Monday, March 4, 2019

Clara's Scrapbook: Rumors and Romance Part 3

I found these pictures of my first love, Cecil Jensen and showed them to my second love, my husband Rolland. He wasn’t impressed. And why should he be? In all my eighty years, Roll was the only guy I married -- at age 53 in the year 1967 -- and by now we have been happily married for over twenty-five years. 

But seeing the pictures got me thinking about Cecil. The first is from 1940, taken one day when we were at the beach in Chicago and the second is his official Chicago Daily News photograph [1]. He was a good-looking man, pleasant and open in the candid photo, with a bit of weight on him, I must say; serious and distinguished in his official photo. When I think back, I’m still amazed that I got romantically involved with Cecil, a thirty-something political cartoonist at the Daily News, when I was in my early twenties and a writer-want-to-be.

Over the years, I’ve written lots of stories, published and unpublished, about my life and about the people I’ve come to know and love, but nothing about Cecil Jensen. So today I think, Why not? It’s now or never, as they say!

I graduated high school in 1932 and worked as a bookkeeper/girl Friday at my father’s printing company in downtown Chicago. Unlike my girl friends who took jobs to fill the time until they found the guy of their dreams (or not), got married, became a wife, made a home, and had children, I wanted more. I dreamt of living a creative life: to be an actress or poet, or perhaps a journalist. I figured it could happen. In 1935, I had the lead role of Grazia in the play “Death Takes a Holiday,” won a short story competition, and had my first (and only) published poem. To further my dream, I took journalism classes in the evening at Northwestern University McKinlock Campus, north of downtown Chicago (where Northwestern Memorial Hospital is today). I was one busy young woman. Ah, to be young and have all that energy.

And then one evening…
Cecil Jensen gave a talk to our class about Chicago and national politics and showed us some of his political cartoons. Looking and listening to him, I thought,  Here’s a man with great knowledge of history and politics and a wry sense of humor. He’s good looking in a dignified way and I’d love to get to know him. After his talk, I introduced myself and he said, “Let’s stay in touch,” or some other standard brushoff. I took him at his word and over the next few years, I was casually persistent, sending him letters praising the cartoons I particularly liked. 

I saved quite a few Jensen cartoons, including one titled “Colonel McCosmic: The Indispensable Man [2].” It features a cartoon representation of Colonel Robert McCormick, the grandiose staunchly Republican owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The Colonel is carving a full-size statue of himself. He wears a dark artist’s robe over a suit and tie. He’s holding a chisel in one hand and a mallet in one other, and for some reason unknown to me, he’s wearing binoculars. The partially finished statue sits on top of two large blocks of stone, one engraved with the words “WORLDS GREATEST MILITARY ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL EXPERT,” and the other “THE INDISPENSIBLE MAN.” In a cartoon bubble McCosmic says, My hands seem to be guided by some supernatural power. A little guy, half as tall as McCosmic and dressed as a hotel doorman, is watching the so-called great man sculpting.

Paper clipped to the cartoon is a typed carbon copy of a note from me to Jensen, which reads in part, “McCosmic is the perfect name for Colonel McCormick. Thanks for shedding a light on his not so supernatural power and reminding us enlightened ones of the dangerous influence he has over the unenlightened. Indispensable indeed! I say throw the bum out.”

To my surprise and delight, Jensen replied. I can’t find his letter – darn it – but I think it went something like this:

Dear Claire,
Thanks for sending notes now and then. It’s nice to hear from someone who understands what I’m trying to get across in my cartoons. You asked if we might get together so I could give you pointers on how to get into the news business. Sure thing. Give me a call and we’ll find a time to meet.

Sincerely, Cecil

I remember this very clearly: he signed the letter with his first name “Cecil.” No last name. I was thrilled. I called and we met for coffee. The conversation was lively and funny. We never got around to talking about to how he could help me get into the news business. It didn’t matter to me. My request was just a ruse to see if I could get to meet him.

Over the next several years, we met occasionally. We talked about politics and our creative endeavors. I continued to write short stories and poetry and was working on a novel. Nothing saved. Don’t ask me what any of it was about. I don’t remember and most likely they weren’t very good. We’ll never know and that’s OK.

