The Magazine

Laureate of Dogpatch

How a bad man became a great cartoonist.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JAY WEISER
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This biography is subtitled A Life to the Contrary, but the cartoonist’s quest for money and celebrity was numbingly conventional. Even the shock-jock persona, while uncouth by the standards of the day, had antecedents in the New Dealer Harold Ickes and right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. Far from being contrarian, Capp’s politics reflected common attitudes, except for some advanced anti-racist tendencies. The cartoonist was part of the Harry Truman center-left consensus of his day before joining the consensus against 1960s radicalism—at which point, such equally conventional and fame-obsessed Democrats as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith dropped him as a friend, while Richard Nixon picked him up. Today, we might call Capp a populist. 

Capp became increasingly venomous as the sixties went on. The authors note that, a decade earlier, Li’l Abner’s truth-inducing Bald Iggle had caused a Capp-like figure to blurt out: “The only thing I have against the younger generation is that I’m too old to be one of ’em!! (sob!!) (sob!!).” Capp attacked hippies as dirty, like the Dogpatchers, and he crashed John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 antiwar Bed-In for Peace, where they regally received media from their Montreal hotel room bed. But while he scored points against John and Yoko’s preachy universalism, Capp seemed invested in his own obsessions, launching personal attacks on Ono (“Good God, you’ve got to live with that?” he asked Lennon) and accusing the couple of being interested only in money! (Lennon responded that the Bed-In was far less lucrative than songwriting.)

Capp’s real contrarianism lay in Li’l Abner’s sexual politics. Dogpatch’s male inhabitants were almost uniformly weak, brutal, or stupid, while Abner’s mother, Mammy Yokum, was the moral and intellectual center of the strip—not to mention superhumanly strong. (When the craven Daddy Yokum would steal her preserved turnips, she would “take him to the woodshed” and inflict what would now be regarded as domestic violence.) Mammy aside, Capp’s women were utterly unlike the strong, articulate females who populated Hollywood’s 1930s screwball comedies and three-hankie movies. Whether grotesque, like the world’s ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena, or scantily clad, like the absurdly big-breasted and at-the-edge-of-publishability Daisy Mae, Capp’s women aggressively wanted to bed men, or, in the case of Wolf Gal, devour them.  

Li’l Abner’s first hugely popular success came with Sadie Hawkins Day in November 1937, which initiated a role-reversing annual event in which Dogpatch’s single women wildly chased its single men. This still being the 1930s, any man caught was obligated to marry his pursuer. Despite the satirical intent, 201 colleges in 188 cities staged their own Sadie Hawkins Days by 1939, with more in later years: Real-world women demonstrated that they, too, could be sexually assertive, setting the stage for the sexual revolution 30 years later. 

Capp’s sexual politics informed the last phase of his celebrity career: He became an unlikely star of the college lecture circuit, earning big fees for attacking sixties students as elitist (like the strip’s businessmen, politicians, and scientists), as well as filthy and hypersexual. The college circuit provided ready access to female students, all, by his definition, sex-crazed. The one-legged Capp may have thought that women were as eager for him as they were for Dogpatch’s undesirable males, but Capp was no follower of the six lessons from Adam Lazonga, Li’l Abner’s smooth wooer: The authors provide evidence of his sexual assaults on young women, including actresses Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn, going back to the 1940s.

In 1968, administrators at the University of Alabama covered up Capp’s aggressive advances on four female students; other universities had reportedly done the same. But in 1971, at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Capp’s luck ran out: The excoriator of the “new morality” forced student Patricia Harry to engage in oral sex, and, supported by her husband, she pressed charges. The district attorney resisted until a Jack Anderson/Brit Hume column on Capp’s Alabama assaults appeared three weeks later. Even after the accusations exploded into national news, however, prosecutors remained unenthusiastic: Capp got off by pleading guilty to attempted adultery and paying a $500 fine.