In 1928, Arthur Babbitt was a real New Yorker.
He was a successful freelance artist, working in his own studio near Times Square, engaged to a cute brunette from Brooklyn, and all before he was 21 years old. This was the young man who was able to land a gig with a motion picture cartoon studio in 1929 …
… quite a far cry from the sixteen-year-old from Iowa who arrived in 1924.
It was a family tragedy. While living in Sioux City, Arthur’s father injured his spine, crippling him. Without his income, the Babitsky family moved to Brooklyn, New York, and Arthur was forced to be the breadwinner for the household of six. Interviewed by historian John Canemaker in 1975, Babbitt says, “we all lived in a basement room, with a little casement window, all of us, and that was my home.“
Arthur had no choice but to find work.
To Canemaker: “My first job was in a grocery store up in the Bronx. I weighed 90 lbs at the time. The storekeeper, a kindly Mr. Zimmerman, had me hauling hundred pound bags of sugar all over the place. And it sounds like a bad movie, but I did find a card in the street, a business card to an advertising agency. And I called up and they said, ‘Sure, c’mon over!'”
In an unpublished interview with Bill Hurtz recorded in the 1970s, Babbitt tells his longtime friend and fellow animator about his journey at the ad agency, beginning (according to his memoir) in May, 1924: “And I got a job there for nothing a week, as an apprentice. And I took it. Now, after 3 or 4 days, corporate consciences bothered them, and they decided to pay me 40 cents an hour for any work I did that was used from reproduction.”
Babbitt notes in a brief 1961 unpublished memoir, “Layouts – dummies – stalling off creditors – running errands, etc. were still for free. When the comptroller figured out that this arrangement netted me about $16.00 per six day week — the board of directors voted me a straight $10.00 salary and security.
Babbitt told Canemaker that his tasks included delivering packages as well as answering the phone and saying that his bosses, Mr. Stern and Mr. H__, were not in the office.
From his memoir: “The problem of an address [and] phone – was solved rather quickly. In return for designing millions of shirt and coat labels (the kind sewn onto your clothes) – actual size and color – I was given space for my drawing table and the right to receive calls gratis. Outgoing calls had to be paid for. I had another right — I could do all the outside work I pleased — after hours and on weekends. The honest-to-goodness name of this concern was the PITTS and KITTS Mfg. Co.”
According the telephone White Pages from October 1924, the Pitts & Kitts Mfgrs & Supply Co. was located at 342 Madison Avenue, a block west from Grand Central Terminal, and across the street from an icon of the “Terminal City” that straddled the train station, the newly constructed Roosevelt Hotel.
One can infer that Pitts & Kitts was desperate for a cheap, inexperienced office gofer who would spend most of his time derailing bill collectors. The creditors must have finally caught up with them — the company ceases to be listed in any directory after October 1924.
Arthur was there from around July to October, when he left after “about 3 months because I had been invited to my own birthday party and they thought it was very inconsiderate of me because I didn’t stay and work that night. … I quit, and I had to go look for another job. Now I had samples. And I got a job with another company, an art service for $12 a week and again it was a matter of running errands and so on, but I did get to work on actual production stuff. … It was the Harold Simmonds company on 28th street.”
Now Arthur started taking art seriously. As he told Canemaker, before he was forced into the working world, he aspired to study with Viennese psychologists “Schild” and “Kauder.” Most likely he meant Paul Schilder and Otto Kauders, well-known psychiatrists in Vienna. Schilder wrote 1921’s The Nature of Hypnosis (printed in English in 1922) and the two co-wrote 1926’s Hypnosis (reprinted in English in 1927). Arthur probably acquired Schilder’s book on a lark when he was 14, and devoured it eagerly. As a young adult, Art Babbitt actually successfully practiced hypnosis! However, by the mid-’20s, his income lay in his artistic ability. So he followed his knack and enrolled in art classes.
Babbitt says (in a 1974 unpublished bio) that he “signed up for night courses at the Educational Alliance – under Raphael Soyer – then later the Industrial Art School – and still later at the Art Student’s League [still at 215 West 57th Street near Broadway]. ” Like Arthur, Raphael Soyer was Russian-American, and though only 8 years older than Arthur, he skillfully painted the gritty truths of economic hardship and social injustice. Soyer was part of the artistic movement called “Social Realism” and anchored his art in testimony of the working class.
The U.S. census states that Arthur’s employer, Harold Simmonds, had 32 years to Arthur’s 16, and already had a young son and a pregnant wife when he hired Arthur in early 1925.
