Ethel Hays, Pioneering Female Cartoonist
Allan Holtz looks at the life and career of trailblazing cartoonist Ethel Hays.
The current fashion in academia is to discuss cartoonists in terms of their race or gender. In some cases, the work of the cartoonist invites such categorization. Aaron McGruder, for instance, is a black cartoonist, and his race is a defining component of his work on The Boondocks. Similarly, Trina Robbins uses her gender to inform her cartooning work, which often uses feminism as a subject. Academia aside, though, no matter what ethnic or gender cards a cartoonist might hold, the trump card is always talent. Cartoonists are judged by their readers based on the merit of their creations, not on their creator’s DNA.
The newspaper cartooning profession has been lucky to boast a healthy contingent of women practitioners throughout its history. Though their presence on newspaper and syndicate art staffs was, and sometimes still is, met with resistance from editors, they never faced the nearly insurmountable barriers that until recently were present for nonwhite cartoonists. The problem for women cartoonists has been that editors are interested in their work only for its appeal to women readers. Even today, editors look to women cartoonists mostly for their uniquely female perspective, giving little consideration to those who want to break the Cathy/Sylvia/Brenda Starr mold to create features with more general appeal.
Today women cartoonists are finally having some fledgling success in syndicating features that don’t specifically target women readers. Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange and Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set are fine examples. However, this is a very recent phenomenon and still the exception to the rule.
In the early decades of the 20th century, women cartoonists had very narrowly defined subject limits. They could take their pick of two genres of newspaper cartooning: cherubic children and animals having sugary adventures (Dimples, Dolly Drake And Bobby Blake, Kewpies, Pussycat Princess) or romance cartoons (as practiced by Nell Brinkley, Annette Bradshaw, Virgina Huget, Eleanor Schorer and a slew of others). Beyond this pair of niches was no-woman’s land. Those few who were permitted to break the mold, such as Fay King was, did so with modest success.
Ethel Hays worked in the era’s standard female genres yet rose above them. Her talent for cartooning was so great that her work had universal appeal even while working well within the accepted limitations. Eventually, though, her gender and her ability caused her stay in the cartooning fraternity to be far too short.
Ethel Hays was born in Billings, Mont., in 1892 and showed an interest in art from an early age. She was staff illustrator on her high school newspaper, The Kyote, and by then had already decided on a career in the art field. While her friends went off to finishing schools to become proper young ladies, Hays convinced her parents to send her to California to attend the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. She arrived at school with the idea of being an illustrator; her work at the time owed much to James Montgomery Flagg. Her instructors convinced her that she should instead apply herself to painting. She learned, in her words, “how to paint pretty pictures—never dreaming that I was no pretty picture painter.”
Recognized as the most promising student at the school, Hays won a scholarship to New York’s Art Students League. There she impressed instructor and famed painter Louis Mora with her sketchbook caricatures of people on the streets of New York City. Mora suggested that she cultivate this ability, but Hays would have none of it—she had been convinced in California that she should become a serious artist. Three years of fine art study in New York proved her worth for another scholarship, this time with the prestigious Julian Academy in Paris. However, World War I intervened and Hays’ studies came to an abrupt end.
Hays enrolled in Red Cross training in preparation for war work, but before the training was completed she heard of another pressing need, one for which she was well qualified. Military hospitals were searching for “reconstruction aides”—women who could instruct and entertain convalescing disabled soldiers. One needed specialty was for women who could teach basic art skills and provide ways for badly injured men to pass the time. If some of the men showed aptitude, so much the better for when they reentered civilian life. Hays loved this work and spoke of it often in interviews. “Many of the men I taught were so weak that they were allowed to exert themselves only a few minutes a day,” she said. “I loved the work and was delighted when they chose art as the way they wanted to spend this precious period of time.”
She recalled of one student, “I remember a man who was so ill that he had to lie flat on his back, most of his body in a cast. At first he could draw only fifteen minutes a day but later was permitted fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen in the afternoon. He was passionately fond of John Singer Sargent’s paintings and, with a drawing board arranged over the bed so he could work lying down, he learned to copy Sargent. So expert did he become that his art was shown at an art exhibit held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York—an exhibit it was really an honor to be in.”
After six years of hospital work, Hays confronted a new situation. She was transferred to a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., and went through the now-familiar procedures of setting up art classes. The soldiers were notified of the class and a full house showed up for their first instruction. When Hays asked what they’d like to learn how to paint, one soldier volunteered that he really wanted to learn how to draw cartoons. The rest of the vets liked the idea and echoed the sentiment. Hays was caught off guard. She knew how to teach painting, but she was no cartoonist and didn’t have a clue how to teach the subject. She reluctantly admitted to the soldiers that she couldn’t teach them cartooning and forged ahead with her normal instruction.
At the next lesson, Hays stood in an empty classroom. “I knew right then that I must do something drastic and do it right away, for I felt that I had a mission to keep those men occupied and happy.” She decided to solve the problem by enrolling herself in the Landon School, a cartooning correspondence course. “As soon as I mastered the first two lessons I told that group of men that I could teach them cartooning. Keeping a couple of lessons ahead, I carried them through the course.”
Hays not only came through for the convalescing soldiers; she also unwittingly found a booster in C.N. Landon himself. The head of the correspondence school was so impressed with her cartooning abilities that he showed samples of her work to H.B.R. Briggs, the editor of the Cleveland Press. Briggs agreed that Hays was a wonder and quickly wired her a job offer.
“I was frightened at the idea of doing newspaper illustrations and told the editor he must give me six months to attend special classes at art school and brush up for that exacting work,” she recalled. “He laughed at me and said he was offering me the job to start the very day my three weeks’ notice to the government was over. With fear and trembling I accepted, realizing that the entire course of my life and work had been changed by that course in cartooning.”
Hays got another surprise when she reported for work at the Cleveland Press in December 1923. She assumed that as a neophyte cartoonist her duties would initially be limited to touch-up and layout work. Instead, her assignment was to team up with a woman reporter on a new feature titled Vic And Ethel. Writer Victoria Benham contributed jazzy articles, human interest stories and celebrity interviews while Hays supplied the accompanying cartoons. The daily articles were purported first-person narratives of the madcap adventures of this wild flapper pair and their wacky adventures around Cleveland. The feature was an immediate hit, and Hays’ cartoons were no small part of its appeal.
Benham later recalled their first meeting: “What a gal she was. I can see her the first day she stepped into the city room of the Cleveland Press. She wore a scratchy tweed suit, a wide-brimmed felt hat with flat top, brown brogues and a winning smile. There was an aura of the West about her, and one of the reporters let out one of those cowboy howls that had her laughing. We all liked her at once.”
The feature was short-lived, though. Within six months Benham found greener pastures in matrimony, and Hays became a solo act. Her regular place in the paper was now titled simply Ethel. Her cartoons sometimes accompanied stories by other writers but more often stood on their own. Hays’ cartooning was already polished and breathtakingly lovely. She also showed that she needed no outside help on the writing end—her cartoons were funny, playful and wise. She concentrated on illustrating and commenting on the lives of the young single women, the flappers, who had already become emblematic of the Roaring ’20s.
Picked apart, her artwork reveals many influences: It retained just a touch of the bigfoot Landon style, some of the sentimental romanticism of Nell Brinkley, the sexiness of John Held Jr. and the dazzling, economical linework of Gluyas Williams. Yet the combination was no mish-mosh of influences—the Ethel Hays style was stunningly original. Always executed with a master’s certainty, it was (and is) a feast for the eyes: anatomy always perfect, expressions filled with life, props always suggested with economy and elegant lines. She in turn influenced other cartoonists, notably Roy Crane, whose celebrated fair maidens in Wash Tubbs are clearly based on Hays’ style.
Hays’ combination of superb artwork and comedic sensibilities added up to a formula that few female cartoonists of the time could claim; she created a feature popular with both men and women. Men loved the sometimes innocent, sometimes saucy women that were her trademark, while women concentrated on the romantic elements and brilliant fashions. Everyone could enjoy the humor, much of which today would be considered quite politically incorrect, as Hays made fun of masculine and feminine foibles, and some of her comments on women would today be considered rudely antifeminist.
It was good luck for Hays that her work appeared in the Cleveland Press. This paper was the flagship of the Scripps-Howard chain, and Scripps-Howard also ran the NEA newspaper syndicate. NEA was and continues to be a major distributor of comic strips, counting among their stars such features as Captain Easy, Alley Oop, Freckles and His Friends and Boots And Her Buddies. It didn’t take long for NEA to notice Hays’ work and claim her services for the national market.
