Mopey Dick and the Duke: Denys Wortman’s New York City Characters

The name Denys Wortman (1887-1958) doesn’t roll off the tongue or out of the memory banks quite as readily as the contemporaries with whom he was most kindred: Reginald Marsh, Art Young, Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and, to some extent, Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Robert Henri (under whom he studied). Nevertheless, a new collection of his work, rescued by James Sturm and Brandon Elston from an archive of 5,100 long-neglected works, should restore his place in the pantheon of Gotham’s artists.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s, edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, has the look and feel of a lost archeological treasure, a trove of images that genuinely re-create what it was like to live, work, dine, drink, love and hate in the nation’s most exciting city at a time when the national economy was, as it is today, in a prolonged slump. Using little more than a few lead pencils and some sketch paper — and the blacks, whites and myriad shades of gray he could coax from his lead and eraser — Wortman created nothing less than, as the book’s subtitle accurately touts, “a portrait of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s”. He was the city’s virtually unsung visual chronicler during these years in the way that, decades earlier, Eugene Atget had obscurely wandered the streets of Paris with his camera equipment to amass his now legendary photo archive. Or, closer to home, Wortman depicted in pencil drawings and cartoons what writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing captured in words, or what Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott captured in black and white photographs.

Wortman’s main forum was a regular feature called “Metropolitan Movies,” which ran in The World (and later in The World Telegram and Sun), one of several daily newspapers in the city at the time. Among the recurring characters in his cartoon feature were Mopey Dick and the Duke, two hoboes who luxuriated in their outcast status and offered trenchant commentary on the passing scene. As Sturm notes herein, “Wortman presented anonymous New Yorkers in slice-of-life tableaus. The real star of ‘Metropolitan Movies’ was the city itself.”

Though Wortman was no James Joyce, Sturm and Elston present his work and have designed this handsome volume in such a way as to make it seem like a “day in the life” of Wortman’s muse. That is, a day in the life of New York City — even if that “day” covers more than two decades’ worth of work.

This collection is, as the city’s once-favorite coffee has it, chock full of nuts. And bolts and nooks and crannies, nannies and grannies. People lean out windows, take the air on fire escapes, hang clothes out in the draft spaces between tenements, inquire of each other’s health and lives or snoop and gossip. They make simple declarations like “It’s almost as beautiful out here as a flower garden” or ask “How did the Allies and the Giants make out today?” Though Wortman doesn’t try to hide the scars of the Great Depression — the signs and portents are everywhere, from baby clinics closed due to lack of funding to picketing workers to others remaining on their jobs for fear of losing them. But his is not a defeatist, beaten down vision; rather, he captures the resilience of the city and its people, their joys and sorrows, in good times and bad.

Very few “types” are left out of this collection, which includes downtown financial wheeler dealers, elegant restaurant scene-makers, tenement dwellers, Coney Island sunbathers, garment district grunts, pushcart hotdog vendors, fly blown diner cooks, window washers, sign painters, high-rise beam-walkers, old ladies pushing shopping baskets, alley dwellers and street corner preachers, striking workers, hobos, wharf rats and beggars. The scenes are as familiar now as they were then: department stores, subway stations, sidewalk civilizations inhabited by scrappy city kids, classrooms and museums and zoos and parks and farmer’s and fisherman’s markets. All ages, shapes, sizes, colors. Nothing it seems escaped Wortman’s prolific eye and pencil. The architectural detail alone in these drawings is astonishing, as are all the period details that should keep urban historians busy cataloging for years. You can get vertigo from the angles down from fire escapes.

An aspiring fine artist, Wortman had a painting in the seminal Armory Show of 1913, but he really blossomed as an artist when he took over “Metropolitan Movies” for the World in 1924. The “silver screen” for his movies was the entirety of New York City. His drawings (some might call them cartoons, as per the work that appeared simultaneously in the New Yorker, to which Wortman also contributed) were like snapshots of city moments, encapsulating the vibrancy, humor and sometimes pain of a great city struggling through the worst economic times in the nation’s history.

This was the world that the Beat Generation writers, more or less, inherited when their gang passed through the stage setting of New York City. And this world was not lost on them either. Jack Kerouac and his friends were well aware and appreciative of these antecedents. They even sought out the seedier aspects of New York City portrayed in some of Wortman’s drawings (how else would they have ever stumbled upon Herbert Huncke, who indirectly supplied the movement with its “beat” moniker?). They, in fact, often rubbed shoulders with Max Bodenheim and other legendary bohemians in and around Manhattan, like Alice Neel and Joe Gould. In Collaborating with Kerouac, David Amram recalled how one night as he and Kerouac were strolling toward MacDougal and Bleecker Streets in the heart of Greenwich Village. Kerouac turned to him and asked, “Can you see the ghosts of O. Henry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill hovering above us?”

As the co-founder of The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, James Sturm has devoted his life to the rediscovery, appreciation and creation of cartoon art. He is also a prolific artist himself, having published acclaimed graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing and Market Day. Elston is a graduate of The Center for Cartoon Studies.

This loving and captivating volume begs the obvious question:

How was someone like Denys Wortman lost to our collective history? It’s not as if he were documenting some backwater cow town. He was bringing to life the most vibrant city in America at one of its most interesting times.

And then, of course, there is the corollary question: Who else have we lost to history in this way?

One Response

  1. Since this is the era I write
    Since this is the era I write about, I am always drawn to photographs like the ones above, and (just my personal weakness) I can never look at any of them without my mind going to Thomas Wolfe. Despite his faults, he had the magic touch for evoking this time in NY.

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