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Helen E. Hokinson

Arthur Brisbane was a tall man with an imposing forehead. He habitually wore three-piece suits and a severe expression. He never worked in his shirt sleeves, and his facial grimace, due to a slightly pugnacious lower lip turned down at the corners and sadly hooded eyes behind round horn-rimmed spectacles, seemed perpetually rather more sour than serious.  In his late fifties, he had been William Randolph Hearst’s chief editorial factotum for most of his working life, and now, in his office at the New York Daily Mirror in early 1924, he fixed his beagle-browed stare on two young women standing before him. One of them, the one with the scarf around her neck, was slender and smallish with a ruddy complexion, thin lips in a straight line, an untidy (but not unkempt) mop of hair that clustered in bangs over level brows, and, her dominant feature, large slightly frightened-looking eyes, more hazel than blue-violet. I don’t have a single notion of what the other woman—they were both in their late twenties—looked like. No matter; this is about her companion, Helen Hokinson, and about her I have it on good authority that if she had been seated in Brisbane’s austere presence, she would have been nervously twisting a handkerchief in her hands in a habitual gesture that betrayed the self-consciousness a shy albeit quietly confident individual might feel upon meeting such an August personage for the first time.

Hokinson and her companion, her roommate Alice Harvey (no relation), had heard that the tabloid Mirror, just launched into the New York melee of newspapers to compete with Joseph Patterson’s Daily News, needed comic strips. The News was famous for its comic strips, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps,, Harold Teen, Smitty, and Moon Mullins, and the Mirror was hoping to out-do the News. The two women had won an audience with Brisbane by showing samples of their art work to a succession of underlings whose function it was to make sure no unworthy candidates ever got close to him. Brisbane, however, was preoccupied with the moral nuances he planned to explore in his famous syndicated column for the next day, and, seeking to make the interview as short as possible, he asked how much the women expected to be paid for their work.

“One hundred and fifty a week,” they chorused, having agreed in advance on the amount.

Brisbane nodded, signaling his agreement, and left the office. A few minutes later, another man came in. This was Walter Howey—a New York newspapering legend of such quirks and eccentricities as to inspire Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in concocting the turbulent managing editor in their play, “The Front Page”; he wore a straw hat and had a cigar clenched in his teeth.

“Your audience,” he growled, “will be gamblers.”

Then he left.

Subsequently, Hokinson and Harvey produced a comic strip called Silvia in the Great City. It amused their friends, but when Hokinson noticed that shop girls reading the strip as they rode the subway to work weren’t laughing, she knew it wouldn’t last. It didn’t. Hokinson’s fame would spring from another venture in journalism that was, just then, but a vague idea in the mind of a one-time itinerant newspaperman with unruly hair and a gap-toothed grin.

Hoky, as her friends called her, was, like most New Yorkers, not native to the place. She had been born on June 29, 1893, in Mendota, Illinois, the daughter of Adolph Hokinson (original Swedish spelling, Haakonson), a farm machinery salesman, and Mary Wilcox. Helen attended the public schools in Mendota, and a year after graduating high school in 1913, she enrolled in a two-year course at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, studying fashion illustration and design. After completing her studies, she shared a studio with another artist, the aforementioned Alice Harvey, and secured assignments with art service agencies and department stores in Chicago. In 1920, Hokinson moved to New York to pursue a career as a fashion illustrator.

Alice Harvey joined Hokinson in New York in 1921, and they took rooms together at the Smith College Club, which was billeted in a one-time Russian monastery on 17th Street on Manhattan’s East Side. Hokinson did work for such Manhattan establishments as Lord and Taylor, B. Altman and Company, and John Wanamaker; Harvey did cartoons for the humor magazine, Life. They also conspired on that short-lived comic strip for the Daily Mirror. After the strip expired, they took a course at the School of Fine and Applied Arts (Parson School), where Hokinson learned the Jay Hambidge theory of dynamic symmetry under Howard Giles. Applying this theory, an artist plans his composition around a geometric design that determines the relative proportions of the figures in the picture. Hoky was so smitten with the theory that she employed it ever after even though it undermined her ability to produce effective fashion art.

