A profile of Marc Simont

by Elisabeth Lansing

During the fall of 1940 my mother boarded her parrot with Mr. and Mrs. William Behn in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut. Why the Behns consented to shelter this soulless bird is not now clear to me. Mr. Behn is a blacksmith, specializing in quadrupeds. Mrs. Behn is fond of animals, but even she could not love this morose misanthrope. The Behns were happier, I am sure, with a second boarder. He was Marc Simont.

I remember this in particular because the parrot escaped to a pine tree one day that fall and we went down to see whether he could be lured back to his cage. The parrot was in the pine tree all right and Marc was under the tree trying to whistle him down. He didn’t succeed. That was my first introduction to Marc and the only time to my knowledge that he has failed to charm bird, beast, or man. But then it must be acknowledged that this parrot was, and still is, quite without grace.

Marc had come to Cornwall to work with Francis Scott Bradford, a noted muralist, on a hurry-up commission. The work was meant to be temporary, but Cornwall is a haven for the literary and artistic and it is not strange that Marc found the atmosphere there congenial. In any case he has lived in Cornwall off and on ever since and there is no doubt at all that the inhabitants have found him a compatible spirit.

Cornwall, Connecticut, is a far reach from Paris, France, where Marc was born of Spanish parents in 1915. His f ather, Jose  Simont, is a well-known illustrator who has been awarded the Spanish Golden Pencil and a French Legi0n of Honor for his work on the continent. In 1920 Mr. Simont came to America where he “earned lots of money” illustrating for the glossier magazines, a distribution of rewards that is highly satisfactory to him and reveals something of the differences between the European and American sense of what is due an artist. So it was by tradition as well as design that Marc became an artist.

Marc’s early years were spent in Barcelona where he began what he claims to have been a “very spotty” education. “I was so bad in school,” he says, “that I never thought of being anything but an artist. I was always more interested in what the teachers looked like than in what they said.”

The fact that he attended six schools and crossed the Atlantic four times during his scholastic years may account for this sense of educational irregularity. In spite of this chronic state of inattention to the three Rs, Marc now speaks four languages fluently.

In 1926 the Simonts spent ten months in New Rochelle, New York, where Marc attended high school, drawing caricatures of his teachers and presumably still deaf to the flow of professorial wisdom. When he left high school he went to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, the Academie Ranson and the Lhote School, an artistic education that was far from” spotty” and where his academic vagaries found a more comfortable setting. By 1935 his formal schooling was over and Marc could settle down to being what he is — a natural-born artist.

His single-minded devotion to art was interrupted by a three-year tour of duty in the Army, but Marc was able to turn even this inartistic career to his advantage. It was during the war that he met and married Miss Sara Dalton of Reidsville, North Carolina.

“And she,” says Mrs. Behn, who should know, “is just the right girl for Marc.”

Thus even in the marital field Marc pursued his natural bent, for, as any man knows, finding a wife who is both pretty and  intelligent is an art in itself. In 1951 they bought a house in Cornwall where Marc has a studio, carefully planned for the execution of the many illustrating commissions that come his way. The Simonts also have a nine-year-old son, Doc, whose career so far seems to involve the not-so-carefully planned exploits of a lively small boy.

In writing about Marc it is nearly impossible to separate the man from his art — they are so happy a complement to one another. If he were to be characterized by a single word, empathy would have to be that word. It is this quality that is strongly apparent in his illustrations for A Tree Is Nice, this year’s winner of the Caldecott Medal.

Janice Udry’s words are few and each one bears the impact of a simple truth that is beauty, too. Who can dispute her statement “Trees are very nice. They fill up the sky”? Marc’s picture for this is a gay splash of wood and greenery with a small recumbent boy in the foreground co emphasize the fact that trees are worthy of a dream. When Miss Udry says that “We can climb a tree,” Marc has filled a broad-limbed tree with exploring youth, each one engaged in the pursuit of an imaginative game. The pictures in every case are an extension and embroidery of the author’s theme — that trees are nice. It is empathy that adds that extra twist of imagination and lends new enchantment to the text. An illustrator of children’s books whose readers are sternly literal as well as highly fanciful must have this attribute in large degree.

Young readers are not the only people whom Marc has touched with this magic attribute. He has always to consider his authors, a touchy tribe with a nervous dread that people may not properly appreciate their point of view. James Thurber, an artist and writer capable of evaluating the aspects of this and most other questions, says this about Marc:

“Marc Simont not only illustrated The Thirteen Clocks but also my new book, The W0nderful O, which Simon and  Schuster will publish in June. The fact ellat I have no other illustrator is proof of my admiration for his artistry, his  humor and his perceptive grasp of the not inconsiderable problem of dealing with the people and animals of my strange world.”

Humor is Mr. Thurber’s province, an elevated area which he maintains as his private preserve. Humor is one of Marc’s strongest characteristics and it seems quite natural to those who know him that he should be able to make a picture for The Thirteen Clocks of that thing that was “the only one there ever was” and the thing “that would have been purple if there had been any light to see it by.”

Marc’s humor and his gift for gayety are facets of his personality that his friends find most engaging. These qualities, added to the empathy I have mentioned, make conversation with Marc something that puts the feeblest thinkers in a comfortable glow of self-appreciation. His lightning response to a word and even his eyebrows make them feel that they, too, belong to the company of wits.

