Friday, November 22, 2013

Lincoln weeping

I knew Bill Mauldin, slightly,  from talking to him on several occasions—I had his phone number, and would call him to catch up around his birthday, the way Snoopy would visit on Veterans Day in "Peanuts."  It seemed fitting that, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, someone should recall his famous editorial cartoon capturing the nation's grief. When I mentioned this to an editor who replied, "What cartoon?" I knew I had made the right decision.

     "The death of a President enters the house and becomes a death in the family,” E.B. White wrote in the Nov. 30, 1963, New Yorker, and when people talk and write about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as they’ve done continually for the half century since it occurred, 50 years ago Friday, it is as a staggering blow of shock and sorrow — similar to what one might feel when an admired, loved and successful son, or brother, or father is cruelly plucked away forever. Where were you when you heard the news?
     Or in terms of conspiracy theories: what happened? The idea of a loser with a mail-order rifle destroying the dream of American Camelot seemed ludicrous and many rejected it. The event, so publicized, generated an ocean of data that could be picked over and theorized by those searching for a truth they found more palatable than the obvious. We’d do it again after 9/11, and will do it eternally as long as people mistake hazy speculation for insight and wisdom.
     Though if you've ever been to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it's so small, the shot so direct, you go from wondering how Oswald could possibly hit Kennedy to how he could possibly miss.
     I don't remember the assassination. I was 3. To me, the rifle crack is the break between the black-and-white 1950s and the color contemporary world, the Kodachrome Zapruder film ushering in Vietnam and Nixon and everything that followed. It is an invitation to speculate on what might have been instead of understand what was, a bog that many wander into and never leave.
     There are countless stories. Since I'm in the juxtaposition business — the challenge of taking a news event and trying to immediately reflect it in a way that resonates ­— and since I knew him, briefly, I want to tell you about Bill Mauldin, our paper's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.
     On Nov. 22, 1963 — also a Friday — he left his office on the fourth floor of the Sun-Times Building, 401 N. Wabash, and went over to the Palmer House hotel, for a Council on Foreign Relations luncheon.
    Shortly before 1 p.m., a woman called for attention and said the president had been shot. Someone at Mauldin's table suggested they all go home and have a drink. Mauldin certainly liked his drink, but instead went back to the office. The Sun-Times didn't run his cartoon on Saturdays and, anyway, the usual 1 p.m. deadline was past.
     But this wasn't a usual day.
     Mauldin's thought process, as he later described it, went like this: Kennedy was Catholic. He considered Catholic religious sculptures - maybe tears streaming down the face of a Virgin Mary statue.
     No. Religious drawings got him in trouble. People are touchy. He then reflected on Lincoln, another famously martyred president.
     The two thoughts, statuary and Lincoln, fused in his mind.
     He asked an editor how long he had. An hour. He grabbed a file photo of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sketch.
     The Sun-Times editors took a look at his cartoon and cleared sports off the back page and ran his drawing over it. News vendors sold the paper back-page up, to display Mauldin's work, which summed up the moment perfectly. A half million people requested reprints, including Jackie Kennedy. Mauldin had already given the original to the publisher. He took it back, whited over his dedication to Marshall Field IV and inscribed it to her. The cartoon, conceived and completed in an hour, hangs in the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.
     John F. Kennedy was admired because he was articulate and daring, and he would expect that those who remember him, those who revere his memory, be no less daring and no less articulate in the doing of it, and in the conducting of their lives as Americans.


  1. Thanks for the Maudlin story. I was 12 when JFK was shot and remember the scary uneasy feeling that followed, especially after the shooting of Oswald two days later. I have always thought this cartoon aptly captured the sorrow of the nation in a very poignant way.

    1. Interesting Malaprop spelling of Mauldin's name.

    2. He spelled it that way himself once, just to see if anyone would notice. One guy, from Maine, I think, did.


  2. Great article that brought it all back to me. I was 19 and working my first full-time job at Material Service Corporation in the Loop. When the announcement of Kennedy!s death made the rounds of our office, everyone was in shock and many weee in tears. Jack and Jackie Kennedy were, for the most part, beloved by this country. Folks were glued to their TV sets when the Dallas details were presented on the news and when eventually the funeral procession in Washington was televised with a small JFK Junior waiving his little American flag as his father’s herse passed by. Mauldin’s grieving Lincoln oersonified exactly hiw Americans felt at the loss.

  3. Reprints of the "Crying Lincoln" cartoon were sold in the store at the Sun-Times Building, 401 N. Wabash, for years after it ran on the back page. I bought one in 1976, and I actually got Bill Mauldin to sign it. I don't know what the hell happened to it. I moved a lot during the Eighties. Or maybe my first wife took it. Damn, how I wish I still had it.

  4. 15 and at a boarding school on the far south side, we were still at lunch when they made the announcement and ended school. My mother called the headmaster’s office and told me to be alert and head straight home. Packed up my week’s laundry and caught the Rock Island at 111th street, La Salle station right to the (then) Ravenswood line, switching at Fullerton to get to Addison. I always liked political cartoons—Bill Mauldin and Herblock in those days—and I think I still have that page, somewhere. Hard to imagine that there is anyone who doesn’t know that stunning piece.

    1. I was at FWP high school on the north side of town and took the “El” back home since school was closed after the announcement. I can still picture where I was when I heard it… so sad.

  5. I was in the Navy and briefing a Rear Admiral when the news came. Don't recall the subject. The briefing was cancelled.

  6. I was fifteen and in my high school French class when my teacher was called into the hall and rentered slowly with her hands pressed to her cheeks then blurted out the news that the president had been shot. We were all sent home in shock and by the time I got there Kennedy had died. Today, going through several folders of old papers that I hoped to toss I came across a very yellowed, carefully folded full back page of Mauldin's Lincoln Crying from the '63 Sun-Times. I will never forget the impact the news of Kennedy's death had on the nation and always wonder at Mauldin's ability to exactly capture that feeling in his drawing. I refolded the page and put it back in the file. I will never forget and never throw it away.


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