According to the 1924 White Pages and business records (as well as those from ’25 and ’26), the H. W. Simmonds Studio was located on 37 E.28th Street, two and a half blocks north/east from Madison Square Park and the neighboring Fuller Building (Flatiron Building). At the time, this was one of the tallest buildings in New York City, and (probably:) as Arthur walked the four-minute hike to the park for some brisk winter air during his lunch break, he would see the crest of this giant wedge poke over the brown-brick structures to his left. Then, as he turned left onto Madison Avenue, peering through three blocks of dispersed trees of the park, the architectural wonder loomed over the entire skyline. He wandered across the park crossed 23rd street to approach the building, and he heard a sudden shriek. Turning his head, he found a two ladies trying in vain to keep the wild wind currents from blowing their skirts up. Onlookers made sideways glances, and Arthur made a mental note to visit this spot every day.
To Bill Hurtz: “Harold W. Simmonds was a very talented commercial artist, and so were some of the men that worked for him, one of them by the name of Frank Hohr [?] who taught me a great deal about lettering. And Harold Simmonds was a drunk. And on paydays, it was my job – Fridays were paydays – it was my job to go down to the speakeasy to collect Harold W. Simmonds before he spent all of our paychecks. But before we could get paid, part of the ritual was that Simmonds would come back to the office and he would insist on wrestling with me. You know, he weighed about 200 lb and I weighed 90 lb. And after we’d have a couple of falls or so, then he would pay us. And it was at that time that I sort of matured as a commercial artist.”
To Canemaker: “That lasted about 3 months and Simmonds struck a slow period, so I was let go, because my $12 was cutting into the budget quite a bit.”
The New York business listings doesn’t include Arthur at all (maybe the funds weren’t available) and the White Pages doesn’t list Arthur until October of 1927. At this point, “Arthur Babbitt, artist” was based at 245 West 47th Street, near the growing theater district of Times Square, in what he and his friends used to call “The Kotex Building.”
From his memoir: “Late in 1925 – having prospered – I set up my own studio in the old Romax building on 47th Street West of Broadway – where the Ethel Barrymore Theatre now stands. Imitation woodcuts were the rage – and I soon learned to draw everything from men’s fashions to Steinway pianos – the woodcut way. Leyendecker’s Saturday Evening Post covers were considered a bit ‘Avante Garde’ – and any ad worth a damn had a decorative floral border around it.”
When he was interviewed by historian Michael Barrier in 1971, Babbitt said, “Being unaware of how little I knew about drawing, it seemed that that was the only thing I could do. I drew handbags, woodcut drawings of pianos, and woodcut drawings of Moojo [sp?] bottles…”
To Canemaker: “And I freelanced, and the first 2 weeks I earned $3 I think. I couldn’t afford a bottle of waterproof ink, I remember, nor any real decent pen points, and I didn’t have a drawing table and I remember standing up at a bureau in the bedroom where my father and mother were asleep, all hours of the night drawing with this very bad pen and ordinary ink. I remember one of the first jobs I had was Roi-Tan cigars…”
To Bill Hurtz: “But in the meantime I had learned how to do lettering, men’s fashions, women’s fashions, all in woodcut style, Hupmobile cars and Nujol laxatives, and cartoons – everything was done in an imitation woodcut style. I could retouch a photo, I can still handle an airbrush. But I had sort of semi-prepared to go out on my own at that time…”
Art’s widow, Barbara Babbitt, writes a second-hand account of Arthur’s experiences, including in the Romax building: “A mobster named Arnie, whose only claim to legitimacy was that he looked out for ‘the kid’, ambled into one of young Arthur’s deadbeat client’s display rooms, [and] threw all his merchandise on the floor or out the window. As the defaulter nervously handed Arthur his delinquent check, Arnie turns to young Arthur and philosophizes, ‘That, kid, is how you collect a bill.’
To Bill Hurtz:”…[By 1926 (as noted in his ’74 bio),] I was earning a considerably amount of money, somewheres in the area of $300 a week, which was a tremendous fortune in those days, as a commercial artist – this in spite of the fact that I didn’t have the weakness to give in to designing false whiskey labels or counterfeit revenue stamps [for bootleggers] or anything like that, which was a good source of income for commercial artists in those days.
“I had credits for everything from lettering to scientific drawings for the Scientific American, and things like that… As a commercial artist, I had done many advertisements and cartoons, and sold numerous ideas to the New Yorker and other magazines of that type – gags, yes. And for one magazine that has long been defunct, one called the Merry Go Round, […] they would buy anything I did.”
Barbara writes: “A beautiful ‘Lady of the Evening’ enticed him up to her apartment not realizing he was only seventeen. After she explored the situation further and realized what a neophyte he was, she gave him a good meal and sent him home.”
