Alex Raymond's Last Ride
Stan Drake talks about surviving the fatal car wreck that took Alex Raymond’s life—was it an accident or suicide?
By Arlen Schumer
The September 7, 1956, edition of The New York Times gave it nearly 11 inches of space, headlined "CARTOONIST DIES IN WRECK OF AUTO" and treated it in a straightforward manner: Alex Raymond, then known as the creator of Rip Kirby, had died the previous day in a single-car accident. Objectively yet respectfully, the account briefly summarized Raymond's accomplishments, among them the creation of the landmark feature Flash Gordon and the co-creation of Secret Agent X-9. And buried in the story was a mention of Raymond's gravely injured passenger, fellow cartoonist Stan Drake, then working on The Heart of Juliet Jones.
It was an accident like so many others: a driver losing control on a rain-slicked road and wrapping his vehicle around a tree. But was it like so many other accidents?
The Alex Raymond that Stan Drake recalls was a striking figure: matinee-idol handsome with a pencil-thin mustache, virile, hugely talented and admired among his peers, having served as president of the National Cartoonists Society (its third chief, succeeding Rube Goldberg and Milton Caniff).
Apart from being a man in firm control of his art and career—King Features offered Raymond $35,000 a year to produce a Sunday Rip Kirby page, only to have Raymond decline the offer, citing the extra work the page would impose—Raymond liked to play hard. Then 46, he was always ready for an opportunity to indulge his passion: racing cars.
One day, Raymond paid Drake a visit as he was working on a Juliet Jones strip. "Back in those days, I was doing The Heart of Juliet Jones, and I was using Polaroid references of models. I gave them all kinds of expressions—fear, anguish, happiness—and Alex never did. And he came to me and said, 'What is this thing with expressions you're doing? It looks great.' He complimented me on doing these real people in Juliet Jones. I couldn't believe that the greatest artist in the world was asking me about expressions!"
Drake, as it turns out, was paying a price for introducing human expressions into his work: Sylvan Byck, then comics editor at King Features, was admonishing the 35-year-old Drake to drop the use of emotional expression in his characters' faces. "Byck asked me, 'What are you doing with these expressions? We don't usually do that.' He tried to put me down, believe it or not," Drake said. "He said, 'Just draw people.' And I said, 'I'm going to draw people the way they are. If you want to buy Juliet Jones, that's what you're going to get."
Raymond, while a master of cartooning, was also an eager student of the form, and he had dropped by Drake's Westport, Connecticut, studio to talk shop. "He would come up to the studio, and we would talk and discuss things, and suddenly it dawned on me, 'Here is the number, one artist in the world, coming to my little studio, I had only started Juliet Jones three years ago in 1953, asking me about expressions.' So I was very honored and thrilled, and I told him that people are people, that they have expressions. And I couldn't believe that it was all new to him, couldn't believe it. I don't know what he did with it, because he died shortly thereafter."
Drake's new sports car—a 1956 Corvette convertible—also came up as a topic of conversation during that visit. Raymond said he wanted to drive the Corvette, which boasted 450 horsepower and a four-second acceleration from 0 to 60 miles per hour, to compare it to one of his cars, a gullwing Mercedes that was then in the shop to have platinum plugs installed. Drake readily agreed to allow Raymond to take a spin in his car, so they jumped in Drake's other car, a rather more austere Chevrolet, to travel from his studio to his home, where the Corvette was parked.
September 6 was a typical fall day in Connecticut—a steady rain was falling, and the top was up on the Corvette. At first, Drake took the wheel, traveling around Westport while Raymond admired the automobile. "Finally, we were on a road over by the highway, and he said, 'Can I drive?' and I said, 'Sure.' "
The two switched places, Raymond got out of the car to walk over to the driver's side, while Drake stayed in the car and slid over to the passenger's seat, and Raymond began driving down South Morningside Drive to Clapboard Road. Once on Clapboard Road, Raymond began driving as if he were on Thompson Speedway, his favorite race course in northern Connecticut.
As he sped down the steeply graded Clapboard, he failed to see a stop sign that was hidden by overgrown weeds. Racing through the intersection, Raymond and Drake were suddenly in a free fall: Clapboard dropped off precipitously after the stop sign, and the velocity of the car launched it into midair. "By not stopping, we shot out about sixty feet into the air," Drake said. "They calculated where the wheels hit the road, and it was about sixty feet. The last thing I remember, we were coming right at these trees. There was a pencil on the dashboard, and it was floating in the air. That's the last thing I remember before we hit."
When Drake regained consciousness, he was lying in a grassy field, pelted with the continuing rain. He had not been wearing a seatbelt and had been thrown 35 feet from the car; he is still uncertain from which part of the car he was thrown (his best guess is the door). "I was just in shock," he said. "I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing, lying down in a field in the rain? I don't do this, this is crazy!'
"Then I heard footsteps running toward me, and I heard a girl's voice saying, 'Don't hurt his leg, Daddy!' " That voice belonged to the daughter of one of the emergency rescue workers who responded to the accident. Drake then slipped back into unconsciousness.
When he awoke, he was lying in a hospital bed, a doctor standing beside him, cursing: "That goddamn son of a bitch!" Drake asked him what the matter was. The doctor told Drake that this was the fourth time in the past month Raymond had been hospitalized due to injuries sustained in auto accidents. "He had been trying to kill himself," Drake said.
Drake's injuries were grave: he suffered various internal injuries and a broken shoulder. Both his ears had been ripped off his head and had to be reattached. His rehabilitation was protracted, and during this period he had to stop cartooning. Also, a congenital condition had worsened Drake's prognosis: unlike almost all children, the bones on the top of Drake's skull had never met and locked together, and he was left with an unusual calcium ridge on the top of his head. As a result, when his injuries were examined and photographed at Norwalk Hospital, a hospital staffer concluded the worst: "He took pictures of my head and said, 'This man's skull is cracked from front to rear—he'll never make the night.' They thought I was going to die."
During Drake's first few days in the hospital, doctors and nurses told him that Raymond lay in a coma. Eventually, he learned the truth: Raymond had been killed instantly upon impact. The Corvette's wraparound windshield had shattered, one large shard of it entering Raymond's mouth and exiting the rear of his head.
Drake knew Raymond only as a colleague, not as a friend. They fraternized over work, and neither man discussed his personal life. So Drake could not have known of Raymond's troubled marriage (at the time, he was living apart from his wife); of his wife's refusal to grant him a divorce so he could marry his mistress (the Raymonds were Catholic); or of the insurance policy that would grant Raymond's wife $500,000 (and with the policy's double-indemnity clause, potentially $1 million). Drake knew of these only later. While Drake was in the hospital, Raymond's widow angrily refused even to visit Drake, having concluded erroneously that Drake had been supportive of Raymond's extramarital affair and his wishes to divorce his wife, "But I wasn't on anybody's side!" he said. "I didn't even know about the affair."
While recuperating at his home, an adjuster from Raymond's insurance company paid Drake an impromptu visit. "He tried to get me to admit that Alex had committed suicide so they wouldn't have to pay the double indemnity," Drake said. "My shoulder was broken, my arm was in a sling, and I threw the guy out of my house." Drake never heard from Raymond's widow.
About five years after the accident, Drake drove by the spot where they crashed, and he stopped to take a look. He noted that the tree the Corvette hit had grown taller, and that fragments of the car's plastic body remained embedded in it. He thought to himself that a great artist had died here, and he was glad that he had not died, too.