The impish artist who draws on everything
George Feyer’s irrepressible and irreverent cartoons won him a passport to Canada. Nowadays his sharp pen mocks prudery, spikes pomposity, and even peddles cookies. It is making him the country’s most prosperous cartoonist
GEORGE FEYER, a thirty-nine-year-old Hungarian immigrant who sells his scatterpated black-and-white jokes to newspapers and magazines all over the world, ranks today as Canada’s most prosperous cartoonist. He is also, due to frequent TV appearances as a lightning-sketch artist, the first cartoonist in this country to become a nationally known personality.
Feyer is perhaps Canada’s fastest cartoonist, since he completes many of his drawings in less than sixty seconds. He works so frenetically that once, on The Hit Parade television show from New York, to the accompaniment of a jazz band in a number entitled “Bongo Bongo" he drew a thirty-foot-long mural of berserk jungle beasts in three and a half minutes.
Between his cartooning and television acts Feyer finds time for a wide and lucrative range of commercial art. He creates daffy characters and symbols for animated television commercials; satirical decorations for drinking glasses, coasters, table mats and ash trays; comical advertisements for posters and publications of every description; and naughty murals for restaurants and cocktail bars.
If Feyer didn't draw so rapidly he wouldn’t be able to afford his two-month annual vacations in Europe or South America and his forty-five-thousand-dollar home in Toronto's Rosedale district. About one third of his output is rejected by clients because it cocks too ribald a snook at conventional codes of religion, politics and sex.
One Feyer cartoon, rejected by Maclean's last fall, shows a small girl sitting in the lap of a department-store Santa Claus who evidently is stunned by the unexpected nature of her Christmas wish. Into this scene the brat’s mother is charging and in tones of obvious shock and reproach is shouting one word: “Lolita!”
Fewer than one in a hundred Feyer cartoons, however, requires any caption. In the remainder the mockery and irony lie within the drawing.
Feyer's derisive flouting of sanctimonious doctrines has earned him such sobriquets as imp, hobgoblin, faun and even satyr. The analogies are not inapt. In his frail small boy’s body, his mousey crew-cut hair, his gimpy leg, his limp poetic posture and his broken English speech there is an immediate summons to feminine compassion and curiosity. But women who look for the first time into his sensitive face and big blue baby eyes, and expect to find there the fragile soul of an Algernon Swinburne, discover instead the cloven - hooved mischief of Pan.
Feyer will not repress his earthy drollery even to protect his reputation and his pocket. Eleven years ago. when he was living by manual labor on eighteen dollars a week, and trying to win the approval of Canadian editors, he sold to Maclean’s a cartoon about a man being fitted for glasses. After it was published other immigrants informed the editors that the letters on the optician’s sighttesting chart formed a second joke, a crack couched in some of the coarsest words in the Hungarian language. Feyer was informed that editors’ sense of humor wasn't quite that elastic. But the admonition had little effect upon the cartoonist’s style. Doggedly, Feyer goes on submitting, even today, cartoons that could turn Maclean’s into a competitor of La Vic Parisienne.
The editors shrug resignedly and riffle through the masses of Feyer sketches for publishable specimens. A classic example of his comedy is a cartoon of animals filing two by two into Noah's Ark. After some perplexed study the reader perceives the tiny face of a little man peeping, as if fearful of discovery, out of the front end of a carnival horse.
That cartoon has been reproduced in thirty-six countries and Feyer expects that it will go on
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The impish artist who draws on everything
Continued from page 20
yet the flood of cheques in pounds, francs, marks, guilders, lire and yen that pours through his mail box every day.
More examples of Fever's genius may be seen in a new series of advertisements for cookies known as Snackers. One drawing shows a terrified little man clutching a packet of them. The little man b terrified because he in turn is in the clutches of an enormous predatory eagle jjst taking off for some lonely aerie. Immediately below this great bird, as it struggles for altitude under its heavy load of victuals, the little man’s wife is Rinning. But is she jumping up in an attempt to snatch her husband down? No! She is shouting imperiously: "Herman! Herman! Drop the Snackers!"
