Gregor Duncan: Pictures of Life
The Second World War cut millions of lives short. One of its victims was a cartoonist and illustrator whose future appeared assuredly bright, but a German artillery shell ended his life. Rob Stolzer traces the life and times of Gregor Duncan.
At the end of the 1944 wartime edition of Sad Sack, next to the biography of creator George Baker, is a piercing pen and ink portrait of Baker. The pen work making up the portrait is fluid and classic, from the loose and lively drawing on the collar and hat, to the beautifully formed shadows making up the planes of Baker’s head. It is a masterful drawing, executed by a young illustrator named Gregor Duncan, who was assigned to the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes in Naples, Italy, at the time. The portrait in this book was this author’s first encounter with Gregor Duncan’s work. For more than 30 years, the only thing I knew about Duncan was that “The drawing opposite was done by a very good friend, Sergeant Gregor Duncan, of the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes, a short time before he was killed in the Allied advance on Rome.”
But there is more to Gregor Duncan’s story. Much more.
By the time he joined the Army in 1942, Duncan was one of the rising illustration stars in New York City, with work in many major magazines, newspapers and books. During their few years spent in New York, Duncan and his wife Janice worked tirelessly in support of the National Maritime Union and the Newspaper Guild and were founding members of the Cartoonists’ Guild. The Duncans were early patrons and supporters of Barney Josephson’s groundbreaking Cafe Society, the jazz club where lines of color were erased and where Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. During the war, Duncan was befriended by Bill Mauldin, who drove him around Italy in his Willy Jeep in a get-acquainted tour. It was Mauldin himself who delivered Gregor Duncan to Janice, who was a Red Cross volunteer stationed in Naples, a week before Duncan’s untimely death in 1944. By the age of 34, Gregor Duncan had accomplished more in his short lifetime than many do in twice that lifetime. He was destined for much more, but war cut his destiny short.
Gregor Keane Duncan was born in Seattle, Wash., on Feb. 12, 1910, but grew up in Sausalito, Calif., the eldest of Charles and Constance Duncan’s three children. The Duncans were a family of both great vitality and great tragedy. Charlie Duncan was a gregarious man who counted author Jack London as one of his San Francisco drinking buddies. He was a colorful, larger-than-life character who wore many hats during his lifetime. Early in his career, Duncan worked as the sales manager of outdoor advertising for Foster and Kleiser. The Foster and Kleiser Outdoor Advertising firm pioneered the business of outdoor signage, moving from the usual posters pasted upon any available surface to designated structures meant for outdoor advertising: billboards. In the mid-1930s, the elder Duncan became the press agent for Joseph Strauss, the engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1939, while working as the art director for the McCann-Erickson Advertising Agency in San Francisco, Duncan created the famed red “X” label design for Lucky Lager, a new beer brewed in San Francisco; Duncan’s label design is appreciated by beer can aficionados to this day.
With no formal background in the theater arts, Duncan had a flair for the dramatic and directed the 1927 Tamalpais High School senior play “The Goose Hangs High.” Constance Dixon Duncan was an accomplished pianist, born into a family of artists. One of her four siblings was Maynard Dixon, the noted Western painter who was married at one time to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Dixon and Lange were good friends with cartoonists George Herriman and Jimmy Swinnerton and spent most of August 1922 with them on a John Wetherill-led expedition from Kayenta, Ariz., to the Betatakin Ruins in Tsegi Canyon, in what is now the Navajo National Monument; a good deal of the trip was spent drawing and painting in Monument Valley.
Duncan illustrations for the Sept., Oct. and Dec. 1937 issues (l-r) of For Men Only magazine: (click to enlarge)
Constance Duncan’s other brother was Harry Dixon, a noted Arts and Crafts coppersmith and jeweler who was Dirk Van Erp’s first apprentice when Van Erp opened his first studio in San Francisco in 1908. Dixon went on to teach and eventually opened his own studio in San Francisco. Gregor Duncan’s sister Dulce was a photographer who helped document the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during her father’s tenure as Strauss’ press agent. Dulce Duncan Ray later died from cancer, followed by her husband and two children, all of whom committed suicide.
