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.
I did the painting soon after that and was surprised that it turned out so amazingly beautiful. I’d always drawn funny, not beautiful. I believe some of the credit may have to go to Leonardo, who painted such a nice painting in the first place, but I don’t think he needs any more credit than he already has so I’ll keep what I get.
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?