On a fast-selling line of highball glasses, which brings him in steady royalties. Feyer reveals a brand of humor that threatens to put the liquor interests out of business. The male faces shown are wracked by a selection of the most bizarre hangovers ever seen outside the Bowery. One man's torment shrieks for pity through three eyes.
Cars drunk with power
On TV Feyer is more demure. In fact, in the early days on a show.named Telestory, he did sketches suitable for children as an illustration of tales told by a writer-performer named Pat Patterson. More recently, during commercials on televised hockey games, Feyer made sketches of automobiles that seemed to be drunk with power on Esso.
Feyer has made more than forty appearances before the cameras with L-ister Sinclair, the bearded author and television personality. As Sinclair recites cynical verses of his own composition Feyer gives them a sort of lunatic reality. On one show entitled How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, Feyer produced all those subtle expressions you see on egotists’ faces when you have to admit that you've forgotten their names.
While most of Feyer’s TV work is done in Canada he receives many summonses from over the border. Recently he was signed up by one of the United States' biggest talent agencies, Music Corporation of America, to create sophisticated cartoon commercials.
As a change from TV Feyer totes around to conventions, company sales meetings, club dinners and public functions an epidiascope, or an elaborate magic lantern. T his permits him to draw on a celluloid pad while audiences watch the projected progress of his work on a large screen. Usually Feyer is paired with the gathering's most light-hearted speaker. His speedy illustrations of the speaker's jokes invariably evoke merriment.
Feyer's most memorable moment at the epidiascope came last summer when he perched himself on the tower of a Toronto Transit Commission overhead repair truck. The occasion was Toronto's celebration of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Feyer executed imag-
inary whimsical episodes from the Seaway’s history and cast them in a fifty by fifty foot reflection on the white wall of a dockside building. As he worked, a beetle alighted on his pad and was magnified on the screen to affrighting proportions. At once Feyer exploited its presence. As the beetle crawled around his pad Feyer sketched farcical little men fleeing in alarm from it. Twelve thousand people, including the Queen, were convulsed.
A restaurateur who commissioned Feyer to do roguish black and white murals for a new snack bar had less reason to be amused. After Feyer quoted his fee the restaurateur gave him fifty percent and promised to pay the remainder when the job was finished. Feyer finished the day before the business was due to open. At this point the restaurateur refused to fork out the balance of the fee and left the premises with a satisfied smirk. Whereupon Feyer. with a few lightning whitening-out strokes, reduced all the figures on the murals to half their proper dimensions. He left half a man, half a dog, half a street lamp, half a car, and so on. “For half the money,” he snarled to himself, “that fellow gets half the picture." When the horrified restaurateur paid up Feyer restored the missing halves to his figures.
At any gathering, Feyer’s diminutive figure is inconspicuous for the first hour or two. He flits with an air of humbleness from group to group, turning up an attentive ear to the taller and more garrulous visitors. "I am not a very noticeable fellow,” he explains. "When 1 come into a room people always get the feeling that somebody has just left.”
As an exceptionally light drinker, Feyer tires quickly of bibulous gobblede-gook and finds a quiet corner, preferably one in which a good-looking woman is sitting. It is then that he begins to enjoy himself. His friend Lister Sinclair says: “George pretends to be deaf so that he can get very close to this woman.”
Observers notice that Feyer captivates his companion with the same soft sinister accent that the movie star Peter Lorre employs when he is playing the part of a cultured monster. From accounts of various women who’ve conversed with Feyer under these circumstances it is possible to reconstruct a fairly typical colloquy. Forgetting that he speaks five languages fluently, including classical Greek and Latin, Feyer begins by seeking forgiveness for his English. “I’m afraid,” he says, “that I speak an accent without a trace of English.” Then he warms up with small talk. He speaks of the Junior League, a fashionable women's service club, as the Junior Plague. He describes a well-known woman singer, who has notorious affectations of temperament, as a schizo-soprano. Of an equally wellknown freeloader he says: “That man is persona gratis.”
Feyer then gets more serious. "I love Canada,” he says, "because the politics are so dull. When politics are exciting the guns soon drown out the speeches. Fancy Canadians wanting a flag of their own. Who wants flags? Flags have led almost as many people as religion to an unexpected grave.”
