In his memoir, An Artist at War, Stars & Stripes artist Ed Vebell recounts a number of fascinating moments in the life of an artist capturing the spirit of war; sometimes bolstering the spirit of soldiers by not capturing the spirit of war; and the often over-looked social and political landscape left in the wake of war.
As a young man with a talent for drawing and sketching, Vebell played an instrumental role in Stars & Stripes magazine’s work of entertaining and keeping soldier’s informed during war-time. Vebell managed to travel, thanks to Uncle Sam, and he starts his memoir with recollections of his time in North Africa. Sketches he includes here include a French soldier haggling for a better price with a prostitute on the Rue Balochine; a quick sketch of “an attractive looking prostitute”; a very young Arab girl dancing in the Casbah (and who, we learn, returned later wearing only pasties and a g-string). There’s also a wonderful drawing of the crew of a B-24 bomber “Lucky Lady” bailing out of the rear hatch.
It is in Algiers that Vebell met Josephine Baker and the two got along well. (A photo of the two of them is included here.) She had given him her phone number and address in France but he lost the scrap of paper.
From Africa to Italy…. In Italy Vebell brings forth the story of typhus epidemic and his use of a local prostitute as a model.
Then on to France. Perhaps one of the more moving sketches and commentary is here, with a very quick sketch, done in the moment, as a French office has a gun to the head of a tied-to-a-post young man. In his commentary, Vebell writes, “…the surrounding crowd of townspeople, mostly women, burst through the restraining cordon of police and proceeded to curse and kick the dying men. Crudely made, sawdust-filled pine coffins were immediately brought in, wherein the still dying men’s bodies were dumped.” We don’t often see these cruelties of war, and this crude sketch is more than enough.
Perhaps one of the other sketches that is powerful in its simplicity is a scene of a worn-out-looking GI sitting on the ground with the Devil sitting next to him.
Being in France, Vebell managed to acquaint himself with the Folies Bergère and he includes here a sketch or two of the beautiful, naked women of the follies. He also includes nudes (drawings and photos) of a few of his lovers during this time.
Vebell’s last ‘good’ assignment with Stars and Stripes was to cover the War Trials at Nuremberg. He gives us a number of good sketches and recollections here.
Vebell gives us a LOT of information. The organization of the material, as well as the mix of personal anecdotes about the various women and the war stories, reminds me a great deal of sitting down with a parent or grand-parent and listening to old ‘war’ stories where the ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ tidbits are more interesting than the details of war.
One of the problems I have with any memoir, and it holds true here, is that the author often presents him or herself in the most flattering light and typically a little bit bigger than life.
I will admit that I was hoping for more artwork/sketches from the war period here, and now that I’ve seen what’s included, I really would like to see more.
As the son of a WWII veteran I quite appreciated this peek and personal account of the war, even if it did include a few more dalliances with dames than I was expecting.
Looking for a good book? An Artist at War is a memoir by sketch artist Ed Vebell, who did much work for Stars and Stripes. It is a nice blend of fun memories and the horrors of war.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher,through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
* * * * * *
An Artist at War: The WWII Memories of Stars & Stripes Artist Ed Vebell
author/artist: Ed Vebell
publisher: Schiffer Publishing
hardcover, 144 pages