Our get-togethers became more frequent, and sometime around 1939, before the U.S. got into World War II, we became entangled romantically. Cecil started calling me Clara, which was the romantic old-fashioned name my immigrant parents gave me at birth. I loved that he called me Clara, and I grew to love him and the feeling was mutual. We became a couple – not living together mind you -- but acknowledged as boyfriend and girlfriend.

My father’s downtown printing company was not far from Cecil’s office in the Chicago Daily News Building, 400 W. Madison Street. Sometimes, we would meet after work for dinner or a play or a movie. Other times we would meet with his friends. Not mine. They wouldn’t have known what to say to Cecil or to me for that matter. Their interests were conventional: home, marriage, and children. Our interests were more worldly. We attended lectures about the War in Europe, and discussions of whether President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs were pulling people out of the Depression that started with the stock market crash in 1929. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the U.S. joined the war, we attended talks about our country’s war efforts. All of these matters made it into Cecil’s cartoons.

Cecil was 39 in 1941, too old to go into the service when the World War II draft went into effect. So he had to be satisfied contributing to the war effort by continuing his work as a political cartoonist.

Cecil had an apartment on the near north side of Chicago, not far from Lake Michigan. I spent some time there, which was scandalous for an unmarried woman like me, but I didn’t care. However, I’m obliged to report that I was a good girl with high moral standards, and Cecil respected me. Though we were romantic with each other, we were careful to set limits to which both of us agreed.

On beautiful summer days, we’d pick up corned beef sandwiches from Gold’s Deli at Broadway and Diversey and picnic at the Lake. I remember Gold’s because it was where I introduced my gentile boyfriend to Jewish food, which he loved. One of those days, a friend took the only picture I have of the two of us. We make a good-looking couple, don’t you think?

Cecil and I got closer and more devoted to each other and started to talk about marriage and the difficulties we might encounter because of the age difference, he was twelve years older than I was, and because of religion: he was Lutheran, I was Jewish.

My immigrant mother didn’t know about our relationship. I was sure she would disapprove when she learned that he wasn’t Jewish, and that her disapproval would be compounded by the fact that he was an older man “of the world,” (the gentile world that is), with a newspaper job. Mother expected her four daughters to marry Jewish men who were doctors or lawyers, or at least owned their own businesses, like our father and like my eldest sister Mary’s husband Joe, who was a furrier with a flourishing business (even during the Depression). My middle sister Rose’s husband Len had a law degree but never practiced law. Instead, he was a salesman which shocked and dismayed Mother. Len sold “raw materials” to paint manufacturers and traveled around the city to find customers. To Mother’s way of thinking, he was like the Jewish peddlers coming “right off the boat” who made their living going from home to home selling their goods.

For Mother, having a daughter marry “out of the faith,” to an older man, a well-known Chicago newspaperman no-less, would have been a Shanda, the Yiddish term used to mean a shame and a scandal, something a Jewish family would try to hide from the larger Jewish community.

Inevitably, Mother found out about Cecil, most likely from my younger sister Perle. Perle and I lived at home. She was nosey about my business and shared everything with Mother. I never confronted Perle about it – what was the point after I was banished? Mother confronted me in the winter of 1943, saying “Enough. This has to end.” To get me away from Cecil, to make sure it ended, she sent me to Los Angeles where we had family I could stay with, family who would watch over me and report back to Mother.

I was a good daughter.

I wanted my mother’s love and approval.

 I couldn’t disobey her and I meekly complied.

Mother and Father gave me money to cover my travel costs, notified my cousins I was coming, accompanied me to the train station, and off I went. I was initially bereft in Los Angeles. My world had come crashing down and I missed Cecil like you can’t imagine. Or maybe you can.

I found a part-time job as a cub reporter for a small neighborhood paper, easy to do at the time – the young men were off to war and the newspaper could get away with paying me less. After a few months of saving my paltry salary, I was able to move into a women’s rooming house. I got settled into my tiny single-girl room, made friends with the other women there and found a Jewish Singles group. I licked my wounds and began to enjoy West Coast life.

