Frank Gelett Burgess was an artist, art critic, poet, author and humorist. An important figure in the San Francisco Bay Area literary renaissance of the 1890s, particularly through his iconoclastic little magazine, The Lark, he is best known as a writer of nonsense verse. He was the author of the popular Goops books, and he invented the blurb.
Born in Boston, Burgess was "raised among staid, conservative New England gentry". He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduating with a B.S. in 1887. After graduation, Burgess fled conservative Boston for the livelier bohemia of San Francisco, where he took a job working as a draftsman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1891, he was hired by the University of California at Berkeley as an instructor of topographical drawing.
Cogswell fountain incident
In 1894, Burgess lost his job at Berkeley as a result of his involvement in an attack on one of San Francisco's three Cogswell fountains, free water fountains named after the pro-temperance advocate Henry Cogswell who had donated them to the city in 1883. As the San Francisco Call noted a year before the incident, Cogswell's message, combined with his enormous image, irritated many:
It is supposed to convey a lesson on temperance, as the doctor stands proudly on the pedestal, with his whiskers flung to the rippling breezes. In his right hand he holds a temperance pledge rolled up like a sausage, and the other used to contain a goblet overflowing with heaven's own nectar. But wicked boys shattered the emblem of teetotalism with their pea-shooters and now the doctor's heart is heavy within him."
In response, numerous acts of minor vandalism had been inflicted upon the fountain.
Four iron posts with ornate lamps at the top originally graced the corners of this gurgling example of temperance, but now they lean and lurch and pitch like a drunken quadrille. Beer wagons heavy laden humped into the posts, shattered the stained-glass lamps and destroyed their equilibrium. Some of the lamps are canted over like a tipsy man's hat, and the whole group presents a most convivial aspect."
The toppling incident took place in the early hours of January 1, 1894. As the Call reported,
Some iconoclastic spirits, probably made bold by too freely indulging in the convivialities of New Year's day, found vent for their destructive proclivities in the small hours of the morning yesterday. With the greatest deliberation, apparently, a rope was coiled around the mock presentment of Dr. Cogswell and with a strong pull, and all together, he was toppled from his fountain pedestal at the Junction of California and Market streets.
The newspaper noted that "no one professes to have knowledge of the perpetrators of the outrage," and no arrests had been, or were, made. However, Burgess's involvement was suspected and is generally viewed as the reason for his resignation from the university, reported by the Call on March 10, 1894, with the note that the resignation was "to take effect with the close of the year."
Burgess is now held in high regard at the University of California, Berkeley as a former professor and literary talent. A selection of his original works are housed in the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus.
The Lark and its descendants
Burgess's departure from the University became an opportunity to reconsider his professional aspirations. With a group of like-minded associates, he founded in 1895 a humorous little magazine entitled The Lark.
The Lark began as a lark, but was more successful than its makers intended, eventually reaching a circulation of over 3,000. Before the official publication date, local publisher/bookseller William Doxey, intrigued by the first number, agreed to act as official publisher of the venture. Volume 1, number 1 of the 16-page monthly appeared on May Day: May 1, 1895.
The original "Purple Cow," from 1895
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!
"The Purple Cow" (the full title was "The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who's Quite Remarkable, at Least"), an illustrated four-line poem that appeared in the first number of The Lark, was to remain the ne plus ultra of nonsense verse that Burgess would spend his life unsuccessfully attempting to surpass.
At first, the magazine was edited and written primarily by Burgess, who took great delight in creating pseudonyms for himself. For example, in volume 1, four of the other "authors" are Burgess writing under different names.
Burgess was initially assisted by writer/artist Bruce Porter. The magazine soon attracted an eclectic group of contributors, who became known as "Les jeunes." These included Porter Garnett (who also took on editorial responsibilities as well), Carolyn Wells, Willis Polk, Yone Noguchi, and others. Local artists, including Ernest Peixotto, Florence Lundborg and Maynard Dixon contributed illustrations and cover designs.
By this point, Burgess had become thoroughly sick of "The Purple Cow," and wrote the following "Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue" in The Lark, number 24 (April 1, 1897).
Ah, yes, I wrote the "Purple Cow"—
I'm Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I'll Kill you if you Quote it!
"Purple Cow" has since been used as a brand name.
Number 24 of The Lark (April 1897) was declared to be the last, but a final Epilark was issued in May. Subsequently, Burgess and publisher William Doxey recycled Burgess's contributions in such productions as The Purple Cow (1899) and The Lark Almanack (1899)
Burgess followed The Lark with another Lark spinoff, a peculiar magazine advertised in The Lark's sixth number entitled Le Petit Journal des Refusées. Said to be composed entirely of material rejected by other magazines, Le Petit Journal des Refusées was printed on discarded wallpaper scraps of irregular shape.
Burgess married Estelle Loomis in 1914. A writer in her own right, Estelle Loomis worked on a number of literary projects throughout her marriage with Burgess; the two conferring together on each others' work. A beauty contest winner, according to the Scranton Times in September 1920, "Scranton woman second place in NY World beauty contest, Mrs. Gelett Burgess, Riverside Drive, NY, formerly Miss Estelle Loomis, daughter of the late F. E. Loomis, attorney."
Burgess and Loomis were married until her death in 1946, however the years were wrought with continuous illness, fatigue, and complaints of various symptoms by Loomis.
The Goops and other works
Burgess wrote and illustrated several children's books about the habits of strange, baldheaded, idiosyncratic child-like creatures he called the Goops. He created the syndicated comic strip Goops in 1924 and worked on it to its end in 1925.
Of Queen Anne architecture he wrote:
It should have a conical corner tower; it should be built of at least three incongruous materials or, better, imitations thereof; it should have its window openings absolutely haphazard; it should represent parts of every known and unknown order of architecture; it should be so plastered with ornament as to conceal the theory of its construction. It should be a restless, uncertain, frightful collection of details giving the effect of a nightmare about to explode.
An influential article by Burgess, "The Wild Men of Paris", was the first introduction of cubist art in the United States. The article was drawn from interviews with Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.
His books The Maxims of Methuselah and The Maxims of Noah were illustrated by Louis D. Fancher.
Burgess founded the San Francisco Boys' Club Association, now the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, in 1891. The Club was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi River.
The word "blurb", meaning a short description of a book, film, or other product written for promotional purposes, was coined by Burgess in 1907, in attributing the cover copy of his book, Are You a Bromide?, to a Miss Belinda Blurb. His definition of "blurb" is "a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial".
The Guinness Book of World Records lists his collection of synonyms for the word "drunken".
He also coined the phrase, "Love is only chatter; friends are all that matter."
The Gelett Burgess Center for Creative Expression was formed in Burgess's name in December 2011 to promote "family-friendly books" to parents and educators. Annually, the Gelett Burgess Children's Book Award is given in his honor to the top children's books of the year.