The only person in my family even remotely “famous” in the last century or so (apart from a great aunt who dated Jerry Van Dyke — true story) is someone you’ve STILL probably never heard of, so allow me the liberty of filling you in.
I am distantly related (I think he’s my great-great-uncle) to children’s illustrator Harrison Cady, best known for his association with Thorton W. Burgess’s “Peter Rabbit” stories. This is, of course not the same Peter Rabbit as Beatrix Potter’s more famous creation, which adds a layer of indignity to the obscurity. My maternal grandmother, my favorite and most influential grandparent, was the Cady connection.
In high school, I got to play Reddy Fox, one of my own relative’s co-creations, in a school play based on Burgess’s books. I didn’t tell any of the other kids about the connection because I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me. (There are times when a reputation for habitual, extravagant embellishment of the truth in pursuit of attention has its drawbacks). But to this day, Reddy Fox — and I mean this — was one of my greatest theatrical creations. But if you weren’t five years old and in southern Rhode Island in 1982, chances are good you probably haven’t seen it.
At NYU film school I was thrilled when my favorite professor John Canemaker named Cady as one of the seminal influences on the young Walt Disney. Something about dressing small forest animals in human clothing, I believe…
Here’s the thumbnail bio:
Cady was born in 1877 (date unknown) in Gardner, Massachusetts where his father ran a local general store. At a young age he entered an apprenticeship with a local painter, and was still a teenager when he published his first illustration. He moved to New York City at age 18 and within a year found work as an illustrator with the Brooklyn Eagle, where he remained for four years, while also freelancing to other publications. From there he joined Life as a staff artist and cartoonist for a number of years.
He association with Burgess spanned five decades, beginning with Baby Possum Has a Scare (c. 1912), The Adventures of Reddy Fox (1913) and Buster Bear Invites Old Mr. Toad to Dine (c. 1914), The series continued into the 1950s with At Paddy the Beaver’s Pond (1950), followed by the reprint The Animal World of Thornton Burgess (1962).
During his 70+ year career he was to illustrate for such publications as Boys’ Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Country Gentleman. He passed away in 1970. A lot of material on Cady is on deposit in the collections of the Smithsonian.
At any rate, the knowledge that I was related to this once-famous man, that I actually possessed books full of his illustrations was one of the things that inspired me when I was a kid. And so I write a tribute to him today! He deserves to be much better known! Walt Disney would agree.