Friday, December 7, 2012

My Best Girls

A room full of Helen Hokinson's Best Girls
The New Yorker is famous not only for its literary articles but perhaps even more so for its cartoons. Cartoons featuring dogs, drinkers, befuddled husbands, corporate bigwigs, doctors, lawyers, and most likely, Indian chiefs.

In reading Joseph Mitchell's My Ears Are Bent, a collection of newspaper profiles of the well-known and not-so-well-known denizens of New York City, I learned that one of the most popular cartoonists for the magazine from the mid-1920s through 1940s was Helen Hokinson. 

I had not heard of Ms. Hokinson but when I looked online I recognized her work. Her cartoons featured older well-to-do women who were concerned with fashion, the beauty parlor, women's clubs, pets, and gardens. 

I didn't realize that in those years there were any female cartoonists contributing to the magazine. How wrong I was. According to one web site, Ms. Hokinson contributed more than 1800 cartoons to the publication and her work was featured 68 times on its cover.

Ms. Hokinson was born in 1893 in Illinois, attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, and moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion design. She began drawing cartoons - for a few months she did a comic strip for a New York tabloid - and someone suggested she take some of her drawings to the newly formed New Yorker magazine and her career was born.

Here is what Mr. Mitchell had to say about her characters:

The funniest people in the republic to Helen E. Hokinson....are the middle-aged ladies who live in exclusive Westchester towns, in the Oranges or in the Gramercy Square neighborhoods  and whose more or less empty lives revolve in a dignified fashion around the garden or culture club, the beauty shop and the detective story.

These are women who have charge accounts, plenty of leisure, poodle dogs, chauffeurs, a box at the opera and the right to sit in Gramercy Park. They have regular appointments with hairdressers, and the hard cash some of them spend in beauty shops would wreck a bank.

Their husbands are executives and brokers. They are on the boards of private charities, and there are a flock of Madame Presidents among them.

"I don't like people to get the idea I am bitter about them," Hokinson said.  "I just think they're funny. I seldom draw the vicious type. The ones who are unconsciously funny are the ones I like."

There are six books of Ms. Hokinson's collections of cartoons and used editions are available on-line. Perhaps her favorite was My Best Girls published in 1941.

Ms. Hokinson was killed in 1949 in a mid-air airplane collision at Washington National Airport. 


  1. How interesting! I did not know there were female cartoonists at that time, either, Belle, though the cartoons are definitely familiar looking. (I did google when I first read your post.) I'm so very glad you shared this.

    1. Apparently Helen never married. She was a true career woman before being a career woman was common.

  2. I am big fan of The New Yorker, I can’t afford a subscription but when I see it at a doctors/dentists’ office I always ask to borrow it and return in a few weeks. My library doesn’t carry it any more, cutbacks! While this lady wasn’t an illustrator but an editor and contributor she was very popular in her day and her writings from the magazine were published under a most engaging book “Maeve Brennan, The Long Winded Lady (Notes from The New Yorker)” She joined in 1949-as a sub-editor and contributed until the late 1960’s, alas a tragic figure in her final days. She is also a cousin (a few times removed) of the Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle.

    1. Tullik,
      Thanks for the tip on Maeve Brennan. I have not heard of her but see that my library has a copy of 'Long Winded Lady', a book of her short stories and a short novel. There is also on hand a biography by Angela Bourke.

      Wow! One of the best things for me about reading essays and newspaper/magazine articles from the past is discovering someone new such as the talented Ms. Brennan. I look forward to reading her work.

      Thanks again.