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Teddy Bear Tuesdays: Corduroy

Blake Harris 06.09.2015

Two of my favorite things are teddy bears and ideas; in particular, the anatomy of ideas. Where they come from, how they grow and why they evolve the way that they do. In light of these interests, I thought it would be fun if, each week, we selected a famous fictional teddy bear and explored how he and his creator rose to such prominence.

 This week’s pick: Corduroy

Corduroy

Talent was never the problem for Don Freeman—when it came to creative endeavors, the California-born artist had that in spades—the issue, however, was finding the best outlet to channel his considerable aptitude. In particular, Freeman was torn between art and music. Did he want to spend his days sketching away at a drawing board, or would he prefer to spend his nights trumpeting onward at a jazz club.

Like many young artists who were barely twenty years old—or, actually, scratch that and revise to twentysomethings in general—Freeman scoffed at the notion of constraints. He would do both; no, he would do everything; and even better than that, he’d be the best there ever was! At the time, this being the late-1920’s, the best of the best resided in Manhattan. And so, after deciding that this was where he needed to be, he packed up his trumpet, stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked from California to New York.

In New York, Freeman’s life of dueling passions persisted. He studied illustration at the famed Art Students League on 57th Street, and earned the money to do so by playing trumpet in dance bands and at wedding receptions. For the next few years, he continued in this fashion—trying to balance illustration and jazz, trying to make a career out of one (or both) and trying, one can only imagine, to spark together the internal wiring of creativity so that these two disparate arm forms fused into a single outlet of lyricism. But that was not to be, and eventually Freeman anticipated that a decision would need to be made.

What Freeman didn’t anticipate, however, is that he wouldn’t be the one to make this decision. That honor went to fate (or forgetfulness [or perhaps a subconscious nudge if you really want to get psychological about it]). He was on the subway, after work, doing what he often did in these situations: sketching a fellow passenger with his trumpet safely waiting by his side. This time, however, he was so engrossed with his illustration that he lost track of time and space and nearly missed his stop. Snapping back to reality, he realized where he now was and that he immediately needed to hop off. So he closed up his sketch pad, rushed over to the shutting doors and with a touch of sweat and grace he slipped out just in time. For anyone living outside of New York, it’s hard to fully fathom the victorious glee of a moment like this; it seems silly, it seems trivial and it seems inexplicably short-sided. And I assure you that, indeed, it is most certainly all those things; but it also happens to be one of the greatest feelings in the world. But in this case, Freeman’s elation proved to be pyric—at least in the following seconds as his heart thudded to a halt—because as that subway car he just barely escaped zipped away, he realized that it was doing so with his beloved trumpet. And as a result, by rendering him a trumpeter without a trumpet, he decided instead he was meant to be an artist.

Not long after this incident, Freeman found a creative niche in which he thrived: illustrating aspects of New York City’s vibrant Broadway scene. His work appeared in various theatrical publications and, soon enough, he became a celebrated drama artist for The Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Yet despite finding a semblance of fulfillment, and perhaps more importantly a steady stream of revenue, Freeman’s diverse and versatile artistic appetite led him to a couple of additional illustration-based endeavors. The first was a publication of his own, something he called Newsstand and described as “One Man’s Manhattan.” His other extracurricular form of expression was illustrating books for authors like Brooks Atkinson, William Saroyan and James Thurber.

Don Freeman

He continued like this for the next two decades—getting married (to Lydia) and relocating (back to California) along the way—and, eventually, doing this for others inspired him to try and do it for himself. But since writing novels wasn’t quite his forte, he wanted to keep it simple. Something short and something simple—but by no means overly simplistic. Something that his young son Roy might enjoy (and resembled the type of tales he told his boy, before whisking him off to slumberland). And so using the advice he would later offer Writers To Be (“Simplicity is the essence of children’s-book stories, not simple-mindedness”) Freeman, with the help of his wife, set out to write a kid’s book that spoke to kids and not at them.

