The Stories of Willie Tuck (December 4, 2002)
Willie died last month—at 11 minutes after 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. It is 2002, and she was 84. With Willie's passing, cartooning afficiandoes lose the last live-in connection to the life and career of Milton Caniff.
"Our eternal Willie," Caniff once mused affectionately. "She works for us because she's sorry for us," he joked during one of my visits. "She's been with Bunny and me since almost the beginning."
Willie was Willie Tuck. I didn't know her well. I didn't meet her until I met Caniff—at his 75th birthday party at Ohio State University in 1982. She was a matronly lady whose mouth seemed set in a somewhat severe motherly line until she began talking, and then, her face enlivened by a mildly amused perception of the world around her, the severity disappeared in upturned corners. She may have been amused, but she also had great dignity, a dignity born, I discovered after only a few conversations with her, of a fierce independence of spirit.
She had been born Wilhelmina Faust, the daughter of Frank and Corrie Faust, on February 3, 1918, in Columbia, South Carolina. She grew up, attended schools and joined church there. She married William Robinson, and they had two children, William Frank and Corrie Eugenia, both of whom died before their mother. The marriage lasted only four years: she had been too young, Willie said. And by 1939, she had moved to New York.
That August, the Caniffs hired her as a maid for their place near Haverstraw, New York, on South Mountain Road. Willie would stay with the Caniffs for the next 49 years, with only a year's interruption. And she became much more than a maid. She was virtually a member of the family, and Milton and his wife Bunny were members of hers. But the beginning was not auspicious.
"When I first came to them," Willie told me, "I lied about my age. I said I was older. He found out about that three or four weeks later when he sent me over to get my driver's license, and I couldn't get it by myself because I wasn't old enough. He said, If you're twenty-five or over, I shouldn't have to sign for your license. I said, Well, I'm not. He got very angry, and he said, There's one thing I hate—it's a liar and a rogue. And I said, Who said I'd steal from you? But I did lie. He slammed down his drawing board on the desk, and he said, I'm going to keep you because you seem to have a lot of potential, but as long as you work for me, never tell me a lie. And that has held good up to now," Willie finished, and that was in 1987.
The young woman learned other things while in the service of the Caniffs. About a year after joining the staff, Willie's daughter needed her tonsils out, and Willie asked Caniff to loan her $75 for the operation.
"He said, That's more money than I loan anybody," Willie recalled. "But I knew people he'd loaned more money than that to, so I said, Forget it. Then he said, How are you going to pay it back? I said, You make my check out; take out $5 a week. So he did. He marked off $5 every single week, and I was making only $12.50! And I told him, When I pay you off, I'm never going to ask you to loan me money again. And that has held water. And he knows to this day, I won't ask him. He knows that if he has to loan me money, he's got to think of it, period. But he's not like that now. He'd do it now. Over the years, he found out I was honest, and, of course, I'd only been working for him at that point for about a year, and $75 in 1940 was a mint. So I respected what he did. And he has taught me a lot over the years, I must say. He really has. And so has she. And I'm grateful."
It wasn't always smooth sailing for those 49 years. Willie quit twice, and she was fired once. "One time, Mrs. Caniff told me about something that if I didn't like it, I should get out," Willie explained. "So I walked out. That's three times in 49 years. But my stuff was always here, and I always came back. Because of him. And I love her, too, but you know how women are."
When Willie returned on these occasions, the Caniffs were always glad to have her back. "We just couldn't get along without her," Caniff said.
Ostensibly a maid, Willie was working in the studio, too, before long. And when Caniff's long-time secretary, Adelaide Gilchrest, died in 1970, Willie took over most of the secretary's duties, becoming manager of the cartoonist's studio as well as of his household. She did filing and some research, and she monitored Caniff's schedules and his wife's, reminding them of appointments and other obligations.
"Even though she couldn't take shorthand or any of that, she gradually learned so much about the business that she was more valuable than Adelaide," Caniff declared during one of our conversations in 1984. "She handled many critical situations for us on her own judgement. She certainly never expected to have to make such decisions. But she did it well. Still does. That and everything else," Caniff smiled and shook his head slowly in grateful appreciation. "She knows all the insides and outsides of this crazy business," he said fondly, respectfully.
Much more than a maid.
And Caniff was more than an employer to Willie. She always called him Mister Caniff, but, she said, "He's my best friend, not just my boss."