Feyer then compares humans to his Hungarian sheep dog Molly. "When Molly makes a mistake,” he says, "1 thrash her and she never repeats the mistake. But after every war humans start listening once again to politicians, generals, priests, moralists and other mountebanks and start preparing for the next one. They never learn.”
Feyer then professes agnosticism. “That’s quite different,” he says, “from being an atheist. An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.”
Finally, taking out his cartoonist’s pen — a small holder that feeds marking ink to a thick felt nib — he asks the woman for permission to leave his mark upon her. He might then transform four of her fingers into a quartet of jolly monks or two pair of ballet dancers' legs.
Feyer draws some of his most characteristic cartoons on women’s skin. One, which he drew on the breastbone of his wife Michaela, was of a miniature male trapeze artist swinging ecstatically from her necklace. On the shoulder blades of June Call wood, an attractive Canadian writer, Feyer depicted a tiny leering bowler-hatted man climbing out from the back of her dress. Around the cleft in the forearm of Joyce Davidson, the beautiful blonde TV interviewer, he outlined a rear-view close-up of an unclad trollop.
Following these courtesies Feyer then returns to the general party. “I am not a noisy man,” he says, "but sometimes I feel I must speak up or burst. As soon as 1 speak up other men interrupt me because I am small. So I have had to arm myself against them.” When Feyer finds male interruptions no longer tolerable he produces from his pocket a football fan’s rattle, twirls it to ear-splitting effect, and creates an electric silence. Then he voices his opinions.
Idiosyncracies of this kind prompt many people to speak of Freyer as “that funny little man.” Feyer protests: “I am not a funny little man. I am sad and serious. I am so serious that when I am on TV they have to get a stage hand to poke me in the back with a broom to remind me when to smile. Humor is my business, not my recreation. For recreation 1 read philosophy. I get so tired of humor. For twelve years Canadians at parties have been coming up to me and giving me jokes for my cartoons. Because they never tell me a new one I feel like yelling 'Aw shurrup!’ But I am by nature a polite man.”
A few years ago Feyer departed early with a polite nod and tight lips from a gathering he remembers as "a bunch of twittering dilettantes.” In the corridor outside the apartment door he found a woman’s white elbow-length glove. He whipped out his cartoonist’s pen and, utilizing the fingers of the glove as legs and arms, he transformed the garment into a wicked lampoon of a male steambath client. Then he thumb-tacked the glove to the wall. For several hours it evoked from other arriving and departing guests much lively comment.
Feyer inherited his sense of humor from his paternal grandfather who was a Hungarian farmer. One autumn during World War I Grandfather Feyer was at his wits’ end for agricultural labor because all his hands had been conscripted. In a big meadow a valuable crop of hay lay burning on one side and rotting on the other because there was nobody to rake it over. Grandfather Feyer had an inspiration. He remembered that it was illegal at the time to own gold. So he went down into the village and spread the rumor that under the hay in his meadow hundreds of gold bars were hidden. A battalion of one thousand soldiers marched up with rakes. They found no gold, of course, but they turned the hay over in half an hour.
Feyer’s father was, and still is, a Budapest lawyer. Cartoonist Feyer was born in Budapest in 1921. “My parents were divorced,” he says, “and then each remarried, so that I had two fathers and two mothers. 1 loved them all and they were all very friendly. They were liberal intellectuals. They hated soldiers, flags,
priests, nationalism and all that chauvinistic stuff. And so did I. That’s why I had such an unhappy time at school. A weak leg from a childhood ailment didn’t help me. At school the other boys marched up and down and followed the flag. But I said to myself: To hell with the flag.’ By the time I was fifteen I was suffocating under the bombast, the bureaucracy, and the despotism of life in a central European country. I got some of it out of my system by drawing political cartoons. Satire always flourishes under dictatorships. You have to be very subtle. Each drawing has to have two or three meanings so that you can plead the most harmless one if the cops come to carry you off to jail.” None of Feyer’s cartoon clients knew he was a schoolboy. “So I got men’s fees," he says, "and I was rich. The other kids hated me for it.”
