Alex Toth remembrance by Dave Cook
Contributed by: tothfans on Fri, June 2, 2006 / 12:06am CDT
Official Alex Toth website :
Alex Toth remembrance by Dave Cook
A few months ago I chided Alex about his duck.
“Alex,” I said, “if the duck is supposed to be you then you’re misrepresenting yourself. For years you’ve been drawing this dead duck that looks like road kill, but I’ve never known anyone that kept trying, kept hoping, kept getting up and going on the way you do.”
From then on it was prancing ducks, walking or waddling, maybe occasionally on crutches. If anyone got different ducks in the past three months, I’d like to hear about it.
I never met Alex, a fact that too many people have pointed out to me as if it meant something. I live 1,550 miles away from where he lived and the logistics of a visit just weren’t possible in recent years. We corresponded for 7 years of post cards and letters, Alex sometimes sent 4 or even 6 in a day, letters that ran 4-10 pages – you can do the math, I tried counting them once and it gave me such a headache I quit and haven’t tried since. Only in the past year did it trickle down to one or two a week, and if it went two weeks without a card I worried.
I only know what Alex wrote to me. If you tell me he wrote something different to you or you knew a different Alex you get no argument from me. All I know is the Alex in all those cards and letters and the few telephone conversations we had.
I wrote to him in 1999 at the prompting of someone else. Initially, I was scared of writing to Toth. I was pretty sure Toth and I were going to argue because of Zorro. Sure, we did, and about plenty of other things, but I believe everyone has a right to their own perceptions and opinions so we actually didn’t argue as much as you might think. Anyway, his first cards to me basically said something like “Thank you for the kudos, it’s time the last leaf fell from the tree, writing to me is a can o’worms, have a nice life.” That was in 1999. I don’t remember if I replied before he wrote again or not, but what would follow would be a card with something like, “So, what kind of model airplanes did you build and did you do it right?” I never built anything that satisfied his standards, but from one card it became two and then four and then letters. I’m afraid the U.S. Postal Service faces immediate bankruptcy now that it’s over.
He wanted to “part ways” many times. Over what? I like Stewart Granger movies. “Scaramouche” is probably my all-time favorite. “We part ways there, chum,” he wrote. A week later he was writing to me about Carol Reed and “The Third Man”. I like John Wayne. Ooh, did that meet with outrage… then I got a post card with a drawing of John Wayne – you can see it in the Gallery.
Did Alex ever chew me out? You betcha. I chewed him out, too, and got post cards that said things like, “Don’t use my own words against me!,” and “You hurt me, don’t ever write again!” A couple of weeks would go by after that and an “All is forgiven…” card would arrive and a new question or opinion came with it. In just the past two months I got a card from him that said, “I expect more from our correspondence, David, and a higher level of thinking and if you can’t do better then quit writing to me!,” followed three weeks later by, “Write more often, David, a week-long gap is too long…”
Seriously, if the Alex I knew is different than your Alex, no argument, I won’t try to explain away anything you went through or project my thoughts and feelings and interpretation. I would say the same thing about Alex Toth that I would say about anyone, he was his own person.
What did we write about? Well, a comics historian would probably be disappointed to know that it was not always about comics, as a matter of fact, comics were probably less than 25% of what we wrote about. A lot of what we wrote about was words. He didn’t often respond to exactly what I wrote about, for instance, fishing and hiking and mountains and outdoors stuff are always on my mind and they got no replies. He wrote a lot about cooking and flavors of cookies and how to make the potato pancakes he liked and lots and lots of puns and word inversions and etymology, and balsa wood airplanes and how to fly them, and movies and movie stars and beautiful women and cars and airplanes and steam power.
