When Robert Lawson died in May 1957, the headline on his front page obituary in the Bridgeport Post identified him as the Westport artist who “was illustrator of Ferdinand the Bull.”
The New York Times obituary made the same choice, reinforcing Ferdinand’s primary importance to Lawson’s long and uniquely distinguished career. He remains the only person to have won both the Caldecott Medal for Best Picture Book Illustration and the Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature. The Newbery has special relevance for Westport. It was for “Rabbit Hill,” a 1945 book Lawson based loosely on the animal inhabitants of his Rabbit Hill estate on Weston Road, where he and his wife Marie, also an author-illustrator, worked at desks facing one another for almost 20 years.
Like Lawson, Munro Leaf, a younger friend who claimed to have dashed off the 800-word “The Story of Ferdinand” text in 40 minutes, also had a long career, winning early fame as the author/illustrator of such humorous books as “Manners Can Be Fun.” Like Lawson, Leaf shared his New York Times obituary headline with Ferdinand when he died in December 1976. Though he spent his early career in New York City, Leaf moved to Greenwich, and Westport is home to a grandson, the attorney Samuel Leaf, and great-grandson, Jacob Leaf.
Lawson and Leaf’s creation, Ferdinand, the bull who refuses to fight, deserves his co-star billing. He has been world famous almost since the book was first published in September 1936, and especially since the 81/2-minute Disney cartoon that won a 1938 Oscar for Best Short. Sales of the never-out-of-print book spiked with the movie, “The Blind Side.” The main character, a gentle, football giant, is described as a “Ferdinand-type.”
The bull has been adopted as a symbol of nonviolence and gender nonconformity. Lena Dunham, the creator and star of “Girls,” has a much-photographed Ferdinand tattoo on her upper right arm.
Ferdinand will star again on the big screen in the new animated movie, “Ferdinand,” opening Friday, Dec. 15, featuring John Cena, the pro wrestler turned rapper and actor, as the voice of Ferdinand.
Someone who will be watching the movie with a uniquely critical eye is Sharon McQueen. An actor and librarian turned professor, McQueen won a 2013 American Library Association award for her doctoral dissertation on the making of the book and its cultural impact. Living in Norfolk, Va., she often lectures on Ferdinand.
In a phone interview, McQueen says “one of the takeaways (from her 10 years of research) is the great number of myths surrounding the book. That Robert Lawson was penniless. That Munro Leaf was better known and was doing Lawson a favor because he was out of work. That it was Gandhi’s favorite book. That it knocked ‘Gone with the Wind’ off the best-seller list.” The most over-riding myth, however, may be that Leaf and Lawson conceived of Ferdinand as a pacifist and wrote the book in reaction to the Spanish Civil War. Even a source as authoritative as the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature has declared “The Story of Ferdinand” as “possibly the most famous example of a picture book as political text,” McQueen says, quoting the citation from a 2005 edition.
The book did become controversial after its publication, but Leaf, who was a champion boxer at Harvard, denied there was any political subtext, pacifist or otherwise. Perhaps they were aware of turmoil in Spain and the rise of fascism in Europe, but the Spanish Civil War did not start until July 1936, and Leaf had written the text in October 1935.
Leaf wrote the story for Lawson to illustrate, but more as an admirer than as a favor for a poor friend. Lawson, who was 12 years older than Leaf, was an established commercial artist and illustrator. In 1923, the Lawsons had joined Westport’s informal artists’ colony. When the Depression cut into commercial jobs, the Lawsons sold the house and in 1933 moved back to New York. But the stay was short-lived. They already had bought the Weston Road property with money from the paid-off house and started building their Rabbit Hill house earlier in 1936 before “Ferdinand” was published.
McQueen says when the Leafs brought the sketched-out “Ferdinand” story to the Lawsons, Lawson said he liked it, but put it away in a drawer. Besides being busy, he had expected his friend to deliver a story with gnomes, fairies and dragons. Fantasy illustrations were a Lawson specialty. But Leaf had brought Lawson a bull.
“Lawson felt he’d never drawn a bull in his life and he didn’t know how to draw a bull and that he had several other projects on his plate,” McQueen says. “But he kept taking ‘Ferdinand’ out of the drawer and he began to collect images of bulls.”
Lawson’s Ferdinand grows from calf to bull with muscles so well-defined, he might be called ripped, like Cena. Having seen clips from the upcoming movie, McQueen says it appears its producer, Blue Sky Studios in Greenwich, has “kept the character, but changed the plot.” As in the original story, Ferdinand grows into a powerful bull who prefers to sit alone and smell the flowers. But as the star of a full-length movie, he needs more adventures and a supporting cast.
The 1938 Disney short did the opposite, McQueen says, remaining remarkably true to the story, while changing the character. “They made Ferdinand rounder. He’s paunchy. He’s got long eyelashes. He’s got a mop. The Disney animators viewed Ferdinand as gay.” Disney’s Ferdinand was one of the first movie figures introduced with a merchandising blitz. McQueen cataloged 56 different Ferdinand products from clothing to games. McQueen declines to say who deserves the most credit for “The Story of Ferdinand.” “Lawson took a very good text to another level,” she says. “But with really fine picture books, you can’t imagine one without the other.”
Leaf and Lawson produced a few other books together, most notably “Wee Gillis” in 1938. But in 1939, Lawson entered a new phase as author-illustrator with the publication of “Ben and Me,” the story of Benjamin Franklin as told by a mouse. McQueen says Lawson, who had no children, has been credited with inventing the history-fantasy genre by Gary Schmidt, the scholar who wrote a critical biography of his work.
Leaf’s grandson, Samuel Leaf, says he was young when his grandfather died and to him “The Story of Ferdinand” was just another part of the family history. It was his father and uncle who grew up in a “minor celebrity glow,” he says, but even he has been asked to sign autographs.
“The thing has legs. It just hasn’t quit,” Leaf says.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.