Duncan’s youngest sister, Nancy, was also an accomplished pianist who moved to New York City in the 1930s to study modern dance. During her time in New York, she stayed with Consie Dixon, Maynard Dixon’s daughter, who was a writer for the WPA. Nancy Duncan eventually married Hubert Sorenson, a violinist with the Portland Symphony String Quartet and the Neah-Kah-Nie Quartet. The visual and musical arts coursed through the veins of Gregor Duncan’s surroundings, no doubt having an impact on his future path.
An online biography states that Duncan’s uncle Maynard provided his nephew with his only formal art training, but that was not the case, according to Duncan’s widow, Janice Duncan Goodhue. “Oh no, Gregor never had any formal training,” she said. “It was all instinctual.” Duncan did help his famous uncle in Dixon’s studio near the Montgomery Block in San Francisco. “Gregor used to be his water boy,” Mrs. Duncan Goodhue explained. “In other words, he cleaned up the studio and kept fresh water for the brushes.” In describing Dixon, Mrs. Duncan Goodhue continued, “Maynard was very difficult. Most people feared him. So even Gregor was a little nervous with him, which surprised me.” Becky Jenkins, the granddaughter of Maynard Dixon, was unsure of the actual student-teacher relationship between her cousin and grandfather, but noted a definite shared sensibility in their art. She commented that Duncan had “...developed the same skill set as Maynard; the mastery of the quick sketch.”
Duncan showed an early talent for drawing, as evidenced by his work in high school. In the 1926 Pai, the Tamalpais High School yearbook, there are two full-page illustrations and one chapter heading by Duncan, all depicting scenes of medieval knights. The style of drawing is reminiscent of Howard Pyle’s pen and ink work, which would be no coincidence as Pyle’s four-volume set on the adventures of King Arthur had been published from 1903 to 1910. A young Gregor Duncan very likely grew up on these adventure books and was familiar with Pyle’s work. In the 1927 Pai, from Duncan’s last year in high school, he seems to have forgone the adventure illustration in favor of cartoons accompanying jokes. These pieces don’t have the degree of finish as his works in the previous yearbook, but it should be noted that Duncan took a much more active role during his senior year of high school. He was the Yell Leader at rallies, a staff member on the Tamalpais News and a member of the program committee, for which he presented an “entertaining speech on ‘color,’ ” which “opened a new field of thought to many.”
Duncan also seemed to inherit a bit of the charismatic character of his father, a trait that will be commented on throughout his short life, but the pages of the Pai yearbook give a hint of what was to come. In describing their new Yell Leader, the Pai stated, “Many new faces have been seen the past year in the yell-leading field, the most prominent one belonging to Gregor Duncan, who piloted the Tam supporters in vocal calisthenics during the second semester. Gregor is one of the snappiest leaders it has been our good fortune to have and he deserves a lot of credit...” Duncan’s nephew, Peter Sorenson, the son of Nancy Duncan Sorenson, commented on his uncle’s popularity in high school; a popularity stemming in part from his personality but also from the school sweaters he would illustrate for classmates. Duncan had that ability to draw people towards him, both through his artwork and engaging personality.
Duncan illustrations accompanying "Alice in Wonderland: (click to enlarge)
Duncan left Tamalpais High School during his senior year, before graduating, to start working professionally. At 17 years old, he started with the Sausalito News, but before long he began commuting across the bay to San Francisco, where he started working for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1928. Duncan spent five years at the Call-Bulletin, specializing in sports cartoons but also covering politics and the occasional trial. The sports and trial drawings, often done from life, helped hone Duncan’s ability to capture figures and action quickly. He maintained a small studio in the famed Montgomery Block, also known as the Monkey Block, mingling with the other artists and poets in the building during a very bohemian time in San Francisco’s history.
In 1933, Duncan decided to move to New York City to tackle the publishing and illustration world where it lived. His time in Manhattan would prove to be a period of tremendous personal, professional and political growth. Duncan hit the ground running in New York when he was hired by the old Life magazine in 1933 as an editorial cartoonist. Life was an early and strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected president in 1932. And for Gregor Duncan, who was on the political far left, the subject matter was in his wheelhouse.
