“Read All About It. … This Boy Needs His Buddies,” proclaimed the front page of the Daily Comet. Liz “The Weeper” Teary did the story, and Tip Lenz took pictures in the 7th New York City Police Precinct. The wide-eyed six-year-old stowaway held a large ice cream cone and wore Officer Kelly’s oversize uniform hat on his head.
The heartwarming genesis of a little European post-World War II orphan befriended by two American G.I.s began with that 1955 comic strip.
The boys, Dondi’s buddies Corporal Ted Wills and Private First Class Whitey McGowan, were heading home. The war was over. The Iron Curtain had fallen over a desolate, refugee-deluged Europe trying to rebuild. Shipped back to the States, the soldiers figured they had left the little orphan behind.
Dondi became a syndicated comic strip in the Chicago Tribune. The little boy came into the nation’s homes and hearts for the next 34 years.
Dondi was the brain child of Gus Edson. As with all creative processes, there is something true to life that inspired it. Whatever an artist does from memory, that inspiration dwells somewhere. Perhaps it was Gus’s chance meeting with fellow cartoonist Irwin Hasen on a United Service Organization (USO) tour in Germany in 1954. Cartoonists were recruited by the USO to entertain U.S. troops overseas, to bring a little of home to them where they were stationed.
In 1954, both men were being phased out. Gus was about to lose his long-running strip “The Gumps.” DC Comics felt that Irwin’s comic book covers for “Wonder Woman,” “Green Lantern,” and “Wildcat” were not selling books. Pretty soon, both men would be “working in advertising,” a cartoonist euphemism that meant on the skids, unemployed, bust.
Gus’ idea was waiting in his mailbox upon Irwin’s return to New York City after the USO tour. It was a simple sketch of a kid sitting on a duffle bag in oversized G.I. hat and pants. That was it. That was the little spark that ignited the hearts and souls of Americans for more than three decades.
Gus and Irwin worked as friends and partners on the strip for the next ten wonderful years. Gus wrote out the narratives and mailed a week’s dailies at a time to Irwin in New York. The cartoon artist drew the panels.
The little six-year-old war orphan became a daily part of the lives of Americans who eagerly awaited the Sunday full-color recap. In New York, Dondi ran on the front page of the Sunday News comics. It was more than success; the little boy became an engaging social commentary, a friend and loved one, an endearing icon inspired by the real-life artist behind the scenes. The little boy with large, ill-fitting G.I. hat, shirt, and pants adopted by his U.S. Army buddies was Irwin Hasen, and Irwin Hasen was Dondi.
Dondi lives. His artist, Irwin, died at age 96 in a town house on Manhattan’s upper east side near Fifth Avenue.
Dondi’s inspiration propels a living eulogy for the comic strip’s place in American culture. Its run was over. It wore out the times, or times changed. The love and moral lessons Dondi left behind are legacies of the late Gus and Irwin.
Born on 106th Street in Manhattan on July 8, 1918, Irwin attended PS 165, then DeWitt Clinton High School. After the crash, somehow his family scraped up the money to send him to the National Academy of Design. The school was only a few blocks from where he was born in Harlem.
After the affluence of his grandfather’s furniture business in lower Manhattan, where his father worked as a salesman, the Great Depression ended the Hasens’ halcyon days with cook and chauffeur.
“I got basic training at the National Academy. It was on 110th Street. I can’t believe the work I did as a young man. I wanted to be on the stage. I was acting. I wanted to be an actor,” Irwin said.
Irwin spoke in short ideas. He got his point across clearly as he might in a comic strip balloon. His facial expressions were animated. He was vibrant, enthusiastic, peppy, happy. Slightly built, Irwin stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall. No more, no less.
It is that stature, more likely than his animated eyes, that inspired Gus Edson in 1954. It was only the germ of an idea, this little boy sitting on a duffel bag, alone, wide-eyed, orphaned, and looking for love. It was an inspiration that worked its way into the hearts of millions of comic strip readers that grew up with Gus and Irwin.
Gus died. Irwin never grew up. Until his death in 2015, Irwin was still that wonderful, sentimental little boy with an enthusiastic countenance and animated eyes, whose real life transected American twentieth-century history.
“I imitated Maurice Chevalier. I was a wise guy actor. A friend of mine said, ‘Show biz is not for you,'” Irwin said.
When Irwin laughed, everyone laughed. He had the most beguiling smile and ready laughter. Always willing to joke, he joked about himself and his diminutive stature; he told funny stories and presented his life story as a cross-section of life in his America.
If Irwin exaggerated, it was to err on the side of comic fun. He didn’t use vulgar language in speech, a lesson learned in the gracious days of growing up with his New York American Jewish family. “Gosh,” “darn,” and “son of a gun” were more natural to him, as was his preference for whiskey over beer.
Becoming a Cartoonist
His friend once admonished, “You do your cartooning.” Irwin responded to this early critique of his acting skills with appreciation, holding out the pride of being a good actor-impersonator that could make people laugh.
“I’m so glad I made the right decision. I was about twelve when I started drawing. It was very close. I was darn good on stage. I made that decision. Being an actor is very tough,” he said.
