Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

Philip Nel
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hzbq
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    Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss
    Book Description:

    Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk, 1906-1975) and Ruth Krauss (1901-1993) were a husband-and-wife team that created such popular children's books asThe Carrot Seed and How to Make an Earthquake.Separately, Johnson created the enduring children's classicHarold and the Purple Crayonand the groundbreaking comic stripBarnaby. Krauss wrote over a dozen children's books illustrated by others, and pioneered the use of spontaneous, loose-tongued kids in children's literature. Together, Johnson and Krauss's style--whimsical writing, clear and minimalist drawing, and a child's point-of-view--is among the most revered and influential in children's literature and cartooning, inspiring the work of Maurice Sendak, Charles M. Schulz, Chris Van Allsburg, and Jon Scieszka.

    This critical biography examines their lives and careers, including their separate achievements when not collaborating. Using correspondence, sketches, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, archived and personal interviews, author Philip Nel draws a compelling portrait of a couple whose output encompassed children's literature, comics, graphic design, and the fine arts. Their mentorship of now-famous illustrator Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) is examined at length, as is the couple's appeal to adult contemporaries such as Duke Ellington and Dorothy Parker. Defiantly leftist in an era of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, Johnson and Krauss risked collaborations that often contained subtly rendered liberal themes. Indeed, they were under FBI surveillance for years. Their legacy of considerable success invites readers to dream and to imagine, drawing paths that take them anywhere they want to go.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-064-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-2)
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-8)

    When a stranger knocked on Crockett Johnson’s front door one mild Friday in August 1950, he was not expecting was a visit from the FBI.

    Stepping out onto his porch, Johnson spoke with one federal agent while another surreptitiously snapped his photograph. As he stood there politely answering their questions, he had no idea that the bureau had for months been opening his mail, monitoring his bank account, and noting the names of anyone who visited or phoned.¹

    For the previous five years, Johnson and his wife, Ruth Krauss, had been living quietly in Rowayton, a small coastal community in...

  4. 1 RUTH KRAUSSʹS CHARMED CHILDHOOD
    (pp. 9-15)

    During a midnight storm on 25 July 1901, Ruth Ida Krauss was born. She emerged with a full head of long black hair and her thumb in her mouth. According to Ruth’s birth certificate, twenty-one-year-old Blanche Krauss gave birth at 1025 North Calvert Street, a Baltimore address that did not exist. This future writer of fiction was born in a fictional place. Or so her birth certificate alleges. But it was filed in 1933, at which time the attending physician did live at the above address. Presumably, she was born at 1012 McCulloh, which in 1901 was the doctor’s address...

  5. 2 BECOMING CROCKETT JOHNSON
    (pp. 16-24)

    Crockett Johnson was born David Johnson Leisk (pronouncedLisk), in New York City, on 20 October 1906. His grandfather, David Leask, was a carpenter in Lerwick, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. He and his wife, Jane, ultimately had ten children, all of whom attended school until they were old enough to learn a trade. Their third child and second son, named for his father, was born on 3 August 1865, and by age fifteen, he was an apprentice stationer. By 1890, after a brief career as a journalist, young David had left what he called the “treeless isles” and emigrated to...

  6. 3 PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG WOMAN
    (pp. 25-31)

    In the summer of 1919, eighteen-year-old Ruth Krauss was one of Camp Walden’s oldest campers. Founded three years earlier by New York City principal Blanche Hirsch and teacher Clara Altschul, Camp Walden sought to promote democratic cooperation, to foster a love of nature, and to give girls “a happy and vigorous summer, and ample opportunity for all forms of athletic activity,” including archery, swimming, diving, hiking, basketball, baseball, and tennis.¹

    Ruth took part, displaying more exuberance than skill and earning the nickname Doggie. In an account of “The First Counselor-Girl Basket-Ball Game” in the summer of 1920, fellow camper Ruth...

  7. 4 PUNCHING THE CLOCK AND TURNING LEFT
    (pp. 32-37)

    In 1926, unable to afford their home of a dozen years, the Leisks moved about two miles west into a house at 53 North Prince Street (now 33-43 Prince Street) in Flushing, Queens. The new house was only ten feet wide, especially cramped for a family that included Dave’s cousin, Bert Leisk, and his friend, Jim McKinney, who had fled Britain’s postwar economic slump in 1923. Glad for a temporary escape from these close quarters, Dave sought work.¹

    Department stores were thriving in the 1910s and 1920s—Marshall Fields in Chicago, Filene’s in Boston, and Macy’s in New York. In...

  8. 5 FIRST DRAFT
    (pp. 38-42)

    While Dave and Charlotte were making friends with leftists in Greenwich Village, Ruth and Lionel were living nearby, in the West Village. She was at 325 West Twelfth Street (between Greenwich and Hudson), and he was two blocks north, at 78 Horatio Street (between Washington and Greenwich). At least, those were the addresses they gave to the Coast Guard in November 1934.

