1907- Norman Saunders was born on January 1st, in Minot, North Dakota, and soon moved to a homestead near the town of Bemidji in The Tiger Forest Area of Minnesota, a loose community of trapping shacks in America's farthest "Frozen North". His father, Clare, was born in 1872 and had led an adventurous life. Besides boxing "all comers" in a traveling circus as "The Kansas City Kid," and By 1896 he had been conductor and a union activist for the CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington & Quincey Line) Railroad, and had played a significant role in the famous "Pullman's Strike" by walking off from a trainload of perishable goods six miles from the terminal, for which he was blacklisted from all U.S. railroads. After a stint on a lumber expedition to Venezuela, he worked as a rail road conductor in Mexico and spent some time in a Monterrey jail for murder. In 1898 he served under General "Blackjack" Pershing's command in the U. S. Army 7th Cavalry in the Spanish American War, seeing active duty in Cuba's battle of San Juan Hill, fighting beside Teddy Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" as well as service in the Philippine campaign with Pershing, until being wounded in the leg by a Muslim sniper. He recuperated in a hospital in Japan and was decommissioned and returned to America in 1901 with a lifelong pain in his sciatic nerve and an addiction to opium gum. By 1907, the government had overruled the "Yellow Dog" blacklisting and he was guaranteed a watchman's position with a modest income as a settlement. Norm's mother, Elva Cox, was born in 1886 in Minnesota, and was of German and American Indian (Chippewa) ancestry. The 18 year old Elva, who was almost a perfect replica of the "Gibson Girl", instantly fell in love with the 35 year old, Clare Edgar Saunders, when she first saw him, and told herself,"This is going to be my man!" Elva was an exceptionally good seamstress, self-sufficient homemaker and a hardy frontierswoman.
1913-Birth of Norm's only sibling, brother Duane. The family moves to Roseau, Minnesota, where their father becomes an ordained Presbyterian minister and also becomes the Game Warden for the Lake of the Woods area, with jurisdiction over a wide-ranging Chippewa Indian reservation.
1914- One of Norman's most dramatic formative experiences was an accidental blinding of his right eye by a 5 year old neighbor's child as they "horsed" around the fireplace with a red-hot poker. His eye was severely burned and the flesh of the eyelid fused with the eye itself as a result of medical neglect. The untreated eye developed a severe infection that spread to both eyes. Thanks to his father's employment with the railroad, family members were able to travel for free, by riding in the conductor's caboose. Seven year old Norm was sent, unaccompanied, with both his eyes bandaged and a ticket pinned to his jacket, to the station master's care in Minneapolis, where there were instructions to admit him to a public hospital for treatment. Norm did not know why he was sent alone on such a critical journey, but he suspects his backwoods mother was too superstitious about death and hospitals to go near one. "In her mind, 'hospital' was the name of a place where people go to die, and nothing else!" Norm received treatment for two months convalescence with both of his eyes completely bandaged, in an open ward at a State Hospital, where he slept among the nightly terror of hearing the insane ravings of full-grown men, tied to their cots as they suffered hellish bouts of delirium tremors from their alcohol addictions. The only bright spot was a kind nurse who read Tom Sawyer to Norm during his recuperation, but when the bandages had finally come off, he was determined to learn to read Huckleberry Finn to himself. That book became the single most influential force on Norm's whole outlook on life. He soon acquired a lifelong good-natured humorous skepticism of all humankind that was in complete agreement with "Mark Twain." Upon having his bandages finally removed, he became extra sensitive to the marvel of his restored eyesight, and every detail of life that he observed with treasured gratitude.
1916- Norman had some piano lessons with a village widow, who was the only person in town who owned a variety of calendars with color lithographic reproductions of "Masterpieces of Art." Norm got his earliest idea to become an artist from this experience. Considering his primitive rustic circumstances it seems an outlandish choice.
