Walter Clinton Pettee was born on July 20, 1872 in Birmingham, Connecticut. His father was Henry Clinton Pettee, born 1840 in Vermont. His mother was Jane Bull Davis, born 1844 in Connecticut. His parents were married in 1866. He was the middle-born of three children. His older brother Charles was born in 1868 and his younger sister Charlotte was born in 1873. They lived with his maternal grandparents, Elijah and Celestia Davis, who were both deaf and dumb. Despite his disability Elijah Davis made wooden church organs. His son-in-law was his shop assistant and the organ tuner.
By 1880 the entire family had moved to 78 Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn, NY, where Henry Pettee found employment in a bakery, while grandfather Davis used his woodworking skills as a cabinetmaker.
In January 1887 at the age of fourteen Clinton Pettee started a semester of study at the Art Students League of New York, where he made drawings of plaster casts of ancient Roman statues.
On June 26, 1889 his father died at the age of forty-nine.
By 1890 at the age of eighteen he lived independently in a boarding house at 221 Greene Avenue in Brooklyn, while he continued his studies at the Art Students League.
In 1891 he illustrated "Driving As I Found It" by Frank Swales, an instructional book on driving carriage horses, published by Brentano's.
On June 11, 1898 at the age of twenty-five he joined the National Guard and served as a private in the Spanish-American War with the Second Brigade, Troop "C," Cavalry, New York Volunteers. After six weeks of basic training in Virginia they sailed for Puerto Rico on July 31. On August 5 they encamped at Playa Ponce under the command of General Wilson's First Division. On August 9, they engaged the Spanish Army defending Coamo. They dismounted to fight on foot and drove the enemy back. They remounted and harried the fleeing Spaniards in close pursuit, which prevented the destruction of several bridges. Five miles beyond Coamo the Spanish battery from Aibonito fired eight shells at Troop "C." They laid siege to the entrenched blockhouse for several days, until they were relieved by infantry on August 13. After hostilities ended on August 31 Troop "C" embarked for New York on September 3. He was discharged in Brooklyn on November 25, 1898.
On Halloween 1899 he played the starring role in Alexander Black's Photo-Play The Girl and The Guardsman. A Photo-Play projected still photographs of a staged drama, like a magic lantern show. This new form of theater was first developed by Alexander Black. The show premiered with much fanfare at Association Hall on Bond and Fulton Streets under the auspices of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Department of Photography.
On September 25, 1901 Clinton Pettee married Alice Tanner Brown, who was born November 6, 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. They moved to 104 Durand Road in South Orange, NJ. His widowed mother, age fifty-seven, lived with them.
In 1902 he was awarded a patent for a fountain pen that was designed for correspondence, mechanical drafting, and artistic sketching. Remarkably, his mother was also awarded a patent for a handy device to store baby bottles.
In the spring of 1903 at the age of thirty he studied life drawing under Charles C. Curren at the Art Students League of NY.
On August 3, 1905 their daughter Muriel Elizabeth was born. By 1910 they had resettled in Maplewood, NJ.
He drew interior story illustrations for Munsey's Magazine. He also painted covers for pulp magazines, such as The Argosy, The All-Story, Cavalier, All-Story Cavalier, and Short Stories.
His cover for the October 1912 issue of The All-Story featured the world's first published image of Tarzan. Collectors have long considered this issue the most valuable of all pulp magazines.
His illustrations were also published in slick magazines, such as The Literary Digest, Judge, Scientific American, and Motor Age.
He illustrated several novels, such as Cragg's Roost (1912), Darkness and Dawn (1914), The Unseen Hand (1918), and The Other Side of the Wall (1919).
On October 19, 1922 his mother died at the age of seventy-eight. She was buried in Vermont beside his father.
In March of 1925 the Pettee family moved to 439 East 51st Street in the midtown Manhattan neighborhood of Beekman Terrace. They later moved to a larger apartment in a six-story townhouse that overlooked the East River at 455 East 51st Street.
On June 17, 1929 his twenty-three-year-old daughter Muriel, married John Eliot Bailey. She had attended the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, while he was a graduate of Princeton University, NJ. The married couple moved in with her parents at Beckman Terrace.
During the Great Depression there was a drive to build public housing for the poor. This idea was widely popularized in Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End, which contrasted the hardships of tenement slum life with the luxury of high class apartment housing. The play's impressive stage set was a view from the East River of a dead end street with dirty slums on one side and a fancy townhouse on the other. The scene represented a flash point of class conflict in New York City's volatile melting pot. Oddly enough, Clinton Pettee lived in that exact situation in 1935 when he created a silk-screen poster for the NYC Housing Authority, Cure Juvenile Delinquency In The Slums By Planned Housing.
His last illustration appeared in the November 1936 issue of Outdoor Life, which was a sportsman's magazine.
Walter Clinton Pettee died of a heart attack in his Manhattan apartment at the age of sixty-five on December 12, 1937.
© David Saunders 2011