Just imagine what it must be like, having your name known worldwide – and what's more, just imagine your name living on after your death, known to millions of happy schoolchildren and adults, inspiring all types of whimsy and cleverness, from high school contests to this wonderful advertisement:
The man's name is Rube Goldberg, but you've probably already guessed that. If you're anything like me, you may have occasionally wondered if Rube Goldberg was a real person or a cartoon character. Well, he most certainly was real, though his creations sometimes looked like they came from out of the fevered imagination of an outlandish animated cartoon. And as Rube's granddaughter, Jennifer George, reminds us in a wonderful new biography/coffee table book of Goldberg's life, the legendary man was a brilliant and passionate comic strip artist whose boundless imagination was only matched by the joy that his lifestyle in comics brought him. Rube Goldberg owed his wonderful life to his improbable inventions and boundless imagination. You could almost say that Goldberg's life of fame and fortune came from every oddball, quirky line that he created on the page.
The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius, selected and with commentary by Jennifer George, with an introduction by Adam Gopnik, an afterword by MAD's Al Jaffee and published by Abrams ComicArts, is as outsized and generous as Goldberg himself, a true treasure trove that shows Goldberg's immense and endless creativity. The man created comic strips and outlandish devices, insightful political cartoons and some spectacular sculptures. What's more, it's clear, in reading this book, that Rube Goldberg was a person who truly loved the life that his creativity brought him.
Goldberg's personality was as outsized as his inventions were improbable. Maybe it's because he survived the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, or because he was the child of immigrants, or maybe just because he was one of those outsized men who come around every once in a while, but Goldberg was fearless and passionate, loving and beloved and boundlessly, boundlessly creative – doing origami sculptures with his granddaughter to pass the time, or drawing for hours at a time, or simply concocting clever jokes, he was a man who truly loved life in his own skin.
Some of the most wonderful moments in The Art of Rube Goldberg come as reminiscences of Jennifer George, who selected the material in this book. Some of her memories make him sound like any grandpa who offered smart, slightly old-school advice; as she told me: "My grandfather insisted, especially for a woman, that one must shake hands with a firm grip. Let them know they're meeting someone, he told me. And ever since then I nearly kill everyone I shake hands with."
George remembers the day-to-day quotidian aspects of life with her famous relative as much as anything: "He died when I was 11, so I remember him as a pretty fun Grandpa. My first memories of him, based on what I heard from my mother, was that he had very strong hands and I would run from him, terrified, because he would hurt me when he held me. But once I got older he would teach me stuff – like how to make paper balloons, how to draw, how to make a piece of clay turn into an animal. I knew he was funny, mostly because at the dinner table everybody would laugh – but I wasn't sure exactly what they were laughing about. And it seemed to me he always liked to be the center of attention.
She continues: "He also had the biggest ears I've ever seen."
Goldberg was creative, but as George remembers, "In my memory he wasn't always working, but he did love to work and he spent hours in his studio sculpting. By the time I came around he was in the golden years – not of retirement but reinvention. Sculpting was the final chapter of his creative life."
Indeed, George presents images of many of Goldberg's sculptures in this book, including the wonderful self-portrait shown above, and they give the reader the sense that Goldberg could have made a living with whatever creative endeavor he might have taken on. One of the most striking pieces from this era is a wonderful portrait of Richard Nixon that somehow captures all of Nixon's complex attributes. Goldberg got to present the sculpture to the President – he knew all the Presidents from H
arry S Truman through Eisenhower, LBJ and Nixon, and the photos that ran in the newspapers of the day show a delighted President Nixon enjoying his time with the great artist. Goldberg was a prolific sculptor in his own age, even sculpting the improbable trophy that bears his name and which is given each year to the best cartoonist in the country (yes, of course the Ruben is named after Goldberg – and at this point I almost wouldn't be surprised if the sandwich wasn't named after him, too.).
But though you might be interested in the sculptures that are shown in this book, what will make Rube Goldberg hard to put down for you are the hundreds of images from Rube's comic strips – especially those outlandish inventions. Goldberg would contemplate for hours to come up with the most absurd inventions to perform the simplest actions – the rainstorm that eventually triggers a cage full of moths to perform a haircut, or the way that a weight drops on the head of a dwarf eventually causes you to be able to pull an olive out of a jar, or the dozens of other classic Rube Goldberg contraptions that George includes in her book (the team at Abrams graciously consented to my sharing a few of those contraptions with this article).
