One of the 20th century's most influential cartoonists, Helen Hokinson (1893-1949) chronicled the social comings and goings of the middle-aged American matron in the pages of the New Yorker for nearly a quarter century. She traded her early aspirations to become either a painter or a fashion illustrator for life as a cartoonist after one of her early cartooning efforts was accepted for publication by the newly founded magazine in 1925. Hokinson's cartoons were peopled with what came to be known as "those Hokinson ladies." The ladies of Hokinson's cartoons, all of them "slightly overweight, behatted, and ranging in mental state from outright addled to merely puzzled, populated garden clubs, library societies, civic meetings, and luncheons, and they entertained numberless notions and aspirations that were at once ridiculous and engagingly innocent," according to a profile of Hokinson in Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women.
Over the next 24 years Hokinson created more than 1,700 cartoons, the majority of which were published in the New Yorker, gently lampooning the society matron. So gentle was Hokinson's touch, in fact, that she counted among her numerous admirers many of the plump, well-to-do middle-aged women her cartoons chided. Her earliest cartoons appeared in the New Yorker without caption. Before long, however, the magazine's editors began adding captions to further punch up the impact of her work. Beginning in 1931, she collaborated with James Reid Parker, a contributor of short stories to the New Yorker, who originated many of the scenarios for Hokinson's cartoons and also wrote the captions. In an assessment of their longtime association in the Saturday Review of Literature, John Mason Brown wrote: "Theirs was the happiest of collaborations. Without any of the friction 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 born Helen Elna Hokinson in Mendota, Illinois, on June 29, 1893. The only child of Adolph and Mary (Wilcox) Hokinson, she spent her early years in Moline, Illinois, and Des Moines, Iowa, before returning in 1905 to Mendota. Her father, a farm machinery salesman, was the son of Swedish immigrants who had changed the family name from Haakonson to Hokinson. Her mother, an Arkansas native of English descent, was the daughter of Phineas Wilcox, a well-known lecturer known as the "Carpenter Orator." During her years at Mendota High School, Hokinson carried a sketchbook with her wherever she went, discreetly recording the events and personalities around her. She drew humorous sketches of her classmates and teachers at Mendota High, as well as some of the more interesting characters among the townspeople of Mendota.
After her graduation from high school in 1913, Hokinson persuaded her parents to let her enroll in a two-year program of study at the prestigious Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. The school promised that its program would produce commercial artists who were fully equipped to make a living. During the course of her studies in fashion illustration and design, Hokinson lived modestly at the Three Arts Club in Chicago. After completing the two-year program, she was able to secure assignments from art service agencies and department stores in the city.
Buoyed by her modest success in Chicago, Hokinson in 1920 moved to New York City, hopeful that she might do even better in the larger market the city offered. She was joined in New York the following year by fellow artist Alice Harvey, with whom she had earlier shared a small studio in Chicago. The two moved into rooms at the Smith College Club, a newly opened residence for Smith graduates that just happened to have some accommodations available for young women who had not attended Smith. While Harvey managed to sell some of her humorous drawings to Life magazine, Hokinson worked mostly as a fashion illustrator for such fashionable New York stores as B. Altman, John Wanamaker, and Lord & Taylor. Both women also tried their hand at cartooning, hoping to sell one of their strips to the Daily Mirror. Hokinson's "Sylvia in the Big City" did appear briefly in the newspaper but was dropped after a couple of months.
In 1924 Hokinson and Harvey enrolled in courses at New York's School of Fine and Applied Art. That learning experience was to radically alter the course of Hokinson's career. She studied under Howard Giles, who taught the Jay Hambridge theory of dynamic symmetry. Looking over some of Hokinson's high school sketches, Giles was struck by the young artist's talent for "drawing true." Although some of her high school work might loosely be described as caricatures because of the humor they conveyed, Giles believed that this was due mostly to Hokinson's ability to accurately represent characteristics in her subjects that were innately funny. Giles urged Hokinson to concentrate on this form of artistic expression, capturing accurately the funny and ironic situations that unfolded around her. Hokinson took his advice and soon had abandoned fashion illustration altogether. Before long, she was turning out her slice-of-life observations in watercolor, combining the elements of dynamic symmetry she'd learned from Giles with the color theory of Denman Ross.