In December 1946, Willie married the man who dashed all memory of her first husband from her mind. Henceforth, Otis Tuck was "the only husband I ever had—really," she said. "He was the only father my kids really knew." They lived in Goshen, New York, about twenty-five miles away from the Caniff studio, and Willie went home every night except when the Caniffs were out-of-town and the house was deserted: then she stayed in the little room off the studio to keep an eye on things. And her education by her boss continued.
During the War, gasoline rationing had forced them to rely on the train for transportation as well as deliveries to New York. One day, Caniff discovered that Willie couldn't read the published train schedules. They were in the car, racing down the mountain for the station in Haverstraw.
"Mister Caniff was always running late," Willie said, recalling the adventure. "And he said, What time's the train leave? And I said, I don't know—I can't read the schedule. He told me to stop the car—right there in the middle of South Mountain Road, and that was a narrow road—and he said, Goddammit, I'm gonna show you how to read this schedule. I said, Yes, sir. And I learned that day."
Willie learned a great deal at the Caniffs' school. She learned, for instance, what Caniff expected of her in regard to his financial affairs. It's a story Willie relished telling when we talked in 1987.
"He sent me to the bank to cash a check, and when I got back, he was sleeping, so I put the money on his drawing board. Later, he called me in and said it was a penny short. And I said, I beg your pardon. And he said, I'm a penny short. And I said, Mr. Caniff, do you think I'd take a penny? He said, Wait a minute: I didn't accuse you of taking a penny, but someday you may be taking care of all my business, so you should count my money when you're in the bank, and then when you bring it to me, count it again. Well, the penny was missing. And, boy, I knew I didn't have it. It was in the winter, and I'd worn my coat to the bank, so I went down in the pocket, but I couldn't find his penny. So I said, I'll give you a penny. He said, I don't want your penny: I want my penny. So I felt in my coat again, and I felt a hole in the pocket. So I ripped the lining out of it, and I said, Here's your penny. And from that day on, you bet you I counted his money. And I still do. And today," she finished, "I'm taking care of a lot of his business, you know—just like he said."
In the course of taking care of his business in later years, Willie was in and out all day long. Her day was devoted to a thousand often unrelated tasks—picking up the mail, delivering strips to the Syndicate offices, shopping, cooking, running errands, filing artwork and photographs and clippings from newspapers and magazines, and straightening up the studio within the limits of trespass her boss allowed. She also helped Bunny in the residence.
During the war years, Caniff was frequently interviewed because Terry's locale was the military. Sometimes Caniff talked about how his passion for being up-to-date in the strip nearly caused him to miss deadlines. With a storyteller's penchant for exaggeration, he'd say his strips were delivered from Haverstraw to midtown Manhattan by helicopter. That always made Willie laugh. "I was the helicopter," she'd say.
"The first time I ever laid eyes on a jeep," Caniff remembered, "it was because of Willie Tuck. She was an official hostess for the USO at Camp Shanks during the War, and an MP by the name of Love, Sergeant Love, was sweet on her. He and a buddy drove up to South Mountain Road in a jeep to see her. I was up in the studio, and I looked out the window, and there it was! At that time no had seen one of these vehicles. I quick grabbed my drawingboard and sketch pad. Willie thought she was going to be in trouble because we had a rule about visitors, so she was out there trying to get rid of them. Here I was, running down the stairs, yelling, Wait a minute—I have to draw your jeep! And there she was, trying to shoo them away. But I got to make a few quick sketches.
"Later on," he continued with a chuckle, "when Otis Tuck, Willie's husband-to-be, came back from overseas, he had a few choice things to say about what he was going to do if Sergeant Love turned up again. Willie and I still laugh about that to this day.
"Willie gets along well with everyone. She can't tell one white person from another, though, she says. You all look alike to me is one of her lines. I've been writing down funny things she's said for years in a notebook. She'd come in and say something like—I got up before God this morning. And I'd laugh and then get out the notebook and write it down. Eventually, it would turn up in Steve Canyon."
And Willie made other contributions to the strip. "You can be sure that whenever a black character shows up in the strip, I've tested that character with Willie first," he said. "Anything having to do with minority groups—but especially black people—I try out on Willie. I have a character named Zeee who wears glasses that are one long slit, like Slits wore in Terry and the Pirates. I haven't had an opportunity to use this yet but Zeee has blue eyes. Where did she get those blue eyes? Some day, I'll use it, and then, when the letters start coming in, I'll say, as I've said before, My studio associate who has been with me 45 years passed it. I'll show Willie's picture and—boing!—that'll do it. It's always worked before."
Willie even appeared in the strip. When Summer Olson, Steve's paramour, was working all hours for Copper Calhoon, she hires a nurse to look after her toddler son Oley. Willie was the model for the nurse. Milton called the nurse Meena.