The LA Jewish crowd was eclectic and freethinking. They reminded me of Cecil and the people I knew through him. There weren’t many young men around, but I figured when the war ended – I prayed it would end soon –and the single Jewish guys were discharged from the military, the interesting ones would come to California. Then I would meet a great guy and fall in love again. I was a practical gal, after all.

Not a surprise, I got fired from the reporter job. No experience, they said. I floated from office job to office job, but life was good. I enjoyed my independence, being away from the gossiping ways of Mother, Perle, and my three older siblings and their spouses. I missed Father, the only one in the family who stayed out of it. Cecil and I remained friends and wrote to each other now and then.

The distance couldn’t keep Mother from writing frequently and calling now and then, complaining about Father who was “driving her crazy” with, among other things, his impulsive sale of one car and an unwise purchase a few weeks later of a car she described as a “heap of junk.” In her infrequent calls, she cried and begged and repeated over and over again that she missed me and wished I would come back to Chicago. In her letters she wrote that she needed me to keep Father “out of mischief” and to keep him company so she and Perle could take a vacation away from Father and away from Chicago. [3]

The final straw came when Cecil wrote to me that Mother was harassing him at the Daily News. I wrote to my sister Rose [4] that I felt compelled to make a short visit to Chicago to straighten Mother out. I returned home at the end of January 1945. I had to pay my own train fare and when I got home, I was flat broke. So temporarily, I moved in with my parents, and Perle of course, and got a job for the time being. Mother and Perle took off right away on a trip, leaving me to watch over Father. And I was back in the soup, you might say.

Cecil and I decided to stop having contact with each other. We agreed it was the only way for us to move ahead with our lives and to stop the machinations of “LaBusybodyBrint,” as he called Mother. 

I followed Cecil’s career. How could I not? In 1946, he started writing the comic strip Elmo, which appeared in the Daily News. Though I’m not fond of comic strips, I followed Elmo’s, adventures. Elmo was a dimwitted tall blond guy with a square face, who got himself involved in an ill-fated manufacturing plant that produced a healthy snack called “Popnut Scrummy.” The comic strip featured well-endowed women and I saved one panel featuring “The Bag of Bingo Bango” woman [5]. I wondered then and still do today if I was the model for her. She seemed to have my hair and my attitude, so I have to conclude “Yes.”

There were other lightly clad sexy ladies in Elmo, and it was probably was too racy for a mainstream paper like the Chicago Daily News. In any event, within a year or so Elmo was replaced by Jensen’s Little Debbie comic strip. Comic strips about young adventurous girls were much more acceptable and very popular at the time. Besides Little Debbie, there were also the Little Lulu and Nancy comics. All three girls pulled wonderful pranks, stuff I wished I had the nerve to do when I was their age.

Years passed and I stopped following Cecil’s career. I never went back to California. How I got sucked into the LeBrint family vortex is a whole other story that I will get around to writing about one of these days.


This story is from Clara’s Scrapbook: A Novel Inspired by Photos, Stories, and What-Not Saved by Claire LeBrint Metzger. The novel is a work in progress and Claire, the narrator, writes her stories at age 80 in 1994 .

The Clara Stories are dedicated  to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory 
b 1914 - d 2002

Documents and other pertinent references are listed below.

[1] Cecil Jensen photograph. Fair use of copyright material in the context of Cecil Jensen:

[2] Search for images of “Cecil Jensen Colonel McCosmic” on the web to see the cartoon “Colonel McCosmic: The Indispensable Man,” and other Jensen political cartoons.

[3] Anna LeBrint quotes are from Rose Fuchs’ letters to Len, 1944-1945.

 [4] Pertinent section of Claire’s letter can be found in Clara’s Story: Rumors and Romance Part 2.

[5] The panel portrays a woman from the island of “Bingo Bango,” who got skinny because she ate the healthy “Popnut Scrummy” snack. Being skinny was not acceptable on her island, so she was called “Bag of Bingo Bango” in a derogatory sense.” To Elmo comic strip readers she would have been considered very shapely!