A Rockwell Father’s Day

A family drives a Model T.
Excuse My Dust
Norman Rockwell
July 31, 1920

This image may have been splashed on the Post’s cover nearly one hundred years ago, but whether the speed limit is 10 or 80 miles per hour, it would appear many a historical Pop shares the need for speed and an occasionally leaden foot. Mom’s face may not be so cheery if a hidden police car spots them.

Catching the Big One
August 8, 1929

Nothing says Father’s Day in quite the same way as teaming up to tug a gleaming pescatarian feast from the lapping waters.

Home from Vacation
September 13, 1930

This particular padre is just as wiped out from the family voyage as his wife and tike. They’ll all be catching some extra Zs come nighttime, but for now, an impromptu bench nap can’t hurt.

Armchair General
April 29, 1944

Even an ocean away, this father takes his parental supervision duties very seriously. His children may have passed him up in height, and they may wander a little further after trading toy popguns for real ones, but the bond remains the same.

Coming and Going
August 30, 1947

Another cover puts Dad behind the wheel but with considerably less gusto for the open road. The exhaustion of the family trip has weighed heavily on this driver and his bleary eyelids, and it would seem everyone else squashed into the car amidst suitcases and picnic baskets as well.

Dewey vs. Truman
October 30, 1948

Dad’s just letting off a little steam over the upcoming presidential election, though judging by the choice of candidate in each frazzled parent’s hand, it would seem that father doesn’t always know best.

Facts of Life
July 14, 1951

It’s clear neither father nor son especially wants to be here after this kid’s questions about where kittens come from led into a painfully eye-opening discussion on the birds and the bees. The repulsed inquirer may never be able to look at Whiskers the same way again.

Breaking Home Ties
September 25, 1954

Goodbyes are never simple, especially for a working-class father and college-bound son who appear to already exist a world apart, but this weary farmer’s forlorn grip on the hats of himself and his offspring suggest the send-off has already reached its limit of mushiness.

December 29, 1956

This kid’s just discovered his father is, in fact, Father Christmas. Undoubtedly the boy has already snubbed the notion that Dad is acting out a holiday myth and instead opted to believe that his parent’s part-time job is delivering candy and joy under every indoor tree in the world.

Sunday Morning
May 16, 1959

Slumped into his favorite chair in a nest of newspaper, this dad is hoping to remain inconspicuous in bright crimson robe and slippers from his churchgoing family, choosing to embrace the religion of relaxation.

Somersaulting into America

The letter that would change my father’s life — and eventually lead to his recent induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame — arrived in 1964, at his high school in Nara, Japan. Addressed to Yoshi Hayasaki, it was from an American.

My father, 17 at the time, could not make out a single sentence typed by Eric Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asked a campus English teacher to translate. “It sounds like he is trying to invite you to come to America,” the teacher told my father.

Hughes, as it turned out, had started a men’s gymnastics team at the University of Washington in 1956, a time when the sport in the U.S. lagged behind Japan and the Soviet Union. While on sabbatical in Japan 1964, Hughes scouted for talent. That was when he first spotted my dad, a 5-foot-3 city and regional champion, ranked as one of the top five gymnasts in Japan.

The letter stated that if my dad earned admittance to the University of Washington, he would be guaranteed a scholarship to the school, and could compete on its team. All my father really knew of America at the time came from watching translated episodes of Rawhide. Coaches and teammates could not understand why my dad would even consider competing in another country — in the U.S. of all places — when Japan was already the gymnastics superpower. Everybody was against the idea, including his father.

Still, the thought of America electrified my dad. He had been offered scholarships to Japanese universities, and saw that many former champions became physical education teachers, while others became foot soldiers for corporations. “I saw my future,” he told me. “It was like a blueprint.”

There is a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” It is a saying I’ve thought about throughout my own life, as someone who feels like I’ve at times stuck out, even in America. Here, however, it is possible to find your own way, and embrace the road less taken. Back then, in Japan, my dad could practically see the hammer’s face.

For him, America was uncharted territory that seemed to offer an escape, or at least an adventure. Grudgingly, my grandfather assented, telling Dad: “Do not come back until you have accomplished something.”

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What Kind of Father Was Norman Rockwell?