    In 1934, Lionel and Ruth decided to travel down to Baltimore by boat for Thanksgiving. They joined writer and artist Richard Barry, who was taking his forty-foot cabin cruiser, theHenry S., to Florida and would stop in...

  9. 6 CROCKETT AND THE RED CRAYON
    (pp. 43-50)

    New Massesappealed to Crockett Johnson because, as cartoonist and contributor Mischa Richter noted, the magazine was “the only place where you could be published regularly with ideas that attacked the fascists.” In a December 1934 cartoon, Johnson likened fascism to a racket run by a gang of thugs. As they sit around a card table, one gangster cleaning his gun and a second having a drink, a third contends, “But regimentation won’t hamper your individuality, Eustace; this Fascism racket will give real freedom to our artistic souls.” With the repeal of Prohibition the previous year having dried up the...

  10. 7 ʺWE MET, AND THAT WAS IT!ʺ
    (pp. 51-60)

    By about June 1939, Ruth returned to America and moved back into her 36 West Tenth Street apartment. But she did not stay there for long. She “felt a definite need for a broadening of information and a deepening of insight in general—‘education’—so, when I met Maggie who was at that time just starting her postgraduate work in anthropology at Columbia, I went along.”¹

    “Maggie” was Maggie Parry, and in the summer of 1939, she participated in an expedition, led by Columbia University anthropologist Ruth Benedict, to the Blackfeet Indian nation in Montana. Others on the expedition included...

  11. 8 BARNABY
    (pp. 61-67)

    Crockett Johnson tried for more than two years to find a home forBarnaby. In addition to the abortive effort at self-syndication, Johnson’s idea was rejected byCollier’s. But shortly after the move to Darien, Charles Martin, Johnson’s friend and the art editor of the newPM, came to visit and saw a half-page color SundayBarnabystrip. He offered the strip to King Features, which rejected it. ButPM’s comics editor, Hannah Baker, loved it.¹

    Founded in 1940 by formerTimeeditor Ralph Ingersoll,PMwas a Popular Front newspaper. Original plans for the publication did not include comics,...

  12. 9 A GOOD MAN AND HIS GOOD WIFE
    (pp. 68-80)

    Dave’s working methods meant that he and Ruth kept very different hours. Ruth rose at seven in the morning, after which she would take their two dogs for a walk along the Five Mile River. While he slept, Ruth began working on story ideas in her upstairs studio. Dave rose at noon, and Ruth fixed his breakfast and her lunch shortly thereafter. Then he would read for about two hours before working in their Victory Garden or going sailing while she swam. At 5:30, they had dinner, prepared by Ruth. Dave would start work onBarnabyat 8:00 but found...

  13. 10 THE ATHENS OF SOUTH NORWALK
    (pp. 81-90)

    Crockett Johnson’s success brought financial security—and more work. People wrote to request original strips, ask him to donate artwork to various causes, and inquire if they might reprintBarnabycomics. Editors foundBarnabyvery useful for illustrating concepts.

    To highlight the need to educate the public about statistics, theAmerican Statistical Association Bulletinchose aBarnabyin which O’Malley misuses statistical methods, “fitting the data to the curve” instead of using the data to plot the curve. For a report on the wartime scarcity of cigarettes, a December 1944Advertising Ageuses a strip in which O’Malley suggests that...

  14. 11 ART AND POLITICS
    (pp. 91-98)

    Freed from the daily obligation of writing and drawingBarnabystrips, Crockett Johnson at last had some time for all his otherBarnaby-related projects. The second issue of theBarnaby Quarterlyappeared in November 1945, with the third issue following three months later. Johnson was working on a thirdBarnabybook, not a collection of redrawn daily strips but “an illustrated story.” Having already illustrated two children’s books and drawn a comic strip that appealed to young people, Johnson was considering writing for children. The new book never appeared, likely because theBarnabyplay needed extensive revisions. The idea of...

  15. 12 AT HOME WITH RUTH AND DAVE
    (pp. 99-107)

    For Ruth Krauss, the harsh 1947–48 winter brought writer’s block. Through the middle of December, the temperature had been a bit warmer than usual, but on the 26th, two feet of snow blanketed Rowayton, the beginning of a three-month stretch when New England received twice as much snow as usual. By February, Krauss found it difficult to write, a situation for which she blamed William James, although she mixed him up with Henry: “It must have been Henry because according to my present figuring William is the fictionist (I know I should know which is who and all but...

