There was hardly a noteworthy American magazine that had not published Paolo Garretto’s work at one time. There were virtually no French, Italian, English, and German poster hoardings or kiosks on which his advertisements did not regularly appear. His airbrushed caricature epitomized Deco styling. During the Twenties and Thirties he was a master of international advertising design and editorial art, as inventive as A.M. Cassandre, as prolific as Jean Carlu, as witty as Miguel Covarrubias. His geometric conceits captured the romance of the industrial age. Paul Rand called him “one of the world’s most formidable draftsmen.” Yet by the Fifties his ubiquity was on the wane. Art directors called his work a vestige of pre-war innocence. As happens to all stylists, the vagaries of fashion took its toll. Garretto’s approach was no longer in demand, eclipsed by Modern and faux Modern tendencies. Though he never completely vanished from view, and continued working until his death in 1989, his memory might have been forever consigned to the years between the wars if not for the post-modern ethos that caused designers to quote, borrow and steal from history.
Garretto’s fame in the United States was due to the regularity with which his work appeared in Fortune, Time, Vogue, and The New Yorker, but even more directly owing to his work in the original Vanity Fair. As one of Vanity Fair‘s graphic three most popular caricaturists (the others were Miguel Covarrubius and William Cotton), Garretto’s work was regularly shown to millions on its covers and inside pages. In 1983 when the inheritors of Condé Nast’s publishing empire (but not necessarily of his wisdom) decided to revive the mothballed Vanity Fair they tried to imitate its original tony formula (wrongly as it turned out since times and interests had changed). Because Garretto had given the magazine a portion of its graphic identity, it was reasoned that a modern-day Garretto would provide the same allure.
Caricaturists were found who were practicing similar moderne conceits but lacked the insight that Garretto brought to his pictures; insight and intelligence that made his work transcend mere ephemeral style. It was further reasoned that if Garretto, who had not worked for Condé Nast for forty years, were alive and still capable of making art, perhaps he would lend a nostalgic glow to the fledgling publication. In fact, Garretto was then in his early eighties, and living in Monte Carlo.
He was located by Lloyd Ziff, then Vanity Fair‘s art director, who commissioned him to do several covers. They were, however, rejected by the new editors for apparently being too nostalgic.
Ziff’s discovery awoke my own interest in this artist, which actually began after I was introduced to his work some years prior. And late in 1986 I began a regular correspondence with Garretto that continued until a month before his death in August 1989. My questions to him focused on his professional life, the development of his distinctive style, the people he knew and admired, and why he faded from view. Well into our correspondence I somewhat timidly broached the subject of his early entanglements with the Italian Fascist party and the stories I had read about his having designed the Fascist uniform and being one of Mussolini’s elite bodyguards. From the outset his letters to me were surprisingly candid, open, and warm, and amidst the countless references to, and apologies for, his failing health, he recalled his many triumphs and failures including his flirtation with Fascism.
This article is based on these letters, on conversations with people who knew him and additional biographical material.
Garretto was born in 1903 in Naples.
“I began doing caricatures when I was very young, just as an amusement,” he wrote. “Never thinking that I was going to be a caricaturist all my life.”
In 1913, at age 10, Paolo’s family moved to America so that the elder Garretto, a scholar from the University of Pisa could do research for a history of the United States that was commissioned by an Italian publisher.
“I knew very few English words at the time,” Garretto recalled, “and was only able to explain myself in school through drawings on the blackboard.”
The family ended their stay in 1917 when Garretto’s father was recalled to serve as an officer in the Italian army. Paolo and his mother settled briefly in Florence. At war’s end his father became a professor in Milan, and Paolo attended the Fine Art School of Brera where
“I always had trouble with my professors inasmuch as I liked Futurism and Cubism and they did not like the [odd] way I saw our models” he mused in one of his letters. “For I did some sketches in the manner of these movements that shocked my teachers.”
Garretto’s naive interest in the avant garde and his youthful rebellion against authority was consistent with the social and cultural turmoil brewing in post-war Italy that was splitting the society into two extremes—the Communists and Fascists—and ultimately led the nation to its totalitarian destiny.
