The Illustrated Zim
He wasn’t born, as they say, with a silver spoon in his mouth. Swiss-born Eugene Zimmerman—a cartoonist and illustrator known to the world as “Zim”—learned early that if he wanted food and survival he had to earn them by his own efforts. That he could do so with his sense of humor intact, bootstrapping his way to national prominence and international renown, and also become a local benefactor, is as amazing as his prolific output.
An exhibit highlighting his scope—“From Pencil to Page: Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman’s Creative Process”—is on display at the Chemung County Historical Society, 415 West Water Street, Elmira, through September. Zimmerman’s house at the corner of Pine and Mill Streets in Horseheads, willed by his daughter, Laura, to the Horseheads Historical Society, is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons through most of the year.
Born in 1862, Zimmerman was orphaned two years later when his mother died. The toddler was sent to live with an aunt and uncle while his father and older brother set off for America. Five years later, worried about the dangers of the Franco-Prussian war, his uncle put him on a ship for America. The seven-year-old made his way to Paterson, New Jersey, and somehow found the bakery where his father and brother were working. In order to remain, he had to earn his keep. “You might say his childhood was unsettled,” says Chemung County Historical Society curator Erin Doane.
Always happiest outdoors, and a lifelong hunter and fisherman, for a time in his early teens he hired out to work for a farmer in upstate New York, where, despite his diligence, he was not treated well. One story has it that, back in Paterson, the lettering on a cake he was decorating drew the attention of an itinerant sign painter, William Brassington, who offered him an apprenticeship. They traveled to Elmira to work at the Chemung County Fair and apparently liked their surroundings, because they stayed. Zimmerman worked for Brassington until his shop closed, then worked for other sign painters. He got his first break when his uncle showed his sketchbook to someone from Puck magazine, a well-known satirical weekly. Then twenty years old, he was hired to be one of their cartoonists. When the art director there took a job at Judge, a competing news magazine, Zimmerman went along. He signed his drawings “Zim,” later joking he’d freed the “merman” back into the ocean. When he searched for an idea to draw, he was once described as “a whirl of arms and legs, pacing.”
Those years on either side of the turn of the twentieth century were a heyday for illustrators. Newspapers and magazines had not yet perfected the translation of a photograph to the printed page, so everything from articles to editorials required the skilled hand of an artist to depict and often interpret the news. They all developed their own styles—Zim may have originated the grotesque caricature, Erin notes. Cartoonists like Zim became superstars of the day, along with others—like R.L. “Believe it or Not” Ripley, and Walt Disney—in an even larger way. Some, like Disney, went into animation. Others drew the political cartoons and the comic strips that were sometimes collectively referred to as “the funnies.” Many augmented their income by teaching art; Zim also created a twenty-booklet correspondence course and took great interest in his students.
In 1886 Zimmerman married Mabel Alice Beard and they moved to Brooklyn. In 1888 he suffered a “nervous collapse” and had a prolonged recovery in Florida, one of the few times he left New York State. Two other noteworthy things happened that year—Mabel gave birth to Laura, their only child, and Zimmerman began working with Mabel’s father, a professional carpenter, to construct the home he designed in Horseheads. As soon as the house was habitable, the family moved in. He remained invested in the village for the rest of his life, taking the train to New York City once every fortnight for editorial meetings, then returning to work in his Horseheads home.
Almost eighty-five years after his death, he’s still remembered fondly in the village for his devotion to the fire company and the bandstand he designed and built with his father-in-law in Teal Park, a few blocks from his house. It’s still in use today as a bandstand. As evidenced by the music room in his house, and a musician’s gallery above the living room, Zim adored music, though not blessed with musical talent himself. In fact, many of his neighbors were entirely unaware of his artistic talents or his fame. He’s recalled as a kindly man who reached out to other artists and delighted in sharing his skills and often the money needed to purchase art supplies for gifted children.
His work, frequently embodying a slyly humorous view of humanity, endures. Most of us have seen it without knowing who drew it—a cartoon once on a package of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, an iconic big-footed hobo, a buck-toothed farmboy-turned soldier, a sharp-nosed storekeeper or barber reacting to an eccentric customer. Most of his subjects were men—he explained he found it ungentlemanly to pick on women. His depictions of African-Americans, Jewish people, and other minorities are viewed now as racist, but, in the times he drew them, they fit into prevailing white-American stereotypes. To his credit, when he was made aware that these caricatures were deeply offensive, he promised to re-think his depictions.
“To have known him would have been neat,” says Ben Erway, a member of the Horseheads Historical Society. “Everybody liked him. He saw humor in everything.” His home is a testament to his varied interests, from his collection of Indian arrowheads and early American weaponry—the latter acquired to enable him to depict them accurately—to the small, aesthetic details, like the fireplace tiles ordered to match the house’s exterior or the stained glass he designed. There are corners tucked into the house for the pleasure of its inhabitants, like the windowed alcove off the kitchen designed to hold Mabel’s sewing machine, and a breezy upstairs porch under the eaves. The late-Victorian house has a lot of gentle interior curves. “Zim” is inlaid into the parquet entryway.
Zimmerman was home when a heart attack claimed him in 1935. He’d met Mark Twain, Thomas Edison (who filmed Zim drawing), Walt Disney, and Enrico Caruso (who repaid Zim’s drawing lesson with a caricature of the artist framed and hung, appropriately enough, in his music room). When he died, an unfinished drawing remained on his easel, but his last published cartoon, a political satire, arrived at the Elmira Telegram on the morning of his death. It’s part of the exhibit at the Chemung County Historical Society museum.
Ben describes the house as an amazing time capsule. So, too, is the exhibit at the Chemung County Historical Society. Zim’s humor—so thoroughly appreciated in his time—can be as foreign to us in the twenty-first century as a sumptuous fifteen-cent meal, making them also like a window into our past. His artistry can be appreciated without always knowing what he meant, Erin points out. And maybe our not being able to “get” them today is part of the point.