Book mocks ‘brain­less rich’ for co-opt­ing na­ture

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY FRA­ZIER MOORE

HNEW YORK ear David Let­ter­man, who knows some­thing about com­edy, pay trib­ute to the comic artistry of Bruce McCall. “The stan­dard by which com­edy should be judged,” says Mr. Let­ter­man. Re­lax­ing at his mid-Man­hat­tan of­fices af­ter a “Late Show” tap­ing last week, he con­tin­ues cel­e­brat­ing the man he has just played host to (not for the first time) as one of that night’s guests.

He calls Mr. McCall’s writ­ing and il­lus­tra­tions “a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of the ridicu­lous and hy­per­bolic, but still with a glim­mer of plau­si­bil­ity.”

Then, when told that Mr. McCall says the two of them share “ex­actly the same sen­si­bil­i­ties in hu­mor,” Mr. Let­ter­man re­sponds with a wary smile: “Any­body can carve meat. Some can carve it with a sharp knife, some can carve it with a dull knife. Mine,” he pauses for max­i­mum ef­fect, “needs sharp­en­ing.”

No won­der the talk show host teamed up with Mr. McCall for their new book, “This Land Was Made for You and Me (But Mostly Me)” with the sassy sub­ti­tle “Bil­lion­aires in the Wild” (Blue Rider Press).

Their book treats read­ers to the McCal­lian charm that Mr. Let­ter­man has adored since the 1970s, when he stum­bled onto Mr. McCall’s work in Na­tional Lam­poon and Esquire

mag­a­zines, then be­came a fan of Mr. McCall’s text-and-illustration clas­sics in­clud­ing “Zany Af­ter­noons” and “All Meat Looks Like South Amer­ica,” as well as his 50-and-count­ing cov­ers for The New Yorker (the most re­cent last month).

Mr. McCall, now 78, de­picts a won­der­land of gra­cious liv­ing writ ex­trav­a­gantly large. His is a Gatsby-like world of urbane but un­con­scionable ex­cess that feels fan­ci­fully au­then­tic, that in­deed might have ex­isted in by­gone times, or might to­day, or might tomorrow — that is, if ex­pense, taste and even min­i­mal re­spect for Mother Na­ture were no ob­ject.

The new book stemmed from Mr. Let­ter­man’s off-hours whiled away at his Mon­tana ranch, where, around him, he saw for­tunes and hau­teur fuel ou­tra­geous back-to-na­ture life­styles.

“I kept think­ing, I would just like to see one Bruce McCall ren­der­ing of a mil­lion-acre ranch,” Mr. Let­ter­man re­calls.

“This Land” goes even fur­ther. Broad­en­ing its scope be­yond just Mon­tana’s “bil­lion­aires in the wild,” it goes global with dozens of imag­ined case his­to­ries, like the 23-year-old casino ti­tan who buys an is­land in the Fi­jis, where he in­stalls a nu­clear power plant to fur­nish hot wa­ter to his Olympic-size Jacuzzi, and a “Ban­ga­lorean pack­aged-sut­tee mogul” who re­moves the craggy peak of Mount Ever­est and trans­ports it to the roof of his ritzy Man­hat­tan apart­ment house, with his valet posted at the sum­mit to serve mar­ti­nis to parched moun­tain-climb­ing guests.

Closer to home: the fire-insurance baron’s mile­long fire­place in his Wyoming manse. Or the Mon­tana hunt­ing lodge whose vast liv­ing room serves, for added con­ve­nience, as an in­door land­ing strip for his pri­vate plane.

Granted, Mr. Let­ter­man, who at 66 is a well­heeled TV star, might be ac­cused of guilt-byas­so­ci­a­tion with Mr. McCall’s “brain­less rich” as he mocks high rollers who turn un­spoiled na­ture into a pri­vate Dis­ney­land.

But when he dis­cov­ered Mon­tana more than 15 years ago and found it “stun­ning,” he re­solved to dodge the south­west­ern part of the state “where you have all your fa­mous peo­ple. I said, ‘I’m not gonna move out there if it’s gonna turn into the Hamp­tons.’”