Arthur was evicted from his office when the building was set to be demolished to make way for the new Ethel Barrymore theater, and by May of 1928 (according to the White Pages), Arthur relocated his business a couple blocks away, closer to Times Square proper, at 1587 Broadway, on 49th street. Four blocks south was the famous intersection of 7th avenue and Broadway, and at the end of a long day, the bright lights of the square would begin to illuminate the dark. In 1928, the public would gather around the Times building to read the brand new scrolling news feed across the outer facade. Stepping out of his building on the west side of Broadway and facing south, this is what Arthur would see.
From his memoir: “My youthful appearance cause considerable confusion and embarrassment. Invariably, I was announced as the boy from Babbitts and customers insisted on calling me ‘sonny’. I’ll never forget the day in 1928 – I was finally a man. A customer called me ‘Horseface’.
To Canemaker: “…Actually it only took me a year to really get on my feet and start earning decent money as a commercial artist and this led to very simple animation for medical films [one of these was called “The Prolapse of the Uterus”] and things like that. And then as I learned a little bit about it I became involved in business films, things like Western Electric. [Animation] was very simple, very simple. It was mostly like drawing extremes, getting to the next place in the easiest way possible. But I was doing silent commercials for theaters. Things like Listerine, Flit, “Quick Henry, the Flit!” if you recall. That’s where I first met Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel. He was doing commercial art, cartoons. I took anything that came along, men’s fashions, women’s fashions, imitation wood-cuts, layout, lettering, photo retouching, simple animation, very very simple animation.
To Hurtz: “I became involved in medical films, theatrical commercials — it was very simplified animation – training films, and so on. And it wasn’t until 1929 that I officially entered the animation field, but I had done animation before that… My career as a pencil pusher did start in 1924. And it was within a year after that that I was actually doing things pertaining to animation. I came to Terrytoons … probably along about October of 1929.”
Arthur wasn’t working at his new Times Square location for very long before he decided to venture into the industry of sound cartoons at Terrytoons. Fortunately, he had a few old business cards left over, which are (as yet) the only place to confirm his illustration style from that time.
And so, at 22, Arthur gave up full-time illustration and advertising and ventured into story-driven theatrical cartoons at the Terrytoons Studio…
…but that’s another story.
I believe the Harold Simmonds referred to in this post is my grandfather. Family lore has it that he was indeed a talented man, but also a drunk. The narrative here is a bit loose, but if Simmonds hired Babbitt in 1924 or very early 1925, it fits my family’s narrative. He already had a son, and his wife Evelyn was pregnant with my mother, who was born in February, 1925. The business about going to catch Harold in a speak-easy is priceless. It seems my grandfather had a going concern which fell apart due to alcoholism, perhaps the Depression, and a failure to hold onto at least one very talented illustrator.
Harold Simmonds, my grandfather, was a commercial artist who attended Pratt Institute back around 1905. My father, John L. Peterson, was also a commercial artist and a Pratt graduate (as was my mother) who was Harold’s son-in-law by virtue of marrying his daughter. Not sure how virtuous that was, but that’s what he did. My baby sister Elizabeth also went to Pratt….
Apparently, Simmonds went free-lance at some point in the 30’s, and enjoyed some degree of success, judging from what I can glean from Census data.
If there is any more information about the H.W. Simmonds agency, including stories, information about what accounts they had, or any pictures, I would be most grateful to hear about it. If not, well, then I’m grateful to have heard about it. I’ve signed up for the blog, and look forward to hearing more about Babbitt’s “life and works,” as they used to say several centuries back. What I have read so far is fascinating.
Thanks for the comment! I would really appreciate any photos you have of Harold Simmonds, and I can share any further info I have about the man. Are any of his three children still alive?
His oldest son died about ten years ago, and his youngest son, is alive, I believe, but suffers from dementia. His daughter, my mother, is alive, but frail. I’ll do what I can to pass on some pictures files of my grandfather- my sister Elizabeth has some of the originals, I believe.
If you know what accounts the H.W. Simmonds agency handled during Babbitt’s time or any time thereafter, it would be helpful. I collect ephemera, particularly from the Twenties and early Thirties, and may unwittingly have some of that agency’s work as published–perhaps even some of Babbitt’s.
I will make an attempt to get my mother to consent to an interview, if you like.
My mother now deceased owned a carved bird with the initials HW Simmonds on it. We are trying to find out information about the piece. Is this a piece your grandfather would have made or consigned? The piece looks like it was made out of some type of bone.
I’m not related to Babbitt – I merely admire him!
Also, the mob connection you cited in the story of Babbitt’s early years is kind of paralleled in my mother’s story of her father’s connection with a mobster living in New Jersey- she remembers the last name ended in -sky, and thinks it was Meyer Lansky, but of that last detail she is not sure.
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