Wherever she went exploring the city, Hokinson took a small sketchbook and drew pictures of everything that amused her. As her professional collaborator later wrote: “She was forever sketching people in parks, in restaurants, in the lobbies of hotels and business buildings, during theater intermissions, at the special events held in Madison Square Garden and the Grand Central Palace … a man bending down to tie a shoelace, a woman rummaging through her purse for the elusive bus fare, an impatient youth scanning a hotel lobby for his date, a woman deliberating over a tray of pastries, a man studying his new haircut in a slot-machine mirror, a father hurrying a reluctant child past a petshop window—and with her soft Erberhard pencil, Helen quickly drew a few wonderful lines on her pocket-size sketch pad.”

Although it was often said that she didn’t realize that her drawings were funny, that was a legend that she herself enjoyed perpetuating. In fact, Hokinson was highly conscious of the comedy that she observed in the life around her. The comedy and the pathos.

Pierside one day in the spring of 1925, she drew a picture of a slightly stout, middle-aged woman waving good-bye to a departing ship. Although she depicted the woman from the rear, Hoky captured the intensity of her desire to wish a loved one well and the poignancy of their parting by showing the lady standing at the edge of the dock on the lower rail of a fence to which she had climbed in the excitement of the moment. When Hoky showed the picture to Giles, he laughed in warm appreciation and told her she should try selling such pictures to magazines that printed cartoons. As it happened, illustrations of this sort were exactly the kind Harold Ross was seeking to publish in the new magazine he began editing in February 1925— The New Yorker. Urged by her fellow-students as well as Giles, Hokinson submitted several drawings to Ross. Among them was the woman waving on the pier. It was accepted and published in the issue dated July 4, 1925. Hokinson hadn’t even signed the drawing, but it initiated her life-long association with the magazine. Thereafter, nearly every issue of The New Yorker until 1950 carried at least one of Hokinson’s pictures.

Ross, a persnickety task-master who recognized what he wanted when he saw it but couldn’t describe his ideal precisely enough in advance to elicit the desired performance from any of his artists or writers, called Hokinson  “a first-class character artist”—one of only two in the entire United States. (The other was Perry Barlow, who also drew cartoons occasionally for the magazine.) Hokinson was quickly numbered among The New Yorker’s most valued cartoonists. Said Ross: “The New Yorker was pure accident from start to finish. I was the luckiest son of a bitch alive when I started it. Within a year E.B. White, James Thurber, Peter Arno and Hokinson had shown up out of nowhere … It just so happened, accidentally, that all that talent was around, waiting. No other single year has produced anything like as much, not, probably any five-year period.”

At first, her drawings appeared as humorous illustrations without captions. She was frequently sent as a visual reporter to cover such events as circuses, flower shows, first nights at the opera, and the like. Eventually, her editors began to caption her drawings themselves, and they also suggested situations for her to draw. Then in 1931, she met a New Yorker writer named James Reid Parker who lived on Gramercy Park just around the corner from her apartment on 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue. Parker was introduced to Hoky by a mutual friend, Gladys Telfer, who brought him one day to Hokinson’s abode.

Almost at once, Parker realized he had to find a way to start a conversation with this woman whose work he admired: she seemed unduly tense and uncomfortable despite the presence of the woman who had brought them together. He mentioned a story he was working on in which he had a couple of suburban women who seemed to talk in exactly the way he imagined Hoky’s women talked. When she asked him to explain, he quoted a few lines of dialogue. “She stopped twisting her handkerchief,” Parker remembered, “and remarked that one of the lines in particular would have made a good caption for a drawing and that the situation was exactly the kind of thing she liked to do.” Parker urged her to help herself to whatever fragment of dialogue she thought would work best. And she did.