In 1921 Garretto’s father assumed a teaching post in Rome and Paolo enrolled in the Superior Institute of Fine Arts to study architecture. He and some friends began to frequent Rome’s famous Cafe Aragno where artists, actors, and politicans assembled to drink, eat, and debate the hot issues, and where Paolo began drawing crayon caricatures of these celebrities on the white marble tables.
“One night I happened to sketch a good one of Pirandello and a better one of Marinetti, and a journalsist who was there asked me to sketch them on paper. His name was Orio Vergani, a poet and writer of comedies, and soon through him I began to sell my caricatures to the Roman newspapers.” His drawing became more than a mere hobby, and he decided that he too wanted to be a journalist. “I did everything from then on…,” he recalled, “writing little pieces that I illustrated and doing posters and decoration for the movies.” In fact, the fickle Garretto quickly switched his ambitions to a career in the film industry, after intially serving as an assistant to one of his professors who was a scenic artist for the director Fred Niblo while in Rome filming the original Ben Hur (with Raymond Navarro). Niblo used Garretto as a translator and hired him to do some graphics too. However, the tiring daily routine on the set was “not for me,” wrote Garretto. I have always been, and hoped to remain quite independent.”
But not everything in the young Garretto’s life was so fancy free. As a young boy he had developed a “visceral” and long lasting anti-communist attitude after learning that the Imperial Russian family, “including little [Prince] Alexis,” were murdered by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. He wrote that
“I can still remember my father reading the article [about their assassinations] to my mother, who was horrified.”
So in 1921, as Italy’s political situation grew worse, Garretto was shocked into what for him would lead to a moral stand.
“I had suffered a terrible experience,” he wrote as if the event were yesterday. “During the anniversary of the 1918 victory over Austria my father went to a gathering at the tomb of the unknown soldier where he was assaulted and beaten by a mass of Bolsheviks. Father came home with a head wound, his uniform in pieces, his war decorations stolen. We were all furious! But father was one of the best men who lived in Italy. He told us to be calm and said about his foes in true Christian spirit: ‘they do not know what they are doing.’ But in those years nearly all my good friends were Fascists [because they too hated the communists]. At school and Aragno they all asked me why I did not join them. But my father had forbidden me to adhere to ‘that bunch of people who are not worth more than the Communists,’ and in those times one generally listened to fathers. Then one day in June 1922 a bunch of Communists passed [my house] shooting, hollering, shouting, and carrying red banners. We all went to the balcony to see what was happening and saw them beating the local food merchant, stealing his wine, flowers, fruits, salamis, and hams. They also smashed in the windows of the corner cafe before running away. The next day I went to the “Fasio” to join the Fascist party. But I was too young and was told to join the “Vanguardista” [the Fascist youth movement] until I turned 21 years old.”
Garretto’s father was furious with his son for disobeying him, and was heard to say repeatedly and seriously, “I have three sons—two are O.K., but the eldest is crazy in the head.” Yet Garretto, like so many other young Italians, had been swept away by revolutionary ferver as well as the glamour of Benito Mussolini’s black-shirted legions. The only problem Garretto had was a sartorial one.
“I did not like the way they were all dressed up: they had only one common garment—the black shirt. As for the rest of their uniform, they wore anything they liked, such as long pants of any color. So I designed for myself a uniform that was all black—shirt, cavalry pants, and boots. My friends who liked the attire copied it. In fact, four of us, Mario and Carlo Ferrando, Aldo Placidi and me became known as the Musketeers.”
By accident this ad hoc collegial group became Mussolini’s formal honor guard. For in 1922 after being rebuffed by Parliament in a crass powerplay, Mussolini gathered his legions around the Royal Palace in Rome to give an ultimatum to King Victor Emanuele. The King received the bald, soon to be dictator and named him to head the government.
