Tuesday, October 30, 2018


PEB Illustrated: Chapter 4--The Pen Is Mightier


PEB was close to his mother, closer than he was to his father. Though PEB rode horses to please his father, it was his mother with whom he shared the greatest connection.

On PEB’s final day in France, he sat down with his mother, peeling green beans. She had tears in her eyes. “I will never see you again,” she said.

“You’re crazy!” he said. But, in a sense, she was right. She knew he had been working for this kind of opportunity his entire life. He never came back to France as a permanent resident.

“Every time I see green beans I think of that,” PEB told me.

Before long he was boarding a plane, dressed in his best suit sitting between two elite horses—Banassa and Norman—seated on straw, not unlike the bale he sat on during L’exode, this time with art supplies by his side like a loyal pet.

This was Pierre Bellocq’s livelihood now. It was his passport out of France and far from the bleakness he knew, but farther away from those he loved and those who loved him.


An English-speaking groom taught PEB a new language. Repeat after me: “The famous tailor is rich.”

“The famous tailor is rich.”

“My tailor is rich.”

“My tailor is rich.”

“My wife’s father was a tailor.”

“My wife’s father was a tailor.”

“My tailor is not rich.”

“My tailor is not rich.”

And so a plane carried PEB, a groom and two horses across the Atlantic to Baltimore, Laurel Race Course, and the New World, but the new world brought with it new challenges.

Beyond his art supplies and his capacity to conjure something from nothing, he was alone. Remi Bellocq told me, “He’ll say that first week in New York he was ready to come home a couple of times. But he didn’t want to face the ridicule.

"He was always the odd guy out. He wasn’t the horse guy. He showed up in New York and didn’t have a place to live. But he hung in there. It’s like a kid going off to college that first week or two. For some reason he stuck with it.”

PEB leaned into what got him there. He drew arresting, smart images; funny, delightful and whimsical images. Remi asked him once, “Did you always know you were this talented?”

“Well, not really,” PEB replied.

Even if PEB didn’t recognize it, others did. He soon landed a job at the Morning Telegraph, a sister paper to Daily Racing Form, and began honing his craft. In 1967, he won a Page One Award in Journalism from the Newspaper Guild of New York for his cartoon “The Equine Comedy.” judged best feature cartoon for “showing quiet humor, topical interest and outstanding craftsmanship."

His sudden fame allowed him to meet Lyndon B. Johnson at an event honoring the best political cartoonists of the day. PEB gained confidence and traction, a grasp of the language—though he did have a colleague caption many of his cartoons at first—and genuine influence.

And, while still drawing for the Morning Telegraph, PEB also drew for Annengerg’s Philadelphia Inquirer. He sketched a cartoon about the dictatorship in Greece, a far-right military junta that had assumed power in the late 60s and early 70s. PEB deemed them “absolutely awful,” a fair assessment.

“You know the Greek god with the little tutu?” PEB asked me. I nodded—even though I had to look it up—I think it was Hermes, whose garb resembled a short skirt. “I had this Greek god planting posters forbidding girls in Athens from wearing miniskirts, and he’s pinning these posters on their tutus. I thought that was hilarious.”

Then one morning PEB’s secretary told him, “PEB, stay outside. You cannot come because there are four guys waiting for you.”

“They wanted to see me, or take care of me,” PEB told me. “They were a bunch of creeps. You do these cartoons and sometimes you get lots of anger.”

***

In 2015, the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo deeply saddened PEB. These were his colleagues in craft and countrymen. Because he expressed himself best in cartoons, he drew a crying horse lying on the ground draped in an American flag. Its head rests on the lap of a French woman who pets the horse’s mane. In the background is the French Tri-Color at half-mast. It is quintessential PEB.

***

PEB became more and more embossed into the horse racing circuits across the country: Saratoga. Churchill Downs. Del Mar. Oaklawn. Belmont Park. Keeneland.
Ted Bassett, Keeneland’s former president and a veteran of Okinawa, has known PEB for over forty years.

When we spoke over the phone, Bassett prepared a statement about PEB, wanting to make sure he didn’t forget anything … and that I got his thoughts down word for word. “I feel strongly about PEB,” he told me. Then he began reading:

“PEB is the perfect role model for a caricaturist, with his whimsical grin and radar-like eyes capturing the churlish characteristics of his subjects, making them come to life.

“His engaging smile and puckish sense of humor gave him easy access to subjects worldwide.

“No major thoroughbred event was ever complete without PEB’s presence.”

One of Bassett’s great memories of PEB is a story he likes to call “Le Grand Charlie.” Charles Cella, the president of the Oaklawn Jockey Club, had a reputation of being, in Bassett’s words, “unflappable, unbowed, unforgettable, black is black, white is white.” Bassett said Cella could be volatile to the point of self-immolation, aiming his ire at the Breeders’ Cup, Equibase, and/or the Graded Stakes Program.

Every time there was a new problem, Bassett called PEB and said, “God Almighty, we gotta dig into Charlie and get him to shape up.”

In the late 80s or early 90s, an article appeared titled “The Rites of Spring,” which related a story about a man and woman in the throes of physical love on the infield at Oaklawn Park. As if PEB needed any more fodder for a cartoon, Bassett nevertheless told him, “We can’t let [Cella] get away with this.”

“We got Charlie on top of the grandstand jumping up and down as only PEB could do it,” Bassett told me, “eyes bulging, huge field glasses focusing on the couple. All it showed was a blanket moving up and down, and there were two pairs of shoes, the woman’s upward, the man’s downward. Charles is stomping up and down yelling, ‘Are they members of the Turf Club!?’”

Few people took offense to PEB’s drawings. According to PEB, Marylou Whitney, a famous horse owner, philanthropist, and Saratoga Springs socialite, thought he was making fun of her. Of the many people I spoke to, they never knew him to be malicious.

PEB told me, “Bad caricaturists, I must say, are the ones that emphasize the prominent feature too much. That’s not what I do. I want them to laugh like crazy. That’s the ultimate goal, you know? To move people. There’s nothing more dreadful when there’s no reaction. That’s terrible.”

Bassett appears in PEB’s signature style time and again. “I’m not sure I liked it,” Bassett told me of the first time he saw PEB’s sketch of him. “He was kind to me. I said, ‘For Christ’s sake, you make me look I’m asleep all the time! I’m alert! I’m sharp!’

Then, after the original objection, you’ve realize that you weren’t God’s most lovely looking little flower out there.”

Joe Harper, president and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, felt he needed to lose a few pounds after seeing PEB’s drawing of him, “enough to get rid of the jowls.” When PEB saw him and remarked, “You’ve lost weight.” Harper replied, “Get a smaller pen, will you!?”

Harper recalls a time when he and his wife, Barbara, took PEB out to dinner. Harper figured he could talk shop with PEB about the mural he was painting, but PEB started talking to Barbara and that was it.

“She was charmed by him,” Harper told me. “I don’t think I said three words to him. This Frenchman having a great time, not interested in me. He’s got a pretty girl at the table. He’s got that twinkle.”

And if he’s caught your eye, it’s likely he’s been hunting you the entire time like a jaguar. “I saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Harper told me. “He had the sketch pad out, looking up down, up down. I felt like the most important person on the planet. He’s sketching me!”

PEB drew a self-portrait picturing him with his pad in the paddock and behind the trees are jockeys, horses, and trainers afraid they’ll be caught in his crosshairs.
But the fact is, to be sketched by PEB means you’ve made—or you’re making—a mark.

In the final chapter, PEB, having made a lasting impression in North American horse racing, wrestles with a fading memory and how people also seem to be forgetting him.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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