Everybody in my generation knows who Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) is and how he gained his celebrity status – through his movies. He appeared in 75 feature motion pictures. His many roles included his portrayals of hard-boiled detective Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), tough but noble nightclub owner Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” (1942), and crusty but lovable steamboat captain Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen” (1951), for which he won an Oscar.
Less well-known is that Humphrey Bogart attained celebrity status shortly after he was born, appearing as a pitchman in a national campaign to sell Mellin’s baby food. A drawing of Humphrey by his mother, successful commercial artist Maud Humphrey (1865-1940), was used in the advertisements. In sentimental Victorian tradition, Maud Humphrey portrayed her son as a little round-faced cherub with rosy cheeks, ringlet curls, and large eyes. She shamelessly dressed him in long white dresses or like Little Lord Fauntleroy in side-buttoned overalls with rolled-up cuffs and a billowing white starched shirt. He became known as the “original Maud Humphrey baby.” His friends and some professional models sat for her portraits, too. Her signature style was the chubby-cheeked, happy child.
From the 1890’s through the 1920’s, Maud Humphrey flourished as a child portrait painter, illustrating calendars, greeting cards, postcards, fashion magazines, and more than 20 story books. She was a child prodigy, having begun illustrating in children’s magazines at the age of sixteen. She studied art in Paris and also with the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Her technique was a dry watercolor similar to etching. By the turn-of-the-century, Maud Humphrey, who continued to use her maiden name after she was married to Dr. Belmont Bogart, was one of the most recognized, well-paid and popular illustrators in America. The illustrations of her stylized, beautiful, and perfect children promoted many national products including Ivory Soap, Crosman Bro’s Flower Seeds, Sunshine Stoves, Ranges, and Furnaces, Butterick Patterns, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and Anheuser-Busch.
Throughout his childhood, Humphrey was a model for his mother’s designs.” There was a period in American history,” he recalled years later, ” when you couldn’t pick up a … magazine without seeing my kisser in it.”
Maud Humphrey earned over $50,000 a year at a time when males dominated the workforce and women didn’t get the vote until 1919. Her husband’s surgical practice brought in an additional $20,000 annually for the family plus he inherited money. As a result, Humphrey grew up rich in Manhattan’s posh Upper West Side, attending private school, and summering in an elegant Victorian two-story cottage on 55 acres of land in western New York on Lake Canandaigua with a champion-class yacht moored at their private pier. Humphrey and his two little sisters were attended by nurses and nannies and servants in starched uniforms.
But summers at the lake were anything but idyllic for Humphrey and his sisters. “Lady Maud” as her friends called her was driven to create an estimated ten colored drawings per week. She limited herself to five hours of sleep a night. The pressing deadlines and demands of her craft exacted a heavy toll on her health and the quality of her family life. She suffered from excrutiatingly painful migraine headaches and left the care of the children to the servants, cruel ones, said the neighbors, of a low type given to a lot of yelling and frequent hitting.
The parents didn’t seem to notice. The marriage was also troubled. Both of Humphrey’s parents drank too much and argued bitterly. “We kids would pull the covers over our ears to keep out the sound of fighting,” said Humphrey. It was commonly known that Dr. Bogart was addicted to morphine, giving himself injections and perhaps also to his headache-plagued wife, who also took pills he gave her.
Maud Humphrey’s drawings of the sweet simplicity of a child frolicking in a perfect and happy world were far removed from the life she created for her own brood – and herself. “I doubt that she read very much. I know that she never played any games,” said Humphrey. “She went to no parties, gave none. And I can’t remember that she even had any friends.” He called her “Maud,” never “Mother.” “She was essentially a woman who loved work…to the exclusion of everything else…[S]he was incapable of showing affection to us.” Humphrey’s was a childhood devoid of hugs and kisses.
Burdened by his effeminate portraits on baby food ads, Humphrey was mocked by childhood schoolmates and called a sissy. Attempting to be more manly, he got into a lot of fights and once shot out the red lanterns at building sites with his new air rifle. His first movie roles were gangster ones, morphing over time from Little Lord Fauntleroy into the cigarette-puffing, tough-talking good guy we still love today.