Illustrator Lee Judah Ames dies at 90

Lee Judah Ames died in a Huntington nursing Lee Judah Ames died in a Huntington nursing home last week. He was 90. Photo Credit: Family photo

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Lee Judah Ames, an illustrator whose "Draw 50" books taught generations of children how to draw "elephants, tigers, dogs, fish, birds and many more" -- the list eventually accommodated aliens, vampires and Biblical figures -- died in a Huntington nursing home last week. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Jocelyn Ames, of Huntington.

Lee Ames, who was born in New York City and received no formal training in art, began his career when he was 18 and won a Walt Disney drawing contest. The prize was a job in Disney's California studio and $50 for a bus ticket. He worked as an entry-level animator on "Bambi" and "Fantasia" but grew homesick and returned East after three months.

After serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, he scored his first hits with illustrations for children's historical books. His cover for "Pony Express" showed a mustachioed dispatch rider twisting in his saddle to shoot at armed Indians. "Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House" gave the nation's 16th president heartthrob looks and dressed him in a chest-revealing buckskin shirt.

By his own admission, Ames' imagination drew at least one mild complaint, from the author of a book on the Santa Fe Trail, who noted that the Indian ambush of a wagon train depicted on that book's cover did not actually appear anywhere in the text. On his website years later, Ames recollected suggesting to the author that he "perhaps add a paragraph somewhere alluding to the possibility of such an event."

But it was the "Draw 50" books that eventually made his name. Originally conceived as make-work in between jobs as a contract illustrator for the publisher Doubleday, they sold more than 2 million copies, Ames' website says.

With little or no text, they showed aspiring illustrators how to draw a world of lifelike figures by breaking them into simple geometric elements and adding layers of detail.

Jocelyn and Lee Ames met on a blind date and married in 1945. Before his career began in earnest, she supported his drawing with her work for the War Department and New York City. The couple lived in Dix Hills and later in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Much of Lee Ames' professional life was spent in the solarium of their home there. Working from his "swipe file" -- thousands of pictures of plants, people and animals cut from National Geographic and Ladies Home Journal -- he drew and answered letters from fans, many of them young, with ideas for his next book or samples of their own work.

Occasionally too, said Ames' wife, people got in touch to thank him. "They were able to make a living as an artist because he was their teacher."

Besides his wife, Ames is survived by a daughter, Alison Efman of Huntington, a son, Jonathan Ames of Brentwood, and three grandchildren.

Ames was cremated. The family will celebrate his life Saturday; for details, contact I.J. Morris Funeral Homes at 631-499-6060.

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