Almost three quarters of a century ago, my mother placed a message in a bottle and tossed it out beyond the waves. It bobbed along through tides, storms, and squalls until just recently, almost four decades after her death, it washed ashore at my feet. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Still, what happened, even stripped of the metaphors, does astonish me. So here, on the day after my 71st birthday, is a little story about a bottle, a message, time, war (American-style), my mom, and me.
Recently, based on a Google search, a woman e-mailed me at the website I run, TomDispatch, about a 1942 sketch by Irma Selz that she had purchased at an estate sale in Seattle. Did it, she wanted to know, have any value?
Now, Irma Selz was my mother and I answered that, to the best of my knowledge, the drawing the woman had purchased didn’t have much monetary value, but that in her moment in New York City—we’re talking the 1940s—my mom was a figure. She was known in the gossip columns of the time as “New York’s girl caricaturist.” Professionally, she kept her maiden name, Selz, not the most common gesture in that long-gone era and a world of cartoonists and illustrators that was stunningly male.
From the 1930s through the 1940s, she drew theatrical caricatures for just about every paper in town: the Herald Tribune, The New York Times, the Journal-American, PM, the Daily News, the Brooklyn Eagle, not to speak of King Features Syndicate. She did regular “profile” illustrations for The New Yorker and her work appeared in magazines like Cue, Glamour, Town & Country, and The American Mercury. In the 1950s, she drew political caricatures for the New York Post when it was a liberal rag, not a Murdoch-owned right-wing one.
Faces were her thing; in truth, her obsession. By the time I made it to the breakfast table most mornings, she would have taken pencil or pen to the photos of newsmakers on the front page of The New York Times and retouched the faces. In restaurants, other diners would remind her of stock characters—butlers, maids, vamps, detectives—in the Broadway plays she had once drawn professionally. Extracting a pen from her purse, she would promptly begin sketching those faces on the tablecloth (and in those days, restaurants you took kids to didn’t have paper tablecloths and plenty of crayons). I remember this, of course, not for the remarkable mini-caricatures that resulted but for the embarrassment it caused the young Tom Engelhardt. Today, I would give my right arm to possess those sketches-on-cloth. In her old age, walking on the beach, my mother would pick up stones, see in their discolorations and indentations the same set of faces, and ink them in, leaving me all these years later with boxes of fading stone butlers.