â€œAn Artist and adventurer: Memories of Darrell McClure linger in his back country Greenwich homeâ€
Richard Cryer knew nothing of the man who built his back country Greenwich stone Cape when he bought it for $85,000 in 1969.
â€œI decided to look him up,â€ said Cryer, a 69 year-old-retired computer database publisher. â€œI finally figured out from Town Hall records that a man named Darrell McClure built the house in 1940. It was a real estate agent, I think, who told me that McClure was a cartoonist.â€
Curiosity compelled Cryer, an MIT graduate who had traced his own familyâ€™s genealogy back 300 years, to research McClure, the illustrator of â€œLittle Annie Rooney,â€ a popular newspaper cartoon strip conceived in the 1920s.
â€œHe was a great cartoonist,â€ Cryer said. â€œWhen I was young, I read â€˜Terry and the Piratesâ€™ and 'Dick Tracy,â€™ and when I had my own kids I got interested in McCClureâ€™s work." The problem was that the cartoon â€˜Little Annie Rooneyâ€™ was basically copied.
â€œLittle Annie Rooneyâ€---a name borrowed from a 1890 song and a 1925 Mary Pickford film --- was King Features syndicateâ€™s attempt to compete with the feisty â€œLittle Orphan Annieâ€ created by legendary cartoonist Harold Gray of the rival Chicago Tribune syndicate.
Like Grayâ€™s moppet, Annie Rooney was an orphan. Following the fantastic storylines of the stripâ€™s writer, Brandon Walsh McClure drew Annie and her canine companion, Zero, a fox terrier, as they dodged the omnipresent Miss Meany --- a cruel orphanage administrator who was determined to get her hands on the little girl.
â€œIt was beautifully drawn but really sappy,â€ said cartoonist and comic historian Brian Walker of Wilton. â€œIt was an imitation of â€˜Little Orphan Annie.â€™ ""The strength of the comic was not in its writing. Brandon Walsh was not known for his storytelling.â€
Strengthened by McClureâ€™s drawing, the cartoon ran from 1930 until 1966. In 1970, Cryer finally managed to obtain McClureâ€™s address in California and wrote the retired cartoonist, then 67.
â€œI said, â€˜I am the owner of your house; itâ€™s really nice.'" " I really like the north window, and can you send a picture?" Cryer recalled. â€œAnd he sent a picture back to me.â€
That sketch has been hanging in Cryerâ€™s family room ever since. McClure knew the room well because it was his studio when he lived in the house from 1940-1947. He drew from memory the roomâ€™s distinctive north window, which follows the general shape of the cathedral ceiling. In the sketch, Annie leans across McClureâ€™s drafting board, pointing at the snow outside and addressing her dog: â€œLook Zero, last night Old mister Jack Frost painted our nice big window all solid white. I wonder how he did it?â€ The caption reads,â€Once upon a time on Riverside Road.â€
That wasnâ€™t all that McClure sent Cryer.
â€œHe also wrote a note,â€ Cryer recalled, â€œsaying, â€˜I'm sorry that I have to charge you $20,'" and â€˜Iâ€™m embarrassed about this;' Of course, I was glad to give it to him.â€
McClureâ€™s humble request endeared the old cartoonist to Cryer, and piqued his curiosity. Did something terrible happen to McClure that he was hard up for 20 bucks? What did McClure do with himself after "Little Annie Rooneyâ€ was canceled? Why was it canceled?
Months of diligent research finally brought Cryer answers he sought: McClure, who died in 1987, was much more than a cartoonist. He was a husband, tailor, lumberjack, adventurer, painter, and an accomplished sailor.
The wild frontier of his native Ukiah, Calif., may have instilled a sense of adventure in young Darrell, who was born to a hardware-store clerk, Arthur McClure, and his wife Ethel, on Feb 25, 1903.
