In Print : Feiffer on Feiffer
"Backing into Forward, A Memoir," by Jules Feiffer. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010, 464 ppg. $30.
He's come a long way from the poor Bronx neighborhood where he grew up, undersized, underweight and ill-equipped to deal with the rough-and-tumble Depression era world he inhabited. The son of a tyrannical, larger-than-life Jewish mother and a nearly invisible father, Jules Feiffer spent his childhood dreaming of escape, "Reading comics, going to movies, listening to radio serials and favored comedians."
Today, at 81, he is a cultural icon - cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter, and children's book author and illustrator. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award for his cartoons, an Obie for his plays, and an Oscar for the animation of his cartoon satire, "Munroe." He's been nominated for a Tony Award and honored with major retrospectives at the New York Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and The School of Visual Arts.
What's left to accomplish? Well, instead of telling his story in the form of a satirical line drawing, a play, or a screenplay, Mr. Feiffer, a seasonal Vineyard resident since the mid-1960s, has chosen to share his truth in a newly published memoir, "Backing into Forward," published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
"Friends nudged me to write it," Mr. Feiffer explains. "I realized I had a story to tell. It wasn't really about me. It's about a wannabe artist dealing with failure and refusing to cave in. I'm hoping it will send a hopeful message to young people."
Witty, wry, and angst-ridden, he delves into the zigs and zags of his fascinating journey, stopping along the way to give his reader insight into the world of comic book heroes in the glory days of newspapers, his stint in the Army, life in post-World War II Greenwich Village, and his entrée into New York's literary salons of the 1960s. Rubbing elbows with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas, Alan Arkin, Marlene Dietrich, and Stanley Kubrick, "Backing into Forward" provides a fascinating glimpse into Mr. Feiffer's uniquely winding path through contemporary culture, politics, and human relationships.
Perhaps best known as the creator of an internationally syndicated cartoon that ran for 42 years in the "Village Voice," a weekly New York City paper, Mr. Feiffer was a pioneer in using the genre to explore modern politics, sexuality, and society. Today, he maintains a schedule that would fatigue a man half his age - working as a professor at Stony Brook Southampton, "flacking for his memoir," and writing and illustrating children's books, often collaborating with his oldest daughter, Kate Feiffer of Oak Bluffs.
About to embark on a multi-city tour to promote his memoir, Mr. Feiffer paused to reflect on the process of writing the book and his life today. "I had no more to do with the creation of my memoir than a witness or a reader," he says. "Once I began the project, it took off on its own in an organic way. I was afraid that I had no story to tell, then I had too much. I was amazed at all the memories that came flooding back."
"Backing into Forward" includes a chapter devoted to Mr. Feiffer's introduction to summer on Martha's Vineyard. Finding it a welcome relief from Long Island, he purchased a home here and continues to treasure his seasonal respite from New York City. "The Vineyard is the place I've lived, vacationed, and worked most happily," he says. "When the weather is nice I write outside under a tree in an Adirondack chair. And when I stare into space, it's comforting to think 'I own it.'"
As for retirement, Mr. Feiffer shrugs it off. "I've been retired all my life," he quips, adding, in a more serious tone: "I was fortunate enough to walk into doing work I love, the way I want to do it, over the years getting away with murder. It didn't make me rich but it made me famous. I'm happy to move from one area of endeavor to another."
Although his book is rife with unabashed feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure, Mr. Feiffer seems resigned to his identity. He says: "As a kid I was always trying to escape my background - both the Bronx and the culture I was raised in. I tried to reinvent myself as the person I wanted to be. I finally realized you can't ever escape - you're always the person you started out as, but now I'm very happy."
Father to three daughters ranging in age from 15 to their mid-40s, Mr. Feiffer characterizes parenthood as continuous "interruptions and inspiration." It's obvious that he is enormously proud of all three, as well as his nine-year-old granddaughter, each helping him to stay in touch with his inner child - the one who pens such successful children's works as "Bark George," "I Lost My Bear," and "The Man in the Ceiling," as well as another upcoming collaboration with daughter Kate, "My Side of the Car."
As for the future, Mr. Feiffer sees more. More writing - perhaps a play or two, more children's books, more illustrating. "I'm drawing better than ever," he says. "It's still unwinding. I'm a student of the work I do. Age helps clarify and simplify. The only drawback is that I walk more slowly than I can stand."
"Backing into Forward" was released on March 16. It is available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.
Karla Araujo is a frequent contributor to The Times.