The 'SKIPPY' Mystery
A brilliant yet eccentric artist spent his final years committed to an LI mental hospital
By Collin Nash
November 10, 2002
Joan Tibbetts was 6 years old when she last saw her father. It was 1939 when her mother packed up the girl and her three siblings and fled their McLean, Va., home. Fed up after a final row, their mother would leave behind divorce papers and a restraining order preventing future contact.
Percy L. Crosby, Cartoonist, Dies
He got off the train and caught another one heading homeward. "Sit down," he told his wife gently, handing her the newspaper. Tibbetts' knees buckled and her heart quickened as she read the news.
"My first reaction was numbness and disbelief after so many years of not knowing what had happened to him," Tibbetts, now 69, said recently from her Annandale, Va., home.
Percy Crosby, a celebrated novelist, artist and creator of the Depression-era cartoon character Skippy, had vanished from the lives of his family. Even as a child, Tibbetts knew her father was famous, and then, he was gone from her life. But the critically acclaimed artist had disappeared from public view, too. In a sense, the world had given him up for dead. The Times' revelation that Crosby died a week earlier, on Dec. 8 - his 73rd birthday - was the first tremor in a series of shocking discoveries that would rock Tibbetts and her family in the days and months to come. The obituary, which characterized Crosby as a brilliant but eccentric artist who rankled people in high places - including at the White House and the Pentagon - omitted one mind-boggling detail: Crosby spent the last 16 years of his life confined to Kings Park Psychiatric Center.
"I became a prisoner of conscience," Tibbetts said. "My grief became more intense knowing my father died believing his kids had no interest in helping him."
His lonely death on Long Island was not the expected ending to a life of genius foretold by a fortune-teller before his birth. His mother, Fanny, saw as a good sign that Percy, the first of three kids, arrived on Dec. 8, 1891 - the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Fanny's only boy spent his formative years in his native Brooklyn. By 9, he and his sisters, Ethel and Gladys, moved with their parents to Richmond Hill in Queens. Crosby's gifts for drawing surfaced there. Using supplies from the small art store run by his father, Thomas, of County Lough, Ireland, young Crosby used city fences and the basement walls of the family home at 326 Beech St. as his early canvases.
A tireless reader, young Crosby was fascinated by tales of knighthood and heroism. But school bored him. So he dropped out. He landed his first job - as a five- bucks-a-week gopher - at Delineator magazine, a general-interest publication for women. He lasted one issue. Crosby found work soon after, making deliveries for a local deli. He pounded the pavement in his spare time, shopping his portfolio door to door at newspapers. The budding cartoonist got his big break when the New York Daily Call, a Socialist paper of the day, hired him. It wasn't long before the knight in Crosby latched on to a crusade.
In the wake of a blaze in 1911 that killed ' young immigrant workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, the Daily Call ran a string of stinging front- page editorial cartoons.
One depicted a safe labeled "Greed," its wide-open door revealing charred skulls, symbols of sweatshop labor. The cartoonist was none other than Crosby, a brash 19-year- old. His bosses hailed him "The Great Crusader, Comrade Crosby," a title the young cartoonist relished. Eager to show off his humorous side, Crosby created two comic strips: "Biff" and "The Extreme Brothers, Laff and Sy." But the Daily Call's readers, struggling to survive during hard times, didn't see the humor in having fun poked at their foibles. Inundated with calls for "Comrade Crosby's" head, the paper yanked the strips. And after weeks without so much as a red cent of his promised $10 weekly salary, Crosby quit.
Still only 19, Crosby ended up at the New York World, the summit for aspiring cartoonists at the time. Assigned as a sketch artist to the metropolitan section of the World's Sunday edition, Crosby covered the courts, the morgue, homicides, murder trials and Hell's Kitchen. According to "Skippy and Percy Crosby," a 1978 biography by Jerry Robinson, Crosby's peek into the city's seedy side moved him: "I learned never to judge any human by the events that brought about the effect in his life, but rather look to the cause. ... "
During World War I, Crosby was drafted. In July 1917, before he left for the front lines in France, Crosby eloped with Gertrude Voltz, the daughter of a wealthy New York real estate broker. Then, just months into active duty, Crosby, a first lieutenant in the 305th Infantry of the 77th Division, was struck in the left eye by shrapnel in combat on the Argonne front and sent home. Crosby wasted little time in restarting his career after returning with a Purple Heart.
