Dogpatch Dispatch: My Encounter with Al Capp

Dogpatch Dispatch: My Encounter with Al Capp

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner

 A half a century ago I had an encounter with Al Capp that, although relatively brief, left a mark on my psyche. The recent sexual harassment scandals have brought this disturbing episode from my past quite vividly into the present.

Al Capp, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Denis Kitchen Archives

Capp died long ago, of course, and cannot defend himself. However, I wrote about the experience in my journal at the time and told several friends and, in later years, my therapist. I also wrote briefly about it in the introduction to my first book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, which was published in 1999. My story is true. And, sadly, not at all unusual.

In fact, I had this experience with Capp in common with Grace Kelly, Goldie Hawn, and many other women—but more about that later.

I was introduced to Capp in 1967 by Henri Rosen a man about town who lived in an apartment above my boyfriend’s on Boston’s waterfront (back in the days when the area was seedy and fairly dangerous). I was 24 years old, living in a cave-like studio apartment on the wrong side of Beacon Hill. Upon my graduation from Wellesley College (which I attended on a generous scholarship), I had to go to secretarial school in order to qualify for the kind of job available to women at that time.

Entirely self-supporting but eager to see the world, I went to Europe soon after graduation with only fifty dollars (all the money I had). I managed to live for a year in London and another year in Paris by working as a secretary (those cities were relatively inexpensive then). I had only recently returned to the United States. Desperately looking for meaningful work, I was at the time a waitress at the Top of the Hub, a restaurant that still exists on top of the Prudential Center. Every day the manager inspected the collar of my mustard yellow uniform, my fingernails.

Jean Kilbourne, circa 1965

In those days I was occasionally offered modeling jobs. Shortly before meeting Capp, I did some runway modeling in New York for the noted fashion designer Oleg Cassini. After the show we went to his castle-like home for drinks. He said I could have a lucrative career as a model if I would sleep with him. He probably put this more subtly (he was perhaps the suavest man I’ve ever met) but that was the gist. This was distressing to me but not nearly as distressing as my later experience with Capp. I was with Cassini in the first place because of my body, my looks. This doesn’t excuse sexual harassment in the modeling industry, of course—not at all—but it somehow felt different to me at that time in my life.

 When Capp and I met, he had a television show in Boston and was looking for a “girl” to be an assistant, researcher, on-camera talent, everything. The job promised lots of money (to me at the time, at least), travel all over the country and world, glamour, maybe even fame.

My first assignment was to write a review of John Kenneth Galbraith’s new book The New Industrialized State. A political conservative, Capp wanted a negative review. I didn’t share his political beliefs, but I presented him with detailed notes on every chapter along with my own opinions (a 30-page document). He liked what I gave him and subsequently published a review based on my notes in Nation’s Business—a magazine that, he said, shared the honors with Embroidery Today of being the only one left on airplanes on long voyages.

Capp told me that he liked me and thought I was an excellent writer and would be right for the job. There was just one hitch. I would have to sleep with him. A one-time requirement, he said. I said I really wanted the job and thought we could work well together but that I wouldn’t do this. He said goodbye.

Jean Kilbourne, circa 1967

A few days later his manager called and said that Capp thought I was brilliant and wanted to hire me but that he did have this one demand. “Go to bed with him, honey,” the manager said. “It won’t kill you.” I thought it might.

Someone hearing this story today might think, “Well, that must have been unpleasant but it’s not a very big deal.” After all, Capp didn’t have any real power over me. But it was a very big deal to me. I was an educated and ambitious young woman. I longed for work that was challenging. I was so bored at my secretarial jobs that I occasionally set the clock ahead an hour to 5 p.m. so I could leave. I measured out the hours smoking cigarettes and sucking on sugar cubes. I felt trapped in a dead end. Above all, I was so afraid that I would never find my place in the world.

