A workingman and his wife are slow-dancing in the kitchen of their tenement apartment, with a portable Victrola beating time at 78 revolutions per minute. The man stares over his partner’s shoulder at nothing in particular, while his partner, her head inclined, closes her eyes. Neither one is smiling. If the coal merchant’s calendar behind them could be read, you could certainly see why: the year is 1935, nearly a quarter of the nation is jobless, and this couple — whoever they may be, auto workers from Michigan, rubber workers from Ohio, coal miners from Kentucky — may be close to destitution.
The artist who drew this scene was a nineteen-year old girl named Pele deLappe. The daughter of a San Francisco advertising illustrator known for his acid caricatures of William Randolph Hearst, deLappe was a strikingly attractive brunette: tall and slender, with the slightly elongated features of a Mannerist’s Madonna. She had already put art school behind her and was producing work that an accomplished journeyman would envy. She was on the verge of a remarkably varied career as an artist and social activist — a career she recounts in her witty, entertaining, and far-too-brief memoir, Pele: A Passionate Journey through Art and the Red Press.
DeLappe was a prodigy. In 1931, her talent for drawing won her a place at the Art Students League, in whose Manhattan studios she learned lithography, soon to become her preferred medium. She was only fifteen. She studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose insistence on technical competence she took to heart. Miller was arguably the most influential art teacher of his generation, and his dismissive appraisal of her talent betrayed his contempt for women artists. “That’s fine,” he said on inspecting one of her lithographs — five of which now belong to San Francisco’s prestigious Achenbach Collection — “but of course you’ll only end up having babies.”
DeLappe soon won the admiration of a greater painter: the tough-talking (and Yale-educated) Reginald Marsh, whom Time magazine would soon acclaim as the greatest of the “Urban Regionalists.” She accompanied Marsh on his drawing tours of Coney Island and lower Manhattan, sketching bathers, park goers, and burlesque dancers. They visited dance marathons to draw the exhausted, half-comatose contestants dance for a few dollars’ winnings. Both loved to draw the nude, and Marsh was a master anatomist. For deLappe, Marsh was the epitome of The Great Artist, and her lively style mirrored his so closely that, some years later, one of her Coney Island paintings was mistakenly sold as a Marsh.
Another major influence was the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whose militant credo — “Art is a weapon for justice” — she adopted as her own. In 1933, she posed for Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural. Like the mural’s other models, she saw her image razed when the Rockefellers, peeved by Rivera’s refusal to paint over a portrait of Lenin, ordered the fresco hammered to pieces. She befriended Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, with whom she drew “outrageous fantasies” — “the bloodiest things we could think of,” in Kahlo’s words — fantasies that Rivera appropriated for his own collections. His faith in the transformative power of art moved deLappe. So did his stubbornness: as if to spite the Rockefellers, he painted the ruined frescos again in Mexico City’s Museum of Fine Arts.
In 1934, deLappe returned to San Francisco. She got there just in time for the “Big Strike” — a city-wide general strike triggered by the killing of two militant longshoremen. She volunteered her services to the Marine Workers Industrial Union, and set to work drawing caricatures of ship owners, scabs, and “sell out artists.” Her cartoons were well drawn, but sometimes their message was crude: one depicted a conservative trade union leader dunking his head in a toilet, as if to demonstrate the quality of his politics. National Guardsmen patrolled the waterfront with machine guns, and deLappe temporarily set aside her drawing tools to learn the uses and advantages of her father’s .38.
The ’34 strike marked the beginning of deLappe’s apprenticeship as a left-wing cartoonist. Over the next decades, her targets would include her father’s much-despised Hearst — seen in a wartime cartoon smiling broadly at a simian Joseph Goebbels — and a plethora of other right-wingers. She didn’t need a .38; a stick of charcoal was enough. In becoming a cartoonist, she had entered what Pentagon strategists would later call a “target-rich environment”; and in the pages of The Daily Worker and The People’s World, both Communist Party papers, she made the most of it. Her caricatures were savagely effective. In another wartime cartoon, she rendered Martin Dies, the corrupt, witch-hunting head of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as a proto-fascist in a Foggy Bottom bowtie, the archetype of a Yankee Gauleiter. With a cigar planted between his lips, it was Dies to the life.
Pregnant with her first child, deLappe abandoned painting at her physician’s suggestion in 1940. She was much fonder of lithography, but the talent she evinced for painting — one need only look at her youthful self-portrait — makes the viewer regret that she put down her brushes at 24. Her life was becoming more complex. Maternity’s demands and her deepening commitment to the Communist Party combined to limit her hours in the studio, despite her love for the lithographer’s stone and pencil. Party loyalties shaped the arc of her career, bending it away from art to journalism. In 1943, she became an editor and columnist at The People’s World, beginning an on-again, off-again association with the Party’s West Coast organ that would last until 1991.
It is impossible, within the brief compass of this review, to convey the variety of deLappe’s experience as a journalist and Party activist during the fifty years that followed her appointment to The People’s World. (For that, the reader should refer to her richly detailed memoir.) DeLappe continued to make prints, inspiring her daughter Nina to embark on a career in the creative arts as a jazz pianist. She remained a lithographer of the first rank. She held true in her work to the social realist vision exemplified by Reginald Marsh, Raphael Soyer, and other Urban Realists of the Thirties. Her style had crystallized by the middle of that decade, and the subjects of her lithographs — hardship, poverty, and the struggle for social justice — remained constant throughout her career. The Dust Bowl refugees of the Thirties became the homeless outcasts of the Nineties: her Depression Era picture of a displaced farmer’s family on the road in Kansas was mirrored in her later portrait of a homeless Manhattanite, huddling for warmth in a packing box circa 1998.
Now in her late eighties, deLappe is still a working artist. Diego Rivera would undoubtedly have approved of his model’s loyalty to his militant credo. Art is, indeed, a weapon for justice.
Dean Ferguson is an editor of Transformation, a newly launched literary journal. He lives and works in San Francisco.