Before he was a world-famous novelist, including the four-book “Rabbit” series, before he won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, Pennsylvania native John Updike was an aspiring cartoonist growing up in Shillington, Berks County.
As a 15-year-old, in 1948, he wrote a letter to Harold Gray, the creator of the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip. Four fawning paragraphs led to a final one:
“All this well-deserved praise is leading up to something, of course, and the catch is a rather big favor I want you to do for me. I need a picture to alleviate the blankness of one of my bedroom walls, and there is nothing that I would like better than a little momento [sic] of the comic strip I have followed closely for over a decade. So — could you possibly send me a little autographed sketch of Annie that you have done yourself? I realize that you probably have some printed cards you send to people like me, but could you maybe do just a quick sketch by yourself? Nothing fancy, just what you have done yourself. I [sic] you cannot do this (and I really wouldn’t blame you) will you send me anything you like, perhaps an original comic strip?”
Updike, who died 10 years ago this month, recalled in a 2004 article in The Guardian that Gray responded with "a drawing, possibly the standard photo he had on hand with a personal comment in a talk balloon."
‘Happy Valentine’s Day’
Fast forward to Feb. 14, 1996 — Valentine’s Day — and Updike was one month shy of his 64th birthday. The night before, he had spoken at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster and now he was on campus signing his new novel, “In the Beauty of the Lilies.” My girlfriend at the time waited in a long line with a copy of the book she would give to me.
Updike signed the title page: “for Neal Happy Valentine’s Day John Updike”
But the cartoonist in him couldn’t resist, so he drew a heart with lace around it and an arrow cutting through.
Not only are the drawing and the story behind it compelling, but Updike’s ties to Berks County and the creation of the heart in Lancaster ring true to Stay’s focus on a sense of place.
That’s why we’ve reproduced the heart — in pink ink on red fabric — on the front of our first children’s sizes and our first women’s cut.
Concluding his request letter to Gray, 15-year-old Updike wrote: “Whatever I get will be appreciated, framed, and hung.”
He typed that letter on Jan. 2, 1948.
We’re introducing the Updike heart tee on that exact day, 71 years later. The heart he drew for me remains appreciated and now is, effectively, framed and hung on the front of our newest tees.