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Kewpie's Mom

This is the eighth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

Rose O’Neill was a self-trained artist who built a very successful career as a magazine and book illustrator. She is well-known as the inventor of the Kewpie, an elfish and androgynous cupid with a top-knot head, large eyes, and cute little grin. Kewpies were a consumer craze that lasted a few decades and made Ms. O’Neill a millionaire. Though she was a prudent entrepreneur, Rose had the soul of an artist, and her personal life and ambitions reflected this.

Shortly after she was born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, Rose and her family moved to Nebraska where she grew up and cultivated her many talents. At age 14, she entered and won an art contest held by the Omaha World-Herald. The editors were skeptical that a school-aged child was responsible for the Dore-esque and sophisticated drawing, titled "Temptation Leading into the Abyss." Before given her 5-dollar gold piece, Rose had to prove she was the actual artist by drawing and sketching in front of the doubting editors. Thus, Rose’s career as a paid illustrator began.

Like so many Nebraskans before and after her, Rose outgrew the Midwest market and furthered her career and fortunes by leaving for New York when she turned 19. There, she accrued clients such as Harpers Weekly (where she drew a four-panel comic strip, making her their first woman comic artist) Bazaar and Collier’s Weekly. She became the first female staff member at Puck, the leading American humor magazine. During this time in New York, her family moved to Missouri where they started building “the Mansion of the Ozarks,” using money and house designs mailed to them by Rose.

She divided her time between Bonniebrook (the Mansion of the Ozarks), a Manhattan apartment, a Connecticut estate titled Castle Carabas and a villa on the Isle of Capri called the Villa Narcissus. During this time Rose created an extended family of artists, dancers and musicians who not only lived off her patronage, but at times lived in her many homes. By the time she created Kewpie in 1909 Rose O’Neill had had a successful, 20-year career as an artist, written and illustrated two books, and been married and divorced twice. She’d also been elected to the Societe’ des Beaux Arts in Paris. Active in the women’s suffragist movement and busily overseeing her Kewpie licensing empire, Rose became a world-renowned personality.

By the late 1930s however, photographers replaced illustrators, the Kewpie craze had waned, and Rose’s many dependents all combined to take a toll on her finances. Near bankruptcy, she moved into her beloved Bonniebrook, which had begun to fall into disrepair. Yet despite it all, Rose was an eternal optimist. During her retirement, she struck up a friendship with another Nebraskan-turned-Missourian, John Neihardt. Neihardt had met Rose nearly forty years earlier at a poetry reading, where, “her poetry was exquisite and she read it exquisitely.” Neihardt became a frequent visitor to Bonniebrook, and after her death, continued to attend events held in her honor. He was fond of her poetry, once remarking, “She would have rivaled a Sappho, a woman poet of ancient Greece known for love lyrics, if she had devoted her life to poetry.” Rose illustrated many of her poems, especially the earlier ones that appeared in Cosmopolitan. Rose’s poems were published in a book titled The Master-Mistress in 1923, and have since been reprinted. Rose suffered a series of strokes and passed away in Springfield, Missouri, in 1944. There is no mistaking that she lived an extraordinarily rich and productive life.