A few days later, she dropped by and gave him a check, his “commission,” she explained. Since The New Yorker always paid a fee for cartoon ideas supplied by persons other than the cartoonists, she did, too. And this was his for the lines she’d appropriated from him. Parker protested, saying “something mildly jocose to the effect that I could accept only ‘books, flowers, candy, or gloves’ from the members of the opposite sex. Helen didn’t get the point of this Victorian conceit and merely looked baffled.” Afraid she might resort to handkerchief twisting again, he suggested that they use his commission money to have dinner together and go to see a play. “Helen thought this a wonderful solution,” and over dinner, Parker supplied some other snatches of conversation he’d overheard that he thought would make good Hokinson cartoons. And so began a collaboration that lasted for the next eighteen years, Parker devising situations with accompanying captions for most of her drawings.

For some time after their first enterprise together, they had dinner and went to the theater a couple times a week on Parker’s “commission,” but eventually, they established Friday afternoons and evenings as a formal working time. Hokinson showed Parker sketches she’d made during the week, and he suggested captions and shared with her ideas for humorous situations based upon things he’d seen and heard during the preceding days.

“I heard a man querulously ask a waiter in his hotel restaurant if anyone had found the bottle of pills he had left behind after breakfast,” Parker told her once. “‘They were dollar-and-a-half pills,’ the man grumbled. Remember your sketch of Mrs. B looking triumphant about her first grandchild? You could draw the same woman, equally triumphant, saying to a luncheon companion at Schrafft’s, ‘My dollar-and-a-half pills are doing me so much good!’”

When Parker began traveling extensively in 1938, they communicated by daily postcard—she describing some of the subjects of her sketches that seemed provocative, he suggesting ideas and captions. They resumed the Friday sessions when Parker was in the city. And after he married, his wife joined them for dinner every Friday.

About their partnership, critic John Mason Brown wrote in The Saturday Review of Literature: “Theirs was the happiest of collaborations. Without any of the frictions of the lords of the Savoy, they found themselves as perfectly matched as Gilbert and Sullivan. If Miss Hokinson’s was the seeing eye, Mr. Parker’s was the hearing ear.”

Hokinson was extraordinarily perceptive, Parker realized: she saw things almost no one else ever noticed. “Investigating the city with Helen was fascinating for a great many reasons,” he said, but mostly because of her almost childlike enjoyment of aspects of whatever scene they were passing through. “When Helen said ‘Look!’ in a tone of the utmost excitement, it generally meant that she had discovered a tiny detail of some kind that she hoped I would enjoy. ‘The way that man is smiling,’ she might say. … Her talent for helping you to see what she herself saw was a great gift. It was as if the very genius of comedy took you by the hand and showed you things. But if Helen regarded the small frustrations and humiliations of life as comic, as her drawings prove that she did, I must record that she never for one moment lacked respect for the fact that to the person involved they were always deadly serious, if only temporarily.”

She was not, however, a vessel brimming with knowledge of the information sort. We’ve already noted that she missed the humor of Parker’s “Victorian conceit” when she offered him his first commission. It was that sort of knowledge that she never bothered with. As Parker put it: “Helen was not one to build up a large stock of general information.” She was not “addicted” to modern reporting. She flipped through newspapers and magazines “with a kind of fretful haste, pausing chiefly when she came to a picture.” But for Parker, Hokinson’s deficiencies in this regard did not “detract at all from the fact that she observed and then drew with innate comprehension and exquisite skill so much of the America of her day.”

Perhaps to mask her lack of interest in acquiring knowledge that she regarded as superfluous, Hokinson invented a persona, the naif, that she put on display whenever she was being interviewed. Said Parker: “She guessed correctly that naivete would make good copy, and she became on innumerable occasions a not-so-simple child who lightly drew her breath and felt her life in every limb.”

In about 1933, Parker persuaded Hokinson to concentrate their efforts on depicting the preoccupations and enthusiasms of the somewhat matronly suburban women of the upper middle class—for which they invented a sort of “women’s club,” as they termed the concept. Working with the gray tones of a wash and a simple line, Hokinson drew dumpling plump ladies with double chins (or no chins) and perky noses and tiny feet dressed in modified Queen Mary fashions. The artist became famous for these “Hokinson women” who filled their otherwise apparently idle hours with club meetings, community theatricals, gardening, shopping in book stores, and visits to the beauty salon and flower and pet shows.

