Sunday, June 28, 2020

There is much more to know about Walt McDougall

Everglades Poster (©2018) Roy R. Behrens
American cartoonist Walt McDougall (1858-1938) was the subject of the previous post, in which we reprinted the full text of a newspaper story he wrote about his attempts to persuade the US military to adopt the use of camouflage during World War I.

As it turns out, there is much more to know about him, and part of the information is in his autobiography, titled This is the Life! (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926). In that book (full text available online), he talks about how he became interested in protective coloration in nature when he was appointed the Game Protector of Florida, under the Migratory Bird Act. During his tenure in that role, the population of white egrets (which had been nearing extinction before) grew substantially, and manatee (then commonly known as the “sea cow”) became “more plentiful than the real cow, which is rather rare in Florida.” He goes on to describe how he also became interested in wartime camouflage

Shortly after hostilities began in France, I encountered some badly wounded Canadian officers who had been sent South to recuperate, and often took them out boating. From them one day I learned about “camouflage” as practiced in the European armies, The prospect of this novel application of paint to warfare excited me immensely; I seemed to glimpse an opening whereby many aged artists could be of service to their country [p. 307].…

…In July I went to Washington…to preach camouflage to an incredulous and derisive lot of official dumb-bells who thought I was trying to introduce a new brand of French cheese. I was dubbed “Camouflage Walt” in the Press Club. I wrote a couple of page stories for the [Washington] Post that helped to make the word familiar, but alas, the reputation of humor is ruinous to any serious purpose; I got a few laughs but no consideration, although seven hundred French and English artists were even then engaged in developing the new defensive art. General Joe Kuhn, head of the War College, assured me it “was mere frills and piffle” [p. 308].

Aside from his camouflage efforts, there are other interesting aspects of McDougall’s life. In 1902, while he was a cartoonist for The North American in Philadelphia, a fellow cartoonist named Charles Nelan satirized the Governor of Pennsylvania (Samuel Pennypacker) by depicting him as a parrot. Rather like current political ploys, Pennypacker responded by calling for a legislative rule (called the “anti-cartoon act”) that would make it unlawful to portray politicians “as birds or animals.” In response, McDougall created new caricatures of the governer and other hacks—not as birds and animals, but as trees, vegetables, and a beer stein, as reproduced below.

Another, far more somber, aspect of McDougall’s biography took place decades later, when, destitute, forgotten, and living alone, he ended his life at age 80 by shooting himself in the head with an old pistol. This is how the story was told in HE MADE OTHERS LAUGH in the Owensboro Messenger (Owensboro KY), on March 12, 1938—

He had amused unnumbered thousands with his facile pen, helped elect one president with a masterful cartoon, been associated with another, and been employed by a third, yet when Walt McDougall came to die it was all alone and with a pistol clasped in his good right hand. At 80 the cartoonist, author and humorist found himself at the end of the road; money gone, friends forgetful. He had been dead a week, the coroner said.

…[US President Woodrow] Wilson commissioned McDougall to study camouflage in Europe and the report he made was the basis for much this country did in that direction during the early days of the war.•

With age and adversity upon him, the maker of laughs for other people turned to painting and his diary. If McDougall was quite frank with his pages they should have a worthwhile story to tell.

In other accounts of his passing, there are repeated references to his diary, but so far we haven't found it. It would be interesting to read, although assuredly painful. We have found only one published entry, described as having been one of his last. It reads—

Stove won’t work—tough times.


• This claim seems to contradict McDougall's own account of his limited success.