My refusal to have sex with him cost me the job (if it ever really existed), but Capp still wanted to hire me for some short-term projects. The work was interesting and I needed the money, so I met with him a few times over the course of several months—sometimes at his studio in Boston and once at his apartment on Park Avenue in New York. I did several assignments, including notes for an interview and suggestions for TV programs. He often grabbed and groped me and forced kisses on me but I fended him off—sometimes indignantly, sometimes trying to make light of it. I was confused, embarrassed and repulsed, but I don’t recall feeling in danger. Like many young women in those days, I was sadly inured to unwelcome advances.

BELOW: One of Jean Kilbourne’s early assignments for Al Capp was ghost-writing a review of John Kenneth Galbraith’s book The New Industrialized State. Here is the published piece (click to enlarge).

Capp was a bitter and caustic man, but he was also smart and sidesplittingly funny. In some ways, I liked and appreciated him. I was touched by his impoverished childhood and that he had lost a leg when he was only nine years old. The daughter of a war hero who suffered from unrecognized PTSD, I was adept at searching for the good in wounded men, like a miner panning for gold in a muddy, barren stream.

He was a clever manipulator and knew just how to stoke my insecurities. He accused me of being uptight, rigid, inhibited. One time he said that I was all wrapped up in tinfoil, like Doris Day. At that time in my life I was trying to navigate the uncharted waters of sexual freedom for women that were just opening up. Like most young women, I had spent my adolescence struggling to protect my virtue, my chastity, in the soul-crushing days of the 1950s—walking the fine line between breathtaking desire and awareness of the condemnation heaped on girls who “went too far.” Of course, I was also solely responsible for avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, something that would completely derail my life (the pill was yet to be invented and contraception was illegal, to say nothing of abortion). I was used to being called a tease, a prude, “the fair Miss Frigidaire”—but these labels still stung.

Today I know, as most of us do, that what was happening (or not happening) with Capp wasn’t about sex—it was all about power, as it always is. But I didn’t know this then and his digs about my sexuality were hurtful. I was inexperienced and naïve and ached to be perceived as sophisticated, worldly, and grownup.

Once, injured by his lacerating wit and exhausted from the struggle, I started to cry. I used my long hair to dry my face, hoping it would look like a casual gesture. But he touched my cheek and, realizing I was crying, said, “Christ! I’m getting involved with you.” The remark was so spontaneous and out of character that I still believe it might have been sincere. It was as if, for a brief moment, he saw me as a real person. This didn’t last, however.

On April 2, 1967, I wrote in my journal: [Capp’s manager] calls me again and says you’re an idiot—I like you very much but you could wrap this job up if you wanted—go over and have a wild makeout session with him—I can assure you it won’t lead to the bedroom—and it won’t continue, not even if you want it to. It’s a test. He’s just testing your reactions. He thinks you’re square—and you’ll have to be aggressive and tough in this job.

I kept hoping that I could impress Capp enough with my mind, with my sense of humor, that he would get over his fixation on my body. He said he appreciated the work I did for him, but he never gave up and I never gave in, so eventually, but abruptly, our relationship came to an end. One day, as he started to grope me, I got up and walked out the door. I finally realized that, even though he thought I was smart and talented, I was ultimately an object, a bauble, to him and that wasn’t going to change. I never heard from him again.

A fall 1967 magazine article about a television show hosted by Al Capp (click to enlarge).

I fell into a deep depression. I felt completely dehumanized but I also felt ashamed and guilty that I hadn’t walked out the very first time. In those days I often dealt with situations that disturbed or depressed me by joking about them. My mother died when I was nine and my family was not one for sharing feelings or “processing” grief. We were WASPs in the early 1950s, after all. My three brothers and I never talked about our mother after she died. We never cried in front of each other. But we did develop a mordant sense of humor, a taste for the macabre and a tendency to trivialize our deepest feelings in a way that eventually caused trouble for each one of us. Repressed grief finds outlets as surely as rising floodwaters—and it can be as damaging.

