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Cartoonist had more fame than most have 'ever seed'

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Cartoonist Billy DeBeck unveiled the humor in skulduggery through Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

"I swow!!" Smith roared to Google after celebrating some trickery in a 1938 strip. "That's th' most comicalist thing I ever seed."

From 1929 to 1952, DeBeck brought Barney Google's low-life antics to life from the drawing table in his Snell Isle home. The St. Petersburg Times called Google a "favorite of newspaper readers all over the world."

When Google met Smith in 1934, the cartoon became hillbilly hilarious -- "one of the most famous strips in the country," said former DeBeck neighbor Mary Joan Mann.

DeBeck's duo inspired movies, songs and postage stamps. The annual Billy DeBeck Award honored cartoonists from 1946 to 1954. Today, Snuffy Smith is featured in 11 languages in 21 countries in 900 newspapers.

Born on Chicago's South Side in 1890, DeBeck later copied illustrator Charles Gibson's work and peddled it in high school as "gen-u-wine Gibson originals."

In 1908, DeBeck attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he earned $18 weekly as a Youngstown Telegram editorial cartoonist.

By 1915 DeBeck had married, worked for the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times and later joined the Chicago Herald. There he created his first successful comic strip, Married Life, a focus on marital strife.

DeBeck would divorce Marian Shields, remarry her in 1921, and divorce again. "It's no joke to be a cartoonist's wife," Shields said.

In 1919, DeBeck asked readers to Take Barney Google F'rinstance. They did.

Across the sports page of William Randolph Hearst's Chicago Herald, the cigar-smoking Google chased girls, cried "horsefeathers" and got the "he-bie-jeebies."

"Google was the Everyman of the Jazz Age," said Brian Walker, who wrote Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

Google satirized everything from politics to flagpole sitting. He was DeBeck's alter ego.

When DeBeck paired Google with a melancholy horse named Spark Plug in 1922, he became "one of the most highly paid cartoonists in America," Walker wrote. Billy Rose and Con Conrad followed with the hit song Barney Google.

During the Roaring Twenties, DeBeck lived in New York City and mingled with high society. "Prohibition never put a damper on his thirst for the good life," Walker noted.

"Success, when you're a kid, is unhealthy," DeBeck would observe later.

A marriage to Mary Louise Dunne in 1927 ended DeBeck's intemperance. Two years later, the couple became winter residents at their home at 321 Brightwaters Blvd., Villa Florentia, where many celebrities gathered.

Drama, murder, wrestling and secret societies colored DeBeck's strip from 1927 to 1933. Google ran for U.S. president in 1932. "I'll get every guy in this country a swell job," promised Google, who lost.

"DeBeck was all over the map during this period," said Walker, who was ending his popular strip Bughouse Fables after seven years.

In 1934, DeBeck made Fred Lasswell his assistant. "I lived right with him" in Snell Isle, Lasswell said from his Tampa studio, where he produces Snuffy Smith today. "He was a great teacher."

Before introducing Google to the moonshining Smith in 1934, DeBeck traveled Appalachia and studied mountain literature. DeBeck denied that Snuffy was a real-life adaptation.

"It's funny how people get the idea a cartoonist must use real people," DeBeck said.

As Snuffy, his wife, Lowizie, and the crew in Hootin' Holler, N.C., gained popularity, Google slowly disappeared. "Once in a great while I'll bring him back," said Lasswell, 84.

In 1942, DeBeck visited his first wife, Marian Shields. "He made a special trip," Ferd Johnson, assistant to DeBeck's closest friend, Frank Willard, told Walker. "He knew the end was coming."

DeBeck signed his last strip on July 4, 1942. He died of cancer four months later in New York. DeBeck was 52.

- Contact Scott Taylor Hartzell at Hartzel@gate.net

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