It's hard to miss Neil Grauer at a cocktail party; he's the guy with the crowd of people around him. His dapper suits, signature bow ties, and vintage eyeglasses draw them; his encyclopedic knowledge of Baltimore keeps them there. He is a man of so many interests and accomplishments he seems out of place in this century, but you forget all that as he tells a story. And along the way, the cocktails taste so much better for it.
A self-taught cartoonist and a voracious letter writer from a young age, Grauer used both talents to meet his idols and maintain lifelong relationships. He would draw caricatures of famous people and send them off in the mail, often receiving glowing letters of appreciation in return. Friendships, genuine friendships, grew from such encounters. The walls of his North Baltimore condo are covered with framed autographs, photos, cartoons, and letters of appreciation. Signatures and drawings of U.S. presidents from Barack Obama back to Herbert Hoover are clustered together. Nearby is Abraham Lincoln, whom, Grauer is quick to add, "I did not know." Politicians are only the beginning; another wall holds Woody Allen, Walter Cronkite, Stan Laurel, all the Marx Brothers, and all the Three Stooges (Grauer was 12 years old when he started his correspondence with Moe Howard, and maintained it until Howard's death in 1975). Next to them, legendary cartoonists: Walt Disney, whom Grauer met twice—first at the 1964 Worlds Fair, and in 1966 at Disney's studio—and Al Hirschfield. Grauer grew so close with Hirschfeld, he was invited to accompany him on a three-day train trip from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles in 2001 to promote his book, "Hirschfeld's Hollywood."
Grauer left his boyhood home of Great Neck, New York in 1965 to attend Johns Hopkins University. The president of Hopkins at the time was Milton S. Eisenhower, who held a reception at his home for all incoming freshmen. The duo clicked and became friends, eventually meeting once a week for drinks, once a month for dinner, and for Orioles games during the summer. "Milton always asked me to drive and I loved parking my VW Bug next to [Orioles team owner] Jerry Hoffberger's Fleetwood Cadillac." In 1965 Grauer and his cartoonist skills joined the staff of the school's newspaper, the Hopkins News-Letter. The co-editor was Caleb Deschanel, now a famous cinematographer and director as well as father of actresses Emily and Zooey. In 1966 Deschanel wanted Grauer to create a character to observe campus life. Grauer responded with a nameless blue jay, which from the branches of a tree would comment on subjects such as high bookstore prices, lack of parking, and crime. Grauer says, chuckling, "Fifty years later it's still the same shit."
But it was sports where the Blue Jay truly found his . . . um . . . wings. Before Hopkins lacrosse games, Grauer would draw the Blue Jay beating up the mascot of whatever team they were opposing. Those drawings were a favorite of Hall of Fame lacrosse coach Bob Scott, who dutifully clipped each drawing out of the News-Letter and displayed them for a decade in the Hopkins locker room. By 1975, the cartoons were so worn and dog-eared that Scott's protégé and successor Henry "Chic" Ciccarone commissioned Grauer to draw a new set. The official Hopkins Blue Jay is a stiff, "ornithologically correct" specimen. But it is Grauer's playful, fun-loving Blue Jay that has captured the hearts of Hopkins athletes, undergrads, and alumni. He has been found on caps, bumper stickers, and T-shirts. Five times, he has appeared on the Hopkins lacrosse helmet, including in 2007 when they defeated Duke for the national championship. As for practical applications, Grauer once sat at the bar of the Valley Inn with a reporter and Bud Hatfield, the Inn's owner. Hatfield was a noted lacrosse aficionado and hard to impress on the subject. Only when Grauer pulled a pad from his pocket, drew his Blue Jay, and handed it to Hatfield did he light up. "Hey, I know you!" A minute later a round of drinks on the house arrived. Grauer knows of 15 or 20 instances where former lacrosse players have been tattooed with his Blue Jay, including Seth Tierney, now coaching Hofstra, and Brian Voelker, the coach at Drexel. "One can have a hell of a lot worse legacy."
From July 1970 to July 1980 Grauer worked at the News-American as a court reporter and feature writer, and for two of those years earned an additional $40 per week drawing political cartoons. That ended when editor Tom White took umbrage to a Watergate cartoon and benched Grauer. "Nixon wasn't the only one to lose his job because of Watergate."
But it is writing that drives Grauer. He's written seven books on diverse subjects, including "Wits and Sages," which has profiles and caricatures of 12 famous columnists; "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber"; a collaboration with Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala to rework Bob Scott's "bible" of lacrosse, "Lacrosse: Technique and Tradition"; and perhaps his masterpiece up to this point, "Leading the Way: A History of Johns Hopkins Medicine." In 2012 Grauer produced the 416-page tome under the auspices of the Office of Marketing and Communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and it will be a textbook for medical historians into the next century. Those last two led a friend to note, "Well, Grauer, now your name is indelibly associated with the two things for which Hopkins is most famous: medicine and lacrosse." Grauer recently related that story to Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels, who replied, "And of the two, lacrosse comes first." Today he toils on his next book, "The Special Field: A History of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins."