Marge and Lulu: The Art of the Deal

In tracing the evolution of marketing consumer products using comics characters, encountering Marge Buell and her moppet creation Little Lulu is inevitable. Jennifer Gotwals examines Buell’s archives to find the businesswoman behind the drawing board.

Marge and Lulu in the 1950s.

Marjorie Henderson Buell—“Marge” to her fans—was more than the creator of Little Lulu; she was one of the first American cartoonists to retain copyright to and licensing control of her characters. In a past issue, Hogan’s Alley detailed Little Lulu’s move from a one-panel cartoon to multiple-panel narratives, and into multiple media and memorabilia as well. An exploration of Buell’s personal and professional papers, recently given to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, provides insights into Buell’s business practices and decisions that contributed to Lulu’s meteoric rise in popular culture.

All told, the Marge Papers at the Schlesinger date from 1856 to 1994 (they include some of Marge’s family’s history as well as her own) and include comic books, correspondence, business contracts, scrapbooks, original artwork, clippings of Kleenex ads, a complete run of the Little Lulu syndicated strip, fan letters, early drawings, films of Kleenex advertisements, Lulu products and product advertising, report cards, yearbooks, published cartoons and photographs. These historical documents and artifacts will allow researchers to study Marge’s long career as a cartoonist, her different types of drawings and humor, Little Lulu’s meteoric rise to the heights of Times Square billboards and the behind-the-scenes deals that raised her there.

William Erskine, Buell’s licensing agent, kept her informed about her many licensing arrangements. (Throughout the article, click on the images to see enlargements.)

Not much of Marge’s outgoing correspondence survives. However, in some cases, her handwritten notes or drafts for letters appear on the backs of correspondence to her. These give an idea of the first draft (if not the final one!) of her ideas regarding Lulu and her career.

Team playing

Buell’s lack of interest in personal publicity seems to have shaped the way her business model developed. Buell was very involved with the legalities and details of the product licensing agreements she signed, but she chose to work mainly through two intermediaries: her lawyer in Philadelphia, Howard E. Stern, and her licensing agent in New York, William Erskine. Only some of what must have been voluminous correspondence between the three survives, but what is left tells an interesting story of Marge’s business acumen, interest in Lulu’s legacy and personal feelings about her life’s work.

Buell tended to give stock answers to published profiles and interviews. Only two or three photos of her—the last one taken in the early 1940s—appear in press coverage throughout her life. After 1944, when Lulu last appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Buell became even less interested in the public spotlight. Throughout her career Buell remained surprisingly blasé about interviews. She often turned them down, even against her licensing agent’s advice.

Buell with her oldest son, Larry, 1940. This photo was used for publicity purposes.

It seems possible that some of Buell’s lack of interest in the spotlight, particularly after Lulu left the pages of the Post, stemmed from her increasing responsibilities at home. She drew a Little Lulu cartoon for the Post every week beginning in February 1935. In 1936 she married Clarence Addison Buell; their sons, Larry and Fred, were born in 1939 and 1942. There is little to be found, either in published sources or within her papers, that addresses Buell’s own feelings about her artistic work and her work as a wife and mother. However, her decision to form a team to help manage the popularity and licensing of Little Lulu speaks to her realization that she could not convincingly be both an artist and businesswoman at all times.

Beginnings of an enterprise

In the early 1980s, Buell remembered the following turn of events, which would catapult Lulu from the pages of the Post to screens across America:

“In 1943, Mr. Richard Murray of Paramount Pictures contacted me about using Little Lulu and her pals in Technicolor animated cartoons. The Saturday Evening Post was very pleased with the idea and so was I. So I contacted a Philadelphia lawyer who was recommended to me as being very experienced in drawing up contracts.

Early letter from Erskine to Marge regarding her feedback on the comic book, and mentioning John Stanley.

“I drew some character sheets of Little Lulu and went to New York to visit Paramount Famous pictures. There I met Mr. Sam Buchwald, head of the studios. Mr. Murray and Mr. Morgan were there also. An interesting tour of the studios gave me an understanding of how animated cartoons were made.

“Mr. Murray kindly suggested to me that I probably would need a business representative in the near future which was excellent advice. It was through him that I met William C. Erskine who later on became my business rep.”

For nearly the next 30 years, Erskine, Howard Stern (the “Philadelphia lawyer”) and Buell would parse increasingly detailed contracts and royalty statements and would steer Little Lulu away from participating in “vulgar and crude ideas.”

While Buell was drawing Lulu for the Post, several merchandising agreements had been signed. Buell signed with an agency to represent her in foreign uses of the character and profited from a series of books that reprinted the Post cartoons. In addition, the Knickerbocker Toy Company made a Little Lulu cloth doll, which the Post used as a promotional tool.

