The following biography is a condensed version of a much longer article on the life and career of Gregor Duncan, which appeared in the pages of Hogan's Alley #17, in 2010. The full article is now available online, and can be viewed on the Hogan's Alley website.
Gregor Keane Duncan was born in Seattle, Washington on February 12, 1910, but grew up in Sausalito, California, the son of Charles and Constance Duncan. Charles Duncan wore many hats during his career, working as a designer and illustrator, as well as the press agent for Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge. Constance Duncan, the sister of famed Western painter Maynard Dixon, was trained as a pianist. While Gregor Duncan received no formal art training from his famous uncle, he did work in his San Francisco studio as a "water boy", cleaning brushes, changing the water, and working as a gopher. Duncan left Tamalpais High School before graduating, and started on the staff of the Sausalito News when he was 17 years old. Soon after, he moved across the bay to San Francisco to do work for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, focusing on sports cartoons, but occasionally doing public interest pieces, political cartoons, and courtroom drawings. Duncan commuted from Sausalito to San Francisco, maintaining a small studio in the famed Montgomery Block in San Francisco.
In 1933, the 23-year-old Duncan moved to New York in order to pursue a freelance career in the heart of the illustration industry. Duncan was hired by the original Life magazine soon after his arrival in New York City. He drew mostly political cartoons for the magazine, creating powerful images with ink, litho crayon and watercolor. Duncan's early Life cartoons were very pro-FDR and the New Deal, reflecting the editorial tone of the magazine at the time. Little by little, the political stance of the magazine shifted towards the right, forcing Duncan to change the political tenor of his work. In May of 1936, Duncan began a series of color anti-Roosevelt cartoons, which were based upon Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. With accompanying text written by Arthur Lippmann, the political cartoons took sharp aim at the Roosevelt administration until November 1936, when Life ceased publication. According to Duncan's widow, Janice Duncan Goodhue, her husband was a Roosevelt supporter, which must have made working for Life towards the end a bittersweet experience for him. But it was the height of the Depression and artists had to make do.
While Life's closing would mean a loss of income, Duncan had spent the previous three years building up a strong client base of other periodicals. He produced work for Reader's Digest, Look, Collier's Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Judge, The Literary Digest, and For Men Only, a risqué men's magazine. Duncan illustrated covers for the latter three periodicals, and the June 1937 cover of Judge featured Duncan himself, along with a drawing of his future wife, Janice Karner. In 1940, Duncan began working for PM newspaper, the left-wing daily financed by Marshall Field III, from its inception in June. Duncan acted as an illustrator-journalist for PM, covering various events and stories in Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs. Duncan would often write the text for the pieces, which would be accompanied by his wonderful drawings. In December 1940, PM sent Duncan to cover a wedding reception hosted by RKO Pictures, for its stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. Duncan drew a number of pieces from life, and even managed to bring home a piece of wedding cake for his wife.
While PM was firmly a left-wing publication, The Daily Worker, the official organ of the Communist Party, was even further left. Duncan was considered a "fellow traveler", and while he is not known to have been a member of the Communist Party, he certainly leaned far left. Duncan contributed editorial cartoons to The Daily Worker, but used a pseudonym for the only documented time in his career. He kept his initials, but signed the work as "George Dickson", the last name being a variation on the spelling of his mother's maiden name, Dixon. While PM employed a number of radical journalists, the paper had frequent editorial battles with The Daily Worker, which is the likely reason for the use of the Duncan's psuedonym.
Duncan's professional time in New York City was incredibly prolific. Besides the many periodicals he did illustrations for, Duncan also became heavily involved in the book illustration field. From 1939 to 1942, Duncan illustrated nine books; five of them for Simon & Schuster, including his personal favorite, Wacky the Small Boy. He also illustrated a pocketbook edition of Treasure Island, though his Duncan's richest, most mature work may be found in Geraldine Pederson-Krag's, The Melforts Go to Sea, published in 1941.
Janice Karner, who Duncan knew through his sister Dulce from his days in Sausalito and San Francisco, moved out east in the mid 1930s to study nursing at Johns Hopkins, and soon started dating Duncan. Karner relocated to New York City in 1937, and worked as a secretary to the art director of Compton Advertising, a large firm in the city. The Duncans were married on May 17, 1938, celebrating at the recently opened Tavern on the Green, which closed its doors in 2010.
The Duncans were active on the New York City scene, in both politics and the arts. They were strong union supporters, and marched with dock laborers who fought to form a union, resulting in creation of the National Maritime Union. The Duncans were also supporters of the American Newspaper Guild, and early members of the Cartoonists' Guild. But it was not all politics for the Duncans. They enjoyed everything that a city like New York could offer, and were frequent patrons of Barney Josephson's ground-breaking jazz club, Cafe Society, where the lines of color were blurred. Duncan had painted a wall mural in the jazz club, and received a credit as payment, which lasted a good long time. The Duncans were present at Cafe Society in 1939, when Billie Holiday introduced her seminal song, "Strange Fruit", to the world.
© Rob Stolzer