1919- Norm worked at a general store where he helped the owner to organize an itinerant travelling projectionist's screening of D.W.Grifith's "The Birth of a Nation," which was causing a sensation all across America, where it incited massive race riots in several cities and was causing a true revolution in American Pop Culture. This cinematic event was directly responsible for the revolutionary creation of the "Movie Star", the "Movie Palace", the "Movie Studio", and other significant cultural innovations that affected the world of publishing and illustration.
1920- Norm quarrels with his parents about their strict corporal discipline, so he leaves their homestead to strike out on his own at the age of 13. Travels extensively on freight trains with hoboes, doing random migrant farm labor. Visits St.Louis to see Huck Finn's Mississippi. Hired as a child-novelty act playing boogie-woogie piano on a Mississippi riverboat, traveling between St. Louis and New Orleans. Returns to Roseau, Minnesota during school months but lives in a hunting cabin on his parent's property and immerses himself in a teenage regime of free-thinking non-conformity.
1925- Norm graduates highschool.
1926- Enrolls in a correspondence art course at the Federal Schools in Minneapolis. The "Paint Me!" school of art, as Norman called it. He sold some cartoons to Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, a digest-sized spicy men's joke book, published by the fledgling Fawcett company in Robbinsdale, a suburb of Minneapolis.
1927-Facing an impending shot-gun marriage to a local girl, Norm moves out of town and starts fishing around for some full-time occupation. At the age of Twenty-one, he applied to the Chicago Art Institute and was accepted for professional Fine Art training. School offers him a full scholarship, but Norm still had to pay for his own living expenses, which meant he had to find some other source of on-going income. On the train from Roseau to Chicago, during a several-hour layover to switch trains in Minneapolis, Norman impulsively decided to look up the office building of the Federal Schools where he had completed his correspondence course in art. When he peeked inside to introduce himself, he was shown around by his former art instructor, Walter J. Wilwerding, who had been very impressed by Norm's talent and was delighted to make his acquaintance. Walt took Norm over to a nearby business, Fawcett Publications, where several of the Federal School's past-graduates and current instructors were employed. Norm had previously sold a few cartoons to their digest, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang!, but now he met William "Captain Billy" Fawcett, and his two brothers Roger and Roscoe (who managed the West Coast distribution) and an innovative young editor, Weston "Westy" Farmer. Together, they ran Fawcetts Publications, which produced Modern Mechanics, Battle Stories, Triple-X, Air-Stories, Smokehouse, Screen Stories, and many more. Norman had his portfolio with him, in preparation for the Chicago Art Institute, but when he showed his work to Westy Farmer, an editor at Modern Mechanix, he was fervently enlisted to immediately produce some black and white spots for a deadline production. After some practical consideration, Norm decided to stay a few days in Minneapolis and do some quick jobs to make some additional money to fund his education and then go to Chicago the following week with a bigger bankroll and some more professional art experience under his belt. He soon found himself among a lively group of like-minded young artists and talented older masters of illustration techniques. Within a short time, Norm realized he was so successful and desirable in this milieu that he couldn't think of any good reason to leave. He moved into a room with a Fawcetts' junior manager, Ralph Deigh (pronounced "Day"). Russ King was an illustrator with Modern Mechanix who was a little older than Norman, and he later moved to New York and did a lot of "single-sheet" sketches, which Norman teased him about too-often posing his models with their hands in their pockets, "How many things can your characters do with their hands in their pockets?" Ralph Carlson, was a Fawcetts illustrator who became Norman's close friend. He was a Danish resident of Minnesota, and as such took a lot of Scandinavian ribbing, but he also had serious Communist sympathies, and he left Minneapolis to work in New York, where he was eventually the subject of inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Allen Anderson also got his start at Fawcetts, who Norm nicknamed "Little Joe", and who was deeply influenced by Norman. Little Joe often brought his work to Norman for corrections and advice, with the result that Allen Anderson developed a style of painting that was closely similar to Norman Saunders' work. "Lil' Joe" was excessively accommodating and he revered Norman, whose approval he was anxious to gain. When Norm moved to New York, "Lil' Joe" followed his "big brother" to the city and got an apartment four blocks away on 74th and West End Avenue. He was a frequent presence at Norman's house for dinner. When the pulps folded in the fifties, "Little Joe" moved up to New Paltz, New York to lower his overhead, and there he earned a living as an itinerant sign painter until his own death in 1996.