"Her name comes from my first name, which is Wilhelmina," Willie explained. "She looks like I did at the time . I never posed for the drawing, but Mister Caniff couldn't help but get a true caricature of me because I was in his face just about every minute of the day and a lot of hours during the night for years. There was mixed emotion about being Meena. I didn't mind it. To me it was sort of fun. I didn't object to being little Oley's nannie. But a lot of my friends objected very strongly because they thought it was a stereotype. Mister Caniff got lots of letters about Meena."
Caniff was one of the first cartoonists to depict black people realistically in a comic strip. Until World War II, most blacks in strips were drawn as gross caricatures—solid black faces, wide staring eyeballs, big pink lips. And they all talked like characters in a minstrel show: "Boss, ah's fwightened `bout Spahky cuz he walks lak he lame." During the War, blacks fought overseas and worked on assembly lines at home side-by-side with whites, and they emerged from the experience no longer as willing to accept second-class citizenship or to play step-and-fetch-it comedy stereotypes in the public's entertainments. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups protested successfully to the newspaper syndicates about the crude portrayal of blacks in comic strips, and for a time, all blacks except Africans (like Lothar in Mandrake the Magician and the tribesmen in The Phantom and Tarzan) disappeared from the funny papers. That was not what the NAACP wanted. Blacks did not want to be excluded from comics: they merely wanted the stereotypical menials replaced—or balanced—by characters they could identify with. And there were plenty of black doctors, lawyers, engineers, and business executives around to serve as models.
Once, during the War, Caniff had depicted in Terry several soldiers building the Ledo Road, the overland route to China from India that would eventually eliminate the need for dangerous cargo flights into Western China over the fearsome "Hump," the rugged and unpredictable mountains between the two countries. One of the soldiers he drew was a black man. No one else had drawn a black soldier before. And here he was—just doing his job as a member of the military. It was, as it turned out, a pivotal appearance. Marshall Field read the strip, and, later, he referred to that appearance of an ordinary black soldier in a speech before a civil rights group. And when Caniff heard about it, he wrote Field to thank him for mentioning Terry. The ice broken, Field subsequently went to Caniff and asked him to draw a comic strip for his newspaper, the Chicago Sun, and syndicate, Field Enterprises. What do you want? Field asked the cartoonist. Full ownership and complete editorial control, Caniff said. Done, said Field. And comic strip history took a turn.
But Caniff was not a crusader; he was a storyteller. Blacks didn't appear much in either of his strips after the War, but in 1954, he'd introduced Meena. He'd courted controversy and found some.
To many readers, Meena was undeniably a stereotype. But to Caniff, she was Willie Tuck—a person he knew, not a type of anything.
Milton and Bunny had been godparents to one of Willie's grandsons, named Milton. And Willie remembered with a kind of fierce affection that they had been the first to look in on her and ask after her needs when her beloved Otis died in November 1965. "They are dear people," she told me. "He has the best heart in the world. And he always has time for anyone. He's one of a kind. When he is gone, the pattern is finished."
The absence of black characters in the comics in 1966 prompted Ebony magazine to do a story on the subject. A reporter from the magazine made an appointment with Caniff to discuss the issue with him since he was one of the few major cartoonists to have put blacks in his strip. On the morning of the scheduled interview, Caniff suddenly appeared nervous, an extraordinary manifestation in a man of his familiarity with reporters. Willie remembered the day clearly.
"I knew I had either done something wrong or he wanted me to do something that I wouldn't have wanted to do," she said, "because he came through the door and said, Good morning, Mrs. Tuck. He usually said, Good morning, Willie. Up to that time, black people had been referred to as colored or Negroes, but that was changing. He said to me, Willie, how would you like me to refer to you? I said, I beg your pardon, Mister Caniff? He said, How would you like me to refer to you? I told him he could refer to me as Mrs. Tuck or Wilhelmina Tuck. He said, Well, now the going thing is to be called black. I said, Don't you call me black because I'm not black: I'm a human being. I don't accept that word," Willie explained.
"When the girl from Ebony came, I decided to leave the office so that Mister Caniff could be free to answer all her questions, but before I walked out, I said to him, Don't forget that I'll read what you say. And when the interview came out, it was beautiful."
In the article, reporter Ponchitta Pierce quotes Caniff on the future for blacks in the comics. After confessing that ten years earlier he would have said that blacks would not be accepted in comic strips for a long time, he concludes: "But the world is such a changing kaleidoscope. Any day someone might pop up with the perfect thing."