What to do with Father’s Day?! Why is Mother’s Day easier? Chocolates, flowers, brunch, and a card and Mom is usually satisfied. Fathers can be more difficult, they don’t mean to be — their gifts sometimes require more thought; more of a search is involved when thinking of a way to show our love and appreciation for Dad. Why? Often, depending on the generation we grew up in, our relationships with our fathers may not be quite as demonstrative and immediate as they are with our mothers, yet they are as deep, layered, and important. No matter how progressive we get, we will still look to our fathers to help teach us how to move and operate in the world — we look to them for those specified tools in learning how to fully function and flourish in this dizzying and increasingly complex world.

In this past year and a half of investigating my grandfather’s life and work, one important aspect I needed to explore and discover was what kind of father Norman Rockwell really was. The Rockwell biographers have invariably painted him as a negligent dad, totally self-absorbed. Yet in my grandfather’s paintings, a very different kind of father emerges — a father who is present in his children’s lives.

Norman Rockwell began painting in the earlier part of the 20th century when the roles between men and women were more clearly and restrictively defined. Yet what kind of father do we see in some of his most beloved paintings? My two favorite fathers NR painted are the man sitting on the running board of an old truck with his college-bound son in Breaking Home Ties (1954) and the father holding a newspaper, standing over his sleeping children with his wife in Freedom from Fear (1943).

Breaking Home Ties Norman Rockwell September 25, 1954
Breaking Home Ties, Norman Rockwell, September 25, 1954

The idea for Breaking Home Ties apparently came from Pop’s sadness about his two younger sons leaving home for college and his oldest entering the Air Force. The loss felt by father and dog is palpable and contrasts with the quiet expectancy of the young man waiting for his ride and the future ahead of him. NR started the story idea with the mother, father and son but then changed it, leaving the mother out of the final painting — more deeply and clearly portraying the unspoken bond between father and son. Nothing needs to be said — it is all in the collapsed body language of the father, the erect carriage of the son, and the loving, forlorn face of the the dog pressed into his leg, hoping against hope to make the young man stay. The dark earthy tones with the pops of red convey the mood instantly. The red flag under the lantern reminds us of the excitement of the coming train. That red is picked up in the son’s socks and tie and in the college sticker on his bag. The careworn, weathered face of the farmer father, a cigarette dangling from his lips, denoting a certain toughness or reserve that covers a gentler, more emotional side. What says it all? The father clinging to both of their hats — his broad-rimmed, more utilitarian hat and his son’s newer, more contemporary fedora. The father’s worn boots; the son’s new, carefully polished shoes. The farmer, the passing generation; the son, the aspiring next generation.

Breaking Home Ties was completed during the darkest period in the family history. A few years before my grandmother, Mary, had a breakdown, which shattered the whole family. The father’s collapsed torso in the painting is a true indication of how my grandfather must have been feeling at this time. With all of his boys leaving home, perhaps NR also felt abandoned, at a loss.

Freedom From Fear Norman Rockwell March 13, 1943
Freedom From Fear, Norman Rockwell, March 13, 1943

I adore the father in Freedom from Fear. He has a quiet strength about him, which his straight posture conveys, yet there is an unmistakable kindness in his face as he looks on as his wife carefully pulls the blanket and sheet up to cover and protect their children. This father is a thinker, a reader, his attire hints at an office job. The paper displays the horror that is occurring in the world in contrast to the safety and comfort of their home. The extraordinary care that NR put into creating the tangible softness and warmth of the blanket. The light coming from downstairs further instills a feeling that all is well. This father is a reassuring presence — he has answers, or if he doesn’t, he will consider and reflect and come to a discerning judgment and understanding. This is a father you can count on.

My grandfather was not close with his own father — his father was wrapped up in his dependent relationship with NR’s mother, a very needy woman who was a hypochondriac. She was the one in the family who required and received most of the attention.

I discovered that Pop, on the other hand, was surprisingly considerate, thoughtful, and generous with all three of his sons. He was around more than most fathers; he was nearby in his studio and enjoyed having the boys watch him paint (although that could get very boring for them!) and often used them as models. NR built a smaller version of his studio in Vermont for his oldest son, Jarvis — supporting Jarvis’ artistic talents and 
financially supporting him. In his notes to family members, my grandfather shows remarkable consideration — in one letter Pop expresses his intention that his youngest son Peter’s fiancé be welcomed into the family just as my mother, Gail, had been when she married my father, Tom. NR wrote charming birthday poems to my father that I 
found among our papers. He also helped my father out at the beginning of his writing career by having him assist with the NR Autobiography. At a time when most fathers 
were solely work driven and expected the woman to take care of the household and children, my grandfather was involved in the lives of his sons in participatory ways. He helped my uncle, Peter, with his artistic endeavors, even pushing a joint project that he wasn’t very enthused about, despite his great reservations about Peter’s aspirations as a sculptor because of the potential difficulty in making a living. True, the family rarely went on vacation. But NR was simply not the neglectful father he’s been made out to be. Yes, my grandfather was a driven, incredibly focused artist and the household did revolve around his work, but unlike some other artists, he did not shirk his duty as a father. In fact, he was known to say, “Once you have children, you’re never free from worry.”