1934- Norman moved to New York City. Fawcetts had moved its main office and personnel to the East Coast and Norm didn't want to be left behind. He had competed successfully against George Rozen for cover assignments at Fawcetts, so he figured he could make a living competing for cover assignments with other famous top New York pulp cover artists. Norm again roomed with his pal, Ralph Deigh, on 70th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Norman was very alert and aware of his situation, and fit himself in well, to quickly establish a significant reputation. He spent the next ten years, from the age of twenty five until thirty five, producing a sensational body of work for the pulps. Besides his illustration jobs, he was still sending work to Fawcetts' New York Office. His first new jobs were for Delacorte and Street & Smith, where Norman found an admiring art editor. Then he found countless jobs at A.A.Wyn's Ace Publications.
1936-37 Norm enrolled in the Grand Central School of Art, where he studied painting with Harvey Dunn, a protege of N. C. Wyeth, whose techniques and philosophy on illustration art had the most profound impact upon Norm. Living and working on the Upper Westside, between 59th Street and 80th street, was a wonderful chummy neighborhood of many of America's greatest illustrators and writers had studios and deadlines. There were popular bars and theatrical prop shops and professional modeling agencies, where starving models would get so desperate, they'd come around begging for work. "The girls would step in the door and drop off their clothes and ask me if I saw anything I liked! But we still had time to visit each other's studios, kid around, give and take advice and just have some good clean fun!"
Norman was soon so wealthy he had two luxurious automobiles parked in a garage that cost more than most apartments. He had a shave and a haircut and manicure every single day! In the middle of the depression, he claimed to be making $100 a week, when most men were lucky if they made 50-cents-a-day!
Here he met Ralph DeSoto. Another neighbor was Johnny Clymer, an illustrator for the "Slicks" like Saturday Evening Post, and Gerald Cording, a modernist student of Leger who helped paint Diego Rivera's infamously censored murals at Rockefeller Center.
1942-After the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Americans were anxious to go to war, and Norm was too. No one know how long the war would last, but they were all in it "for the duration!" In preparation for his departure, Norm painted covers night and day for several months, and then sold them all to his various steady publishers so they could have a stockpile of his work for future publications, without leaving them in the lurch, while he went off to join the Army. If the war had ended sooner that stockpile of works would have sustained his career until his return.
At the age of 35, he was made a sergeant in the MPs (Military Police) and sent to guard Nazi prisoners who were being shipped across the Atlantic to camps in "locations unknown" (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana). "Sgt. Saunders" made some interesting watercolors of these scenes and sold them with accompanying articles he wrote to various "Slick" magazines like CLICK and Today's Woman.
1943-1945- Norm bribes an officer with a "case of whiskey" to transfer him to the Army Corps of Engineers, where he is assigned to supervise the construction of a gasoline pipeline that follows the Burma Road from Rangoon Indian to the Yellow River in Kwanglow China, for re-supplying the Chinese Nationalist Army of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek in his campaign against the Japanese occupation of China. After a childhood of hearing his own father's stories of military service in the orient during the Spanish American War, Norm dove into the exploration and artistic documentation of the vast majesty of the Far Eastern culture. This experience was always recalled by Norm as the happiest years in his life.
1946- Norm's father becomes seriously ill and the Army allows Norm to return from China to be with his father. Clare Edgar Saunders dies. This tragic experience compels Norm and his brother Duane to spend almost the entire year driving across America, gallavanting around and spending most of their "war pot."
1947- Norm settles on New York's West 71st street and tries to reestablish a freelance illustration studio as he faces a completely changed publishing industry. Norman marries his beautiful young Greek model, Ellene Politis, and their first child, Blaine, is born.
1948- Second child, Jimmy, is born.