Duncan wielded a powerful litho crayon for his early Life cartoons, depicting FDR as a vibrant hero, setting the stage for his controversial New Deal. In a cartoon from April 1934, which remains as contemporary today as it did when published, Duncan portrayed Roosevelt as the subject of Jean-François Millet’s painting, “The Sower,” with FDR spreading money along the landscape, belching factories in the background, a Johnny Appleseed trying to revive a devastated economy. The following month, Duncan portrayed a muscle-bound Roosevelt, sleeves rolled up and bursting with energy, as he holds up two Wall Street villains as if they were ragdolls. A biblical caption from Mark 11:15, “—To cast out them that sold and bought—,” accompanied the cartoon of FDR’s cleaning up the economic house.
However, not all was picture-perfect for Roosevelt in the editorial offices of Life. As time went on, the magazine’s view of the president began to shift, moving from a do-no-wrong savior to just another bloated political bureaucrat. An editorial on the various Social Security plans in the works appearing in the March 1935 issue paints a muddled and confusing portrait, with blame laid at the feet of the government for not being more proactive. Duncan’s powerful editorial cartoon, titled “Ol’ Rockin’ Chair,” depicts a senior citizen in his rocking chair, whittling away, a burden being carried by a powerfully built figure, now bent and trudging along. The landscape is no longer one of optimistic growth but one of barren desolation.
As Life’s editorial viewpoint became more anti-Roosevelt, so followed Duncan’s imagery, which must have been difficult for one with such left-wing leanings. But it was height of the Depression, and freelance artists had to work in order to survive. In May 1936, Duncan began a series of full-color anti-Roosevelt cartoons, which were based upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The cartoons were accompanied with text by Arthur L. Lippmann and took sharp aim at the Roosevelt administration until November 1936, when Life ceased publication. There is little doubt that Duncan was a supporter of Roosevelt. He had the opportunity, in the 1930s, to draw a commissioned portrait of the President, but to Duncan’s dismay, a previously arranged assignment stood in the way. According to Mrs. Duncan Goodhue, her husband was quite disappointed at the missed opportunity.
Even though Life magazine closed its doors in 1936, Duncan had built up a steady client base in the magazine business during his first three years in New York. He drew cartoons and illustrations for a number of major publications including Reader’s Digest, Collier’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan. He also drew and painted covers for the Literary Digest and Judge magazine. Much of what Duncan drew for the magazines was sports related, done in his quick, nearly gestural fashion, reminiscent of some of the earlier Ashcan School drawings by artists like George Luks, Robert Henri and George Bellows. Duncan was a big fan of boxing and spent a good deal of time drawing at both prizefights and Lou Stillman’s fabled gym on Eighth Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. Stillman’s Gym was known primarily for two things: the champions who trained there and its unsanitary conditions. Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Benny Leonard were among the boxing greats who spectators could watch train for two bits. Stillman wanted the gym kept as unsanitary as possible, fearing that the boxers could “catch a cold from cleanliness,” so cigar and cigarette smoking was encouraged, as was spitting on the floor. Much like Tad Dorgan, Duncan reveled in this environment, doing pen and ink drawings and watercolor paintings of the boxers and prizefights.
The June 1937 cover of Judge magazine features a watercolor cover by Gregor Duncan. The cover pictures a couple sitting on a tree limb, the woman leaning into the man’s shoulder, with a “Keep Off the Grass” sign below them. The model for the man was actually Duncan himself, and the woman is Janice Karner, who would become Duncan’s wife a year later. Karner, a good friend of Dulce Duncan’s, had known Duncan for a number of years in the Bay Area, though he was a couple of years older than her. She came out East in the mid-1930s to study nursing at Johns Hopkins University and soon started dating Duncan. She didn’t finish her nursing education but moved to New York in 1937 and worked as a secretary to the art director of Compton Advertising, a large firm in the city. The Duncans were married at New York City Hall on May 17, 1938, and celebrated their nuptials at the recently opened Tavern on the Green, in Central Park.
