On November 5, 1979, Al Capp, the creator of the long-running comic strip “Li’l Abner,” died at the age of 70.
In terms of both popular success and critical acclaim, Capp may well have been the most accomplished American cartoonist of the 20th century. Yet by the end of his life, he was an embittered and isolated man whose political right-turn dismayed many and who faced accusations that led hundreds of newspapers to drop his cartoon strip.
Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in New Haven, Connecticut on September 28, 1909. His parents, Otto Caplin and the former Matilda Davidson, were both American-born, but their parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father’s family hailed, according to biographers Denis Kitchen and Michael Schumacher, from the Lithuanian village of Yanishok.
Late in his life, Capp told an interviewer that his parents’ fathers “had found that the great promise of America was true – it was no crime to be a Jew.” His father graduated Yale Law School but thereafter lacked regular employment, and Alfred and his siblings grew up impoverished.
When he was nine, Alfred was pinned under a New Haven streetcar while on his way to a haircut, requiring the amputation of his left leg above the knee. He was always open about his injury, and after World War II even produced an autobiographical comic book intended for amputee veterans returning to civilian life. But he was in steadily increasing physical pain throughout his life, which may explain his evidently growing choler.
Capp (he shortened his name so that it would fit inside within the cartoon panel of “Li’l Abner”) never finished Bridgeport High School, but decided early on that he wanted to become a cartoon artist. He attended three different art schools – and was expelled from each when he failed to pay tuition.
Instead, in 1932. he went to New York and began knocking on doors. Once he began to get work there was no stopping him: He found jobs in advertising and as a ghost artist for several regular cartoon strips. That same year, he also met and married Catherine Wingate Cameron, who remained his wife until his death.
The birth of Dogpatch
By 1934, Capp had devised the concept of a strip about the residents of an imaginary town in the American South that he called Dogpatch, which he sold to United Features Syndicate. “Li’l Abner” premiered on August 13, 1934, and ran until November 1977. At its peak, it appeared in 900 papers domestically and more than another 100 overseas. Through shrewd management, Capp created a financial empire based on it and its spinoffs, which included adaptations for Broadway and for the screen.
Capp once referred to Dogpatch as “an average stone-age community,” but he imbued his characters – principally Li’l Abner, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and Daisy Mae Scragg – with honesty and nobility, allowing them to serve as foils to Capp’s satirical depictions (often parodies of real people) of politicians and businessmen – and other cartoonists who had crossed Al Capp. He was a skilled draftsman, and his literary imagination was truly limitless. (In 1953, novelist John Steinbeck suggested that “Capp may very possibly be the best writer in the world today.”)
In the 1960s, Capp moved from his early, open identification with many left-wing causes to supporting the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon, although he remained a champion of civil rights and gay rights to the end of his life.
Capp made frequent appearances on college campuses, where he would engage in shouting matches with student radicals. He was accused of making indecent advances toward female students and in one case, at a Wisconsin college, according to Kitchen and Schumacher, he avoided rape charges by pleading guilty to “attempted adultery.”
After his death, from emphysema, at his home in South Hampton, New Hampshire, reports of harassment decades earlier of a young Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly also emerged. But he was no longer around to contest them.