The Mona Gorilla. In January, 1971, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard visited me
in my Chinatown loft. We opened a few beers, sat on an old velvet
covered couch, and talked about possible projects we could do together.
I’d been a steady contributor to the Lampoon during its first
year and the three of us had become friends. It is rare in anyone’s
life that he finds himself in the company of two geniuses at the
same time, but there I was. Doug said they were
working on an issue that would feature the Undiscovered Notebooks
of Leonardo Da Vinci, which he was writing in made-up Italian. He
wondered if I could come up with something “Leonardo-ish”
for the cover.I don’t know where
it came from - I was pouring a beer and reaching for some pretzels
– but I answered, “How about the Mona Lisa as a gorilla?”
Still talking to myself, I said, “nah, too sophomoric.”
When I looked up, Henry was laughing and choking on his pipe; little
bursts of ragged smoke surrounded his head. Doug stood up and raised
both hands in the air. He plopped down on the arm of my old couch
and the entire arm collapsed to the left, shredding wood, ripping
velvet, and landing in a pile on the floor with Doug on top. He
was laughing so hard tears were running down his cheeks. Up to that point, I’d
never had that kind of reaction to anything I’d ever said
in my life. Try as I might, I couldn’t talk them out of it.
So, resigned to my fate – doing yet another sophomoric piece
of art - we walked the five floors to the street and around the
corner to Hong Wah at 8 Bowery (alas, long gone). At dinner, we
continued the mood from upstairs. I think we laughed until we all
choked, or maybe that was the food.After dinner Doug and
Henry caught a cab uptown. I gave Doug ten dollars to pay for it.
It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When I look back on those days, I think it was a privilege to have
been there with them, and I would gladly pay that ten bucks anytime
to have dinner with them again.
My worries about being pegged forever as that sophomoric artist never materialized; at least they never materialized over this painting. The cover was a huge success. Posters and T-shirts were made that kept selling for many years. The Mona Gorilla became the National Lampoon’s mascot and appeared in many forms, exhibitions, and publications. I am very pleased that one critic called it “maybe the best Mona Lisa parody ever, and another said it was "one of the enduring icons of American humor." How could I argue with that?