David Johnson Leisk was born 106 years ago in an apartment at 444 East 58th Street, New York City. If you’re in New York today, you might give yourself a walking tour (aided by the subway) of where the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and Barnaby (1942-1952) grew up. Dave Leisk — better known by his pen name (and childhood nickname) of Crockett Johnson — enjoyed the outdoors, and it’s a nice day in New York today. Sunny, predicted high of 70ºF (21º C). So, why not?
- 444 East 58th Street, Manhattan. Start a block south of the 59th Street Bridge (under construction when Johnson was born), and a block west of the East River. His earliest childhood experiences took place here. At this point, you’ll want to get on the no. 7 train to Queens.
- Note: I intended to provide a GoogleMap of this whole tour, complete with walking directions. But the street address (on Google) didn’t match each building, and I couldn’t get my markers to match up. So… this walking tour is imperfect. But I have marked each residence on a GoogleMap, and you can use that to plan your journey. I’m also providing photos of some of the houses (as I say, GoogleMaps’ addresses don’t always correspond with the image of the correct building). View Crockett Johnson’s New York: A Walking Tour in a larger map.
- 104-11 39th Avenue, Corona, Queens. By the time Johnson was 6, he and his family had moved to the second floor of a two-story wood frame house at 2 Ferguson Street in what was then a new suburb — Queens. Today, 2 Ferguson Street is 104-11 39th Avenue, and right next to the Corona Branch of the Queens Public Library. While you’re there, you might consider that, when the Leisk family moved in, the streets were unpaved, there were no sewers, and Queens had more chicken owners than any other borough. The Corona Elevated Railway (which today carries the no. 7 train) wasn’t there yet either: construction began October 1915, and the station for the Corona El (a block south of the Leisks’ home) opened in April 1917. This was a different world than what you see today. But much is still there.
- Public School 16, where young Dave went to school, is at 41-15 104th Street, in between 41st and 42nd Avenues, and right across the street from…
- Linden Park (a.k.a. Park of the Americas), where, when he was a boy, there was skating in the winter and swimming in the summers. That was in Linden Lake, which is no longer there. But there is a baseball diamond, trees, and greenery.
- Newtown High School (53-01 90th Street, Elmhurst, Queens) is where Johnson published his first cartoons. They appeared in the Newtown High School Lantern as early as that publication’s second issue — March 1921, when Johnson (then publishing under his given name, David Johnson Leisk) was only a 14-year-old freshman. Incidentally, that March 1921 magazine is the second issue of the Lantern. I’ve been unable to locate a first issue: it’s possible that an earlier cartoon is in there. For more on Newtown, you might enjoy the Newtown High School Handbook of 1921 (Johnson attended from 1920 to 1924) or the school’s current website.
- 33-43 Prince Street, Flushing, Queens. This building (which then had the address of 53 No. Prince Street) no longer exists. By 1925, the Leisks had moved here — the beginning of a period of sadness and instability. The death of Dave’s father required him to leave college (to support his family) after less than a year, and prompted the move into this 10-foot-wide house. Sharing this small space were Dave, his sister Else, their mother Mary, cousin Bert Leisk (from Scotland), and Bert’s friend Jim McKinney. Bert and Jim had been living with the Leisks since 1923. Of course, for part of each weekday, Else was at school, and the other four were at work — Dave in Macy’s advertising department, a job he thoroughly disliked. After quitting that, he worked in an icehouse and played semi-professional football. In 1927, he became first art editor of Aviation magazine, and this change in his professional fortunes enabled the family to move into…
- Hyacinth Court, a brand-new building, at 146-26 Hawthorne, Flushing. (Then, it was Hyacinth Place.) The stock market crash of 1929 resulted in a reduced salary for Johnson, as Aviation (recently acquired by McGraw-Hill) struggled to weather the Depression. But Dave remained employed, working as Art Editor for a half dozen McGraw-Hill publications.
- Rose Court, 83-24 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, Queens. The Leisks moved here in 1930. Dave and his first wife Charlotte Rosswaag married during the first half of the 1930s, and likely lived here early in their marriage.
- Bank Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan. I couldn’t find an exact address for Dave and Charlotte, but I did learn (from a friend who knew them then) that they lived in a garden apartment on Bank Street, in Greenwich Village. So, after spending most of his youth in Queens, Dave returns to Manhattan. During this period, two items of significance: (1) Dave begins contributing cartoons to the Communist weekly, New Masses. (2) His pseudonym, Crockett Johnson, makes its debut — also in New Masses.
- 423 West 21st St, Manhattan. By 1936-1937, Dave and Charlotte are living here. Dave — as Crockett Johnson — becomes Art Editor for New Masses. Marxist Internet Archive has a few of his New Masses cartoons. You can also see some in “Before Barnaby: Crockett Johnson Grows Up and Turns Left,” an extract of my biography published in The Comics Journal last month.
- 36 Grove St., Manhattan. This is Crockett Johnson’s final New York residence. He moved here by 1940, at which point he was drawing a popular cartoon for Collier’s. He had left New Masses and divorced Charlotte. He’d also fallen in love with a Columbia Anthropology student 5 years his senior: Ruth Krauss, who moved in with him later that year. In 1942, they moved to Connecticut.
Free public lecture on Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss, 27 Oct. 2012, 2 pm
One week from today — Saturday, October 27th — I will be speaking on Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss at the New York Public Library’s Stephen Schwarzman Building’s South Court Auditorium, 2 pm. Free admission. Book-signing afterwards. If you’ll be in the area, stop on by!
Special thanks to the Queens Public Library’s John Hyslop, who took me on a walking tour of Johnson’s childhood homes in Queens. Indeed, he did this twice! During my first tour, I failed to load the film in my camera correctly and so all photos failed. By the second time, I was (fortunately) using a digital camera, and that worked a-OK. So. Thank you, John!