Lily Renée Willheim Peters Phillips, credited as L. Renée, Lily Renée, or Reney, (born May 12, 1921 in Vienna, Austria) is an Austrian-American artist, writer, and playwright. She escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna to England and later New York, whereupon she found work as a penciller at Fiction House, on such titles as the supernatural Werewolf Hunter, plucky aviatrix Jane Martin, and the glamorous spy Senorita Rio.
Early Life[edit | edit source]
Phillips came from a well-off Viennese Jewish family, and was surrounded by art and culture from an early age. At the age of six, she had her first exhibition of her art from her school art class. Around that time, her mother entered her photograph into a contest where first prize was a movie contract; she won, but her father would not allow her to go into show business.
When she was about 13, the Anschluss happened, and the majority of Viennese welcomed the Nazis. She was no longer allowed to attend school, and her parents started a nearly two year effort to get her out of the country. Having taken English in school, she had a British penpal named Molly Kealy, and the Wilheims appealed to the Kealys to send her a visitors permit. When it finally arrived, her family put her on the Kindertransport, in late 1939. She landed in Leeds, England, and went to stay with the Kealys in nearby Horseforth. Mrs. Kealy, however, seemed to think that by bringing her over, they were getting an unpaid servant.
After war officially broke out, about a month later, Mrs. Kealy pointed out that she didn't even know if her parents were even alive anymore. That day, she walked into Leeds and applied at an employment agency, quickly securing work as a mother's helper. She also worked a a servant, a caretaker, and a candy striper whose job it was to bring the newborns down the shelter whenever the air-raid sirens went off. She also attempted to find her parents work as servants, which was the easiest way to get anyone into England. Two families came close to agreeing, but backed out last minute because they were afraid her parents were too like their own peers and that the situation would be uncomfortable; "They did not see that it was a matter of life or death," she said later.
About 18 months after she left Austria, her parents had managed to secure passage to the United States by trading two buildings they owned with the Nazis, and she soon received a letter from them. Unfortunately, her passage was hindered by their earlier attempt to retain their valuables: they had given her their expensive Leica camera to take out of the country, and she had once lied about it to a Scotland Yard agent. She was required to check in once a week and was not allowed to move. She snuck away to London in the middle of the night, but she was again detained at the waterfront. However, an anonymous stranger negotiated her release and she secured passage to New York. She found out later, after the war, that two of her uncles and an aunt were killed by the Nazis.
Career[edit | edit source]
In New York City, her family lived in one room under the roof in a building on 72nd Street on the West Side, along with other refugees. She took whatever odd jobs she could get to raise money, including painting boxes with Tyrolean designs, posing as a model for fashion illustrator Jane Turner, and illustrating the Woolworth's catalog for 50 cents an hour. She also took night classes at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts. One day in late 1942, her mother showed her an advertisement looking for comics artists. Knowing nothing of comics, she scoffed at first, but her mother suggested all she needed to do was "draw Tarzan and Jane."  The publisher, Fiction House's flagship character was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and she secured the job.
Her first job was erasing the stray pencil lines of the other artists after they had been inked. The male artists frequently also scribbled obscene notes to her, and stared at her as she walked by "as if they were undressing me". She hated the job and frequently cried herself to sleep. But her desire to prove herself and the good pay ($18 a week) trumped her urge to quit, and she soon started pencilling her own work.
Her first pencilling job was for a character called Jane Martin, a female pilot working in the all-male aviation industry. Later she was given "The Werewolf Hunter", about a professor and monster hunter, a strip that she said that no one else wanted. She convinced the writer that it should be a general supernatural title, gave him story ideas (all of which he used) and infused it with the Viennese art nouveau and German fairy tales that she grew up with. Her art evoked German expressionist films and her women were dressed in the high fashion of the day. She later took over Senorita Rio in 1944 and became the artist most identified with the character. She received a lot of fan mail from soldiers overseas (who all referred to her as "Mr. Renée") and occasionally wrote back and sent sketches, as a token of her appreciation for them fighting Nazis. Also in 1944, she married engineer Ernest Meyer; however the marriage was not to last, as she later admitted that the main reason for the marriage was to get out of her parents' house.
There were many women working for Fiction House at the time, and she was on good terms with most of them. She would regularly go out for lunch with Fran Hopper, and at one point, she lived with artist Ruth Atkinson for about a year.
In 1947 she married artist Eric Peters, another Viennese refugee 22 years her senior. He had been a political cartoonist, and after drawing a caricature of Joseph Goebbels, the Gestapo showed up at his house to arrest him. However, he was not home at the time, and he was tipped off they were waiting for him, so he borrowed a pair of skis and escaped over the Alps. In 1948, after Fiction House moved out of New York, she and Peters went to work for St. John Publications. They worked on Abbott & Costello comics together, with him drawing the comedians and her drawing the women and inking. She also drew romance stories for St. John.
Like many creators in the Golden Age, she was embarassed to be working in comics, but at the same time she also says that she had fun doing it and thrilled at seeing her covers on the newsstand. She approached her job as if she was a movie director, drawing all the sets, costumes, and actors.
Later Life[edit | edit source]
By 1949, her marriage to Peters had ended and in 1953, she married an American named Randolph Phillips, with whom she had a son and a daughter. She left comics and was missing from comics radar for nearly 50 years until one of her granddaughters contacted Trina Robbins. Her children never knew she drew comics until she told her grandchildren. When her children were young, she wrote two children's books, Red is the Heart about "a boy [who] invents colors through his feelings" and Magic Next Door, a juvenile detective story. She also illustrated a book called Battle of the Bees by Carl Ewald and a version of Aesop's Fables.
After her husband died in about 1990, she started to take college classes in philosophy and English literature at Hunter College. After writing a dialogue for her Ancient Chinese Philosophy term paper, she became interested in playwriting. She has written five plays, one of which called Dial God, was produced and performed at Hunter.
In 2007, she attended her first comic book convention, Comic-Con International in San Diego, and Friends of Lulu nominated her to their Hall of Fame. She still lives in Manhattan, near Madison Avenue.
A graphic biography of Phillips titled Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer was published by Graphic Universe in November 2011. The book was written by Robbins and illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. It chronicles Phillips' escape from the Nazis and her early years at Fiction House.
At Comic-Con International 2011, IDW announced that they were planning a collection of Phillips's Fiction House work, to be edited by Robbins. It will be the first collection of her work ever published.
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
Sources[edit | edit source]
- Robbins, Trina. Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
- Amash, Jim. "'I'm Not Typical for Doing Comics, You Know!': The Life And Times Of Golden Age Artist Lily Renée," Alter-Ego, Vol. 3 no. 85, May 2009.
- Quinlan, Adriane. "A Real Life Comic Book Superhero," Newsweek, 9 August 2010.
- "Lily Renee Willheim", New York, Marriage License Indexes, 1907-1995. Ancestry.com record. Accessed 31 Jan 2018.
- Personal correspondance with "LadiesMakingComics"
- "Lily Renee Willheim", New York City Marriage Licenses Index, 1950-1995. FamilySearch record. Accessed 31 Jun 2018.
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