Saturday, October 27, 2018

PEB Illustrated: “Sketched” (Chapter 1 of 5)

Pierre E. Bellocq, better known as PEB, has been an icon in North American horse racing as a cartoonist, using his art and incisive wit to bring color and commentary with his images. In this first of five installments on the artist, we begin a story that dives deep into the recesses of a life of singular devotion, of dedication, and the nature of aging and memory.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Blue skies, the comfort of shade, seen from atop a flight of stairs to the deck overlooking a garden in full bloom. A newspaper spreads before him, an iPhone rests to his right. His eyes cast down to the newsprint as he lifts a cup of Starbucks Pikes Place, lid off, with a brown drip running from the lip to the patio table, to his mouth. The coffee steams in the summer heat.

Here sits Pierre E. Bellocq, better known as PEB, the esteemed political and equine cartoonist, in the summer of 2016, on the cusp of turning 90. He wears a blue polo shirt with the collar spread, a couple of buttons undone showing a white crew shirt right up to the Adam’s apple. He sips from the black coffee and he likes the taste.

My first memories of PEB, like most I presume, date back to Daily Racing Form covers he painted for the Triple Crown. Each cover told a distinct story for the upcoming race. The three in total illustrated the narrative at large. I used to frame them and place them side-by-side.

The text that accompanied the drawings provided the nuts and bolts, but after tenderly folding up those Forms and filing the covers away, it was the murals I kept, unforgettable renderings all.

Ted Bassett, Keeneland’s former president, had it right when he told me, “I think it’s fair to say that his cartoons were more memorable than the editorials.”

In 2006, ten years before I met him, PEB’s Triple Crown covers told the story of how Brother Derek and his peacock colors came in as the headliner to that year’s Kentucky Derby. By the Preakness, it was Barbaro who had seized the cover, Edgar Prado up, and Michael Matz in the wings, like latter-day Mongolian conquerors.

But by the third and final race, Barbaro, with his broken leg, sat on a commencement stage on one side with Bernardini, the Preakness winner, sitting on the other. Neither ran in the Belmont Stakes.

All this while Charles Hayward, then the president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, stood at the lectern ready to deliver his address to those horses about to compete in the final leg of the Triple Crown: Three panels; three chapters; one story.

PEB’s drawings and murals have graced the pages of newspapers and racing forms for decades. His playful way of cartooning carved a special and unique niche for the native Frenchman. Horses. Owners. Trainers. Jockeys. Dowagers. Millionaires. Billionaires. PEB targeted them all with the sharpness of his pen, pad, and a bottomless well of whimsy and wit.

He made hundreds and hundreds of drawings and caricatures from seventy years of professional cartooning. A few years ago, I wasn’t noticing PEB’s presence where I usually saw him. No fillies and mares with wigs and breasts. No aggressive depictions of the BIG HORSE. No color. No fun. Nothing. I wondered if, given his age, he had passed. But I looked online and found, to my joy, that he was still very much alive.


Upon meeting PEB, walking through his studio in Princeton, NJ, then finally up to that shaded deck, I see that his hands were finely made, slender, thinly skinned and well-veined, the fingernails neat, pink and shining. His arms, too, are slim up until his biceps disappear into his shirtsleeves.

PEB now has a tiny pot-belly, not heavy enough to tax his thin legs. He is long of tooth, with deep jowl lines cutting two parentheticals around his mouth. The skin is looser around his face, not tight like it was back in France, or the days spent traveling the world for the next scene, the next person to render in ink or paint.

There are bags under his eyes with thick caterpillars of unkempt, roan eyebrows. His eyes can pop, seemingly extending out of his head when recounting a story. His smile gets toothy and wide. His silver hair is combed back except for some non-conforming wisps dancing in the breeze. A long-time friend of PEB told me, “If you had to picture a caricaturist, it would be PEB!”

His voice has a deep French accent and he makes colorful gestures with his eyes and face, imitating, for example, the great blue heron scarfing a coy fish from his cherished garden ponds. He has become, in a sense, one of his sketches.

But it is the horses that always earned his greatest admiration and respect. Smarty Jones as Rocky. Barbaro as he scorched the earth. Rachel Alexandra busting through saloon doors. Charismatic crying at Chris Antley’s grave. For PEB, horses are life and life, horses.

Lately his work has not been seen depicting racing’s pomp and color, with few exceptions, namely Thoroughbred Daily News. The newspapers and magazines don’t call anymore, though his hand is still capable of high art. He feels forgotten.

And maybe that’s the nature of ninety. He’s outlived many of his peers, won la resistance! as he and his son, Remi, often joke.

PEB can reach back into the depths of his memory, of a France still recovering from The Great War, and a country feeling the bitter rumblings of its Germanic neighbor, one with a Fuhrer on the rise.

He reaches back to those days with crystalline vision, clear as the blue skies above. But if he makes a phone call, he could just as well forget the effort he made ten minutes earlier, as if the number had never been dialed. If he replies to an email, he may forget the entire exchange. That, too, is the nature of ninety.

For years now, there has been more time behind him than ahead. His grasp on the future wanes but his deep past, where the wealth of his time and legacy still remains, sits alongside him like an old friend.

PEB looks up to the sky. Up above, an airliner cuts a line through the sky and as if it were yesterday, he remembers, recounting a life in oil and ink, “I could express my inner feelings with cartoons.”

In tomorrow’s chapter, we see the France PEB was born into and the grimness from which he came as Paris evacuated many of its citizens for safer ground in the south.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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