People could read some of the letters I wrote to family and friends at this time and think that I didn’t take the whole thing all that seriously. But they would be wrong. I was protecting myself as I always did, with distance and humor.

So I wrote to my oldest brother in March of 1967: Poor little Jean has become very disillusioned with the cold cruel world. In the past few months I have had a couple of spectacular offers for interesting jobs which would be lucrative and would perhaps catapult me to fame and glory. I have been qualified for them and very interested in them…and I have discovered that in the so-called glamorous fields (fashion, TV, films, etc.), there is one golden rule –what goes up must first go down. After due consideration, I decided to blow my career instead.

And to a friend in June of 1967: Al Capp and I had several horrendous encounters but that little pussy and rat game is finally over. I’ve had tremendous doubts on all levels since, but my total being really does affirm my decision—nonetheless the whole experience knocked the wind out of me more than any one realizes.

I am not revealing anything here that isn’t already well known and on the record. Capp was a man of contradictions. A champion of the left who often parodied corporate greed when he was young, he had turned radically to the right and was a pro-Vietnam War pal of Richard Nixon’s when I knew him. Nonetheless, he supported gay rights and the struggle for racial equality and he didn’t tolerate homophobic or racist jokes or comments.

Sexism was another story, though, and it seems clear he was a misogynist. However, he did resign from the National Cartoonists Society when male colleagues wouldn’t admit a female member. Of course, many offenders, such as Louis C.K., have presented themselves as feminists. Harvey Weinstein posed as a champion of women’s rights and donated generously to female politicians. It’s impossible to know whether this was a disguise, a front, or evidence of a split in their psyches, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde situation.

The 1968 newspaper column that brought nationwide attention to Capp’s behavior with coeds in Alabama.

Brilliant and talented, Capp also was a depraved predator. In February of 1968 he was asked to leave the University of Alabama (where he had been invited to give a lecture) after being accused of making “indecent advances” to four college students in the space of a few days.[1]

According to reporter Jack Anderson, Capp told a young woman who had delivered some materials to his hotel room that he was impressed with her and discussed the possibility of hiring her to help produce the "Capp on Campus" radio series, then in progress. He began making forceful advances toward her and exposing himself to her. I was struck by the following: “Although she was not injured, she was sufficiently upset by the experience to be admitted a few days later to the university infirmary where she remained under sedation for several days.”

Anderson ended his article with “It gives us no pleasure to make these revelations about a man whose legendary ‘Li'l Abner’ cartoon creations have amused millions of Americans for generations. But Al Capp today is much more than a gifted cartoonist and a brilliant humorist. He is a major public figure, whose views reach and influence millions.”

In 1972 he was fined $500 and costs on a morals charge resulting from accusations made by a female university student.[2] The fine (ludicrously small, in my opinion, even in those days) was the alternative to a year in prison. This was considered ironic given that Capp was known at the time for his scathing denunciations of the morals of college students.

At least two of the women Capp assaulted went on to become very famous—but they never forgot their negative experiences with him. The authors of the biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary cite Goldie Hawn's story of resisting Capp’s sexual advances in her 2005 memoir, Goldie, and James Spada's 1987 biography of Grace Kelly, Grace, which quotes Kelly's manager saying that Capp tried to rape Kelly.[3]

In an interview in 2017 Goldie Hawn said that she almost quit acting at the age of 19 after Al Capp came on to her during an audition for a part in one of his TV shows. “I was 19. I went up for the ‘meet,’ and it was so scary,” said Hawn. “He took off his business clothes and came in in, like, a dressing gown. I got the picture, and I thought, ‘I’m in trouble. Where’s the door?’ … Then he wanted me to show my legs, and I said, ‘You know, Mr. Capp, I don’t know. I don’t think so,’ and then I sat down and he wanted me to give him a kiss, and I went, ‘I don’t do this. I’m sorry.’ ”

Hawn says Capp became angry and told her she’s “never gonna make anything in your life” and to go home and marry a dentist. “I was crying and I didn’t have any money to go back to the [1964 New York] World’s Fair, where I was dancing, and so he threw me $20 for a taxicab,” she adds. “It wasn’t a good day.”[4]

This happened to Hawn shortly before Capp made me a similar offer, but she didn’t reveal the story until long after she became a star. I am struck by how vividly she still remembered it. I am also struck that she apologized to him—which I am sure I did too. We women often do. All the ways we are socialized to be nice—to not cause trouble, to be deferential to men—impede our ability to resist assault.