As she and Parker portrayed them, these women were determinedly young at heart, eager to keep abreast of trends in thought and fashion, anxious enough about their weight to diet occasionally but not enough to give up desserts, and just a little puzzled by modern life. “They are earnest, kind, naive, good,” wrote novelist Faith Baldwin, a long-time friend and neighbor of Hokinson’s. “They take club work and civic duties seriously. They keep up with the best-reviewed literature yet have a secret yen for mystery and romantic novels. … They are enthusiastic, given to sudden lively whimseys. They are courageous and unafraid of trying new things—even unafraid of being laughed at, if convinced they are doing the right thing.”

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The comedy with such characters arises from the juxtaposition of their perpetual (though not at all fanatic) concern for status and propriety with their naivety. In a liquor store, one of Hokinson’s women says: “What would you suggest for a small group of ladies who meet every Tuesday to do needlepoint?” She knows a wine should be appropriate to the occasion but doesn’t realize what constitutes an occasion.  Another such woman reveals, as she shops for her husband, that her comprehension of deer hunting is limited mostly to appearances when she says to the sales clerk, “I want to surprise my husband with one of those little red caps that lure deer.”

As club women—women of dedication and purpose—Hokinson’s ladies display the same charming innocence of practicality. One of them arises at a meeting to announce:  “I’m sorry, Madam President, there won’t be any treasurer’s report this month because we have a deficit.”

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Hoky-3

 

Parker and Hokinson shared an admiration for the redoubtable editor of The New Yorker. “We set great store by the judgment of Harold Ross,” Parker wrote, adding Hoky’s opinion: “When he pencils ‘Not funny’ in the margin of a drawing and I look at it later, I generally realize to my horror that it isn’t,” she said.

Although her relationship with the magazine and its editor was, for the most part, “extremely happy,” as Parker reported, there was an occasion of unhappiness when she discovered that Peter Arno was being paid more for his cartoons than she was for hers. This discrepancy doubtless arose because of Ross’s labyrinthian pay scale that resulted in higher pay for full-page cartoons—and Arno was diligent in opting for full-page ideas every time. But Hoky, put out by the perceived inequity, refused to send in any more drawings until the playing field was leveled. Ross promptly did the right thing.

Hokinson kept her pocket-sized sketchpad with her at all times, and once, at least, after her celebrity as the creator of the Hokinson Woman was established, her habit of drawing wherever she was gave her a chuckle. She was sketching at a flower show when she overheard a broad-beamed woman saying to her friends, “Watch out. I understand Helen Hokinson comes here for material.” Hoky, who was at that very moment unobtrusively drawing the speaker, giggled to herself but didn’t miss a stroke of the pencil.

Hoky-4

Some women may have objected to her treatment of their breed, but most saw the affection in Hokinson’s pictures. One woman wrote, “My husband thinks you must have seen me trying on hats.” Another said: “Oh, you were drawing me two months ago, all right. But not now! I’ve taken off twenty pounds!”

Not even vaguely approaching the physical dimensions of the Hokinson Woman, Hoky was like them in many ways. She doted on pets, for instance. And she ran hot and then cold on new projects—cooking, for instance, then bridge; then amateur theatricals, which led, eventually, to a collaboration with playwright Nancy Hamilton. The idea was that the popularity of the Hokinson Woman would make a play showcasing them a big hit. Hokinson also hoped to give the Hokinson Woman her due on stage—respect and affection. But Hamilton, looking for enough dramatic conflict to make an engaging story, wanted to make one or two of the women catty.

“But my women are honest,” Hoky cried, “—they’re good. They’re well-meaning.”

And as honest, good, well-meaning women, they were insufficiently dramatic. She nonetheless worked with Hamilton for quite a time, and once, when Hamilton was out-of-town, Hoky re-wrote their endeavor—leaving out the plot.