When he fell in love Feyer had enough money to employ three gypsies to serenade his sweetheart. “I got mad because they were all ba I cl and their heads were shining unromantically in the moonlight,” he recalls. "So I ordered them to play lying down." Feyer continued to draw political cartoons when he attended a Jesuit school in Flungary. Fie disliked its precepts, abandoned his Roman Catholic faith and returned home.
Feyer made the most of his gimpy leg when the Flungarian army tried to conscript him in 1939. Later, however, when the army needed reinforcements on the Russian front Feyer was dragged to the colors. Despite his frailty they put him into the infantry and he saw action in the Ukraine. Then one bright moonlight night he saw a pile of corpses thirty feet high. He stared in horror and noticed that the whole mound was stiring slightly. Going closer he discovered that it was crawling with rats.
The next day he began forging papers for himself. He forged sixteen different groups of documents, each one designed to satisfy a particular official among the multitude he knew he would encounter on the long walk back to Budapest. Then he bought civilian clothes, assumed the guise of a lame sixteen-year-old boy, and deserted.
His exceptionally youthful appearance enabled him to live without question in a Budapest garret. "For two years." he said, "I looked out of a window. 1 went out as little as possible.” But he wasn't idle. When he did go out it was to make contact with men he'd known during his boyhood cartooning days, men who made ink, rubber stamps, drawing board and art paper. He lived by forging documents for politicians on the run, escaped prisoners of war, fugitive Jews, underground army men and every so-called enemy of the Hungarian state who came tapping at his door in the dead of night.
"I hated the whole war so much,” he says, "that I didn't give a damn who I helped to get out of it. 1 wasn't in the underground or any of that pap though of course, as a professional forger, I had dealings with it. Once I forged papers for a company of soldiers and drew rations for a hundred men. This enabled my friends and me to survive when others were starving. I had no compunction about it. It was a case of every poor devil for himself.
In 1946, when Budapest was under Russian occupation, there was just as much work for the "boy” forger as there had been during Hungary’s German alliance. But eventually things got too hot for Feyer. When people ask him how he escaped from Hungary he says: “I dehydrated myself, placed myself in an envelope and got a friend to mail me to Austria. In Vienna another friend put me into a cup of warm water and stirred me up.”
Actually he forged himself twelve sets of documents and walked without incident over the Austrian frontier. Among his documents were sets in English, French and Russian for the four different zones.
In Vienna Feyer gave himself up to the British, who bunted him off to a DP camp in Munich, Germany. But Feyer refused to live in the camp. He made a living drawing cartoons for German newspapers and supplemented it with a part time job for UNRRA. He forged a dozen more sets of documents, including a passport. and mailed them to his mother in Budapest. "I decided that she would travel first class,” he says. “First class railroad tickets are just as easy to forge as second or third class.” His mother traveled in silks and furs and without incident from Budapest to Munich. When she found herself stigmatized by the label DP Feyer said to her gently: "It means Delayed Pilgrim.”
Mother and son decided to try for entry to Canada. Mrs. Feyer had the best chance because Canada needed domestic servants. "My mother was fifty.” says Feyer, "I knew this would be a handicap with the Canadian immigration officers. So I fixed her papers and made her thirtytwo." After Mrs. F'eyer departed for domestic service in Toronto — a job she knew something about since she'd had several servants of her own in BudapestGeorge Feyer failed half a dozen times to get for himself Canadian immigration papers. "The Canadian immigration officers wanted only lumberjacks and farmers." he says. "They said that I was likely to become a charge on the public in Canada because of my leg. So I filled up still another application form. Instead of filling in the spaces with words I filled them with comic cartoons representing my supposed experiences as a lumberjack. The immigration men were amused. They decided that I'd be able to make a living in Canada as an artist and they let me through."
Feyer the feather stuffer
Feyer landed in Toronto in 1948. The first thing he did was make a clean breast to the authorities of his forgery of his mother’s age. He was touched when they merely laughed. To support himself he worked all day in a factory for eighteen dollars a week stuffing feathers into eiderdown quilts. When he’d saved enough to buy artist’s equipment he drew most of the night.
His home was a tiny attic with a dormer ceiling in an immigrant district on Spadina Road. Feyer did the interior decorations himself. On the wall over the bed he drew a doleful priest and a line of lugubrious mourners. The dormer angle of the wall and ceiling made the figures look as if they were stooping over a grave. Feyer, when he was in bed, resembled a coffined corpse.
