Roderick "Rod" Duff was born February 17, 1911 in New York City. His father, Richard Duff, was born 1876 in Sweden and immigrated to America in 1884. His mother, Hazel Thurber, was born 1882 in Chicago, Illinois. His parents married in New York City on April 18, 1904 and lived at 767 West 178th Street, which is in the Washington Heights area of northernmost Manhattan. His father was a bank clerk at the John Munroe Company, a grain export house at 30 Pearl Street, which is in southernmost Lower Manhattan, so his father had a rather long commute to work on the subway every work day.
In 1914 the family moved to 31 Reid Avenue in Port Washington, an area of North Hempstead in Nassau County on Long Island, NY.
On October 4, 1915 his younger brother, Thurber Duff, was born. His maternal grandmother, Sarah Hazel Thurber, born 1830 in Illinois, came to live with the family. They were prosperous enough to afford a house servant and nursemaid for the infants.
In 1923 his grandmother died and the family moved to a new home two blocks north at 83 Carlton Avenue in Port Washington, NY.
He attended local schools as well as the Port Washington Senior High School. He was on the track team and the staff of the annual student publication, The Port Light, where his first illustrations appeared in print. He graduated from high school in June of 1929. His was the first class to graduate from the newly built school.
In September 1929 at the age of nineteen he began to attend Pratt Institute School of Art in Brooklyn. Rather than move to NYC, he continued to live at home and commute to school on the Long Island Rail Road.
On February 24, 1933 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper published an article titled, "28 Pratt Students Will Study Etching and Lithography," in which he is identified as having been selected from two hundred Pratt Institute applicants to study etching in a special class at the Museum of the City of New York. Another art student from Pratt that was also listed for this same honor was John Meola.
On June 28, 1933 Roderick Duff graduated from Pratt and received his certificate in Advertising Design under the School of Fine and Applied Art.
After graduation he attended the National Academy of Design at 1083 Fifth Avenue near 90th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
In 1934 he began three years of study at the Grand Central School of Art with Harvey Dunn. The school was located in the sky lit penthouse of Grand Central Station train terminal. The classrooms were reached by an elevator inconspicuously located on Track 23. The Grand Central Terminal was the heart of American industrial commerce. This setting inspired Dunn's students to consider the power of their own commercial work to elevate mass media to a higher level of art by striving to fill their work with the power of their unique inner spirits. Admission to Dunn's class was restricted to post-graduate art students and practicing professionals. Among his many grateful students were Lyman Anderson, Ernest Chiriacka, John Clymer, Dean Cornwell, Curtis Delano, Don Hewitt, Norman Saunders, Amos Sewell, Gloria Stoll, and Herbert Morton Stoops.
While studying with Harvey Dunn in 1934 Roderick Duff began to work as a freelance illustrator. He did not open an art studio, but instead continued to live at home with his parents and younger brother, who had begun to work as an airplane mechanic at the Curtis Sperry Airplane Factory near the family home on Long Island.
Roderick Duff drew black and white pen-and-ink story illustrations for pulp magazines. His work appeared in Aces, Blue Ribbon Sports, Double Action Gang, Famous Western, Sports Fiction, Sports Winners, Super Sports, Ten Story Sports, and Western Action.
He developed a sophisticated drawing style influenced by the modern graphic artist of Vienna, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).
His full signature, "Roderick Duff," is often drawn illegibly small. In fact his full name is only known thanks to a single printed credit he received on the contents page of Aces from Winter 1937.
He also signed his work with the letter "R" confined within a small black box. It is unusual for an illustrator to use a single-letter signature with the initial from only his first name, instead of his last name. In addition, the use of the letter "R" would seem to be a rather obscure choice, because several older artists already used the letter "R" as their signature, such as William Reusswig, George Rozen, A. Leslie Ross, and Ray Ramsey.
When considered together these various ambiguities in his signature seem to reflect a preference to keep a low profile in pulp magazines. Several artists took this same approach, such as John Newton Howitt, C. Warde Traver and Robert Fuqua, all of whom wished to preserve their reputations for a greater artistic ambition.
According to friends Rod Duff was a hard worker with a stern disposition. It was said of him, "Seldom he smiles."
In March 1938 he was diagnosed with skin cancer. He continued to work as the disease progressed.
In January 1939 he delivered his final assignment, after which he remained bedridden for four months.
On May 25, 1939 Roderick Duff died of cancer at his family home in Port Washington, NY, at the age of twenty-eight.
Posthumous reprints of his work continued to appear in pulp magazines for several years.
© David Saunders 2012