Was this sailor a source of inspiration for the character „Papai“?

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Although it is likely that Figel was the muse for Segar’s character, Popeye, the photograph that is often associated with this statement is not his image.

Instead, it depicts an unknown sailor aboard the ship HMS Rodney in 1940. The photo is available at the Imperial War Museum, and it is accompanied by the caption: “A leading stoker nicknamed ”Papai“, who served for 21 years.“

In his book Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, Fred Grandinetti explores the character’s roots and discovers that the residents of Chester, Illinois, where Segar grew up in the early 20th century, were probably the muses for his creations.

The image of Papaya seems to reflect the appearance and temperament of Figel, who had a prominent chin, rarely appeared without a pipe and, as Grandinetti noted, was known for his penchant for fighting.

„Popeye the Sailor“
According to local legends, the character ”Sailor Popeye“ was inspired by a real person from Chester, Illinois.

The image appears on the Internet from time to time with captions like “Rocky” Feigel, the real person who served as the inspiration for the character “Popeye”, or „this photo shows a guy who was a real Popeye…“

Elsie Crisler Segar, an American cartoonist, originally from Chester, Illinois, is the creator of the character Popeye. In 1919, Segar published a comic strip in the New York Evening Journal called Thimble Theatre.

In 1929, Popeye appeared in the comic as a new character.

Due to Popeye’s huge popularity, the comic was later renamed The Thimble Theater starring Popeye.

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This character remained extremely popular over the following decades and was portrayed in various ways by various creators, including in the animated films of the Fleischer Studio and in Robert Altman’s 1980 musical Popeye starring Robin Williams.

Interestingly, there are widespread claims that Popeye is not just a fictional character, but is based on a real person — Frank „Rocky“ Feigel, a resident of Chester, the hometown of E.K. Segar.

It is believed that Feigel, whose parents were Polish immigrants, inspired the legendary sailor.

In an article published in 1979 in a Southern Illinois newspaper and entitled “Chester Man, who was mistaken for a real daddy, was a brawler and loved children,” it was reported that some local residents of Chester considered Rocky a „slacker.“ This further clarifies this perception, since it states that:

Feigel, who occasionally moonlighted as a bartender and handyman in Chester, rarely had a steady job and was often seen loitering in local saloons. He lived with his mother until her death and after that continued to live in the house alone (…)

However, it is believed that E.K. Segar was not inspired by Feigel’s unemployment. Frank Feigel was known locally for his boxing prowess, and here the parallels with a character named Popeye become quite obvious.

A real Popeye
In the article, Clyde Figi, Rocky’s nephew, tells the story of how his uncle frequented the saloon:

There were two big guys who said you need to buy a drink at home or put on gloves. They had a big boxer ready to fight, but he (Feigel) put on gloves and knocked out their guy.

Fred M. Grandinetti’s book Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, published in 2003, also mentions that Rocky’s distinctive facial features and his distinctive pipe were reflected in the creation of the cartoon character.

Because of his strong physique, he was known affectionately by the nickname „Rocky“. His angular jaw and familiar corncob pipe seemed to impress the young Segar.

Undoubtedly, a character like Rocky could leave a deep mark on Segar’s life, especially given the significant age difference between them.

On the cover of Bud Sagendorf’s Popeye album No. 50 (October–December 1959), Popeye is depicted with his corncob pipe, his only healthy eye and his girlfriend Olive Oil.
On the cover of Bud Sagendorf’s Popeye album No. 50 (October–December 1959), Popeye is depicted with his corncob pipe, his only healthy eye and his girlfriend Olive Oil.

Figel was born in 1868, although it is unclear where he was born, in Poland or America, while E. K. Segar was born in 1894.

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In addition, Feigel, described by the Chicago Tribune as a man with a „heart of gold, loving children,“ was known for his altruistic acts towards Chester’s children, often giving them money or protecting them from bullies.

This benevolent nature is another trait inherent in Popeye, who is invariably portrayed as a „good guy.“

Is his name a joke or a prank?
Frank’s parents, Anna and Bartholomew, were originally from Poland. According to the genealogical website MyHeritage, the family was associated with the town of Czarnków in what is now Central Poland, and their surname was originally Figel.

It was probably changed to better match the English pronunciation after the family moved to America. Interestingly, translated from Polish, „Figel“ means „joke“ or „prank“, which is a surprisingly appropriate surname for the ancestor of a comic book character.…

Frank „Rocky“ Feigel
Look at his chin! Frank “Rocky” Feigel

However, it is unclear if Rocky ever realized that he was Popeye’s muse.

Some suggest that he only found out about it after Segar died of leukemia in 1938, from a newspaper article detailing the life and inspiration of the comic book creator.

Others, such as Popeye historian Michael Brooks, believe that Figel regularly received checks from Segar in gratitude for the successful character he inspired.

In addition, there are those who wonder „if Figel ever knew that he was a Popeye.“

The name was never given.
Segar left Chester in the early 1920s–long before the character appeared-and, as indicated in Moira Reynolds‘ book Comic Book Artists in American Newspapers, published in 2003, he never named anyone as a real-life model of the famous sailor.

Nevertheless, the belief that Rocky served as a source of inspiration is confirmed by the striking similarities between the residents of Chester in the early 20th century and several other characters of Segar’s Thimble Theater.

Popeye Village in Malta, built as a set for a feature film
Popeye Village in Malta, built as a filming location for a feature film

It is believed that olive oil was created in the image and likeness of Dora Paskel, the owner of the store, whom the New York Times described as „unusually tall and thin, with a tuft of hair on the back of her head.“

It is said that the creation of the chubby, hamburger-loving Jay Wellington Wimpy was inspired by William Schuchert, general manager of the Chester Opera House, where Segar worked for a while, and a well-known burger lover.

Interestingly, Hannah Walska, who was born in Poland, was an opera singer whose vocal failures became almost legendary. However, abandoning her fleeting career as a singer, she founded the Lotosland Community Garden, known as one of the most unusual in the world.

The grave of ‘Popeye’

It remains an indisputable fact that the tombstone of Frank Feigel, who died in 1947, is located at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Chester. The epitaph on it reads:

Frank ‘Rocky’ Feigel

He served as a source of inspiration for Popeye the sailor.

„Papai“ is a British name
Although many believe that it was Figel who inspired Segar to create the papaya image, the popular photograph that is often associated with this statement does not actually belong to him.

The picture shows an unknown sailor from the ship HMS Rodney, which sank in 1940. This photo can be found in the Imperial Military Museum, it is signed: “The chief stoker, affectionately called ”Papai“, with 21 years of experience.“

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