She goes on to tell how Caniff's depiction of black soldiers working on the Ledo Road in Terry led to the contact with Marshall Field, which, in turn, led to developing Caniff's current strip. "If it hadn't been for a Negro soldier," she concludes, "American hero Steve Canyon might not be alive today."
In the summer of 1970, the Caniffs packed up and left New York. They went to Palm Springs, California, and before they went, they terminated the employment of Adelaide and Willie. "People said we should go "free,'" Caniff said. "Unencumbered." Besides, both the women had family in the New York area, so why would they want to journey to distant California?
But by then, Adelaide was so engaged in Caniff's life that she could not countenance being apart from them and her job. She committed suicide. She took pills, and her body was found the morning that the Caniffs boarded the plane for California.
Still numb from the shock of her death when he arrived in Palm Springs, Caniff faced unpacking and sorting through boxes and boxes of material that the movers had dumped in his studio. Almost at once, he began to feel the press of the next deadline for the strip: he hadn't gotten quite far enough ahead to permit himself the luxury of a pressure-free moving-in period. After a week or so, he had to stop unpacking in order to produce a batch of strips. And he quickly found that he couldn't produce anything in the midst of the chaos that surrounded him. On Sunday, August 30, he reached the limit of his patience. He'd struggled with half-empty boxes all day to locate one fugitive file. By sundown, he was frustrated to distraction. He called Willie.
She awoke to the ringing of her phone at 1 a.m.: Caniff had forgotten that the time difference from one coast to the other was so great. But it wouldn't have mattered: he needed Willie.
"Willie," he said after apologizing for the hour of his call, "your ticket is at the airlines. Be out here tomorrow. I can't find a goddamn thing. I need you to help me get the studio set up: I can't work like this."
Willie went to work on Tuesday. And she found a vast quantity of work to do. She systematically unpacked the boxes and stored the contents in filing cabinets and closets throughout the studio half of the duplex where Caniff located his studio. Bunny helped. Dozens of model airplanes were hung from the ceiling or placed on bookshelves, where they joined the legions of Caniff's reference books. Filing cabinets filled every room—even the kitchen, from which Caniff had removed the stove to make more room.
By November, the chaos had been reduced to something resembling order. So Willie went back to New York and found a job in a bank. But the next spring, she returned to California on vacation to visit the Caniffs. After thirty-one years, she missed them, so when they asked her to stay on, she did. "I had a good time," she said, "so I fell for it." But she didn't sell her house in Goshen.
Willie enjoyed life in Southern California. She quickly made friends through her church, and she often participated in the social life of her employers, delighting in the contact with celebrities that the locale all but guaranteed. She told me once about an evening she'd spent with the Caniffs at a local elite country club. "It was elite," she said, "but not that elite. Mister Caniff wouldn't belong to any clubs that wouldn't let in a black spot," she finished, gesturing at herself.
But if blacks were permitted in the place, they were not often seen there, so Willie's presence at a table in the diningroom excited the interest of those at a nearby table. At that table was Frank Sinatra and his entourage, including Zsa Zsa Gabor. Willie heard them talking, whispering—"She must be an actress." Finally, Zsa Zsa tapped Willie on the shoulder and asked her:
"Are you an actress?"
"Yes," Willie said.
"Oh," purred the Hungarian beauty. "And what have you appeared in? Who do you act for?"
"See that man," Willie said, pointing across her table to Caniff. "Every day," she went on, "I act for him."
She acted in all her official and unofficial ways. She was not only Caniff's office manager but the host that met visiting friends and fans at the door of the studio. She was known to many as "the Sweetheat of Palm Springs."
The Caniffs left Southern California in 1983 and returned to New York to take possession all year of the apartment they'd kept all along for their six-month sojourns there. (They returned every winter for the theater season, thus enduring the worst weather each domicile offered—winter in New York, summer in the desert.) The Caniffs flew; Willie brought the classic Rolls Royce, Caniff's only remaining automobile. She drove it all the way across the country.
Caniff had a studio on the 5th floor, and their apartment was on the 31st. Willie went up and down between the two, sometimes helping Caniff, sometimes his wife.
In the winter of 1988, Caniff was diagnosed with cancer. "They don't call it that at first," he told me: "they say it's a "tumor.' But you know." At first, when they believed they could stop the cancer, Caniff had been hospitalized. But on Monday, March 28, Milton went home from the hospital. He'd been given a choice—home or a hospice. The proposed hospice was in Brooklyn, too far for Bunny and Willie to make daily visits easily; he chose home.