  16. 13 THE BIG WORLD AND THE LITTLE HOUSE
    (pp. 108-118)

    On 20 July 1948, a federal grand jury indicted twelve Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act (the Alien and Registration Act of 1940). Crockett Johnson personally knew at least one of the “New York Twelve,” having campaigned for New York City councilman Ben Davis. The Smith Act imposed fines and/or up to twenty years imprisonment on anyone who “advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of over-throwing” the U.S. government. As Michael Steven Smith notes, this was “the first statute since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to make mere advocacy of ideas a...

  17. 14 ARTISTS ARE TO WATCH
    (pp. 119-131)

    On 6 February 1950, Crockett Johnson signed a friend of the court brief supporting the American Communist Party inUnited States v. William Z. Foster et al., the trial of the final member of the New York Twelve. Three days later, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy claimed to have a list of fifty-seven State Department employees who were members of the American Communist Party. By the end of April, the FBI’s New York Division identified Crockett Johnson as one of “400 concealed Communists” and began compiling a file on him.¹

    According to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, communists sought to influence...

  18. 15 THE ART OF COLLABORATION
    (pp. 132-144)

    Neither Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss nor their friends and neighbors knew that the FBI had turned its attentions elsewhere. At least some Rowayton residents believed in the early 1950s that when the couple gave a party, the FBI would record the license plate numbers of those who attended. With the blacklist shrinking his American acting jobs, friend and neighbor Stefan Schnabel left to work in the West German film business until the early 1960s. Other old friends were testifying before McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. On 1 July 1953, the subcommittee called Rockwell Kent, who refused to cooperate...

  19. 16 HAROLD
    (pp. 145-152)

    In November 1954, Dave finished dummies forHarold and the Purple Crayon. The previous year, his sister, Else Leisk Frank, and her husband, Leonard Frank, had adopted a boy, whom they named Harold David, after Harold Gold, the attorney who helped with the adoption, and her father. Though Dave was not especially close to his sister, their mother’s death eleven months earlier had brought them together, and he named his character after his nephew. The week before Thanksgiving, he sent the manuscript to Ursula Nordstrom.¹

    Had she known that the FBI was investigating Johnson, Nordstrom would not have cared. After...

  20. 17 STRIKING OUT INTO NEW AREAS OF EXPERIMENTATION
    (pp. 153-162)

    Though pleased by the swift sales and strong reviews ofHarold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson viewed his success from a gently sardonic perspective. In November 1955, his clipping service sent him theWinston-Salem Journal and Sentinel’s single-sentence review by Dave Marion, age four: “Harold can draw whatever he wants with his purple crayon, and then it really is.” Bemused, he passed the clipping along to his editor: “Dear Ursula,” he wrote. “Just in case you missed this—It’s a very good review.”¹

    Ruth Krauss’s work was getting good reviews, too. An eight-page article inElementary Englishproclaimed that...

  21. 18 NEW ADVENTURES ON PAGE AND SCREEN
    (pp. 163-170)

    As she considered pursuing new directions, Ruth Krauss still had to earn a living. To find ideas for her children’s books, she continued to do what had worked in the past—visiting the Rowayton Kindergarten and the Community Cooperative Nursery School. Even though they knew she was older, children accepted her as one of them. If Krauss wondered what the children were discussing, she would ask. They were happy to answer and to let her take notes.¹

    By the first few months of 1957, Krauss had gathered enough of their stories to show Ursula Nordstrom. In April, the two women...

  22. 19 ʺHITTING ON ALL 24 CYLINDERSʺ
    (pp. 171-182)

    Creatively, 1958 began very well for Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. She was working on a book based on the artwork she had collected from children at the Rowayton public schools over the past six years. One child had drawn “Girl with the Sun on a String,” a bright round yellow circle with yellow lines radiating outward; one line ran all the way down into the grip of a little girl’s hand. A drawing of a white circle against a darker background bore the caption “A Moon or a Button.” Instead ofA Book of First Definitions(the subtitle of...

  23. 20 POET IN THE NEWS, CARTOONIST ON TV
    (pp. 183-195)

    In that same January 1959 letter, Ruth Krauss announced, “I have become a Poetry Nut. I’m not kidding. It has become the major interest of my life—at this point.” She was reading and writing poetry for an adult audience and wondered whether Nordstrom would be interested in a book of children’s verse. It would “have every kind of poem in it from strict ballad form to dramatic poems, looser narrative forms, little couplets just coupled (honeymooners), rhyme, unrhyme, assonance, alliteration, strict meters of every kind and no meters of every kind too.” She knew that it would “never sell...

  24. 21 LORCA VARIATIONS AND HAROLDʹS ABC
    (pp. 196-207)

    Ruth Krauss was so invested in her new career as a poet that at age fifty-nine, she decided to learn French. Having read Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and Arthur Rimbaud in Kenneth Koch’s class, she felt that she should learn the language in which they had written. She and Dave planned a summer 1960 vacation “for a week or so only—maybe Quebec so I can practice reciting French poetry.”¹

    Before leaving for Canada, Crockett Johnson sent a dramatic adaptation ofBarnabyto E. Y. Harburg. But Harburg was too busy to take on the project, and although he thought...

