s business cards complete with his phone number, courtesy of Debbie. I placed the card in my rolodex. I would never call him, of course. That’s just not the kind of thing I would do. Just having his card and number were enough… I thought that was pretty cool. I went back to real life.
The rest of the story I only found out after I got the artwork on our anniversary, but I’ll tell it in the order of events. My wife, it turns out, had no problem calling the Druckers. She copied the number and called Mort’s studio. Mort’s wife Barbara answered the phone. Barbara is a terrific lady and very protective of Mort, as she should be. She’s his business manager, negotiator and, if necessary, his “heavy”. She does a lot of the dirty work with clients and parties calling to commission work from Mort. Barbara quickly became a hero for Anna in the same way Mort is a hero for me. She asked Barbara if she could commission Mort to draw a caricature of me for our anniversary, offering a sum she thought was a lot but was actually a pittance relative to Mort’s status. Barbara was very nice but quite clear that Mort does not do personal commissions at any price. She suggested that Anna look at buying some of Mort’s originals. Anna told her I already had some of Mort’s MAD original art, but that if that’s what was available, she’d look at it. She told Barbara how much Mort’s career and work had influenced me, and how I would appreciate such a caricature of myself by him more than almost anyone on the planet. She told her about my career, such as it was at that point, and my ambitions, and that is was our 10 year anniversary. Barbara told her that year was she and Mort’s 40th anniversary, and I think she saw a kindred spirit in Anna. She told Anna to send some pictures of me and she’d show them to Mort… no promises, though.
Anna sent them to her, and a few days later Barbara called her. Barbara said Mort had agreed to do a rough pencil sketch to send for review. No revisions, she said. If Anna didn’t like the sketch, they’d just go back to looking at some of Mort’s MAD originals instead. She had the sketch mailed to our neighbor’s house. Anna got it and it was of course brilliant. Barbara told her Mort would do a final in black and white ink with perhaps a little bit of wash. Anna was thrilled and could not thank her enough. A week or so later Barbara called again and said Mort had decided to add “a little color” to the art and wanted to know if that was all right. Anna was very excited and said whatever Mort wanted to do was fine with her. The final art arrived at the neighbor’s a few weeks later. Anna got it and hid it in the closet for over a month before she gave it to me. I walked past that closet several hundred times with no idea of the treasure inside… I’m a little dense.
Anna didn’t just give me the drawing. Oh, no. Months before she had sent out pictures of me along with an 8 x 12 piece of drawing paper to a number of my artist friends and colleagues as well as my family asking for caricatures of me as a surprise. She received them on the sly, some terrific ones from artists I’d worked with and some done with love but not much skill from my family members. She assembled these in a big album. On our anniversary, she presented me with the album full of caricatures of me. It was great and I had a blast going through it. It was so touching that so many people took the time to draw me… I thought it was a unique and special gift. I had no idea what was still coming.
The moment I got the Drucker is still very vivid in my head. Anna told me there was one piece that was too big to fit in the album, and handed me a large cardboard envelope. I opened it on one end and slid out the art board, which was covered with a translucent piece of vellum. It’s hard to explain what the feeling was like in seeing this totally unexpected near-miracle. The closest I can get is to say it was like in a cartoon when someone opens a thin little book and somehow a giant boxing glove on an inch-thick spring rockets out of it and socks them in the nose. I was numb, dazed and speechless. It took only a millisecond for me to see what it was and who and done it through that vellum. Anna says I was shaking a bit when I raised the vellum and got a good look at this incredible piece of art, but I don’t remember the few minutes right after I opened it… That’s just a little foggy.
The story doesn’t end there, however. After she told me most of the above tale, she said that she had spoken with Mort himself, and that Mort wanted me to call him and he wanted to sponsor me for membership in the National Cartoonists Society. I called him the next day, and soon I was an NCS member. Anna and I attended the very next Reuben awards in San Antonio, were Mort was unable to attend because his mother was extremely ill. Mort gave me the names of several people to look up on his behalf, and I was introduced to several big name cartoonists and members, including MAD editor Nick Meglin and MAD book editor Charlie Kochman. My membership in the NCS eventually led to me getting my work in front of Nick and Sam Viviano, which eventually led to my working for MAD. To say that anniversary present from Anna changed my life is no exaggeration. In the process I learned how rare it is to have a caricature of yourself by Mort Drucker. Longtime friends of his were amazed and jealous, saying that Mort just doesn’t DO that, and they had been asking for many years to no avail. We’ve since met Mort and Barbara several times and they are the most wonderful people you could possibly want to meet. Mort has offered me much advice, support and encouragement concerning my work.
So, this year for our anniversary I got Anna a lousy trip to Paris and dinner at this restaurant we like. They way I figure it, if I spend the next 20 years drenching her in diamonds, trips and designer clothes I may reach the foothills of the Mount Everest of anniversary presents, which as I type is hanging 3 feet from me in my studio. God I love that woman.
364 #milliondollarquartet #elvis #elvispresley #johnnycash #carlperkins #jerryleelewis
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