Parker may have written most of the words Hoky’s women say, but the cartoonist often sounded just like one of the mildly dotty club women of their creation. Once, when with friends in a cocktail lounge and asked what she’d like to drink, Hoky said, “A glass of iced tea. Hard liquor makes me hot.”

Like her creations, Hokinson attitude towards her wardrobe fluctuated between an obsession with frilly lace raiment and a nonchalant disregard for the dictates of fashion altogether. In the early years of her partnership with Parker, she indulged a passion for bright colors. “She was addicted to gay Romany combinations of orange, pink, scarlet, magenta, and cobalt,” he wrote, “occasionally enhancing the effect with a chrome-yellow hat and a cherry-colored sweater.” Later, she adopted a more sedate ensemble. For a time, her affection for big floppy hats made it so difficult to see her face that people who had just met her asked to be re-introduced in the hope that they could, finally, get a clear enough view to remember what she looked like. She almost always wore a scarf or neckerchief to hide a large birthmark on her neck. Parker told her no one but she ever noticed it. And in later years, she managed to forget about it almost entirely, he said.

Hokinson went diligently to work almost every day. Afternoons she might work in her garden or wander the city or attend exhibitions looking for subjects and sketching, but every morning, she sat down at her kitchen table bright and early and took up a task for the day. She kept her drawing implements on an adjacent Victorian sewing table, which she used for the purpose “because it was the right size.” Noted for the accuracy of her depictions, she resorted frequently to a copious reference file of rough sketches, idea notes, and illustrations clipped from newspapers and magazines, all organized under descriptive headings—”Children,” “Dogs,” “Elections,” “Public Transportation,” and the like. With a kindred methodical thoroughness, she settled on a signature that employed everything but her middle name—Helen E. Hokinson (the “E” standing for Elna).

Her women appeared slightly befuddled, but Hokinson never ridiculed her creations for their inability to grasp the utilitarian world. She was somewhat detached herself, as we’ve seen, but not in the same way her women were: she knew the utilitarian and chose to ignore the other kind of knowledge that seemed to exist for its own sake. She loved women of the sort she portrayed. Said she: “I have always considered them bright, sensible people and agreed with almost everything they said.”

Her compassionate identification with them is displayed in cartoons like the one in which a package-laden lady shopper pauses at a beauty salon to inquire, “Have you a treatment that includes lying down?”

Her humor was gentle and affectionate; portraiture not satire was her objective. And the picture she (and Parker) painted of her women showed them to be very human. In John Mason Brown’s view, “They were worldlings whom neither time nor exposure could make worldly. Foolish and self-indulgent as they were, pretense was never one of their follies, [and] they were never guilty of meanness. They were a friendly breed. This explains why they made so many friends. Miss Hokinson’s fondness for them was transparent and contagious. Hers was the rarest of gifts. She had no contempt for human failings. She approached foibles with affection. She could ridicule without wounding. She could give fun by making fun, and in the process make no enemies.”

Hokinson, who never married, maintained an apartment in New York City and a rambling pink cottage in Connecticut—an idyllic woodland retreat, Parker called it—first in Silver Mine, then in Wilton (but which of them was pink, I don’t know). There, she spent the summers, sharing the accommodation with an elderly Canadian woman named Henderson and a New York businesswoman named Lulu Fellows. For a time, Parker took a cottage next door in the summer, and their guests shared the pool between the two. They worked together on advertising assignments as well as cartoons, and for a year or so, they did a monthly cartoon for Ladies’ Home Journal called The Dear Man, “in which Helen could demonstrate regularly that she could draw the male of the species as deftly as she did the female.”

Although Hoky was quite shy and self-effacing, in later years she undertook a public-appearance crusade to explain her work because she felt people were laughing at her “girls” rather than with them. On November 1, 1949, she was en route to one such appearance in Washington, D.C., when the airliner in which she was traveling collided over the capital’s National Airfield with a war surplus fighter aircraft on practice maneuvers. The big plane flashed and broke in half, its two sections falling into the river. All fifty-five of its passengers died. The pilot of the fighter plane survived; he was Eric Rios Bridoux, Bolivia’s most famous airman. Every report of the disaster mentioned Hokinson; few named Bridoux.