Then one day in 1949 "I came to life again.” he says. That day he sold his first cartoon to Maclean’s. Within a few years Feyer had moved from his garret into an elegant apartment. In the same block he rented a second apartment for his mother and supported her there until her deaui eight months ago.
Meanwhile, in 1951, he had met what he calls "That mountain of a woman, my wife. Mind you she is a beautiful volcanic mountain like Etna or Fujiyama.”
This tall, plump siren who weighs almost twice as much as Feyer, was a Toronto girl named Michaela FitzSimons. She was on vacation from art studies in
New York and had accepted an invitation from a girl friend to join a swimming party at Musselman’s Lake, north of the city. In the party was Feyer. "1 hardly noticed him,” she says.
At eleven o’clock the following night Michaela's telephone rang. She picked up the receiver and said “Hello?” Nobody answered. The earpiece boomed, however, with romantic music from a hi-fi set. After calling "Hello?" several times and hearing nothing but swooning strings and supplicant brass, Michaela hung up. At eleven o'clock for the next thirteen nights the telephone rang and the performance was repeated. The music got more wildly seductive every night and Michaela could hardly contain her curiosity.
On the fifteenth night, when she snatched the receiver up, a voice said: "Well? How do you like my music?" It was Feyer. Four days later they became engaged. Four years later, after wearing down the disapproval of Michaela's family. they married.
Since their wedding in 1955 the Feyers have moved into a handsome house anil furnished it with antiques they've bought oii their annual European trips. The dominating style is medieval Spanish. Their hi-li plays in a heavy carved cupboard that once belonged to a sixteenth century hidalgo. A deathwatch beetle that traveled in the cupboard from Spain, and was wont to distract the Feyers guests by spewing out from the woodwork little plumes of digested sawdust, has since died of sonic vibration.
This pet was replaced by Molly, one of six Hungarian sheep dogs in Canada. She is only half the size of an Old English sheep dog but is just as shaggy and twice as temperamental. Her father came out with fugitive Hungarian rebels of 1956. When Molly barks without distinction between the Feyers' titled and untitled guests the cartoonist says ominously: "Some day that dog is going to be run over right outside our door. And I can give you the license number of the car.” He says Molly is "very useful for wiping your hands on after you've gnawed a greasy chicken bone." In reality however Feyer dotes on Molly so much that Lister Sinclair once remarked to Michaela: "You know, you've got grounds for divorce there." When Michaela announced to her husband that she was going to have a baby Feyer cried ecstatically: "A playmate for Molly! We'll call him Rover!"
But at his mother-in-law's suggestion Feyer's baby son was christened Anthony. Anthony’s nursery is fixed up with many gadgets for swinging on, including a sort of rubber chandelier. Feyer spent fifty dollars on a phone call to Budapest to tell his father of Anthony's arrival. "My father." he says, "occupied all the time in complaints about his digestive difficulties. And then he had the nerve to ask me to send some photos of Anthony."
Feyer visited a photographer friend and said: “Got any pictures of any babies about two days old?" The photographer produced a selection. Feyer gave him a dollar for two prints of a strange baby and sent them to his father marked: "Anthony, or any white baby in the world, at two days."
Feyer has big plans for Anthony's future. He says: "I am going to bring him up as a vulgar millionaire."
As I write this. Feyer is sitting in front of a certain assistant editor of Maclean's and is drawing rough after rough of cartoons. starting off with his most rakehellish ideas and gradually getting a fraction more pure until he finds that delicate plimsol line of decorum at which he makes a sale.
The confab sounds something like this. Feyer (doodling madly): How’s this? Editor: Wow! Don't be crazy!
Feyer: What about this?
Editor: Come off it, George.
Feyer: Or this?
Editor: Hch Heh! Ell take that one home. Feyer: Okay. Okay. Now here's a good one . . .
Editor: Ho ho! But not for us.
Feyer: Well what about . . .
Editor: Tee Hee! Hoo Hoo! Yes, that's okay if you leave out . . . Hey! What are you doing? Leave it as it is ... ”