And while you'll come to see those incredible contraptions, you'll stay to read the adventures of Boob McNutt, or of Mike & Ike: They Look Alike. George admits that she was surprised by some of the material that she uncovered by her grandfather: "I had never really paid much attention to my grandfather's work. The drawings always hung on my parents' wall in their den – it was kind of like the furniture – it's there, but you pay no real attention to it. In compiling this book – some 13,000 cartoons later – not to mention piles of interviews and photographs and letters, I've come to appreciate my grandfather and his genius in a whole new way.
"I knew I was going to be unearthing inventions, but what surprised me was how these inventions figured into his continuity strips and his other single-panel cartoons. For example, Mike & Ike: They Look Alike always configure together into some working object – a stop sign, a ladder, a hoist. Another example is a little-known chapter of Rube's work called Boob McNutt's Ark that he drew for about a year in the early '30s, only in the Sunday strips, where ordinary everyday objects are combined into hilarious creatures. See The North American Kitchen Vipers, or the Hammer-Tail Whack-Tacks, which I love so much I had them made into buttons to promote the book."
It's in these strips that you can see the depths of Goldberg's inventiveness. It was never easy to create those insane contraptions – Rube labored for hours to make those absurd contraptions perform exactly right – but we can really see the cartoonist's genius in the endless variations on funny themes and clever motifs. You can only imagine how much joy Goldberg brought young kids whose Sunday Funnies each week would contain those outlandish creatures.
Goldberg uses an intriguing phrase that sums up Goldberg's approach: she says he had a "punk spirit". As George elaborates, "Rube's humor was incredibly irreverent at a time when the term PC had not yet been invented. That irreverence, combined with his unbridled ambition, meant he would stop at nothing. No didn't mean no to my grandfather, no just meant you had to find a different route to yes."
It must have been an absolute joy to visit Rube and his wife Irma in their deluxe townhouse on West Seventy-Fifth Street in Manhattan for a dinner party, as all the celebrities of his age did. Goldberg hobnobbed with some of the biggest names of their time – he was pals with Groucho Marx and hung around with Irving Berlin. It's hard to not get foggy-eyed at the idea of Groucho and Goldberg trading quips over the dinner table while the assorted glitterati of the age try desperately to avoid spit-take after spit-take.
As Goldberg's granddaughter recalled in an interview I conducted with her for this article, "Groucho Marx was one of my grandfather's best friends, as was [championship boxer] Jack Dempsey. My grandmother would always refer to the Gershwin boys coming to play piano at their parties. Charlie Chaplin floated through their world too… he liked funny people.
"Ethel Merman and Fanny Bryce were two of my grandmother's best friends, and then there were the Zeigfield girls who prettied up the room." Yes, cartooning brought a great and generous lifestyle to this wonderful bon vivant.
As often happens with men who live outsized lives and have an influence on society, Goldberg cast a long shadow on his family. His wife's primary job was to be Rube's wife, and his sons had both opportunities and problems because of the family name. As George explains, "In any family where a member is lauded as a genius, celebrated for his or her life's work, and fame is a byproduct of all these good things, there is a ripple effect to the next generation, and my family was no different. My father and his brother, highly creative and talented men in their own right (my father – a writer and producer of theater and film, my uncle – a fine artist whose work is in museums and private collections around the world), couldn't avoid measuring their own successes against those of their father.
How do you begin to compete with an adjective?"
It's a fascinating problem, made even more so by George's own experiences as Goldberg's grandchild, where his approach and attitudes influenced her as much as anything: "I think the effects of my grandfather's core values – especially creative endeavors where you could make a living at your craft – had a trickle-down effect on the whole family. So as a result I can't say that this directly comes from my grandfather but more than likely some genetic pass-through from my dad, who got it from Rube – in that I love to work. And, I've been lucky enough to work for myself all these years as a fashion designer, as a writer… and now, in addition to those two hats, I get to run the business of Rube – which is pretty exciting!"
The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius is a wonderful tribute to this creator whose creative output has somehow gone beyond his own particular creations and well into the realm of iconic status. George, for one, hopes that this book will remind readers "that Rube's work is as relevant and funny and ingenious today as it was almost 100 years ago when he was first syndicated, which makes the book and the mobile game app not just a labor of love but something I think the whole world will enjoy."