That New Polly and Her Pals Book
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
For more on Sterret, you can read this nifty article by Jo Colvin about the cartoonist’s roots in Alexandra, Minnesota.
And here is the opening of my intro to the Polly book:
THE MOST MUSICAL OF CARTOONISTS, CLIFF STERRETT loved to start up a round of songs as soon as guests stepped inside his house. “Heavenly days, sit down won’t you and I’ll get some music going,” Sterrett said one evening in 1922, almost immediately after writer Ring Lardner and cartoonist Tad Dorgan dropped by Sterrett’s out-of-the-way house in Garden City, Long Island. Lardner and Dorgan were both sporty, metropolitan characters, in their comfort zone in pool halls and around boxing rings when they weren’t drinking it up with their baseball-playing pals, so they were both struck by how Sterrett gave off the air of a bumpkin and a homebody even though he was one of America’s most famous and well-paid cartoonists.
“His family are all musicians but they play on instruments that no one ever lamped before,” Dorgan reported in a characteristically chatty column, thick with 1920s smart-aleck lingo. “His wife plays a trick piano, his son Paul plays a violin that has one string and a phonograph horn attached to it. His brother Paul tickles a ukulele that is built like a butter barrel and Cliff himself plays on a saw with a violin bow that holds about 29 strings. And the songs. Whoa, January. They were favourites in Ozark mountains before Sitting Bull sat down. It might be good music, I can’t swear that it isn’t, but anyway you get an awful kicking watching the orchestra work. Right in the middle of the Ozark Anthem the day I was there a dog as big as a Shetland pony eased into the room and started to moan an accompaniment to the piece.”
After witnessing Sterrett at home, Dorgan started pondering the old adage, “You can take a hick out of the country but you can’t take the country out of a hick” It’s an open question whether Sterrett was a “hick” or something much more complicated: a smart, sly man who liked to play at being a hayseed. Perhaps like many other members of the cartooning tribe, Sterrett enjoyed stylizing himself as a living caricature. Like his characters, Sterrett, who was 5’6” tall, could be a funny-looking bird, with his moon-round face and upturned nose (described as “retrousse” on his passport), large mouth, fair complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair.