Nell Brinkley (September 5, 1886 – October 21, 1944) was an American illustrator and comic artist who was known as the "Queen of Comics" during her nearly four-decade career working with New York newspapers and magazines. She was the creator of the iconic Brinkley Girl, a stylish character who appeared in her comics and became a popular symbol in songs, films and theater.
Life & Career
Nell Brinkley was born in Denver, Colorado in 1886 (some sources say 1888), but her family soon moved to the small town of Edgewater, Colorado on Denver's western border, facing Sloan's Lake at Manhattan Beach. She was not formally trained in the arts, and dropped out of high school to follow her natural talent with pen and ink. As a child, she drew place-setting illustrations of knobby-kneed kiddies for Mary Elitch's garden parties at Elitch Gardens. At the age of 16, she was already accomplished at illustration. She illustrated the book cover and 25 illustrations for a 1906 children's book, Wally Wish and Maggie Magpie by A.U. Mayfield. She was hired to do pen-and-ink drawings for The Denver Post and later the Rocky Mountain News.
Her skills were noticed in 1907 by media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his editor Arthur Brisbane. Though still a teenager, she was convinced to move from Denver to Brooklyn, New York, with her mother. She began working in downtown Manhattan with the New York Journal-American, where she produced large detailed illustrations with commentary almost daily. The newspaper's circulation boomed; her artwork was featured in the magazine section. Brinkley later moved to New Rochelle, New York, a well known artist colony and home to many of the top commercial illustrators of the day.
Brinkley's reputation was also established by an early assignment to cover the sensational murder trial of Harry K. Thaw. She was assigned many interviews with the actress-wife, Evelyn Nesbit. In later years, she covered other infamous murder trials. She produced numerous courtroom illustrations printed in the Evening Journal and other Hearst newspapers.
Brinkely flew with Glen Martin in his new biplane and reported the daring swoopings and the landing for her readers in "Nell Brinkley Tastes Joys of Real Freedom Soaring in Clouds," the headline for the May 11, 1914 article in the San Francisco Examiner. Nell helped with War Bond drives, and she entertained and consoled those at home and the American youth abroad, during and just after World War I. She traveled to Washington, D.C. where she interviewed many young ladies who had left their homes to become defense workers. 
One of her most popular series was Golden Eyes and Her Hero Bill, which were one-page full-color covers of American Weekly with an accompanying descriptive text. It started in March 31, 1918 and described the adventures of Golden Eyes, who followed her sweetheart Bill into the trenches of World War I with her faithful dog, a collie called Uncle Sam. Full of patriotism typical of the time, the stories also had a pro-active heroine who drove a Red Cross ambulance and defied German officers to save her fiancé.
This was followed by Kathleen and the Great Secret which ran from 1920-1921, in which Kathleen rescued her kidnapped fiancé who possessed an important secret formula. Together they have adventures all over the globe before returning to America.
At the age of 34 Brinkley married the twenty-two year old Bruce McRae, Jr. on September 5, 1920. On December 15, 1923 she gave birth to her only child, Bruce Robert McRae III.
From 1921 -1924 she created another series of full-color one-page adventures called Betty and Billy - Their Love Through the Ages. This recounted the various love affairs between a constantly reincarnating couple - the eponymous Betty and Billy - from the Caveman era all the way through to modern times. What was striking about the series is that Nell drew Betty and Billy as couples in Egypt, Africa, Mongolia and Arabia, as well as the usual European settings.
Brinkley was also known for the charming text that accompanied her stories and reporting while she worked at the Evening Journal and other publications that included Cosmopolitan (magazine), Good Housekeeping and Harper's Magazine. She produced many illustrated theatre reviews and profiles of mothers and young women in society, including later, in the 1930s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Much of her writing promoted the working women of the time, and encouraged the expansion of women's rights.
Her work was distributed to newspapers internationally by King Features Syndicate. By 1935, however, photography began to replace illustrations in newspapers.
Yet, in 1937 she produced one of her most interesting works, Heroines of Today, a Sunday series in which Nell offered portraits of contemporary heroines: a forest-fire spotter, a soldier, a police detective, etc. Brinkley retired, but kept illustrating books and produced topical multi-panel art pages of art. One was collected in a 1943 anthology of comics.
In 1936 she divorced her husband Bruce, and lived the rest of her life with her mother May. Unfortunately, she had a disagreement with her son in 1943 when he married Anne Toth, a woman Nell didn't approve of. She disinherited Bruce, and didn't reconcile with him before her death. She left her estate to her mother.
In 1944 Nell Brinkley died after over 30 years of entertaining fans. Her obituaries appeared in newspapers across in the USA, and stated she succumbed to 'a long illness', which was usually code for cancer during that period.
Nell, her mother and father are buried in Beechmont cemetery in New Rochelle.
The Brinkley Girl
Brinkley was known for her idyllic designs in her artwork, and her female characters drew attention from readers. In comparison to the staid Gibson Girl stereotype established earlier by artist Charles Dana Gibson, the Brinkley Girl was feminine, fun-loving and more independent. Syndicated nationally, her drawing The Three Graces helped establish this character as an icon. The piece, displaying three women singing the praises of suffrage, preparedness and Americanism with regards to love of country, was one of the first to link young, attractive women with the concept of suffrage.
The Brinkley Girl was generally a young working woman who wore modern, fashionable outfits, styled her hair in curls and engaged in activities that were more independent than the general female standard - such as surfing. Her work was often had a feminist slant.
The Brinkley Girl became a national sensation, the topic of pop music, poetry and theater. The second Ziegfeld Follies (1908) featured a number of references to the Brinkley Girl, including a song "The Nell Brinkley Girl" by Harry B. Smith and Maurice Levi.
Bloomingdale's department store featured a Nell Brinkley Day with advertisements using many of her drawings. Women emulated the hairstyles in the cartoons and purchased Nell Brinkley Hair Curlers for ten cents a card. Young girls saved her drawings, colored them and pasted them in scrapbooks. The Denver Press Club greeted her when she vacationed in Colorado in the summer of 1908, and her 1914 visit to San Francisco made the front page of the San Francisco Call. In 1911 The British newspaper The Sketch reprinted some of her panels with the accompanying title: "Nell Brinkley Girls: The Rage of America."
Her work was referenced by other cartoonists of the day, including W. R. Allman, and by the 1913 other artists were imitating her style, such as Eleanor Schorer, who named her couple Bessie and Bob (a transparent replica of Brinkley's Betty and Bill).
- The Brinkley Girls (Fantagraphics Books, 2009) collects Brinkley’s full-page color art from 1913 to 1940; her earliest adventure series, Golden Eyes and Her Hero, Bill; her romantic series, Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages; her flapper comics from the 1920s; her 1937 pulp magazine-inspired Heroines of Today and unpublished paintings, along with an introduction by the book's editor, Trina Robbins.
- Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum digital exhibit
- "The Nell Brinkley Girl" and "The Brinkley Bathing Girl" sheet music
- Collins, Lois E. and Tom J. Collins. Nell Brinkley 1917 "Love Letters"
- Robbins, Trina, ed. The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons from 1913-1940. Fantagraphics Books, 2009. (ISBN 9781560979708)
- Gravett, Paul. "Nell Brinkley: A New Woman in the Early 20th Century", Originally published in The Comics Journal, 2002. Accessed 29 Sept 2017.
- Collins, Lois and Tom, Nell Brinkley 1917, 1918, and 1919 "Love Letters"(archive.org), Forgotten Heroes - NellBrinkley.net. Archived 21 Dec 2014.
- Robbins, Trina, Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century(Google Books). McFarland, 2001. (ISBN 9780786450718) p. 9, 22. Accessed 30 Oct 2011. Cite error: Invalid
<ref>tag; name "Robbins" defined multiple times with different content
- Prieto, Laura, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America(Google Books), Harvard University Press, 2001. (ISBN 9780674004863) p. 173. Accessed 10 Nov 2007.
- Ziegfeld Follies of 1908, Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 10 Nov 2007.
View Nell Brinkley's memorial at Find-A-Grave.
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