Artist. Ad man. Lover of a good hat. 97-year-old Howard Munce welcomes us to Westport, Connecticut.
“I don’t really have routines. I do what occurs to me.”
“Well, the first thing I do every morning is check to see if I have a pulse. This morning – all good.” 97-year-old Howard Munce is beaming. He’s holding court in the light-filled living room of the Westport, Connecticut house where he and his wife, Gerry have lived for roughly half a century.
Munce is a decorated illustrator, writer, painter and occasional sculptor whose sheer volume of creative work is staggering—just a small portion of it is scattered or displayed around the house, garage and yard. Filing cabinets in his home studio are stuffed with sketches, essays and poetry. Dried paints, long crusted over, sit on the sill. “It’s a house of details,” Howard laughs. He got his start working as an illustrator in various art departments in New York City after returning from a stint in the Marines during World War II. His first gig was at Young and Rubicam. It is there he met Gerry, who was head of the secretarial pool at Y&R. “This is the girl that years ago said ‘Follow me Mr. Munce,’ and I have been ever since.”
Howard would go on to become a successful ad man, creative director and to teach at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, publishing thousands of illustrations and cartoons, writing nearly as many columns, and continuing to paint. “Painting was always a release for me. The challenge and the fun comes from placing everything where you want it, and the colors, of course.” He still draws every Monday in a small sketch group in Southport.
For a man so accustomed to turning around work in a timely fashion – a sign over the door that exits to the garage reads “DEADLINES,” – Munce seems to mourn those demands a bit. “Take away the deadlines I used to have and well, things are pretty open,” he says. He usually starts his day at 7:30 with coffee (“my wife makes the best”) in the kitchen or living room, where he also reads his paper. He brushes his hair a bit. He dresses in his favorite cream-colored jeans that are dotted with paint stains and a matching denim jacket. He puts on one of his many newsboy caps – today, a cotton check. “I don’t really have routines. I do what occurs to me,” Howard says. Gerry chimes in – “He’s been doing that his whole life.”
We’re lost in Munce’s studio now, bouncing from one piece of work to the next as he dictates with an expansive memory. Here he is as a young Marine in Guam, and there is an editorial about his experience in the war that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He tells us a story about how, as a young man in New York, he and the other residents of his building (Norman Rockwell, included) would nab bottles of whiskey from the dumbwaiter as it passed their floor.
“In my world anything goes. As long as it looks good.”
“I’ve been having such a pleasant time lately just sitting with all of this,” Munce turns serious for the first time today. “Being able to revisit everything I was able to do in my career.” We walk out into the driveway to say goodbye. The fall leaves are fifty different colors. In the sunshine, framed by trees, Munce appears resplendent, like a character he might include in one of his own illustrations. Pressed earlier about his philosophy on creativity, he had an easy answer, “In my world, anything goes. As long as it looks good.”