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culture

Historicist: Armed with a Felt Pen and a Sense of Humour

Master of the cartoonist's pen but burdened by inner turmoil, George Feyer is a long-neglected mid-century pop culture figure.

Photo of George Feyer on CBC's Razzle Dazzle, 1961, by Albert Crookshank, CBC Still Photo Collection.

George Feyer was stuffing feathers into quilts for $18 a week in 1949 when he sold his cartoon in Canada. It was, by all accounts, a rather subdued gag about a man being fitted for glasses.

It was only after its publication that the editors were informed by other immigrants that Feyer’s cartoon contained a second, hidden joke: a series of Hungarian swear words spelled out on the optometrist’s chart in the background. The unamused editors admonished Feyer, but luckily the incident didn’t stall the cartoonist’s career then and there.

More than just the best-known and most prosperous cartoonist in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, Feyer was a foremost pop culture figure of his day. Armed with a whimsical imagination and a dark sense of humour, Feyer’s print media work ignored taboos of the day, often engaging lewd or lascivious subject matter.

But, he was lighthearted enough for frequent appearances on television, particularly on children’s shows. And he was a lively personality among Toronto’s literary set until his untimely death at the peak of his career. Yet today, Feyer is largely unknown to the broader public; his few books are long out of print.

Feyer was a fascinating, enigmatic character who was close to few people. Like his first Maclean’s cartoon, first impressions of the man as an affable joker obscure a darker bearing.

Image from Maclean's (June 15, 1954).

Feyer quickly established an international reputation. From providing cartoons to Maclean’s, Feyer regularly sold work to Collier’s, Punch, The New Yorker, and publications all over the world. The recent immigrant from Hungary could soon afford to move from his dive apartment along Spadina to an upscale flat.

About one-third of Feyer’s work for the print media—a great deal of which some consider the cartoonist’s best work—was rejected by editors and remains unpublished. The vast majority of rejected drawings were bawdy, even licentious, depictions of an overtly sexual nature. Others were judged to be overly caustic commentaries on politics or religion.

Image from Maclean's (December 17, 1966).

Over lunch in March 1959, Feyer remarked to Pierre Berton “that all the cartoons he, personally, liked were invariably rejected in favor of cartoons which he drew under duress but hated for their banality.” The cartoonist shared an example he said had been repeatedly rejected as too grisly for publication. Berton, then on staff at the Toronto Star dutifully reproduced it in those pages. The illustration of a man’s arm clutching an umbrella protruding from a dog’s mouth depicted, Berton explains, “man’s determination to survive in the face of fearful odds.”

Feyer’s work was popular and noteworthy enough that magazine editors were willing to dig through a pile of his sketches for something publishable. Or they’d have Feyer draw and re-draw an idea to eliminate its racier elements.

Like the rabble-rousing Berton himself, Feyer was one of the few figures who could poke fun at the sanctimonious mores of mid-century Canadian society while enjoying broad popular appeal with this very audience. He became, Terry Mosher writes in Maclean’s (October 14, 2002), “the charming enfant terrible of Toronto’s media set.”

A light drinker, at cocktail parties Feyer, a very diminutive man, might drift from group to group as more loquacious guests conversed, hardly noticed. But then, Feyer told McKenzie Porter in the most extensive profile of Feyer during his lifetime, which appeared in Maclean’s (May 7, 1960), he would sidle up to an attractive woman in a quiet corner.

He might pretend to be hard of hearing in order to lean in close, or feign broken English even though he spoke five languages fluently—albeit with a Hungarian accent. “I’m afraid,” he might say, “that I speak an accent without a trace of English.” And he might sprinkle small talk with puckish turns of phrase: calling himself an “off-beatnik”; renaming the popular Junior League women’s service club as the “Junior Plague”; and labelling a well-known but temperamental female singer as a “schizo-soprano.”

Image from Pierre Berton, Fast Fast Fast Relief (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1962).

Having disarmed his womanly prey with such convivial charm, he’d brandish his ever-present felt pen and seek permission to draw on her. As Porter details, Feyer might draw a little man across her shoulder-blades, climbing out from the back of her dress; doodle a trapeze artist dangling from a necklace; or turn fingers into the legs of a pair of ballet dancers. “He particularly liked to draw on women’s bosoms,” Feyer’s wife would later recall with fondness.

He’d draw on just about anything at parties, turning mundane everyday items like bathroom fixtures and elevator buttons into quirky (and most frequently, racy) cartoons. At parties at the Royal York Hotel, Feyer was known to remove framed pictures from the wall, quickly sketch a naughty scene on the wall itself, and replace the picture to hide his mischief.

With this schtick repeated at countless parties in the 1950s and 1960s, it was perhaps too easy, then, for other guests to dismiss Feyer as a jovial little fellow, a clown. But there was an underlying darkness in Feyer.

Image from Pierre Berton, Fast Fast Fast Relief (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1962).

“I am not a funny little man,” Feyer complained to Porter. “I am sad and serious. I am so serious that when I am on TV they have to get a stage hand to poke me in the back with a broom to remind me when to smile. Humor is my business, not my recreation. For recreation I read philosophy. I get so tired of humor.”

“He was in no sense a clown,” Berton added in a eulogy for his friend in the Star (April 1, 1967). “He was a serious, thoughtful sad man with a serious, thoughtful and sad view of the world. He had every reason to be.” Feyer had seen more of the world than most.

Additional image is from the Toronto Star (March 23, 1959).

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