On Thanksgiving 2018, the first year I had this blog, I wrote about ten people I was thankful for. They were all over the map—a social worker, the designer of the first bra, and a food safety pioneer, among others. Last year, I narrowed my focus to ten illustrators I was thankful for. This year, I’m narrowing the focus further, to women illustrators. I’m also reducing the number, because ten illustrators was exhausting for me and, let’s face it, maybe you too.*
You know those implausible historical movies where the main character is involved in every notable event of the era? Like, if the heroine were living a hundred years ago, she’d be a suffragist and also entertain troops during the war and also be best friends with Dorothy Parker and also be a famous painter whose studio was a salon where people like George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward and H.L. Mencken would party on while she painted away at her easel, ignoring them?
That’s Neysa McMein.
McMein was born in Quincy, Illinois in 1888, with the much more prosaic first name of Marjorie. Her father, who owned a printing company, was an alcoholic, and the family was not a happy one. McMein studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then moved to New York in 1913, working briefly as an actress before turning to illustration. Commercial success eluded her until, at the advice of a numerologist, she changed her name to Neysa, after a favorite racehorse. She soon sold her first cover to the Saturday Evening Post.**
Nearly sixty other Saturday Evening Post covers followed.***
As I have previously mentioned, McMein was active in the suffragist movement.
When the United States entered the war, McMein was, according to her hometown paper, one of seven artists chosen by the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the War Department’s Committee on Public Information to go to France to illustrate the American war effort. Except, oops, she was a woman, a fact that had eluded the Division. What to do? McMein solved the problem by volunteering to go overseas as a YMCA volunteer instead. She entertained troops with Dorothy Parker,**** to considerable acclaim, and was saluted by a soldier with a poem that included this verse:
She’s a lady of fame, this Neysa McMein,
And she numbers her friends by the host;
She’s the party that places
Those wonderful faces
On the Saturday Evening Post.
In her downtime, McMein managed to contribute to the war effort artistically as well.
After the Armistice, she returned to New York, sold more magazine covers, became part of the Algonquin Round Table set, moved in with across-the-hall neighbor Dorothy Parker when Parker’s marriage broke up, hosted the aforementioned salon, and, in 1923, married John Baragwanath.***** Their daughter Joan was born the next year. It was an open marriage that allowed for affairs with Charlie Chaplin, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and others.
McMein was McCall’s magazine’s regular cover artist from 1923 to 1937. She also worked as the magazine’s film reviewer.
She also did advertising work.
McMein painted portraits as well, and this allowed her to continue working when magazines turned from illustration to photography. Among her subjects were Herbert Hoover, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, Dorothy Parker.
Oh, and I almost forgot, she drew the original Betty Crocker.
McMein died in 1949 at the age of 61.
McMein wasn’t among the most technically accomplished illustrators of her era. A large percentage of her covers could be described as “woman who looks kind of like Neysa McMein in hat in front of white background.” But she was one of the most popular and highly paid illustrators of her time. And what a life she lived!
Thank you, Neysa!
If you’re thinking about how this is all very interesting but you have a kitchen full of Thanksgiving dishes to` get to, don’t worry, I could hardly find any information about the other two women we’re celebrating today. The sum total of what I’ve been able to find about Edna Crompton (mostly from this website) is that she lived from 1882 to 1952 and that she painted portraits and created calendars in addition to her magazine illustrations. As the 1920s progress, we’ll be seeing more of her as a regular cover artist for Redbook. If you know anything else about her, please let me know!
In the meantime, we’ll have to content ourselves with enjoying her art.
My favorite is still the Metropolitan cover that was featured in the 1915-1920 Magazine Cover Smackdown:
Thank you, Edna!
Vogue cover artist Harriet Meserole also kept a low profile. I found a Find a Grave entry for a Harriet A. Meserole (1893-1989) buried in a Brooklyn cemetery, who, date of birth-wise, could be our Harriet. I learned on a website about the history of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that the Meseroles were a prominent Greenpoint family, descended from French Huguenots who arrived in 1663. No mention of Harriet, though.
As far as I can tell, Meserole illustrated exclusivly for Vogue, and 1920s issues of Vogue are infuriatingly hard to access. They’re not archived at Google’s Hathitrust Digital Library, my main source of hundred-year-old magazine. Vogue has an online archive, but you need to be a subscriber to access most of it.****** Luckily, fashionmodeldirectory.com, which is much more intellectual than its name suggests, has a page about Meserole. FMD couldn’t find much biographic information either, but they say that her work appeared inside the magazine as well as on the cover, and they provide the following 1923 quote from her, presumably from Vogue: “”I like simplicity in all things and people. I hate prettiness and ice cream. I also like being one of your younger artists.” Questionable taste in desserts aside, she sounds charming!
Here’s Meserole’s first cover for Vogue, from February 1, 1919.
Her first full cover was this one, which made an appearance on my post on late-winter covers of 1920:
This is all from 1920, as far as I know, but there are many more to come.
I’m thankful to have Meserole’s bright future to look forward to.
Thank you, Harriet!
I’m thankful, too, for all of you who have shared my time travels with me over the past three years. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
*It was originally going to be five, but life and Thanksgiving cooking got in the way. Sorry, Cornelia Barnes and Jessie Willcox Smith, I’ll get to you at some point! My good intentions live on in the photo at the top of the post, from Smith’s November 1920 Good Housekeeping cover.
**I know. It sounds bogus to me too.
***You can see them all at the Saturday Evening Post’s wonderful art archive, and you can watch a video about McMein’s life and art on the magazine’s webiste as well.
****When they invent time travel, this is going to be one of my first stops.
*****They met at the house of dancer Irene Castle.
******I’m severely allergic to perfume, so subscribing to Vogue would be like subscribing to the Tear Gas Canister of the Month Club.
New on the Book List:
There’s quite a lot new on the book list because I keep forgetting to do this. The newest entry is Mary Marie, by Eleanor Porter. (UPDATE 11/29/2020: I’ve just added a writeup of John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, which I finished listening to as an audiobook a few days before Thanksgiving.)
Thank you for another entertaining diversion. This Neysa McMein character seems implausible indeed. Maybe too implausible for a portrait movie, which she should have nevertheless. Of course, I’ve never heard about her until now.
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Lars, it’s great to hear from you! I agree that she’d be a great subject for a movie. There doesn’t even seem to be a biography, which is a shame. I’d definitely read it.
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Correction: There is a biography, “Anything Goes” by Brian Gallagher, published in 1987.
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Good! I’ll see if I can get hold of that.
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