The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast


Among the most treasured souvenirs of my relationship with my grandfather are three sketches commemorating our first spree together. I was seven years old at the time. The first of these, sent on Valentine’s Day, 1902, announced in rhyme that we were to go on a spree the following Wednesday. My mother had arranged to provide the necessary funds for the outing. The next sketch, five days later, is a message that speaks for itself. It shows my grandfather sitting on the edge of his chair, hat on, cane in hand, ready and eager to be off. But the dollar sign and the question mark on his travelling bag tell the story. The check has not arrived! The problem was apparently solved before the big day, however, as the final sketch shows us marching joyfully down the street after attending a matinee at the Broadway Theatre. The description of our first spree as having been “done up Brown” refers to our luncheon at Brown’s, a well-known chophouse for men in New York at the time.


That Thomas Nast was conscious of his short stature is evidenced by the caricatures he sometimes drew of himself standing on something to give him height. In one such cartoon he showed himself on a chair delivering a speech. The occasion was a Canvasback Club dinner at Harvey’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. He had become separated from his baggage on the train and was obliged to appear in his business suit instead of white tie and tails. He made up for his unsuitable attire in the cartoon, however, which shows him in formal dress, with an apologetic caption that says: How He Should Have Appeared . This cartoon, together with one he drew of his host, the late George W. Harvey, still hangs on the wall of the famous Washington restaurant. Mr. Harvey once stated that he had several times refused offers of a thousand dollars for the drawings.


Other sketches that I prize highly reveal Thomas Nast’s cleverness and sense of humor. Before I was old enough to write, I sometimes enclosed in my mother’s letters to her father pictures that I had drawn myself. They showed no evidence that I had inherited any of the artist’s talent. Several of my drawings were returned after “Pop Tom,” as I called him, had worked them into sketches of his own, like one in which he made my drawing appear on an easel before which he stood appraising the work of his latest “Rival in the Art field.” Others showing his shocked incredulity on viewing his grandson’s art were similarly returned. And when I was unable to draw a fish, he made a sketch of a fish “drawing” me.

Thomas Nast’s original sketches were highly valued by recipients, and they often took the place of formal correspondence. He blamed his reluctance to write on his pen, which he said did not know how to spell. He was a notoriously bad speller and sometimes mistakes crept into his captions, such as “Budy” for “Buddy,” my childhood nickname, in the fish sketch. Fortunately Sarah Nast corrected most of his misspelled captions before they appeared.

I remember seeing my grandfather at work in his home studio. I recall particularly the three-foot-high bronze statue The Gladiator above his roll-top desk and his pet mockingbird in a cage close by. As I now realize, the statue of the gladiator was symbolic, in that it represented one who, like Thomas Nast himself, engaged in fierce combat or controversy. The studio was on the second floor; and when the mockingbird heard his master’s footsteps ascending the stairs, he would whistle to him and receive a whistle in reply. The bird had quite a repertoire and always responded to the attention paid to him by repeating the sounds he heard. When the artist was busy and had not taken notice of his feathered friend for some time, the bird would pick up a piece of gravel from the bottom of the cage and throw it at him.

My recollections of Villa Fontana as it was seventy years ago are still vivid. It was an imposing three-story house with mansard roof and widow’s walk, set well back from the street, from which it was hidden by tall evergreen trees. It was in one of Morristown’s better residential neighborhoods, but at the time sadly in need of paint. The fountain, for which the house was named, was beside the driveway that led to the front entrance, but it was dry when I played in it as a boy. Large brown toads hopped about among the dead leaves that covered the bottom of the pool’s big round basin. The heavy gate across the driveway was closed, and its hinges were rusty. It had not been opened since General Grant’s carriage drove out in 1883. The inside of the house was somber, with curtains drawn in all rooms not being used. Certain memories of childhood remain very clear, and I recall especially the steamy atmosphere of the gas-lit second-floor bathroom as boiling hot water poured out of the faucet into the wood-encased, copper-lined bathtub, the height of elegance in Victorian plumbing fixtures. The fireplaces were surrounded by tiles depicting the artist’s favorite Mother Goose rhymes and fables of Aesop. The motto “Time and Tide Wait for No Man,” carved above one fireplace mantel, was beyond my comprehension but made a lasting impression on me.