OLLIE HARRINGTON

OLLIE HARRINGTON

By M.G. Lord

LAmag.com, March 19, 2010

I learned about the California Eagle and the black press from its first syndicated cartoonist, Ollie Harrington, when we met in 1990.  Harrington’s single-panel cartoon, “Dark Laughter,” was regularly showcased in the Eagle from its inception in 1935 through the 1940s. It featured Bootsie, a hapless Everyguy who managed to survive racism, jealous girlfriends, and money troubles with style.  After studying fine art at Yale, Harrington covered the war in Europe for the Pittsburgh Courier. He then went on to become the first public relations director of the NAACP. In that capacity, Harrington produced a controversial report on the spike in lynchings in the post-World War II South—and debated U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark about the meaning of these findings. With that sort of résumé, you’d think Harrington might have been a household name. But his life took a strange turn in the 1950s, one that led him to East Berlin, where I met him for tea in August 1990.

Harrington lived in Alexanderplatz, a treeless square of unadorned postwar high-rises that contrasted sharply with the glittering new structures in West Berlin. Like Frank Malina, the rocket scientist from the last episode of ONE-TEN, Harrington flirted with communism. When McCarthyism heated up, he fled to Paris along with such left-leaning African American novelists as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. In 1961, without proper travel documents, Harrington hopped a train to Berlin to meet with his East German publisher. But the Wall went up during his visit, and without his travel papers he couldn’t return.

In 1990, I was Newsday’s political cartoonist, and my drawings were in a satiric-art show in Budapest—the first without censorship.  At the opening I bonded with some artists from the Eulenspiegel, the German Democratic Republic party’s humor magazine.

After the show, I went to Berlin, where my new friends introduced me to the lone American in their ranks: Ollie Harrington. At first he assumed I was CIA—so accustomed was he to being watched. But he warmed when he saw my portfolio. And when we talked about Yale, where both of us had felt like outsiders.

He mentioned Charlotta Bass in our conversation. She was the owner and publisher of the California Eagle—an eloquent speaker and powerful writer who, like Ollie himself, was derailed during the McCarthy years. When Shannon and I started ONE-TEN and were researching the Zoot Suit Riots, the California Eagle’s honest reporting on the issue was frequently cited. I was reminded of my discussions with Ollie about the importance of Bass and the Eagle. We decided one of our characters, Shirley Norman, would be a reporter from the Eagle. I am grateful to Ollie for that serendipitous meeting 20 years ago, which sent Shannon and me on an exciting new path for our characters.

We’ll learn more about Shirley in the coming weeks, but for now I’m pleased to cede my real estate in this episode of ONE-TEN to Ollie’s splendid drawing of Fats Waller.

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