Wednesday, April 18, 2012

William F. Heitman (1878-1945)

Artist, Illustrator, Cartoonist
Born January 31, 1878, Germany
Died January 10, 1945, Miami, Florida

Much of the very early history of Weird Tales magazine is shrouded in mystery. Launched in 1923 by Jacob Clark Henneberger, Weird Tales was based in Indianapolis and drew heavily upon writers and artists from the Midwest for its content. Wherever you read an index of the authors, artists, and stories that appeared in "The Unique Magazine," you're sure to see the name "Heitman" as artist--sometimes the sole artist on a given issue. So who was this mysterious Heitman? The answer, which may very well be revealed here for the first time in print (even if it is digital), is William F. Heitman, a rapid-fire newspaper illustrator of the early twentieth century.

William Fred Heitman was born on January 31, 1878, in Germany and came to the United States as a young child with his parents. As a boy, Heitman lived in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. He went to work for the Van Camp Company as a sign painter and decided then to become an artist. Heitman studied at the Indiana School of Art, worked for the Indiana Illustrating Company, and finally landed a job as an illustrator with the Indianapolis News in about 1897. Heitman spent the rest of his career doing layouts, illustrating feature stories, and drawing cartoons and caricatures for newspapers in Indianapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Other artists with whom he worked included Sidney Smith (later of The Gumps), Johnny Gruelle (Raggedy Ann), and his close friend, Chic Jackson, creator of Roger Bean.

When the year 1923 rolled around, William Heitman was drawing for the Indianapolis Star. Known as one of the fastest penmen in the Midwest, he seems to have been johnny-on-the-spot for J.C. Henneberger, publisher of Weird Tales. The first two issues of the magazine--March and April 1923--lacked interior illustrations. But until Andrew Brosnatch came along in November 1924 (the first issue with Farnsworth Wright as editor), Heitman was the only credited artist on the inside of Weird Tales. He also created two covers for the magazine, the May and June issues of 1923. Weird Tales expert Robert Weinberg was not kind to Heitman. In his Weird Tales Story (1977), Mr. Weinberg wrote:
The first issue [of Weird Tales] featured no illustrations at all. Artwork used in the next year was poor. All were small pictures with little attempt at the weird or unusual. Artwork was mainly done by Heitman, an artist notable mainly for his complete lack of imagination. Heitman's specialty was taking the one scene in a frightening story that featured nothing at all frightening or weird and illustrating that. It was Heitman who illustrated nearly all of H.P. Lovecraft's early stories in Weird Tales (1) and he succeeded in capturing none of Lovecraft's mood of brooding, building horror.
I haven't seen any of William Heitman's illustrations for the interior of Weird Tales. I can judge him only by his covers. His first (May 1923), showing a witch or sorceress and her cauldron, is a passable drawing, although the male figure seems a little stiff. I hate to say that his second (June 1923), showing an ape attacking a young woman, is practically inept. The female figure is particularly bad. So why did an otherwise competent artist produce such work for Weird Tales? It could be that J.C. Henneberger or his editor was not particularly interested in illustration. I think it's more likely that they worked with an artist who was: a) close at hand, b) fast, c) cheap, and d) perhaps the only man available to them. I think it's safe to say Heitman was close at hand and fast. I don't have any idea whether he was cheap or not. As for being the only man available: publisher and editor may not have looked very hard. I guess we should remember that Heitman was working full time for the Indianapolis Star at the same time he was drawing pictures for Weird Tales. We might also consider that if it weren't for Heitman, there may not have been any illustrations in Weird Tales during its first year and a half in print.

In any case, Heitman was replaced when Farnsworth Wright became editor. Andrew Brosnatch became the workhorse and carried the magazine through until June 1926. Heitman's last credits were for the June issue, 1925. Heitman continued to work for the Indianapolis Star until retiring in 1943. He died in Miami, Florida, the home city of his daughter, on January 10, 1945. His body was returned to Indianapolis for burial.

(1) According to Jaffery and Cook's Collector's Index to Weird Tales, the only illustration for a Lovecraft story for which Heitman received credit was "The White Ape" (Apr. 1924).

William F. Heitman's Covers and Interior Illustrations for Weird Tales
May 1923
June 1923

Interior Illustrations
May 1923
"The Floor Above" by M.L. Humphreys
June 1923
"Desert Madness" by Harold Freeman Miners
"Jack O'Mystery" by Edwin McLaren
"The Blade of Vengeance" by George Warburton Lewis
July-Aug. 1923
"Senorita Serpente" by Earl Wayland Bowman
"The Room in the Tower" by D.L. Radway
Sept. 1923
"The People of the Comet" by Austin Hall
"The Cup of Blood" by Otis Adelbert Kline
Nov. 1923
"The Closed Room" by Maybelle McCalment
"The Spider" by Arthur Edwards Chapman
Jan. 1924
"The Hand of Fatma" by Harry Anable Kniffin
Mar. 1924
"The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt" by Harry Houdini
"Yellow and White" by George Fuller
Apr. 1924
"The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" by Harry Houdini
"The White Ape" by H.P. Lovecraft
"The Devil Bird" by Hal Halbert
"The Ghost-Eater" by C.M. Eddy, Jr.
May-June-July 1924
"The Hand" by H. Francis Caskey
"The Purple Death" by Edith Lytle Ragsdale
"An Egyptian Lotus" by Mrs. Chetwood Smith
Feb. 1925
"The Tomb-Dweller" by Alice I. Fuller
"Into the Fourth" by Adam Hull Shirk
May 1925
"Seignior Vanna's Jest" by Stanley S. Schnetzler
"The Sobbing Bell" by James C. Bardin
"Imprisoned for Thirty Centuries" by Romeo Poole
"The Lip" by Arthur Styron
June 1925
"Black Hill" by Frank Owen
"The Soul That Waited" by Louis B. Capron

Weird Tales, May 1923, the third issue of the magazine, with cover art by William F. Heitman. 
And the cover for the fourth issue, June 1923, a step down for the artist. I'll have to study the covers of Weird Tales, but this would have to be a candidate for the worst cover of the magazine. It's not that it's poorly conceived or poorly designed, but the handling of the figures, especially the woman, seems to be the result of an artist in a hurry or just plain bad draftsmanship.
Proof that William Heitman could draw: an illustration for a poem by the Indiana poet Tramp Starr (Carl Wilson) from the Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1940. 
And a drawing from the same paper illustrating a feature on the Mechanic Arts School in Evansville, Indiana, May 5, 1940. Experienced in journalistic illustration, Heitman may simply have been ill suited to fantasy art. We should remember that a lot of early fantasy art was not very well done. After all, this was a new world of illustration.

Thanks to a reader for corrections and further information.
Text and captions copyright 2012 by Terence E. Hanley

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