Janice Duncan was as politically left as her husband, and both were strong supporters of workers as they fought to form unions in the 1930s. Gregor Duncan had been a founding member of the Cartoonists’ Guild, a precursor to the National Cartoonists Society, in March 1936. The Cartoonists’ Guild, led by President Roland Coe and Vice President Ned Hilton, fought for better working conditions for artists, including a $15 minimum fee for magazine cartoons. The guild also kept a watchful eye out for “scab cartoonists” who would take the place of one of their own who went out on strike in sympathy with the unions. One of Duncan’s best friends, New Yorker cartoonist Charles E. Martin, who signed his work “CEM,” was also a member of the guild, along with another friend, Gregory d’Alessio. Duncan was an active member of the guild, both politically and through his contributions to OK, the official publication of the organization. He contributed ink and litho crayon portraits of Gregory d’Alessio, Garrett Price and Fritz Wilkinson to the “Thumbnails” feature of the magazine in 1937, as well as a lithographic image titled “Longshoremen.” The magazine regularly featured fine art examples of the cartoonists’ work, such as Duncan’s lithograph. The Cartoonists’ Guild patterned its constitution after that of the American Newspaper Guild, cofounded by journalist Heywood Broun. The two groups often met together, in support of causes that affected their respective memberships.
The Duncans had been very familiar with the battles fought on the docks by the International Longshoremen’s Association in San Francisco, led by Harry Bridges and his “Albion Hall Group,” Bridges’ inner circle. In New York, the Duncans marched with dock laborers who fought to form a union, resulting in the creation of the National Maritime Union in 1937. Frederick “Blackie” Myers, the Vice-President of the NMU when it was formed, once told Duncan’s nephew Peter Sorenson that Duncan was so well liked by union members that he could never buy his own drink in a bar. It was that part of Duncan’s engaging personality that drew others towards him, whether on the docks or on the battlefield.
While the Duncans were ardent supporters of the unions in the 1930s, they were also strongly involved in the musical and visual arts in New York. When Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman from Trenton, N.J., opened the Cafe Society jazz club in the basement of One Sheridan Square, he had a number of Greenwich Village artists paint murals on the bare walls. The artists—including William Gropper, Sam Berman, Syd Hoff, John Groth, Ad Reinhardt, Adolf Dehn and Duncan—were not given much for their work. According to Mrs. Duncan Goodhue, “...Barney Josephson didn’t have a lot of money, so what he did, instead of paying the artists to paint the murals, he gave all of us a $75 due bill. Well, that doesn’t sound like much today, but it took forever to eat up and drink up that $75 due bill.” Duncan’s mural, which no longer exists, featured Elsa Maxwell. The grand dame of uptown society, Maxwell was dubbed “The Hostess with the Mostest” for her parties given for royalty and high society figures of the day. Mrs. Duncan Goodhue recalled that, “She was a big jolly woman, who arranged all of the high-level stuff uptown. She had nothing to do with Cafe Society. Gregor did a wonderful mural of this woman Elsa. It wasn’t identified as Elsa, but it was her, riding a chariot, striking the horses, going through what would have been Rome. The mural was making fun of uptown society. Oh, it was fabulous!”
Cafe Society was a ground-breaking club, as Josephson would not tolerate the segregation practiced at other night clubs. The Stork Club did not allow African-Americans in the audience, except for major celebrities, and there were many charges of racism brought against the club by celebrities such as Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. Even the Cotton Club in Harlem practiced segregation, limiting its African-American audience to the back third of the club. But Cafe Society was different. With the tagline “The Wrong Place for the Right People,” the club was a pioneer in race relations, admitting persons of all ethnic and racial backgrounds without any preference based on status or class. All performers were allowed to perform in a dignified fashion, without the usual stereotypical trappings found at the other clubs.
