Lute Pease; Nearly 80, Pens Vigorous Cartoon
By Shirley M. Friedman (E&P, 2/19/49)
Newark, N. J.—Every afternoon, a little, squatty-built elderly man with ruddy skin and youthfully bright brown eyes, heads for the editorial writing section of the Newark News.
Under his white shirt-sleeved arm, he clutches a rough drawing seemingly as large as he. Invariably, the sketch reflects with pungent treatment and facile line his paper’s reaction to events boiling in the political cauldron.
This deceptively plain-looking gentleman is close-to-80-years old Lute Pease, nationally-known cartoonist whose work for 34 years has been reproduced in magazines and newspapers from coast-to-coast. But few of those who admire his work with pencil and brush—often compared to the best in Punch—are aware of Pease’s extraordinary background that springboarded him into caricaturing the world’s great.
A Medley of Adventure
He eagerly recalls a series of amazingly vivid memories that meander blithely over America and back through his Trader Horn-like years before heeding the call of art.
It was a medley of ranching, canvassing, small-business trials, land-locating efforts—”I tried to get in on the ‘Oklahoma Strip’ months before the rush”— freighting with oxen on the White Pass in ’98, five years of Alaska mining, wood-chopping, running a Nome bunkhouse during the time of the ‘Spoilers,’ and being first resident U.S. Commissioner in northwestern Alaska. To say nothing of being the intimate of the great and the near-great the country over.
As a cub reporter-sketch artist (before the days of the halftone) on the Portland Oregonion, Nevada-born Pease, got the famous five-minute interview with Mark Twain which that renowned humorist praised as “the most accurate and best ever written of me.”
Mr. Pease tells of that incident: “You recall his world trip that started in ’96, when he tossed that gray plume of his to the winds of his popularity and set forth to pay the debts of his publisher and rehabilitate his own fortunes.
“The suave, polished old Major Pond was Clemens’s lecture impresario. As everywhere else, he crowded a Portland house.
“Next morning I got to his hotel just as he and the Major were departing for Seattle.
” ‘Get right in with us,’ drawled Mr. Clemens kindly. ‘We’ll have several minutes before they run these bus horses to death getting to the station.’
“I asked if he were going to write ‘Forty Years After.’
“He chuckled, ‘You mean “Forty Years After Innocents Abroad?” ‘No, I’m slower and grown even lazier and I’m going to write an easy-going book. No guidebook, just anything that happens to interest me. I’ll inspect the Equator and wind up a few sections to make a ball of yarning.”
“You’ll remember,”, Pease reminded us, “he afterward called the book, ‘Following the Equator.’
“Well, I got Twain to talking about Tom Sawyer while I tried to sketch him.
” ‘I didn’t create Tom or Huck,’ said he, ‘any more than you are creating Mark Twain with your pencil. I knew them and I drew them from life. You could make me up from memory, but you prefer the life model, because you can make a surer, truer line, can depict the character without the haziness that comes from feeling ’round by guesswork.’
“He had started a striking figure of speech when he had to jump aboard the train. Now, I wanted to get that figure in my interview. So I finished it for him, thinking he’d probably never see the ‘Oregonian’ for months, if at all. Imagine my consternation when I opened a telegram from Victoria a couple of days later; ‘Good enough. You said it better than I could have said it myself!’
“I thought this was sarcasm. Then next day I happily got a letter from Major Pond, enclosing a snapshot he had made of Clemens being interviewed and telling me how pleased the author had been. I often think upon the kindness of that famous man taking trouble about an obscure cub reporter.”
But the cub became the Pacific Monthly editor whose magazine paid Jack London $7,000 for his “Martin Eden”— after it had been turned down by later-to-eat-crow Eastern editors. Pease recalls London remarking:
“When you bought that novel, and paid cash for it, I nearly fainted. I couldn’t believe it of a West Coast magazine. I once had a fight with one of them trying to collect the five dollars they had promised for one of my first things. I got rough in their office and they threw me downstairs.”
Sketching and Roving
Lute can show you, too, a letter from London saying, “Funny about ‘The House of Pride.’ I wonder if some of the disinclination for it is due to the fact that I didn’t kill anybody in it. You. know my reputed formula for a short story is to start with three characters and to kill four before the end. Of course I could have had them drown themselves in the surf, or murder each other or fall on each other’s necks in brotherly love. The only trouble is, life so seldom works out that way.”
Nor did life work out that way for Lute. For amidst all his adventurous living, the love of art haunted him. Always he kept up sketching scenes visited in his rovings.
“When I built my log cabin on the Yukon, I peeled the bark off the walls and used the surface for pencil sketches of occasional trappers or mushers. ” His adventures there in the gold rush days are vividly described and illustrated by him in his recent book, “Sourdough Bread”.
“But how did I get into newspaper work? Well, I had a job as salesman with a California grocery concern. I hated it. Lord, how I wanted a job I enjoyed!”
He got it “all because a rejected lover killed the girl and committed suicide.”
Walking down a street in Portland, Pease witnessed the tragedy, made sketches and landed a job on the Oregonian. Later he spent six years as editor of the Pacific Monthly, during which its circulation jumped from 40,000 to over 100,000, when it was sold to the Sunset in 1912.
From there, he came East with his artist-wife, Nell Christmas McMullin, frequently exhibiting their paintings. The National Academy of Art hung his portrait of Henry Rankin Poore— “I’ve never dared try ’em since,” Pease sheepishly admits.
In 1940, he demonstrated political cartooning in the main gallery of the New York World’s Fair. In that year, Paramount News animated his cartoon on conscription as one of the outstanding cartoons of the year.
Portrait of Tex Rickard
Landing in the East from his Pacific Monthly stint, Pease started a cartoon syndicate. But the Newark News’ then managing editor, John W. Maynard, taken with his work, offered him the plum of staff cartoonist. One of his early contributions to the paper was the now-famous portrait of Tex Rickard standing at a bar in Nome, Alaska, with a wood-burner in the background. Lute drew it from memory, just as others he had drawn of Rex Beach, Sir Henry M. Stanley of Dr. Livingston fame and countless such personalities.
“It’s 34 years ago since I’ve come to the News,” Pease smiles contentedly. “And I want you to know I’ve never had to draw a cartoon contrary to my own convictions—except once—and I think that’s a remarkably happy record.”
That one exception was rather amusing. The late Wallace M. Scudder, founder and publisher of the News, was a kindly man with a keen sense of justice and a soundness of judgment that kept him master of his own emotions and guarded against any exercise of prejudice. He greatly resented Teddy Roosevelt’s biting criticisms of Woodrow Wilson early in the World War although the News had supported Teddy during his own regime.
“One day Mr. Scudder said, ‘Lute, I wonder if you can work out a cartoon on Roosevelt expressing what I feel about his attitude,’ proceeding to give a complete description of his feelings.
“Well, Teddy to me, as to most Westerners, was something of a demi-god, and I instinctively knew such a cartoon would be a mistake. Why couldn’t I manage to prove it?’ I did, by simply drawing a savage, bitter cartoon exactly in line with the publisher’s blueprint. He was delighted.
“Sitting back in his chair, the drawing in his hands, he chuckled, ‘Just what I wanted, Lute, but I’ll hold it here on my desk a few days till the right time comes to use it.’ The right time never came.”