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 Harry Hershfield  (1885 - 1974)

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Lived/Active: New York/Iowa      Known for: cartoonist-comic strip

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Harry Hershfield was a raconteur as well as a cartoonist. He devoted the majority of his nearly 90 years to telling funny stories, both in words and pictures. A professional cartoonist from his teens onward, he drew such early newspaper strips as Desperate Desmond, which began in 1910, and the long lasting, Abie the Agent, first seen in 1914. He told jokes on stage and on the radio, wrote joke books, and served as a toastmaster at innumerable banquets. Hershfield was also one of the few men ever to have his favorite joke included in his obituary in the New York Times.

He was the son of Jewish immigrants and was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After studying at the Chicago Art Institute, he was hired by the Chicago Daily News as a sports cartoonist and illustrator in 1899. By 1907, he was drawing for the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1909, Hearst summoned him to the East Coast to work for the New York Journal.

Hershfield drew in a vigorous, primitive cartoon style, and was enormously fond of shading, crosshatching, and other basic inking techniques. Occasionally, he favored collages and sometimes made fun of other artists styles. In 1910, he started Desperate Desmond, a humorous continuity strip burlesquing melodramas, dime novels, and fiction weeklies that went in for the hairbreadth rescue and gloating villain sort of material. In addition to the villainous, top-hatted Desmond, the strip featured the stalwart Claude Éclair and the put-upon blond heroine, Rosamond. Hershfields enthusiastic kidding of this sort of cliffhanger hokum did little to sour the public on its conventions. However, within a few years, such motion picture serials as The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline would be attracting audiences to movie houses by doing the stuff completely straight.

In 1912, Hershfield switched heroes and introduced a new strip called Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A. Durham, a handsome, pipe-smoking combination of Sherlock Holmes, Nick Carter and Frank Merriwell, was the soul of honor and polite to a fault. The object of his affection was the beautiful Katrina. In 1914, Hershfield abandoned parody for a quieter sort of humor and created Abie the Agent. The strip continued until 1940 and dealt with contemporary Jewish life in a big city. Hershfield specialized in gags with a Yiddish flavor.

In 1942, the cartoonist became a national radio star when Can You Top This? started its run on the NBC network. The show, which had begun on New Yorks WOR at the end of 1940, had a panel of three experts vying to tell stories that would get a higher rating on the Laugh meter than those sent in by members of the listening audience.

Hershfield recalled that he made his first after dinner speech in 1902. By the 1930s, he was speaking at an average of 200 dinners and banquets a year. One estimate had him acting as "toastmaster for 264 banquets over a period of eight months." In Comic Art in America (1959), Stephen Becker comments, "It is an article of firm belief in the cartooning field that Hershfield has not had to buy a meal for himself since some time in the early Thirties." He continued with his public joke telling long after he quit cartooning. He was also a philanthropist and as active member of the National Cartoonists Society.


(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, "The Encyclopedia of American Comics," edited by Ron Goulart.)


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