The club mixed humor and music, with comedian Jack Gilford acting as its first emcee. A young actor named Sam Mostel got his start at the club, acquiring his nickname “Zero” in the process, because he started from nothing. But it was the music that was the true headliner at Cafe Society. Hazel Scott, Teddy Wilson, Meade Lux Lewis, Mildred Baily, Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan played and sang at the club. And Billie Holiday. Holiday sang in the club’s opening show in 1938 and remained there for a nine-month run. Two years earlier, Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher in the Bronx, wrote a powerful poem about the lynching of two African-American men in an effort to express his horror of the act. After the poem was published, Meeropol set it to music, and the song gained some success as a protest song in and around New York City. Barney Josephson introduced the song, titled “Strange Fruit,” to Billie Holiday, who sang it for the very first time at Cafe Society in 1939. Gregor and Janice Duncan were in the audience that night. “...[W]e actually sat there and listened to Billie Holiday sing ‘Strange Fruit,’ ” Mrs. Duncan Goodhue recalled. “How can I ever forget that?” she continued. “She was fantastic,” referring to Holiday, “but all of the lynchings and everything...”
Gregor Duncan took full advantage of all the city had to offer an artist. At the Metropolitan Museum, he enjoyed the work of his three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Goya and Daumier. Duncan shared a sensibility with those artists; that ability to size up his subject matter in quick and lively fashion, an ability that served him well as he roamed about the city, doing small pen and ink drawings on the backs of old checks or working on the shirt cardboard from his favorite Chinese laundry in the Village. The city teemed with life, from the newspaper hawker to the street walker, and Duncan captured them all on paper, as if weaving together a tapestry of city life.
The late 1930s to early 1940s was an incredibly productive period for Duncan. From 1939 through the first half of 1942, Duncan illustrated nine books. In 1939, he illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with a number of active fine-line, full- and partial-page drawings. That same year, Duncan illustrated what would became his personal favorite, Wacky the Small Boy, written by Fred Schwed Jr. Wacky, the main character, was smaller than most kids and tried making up for his lack of physical size with a more outsized personality. The end results did not always wind up in Wacky’s favor, but the rich pen and ink drawings, reminiscent of Louis Darling’s later work on many of Beverly Cleary’s books, show a true fondness for the character. Duncan went on to illustrate seven more books through 1942, mostly geared toward adults and young adults. His strongest work may have appeared in Geraldine Pederson-Krag’s The Melforts Go to Sea (1942), which contains richly detailed black-and-white illustrations. While some of the pieces maintained elements of Duncan’s active mark-making, most of the drawings have a sturdier quality to them, with a greater use of brush than much of his other work. Most of the books that Duncan illustrated were published by Simon & Schuster. Duncan had developed a strong relationship with Jack Goodman at Simon & Schuster, becoming his good friend and golfing buddy. Goodman had steady work in mind for Duncan over the coming years.
PM newspaper, a left-wing daily published by Ralph Ingersoll and bankrolled by the Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, began publication in June 1940. Duncan was with the paper right from the start. PM ran for only nine years but featured work by some great cartoonists. Dr. Seuss was a regular contributor to PM’s editorial page, Crockett Johnson introduced the cult favorite Barnaby in 1942, and Coulton Waugh’s experimental and powerful Hank ran in the paper for a short time, beginning in 1945. Duncan acted as an illustrator-journalist for PM, covering various types of events and stories and drawing them from life.
In the Aug. 11, 1940, issue, for instance, Duncan went to the Coney Island Velodrome, a structure with an eighth-mile wooden track and 45-degree banked corners, to cover the motor-paced bike races. The bicyclists would follow the motorbikes very closely, drafting behind the machines, which allowed them to attain speeds up to 50 mph. Duncan’s full-page feature captured the race itself, along with portraits of some of the more prominent participants. In the Nov. 13, 1940, issue, opposite a feature on Fred Allen, is a wonderful page of Duncan illustrations, capturing the football being played at the Thrift House Playground, on 89th Street and York Avenue. Drawn close to the style of his Wacky the Small Boy illustrations, Duncan masterfully portrayed the energy of the rough-and-tumble youths at play. And in the December 12 issue of the same year, Duncan was one of the lucky journalists able to attend a wedding reception hosted by RKO Pictures for stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Duncan did a number of illustrations from life, which appeared as a full-page spread, and even managed to bring home a piece of the wedding cake for his wife.