What is it about these particular incidents that caused Goldie Hawn to almost quit acting, that led a young woman in Alabama to be sedated for days, that tormented Harvey Weinstein’s and Bill Cosby’s accusers for decades?

It is difficult to explain to people who have not experienced objectification and sexual harassment just how dehumanizing it is. One’s entire self—one’s talents and skills, fears and hopes, loves and sorrows, memories—is eradicated, reduced to a body part. The experience also can arouse complicated and contradictory feelings. Many victims of sexual harassment feel shame and guilt, as if they somehow brought it on themselves and could have avoided it. This is especially true for people who have been sexually abused as children—which is a very large population (about one in four women and one in six men[5]). I am a member of this group and I’m sure this contributed to my sense of despair and powerlessness.

I was somehow always aware of the contempt that underlay the harassment—even if it initially seemed complimentary. I sensed the danger, the hostility, behind the catcalls, the invitations, the frequent exhortations to “smile, honey.” I remember sunbathing on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge one afternoon. Some men came by in a boat quite close to shore. They shouted and whistled at me and wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually I got up to leave and shot them the finger. The rage came off the boat like a wake—and their shouts of “Bitch” and “Whore” followed me all the way to the street.

We have learned so much in just the past year about the lifelong impact of sexual harassment and assault. The most common diagnoses are depression, anxiety and PTSD. Some victims are driven to suicidal thoughts or the act itself. Dr. Colleen Cullen, a licensed psychologist, says that sexual harassment early in one’s career can be especially damaging. Feelings of shame or guilt can devastate a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth as a professional. A young person might question her ability and doubt her achievements. She might feel that she was hired only because of her sexual value. Depression can last for years and can affect performance in subsequent jobs.[6]

This research helps me understand why my encounter with Capp was so profoundly disturbing. I have had more dangerous and brutal experiences with men and certainly more heartbreaking ones—but none more damaging than the one with Capp. He came the closest to extinguishing my sense of myself as a talented, competent and hopeful person.

This research also helps explain the reactions of some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers to his recent arrest on charges of rape and a criminal sex act. Hope d’Amore, who said Weinstein raped her in a New York hotel room in the 1970s, burst into tears in a department store and said, “This has had such a huge impact on my life, more than I realized for so many years.” And Judith Godreche, a French actress who rebuffed Weinstein’s advances in 1996, said, “There are some things you can’t repair: women’s souls and bodies and memories and traumas that are going to be there forever, careers that have been damaged. You can’t get that back.”[7]

People have questioned why some of these women remained friends with Weinstein, were in photos with him at awards shows, etc. Anita Hill was faulted for maintaining a civil relationship with Clarence Thomas. I would never blame these women. They knew their careers were on the line. And they also knew that, at that time, no one would believe them if they told the truth about what had happened. So many young people, hungry for success and a chance to make their mark on the world, thwarted by trolls like Weinstein and Capp and James Levine and Mario Batali guarding the bridge.

Of course, as the #MeToo movement makes clear, sexual harassment occurs in every field and at every level. Many women with much less privilege than I or most of Weinstein’s accusers do not have the luxury of walking away. They can’t afford to lose their jobs or to risk deportation. Sometimes they literally can’t afford to resist at all.

Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn never forgot their encounters with Capp, but they went on to great success, of course. Many of the women harassed by Harvey Weinstein became famous too, which ultimately gave them the power to speak up and to be believed. My experiences, including those of sexual harassment and discrimination, spurred me to invent a field and build a career as a feminist activist, public speaker and writer.

