Jules Feiffer draws curtain on theater, writes for kids

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When some people fail, they seek out the comforts of their childhood. When his 1990 play, "Elliot Loves," bombed off Broadway, Jules Feiffer wrote his first children's book.

"I told [director] Mike Nichols I would never write for the theater again," the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist lamented over the phone. "It was my best play and the critics hated it," he said about the comedy, which starred David Hyde Pierce, Christine Baranski and Oliver Platt.

"So I had to find a full-time job," he added sardonically. "The strip just takes a day and a half."

The author of 14 cartoon collections as well as plays, novels and screenplays, Feiffer has just produced his second children's book, "A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears." He discussed his book recently at The Book Passage in Corte Madera, as well as at several other Bay Area bookstores.

The hero, Prince Roger, son of King Whatchamacallit, has such a cheerful disposition he always makes everybody feel good, even laughing-out-loud good — not quite the posture of solemn respect his father expects from a future king. As a result, the king gets J. Wellington Wizard to send Roger on a quest to become "a more levelheaded fellow."

The 180-page book, which includes dozens of Feiffer's illustrations, has earned praise from Publisher's Weekly, which called it a "sophisticatedly silly fairy tale," and from author Daniel Pinkwater, who called the work "ebullient" in a New York Times book review.

Feiffer, who is relaxed, warm, open and thoughtful in conversation, was born to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx in 1929. As was common during the Depression, his father was mostly out of work. His mother borrowed money and worked as a fashion designer, and she encouraged her talented son to draw.

Feiffer's first children's book, "The Man in the Ceiling," was based on his childhood. "I was unathletic," he recalled, "and in America, if you can't play ball and you're a boy, you're in trouble: you're a sissy, an outsider. But I could draw, and I drew all the time. The tough kids couldn't draw so they liked me."

Instead of going to college, Feiffer took art classes at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. "Formal education was never meant for me," he said cheerfully. "Years ago I read the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, and he said once he was out of college, his education began. With me, that unlearning began at an earlier age." Feiffer educated himself with 25-cent paperbacks by the likes of Freud and Spinoza.

Feiffer doesn't often refer directly to Jews and Judaism in his sef-titled comic strip, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and appears locally in the Chronicle's "Sunday" section. "I seem to belong to that fast-vanishing breed of secular Jews who didn't make a big thing of their Jewishness, any more than they made a big thing of their neighborhoods," he noted. But he acknowledged that "the angst, attitude, and atmosphere" of his weekly strip derives from a Jewish sensibility.

And many of the characters in his plays, such as the Obie-winning "Little Murders," and screenplays, such as "Carnal Knowledge," are Jewish. In the latter, the non-Jewish Jack Nicholson was cast as the Jewish character Jonathan, which necessitated a little Yiddish coaching. "I had to teach Jack to say `shmuck ,'" Feiffer recalled. "He kept saying `smuck.'"

Discussing the film's unflinching portrayal of the post-World War II sexual battlefield, Feiffer admits the misogynistic Jonathan and his naive friend Sandy, played by Art Garfunkel, contain parts of himself and "other people I've deplored.

"In the time of sexual liberation, heterosexual men didn't like women," Feiffer maintained. "They liked their bodies, but after the sex was through they didn't want to have a conversation with them." That's not true for their sons, he allowed. "Current generations of young men have overcome that kind of sexism."

Feiffer lives most of the year on Manhattan's Upper West Side and spends summers on Martha's Vineyard. He has three daughters: Kate, 32; Halley, 11; and Julie, 10 months. The latter two are with his second wife, writer Jenny Allen, whom he married in 1983.

One of his plays, a series of sketches based on some of his cartoon characters, is called "Feiffer's Children." One of his most famous "children" is a woman in a black leotard and tights, who narrates as she performs an ever-hopeful dance, often in celebration of spring. Although Feiffer wouldn't identify the name of the real-life inspiration for the character, he said she was the first woman who would go to bed with him.

"She was 20 and I was 23. We had a relationship for a while, and she would drag me to dance recitals," he recalled. "In those years, there were often preludes to the recital, where the dancer would get up and tell you what she was doing. She's gone now, but she liked being immortalized in the strip," he said. "Years after we broke up she would still visit me."