Lots of folks would ask me, “How do I get art from Toth?,” as if I knew how to get something from him. I had no power to persuade Alex to do anything, even drink a glass of water if he was parched. I can prove it, too – by now Alex’s reclusive, hermetic lifestyle is infamous, so I can tell this story even though he would be appalled. He called me once to say that he had run out of groceries and he was desperate. On the phone with him I suggested several things. “No, uh-uh,” he wouldn’t do any of it. I got the Hollywood Yellow Pages and found civic groups that would bring groceries to “shut ins”. No, he wouldn’t call them. I found services that brought groceries to people. No, he’d have none of it. I got on-line and found dozens of grocery stores that would bag food and bring it to his door. Nope, he wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, it boiled down to the fact that he was out of his favorite tea and I think he expected me to send it overnight. But the problem was that no one around here had that tea (not that I was inclined after all that to go out and get any). I think he decided that I was lazy and stupid and solved it himself some other way. “Cloth-eared git!,” that’s me.
Alex and I collaborated on several things – but you didn’t dare use that word. When I colored the cover for “America’s Greatest” both Bill Black and I were on tenterhooks expecting some explosion. It never came. As far as Alex was concerned, the formula was simple: “I drew it. You color it. He publishes it.” I saw several other things run smoothly that seemed that simple. I saw other things derail. As I said, I won’t explain away anything and I won’t project. I do have a theory or two about why some things ran into trouble. Here’s my theory: Alex sometimes ran into a crisis between his enthusiasm and his principles. About the enthusiasm: Toth was the most genuinely optimistic person I have ever encountered. He would gladly jump at the chance to do something, even for someone he’d had a falling out with before. But at some point an unresolved principle would occur to him, or some atomized point of research was missing and his perfectionism overcame his enthusiasm.
I have an example of that: A couple of years ago, Alex wrote to tell me he was going to do a two-page story for an Italian publisher. CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW I FELT ABOUT THIS?? !! ?? He was going to do a two-page story on the centennial of Italian aviation. I suddenly felt like a research assistant for a lawyer at the Supreme Court… hundreds of pages, photos, you-name-it, even to the point of contacting the Italian consulate and the Italian embassy (as a consequence I receive almost daily e-mail from both). Then the day came… “It’s over!! I’ve written to tell the publisher it’s over!! I’m out!! Finito!! It’s finished!! Basta!! Get it?!!??” What happened? Who knows? All I remember is that he wanted film footage of Balbo landing in New York. I found a service with old newsreels but they wanted $800.00 for two minutes on a 1/2 –inch tape. He kept asking for that even up to a year ago. Was that one piece of research the thing that caved it all in? Come on – we could piece together a satisfying two-page story just off Alex’s “doodle” sheets – but it would be something that would seem that small to me, but would be the insurmountable point to him.
It doesn’t hurt my feelings to say that in seven years and countless words of writing I don’t think Alex was ever really interested in me – seriously, if I wrote much about myself he’d r-u-n-n-o-f-t – what interested Alex wasn’t me, it was what I saw, tasted, felt, and whether or not I got his point and could agree. He wanted to know about my wife, our kids, our family, our town, what we planned, what we were doing – Alex wanted to know that life could go on and that people were still good. It was always best if I stepped out of the way and ushered him into a picture of the world still turning and life going on its same old ways. In words, it’s as if we sat side-by-side on the bleachers watching my daughter win a medal. Who would want to get in the way of that?
That’s why I think the last year was special for Alex. Moving to Burbank was a revelation for him and he loved it. He didn’t love leaving Broadview Terrace, but he loved discovering a rehabilitated town. Whoever it was that took him to a shop for model and miniature cars gave Alex one of the best moments in his life. Someone took him out for pizza and for Chinese food, and whoever you are you have the enviable privilege of sharing with Alex Toth the best moments in recent years. He met Hungarians in Belmont Village, several Hungarian ladies in particular (and some Latin babes) and heard the stories and folk songs the child within him had longed to hear. He met a former seamstress from MGM and composer Miklos Rosza’s nurse and he felt he had at last found a touchstone to the Hollywood in his heart.
He may have been the best friend I ever had. There won’t ever be another one like him.
-- David Cook, June 2, 2006