This article originally appeared in  Hogan’s Alley  #22 (cover above). To order a printed copy of the issue, click the image and visit our online store.

This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #22 (cover above). To order a printed copy of the issue, click the image and visit our online store.

I find it important to add that most of my relationships with men, professionally and personally, have been good. Loving my brothers and knowing them so well has helped me understand the struggles many men face. I learned a lot especially from my gay brother. I am well aware that most men are not violent and do not harass women (and some are victims themselves), and I admire those who are stepping up now to expose and stop the toxic culture of objectification and exploitation. I have been working with some of these men for years and am inspired by them.

 I can imagine readers wondering why I am writing about this now and why for this publication. The truth is that Tom Heintjes contacted me years ago after reading about my experience with Capp in the introduction to my first book. He asked if I’d be willing to write about it in more detail for Hogan’s Alley. I wasn’t sure that I could but Tom and I corresponded about it for many years, establishing a kind of friendship and mutual respect in the process.

He sometimes sent me copies of the magazine. I was intrigued because I have a familial connection with the cartoon arts. My uncle Bob Jenney was the artist for The Cisco Kid. Also, I grew up with a passion for comic books—the mainstream ones such as Nancy, Little Lulu and Archie and also horror comics such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. As I said, my brothers and I shared a taste for the macabre. If only we had saved our copies!

Tom was always so gracious and so sure that his readers would appreciate my story that I eventually decided to write it. And then came the #metoo movement. My first thought was that it was now too late, that it would seem I was jumping on the bandwagon, but Tom persuaded me otherwise. I am writing my story now so that it will be on the record. I am writing my story now to illustrate that sexual harassment exists in every field and that, even if relatively minor, can have a lifelong impact. It flourishes in a culture of silence, so each one of us, women and men, must speak up. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”[8]

JeanKilbourne-Headshot-lo.jpg

About the author: Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising and for her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising. In the late 1960s she began her exploration of the connection between advertising and several public health issues, including violence against women, eating disorders, and addiction, and launched a movement to promote media literacy as a way to prevent these problems. A radical and original idea at the time, this approach is now mainstream and an integral part of most prevention programs.

She is the creator of the renowned Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women film series (and several other films) and the author of the award-winning book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

She holds an honorary position as Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In 2015 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

ENDNOTES

[1] Anderson, Jack, “Al Capp Hustled Off U of A Campus After Coeds Charge He Made Indecent Advances,” Times Daily, April 22, 1971.

[2] “Al Capp is Fined $500 Plus Costs in Morals Charge,” New York Times, February 12, 1972, p.33.

[3] Schumacher, Michael and Kitchen, Denis, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, quoted by Minzesheimer, Bob, “Cartoonist Al Capp Exposed in ‘Life to the Contrary,’ USA Today, February 25, 2013. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2013/07/12/cartoonist-al-capp-exposed-in-new-bio/2511355/>.

[4] Cagle, Jess and Russian, Ale, “Goldie Hawn Remembers the Casting Couch Sexual Predator Who Left Her in Tears at 19,” People Movies, May 11, 2017 <https://people.com/movies/goldie-hawn-remembers-casting-couch-sexual-predator-who-left-her-in-tears-at-19/>.

[5] “Child Sexual Abuse: What Parents Should Know,” American Psychological Association, February 19, 2014. <http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/understanding-child-abuse.aspx>.

[6] Spector, Nicole, “The Hidden Health Effects of Sexual Harassment,” NBC News BETTER, November 10, 2017. <https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/hidden-health-effects-sexual-harassment-ncna810416>.

[7] Ryzik, Melena, “An ‘Untouchable’ in Handcuffs is a ‘Start to Justice’ for Accusers,” New York Times, May 25, 2018, p.A14.

[8] Baldwin, James, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” New York Times, January 14, 1962, pp. 1 and 38, p.38.

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