When the New Yorker began publishing in 1925, its editors launched a search for writers and artists whose work accurately reflected life in the city. Shortly after they'd opened their editorial offices, Hokinson submitted one of her drawings for consideration. When she checked back two weeks later, she learned that her drawing had been accepted for publication. What's more, the editors asked that she continue to send drawings each week for possible publication. It was the beginning of a long association between Hokinson and the magazine.
Typical of Hokinson's cartoons for the New Yorker are these: An ample matron, seated in the beauty parlor, submits stoically to the ministrations of her hairdresser, who opines, "These little curls will add to the gaiety of nations, Mrs. Balcom." In another, an equally well-padded woman of late middle age, clad in an overcoat with fur collar and sporting an imposing chapeau, has just purchased a fish in a pet store. She asks the store owner, "And when they spawn, do I do anything?" In neither of these so-called cartoons are the characters' features overly exaggerated. They are fairly accurate drawings of humorous situations that Hokinson had either observed or imagined.
As Hokinson continued to turn out cartoons for the New Yorker, its editors began to assign her to create cover illustrations for the weekly magazine. For the cover of the magazine's October 3, 1931, issue, Hokinson drew a decidedly obese matron posing for her photograph at the feet of a giant statue of Buddha. In another charming slice-of-life cover (November 27, 1937), a middle-aged housewife puzzles over a cookbook before a table covered with the ingredients for a pumpkin pie—including a pumpkin—as members of her family look on covertly from a nearby room. For the New Yorker cover of February 26, 1938, Hokinson drew two obviously wealthy youngsters—brother and sister—selecting food items for themselves at a Horn & Hardart Automat as the family chauffeur patiently looks on.
Hokinson's earliest work for the New Yorker carried no captions. After the first year, however, the magazine's editors began supplying appropriate captions. They also began to suggest ideas for her to work on and sent her on assignments to cover various New York area events and phenomena they thought might spark a cartoon or cover idea. In 1931 Hokinson met writer James Reid Parker, who was also a regular contributor to the magazine. For the next 18 years, until her death in 1949, the two worked together on cartoons for the New Yorker. Parker supplied the ideas or situations, as well as the captions, while Hokinson did the artwork. The two also collaborated on a monthly cartoon— "The Dear Man"—for the Ladies Home Journal and handled some advertising assignments as well.
In an article in the Saturday Review of Literature, literary critic John Mason Brown wrote of Hokinson's feelings for the subjects of her cartoons. "Miss Hokinson's fondness for them was transparent and contagious. Hers was the rarest of satiric 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." At one point in her career, Hokinson became concerned that those who saw her cartoons were laughing at, rather than with the plump, strong-minded but occasionally befuddled women who were their principal characters. So strongly did the artist feel about her subjects that she launched a crusade to defend and explain them.
In addition to her work for the New Yorker and Ladies Home Journal, Hokinson published three books of her own cartoons: So You're Going to Buy a Book in 1931; My Best Girls in 1943; and When Were You Built? in 1948. After her death in 1949, the Hokinson estate brought out these additional collections of the cartoonist's work: The Ladies, God Bless Them in 1950; There Are Ladies Present in 1952; and The Hokinson Festival in 1956. Two of the books published posthumously— The Ladies, God Bless Them and The Hokinson Festival —included not only Hokinson's cartoons but John Mason Brown's essay about her and a memoir entitled "Helen" by longtime collaborator Parker.
In his memoir of Hokinson, Parker wrote of the artist's choice of subjects for her cartoons. "Her best-known sketches were of pleasantly plump, middle-aged suburban clubwomen. Most, but certainly not all, of these women were unself-consciously charming, kind, self-indulgent, ingenuous to a degree, and generally addicted to short-lived enthusiasms. But Miss Hokinson confounds us because she drew so very many women (and men), each a true individual. It is true, however, that many of Miss Hokinson's admirers were inclined to think of her women as a type, an amalgam of women exemplified by the women's club treasurer who declines to submit her monthly report 'because there is a deficit.' Miss Hokinson herself thought of her characters only as individuals, which in fact they are."
Hokinson, who never married, divided her time between an apartment in New York and cottages in Connecticut—first in Silvermine and later in Wilton. Invited to speak at the opening of the annual Community Chest drive in Washington, D.C., on November 1, 1949, Hokinson was aboard a flight from New York that collided with a Bolivian fighter plane and plunged into the Potomac River, killing all aboard. She was buried in her hometown of Mendota, Illinois.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-1950, American Council of Learned Societies, 1974.
Her Heritage: A Biography Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, Pilgrim New Media, 1994.
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