Based on a body of wartime cartoons he'd created in the military, Crosby published his first two books: "That Rookie of the Thirteenth Squad," published in 1917, and "Between Shots," printed two years later. Crosby, bent on mastering a broad array of media, cranked out drawings, watercolors and cartoons at a rapid rate.
One of his ideas for a cartoon strip featuring a kid caught the attention of Life magazine's art director, Frank Casey. On March 15, 1923, a full-page promotional ad in Life announced the arrival of Skippy, the roguish, muddy-shoed kid with droopy socks and oversized bow tie. Two years later "Skippy" was syndicated by Johnson Features and Central Press Association, among others. William Randolph Hearst soon joined the Skippy fan club, signing Crosby for his King Features Syndicate, eventually giving the cartoonist a seven-year, $2,350-a-week contract - more money back then than the president made. Skippy appeared in all the Hearst papers nationally, Tibbetts said. The cartoon also appeared worldwide in 28 countries and was translated into more than a dozen languages, she said.
Skippy, the Buster Brown of the Depression era, enjoyed widespread commercial appeal. There were Skippy dolls, Skippy toys, endorsements and comic books. Skippy also starred in film and on radio. Crosby thrived, not only as a celebrated cartoonist and humorist, but also as a painter, novelist, poet and philosopher.
A relentless political propagandist and critic as well, Crosby's articles and cartoons often appeared as paid, two-page ads in the likes of The New York Times and the Washington Post. His work lampooned the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the FBI, Al Capone and the mob, the press and even his own syndicate, Tibbetts said. Prohibition was fair game for the "Mad Patriot," as the New Republic magazine called Crosby. He painted Franklin D. Roosevelt as a president who was a power-crazed autocrat who cut the New Deal in Moscow.
In a sense, Crosby became his own worst enemy, running in the circles of notoriously heavy drinkers. He was a regular at Manhattan speakeasies, celebrity clubs such as the Players and Salmangundi on lower Fifth Avenue, and other watering holes frequented by the era's luminaries of the arts, theater, sports and business. Life in the fast lane soon caught up with him, and he and Voltz divorced in 1927. His ex- wife got custody of their only child, Patricia.
Ever the romantic, Crosby soon fell for Agnes Dale Locke. His publisher, G.P. Putnam, had assigned the Vassar graduate to work with him after he was commissioned to write a Skippy novel. On April 4, 1929, Crosby married Locke. Two years later, the Crosbys moved into an 18-room, fieldstone colonial with a tennis court, stables and a studio connected to the main house by an arched breezeway. He named the 200-acre McLean, Va., estate Ridgelawn. Less than 10 years into their marriage, the seemingly perfect world inside Ridgelawn's imposing iron gate was in shambles. After one particularly violent argument, he took off to Florida in his yellow Packard Eight, Tibbetts said. He returned two weeks later to find his family gone and divorce papers and a restraining order waiting for him. He never again set eyes on his wife or children: Percy Jr. (Skippy), then 9; Barbara, 7; Joan, 6, and Carol, 5.
Crosby moved to Manhattan. But depression over the breakup landed him in Presbyterian Hospital on the verge of a breakdown, according to his biography. The romantic in him was alive and well, and Carolyn Soper, the chief dietician at the hospital, became his new love interest. In May 1940, Crosby, 48, married Soper, 33. His emotional and professional baggage, though, marred the newlyweds' bliss. His income drying up after the Skippy strip was cut back during a newsprint shortage, Crosby was forced to sell Ridgelawn to pay a divorce settlement to his second wife, alimony and mounting tax claims. Then, contract negotiations with King Features Syndicate broke off, sounding the death knell for Skippy. The strip ran for the last time on Dec. 8, 1945 - Crosby's 54th birthday.