1949- Norm does many comic book covers for Fawcett Comics which lead to other covers for Ziff-Davis comicbooks over the next three years.
1952- Norman buys a brownstone building, 312 West 104th Street, from its architect's ancient widow for $25,000, with $5,000, down. Joseph Christian Leyendecker dies, and at the estate sale in New Rochelle NY, many illustrators go to pay their last respects and to bid on a piece of history of the Grandest Old American Illustrator. Norm does many paperback book cover illustrations.
1953- Daughter Zina is born. Norm's style of work for gruesome comic books is effectively ended when Comic Book Code of Decency Law is enacted and most comics are printed with a the seal "Approved."
1954- Last of four kids, David is born.
1956- Eventually the sensational popularity of Pulp Magazines had lost its appeal to the American public, and the publishers adapted to specialized markets or went out of business. Harry Steeger, publisher at Popular publications, the managing editors were informed that, due to a resolved taxation problem, they would have to pay a tax on the properties and stock they owned, so rather than pay the taxes, they told their illustrators to consider their artworks as being sold only for one-time reproduction rights and the artists soon spread the word around that they should go back and pick up all their past jobs, so there was a large dispersal of past jobs in which they just went into an empty office and looked through thousands of old illustrations, looking for their past jobs and anyone else's work they happened to admire, and carting it all off for free!
Eventually one survivor of the publishing evolution was Norm's old roommate and buddy from Fawcett's, Ralph Deigh, who focused on a line of Men's Adventure magazines, where Norman found thousands of illustration jobs over the next twenty years. He made vast numbers of Black and White "spots" and two-page "spreads" to illustrate specific stories, as well as many color covers. This line of publishing began as daring he-man adventure magazines about war exploits, mountain climbing, hunting and fish tales, but by 1960, publisher, Martin Goodman had evolved the genre into shockingly lurid magazines about various bad guys and buxom girls in shredded underwear, versus goodguy heroes, but their common thread was that lots of women were forced into sadistic situations that were way beyond the Perils of Pauline. These publications were sold in the Men's Magazine sections at all newsstands and Drugstores in the country. As with other Playboy-type risque material, there was a strict censorship on nipples, bottoms and crotches, so the composition of the illustrations constantly strained against those limits.
1958- Worked at Topps Bubble Gum Company to re-paint the team jerseys and numbers on all of the last-minute trades in their season's baseball team line-ups. In doctoring the photos and painting in more colorful and graphically pleasing backgrounds, Norman made himself generally useful to the art editors, until the development editor, Woody Gelman, who was an avid fan and collector of pulp magazines, thought of producing some "Non-Sports" trading cards to make better use of Norm's skills.
1961- The Civil War Cards
1962- Mars Attacks
1963- Flag Midgees
1964- Flags of the World
1966- Batman Cards
1967- Travels with Ellene to England. Makes travel paintings in water color sketch book.
1968- Wacky Packs, Travels with Ellene to Italy. Makes travel paintings in water color sketch book.
1969- Travels with Ellene to Africa. Makes travel paintings in water color sketch book.
1970- Travels with Ellene to Greece. Makes travel paintings in water color sketch book.
1972- Legally appoints his son, David, as executor of his art estate, to begin compiling and coordinating an archive and checklist of all the artist's published works.
1973-Wacky Packages series begin major production that lasts for the next five years.
1976-16th Series of Wacky Packs. Various additional freelance jobs dwindle as market for Wackies slows down.
1981- Last freelance book cover commissioned for "Hardboiled America" by Geoffrey O'Brien.
1985- Travels with wife Ellene to Grand Canyon.
1984- Last published art commission is a humorous self-portrait, sitting at an easel painted by a Martian, who sports a cliche artiste's moustache and goatee, for publication in a fanzine called Baseball Cards Magazine.
1987- Sells Brownstone for $1,000,000, to leave New York and retire in peace. Moves with wife Ellene to her small home town in rural Nebraska.
1989- Dies of emphysema, March 9th.