  25. 22 PROVOCATEUR AND PHILOSOPHER
    (pp. 208-218)

    Now back in touch with Ad Reinhardt, Crockett Johnson was taking an interest in his old friend’s career. In April 1963, noting that Reinhardt’s paintings were on display “around the world,” Johnson asked, “Have you thought of Rowayton?” Kidding Reinhardt, who was then being canonized as a major American painter, Johnson added, “We have a nice little Art Association here and I think if I played my cards right I could wangle you into a group show. Oils priced over thirty dollars don’t sell very well of course, and it will cost you fifteen dollars to join, but the prestige...

  26. 23 PAINTING, PASSPORTS, AND PROTEST
    (pp. 219-230)

    With Ruth recovered from her bout with spinal meningitis, she and Dave decided to travel abroad, applying for new passports in the fall of 1964. She was sixty-three and he was fifty-eight: If they were going to see more of the world, now was the time to do it. Before departing, however, they began speaking out at home against the Vietnam War, which had begun to escalate with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Johnson was among the seventy-five national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and...

  27. 24 THEOREMS IN COLOR, POEMS ON STAGE
    (pp. 231-243)

    On the afternoon of 5 April 1967, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss arrived at the Glezer Gallery, 271 Fifth Avenue, New York. He wore a dark shirt, with a lighter tie and jacket. She wore a simple necklace, a light-colored, loose-fitting dress, stockings, and shoes that were formal but not entirely comfortable. At 5:00, invited guests, mathematicians, and the press began to arrive. A mere sixteen months after deciding to pursue painting, Johnson was having his first show,Abstractions of Abstractions: Schematic Paintings Deriving from Axioms and Theorems of Geometry, from Pythagoras to Apollonius of Perga, and from Desargues and...

  28. 25 ʺYOUʹRE ONLY AS OLD AS OTHER PEOPLE THINK YOU AREʺ
    (pp. 244-254)

    Slim, petite, and lively, Ruth Krauss appeared to be about ten years younger than she was. Since the year of her birth contradicted her appearance, she decided to do something about it. Through 1971, reference works list her birth year as 1901, if they list it at all. From 1973 on, the books list her birth year as 1911. When she turned seventy, she became more acutely aware that people would see her as old. She felt young. So she changed her birth year. As she would later tell a female friend, “You’re only as old as other people think...

  29. 26 WHAT WOULD HAROLD DO?
    (pp. 255-257)

    The news of Dave’s cancer threw Ruth into a state of collapse. For thirty-five years, he had been the one person on whom she had allowed herself to depend. Life without him was inconceivable.¹

    At the end of the first week of February, Dave checked in to Norwalk Hospital. He learned that although the doctors there could not do much for him, there was some chance that more skilled surgeons elsewhere might be able to remove the cancerous parts of his lungs. Buoyed by this possibility, he managed to keep a sense of humor. When neighbor Doris Lund saw him...

  30. 27 LIFE AFTER DAVE
    (pp. 258-268)

    Ruth never got over the loss of Dave. After the mute shock of bereavement, she struggled to cope, seeking a way forward. Immediately after his death, she knew she could not bear to stay in the house alone. So, Dick and Betty Hahn took her back to Baltimore to stay with them. A few weeks later, they brought her along on a planned holiday to Maine. Feeling a little better, Ruth decided to apply for a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There, she would be able to work among fellow artists, away from the memories evoked...

  31. 28 CHILDREN ARE TO LOVE
    (pp. 269-273)

    In the fall of 1989, Dave’s studio was empty again. When Nina Stagakis visited, Ruth asked whether she and her family could move in, living there rent-free in exchange for serving as her caretakers. Stagakis realized that having the five members of her family living in a single room would be impractical. So Ruth placed another ad in the paper.¹

    The ad was answered by Joanna Czaderna, a Polish immigrant who was seven months pregnant at the time. Although she was employed, she was having difficulty finding a place to live because landlords refused to rent to a pregnant woman....

  32. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 274-275)

    In the decades since their deaths, Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson have receded in the public memory, she more quickly than he. Where once her poetic and dramatic achievements ranked among the best of the contemporary avant-garde, they are today a footnote to her better-known career as children’s author. That career, too, does not shine as brightly as it once did. All of her poetry is out of print, and less than a dozen of her thirty-six children’s books remain available.

    However, new editions of some of her books have been published.The Bundle Book(1951) gained new life as...

  33. NOTES
    (pp. 276-302)
  34. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 303-340)
  35. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 341-345)
  36. INDEX
    (pp. 346-367)
  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 368-368)