For Marc himself is a wit with words and his stories are legend in Cornwall. He can turn an everyday event into a tale that literally rocks his hearers. Cornwall offers a fertile field for these talents, for the town relies heavily on amateur entertainment to maintain,its civic improvements. At these events Marc is often the star performer. As an aging opera diva chasing a lost note, or a professor of elocution pursuing his muse, he has no rival in the opinion of a Cornwall audience. Some who have heard these  rollicking absurdities feel that Marc, like Sherlock Holmes, missed his calling by not going on the stage.

But over thirty books, five of which he has written as well as illustrated, bear witness against this theory. Good Luck Duck by Meindert De Jong, The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss, and A Tree Is Nice are tangible evidence that Marc is first and foremost an artist.

Ruth Krauss who has worked with him on three books is a writer vehemently certain that he is dedicated to the graphic arts. “I never knew an artist like him,” she says. “He doesn’t seem to care about money. All he wants is to get the pictures right and he’ll spend hours and days doing it.”

The Happy Day was the result of such work. The black and white drawings of bears, woodchucks and squirrels under the snow, their faces wreathed in contented smiles, are perhaps Marc’s happiest contribution to art for children.

“Pictures for children have to tell something,” he says. “Kids like bright colors, sure, but the most important thing to them  is — what’s happening?”

In my own case I have an example of how Marc was able to to “tell something.” He has, I am proud to say, illustrated two of my books and in one of them there is a young lady, a secondary character, named Janey. The exigencies of writing being what they are, I didn’t need to describe her very fully, but I knew what she should look like. So did Marc. He drew a picture of Janey, freckled nose upturned, elbows akimbo, standing in the middle of a blackberry bush where the story had landed her. She was exactly right, a budding Lucy Stone, just as I had meant her to be and the picture told you so.

Perhaps if Marc has any hallmark in his drawings it is a character like that, be it male or female. You see him in A Tree Is Nice, sitting in the crotch of a tree with folded arms, obviously “in wrong” and defiant. His son, Doc, may be partly responsible for the  appearance of this young sprout of Democracy in so many of his pictures. The adventures of Doc are a saga in themselves. Marc tells of the time a group of people were admiring a sunset and Doc and a water pistol appeared on the scene. But it is kinder to end this story here.

The fact that Marc writes stories for children, as well as illustrates them, is not surprising to those who have heard tales such as the unfinished epic above. Polly’s Oats, The Lovely Summer, The Plumber out of the Sea, and Mimi are well written and amusing and have the added advantage of being illustrated by the author.

People who know Marc are apt to feel that he can do anything. Skating, skiing, singing, playing tennis, these are sidelines with him. Bu t they show his most American side. He loves sports and baseball, in particular. Red Smith, with whom Marc collaborated on a book called H0w to Get to First Base, reports that

“when he was doing the book of baseball sketches, he’d go to Yankee Stadium and get so wrapped up in the game that he would leave the park without a line drawn in his notebook. Artists you can shake out of any tree but baseball fans like that are hard to come by.”

No matter what Mr. Smith thinks of the blossoming abundance of artists, he does concede that “Marc is an extraordinarily gifted guy, blessed with a quality of humor that few other artists have.” The two books on sports that Marc did with Red Smith and a memorable volume called Opera Soufflé show a fine flair for caricature, an art that requires quickness of mind and eye and the power of’making one line do the work of fifty. Red Smith was particularly pleased with a portrait of Yogi Berra. After being touched with the magic of Marc’s pencil, “Yogi,” says Mr. Smith, “looks more like a bundle of old laundry than you would want your old laundry to look like.” Those who have seen Mr. Berra behind home plate will readily appreciate that Marc and Red Smith between them have done full justice to Yogi’s sartorial splendors.

From caricatures to portraits might seem a long step to some artists, but Marc has done a great many portraits without having his sitters complain that the result fell into the former category. Children are a specialty with him and his success with them may be due in large part to the fact that his young sitters have such a good time with Marc that the finished portrait reflects that cheerful atmosphere.

Marc paints animals too. One portrait of a Nubian ram was received with such enthusiasm that Marc has been advised to devote  himself exclusively to goats. The number of Nubian goats who wish to have their portraits painted is perhaps somewhat limited, however, and Marc has not considered this suggestion too seriously.

For the past two years the Simonts have lived in New York in the winters and Cornwall in the summers. “Living in New York hath charms,” he says. “Granted, the snow isn’t so white as it is in the country, but on the other hand, you don’t have to shovel it.”

Whether it is this freedom from the hazards of country living or the fact that he finds New York a stimulating place to work, Marc has won for himself a high place in that field of art which he most enjoys — illustrating books and especially children’s books.

“Juvenile editors don’t bind you to an idea,” he says. “They leave you alone.”

This lack of interference is a priceless boon to a creative person. Like every artist, Marc understands the difficulty of making that first shining idea grow and come alive in a finished picture. He once wrote an editor, “I’m never happy when I finish a job because I always feel I could have done better…my feeling is always, ‘This should have been done completely differently.’”

Bot juvenile editors are wise in the ways of writers and artists; they know that they always feel this way—even a winner of the Caldecott Medal.

“That prize,” says Mr. Behn, who shall have the last word, “it won’t change Marc at all. He’s some feller.”

From the August 1957 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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