The death of his mother pushed Crosby deeper into despair. About a week after his 57th birthday, he was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital after apparently slashing his wrists and stabbing himself in the chest.
Tibbetts, living in Chevy Chase, Md., around 1948, said she was listening to a radio report of the suicide attempt when her mother jumped up and turned off the radio. Tibbetts would learn later that in January 1949, her father was transferred from Bellevue to the mental ward of Kings Park Psychiatric Center, where doctors would declare him a paranoid schizophrenic. Today, Tibbetts believes that the diagnosis was highly questionable and suspects that in an era of McCarthy hearings and FBI wiretaps, her father's confinement was partly the result of his attacks on the powers that be. According to records that Tibbetts obtained from the Kings Park hospital with help from state Assemb. Robert Wertz (R-St. James), Crosby's confinement was authorized by Arthur Soper, the uncle of Crosby's wife, Carolyn Soper.
But pleas for his release to his wife and former contacts - including the National Press Club - went nowhere. Ailing herself, Soper stopped her occasional visits. She died Nov. 8, 1959. His only companion, Tibbetts said, was Skippy, whom he referred to as "the child of my soul."
In short, Tibbetts believes her father, who admitted to being an alcoholic, was a political prisoner at Kings Park. But because so much time has passed, it's difficult to corroborate her theory.
What is known, however, is that during his confinement, Crosby had cranked out an enormous amount of work, some described as brilliant. Short stories, essays, poems, political analyses, journal entries and a series of books on the arts he called his opus. Instead of horses and dancers, his drawings now were of fellow inmates, pathetic men with catatonic stares. Since many who knew Crosby at the hospital have since died, it is difficult to establish his mental state at the time of his confinement. All agree that Crosby was eccentric, but the question remains whether he was sane.
Peter Cussen, 65, a former nurse at the Kings Park mental hospital, recalls Crosby as a stocky man with closely cropped, fair hair, blue eyes and a taste for fine clothes. Crosby wasn't a typical patient, Cussen said. He seemed "very paranoid" and "stood out." He ranted endlessly about having his freedom stolen and the name of his cartoon character used without his permission, according to Cussen, a longtime resident in the Kings Park community.
The question of Skippy's copyright remains an obsession for Crosby's daughter. According to Tibbetts, her father obtained federal trademark registration for Skippy in 1925. But in 1933, she said, Rosefield Packing Co. Ltd. began selling Skippy peanut butter - using on the label the same lettering, picket fence and paint bucket made famous by Crosby in his comic strip.
Skippy Inc., the company formed when Crosby registered the trademark, filed a lawsuit against Rosefield, which had not been granted permission to use the Skippy name. That company later was bought by the Corn Products Corp. Inc., which changed its name in 1997 to Bestfoods. In October 2000, with the merger of Lipton USA and Bestfoods, Unilever Bestfoods North America was created. Bestfoods claimed that Crosby's trademark covered Skippy as the title of a cartoon depicting a juvenile character, not food products. The company, nonetheless, paid Tibbetts and Skippy Inc. $25,000 in 1977.
Tibbetts, who now oversees Skippy Inc., in October filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn earlier court rulings and demanding an accounting of Bestfoods' profits that stemmed from the Skippy name since 1934.
"Unilever has long believed the claims brought forth by Joan Crosby Tibbetts have lacked merit, and the trademark issue was resolved to the company's satisfaction long ago," said Nancy Goldfarb, spokeswoman for Unilever US.
Tibbetts, however, vows to continue the 30-plus year court battle until every option has been exhausted in her quest to have her father's estate justly compensated for the legacy of Skippy.
After a heart attack left him in a coma for months, Crosby died in Kings Park on his 73rd birthday. Tibbetts said the helplessness and indignation her father suffered during his confinement are summed up in a passage from one of his writings:
"Of what use are the wings of an eagle if his talons are chained to a wall?"
After reading that, she said, she was hit with a compelling desire to do what she could to rescue his legacy.
"It gave me chills," she said.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.