Jules Feiffer: New chapter in a life filling volumes

Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer

Jules Feiffer moved to Shelter Island in January to begin his 89th year of life in a house on the edge of Klenawicus Airfield with his new wife, Joan (JZ) Holden. 

As I arrived to interview him, a feline welcoming party ushered me into their home, a light-filled place with a commanding view from virtually every room of the grass runway. “The house was just built,” Jules said, “minutes before you got here.” Joan joined the conversation from somewhere upstairs, yelling answers from offstage as Jules explained, “She is terribly shy.”

His life before he had even heard of Shelter Island would fill many volumes. In the comic strip he wrote for the Village Voice for 40 years, he dissected American cultural and political life with the skill of a lox cutter at Zabars. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1986. His play “Little Murders”, brought him an Obie, and “Knock Knock” got a Tony nomination in 1976. His short animation film “Munro” won an Oscar in 1961.

One of Jules’ new Shelter Island neighbors is the writer and Reporter columnist Bob Lipsyte, who said he grew up on Jules’ cartoons, plays, and movies and was formed by them. “He’s a dangerous man. If you’ve read him, you are armed against the worst people in our world,” Bob said. “I feel a little safer with him on Shelter Island.”

The bad behavior of real estate professionals drove Jules and Joan to Shelter Island, where they found a better way. They liked a few houses they saw in the Hamptons, but once the deals began to progress, “Decency was gone,” he said. “This happened over and over again.” Their broker found a spec house in progress on the Island and introduced them to the builder, Jim Olinkiewicz. “We came to an agreement and he stuck to it,” Jules said. 

“Living out here, and living with Joan has changed my life in the best and happiest and most productive form than the earliest years of my life,” he said.

Born and raised in the Bronx, his mother, Rhoda, was a complex muse for him, inspiring the 1958 strip in the Voice he called, “the first Jewish Mother cartoon,” to his 2014 graphic novel, “Kill My Mother,” which, he has said, is not autobiographical.

Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, his older sister Mimi also influenced him. “Mimi was a commie. She forced me into a drift toward left wing politics,” he said, “and then she forced me to confront what was spurious with the Communist Party line. Which made me nervous because you could never win an argument with a Stalinist. They would make up quotes.”

With eight decades of perspective on American politics, Jules has observed and skewered every public figure from his distant cousin Roy Cohn, an important adviser to Joe McCarthy, to President Trump — who received an early education from Cohn “in the art of ‘my way or the highway.’ Trump is different,” Jules said. “With Nixon and JFK, you knew there was somebody else inside, you knew that was not the real guy. But with Trump you assume this is the real guy. No controls.”

Although he’s thrilled by the wave of organized resistance expressed by the Women’s March and judicial action on changes to immigration policy, “I think we’re at the scariest period in our history that I have ever known. Whatever you want to say about Joe McCarthy, he wasn’t President of the United States, and he didn’t have power beyond the groups he could influence. He didn’t have an army and a navy and his finger on the button.”

As a child, Jules’ love of comics was inspired by cartoonists Will Eisner and Milton Caniff, the giants of the field. At 16, he looked Eisner up in the Manhattan phone book, went to his office with some drawings and walked out with a part-time, unpaid job. For years he worked in Eisner’s studio, learning the craft.

When Jules began to work at The Voice in 1956 he was also unpaid, a state of affairs he found liberating since it meant he did the work for the love of it, an amateur in the literal sense of the word. “I have never understood properly the idea of getting paid for my work,” he said. “I would do it for free if there was a way of eating.”

Jules didn’t receive an impressive education, although later in life he provided one for others, teaching in the Yale MFA program, at Dartmouth and in the writing program at Stony Brook, Southampton. “I didn’t go to college so I wasn’t taught all the things I couldn’t do,” he said. “There is a great advantage to being stupid.”

It was the teaching gig at Southampton that brought Jules to the East End. In 1998, shortly after a new editor fired him from The Voice in a cost-cutting move, he got a call from old friend Roger Rosenblatt, who was starting a writing program at Southampton College.

Jules recalled the conversation; “Roger said, ‘I’m not interested in your screams of self-pity. What are your health benefits?’

‘Nothing.’

‘We pay nothing, but we give complete health benefits.’ 

“How often do I have to come out?’ 

‘Whenever you want.’ 

‘What should I teach? ‘

‘You are beginning to bore me.’

When he moved out East, he had to figure out how to make money so tried writing a potboiler noir novel, but got bored, He tried to turn it into a graphic novel that somebody else would illustrate. “I’ve tried very hard to be a hack,” he admitted. “I’m lousy at it. I get serious and then I get involved and fall in love with the form.” 

At 80, Jules decided to tackle the graphic novel, a form of drawing he’d never done before. “I was reacquainted with what I loved best when I was eight or nine years old,” he said. With every new page he created for the book, he felt doomed to failure.  “I was having the time of my life and a nervous breakdown at the same time. I would have to take a week off because the pressure was so intense.”

His anxiety continued right up to the point that “Kill My Mother” was published by W.W. Norton and got a rave New York Times review. 

Last year he published a second graphic novel, “Cousin Joseph” and is currently working on a third book to form a trilogy.

He still feels Will Eisner’s guidance as he works on his new book. “I’m working on a page and I think Eisner would do it this way,” he said.  “He’s standing on my shoulder as I’m doing these pages, more so now than in the 40 years when I was doing the Voice strip.”

He’s also gone back to theater in his 80s, writing the book for a musical based on his 1995 children’s tale, “The Man in the Ceiling.” Slated to open Memorial Day weekend at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, it’s directed by Jeffrey Seller, who produced “Hamilton.”

One of his daughters, Halley, is an actress and playwright. He and Joan just saw her star in “The Front Page” on Broadway. He’s grateful to be close enough to New York to get in to see her work, without having to endure the punishing pace of living there.

“I love the sense, the feeling of the Island. Serenity,” he said. “When I sit at my little table. I’m 25.”