A feature story in the local Mendocino County, Calif., newspaper a month after McClureâ€™s birth described the hunt for a murderous stagecoach bandit: â€œSheriff Graceâ€™s bloodhounds... let the posse in a roundabout way to a large clump of young redwood trees. Here a camp was found and the remains of several fires...it is possible that he may be captured before morning.â€
McClure described his childhood in an article for 1949â€™s â€œFamous Artists and Writers of King Features.â€
â€œI was not a precocious child. The word wasnâ€™t even known in those days, and any â€˜precociousnessâ€™ was promptly and effectively discouraged with a hairbrush.â€
McClureâ€™s drawing, however, was encouraged. He had inherited an artistic streak from his mother, who fostered his ability by buying him five-penny tablets to scrawl on.
â€œFrom the age of six, I never once swerved from the ambition to be a newspaper strip artist,â€ he recalled in the same article.
McClure fulfilled that ambition after working, between 1918 and 1924, as a logger, stock clerk, tailor and sailor. The last was his greatest love.
â€œOh, he loved sailing,â€ said his 88-year-old widow, Mary Alice Luce-McClure, from the Ukiah home she and her husband shared after they married in 1973. â€œHe made his first trip from San Francisco to Hawaii as a common seaman.â€
That was in 1820, when McClure was 17. While on board, he painted the Annie Johnson -- a talent he had developed a few years earlier, studying nights at the California School of Fine Arts.
In 1822, McClure left California for New York aboard a freighter, traveling by way of the Panama Canal. When he could not find a job illustrating for the big city syndicates, he indulged his love of the sea again, this time crossing the Atlantic to northern Europe.
When he returned, McClure finally secured a job with King Features. He made an immediate impact when he began drawing â€œLittle Annie Rooneyâ€ for the New York Journal in 1930.
In the 40s, the cartoon strip was at the height of its popularity and McClure temporarily settled in Greenwich, working out of his home at 469 Riverside Road.
â€œAnnie Rooney owed its longevity,â€ wrote Maurice Horn in â€œ100 Years of American Newspaper Comics,to Walshâ€™s imaginative and often suspenseful plots and McClureâ€™s sinuous line and effortless evocation of mood." When both men were at their best in the Depression years of 1930, they often transcended the shopworn conventions of the genre. McClure also proved surprisingly adept at storytelling when he also took over the writing of the strip following Walshâ€™s death in 1954.
In the years when McClure was responsible for both storytelling and illustration, Annieâ€™s adventures often took her out to sea. Among aficionados, McClure is remembered for his accurate depictions of ships.
â€œDarrell McClure is an expert yachtsman,â€ wrote Coulton Waugh in 1947â€™s â€œThe Comics.â€ â€œHe has done a lot of work for Yachting Magazine and is very well thought of by the sailing fraternity, being the rarest of cartoonist, one who knows the difference between topping lift and a martingale.â€
Despite McClureâ€™s efforts, however, the comic was canceled in 1966.
â€œIn the 1870s and even by the beginning of the 1960s, the style kind ofchanged,â€Walker explained. â€œComic strips like â€˜Beetle Bailey', 'Peanuts', and â€˜B.C.,â€™ witty humor strips, became popular, and the old adventure strips started to fade away.â€
Still, McClure, who spent the majority of his last years furthering his already accomplished career in seascape oil painting, did not forget Annie Rooney.
â€œHe used to say she was a pretty little girl,â€ Luce-McClure said of her late husband, â€œand he always made fun of Little Orphan Annie." He used to say, â€œLook, she has no eyes!â€
McClure, who lived on his yacht for months at a time, was proud that he never missed a cartoon deadline, regardless of where he was docked, Luce-McClure said. When he died his ashes were deposited in San Francisco Bay.
For Cryer, relaxing by the north window at home, thoughts of the old cartoonist transcend his death.
â€œI guess this family room -- his old studio -- is alive with his presence,â€ Cryer said. â€œThe more I learn, the more I see that he was such an incredible guy. Heâ€™s so meticulous, and Iâ€™m so meticulous. Iâ€™m just enthralled with him.
By Michael Dinan
Greenwich Time Newspaper
Issue Tuesday, September 2, 2003
Vol. LXVI NO. 265