PM employed a number of radical journalists, some of whom were members of the Communist Party. While there were accusations that PM was dominated by communists, it was found that the paper frequently opposed the policies of the Communist Party and had editorial battles with the party’s own newspaper, the Daily Worker. In addition to his work for PM, Duncan contributed editorial cartoons to the Daily Worker, though he didn’t sign his own name to them. He kept his initials but signed the work as “George Dickson,” a variation on Dixon, his mother’s maiden name. It is unknown whether or not Duncan was trying to avoid being branded a communist or if he didn’t want to cause trouble by working for the two newspapers that didn’t exactly see eye to eye. This appears to be the only instance of his using a pseudonym for his work.
In 1941, Duncan’s mother passed away, and his draft status was changed to 1A. Duncan immediately reported to the draft board, was drafted into the Army Air Corps on July 9, 1942, and sent to Atlantic City, N.J., for basic training, which took place in the old hotels used by the Air Corps for ground crew training. Duncan proved to be as prolific an artist for the military as he was in civilian life. Within weeks of being assigned to basic training, Duncan was illustrating for BEAM, a military newspaper, drawing his own panel cartoon titled “At Ease”. “At Ease” was done in a mix of Duncan’s illustration and cartooning styles, and presented a humorous look at the life of a soldier going through basic training in Atlantic City.
Recognizing his artistic talents and background as an illustrator, the Air Corps next assigned Duncan to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Flight Control Command, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he produced a series of drawings for an official training manual and contributed features to Air Force, the official publication of the AAF. Next, while working for the Technical Training Command Public Relations office, Duncan was assigned to the TTC at Lowry Field, near Denver, Colo., where the AAF trained technicians and mechanics for all of the planes. Maintaining his ties with PM, Duncan was featured as the cover story in the April 13, 1943, issue, acting as a journalist-illustrator tour guide to Lowry Field. The feature is adorned with a number wonderful pen-and-ink, litho crayon and mixed-media illustrations, as well as Duncan’s narration of the scenes. While stationed at Lowry Field, Duncan also had the opportunity to do a portrait of General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the war, whose later plan as secretary of state helped rebuild Europe after the war and was named the Marshall Plan by President Truman.
Duncan was later transferred to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where he helped document a joint experiment between the Flight Control Command and the medical branch of the AAF School of Applied Tactics. The experiment tested eight Air Force men as they drifted on rafts in the Gulf of Mexico for six days. Different modes of survival were tested on different groups of the men to determine the most useful supplies to be stored in emergency inflatable life rafts for bomber planes as well as the best tactics for their use. Duncan, still attached to public relations, wrote and illustrated a three-page article in the Nov. 2, 1943, issue of Look magazine. The illustrations incorporate ink, ink wash, and charcoal and exhibit a vitality in Duncan’s work that famed New Yorker cartoonist Carl Rose later commented on, saying that Duncan’s work “had power, drama and well-crafted turbulence. It was alive.”
While Rose was not referring specifically to the piece appearing in Look, the description is spot-on. The illustrations show a power of form and mood, as strong as any work depicted during WWII. During Duncan’s time attached to the public relations office, he was also sent to Chanute Field, a Technical Training Command and Flying Training Command base in Illinois, where the core of the Tuskegee Airmen was trained. While at Chanute Field, Duncan documented various training techniques for manuals and public relations. The work done at Chanute Field demonstrates the breadth of Duncan’s skills, from the quick sizing up of various activities to the classic approach to portraiture. These pieces are well informed by the years Duncan spent sketching from life, both in courtrooms and on the streets of New York City.