Garretto recalls the thrill of that day,
“Mussolini and the other Facist leaders came down among us. The Musketeers were all lined up at attention, and when Mussolini saw us in our crisp new uniforms he asked Gino Calza-Bini, the founder and leader of the Roman Fascio, ‘Who are these?’ My friend Placidi was prompt to answer: ‘We’re the Musketeers!” To which Mussolini responed, ‘…they shall be my Musketeers!’ and passed on. In the evening we were ordered to the Fascio and told that we would become 33 instead of four. Calza-Bini was happy and we were too, but we did not know what kind of an ordeal it was going to be from that day on… This was the beginning of a period that [in hindsight] I did not like at all.”
With Il Duce’s approval, Garretto became a charter member of the manipolo (a formation of 33 men based on Julius Ceasar’s plan of military organization in which three manipoli equal one legioni) whose expressed task was to escort Mussolini and his four lieutenants to various ceremonies.
“There were always six or eight of us on duty,” says Garretto. “And who was the one that was nearly always on duty? Not being married nor having any business to attend, I was one of those. You can imagine my life at home,” he wrote with a touch of sly humor. “My father was furious inasmuch as I could not attend my Art Academy and continue studying to become an architect. My mother was worried to see me always on the run, but there was nothing to be done. For in the meantime Mussolini had founded the Milizia Volontaria Sicurezza Nazionale [the volunteers for national security] which enlisted all its Fascist members for life. So I found myself militarized forever.”
Garretto’s conscription lasted only one year. Though his biography in a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair called him an “enthusiastic Fascist and founder of Mussolini’s… body guard,” he insists it was an act of folly that he tried to overcome. One day, in fact, his father interceded on his behalf with the general in command of the Milizia. He explained to the general that his son’s duty to Il Duce was ruining his chances for a position in architecture, and asked if Paolo could be given a leave of absence until graduation. Miraculously, the general agreed.
“He asked me to give my name, date of birth, and address to his secretary,” recalled Garretto, “who typed it up, got it signed, and gave it to my father. We bowed, went outside, and to our surprise we saw on the paper that he had signed a permanent discharge.” To this day it is still a mystery whether the order was deliberate or a classic example of Italian efficiency.
As for the anti-Communism that caused him to embrace Fascism, it prevailed until his death, but regarding his flirtation with the party
“I consider all these years of my youth a great, useless lesson inasmuch as I am still not able to say what is right and what is wrong.” Garretto also wrote about 1925, the year of his reprieve, with a decidedly palpable sense of joy and innocence. “Aside from the Academy I started to really live.”
At this time that he was drawing caricatures for more Roman newspapers and satiric journals, but his primary aim was to get a passport and start traveling. The first stop in what would become a peripetetic lifestyle was Paris, where Garretto hoped to find a market for his caricatures (which by his own description were “very different and modern”). After two weeks, however, he had not made any significant contacts and returned to Rome. But in 1927 he was urged by some former art school friends to return to Paris; since they had found work there they assured him that he would too. Their jobs were with Dorland Advertising, the largest agency in the world. Garretto was introduced to their boss, one Mr. Maas, who loved his drawings and suggested that he go to London where there were many color magazines requiring good illustration. Maas was the representative for the “Great Eight,” a group of British publications, including The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, The Bystander, and The Tatler, among others. With a glowing reccomendation letter, Garretto flew to London where he presented some decidedly unconventional caricatures of Chamberlain, Lloyd George, D’Annunzio, and Mussolini.
“They [the editors] asked me to leave the drawings as well as my address in Paris so they could contact me. However, after a few weeks without any word from them I returned to Rome [dejected] and proceeded to focus my energies on getting my architecture degree.”
The impatient Garretto gave up too soon. For one day, shortly after his return, he recalled receiving a phone call from one of his friends in Paris who excitedly said, “Paolo…how did you do it? How did you get into the British press?” The friend explained that in the current issue of The Graphic were printed four color caricatures with a caption annoucing that these were “new ideas of a young French caricaturist.” Garretto was ecstatic (though he definitely did not want to be “branded as French”) and bought all the copies of The Graphic on sale at his local Roman newsstand. He also learned that the “Great Eight” was looking for him all over Paris so that they could award him a contract for regular contributions. Thus began what he called “the beginning of my international artistic adventure.”
Continued tomorrow. . .