Our fathers do the best they can. Let’s celebrate Dad by making his favorite food — black bean soup and fresh cornbread? — or going for a hike together (check for ticks please!). It’s the simple moments spent together that really count and remain with us.

Warmest wishes to all fathers … especially my own Dad.

Groucho Turns 120

Originally published September 18, 1954. 

Of all the people you know who were born in 1890, how many can still make you laugh? It’s been 80 years since Groucho Marx first appeared in a movie, but he’s still cracking up audiences. Something about his humor — with its rapid-fire, irreverent wordplay — continues to appeal to the American sense of humor.

The character of “Groucho” was born on the vaudeville circuit sometime in 1919. He bore a certain similarity to the Julius Henry Marx born October 2, 1890. Both were unpredictable and sharp-witted, but Julius was far more sentimental and anxious than his comedic counterpart. As his son wrote in an eight-part biography of “My Old Man Groucho,”

He’s a sentimentalist, but he’d rather be found dead than have you know it. And he’s a dreamer, although he likes to pass himself off as a disillusioned realist.

Arthur wrote the biography in 1954, when Groucho was the enormously popular host of the television show, “You Bet Your Life.” His father added to his son’s efforts by sticking in occasional footnotes.

If I’ve given you the impression that my father is a miser, I’d like to correct that notion at once. (“You’d better, or I’ll cut you off without a nickel.” Groucho) He’s one of the most generous men I’ve ever known. (“Now you’re talking.” Groucho)

Arthur recounted several key moments in Groucho’s career, including the day he abandoned his primarily musical act with “The Fourth Nightingales” and moved into comedy.

[They] embarked on a tour of the South and Midwest. Harpo was still singing off-key, Janie O’Riley was still missing the high notes, and least once a month they found themselves stranded without funds in some whistle-stop town. Somewhere during all this, they changed the name of the act to the Marx Brothers & Co. Presumably this was to hide their identity, but essentially the act was the same. They were fooling no one, and by the time they pulled into a place called Nacogdoches, Texas, they were prepared for a last-ditch stand.

Their first performance in Nacogdoches was at a matinee. It was a real honky-tonk kind of theater, with an audience of big ranchers in ten-gallon bate and small ranchers in five-gallon hats. In the middle of the act the audience got up en masse and disappeared through the front exit to view a run-away mule. My father and his brothers were accustomed to insults, but for some reason this one made them furious. When the customers filed back into the theater, all the Marx brothers wanted to do was get even.

A rough-house comedy bit evolved, with the Marxes, led by my father, flinging insults about Texas and its inhabitants to the audience. Since this happened over thirty years ago, my father is not very clear about details, but he does remember calling this Texans in the audience “damned Yankees” and throwing in lines that went something like:

“Nacogdoches…… Is full of roaches.”

If that’s a sample, perhaps it’s just as well that my father can’t remember any more. At any rate, he was launched on a successful career of ad-libbing. The audience loved the Marx brother’s clowning, and greeted the crudest insults and the most tired jokes with laughter.

And so the brothers were suddenly comedians…

And then, there’s the story of how the Marx brothers got their nicknames.

On one of their vaudeville tours, my father and his brothers found themselves on the same bill with a monologist named Art Fisher. Fisher’s hobby was giving people nicknames. A few hours spent with my father convinced Fisher that he ought to be called Groucho. The origin of “Harpo” [the harp-player] is, of course, obvious. “Chico” evolved from the fact that he was a lady-killer, ladies in those days being known as “chickens.” Gummo was so called because he wore “gum shoes” whether it was raining or not. Soon my father and his brothers found themselves using the new names in place of their real ones.

Although Arthur Marx is careful to show the difference between his father, Julius, and the character Groucho. Yet he also relates several incidents where any difference disappears. After the Marx Brothers had become celebrities, for example,

My father made his first extravagant purchase, a seven-passenger sedan that cost six thousand dollars. (“No, it was a six-passenger sedan that cost seven thousand dollars.” Groucho)

The car seemed as tall as it was long; it had window separating the driver’s compartment from the back seat, and it was loaded with nickel-plated trimmings. At one stage of his vaudeville career my father and his brothers had owned motorcycles, and traveled from town to town on them, sometimes transporting chorus girls on the handle bas. (“Sometimes? Always!” Groucho) But this was his first full-sized motor vehicle.