In the meantime, Janice Duncan left her position at Compton Advertising and was now working for OWI, the Office of War Information and propaganda analysis. With her husband being moved around on various assignments, the couple felt it was only a matter of time before he was shipped overseas. It was decided that Janice would volunteer for the American Red Cross, with the hope of being shipped overseas as well. She was interviewed, accepted the position and went to Washington, D.C., for six weeks of training. Surprisingly, it was Janice who was shipped overseas first. She went aboard the Monterey, a former ocean liner that had been converted to a troop ship, on June 22, 1943. There were 30 Red Cross volunteers and approximately 5,000 troops onboard for the six-day trip to Casablanca. Upon arrival, Janice was assigned to the Enlisted Men’s Club in Algiers.
Gregor Duncan joined Stars and Stripes on Dec. 14, 1943, traveling overseas with six other newspapermen who had volunteered for duty with the paper in the Mediterranean theater. He wound up in Algiers, which was unusual for an enlisted man but not for a member of the Stars and Stripes staff, where rank did not matter as much. The Duncans were able to take some time off, spending a few days at a former French hotel at the edge of the Sahara Desert, which the Army had taken over for R&R. At the hotel, the couple met Richard Llewellyn, author of How Green Was My Valley, who was working with British military information and also on R&R. Duncan and Llewellyn became very good friends, going to the Arab quarter together.
Upon their return, Janice was sent to Sardinia with two other Red Cross workers while her husband stayed in Algiers, working for Stars and Stripes. Duncan worked on various assignments for the paper, from field studies and recreations of battle scenes to maps and comic strips. While stationed in Algiers, he put his previous experiences to work by doing courtroom drawings of the Vichy government war crimes trial. Duncan’s panel cartoons were humorous in nature though some had a touch of the Bill Mauldin outlook to them—not unusual, given the reach and popularity of Mauldin’s work, especially among the dogfaces. Duncan’s single foray into the comic-strip format was a multipanel feature titled Close Order Close-Ups. This feature would sometimes consist of individual panels woven together to give a varied glimpse of army life, while at other times it would be more of a narrative sequence based upon a single character. The drawing was again a combination of Duncan’s illustration and cartooning styles. There was a touch of H.M. Bateman in Duncan’s figures and storytelling, with a similar scene-by-scene narration, topped off by some beautifully exaggerated and graphic figure work.
In March of 1944, Duncan was sent to Naples, Italy, where he met and befriended Bill Mauldin. Mauldin took Duncan around in his specially assigned Willy Jeep to show him the areas he’d be covering. Mauldin later wrote about Duncan in The Brass Ring, stating, “I was asked to escort Greg until he knew his way around.… He was an entertaining companion, with a cheerfulness and serenity about him, which I thought were mainly due to his huge artistic ability. I would take him for a visit of an hour or two with an artillery battery or an engineer platoon and he would fill whole notebooks with sketches in pen and chalk.… He was the only journalist I knew who had immediate rapport with soldiers.”
Duncan’s personality was one of the keys to his life as a journalist-illustrator. He was someone whom people would open up to and share their stories. As Mrs. Duncan Goodhue later recalled, “…he also had the kind of personality that was very rare. In other words, some people make you feel that you’re the only person they’re listening to, whether you are or not; that you’re the center of attention.” That ability to get closer to his subjects allowed the readers and viewers a more intimate view of the people Duncan wrote and drew about. But as the staff of Stars and Stripes knew all too well, getting too close to the action sometimes resulted in tremendous loss.
In late May 1944, when the American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s club in Algiers closed down, Janice Duncan was reassigned to Naples. Bill Mauldin delivered Duncan to his wife, and the couple had a two-day reunion before Duncan was sent to Anzio. Duncan’s boss at the Anzio Stars and Stripes office was the longtime illustrator Ed Vebell, who had a strong impact on Mauldin’s work earlier in the war. Vebell was planning on heading out to the former beachhead at Anzio the day after Duncan arrived, but they decided to switch assignments to give Duncan a chance to familiarize himself with the area. Duncan and Sgt. Jack Raymond left for the beach head on May 29 to gather material for a new series of drawings. Duncan never returned. In the midafternoon, somewhere near the just-occupied town of Cori, with Duncan behind the wheel, the Jeep was hit by a German 88 shell. From his hospital bed, Raymond later said that “...a shell hole loomed up so suddenly that the jeep simply spun in and turned three times...” Duncan died from wounds from shell fragments.
