Harry Kirchner was born July 2, 1912 in Philadelphia, PA. His father was Jacob Kirchner, a tailor, who was born in Tavaritz, Russia, in 1879. His mother's maiden name is not known. They married in 1897. They had never been to school. They could neither read nor write. They only spoke Yiddish. Their first three children, Max, Sarah, and Sophia, were born in Russia. In 1910 the family emigrated to America. They lived in the back room of a rented tailor shop at 3035 Dauphin Street in Philadelphia. Two years later their fourth child was born. He was their last child and the only native-born American in his family.
In 1917, when he was five-year-old, his mother died. His older sister Sarah assumed the responsibility of providing a surrogate mother's care.
He had a natural talent for drawing, and like many youngsters of his generation, he was inspired by the illustrations of classic juvenile fiction by Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth.
He enjoyed art classes in high school. One of his teachers arranged free art classes at the Barnes Foundation, which was founded by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy philanthropic art lover with strong ideas about the hypocrisy of elitism.
In June of 1929 he graduated high school and received his yearbook, which included several of his illustrations.
In September of 1930 he and a few fellow art students from the Barnes Foundation moved to a cheap boarding house in New York City to look for work in the pulp magazine industry. Many of the publishers had an open-door policy of buying prospective artwork from entry-level artists. This policy helped to nurture many young unknowns, who were delighted to see their work in print and earn a few dollars. But in fact the publishers had only devised this policy as a way to undercut demands for higher prices from more established illustrators.
It was a struggle to launch his career in the hard times of 1930 to 1932. Trust in the American dream had been undermined by stock market swindlers and industrialists that openly praised Mussolini in defense of abusive labor practices that pushed our society to the brink of Class Warfare. Like any thoughtful New Yorker during the Great Depression, he had leftist sympathies.
In 1933 he received his first published sales, which were pen & ink interior story illustrations for Street & Smith's pulp magazine Western Story. On November 4, 1933 he moved into a small apartment at 5-and-one-half Jane Street in Greenwich Village. He was soon receiving steady assignments from Street & Smith to draw interiors for Detective Story and Clues Detective. There was a pecking order in pulp illustration, with the pen & ink men at the bottom, but after few years he was finally painting cover illustrations for Clues Detective.
On November 24, 1937 he married Minna Tarter of NYC. She was a children's librarian. They lived in his apartment in Greenwich Village. In 1941 their son Eugene was born.
He began to find steady high-paying work at an advertising agency. His illustrations appeared in nationwide ad campaigns for brand-name products, such as Phillip Morris, Seagram's, and Schlitz Beer, but he signed these jobs with the pseudonym Harry Kane. It was common practice at the time for American Jews to adopt an Anglicized name as a practical defense against latent anti-semitism.
On January 10, 1944, about two years after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry Kirchner was drafted by the Army for military service in WWII. After boot-camp he received map training and was assigned to a map department at an Army base on the Hawaiian Islands. He used his free time to paint watercolors of the exotic locale.
After the war he rented a small studio apartment at 105 East 52nd Street and returned to freelance illustration in advertising. In the fast-paced world of mass media, his classic style of work was soon outmoded by fashionable graphic design and technical advances in printing color photography. There was a general shift in post-war American business budgets towards TV ads and away from magazine ads. Eventually his ad agency work was reduced to low-paying jobs illustrating story boards for the production of TV ads.
In 1964 he began to illustrate a popular juvenile mystery series for Random House entitled, The Three Investigators. He painted most of the cover art for the first sixteen volumes, as well as many of the interior illustrations.
He also painted several movie posters in the 1960s. He became fascinated with the cinema and studied Marshall McLuhan's trendy critique of the influential forces within mass media. In 1968 he studied filmmaking at the New School for Social Research. He became involved with an experimental set design project. He wrote several scripts and he shot a few short films in B&W 16mm.
In 1969 he divorced and moved to an even smaller studio apartment at 310 East 49th Street, near the United Nations.
He continued to find a few freelance assignments up until the 1980s. His final jobs were a few covers for Gourmet magazine and ads for Stella D'Oro.
Harry Kirchner died on March 14, 1988 at the age of seventy-five in a nursing home in the Washington Heights section of Upper Manhattan, while recovering from a stroke.
© David Saunders 2009