While awaiting to board her plane at La Guardia, Hoky had sketched a man and a woman arguing in the waiting room. She posted the drawing to Parker just before she left, scribbling beneath the picture, “Can’t we do something with these people?” When Parker received the missive, it was like a communique from the afterlife.

Of that tragic day, Parker wrote: “Ross telephoned late that afternoon, when word from Washington had extinguished his last hope. Talking was hard for both of us.”

To writer Kay Boyle, Ross wrote later in the week: “We’ve had a terrible tragedy here, as I suppose you know, the death of our artist Helen Hokinson in a damned airplane accident at Washington. This has distressed everybody all week. I’ve got to go now and see Helen’s mother, who is leaving this afternoon for her hometown in Illinois for the funeral.”

Hokinson was a “member of the family,” he told another associate. And to another, he wrote: “That Hokinson thing was an outrage by fate. The poor little girl never did a bit of harm to anyone in her life, and she brought a great deal of pleasure to many people. The only close relative she had was her mother.”

At last, facing the inevitable, Ross wrote to Hoky’s mother: “I, too, hope that Helen knows all that has happened, and how the value of her work has been recognized in print and otherwise. Her passing has left a great hole in our lives and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If she knows, she has the satisfaction of realizing that she left such an extensive record behind her that she probably never will be forgotten.”

In the next issue of the magazine after her death, “The Editors” (Ross) wrote: “the news of Helen Elna Hokinson’s death in an airplane accident last week was as sad as any that has come to this office. Miss Hokinson’s first drawing appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1925. The magazine was less than five months old then, and it was singularly fortunate in finding, at its difficult beginning, an artist of such rare and gentle distinction. In the years since then, her pictures have appeared in these pages almost every week, and the ladies she drew have become perhaps the most widely known and certainly the most affectionately cherished of any characters we have introduced to our readers. If satire is defined as an exposure of anyone’s weakness, she was not a satirist at all, or even a humorist, if there is any implication of harshness in that. Her work was the product of loving observation and a boundless delight in all absurdity, none more than that she found in herself, and the pleasure she gave other people was really a reflection of her own. We can remember no unhappier duty than writing this final paragraph about an irreplaceable artist and a woman whom some of us have fondly admired half our lives.”

Ironically, she alone of the New Yorker’s big four—Peter Arno, Charles Addams, George Price, and Hokinson—received no individual write up in the colossal tome of the magazine’s cartoons that Robert Mankoff produced in 2004.

Bibliography. For Who’s Who in America, Helen Hokinson supplied just the street address of her Manahattan apartment—145 East 52nd Street. The details of her life are published only in two affectionate essays written by John Reid Parker—one for the Dictionary of American Biography, the other as the introduction to the 1950 collection of her cartoons. An appreciation of her work by John Mason Brown appears in The Saturday Review of Literature, 10 December 1949; another by Dale Kramer, in The Saturday Evening Post, 7 April 1951, rehearses her life story. Hokinson’s cartoons have been collected in six slender volumes: So You’re Going to Buy A Book! (1931), My Best Girls (1941), When Were You Built? (1948), The Ladies. God Bless `Em! (1950), There Are Ladies Present (1952), and The Hokinson Festival (1956), which mined the previous volumes for its contents. I’ve quoted Ross from Thomas Kunkel’s Letters from the Editor and from the November 12, 1949 issue of the magazine. An obituary was published in the New York Times on November 2, 1949.

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2 Responses to Helen E. Hokinson

  1. Thanks for this wonderful and moving tribute to Helen Hokinson – one of my favourite cartoonists. Over the years I have collected many of her books after first discovering her in The New Yorker Album 1925-1950 and she has never disappointed me!

    Even though I love her art, I’ve never known much about her – I didn’t even know she had died in an airplane collision. It’s sad that she and her “ladies” never got to face the changes of the ‘Sixties together. That would have been fun!

  2. Pingback: New Yorker Christmas - shelleys.nextmp.net

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