With the centenary of the armistice approaching, I’ve been feeling like I should be writing about the war more and not just going on about dieting and Dorothy Parker. But how? I’m not an expert on the Battles of the Meuse-Argonne and wouldn’t do a very good job of pretending to be one. Then it occurred to me that I could tell the stories of individual soldiers, as I did once before, months ago, when I wrote about aviator and Mutiny on the Bounty co-author Jimmy Hall.
So here’s the story of Percy Lee Crosby. Well, he mostly tells his own story, through his wonderful cartoons.
Crosby grew up in Queens, the son of Irish immigrants. His father ran an art supply store, and his talent was evident from an early age. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore and got a series of jobs as a writer and illustrator for magazines and newspapers, including the Socialist Daily Call, which sparked a lifelong commitment to leftist causes. He eventually started writing a syndicated comic strip, The Clancy Kids. While in training in France in 1917, Crosby, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, began writing That Rookie from the 13th Squad as a daily syndicated panel. A collection of these cartoons was published in February 1918.
When we meet the Rookie, a private in training at a U.S. military base, he hasn’t yet gotten the hang of military discipline,
and he’s the bane of his commanding officers’ existence.
Despite his haplessness and youthful appearance, he has a beautiful girlfriend,
although he has a bit of a wandering eye
and enjoys a good burlesque show.
He’s not the bravest of souls, but he resists the temptation of a deferment.
Training can be terrifying
and he wishes the war would just be over and done with.
But he pulls his socks up,
dreams big dreams,
and rises in the ranks.
Crosby was struck in the eye by shrapnel on the Argon and awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to action, survived the war, and published another Rookie collection in 1919. In 1923, he began writing Skippy, a strip about the adventures of a nine-year-old boy that made him rich and famous. There were Skippy dolls and toys and an Oscar-winning Skippy movie. (And the peanut butter, which sparked a long trademark dispute.) Skippy was a major influence on Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.
In the 1932 Olympics, Crosby won a silver medal in, I kid you not, watercolors and drawing. This, along with architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture, was an Olympic events from 1928 to 1936. I couldn’t find a picture of his entry, “Jackknife,” but here are some spectators checking out the action in the painting event.
Crosby started buying two-page ads in major newspapers espousing left-wing positions and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. The New Republic dubbed him the “Mad Patriot.” He socialized with the stars of the New York artistic and literary scene, including Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Like many of them, he was a heavy drinker.
Crosby and his first wife divorced, and he stopped drinking for a few years when he remarried. He fell off the wagon, though, and after a violent episode in 1939 his wife filed for divorce and got a restraining order against him. He never saw her or their four children, aged five to nine at the time, again. He married again, but his drinking continued and his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1948, following a suicide attempt after the death of his mother, he was committed to a mental hospital. Despite his efforts to be freed–he claimed that his long confinement was related to his left-wing views–he remained institutionalized until his death in 1964.
In 1918, though, these bad times were far in the future. So let’s end with the Rookie, on watch at the front now, thinking a soldier’s thoughts.