Al Capp earned legions of fans for his bitingly satirical cartoon strip Li’l Abner. President Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth admired his work, as did William F. Buckley, Al Hirschfeld, Harpo Marx, John Kenneth Galbraith and John Updike. In 1953, John Steinbeck called him ‘possibly the best writer in the world today.’
Capp insulted Yoko, saying to John, "Good God, you've gotta live with that?" He accused John of staging the Bed-In for money. “Do you think I could earn money by some other way, sitting in bed for seven days, taking shit from people like you?” Lennon retorted. “I could write a song in an hour.”
It had been a long, twisted journey to the hotel room in Montreal, starting with a difficult childhood in New Haven.
He was born Alfred Gerald Caplin on Sept. 28, 1909. His parents, Latvian immigrants, were so poor his mother sifted through ash cans for reusable bits of coal.
As a boy, Al Capp was hit by a trolley car and had his leg amputated above the knee. Losing the leg gave him a dark, sardonic worldview that later informed his Li’l Abner comic strip.
He turned to drawing and voracious reading for therapy, finishing all of Shakespeare’s plays by the age of 13. He spent five years at Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Conn., without graduating. Capp later became good friends with another satirical cartoonist from Bridgeport, Walt Kelly, author of the Pogo comic strip.
While he attended a series of art schools, Capp began dating his wife, Catherine Cameron of Amesbury, Mass., at Seabrook Beach. They were married in 1929, and he tried to make a go as a cartoonist. In 1934 he introduced Li’l Abner and a cast of hillbillies in the fictional town of Dogpatch. The series appeared at first in eight newspapers, but caught on so quickly Capp was earning $150,000 a year during the Great Depression. The Capps bought a home in South Hampton, N.H., and later a summer place in Seabrook.
Capp liked to say Dogpatch was based on Seabrook, which the local citizens didn’t appreciate. Perhaps some of his characters were inspired by people he encountered during his 40 years vacationing in the seaside community. Dogpatch, though, is based in an Appalachian hamlet in Kentucky.
Eventually Li’l Abner reached 90 million people. Its satire, slapstick and biting wit drew fans from Marshall McLuhan to Charlie Chaplin. The comic strip introduced new words into the English language: Sadie Hawkins Day, double whammy, skunk works, Lower Slobbovia and shmoo.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Capp targeted greedy corporations and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He created General Bullmoose to lampoon General Motors’ chief executive, putting into his mouth the words, "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!" He called McCarthy a poet because he used poetic license to create a fictional world of good and evil.
Capp consistently championed racial tolerance and gender equality, but he switched his targets in the ‘60s. He and his family moved to Cambridge, Mass., and Capp had little tolerance for hippies. He made fun of Joan Baez, creating a character Joanie Phoanie and ridiculing student radicals with the fictional "Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything!" (SWINE).
A Campus Fixture
Al Capp was the best known cartoonist of his era, speaking frequently at colleges and appearing often on television. President Richard Nixon discussed finding a way for Capp to run against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who Capp ridiculed as Senator O. Noble McGesture. His prestige was such that as early as 1939 he helped found a college as one of the 19 original trustees of Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.
During the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Capp appeared on campus as a defender of traditional values, inviting hecklers and trading barbs with students. That is no doubt how he ended up with an invitation to visit John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In from May 26-June 1, 1969 in Montreal.
Capp walked in and said, "I'm a dreadful Neanderthal fascist. How do you do?" He then mocked them for publishing nude pictures of themselves.
“Clearly you must have felt the world wanted to know what your private parts looked like,” he said. And when Lennon claimed to be a representative of the human race, Capp retorted, “Whatever race you’re the representative of, I ain’t part of it.”
The discussion devolved into an argument and after about 10 minutes Capp walked out. (You can watch the confrontation between John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Al Capp on youtube.) Capp was the only one of John and Yoko's guests NOT to sing on the song they recorded on June 1, Give Peace a Chance.
Finished by Scandal
Al Capp had his own problems with traditional values, however. He was a sexual predator who tried to trap young women on campus. In 1971 he pleaded guilty to attempted adultery and columnist Jack Anderson fed the scandal. Though Li’l Abner limped on for a few more years, Capp was essentially finished.
Before he died on Nov. 5, 1979, he donated his collection of Li’l Abner anthologies to the South Hampton Public Library in New Hampshire.
His headstone in Mount Prospect Cemetery in Amesbury reads, The plowman homeward plods his weary way / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
In 2010, a mural commemorating the 100th anniversary of Al Capp’s birth was unveiled in downtown Amesbury.
This story was updated in 2017.