Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jay Kennedy Memorial

I want to share some of my impressions from this past Sunday's well attended memorial service for Jay Kennedy, the Editor-in-Chief at King Features, who died suddenly on March 15, 2007.

I'm not going to be able to talk about everything. This has been a sudden loss that many felt deeply. I'm skipping over some of the more personal, heartfelt remarks that I thought were meant to be private.

There were 250 people (maybe more) that got together Sunday, April 15th, for this memorial service. It was held at a favorite restaurant of Jay's, The Park, in the Chelsea section of New York City.

The city was getting hit with a spring Nor'easter. Rain was pelting down and everyone who arrived was wet, even if they had an umbrella, and all were glad to get inside. I'd taken a car service from Brooklyn, along with Stephanie Piro and her husband John Nolan. They had come down from New Hampshire for this.

There was some general milling around in the bar area, which was framed by the long bar on one side and a big open hearth on the other. The room filled up quickly with dripping friends and colleagues, who were shaking hands and hugging. I chatted with Bunny Hoest and Charlie Kochman and John Reiner and Sam Gross.

After a half hour, we were ushered into a large bar/restaurant area. The Park has a series of rooms, each different from the other. Off of this cozy bar area was a large atrium with a glass ceiling, and plants and trees all around. In one corner, there was a display of dozens of drawings Jay had made, as well as photos of some of his sculptures. His drawings reminded me of a couple of underground cartoonists -- Crumb and Jay Lynch (no relation) maybe. His painted sculptures were of Fred Flintstone, and there were some other animated characters. Great attention to detail, proportion and expression. I had never known that Jay was an artist. There was a slide show of photos from Jay's life -- from school photos to present day.

I chatted with Amy Lago, and saw Lee Salem as well. My friend Tony Murphy was there, as were Jules Feiffer, Mort Gerberg, Hilary Price, Isabella Bannerman, Rina Piccolo, Irwin Hasen, Jim Salicrup, Maggie Thompson (of the Comics Buyers' Guide) and many others, including, of course, King Features president Rocky Shepard.

I stood in line to to write a note in a remembrance book. I chatted with Chris Browne, who was ahead of me. We were interrupted several times as Arnie Roth, Dan Piraro, and others walked by and stopped to talk. And then I met so many people; colleagues from King, some cartoonists I knew and some cartoonists I was meeting for the first time.

There was a small program book titled "Jay Kennedy 1956-2007: Celebrating a Creative Life," listing the baker's dozen of "colleagues and cartoonists, friends and family" who were going to speak about him. There were also the lyrics to "Forever Young," by Bob Dylan, "one of his favorite artists."

The atrium had been set up with chairs and tables. There were several trees growing out of the terra cotta flooring, and sparrows were chirping and flitting from tree to tree. Little gourds had been hung in the trees to encourage roosting. After an hour, we were all asked to take a seat in this atrium.

Bruce Paisner, Executive Vice President of Hearst Entertainment, was first to speak. He recalled hiring Jay, who, at the time, had appeared for the job interview in jeans and a ponytail. Despite the inappropriate attire -- and a very challenging interview where Jay pelted Mr. Paisner with questions -- he was hired at King Features.

Brendan Burford, Associate Editor at King, spoke about his job interview with Jay. "Can you write?" asked Jay. Brendan said he could. "Everyone THINKS they can write!" said Jay, and he gave Brendan an exercise: write a fictional press release about a Roy Crane retrospective at the Society of Illustrators. And so, Brendan was sent away.

Brendan did not reveal that he was a big fan of Mr. Crane's work. He went home and wrote up the best release he could. The next day he faxed it over. Within thirty minutes, an impressed Jay Kennedy phoned him. Brendan COULD write! Like Mr. Paisner did with Jay, Jay now took a chance on a young man just starting out.

And I agree with Brendan's comment that if anyone ever wants to mount a REAL Crane retrospective, please do it! After all, the release is all ready written.