For NEA, Hays continued her large Ethel panel feature three times a week and added a small one-column daily panel titled Flapper Fanny in January 1925. Due to the way NEA distributed its comics—a blanket service where papers pay one fee for a whole complement of features—Hays immediately gained a huge audience. She is estimated to have appeared in more than 500 papers within a year of first being syndicated, a statistic any syndicated cartoonist would envy.It is at least a little surprising that Hays’ work enjoyed such great success with NEA. The syndicate service was most popular with small-town newspapers, ones with a tight budget that made NEA’s service very attractive. Small towns, in the ’20s as they are today, tend to be thought of as conservative and narrow minded. Hays’ cartoons were rather cosmopolitan, sometimes even risqué, for the day. They frequently featured women in skimpy attire or lingerie, sometimes talking frankly (at least by the standards of the comics page) about romance. Whether her popularity in these papers speaks to the quality of Hays’ work or an unexpected broad-mindedness in 1920s small towns is unknown.
Hays had been syndicated just one year when she offered her resignation to the syndicate. She had accepted a proposal of marriage from William Simms, an insurance agent, and the couple was to move to the insurance company’s headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. The syndicate, though, explained to her that she was free to live anywhere she liked as long as she submitted her work on time. That problem solved, Ethel Hays became Ethel Simms in December 1925 (though she continued to sign her newspaper artwork with her maiden name). Shortly after the marriage and move, Eugene MacLean, general manager of NEA, sent her a note:
“Some time, when you can spare five minutes from housekeeping, pictures, and kindred calamities, I wish you’d drop me a line as to how your plan of work is coming out. From this end, I’m frank to say that matrimony has improved your art. They were the best pictures of the kind in the country before your marriage; now they’re better. Please accept my congratulations.”
By 1930 Hays had two children to care for, and the burden of daily deadlines was becoming oppressive. She was also being asked to do a lot of additional illustration work for NEA: spot illustrations for the company’s weekly fiction stories and occasional full-page color covers for the Sunday Everyweek magazine. Something had to give, and the decision was made that Flapper Fanny would be handed off to a promising newcomer named Gladys Parker. In addition, the Ethel feature would be reduced to a frequency of once or twice a week and would be paired with a new feature titled Femininities, also by Parker. The two features would maintain a combined frequency of three times a week.
As time passed, the Femininities/Ethel partnership was growing more and more unbalanced, until Hays finally gave up her part in 1934. In 1935, she rebounded with a new creation called Marianne. This comic strip was formatted like a conventional daily strip but ran only once a week. It appeared on the women’s page of NEA’s Everyweek magazine. The drawing was, as usual, fantastic, but the gags were nothing memorable. Hays gave it up in 1938, and it was passed along to Virginia Kraussman, who continued it into 1939. This was to be Hays’ final newspaper cartooning assignment; one of the brightest lights in newspaper cartooning left the stage with no fanfare after just a decade and a half. She continued to do occasional illustration work for NEA, but even this seems to have all but dried up by 1940.
However, she was by no means done with commercial art. In the late 1930s, Hays began taking assignments from various publishers to illustrate children’s story books, coloring books and paper doll cut-out books. Perhaps with children of her own, this work had more appeal for her then her old flapper subjects. Hays’ juvenile illustration work has endured and spawned a whole culture of devoted fans. Whereas many comic-strip fans don’t recognize the name Ethel Hays, she is an icon for paper-doll collectors. Hays produced dozens of children’s books, some uncredited, well into the 1950s. Today the market for Ethel Hays children’s books is thriving, with some of her books routinely selling for hundreds of dollars. Few of these collectors even know that for Hays, this was a secondary career, just a part-time lark. As Hays, never one to be impressed with her own talent, commented, “it’s just a matter of doing the job for which one is fitted. Just a matter of settling down and plugging. Anybody could do it.”
Hays finally did retire from commercial art in the 1950s. She continued drawing for her own enjoyment, producing some impressive pastel portraits. Her last work, finished in 1979 at age 88, was a lovely pastel of one of her daughters. Age had not dimmed her abilities. Ethel Hays passed away in 1989 at age 97.
The author wishes to thank Sharon Palmer, grand-daughter of Ethel Hays, who supplied much of the source material used in preparation of this article.
This article was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #13 (cover shown above right). To order a copy of the issue, click the Paypal button.
(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)