Chico was on the stage doing his piano solo when the new car was delivered to the stage door of the Casino Theater. Figuring that Chico would be on for another ten minutes, father hopped in the car and, dressed as Napoleon, went for a spin around the block. When his Napoleon sketch was due to go on, he was wedged in a traffic jam three blocks away.

“Chico had to play fourteen encores,” my father recalls. “And this was difficult, since he only knew three numbers.”

In his desperation to get hack to the theater, my father made an illegal left turn, and a policeman stopped him. One look at my father dressed as Napoleon was enough to convince the gendarme that he was a refugee from Bellevue’s psychiatric ward.

“But I’m one of the Marx brothers,” father insisted, “and I’m due on the stage right this minute.”

” If you’re one of the Marx brothers,” said the cop, “let’s hear you say something funny.”

“If you’re a policeman, let’s see you arrest somebody!” retorted my father. That line should have landed my father in jail, but evidently the policeman felt that only a Marx brother would have the nerve to say such a thing. He escorted Groucho back to the theater…

My mother never quite understood my father’s sense of humor. Her first warning of things to come occurred at their wedding, in 1919. The ceremony was to take place in her mother’s apartment in Chicago. They were turned down by five different clergymen before Jo Swerling, their best man, found a minister willing to marry a show-business couple.

My father showed his gratitude to the minister by heckling him all through the ceremony. Harpo can attest to this, because he was hiding behind a potted plant at the time, and was moving the plant around the room to make it appear to be walking.

Coming down the home stretch, relieved that the ordeal was almost over, the minister asked, “Do you, Julius, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”

“Well, I’ve gone this far,” replied my father. “I might as well go through with it.”

Very few women would stand for that sort of thing, much less think it funny. My mother put up with it for twenty-one years…

He always felt fine when he took the family to a restaurant tor dinner. Then mother could count on him for jokes, especially if the headwaiter didn’t recognize him.

A page from the September 18, 1954 edition of the Post.
A page from the September 18, 1954 edition of the Post. “Fay McKenzie and Groucho Marx pull an old vaudeville routine on one of his wartime radio shows.”

“Name, sir? There’ll be a short wait.”

“Jackson,” father would reply. “Stonewall Jackson. And this is Mrs. Jackson, and there are the little Jacksons.”

Mother would do a slow burn, knowing that his real name would get us a table immediately.

“Grouch,” she whisper, “Tell them who you are.”

“Why should I?” he’d reply. “If I can’t get in under the name of Jackson, then I don’t want to eat here. I don’t like restaurants where you have be a celebrity to get in.”

“Then you should have made a reservation,” she’d say. “You can’t walk into a restaurant on Thurdsay night without a reservation and—“

At this point we’d leave for another restaurant, or my father would tap the headwaiter on the arm. “My wife wants me to tell you who I am,” he’d say. “My name’s not really Stonewall Jackson. It’s Abe Schwartz, and I’m in the wholesale-plumbing supply business. And this is Mrs. Schwatz and all the little Schwartzes.”

If the headwaiter thought he was peculiar, the waitress, when we’d finally be seated, would consdier completely mad.

“Miss,” he might begin, glancing up from the menu, “do you have frog’s legs?”

“I’ll ask the chef,” she’d reply.

“No. You’re not supposed to say that,” father would explain in a patient tone. “When I say, ‘Do you have frog’s legs?’ you’re supposed to answer, ‘No, rheumatism, makes me walk this way.’ O.K., now let’s try it again. Miss, do you have frog’s legs?”

Her face would go blank. “It isn’t on the menu. I’ll have to ask the chef.”

“Now you’ve spoiled it. We’ll have to start all over aga—“

“Grouch,” my mother would interrupt, “this girl is busy. Who do you waste her time with such foolishness?”

“It’s not foolishness. It might come in very handy to her someday. Supposing vaudeville comes back and she wants to get up an act. Look at the shape she’d be in with this sure-fire material.”

At the risk of sounding traitorous, I suspect that the comedy was a way of drawing attention to himself, without actually revealing his identity. He had a fixation about not wanting to get any special privileges just because he was a celebrity…  At the same time, he couldn’t reconcile himself to being unrecognized. So he made himself conspicuous by other methods. (“Take it easy with that probing. If I want to be analyzed, I’ll go to a psychiatrist.” Groucho)