For inspiration, Freeman drew on reality; and, in 1948, the loudest reality in he and his wife’s life was the roaring sound of trains. That’s because their new apartment in Santa Barbara was right beside the railroad tracks, and even more unfortunately it was at a point in the line where the engines and cars would often be realigned. The one silver lining to all of this—and you really had to squint hard to see it in the moonlight—was that there was a little caboose that was often left to sit there overnight. In the dark, and beneath the anemic street-lights, it looked almost blue and beatific. This little caboose, which seemed to be forgotten on so many nights, caught the attention of Freeman and soon began to make appearances on his sketchpad. Not long after this, Freeman published his first children’s book: Chuggy and The Blue Caboose.

Chuggy and the Blue Caboose

Two years after Chuggy and The Blue Caboose, Freeman published a book about a cat and a mouse whose love of opera helped them become friends. The book was called Pet of the Met and wound up winning the Herald Tribute Spring Book Festival Award. Following the success of these first two children’s books, Freeman decided to devote the rest of his career to this form of art. And over the next fifteen years he wrote and illustrated the following books:

  • Beady Bear (1954)
  • Mop Top (1955)
  • Fly High, Fly Low (1957)
  • The Night the Lights Went Out (1958)
  • Norman the Doorman (1959)
  • Space Witch (1959)
  • Cyrano the Crow (1960)
  • Come Again, Pelican (1961)
  • Ski Pup (1963)
  • Dandelion (1964)
  • The Turtle and the Dove (1964)
  • A Rainbow of My Own (1966)
  • Angelenos, Then and Now
  • The Guard Mouse (1967)
  • Add-a-line Alphabet (1968)

The majority of these books were published by Viking Press, which made it all the more surprising when, in 1968, the publisher initially rejected an idea that Freeman believed in rather strongly. He didn’t yet have all the details of what this story would be, but as he later explained to his editor, he wanted to write something “about a department store in which a character wanders around at night after the doors close.”

Despite much uncertainty still ahead, Freeman knew not only the narrative environment which he wished to explore, but the thematic one as well. “I also wanted the story to show the vast difference between the luxury of a department store [and] the simple life [most people live]. The idea of simple basic values was another theme that was running around in the back of my head. I don’t remember how or when a toy bear came into my life, but he must have come from way out of my past. You know, I could just see a bear wearing corduroy overalls with one button missing …

Corduroy wound up being not only the kind of overalls this teddy bear protagonist would wear, but drawing on a pet name Freeman used to call his son (“Cordu-Roy”), it also became the name of his newest book’s hero. Corduroy would be the name of this sweet-spirited little bear, and when all the shoppers went home for the night he would adventure through a big department store on a quest for his missing button.

Corduroy

Despite the initial rejection from Viking Press—and, eventually, rejections from every other publisher he tried early on—Freeman re-submitted a more fleshed out version of Corduroy to Viking and this next time it was accepted and published. Upon its release, the book evoked such a unique sense of warmth and nostalgia, that it managed to resonate with readers young and old. Such a staggering success it was that, ten years later, Freeman endeavored to write a sequel.

The follow-up to Corduroy would center around the little bear’s misadventures while attempting to, once again, revise the appearance of his outfit. But this time, it wouldn’t be about returning to the status quo—and attaching back a lost button—now, ten years later (but only days older by the immortal magic of fiction), Corduroy wanted to add to his life. He wanted to improve; to be better; to endeavor for something special. He wanted a pocket, and not just for himself, but to impress the young girl who had saved his life and given him her love.

In the end, Corduroy got the pocket he wanted. And one can assume that in the immortal world he lives in, that little bear will get to smile-stumble-smile forever. His creator, however, was not afforded that same sort kind of happy ending. While working on A Pocket for Corduroy, Don Freeman died of a heart attack at the age of 69. And his loss, the loss of anybody really, is sad and it’s tragic and unfortunate in so many ways. But just because it’s not the same kind of happy ending that Corduroy gets to experience every time a reader closes his book with a smile, doesn’t mean that Freeman’s story is without a happy ending. In fact, I’d venture to say, that every time a child sounds out the words to one of Freeman’s books—oscillating between worlds both real and imagined—a tiny little ending is being re-written each time…

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Corduroy Pocket

Blake Harris

Blake Harris

Blake Harris is the author of "Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation."
Blake Harris

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