So was being a cartoonist. Irwin often punctuated his labor in churning out a daily strip by saying, “I worked my butt off.” It was language as close as he got to stepping down from grace.
After Pearl Harbor, Irwin was inducted into the U.S. Army. It was 1942, and the Army desperately needed recruits. His first day on the firing range revealed the fact that, with the rifle on his shoulder, Private Hasen’s fingers could not reach the trigger.
A wise sergeant assigned him to Special Services.
Poems in hand, he trudged to the Post newspaper and was taken in. It was serendipity. He began a cartoon strip called Sgt. Route Step O’Malley, and then he became editor of the paper. His furloughs were spent across the Hudson River in New York City, in uniform, drawing covers for AA Comics’ “Wonder Woman.”
Irwin pulled guard duty and marched AWOL prisoners around the post, an unloaded rifle on his shoulder. The ragged troops passed German prisoners of war who jeered and called insults at the little soldier.
After discharge, Irwin got a job at the New York Post drawing “The Goldbergs.” His job in the news room lasted a year. Out of work, Irwin went on tour in Germany with the USO.
He visited Nazi concentration camps and crematoriums at Dachau. What he saw marked him forever.
“These people wanted to put me and my family in an ashtray,” he said in his apartment. It was the same walk-up brownstone building on the east side of Manhattan he had been living in for many years. That was all he said about the Holocaust.
It was not what he said, in an undramatic and offhand way; it was that his whole demeanor changed. A veil of sadness descended over his usually bright countenance when he remembered that terrible aspect of the war.
“I never went overseas with the Army. Thank God. Other boys did it and died. I published a newspaper with cartoons. Thank God I survived. After the army I went into cartoons,” he said.
He told about the antecedents of his art: “My father was a salesman. He used to draw pictures for people he sold furniture to. He sold them, it helped him make money during the depression. My cousin had a studio in Paris. My family had an artistic strain. My grandfather was a house painter in Russia.”
It was all very serious; he didn’t crack a smile. Irwin pointed to two portraits on the wall of his living room.
“I was twelve years old when I did my grandmother and grandfather. Those are photographs of women I used to go out with. What did they see in this little runt?” he said.
His thoughts jumped around as he glanced at the walls of his apartment. The portraits showed great artistic talent, as did the covers he drew for Bang Magazine. Bang covers were framed on a wall. Famous prize fighters of the day come to life on these old magazine covers. The fight game was crooked in those days, and the young artist met gangsters who took a liking to the little guy.
Irwin survived the tough streets of Harlem growing up, the Army, the fight game, and the rough-and-tumble life of a cartoonist hustling gigs with newspapers and comic book publishers. He was good. He went to a convention of cartoonists.
“A man sat next to me with a mustache. He turns around to me, he didn’t look at me, he just turns and says, ‘I like the way you’re doing it.’ That was Roy Crane, my idol. Roy Crane did ‘Wash Tubs and Captain Easy.’ That was the year I went down to the Island,” Irwin said.
The island was Bonaire in the Dutch West Indies. Irwin took a vacation. He brought his work for the Dondi strip. He met Captain Don Stewart, dive pioneer and founder of the first scuba diver dedicated resort. The chance meeting inspired a friendship and a strip series that imparted a moral imperative for ocean conservation. Captain Don was a stalwart. He explained the importance of preserving ocean resources and taught the cartoonist to dive. It was a vacation like no other for this New York City dweller.
“Back from Germany, Gus sends me this picture of this kid. A kid from a European country who comes to America. I get a chill. I still have that chill. I said, Gus, that is going to be the best strip in America, and it was,” Irwin said.
Dondi got his name from Maurice T. Reilly of the New York Daily News Syndicate. King Features turned the strip down. The shy Gus Edson sent Irwin to see Reilly.
“The making of an American,” Irwin said, remembering the editor’s words after he studied the sample strips for a few minutes in his office.
They met for drinks at the Delmonico Hotel that night. Maurice had a name for the strip. He could not tell Gus or Irwin where it came from or how he came up with it. It was there in the bar of the Delmonico Hotel that Dondi got his name.
When Gus died at age 65, ten years into the strip, Irwin took it over with the help of a friend.
“I made OK. It was OK for the two of us. Money meant nothing. That little kid let it come across. I played great tennis in South Hampton, I wrote books,” he said, jumping again to another topic.
“Comic books were my life. God sent him down to me yesterday,” he said. This time the leap went back to Captain Don and his diving on the Island of Bonaire.
Captain Don had just died. He was ten years younger than Irwin. They had not seen each other in almost 35 years. From memory, Irwin drew a caricature portrait of farewell to Captain Don.
“I’m an artist,” he said.
He is and was. He was also a man of keen observation with social commentary, whose life and loves were translated into comic strip stories read across America.
Of his life’s work in art, how he did it he could not explain. He could only reveal his secret: “I didn’t think about it. I just did it.”
John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist with two doctoral degrees, has authored 25 books, including award-winning books dealing with ocean pollution. He is a liaison officer of the United Nations Environment Program and the Confederation Mondiale for ocean matters. He is a member of the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences in honor of his books in the field of education.