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In Memorium: Bill Mauldin

January 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Mauldin, who died yesterday at age 81, was probably best known for creating “Willie and Joe,” the World War II cartoon characters that became symbols of the gritty life of the American GI.

“Willie and Joe” helped him win his first Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

Mauldin was known for his unflinching style, exemplified in his later work in his drawing of the Soviet treatment of the writer Boris Pasternak, for which he won a second Pulitzer in 1959.

And he memorably captured the nation’s grief in November 1963, showing Abraham Lincoln reacting to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Joining me to take a look back at Bill Mauldin’s life and career is Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, and author, Jules Feiffer.

Jules Feiffer, welcome to the broadcast.

JULES FEIFFER: Thanks very much.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little bit about Bill Mauldin’s influence as a cartoonist and an artist.

JULES FEIFFER: Well, first, I must begin by commenting that in the last five days, we have lost two of the great artists of the 20th century: Al Hirschfeld, who gave us a look at theater that we’d never seen before and we’ll never ever see again; and Bill Mauldin, who taught us how to understand war in a way that no one else before him has, and no one will ever look at again in the same way.

Bill came as quite a shock in the early years of the war when his work — I think in 1943 or 1944 — started appearing for the first time in Life Magazine, and here we on the home front got to see it.

But it had been appearing overseas in Stars and Stripes and I guess a few other papers. And it was a look that the GIs, the dogfaces, as they were called, could understand, and the brass could resent.

He showed us how these soldiers really lived, and he showed us truth in the form of a cartoon. It was one of the few times that a cartoonist had found a way of very simply and very directly showing us how people lived exactly at a certain time, and getting through to a mass audience at the same time. He had a remarkable gift.

TERENCE SMITH: He…like “Willie and Joe,” his characters, he did not seem overly impressed with authority.

JULES FEIFFER: Well, I guess today Donald Rumsfeld might call this class warfare, what he was engaging in, or the president might, because what bill did was show the GI in situations where he was dirty — he was filthy, in fact — but he was the fighter.

He was the guy, the grunt, the guy who was fighting the war. And the officers resented him, and he resented them, these guys, because they were of two different classes. One was taking his life in his hands, and the other was looking from a distance.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. They weren’t overly impressed either with medals. You remember the cartoon about the Purple Heart?

JULES FEIFFER: Yes. And it was just the realistic approach to everything, a down and dirty look at the day-to-day life of the soldier. It was all attitude.

TERENCE SMITH: I remember a wonderful drawing of the sergeant giving the final coup de grace to his jeep.

JULES FEIFFER: Of course, the jeep was the personal property… the jeep was new to the Second World War. The jeep could do things that no motor vehicle ever could before. And these guys worshipped their jeeps.

The jeeps were an extension of their persona in a way that the SUV’s may be today to certain upper class car owners. But the jeep was there for them all of the time, and to shoot the jeep… like shooting a horse. And Bill came out of the west. Bill came out of the southwest. He knew what… he rode horses, he knew what horses meant, and the jeep was the horse of the infantry.

TERENCE SMITH: And Willie and Joe, of course, loved to sass the officers. There was that drawing when one officer is taking them to task for not having buttons on their uniforms.

JULES FEIFFER: Yes. Yes, and the line is something like, they were fighting with the war… they lost the war in their battles. They were sorry about that.

TERENCE SMITH: They had the buttons shot off, they said, when they took the town.

JULES FEIFFER: Something has to be said, also, for his drawing style, because it’s hard to imagine now anyone drawing an infantryman in the midst of a war in any other style than these flashing blacks and heavy lines than Mauldin did.

It was as if he was drawing out of the mud that the infantrymen traveled on. And I mean, they looked like they were just curdling on the paper, these lines. And that was part of the power, that one felt Mauldin’s weather in the cartoons. It was winter?

You knew it was winter, and you felt that cold, as in the later Pasternak cartoon — you feel the Siberian tundras at work there. He created atmosphere brilliantly, and he created theater right there before us, theater of war, and it was extraordinarily effective.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you remember perhaps his ultimate comment on the class warfare you were mentioning was the scene from the mountaintop when the two officers are watching the sunset?

JULES FEIFFER: Well, that caption — “very nice…” I think goes, very nice — “enlisted men,” a metaphor of everyone dealing with authority, mindless authority. It’s extraordinarily apt. There was a poetry to his work.

He was a master of what the New Yorker helped invent, which was that one line that said everything. But where the New Yorker gave it to us in terms of humor, rather gentrified humor, Mauldin was giving it from the working class, from the laboring man, and here he was the grunt, that was the laboring man of the war.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, talk to us a little bit about him after the war. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly for him as he went on.

JULES FEIFFER: It’s always seemed to me that while he was a very effective…as a political cartoonist, as an editorial page cartoonist, it never was quite his pace. It limited this form, because what Bill did was a kind of storytelling. The equivalent of what Raymond Carver might do in a short story, he did in a cartoon. It was a storytelling on the page that went beyond the dimensions of the editorial cartoon.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, and of course, one of his most eloquent cartoons had no caption at all, and that was that scene of how Abraham Lincoln might have reacted to JFK’s assassination.

JULES FEIFFER: And an occasion like that, one could expect Mauldin to rise to and deal with, with a tragic eloquence because there was a knowledge of tragedy within himself and in his own life, in what he had lived through in the war, before the war, and after the war. He had soul, and it came through in all of the work.

TERENCE SMITH: There was a poignant situation in his final months as he was dying of Alzheimer’s Disease.

JULES FEIFFER: Well, his final years were difficult because when he retired as a political cartoonist from the Chicago Sun Times and moved to Arizona and lived elsewhere, he was writing.

He couldn’t sell his last books. I helped send one to a publisher, and they weren’t interested. He just couldn’t get a footing, and felt as somebody of his dimension should not have felt, rejection after rejection and kind of life spinning out of control for him, which is truly tragic for a man of such gifts and who so influenced his time. And then, of course, his health went bad, and he began to lose his memory.

He ended up hospitalized, but what was extraordinary is that in this hospital in Newport Beach, where he had been for over a year, word got out who was there, and suddenly out of everywhere, mail started coming, and ex-GIs started showing up, and the celebration of Mauldin was going on everywhere. And in his hospital room, there were pictures and letters pasted all over the walls of his room, scotch-taped, his nurse told me, even on his ceiling.

And they feel that he knew what was… something of what was going on, and that had to mean a lot to him. He was a beloved figure, and more than that, he connected. He connected in a way that few do in their times, and he connected to a sensibility that was pure and whole.

He told the truth to a lot of people.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s great. Jules Feiffer, thank you so much.