Close friends and members of his family spoke, including Jean Kennedy, Jay's mom. She related a number of stories, including the one about the Monet painting that was written in the New York Observer:

"Mr. Kennedy’s mother, Jean M. Kennedy, said she noticed her son's 'sharpness' on his first visit to the Museum of Modern Art, when he was 6 years old. Young Mr. Kennedy, arms folded, stood looking at Monet’s Water Lilies, then said, 'It’s all pretty good, except for that mistake over there in the corner.' The rest of his family strained to see what Jay was getting at—then a stunned security guard admitted that the painting had been retouched after an installation mishap."

I felt a lot of what was said was personal, so meant for the gathering of people in the room, that I didn't want to share everything. Anyway, I want to acknowledge the kind words and I don't want to give short shrift to them.

Friend and colleague Eric Himmel, Editor in Chief at Harry Abrams, said that thru the years Jay would come up with ideas for books and he would always do his best to see if they could see print. I got the impression that when Jay got an idea, Abrams listened.

Jerry Scott was unable to attend, but Jim Borgman spoke for the both of them. It's strange. I can't recall what Mr. Borgman said. By this time I had moved from my seat to standing in a doorway. There were several leaks in the atrium, not the least of which was over my head. I remember laughing, and then the whole room kind of sighing a bit. ZITS, along with MUTTS, are two of the big mainstream comics successes that were helmed by Kennedy.

Mort Walker talked about sexism in Beetle Bailey. Back in the day, General Halftrack was openly lusting after Miss Buxley, and that was a no-no after women's liberation. There was talk of writing out the General from the strip. A Walker family member suggested Halftrack go to sensitivity class -- and when the idea was related to Jay by Mort, he heartily agreed. The General would go through rehabilitation and survive.

Patrick McDonnell spoke about the time that Jay tried to talk him out of the comic strip business. McDonnell was, after all, a very successful illustrator. What did he need with a comic strip? Patrick explained that he had ALWAYS wanted to do a strip. With comic strips, warned Jay, there are never ending deadlines; you don't want to shackle yourself with so much work for something that may not be successful. Obviously, Patrick didn't listen to his friend's advice.

Matt Groening talked about Jay contacting him way back in the early 1980s. But it wasn't to talk about Matt's underground strip LIFE IN HELL. Jay knew that Matt was friends with Lynda Barry, and Jay wanted to buy some Lynda Barry comics from Matt. This was back when she printed her comics herself, with a piece if yarn to bind them. In other words, Jay liked Matt's comics, but he loved Lynda's. Jay was prepared to offer $2 apiece.

Matt was appalled at the low price for this rare item. "Two dollars?!"

Well, Jay pointed out, that is, after all, the established price in the Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide.

"But, Jay, you WROTE the Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide!!"

Jay paid $4 apiece.

So many of Jay's friends spoke. So many were people he had known for decades. A couple of people who talked had been friends with him since grade school. Even then, you could tell, that Jay was a bright and stubborn guy who was intent on figuring out the world. He was a true pal who kept his friends.

Particularly moving was Jay's old high school girlfriend. They reconnected after all these years. They were dating at the time of his passing.

This was a moving ceremony, and I hope some other people that were there add a note here or on their Web sites.

I didn't bring a camera, but at after the presentations, the crowd was breaking up and I saw Joe Giella, Matt Groening and Bill Griffith chatting together. In my mind, I took a picture of them. Matt bowed his head, and Joe was leaning in close, talking. Bill, still holding his umbrella, was smiling and listening. I couldn't hear what they were saying.

But I was wondering how many people have just these three cartoonists entertained? Let's see, these are the people behind BATMAN, MARY WORTH, THE SIMPSONS, FUTURAMA and ZIPPY THE PINHEAD. The number of readers and watchers must be in the millions at least.

And Jay Kennedy was woven through all that.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth,
And see the lights surrounding you.

-- Bob Dylan, "Forever Young"


Mark Anderson said...

Goodness, this is lovely, Mike.

I wish I could've been there, but your blog is the next best thing.

Joan Crosby Tibbetts said...


Your description of the memorial service for Jay Kennedy was moving, and beautifully written. He would have been pleased.

I will be in touch soon. Regards to you and Stacy.

Joan Crosby Tibbetts