WILMETTE HOUSE

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2016

The Home Where Dick Tracy Was Born

Driving on a snowy day not unlike a classic snow scene from Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, we approached the house in Wilmette where Gould started his married life and his classic detective was created. As the car drove down 17th Street in Wilmette, a charming residential area, a spark of recognition followed by an immediate sense of familiarity told me we had arrived.

This is the house where Gould drew his early comic efforts, the “Girl Friends”, the “Radio Catts”, “Fillum Fables”, but especially, this is the house where, fed up with unrelenting news headlines of crime in the city, Gould created his iconic square jawed detective (Except the early Dick Tracy did not have a square jaw, the clue of which will be found in this house).

While so much of Gould’s cartoon art was drawn here, the house had no official studio. Gould’s “studio” was a simple drawing board in the corner of a sitting room facing a back yard window.

The living room as it appears today. Hover over the image above to see where Gould’s desk once stood!

In that corner of the sitting room, visions of the future Dick Tracy found form on Gould’s Strathmore drawing paper. Pencil sketches of a Sherlock Holmes-profiled man morphed into a slim, straw hat-wearing plain clothes man. Sketching. Erasing. Sketching. Refining. Gould drew narrow squinting eyes, and a hawk-like nose, a firm mouth with a lower lip, and an angular jaw. Erasing the lower lip and adding a single bold line from the mouth to the tip of the chin makes the face stronger and more defined. As the plain clothes detective who would trace clues and apprehend criminals came to life on his drawing board, Gould called him “Plain Clothes Tracy”.

After his crime fighter was complete, Gould developed a week’s work of 6 daily strips which would be submitted to Capt. J. M. Patterson of the Chicago Tribune. And scenes from this submission were unlike anything the cartoonist had previously created; Tracy down at headquarters fielding a hot tip on his black candle stick telephone, the villainous Big Boy gazing out a window planning his next foul deed, Tracy and Tess escaping the rat-tat-rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire as they flee down a grim city street.

But not all of Chester Gould’s creative energy was confined to his drawing board. Downstairs in the basement a large profile of the detective graces the rough cement wall. It’s a profile of Tracy, but it’s unique in that he has a definite lower lip and a slightly rounded and protruding chin.

Nowhere in the run of Dick Tracy is a similar depiction seen. Was Gould still working on refining the design of this character? Only the great detective could find the answer…

– Richard Pietrzyk


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“Yes, criminals do make their marks in the world, usually ten little fingerprint patterns on an FBI file card.”
- Chester Gould
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