A hospital bed and oxygen tank had been installed in the bedroom. Next to Milton's bed—pushed right up against it—was another bed, twin-sized; this was for Bunny, so she could be near him all the time. In the early stages of Alzheimer's, Bunny knew her husband was ill and that he might die, but she didn't know it all the time. Willie, sleeping every night in the bedroom of the studio several floors below, was being assisted now by a nurse.
Towards the end of the week, the doctor visited for the second time that week. After this visit Milton became very depressed: he was at last convinced that he would not survive the cancer. He told Willie that he'd always believed he and Bunny would die together—in a plane crash.
His vitality was ebbing away. That Saturday night, Willie slept on the floor of the livingroom in the apartment in order to be close at hand should she be needed. At three o'clock in the morning, she heard him calling for her. She and the nurse went into the bedroom.
"Willie," he said, "could you rub my back?"
The nurse offered to do it, but Milton insisted on Willie's doing it: she'd done it every night while he was in the hospital.
The next morning, Easter Sunday, Willie could tell Milton was sinking fast. She gave him a shave. Then she roused Bunny and told her to get dressed. She lowered the railing on Milton's bed next to Bunny's so Bunny could reach him easily from her bed and put her arms around him.
Early in the afternoon, Milton gave his last orders to his faithful office manager, retainer, and friend. He called Willie into the bedroom.
"Get twenty-five originals so I can autograph them," he said.
Later, some of Milton's friends were puzzled by this seemingly inexplicable desire to autograph original strips and took it as a sign that he was losing his grip on reality just before death. In fact, he was reacting to instructions from his long-time agent, Toni Mendez. She was negotiating to get a book of Caniff art published, and, seeking to get Milton to work in the belief that work would cure him as it had, for a time, Rube Goldberg, she'd asked him to sign twenty-five originals for the project.
But this time, Willie didn't do what her boss directed. She knew he was close to the end, so she didn't leave the room.
"You have to get me dressed," he said after a while; "I have an appointment. Do you think you can drop me off?" he finished, looking up at Willie.
"Oh, sure," Willie said.
She stood by the bedside in silence. Bunny lay next to Milton with her arms around him.
"Take care of my little girl," Milton said. Willie reassured him.
He spoke once more: "Willie, you've been first-rate to me." And Willie, for the first time, wept.
He lay there quietly in the arms of his wife. A little while later, at 2:20 p.m., he died.
Bunny died a month later, and Willie took care of her until the end.
For months thereafter, Willie caught herself starting to phone Caniff. She'd be reading a newspaper and come across something she thought he'd be interested in, and, as she'd done for years, she'd reach for the phone to call him and tell him about it. Then she'd remember.
The bond was that strong. And it went both ways.
Once when Caniff and I were talking about his early life, he told me about his grandfather who had driven in a sleigh seventeen miles on a cold snowy night to see him when he was born.Once when Caniff and I were talking about his early life, he told me about his grandfather who had driven in a sleigh seventeen miles on a cold snowy night to see him when he was born.
Looking at his first grandson, he had taken a two-and-a-half dollar gold piece out of his pocket and put it in Milton's tiny hand, closing the fingers in a fist around the coin. "He'd obviously saved the coin for this purpose," Caniff said.
"Do you still have it?" I asked.
"Yes—and no," he chuckled. "Willie has it. She has this charm bracelet, which she cherishes. It has special things of her life on it. When we went to Hongkong, we brought back a little charm, a sampan, for her, and she put it on the bracelet. And whatever else means something to her. And she asked me—not so long ago—if she could put the gold piece on there, and I was delighted. In fact," he continued, deliberately steering away from personal sentiment, "I was wondering what the hell to do with this thing. It was always missing," he went on in mock alarm: "Where is it? Is it in the safe-deposit box or isn't it? Or where the hell is it?" He chuckled again. "And so I was happy to have it on her charm bracelet. With all those special things in her life. Because she's something special in my life."
And in all the lives she touched.
Willie spent the last few years in a rest home, where, according to report, she was slipping into Alzheimer's. Her obituary in the Goshen newspaper concluded: "Surviving to cherish her memory are her son's wife, Katie Robinson; her grandchildren, Margo Owen and Renee Robinson‑Way; and great‑grandchildren, Thurston and Joshua all of Pennsylvania; and her daughter's husband, Willie Phillips; her grandchildren, Milton, Karen and Keith; and great‑granddaughter, Kalyn all of South Carolina. There are also in‑laws of North Carolina, nieces, nephews, cousins, and a myriad of friends. Her greatest friend and caretaker, Greta Foley, remained constant and faithful to the end of her journey. "She may be away, but never to be forgotten."