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McCay's birthdate remains a mystery

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:44 PM

McCay illustrated, filmed and released the very first American animated cartoon, “Little Nemo,” in 1911. Ten more film cartoons followed, including “The Sinking of the Lusitania” and “Gertie the Dinosaur.”

            Prior to that — and until his death in 1934 — McCay created many comic strip series published in newspapers around the nation, including “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Sammy Sneeze.”  

            A historic marker honoring McCay is proudly displayed next to the library on Exchange Street. Our historic “hometown” hero resided in a little home almost directly across the Exchange Street from the marker from birth to his late teens.

            Winsor's parents, Robert and Janet (Murray) McCay, married Jan. 8, 1866, and moved to Spring Lake by the following year. Robert worked as a grocer among other trades.

            The McCays moved to Stanton in 1885.

            The McCays were residents of Spring Lake for 18 years. But one question debated by some folks has always been: “Was Winsor McCay born in Spring Lake?”

            The answer is no.

            But his home residence was Spring Lake at the time of his birth. McCay's parents journeyed to Canada to be with family for the birth of Winsor.

            So, that issue is no mystery — but McCay's birthdate is.

            There is no document on file anywhere of Winsor McCay's birth — not in Spring Lake or Canada. The May 1893 fire in Spring Lake likely destroyed any record of his birth.

            Later in his life, McCay informed friends that his birthdate was Sept. 26, 1871, and place of birth was Spring Lake. This information was provided to a magazine that printed the date and place as a matter of record. The date and place also surfaced in the majority of published obituaries after McCay died July 26, 1934.

            The front page of the July 27, 1934, Grand Haven Tribune also reflected that information by publishing the AP wire story stating: “McCay was born in Spring Lake.” The Tribune wrote the accompanying headline: “Cartoonist, native of Spring Lake, is dead.”

            McCay contradicted that date during an interview in 1910, claiming he was born in 1869. This is the same year that appears on his headstone at his grave at the Cemetery of the Evergreens at Brooklyn, N.Y. Other published reports state McCay was born earlier, in 1867.

            It has been suggested that McCay, himself, may not have known when he was born.

            “Not even Mr. McCay knew his exact age,” the New York Herald Tribune stated in the artist's obituary.

            While historians can agree McCay was not born in Spring Lake, but rather Canada, what month, day and year of his birth continues to remain a mystery.

            The topic of McCay's birthplace involves semantics, as it doesn't matter where his parents were at the time of his birth, but where the McCay home was located. History is rife with births of famous persons who were born in one location who didn't live there.

            Thus, McCay is a native son. He grew up here and attended Union School, which once stood on the little strip of land adjacent to the library on Exchange Street. It was in this school, in 1880, that McCay illustrated what became his first commercial work of art, and started him on the path of being one of our nation's greatest cartoonists.

            Cinderblocks still protrude from the grass in that strip of land, the remains of the school’s foundation and the foundation of the pioneering animator's life-long career.

            As children gather at the library to participate in McCay Day, they will experience a rare piece of Spring Lake. Someone truly great once lived there. He became interested in art there, began his career there and fondly talked of the location later in life.

            The greatest award an animator can receive — the lifetime achievement award — is the Winsor McCay Award, also known as “The Annie.”

            Chuck Jones — director of Warner Brothers animation works featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Roadrunner and others — perhaps stated it best where McCay belongs in cartoon history.   

            "The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney,” Jones said.  “And I'm not sure which should go first."




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