The short biography below was taken from a more extensive article written about Gregor Duncan, which appeared in Hogan’s Alley at https://www.hoganmag.com/blog/gregor-duncan-pictures-of-life
Gregor Keane Duncan (February 12, 1910 to May 29, 1944) was born in Seattle, Washington, but grew up in Sausalito, California. Duncan was born into an artistic family. His mother, Constance, was trained as a pianist, and his uncle on his mother’s side was the famed western painter, Maynard Dixon. Duncan’s cousin, the granddaughter of Maynard Dixon and photographer Dorothea Lange, is Leslie Dixon, a film writer and producer who has written screenplays for Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, and many others. Duncan received informal training from his famous uncle, working in his San Francisco studio as a “water boy”, one who cleaned paint brushes, changed the water, and ran errands as a gopher.
Duncan left Tamalpais High School before graduating and started on the staff of the Sausalito News when he was 17. Soon after, he moved across the bay and began working for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, working on sports cartoons, public interest pieces, reportage and courtroom drawings, and political cartoons. During this time, Duncan maintained a small studio in the Montgomery Block in San Francisco, where his uncle maintained a studio.
In 1933, the 23-year-old Duncan moved to New York and began working for the original Life magazine, drawing mostly pro-FDR and New Deal cartoons and illustrations. As the political stance of the magazine change, Duncan was forced to create more conservative cartoons, which went against his nature, according to his widow, Janice Duncan Goodhue. It was the height of the Depression and artists had to make do.
When Life magazine changed its format in 1936, Duncan moved onto to other publications. 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. 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 also began working for the fledgling comic book industry in 1940 and had three stories in the very first issue of Whiz Comics, which featured the introduction of the original Captain Marvel. During this time, Duncan also contributed to the Daily Worker, the official organ of the Communist Party. Duncan contributed editorial cartoons to the Daily Worker using 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.
During his time in New York City, Duncan also became heavily involved in the book illustration field. From 1939 to 1942, Duncan illustrated nine books, including five for Simon & Schuster. 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.
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.
When Duncan’s mother died in 1942, his draft status changed immediately to 1A, where upon he reported to his draft board. Duncan was drafted into the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, in July 1942. He did his basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then worked in the office of Public Relations, spending time at Lowry Field in Colorado, Tarpon Springs, Florida, and Chanute Field in Illinois. His work consisted of drawings for manuals, public dissemination, cartoon illustrations for military publications, and his first humorous panel cartoons.
In the meantime, Janice Duncan had left Compton Advertising and was working for OWI, the Office of War Information and propaganda analysis. Knowing that her husband would most likely be sent overseas, the decision was made for Janice to join the American Red Cross, with the hope that she too would be deployed overseas. Surprisingly, she was the one who shipped out first, arriving in Algiers in the summer of 1943.
Gregor Duncan was hoping to be transferred overseas himself and was eventually assigned to the staff of the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes on December 14, 1943. He arrived in Naples, Italy, and became good friends with Bill Mauldin, who drove Duncan around in a get-acquainted tour.
Duncan’s work for Stars and Stripes showed off his strengths as an artist. He did everything from field studies and battle reenactments, to Vichy Government wartime trial drawings and comic strips. He continued contributing to PM from overseas, acting as a war correspondent; a visual Ernie Pyle, as he was referred to after his death. Duncan’s drawings were filled with liveliness, capturing not only the dangers of war, but the vitality of life.
Duncan was able to see his wife briefly in Algiers, in December 1943, a union that was cheered by the many friends of the couple overseas. The get-together was brief, as Duncan had to get back to Naples. In late May 1944, when the American Red Cross Enlisted Man’s Club in Algiers was closing, Janice was assigned to Naples, where Mauldin brought Duncan to his wife in his specially assigned Willy Jeep. A week later, on May 29th, Gregor Duncan and Sgt. Jack Raymond were sent to Anzio, to gather material for a new series of drawings on the former beachhead. On the way to Anzio, the Jeep that Duncan and Raymond were driving was hit by a German 88 shell. Raymond survived, but Duncan was killed, due to shell fragment wounds.
At 34 years old, Gregor Duncan had lived an incredibly vibrant and productive life, and was one of the rising stars of the illustration world. Bill Mauldin might have summed up his loss best, in the pages of The Brass Ring: “I’ve lost friends who were ordinary people and just wanted to live and raise a family and pay their taxes and cuss the politicians. I’ve also lost friends who had brilliant futures. Gregor Duncan, one of the finest and most promising artists I’ve ever known, was killed at Anzio while making sketches for Stars and Stripes. It’s a pretty tough kick in the stomach when you realize what people like Greg could have done if they had lived. It’s one of the costs of the war we don’t often consider.”
© Rob Stolzer 2020