Janice Duncan had gone to Ischia after her husband left for Anzio but received an urgent message from Ed Johnson—a correspondent from the Chicago Sun-Times who had become good friends with the Duncans—to return to Naples as soon as possible. Upon her return, Johnson told her the news of Gregor’s death. After that, Duncan’s widow felt that she could no longer work in the enlisted men’s clubs and asked to be reassigned. She was sent to the 38th Evacuation Hospital in Rome, which had formerly been in Anzio. In August 1944, two of Duncan’s best friends, Sgt. Bill Estoff, the Circulation Manager for Stars and Stripes, and Sgt. George McCoy, a Stars and Stripes staff member, took Janice Duncan to visit her husband’s grave in Anzio.
In Duncan’s Stars and Stripes obituary, appearing on June 3, 1944, mention is made of a biographical sketch filled out by Duncan before he left Algiers for Italy. Under “hobbies and other pertinent information,” Duncan wrote, “Drawing pictures, listening to McCoy, and keeping Moonbeams happy.” McCoy was his buddy George (the Real) McCoy, and “Moonbeams” was Duncan’s pet name for his wife. The three toasted Duncan with a bottle of bartered-for brandy, Duncan’s favorite drink. Janice Duncan was shipped home in December 1944, but before she left, Bill Mauldin gave her a gift of a large ink drawing of his character Joe as a remembrance of better times.
In the mid-1940s, there were exhibitions of Duncan’s work throughout the country. The State Department contacted Janice Duncan, asking if she had any of her husband’s Stars and Stripes original drawings that could be used in a traveling exhibition. The exhibition contained gag cartoons, sketchbook drawings, field studies and pieces used for training. A write-up about the exhibition appeared in the March 27, 1945, issue of Stars and Stripes and referred to Duncan’s record of Army life as “...a kind of visual Ernie Pyle.” While a great many people got to see Duncan’s Stars and Stripes artwork, the originals in the show were never returned to his widow and are presumed lost. A Gregor Duncan Gallery, created in memory of the artist, was started at the California Labor School in San Francisco. Founded in 1942 as a worker’s school to provide education in the arts, language skills, union organizing and history, the school was directed by David Jenkins, Maynard Dixon’s son-in-law, for its first eight years. Two committees were the driving force behind the gallery: On the San Francisco committee sat Duncan’s two sisters, among many others, while the New York committee consisted of cartoonists Colin Allen, Gregory d’Alessio and Charlie Martin. The life of the Gregor Duncan Gallery was short-lived, though, as the California Labor School faced increasing political pressure following the war because of the communist leanings of some of the school’s founding members and their ties to unions. With the rise of McCarthyism, the school eventually closed its doors in 1957.
As Bill Mauldin so eloquently penned 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 war we don’t often consider.” No one knows what Gregor Duncan would have accomplished had he survived the war. Half of his 34 years were spent working as a professional illustrator, and his star was only on the rise in the publishing world, but a German 88 shell cut that promise short. Duncan touched a great many people during his brief lifetime, and even today family and friends recall him with reverence, whether they knew Duncan personally or through the memories of others. To most people, his life was four short lines in a book of WWII cartoons published in 1944. While there is a great deal more to Gregor Duncan’s fascinating story, because of his untimely death so much will remain unwritten.
Author’s note: The author would like to thank many people and organizations for their help in writing this article. It is said often, but truly, without their help, this piece would not have been possible. My greatest thanks go to Janice Duncan Goodhue, who helped paint a fuller and richer portrait of her husband for me. In addition, my thanks and gratitude go to Sue Mayo and the Stars and Stripes Museum Library, Al Sheeter, Mary Crowe and Tamalpais High School, Becky Jenkins, Todd Huebner, Dana Carlile, Peter Sorenson, David Grossman and the Mill Valley Public Library, Jocelyn Moss and the Marin History Museum, Ed Vebell, the Ohio State University, Todd DePastino, Robert K. Wiener and the comic-strip-classics Yahoo discussion group.