In­stead, he staked his claim (he de­clines to spec­ify the acreage) in the state’s north­ern realm some 100 miles from the Cana­dian bor­der, shun­ning ameni­ties such as a swim­ming pool, hot tub, ten­nis court or in­door ri­fle range, he says.

“We have some buf­falo, some horses, a lot of barbed wire and a lot of weeds. And wind!”

Mr. Let­ter­man sounds his hearty, ca­denced chuckle at the thought that his time in Mon­tana has been spent un­der­cover, col­lect­ing in­tel on those lav­ish in­ter­lop­ers.

“I couldn’t have called them on it if I wasn’t there to be­gin with,” he rea­sons with a laugh. “You got to be there to see it!”

Hav­ing been seen, the path to a book that would skewer it was blazed by Mr. McCall’s daugh­ter, Amanda, a writer who hap­pened to work at “Late Show.”

“I would yack to her about what I was see­ing in Mon­tana,” Mr. Let­ter­man says. “I don’t know if she knew I was cam­paign­ing for her dad to do this project, but she knew I loved his work.” She took the hint and be­came the vi­tal go-be­tween. As her fa­ther re­ports with cus­tom­ary blunt­ness, “One day she said to me, ‘Dave has a ranch in Mon­tana, and he’s sick of see­ing all th­ese nou­veau riche ego­ma­ni­acs build huge man­sions and reroute rivers and cut down forests and oth­er­wise blight the land­scape, and he wanted to make fun of it. He thinks you’d be the right guy to visu­al­ize it.’”

Mr. McCall, a fire­plug of a chap with a wispy beard and a dead­pan man­ner, is hold­ing forth in the com­fort­able Up­per West Side apart­ment he shares with his wife, Polly, a psy­chother­a­pist, where his cre­ations is­sue from a stu­dio he wryly de­scribes as “an ex­tra bed­room — hardly an ate­lier.”

Mr. Let­ter­man, he makes clear, “ad­mires my work way too much. I never went to art school, never had a les­son. I don’t know any­thing about art.”

To­day a self-de­scribed Cana­dian ex­pat, Mr. McCall grew up in south­ern On­tario as one of six sib­lings with “a hor­ri­bly un­happy home life. My mother was an al­co­holic, my fa­ther was a tyrant. We were poor. We had no space, we had no joy. I es­caped by draw­ing pic­tures and writ­ing stupid stuff to en­ter­tain my­self.”

His all-im­por­tant lodestar: a cache of back is­sues of The New Yorker, to which his par­ents sub­scribed.

“I found them one day when I was 11 years old in the closet, lov­ingly bound,” he re­calls. “So so­phis­ti­cated, funny and sharp! It made me as­pire to live in that world.”

A ca­reer in com­mer­cial art and ad­ver­tis­ing (which he hated) even­tu­ally brought him to New York (which he loved), where he be­gan free­lanc­ing on the side. Twenty years ago he took the plunge to full-time il­lus­trat­ing and writ­ing, land­ing many as­sign­ments, in­clud­ing a plum con­tract from — where else? — the New Yorker.

“But I work alone,” he notes. “I don’t col­lab­o­rate with any­body. So orig­i­nally I thought, ‘How’s this book gonna work?’”

Re­ally well. “It was a field day for me to come up with ideas that were visu­ally strik­ing that I could tie to an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter of one kind or another.”

Even so, the back-and-forth col­lab­o­ra­tion took sev­eral years.

Mr. McCall would dis­patch his daugh­ter with a new round of ma­te­rial, “and then,” says Mr. Let­ter­man, “we would make changes and sug­ges­tions and add or take out a line, and send it back to him. It started sim­ply with a few sketches, and pretty soon there was a gi­ant port­fo­lio. And now here we go: The thing is pub­lished!”


Writer and il­lus­tra­tor Bruce McCall in New York teamed up with TV host David Let­ter­man (inset) for their new book “This Land Was Made for You and Me (But Mostly Me).” The book mocks high rollers who turn un­spoiled na­ture into a pri­vate Dis­ney­land. Mr. McCall has il­lus­trated more than 50 cov­ers of The New Yorker.

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