As noted, Buell negotiated the contract with Paramount in the spring of 1943 with the help of Stern, but later that year she engaged Erskine to represent her in the negotiations for the Kleenex ad campaign. These two initial large contracts were somewhat different from the later numbers of small merchandising contracts signed and also required yearly renewals, an exhausting process.

The middleman

Buell and Erskine signed their first contract on Nov. 22, 1943. That fall, Erskine had been instrumental in negotiating a contract for Buell to draw Little Lulu for Kleenex advertising campaigns. This first contract states that Erskine “has agreed to use his best efforts to negotiate agreements for the granting of such licenses and rights by the party of the first part [Buell]” and notes that Erskine “will at all times foster and maintain the high standard of the character LITTLE LULU and associated characters.” He was granted the exclusive right to represent Buell and Lulu (although Buell pointed out years later in a letter to Stern that Erskine had never been required to represent them exclusively).

Buell stipulated in the contract that she would not draw or produce anything specifically for any deal negotiated by Erskine and that she would have the final say in any licensing agreement. All contracts were to be drawn up by Buell (or, actually, her lawyer) and all payments were to be sent from the companies to Erskine, with a duplicate statement sent to Buell. Erskine would then take his cut of the profits and send the rest on to Buell. Erskine’s potential earnings were substantial: 50 percent of most royalties for the first year of a merchandising contract, and 25 percent in subsequent years. The contract between Buell and Erskine was for only one year but could subsequently be renewed every year for the next 10. The terms of the contract between the two would be constantly revised until they ceased working together in 1972.

Marge participated in the publicity for the first giant neon billboard advertising Kleenex and featuring Lulu, in 1949. Here she plugs in the lights for the billboard, made by Artkraft Strauss, on October 20, 1949.

The big contracts

Under the terms of Buell’s first contract with Paramount, she was to be paid a lump sum of $500 for each Lulu cartoon created ($5,826 in 2006 inflation-adjusted dollars), and then would receive 5 percent of the profits above that sum. This made the venture—generally a departure from what she was used to—less risky for her: Even if the movies were unprofitable, she would receive payment up front for the use of Lulu’s name and image. In any event, this was a lot of money to make from a use of Little Lulu in which Buell was not required to do any artistic work.

The agreement for the Kleenex advertisements was similar but did not, of course, include a profit margin. Buell was to earn a flat $600 for each Lulu Kleenex advertisement she drew ($200 of which would go to Erskine; in 1949, a revised contract gave a flat 33 1/3  percent of all Kleenex revenue to Erskine, a slight improvement for him). Initially Buell was to produce 13 Kleenex ads a year. In 1947 she agreed to draw additional artwork, which was to appear in outdoor posters, car cards, bus cards and subway cards, for a flat $3,000.

Letter from Foote, Cone & Belding, Kleenex’s ad agency, regarding Marge’s drawings.

The first Kleenex contracts were actually negotiated with Foote, Cone & Belding, Kleenex’s advertising agency. The agency would provide the story or background idea for the ad, and Buell would then provide the drawings. A 1945 letter to Erskine from Lorraine M. Byrne of Foote, Cone & Belding suggests “improvements” to Buell’s first draft of drawings for one ad:

“We want Mrs. Buell to submit the art for each frame separately; we will assemble here. It is not necessary for her to draw in any of the blurbs; they will be handled on an over-lay. The size of each illustration must be made to accommodate the width of the frames of the 1/3 page layout, and the depth of the ½ page layout.

“In the third frame (Jumps Up) please be sure the figure of Little Lulu is complete.

“The figure in the steam cabinet (fourth frame) should definitely be ‘skinny’ from too much steam. The face, however, should still be the little ‘fat’ girl. The ‘Balloon face’ can certainly stand with much improvement over the illustration in the layout.

“In the group illustration (fifth frame) let us have some variation in our ‘fat’ girls. The layout indicates four ‘fat’ figures and Little Lulu. This should be three ‘fat’ girls, and the thin gal from the cabinet and Little Lulu.”

While Buell’s reaction to this sort of direction does not appear in her papers, it is hard to believe she would have responded well to that kind of criticism, especially after spending so many years drawing her own ideas. In her later years, however, she remembered enjoying the Kleenex work because it was so different from the silent one-panel comics in the Post, and she claimed that fitting the drawings to a narrative was fun and challenging.

 Monetary gain

Little Lulu made quite a lot of money for Buell. By the end of her tenure at the Post, Buell was making $120 per Lulu cartoon ($1,374 in 2006 dollars). Royalty statements included in Buell’s papers give some idea of how much money different products brought in, but they are rarely comprehensive. In 1955, to pick a random year, the surviving documents show that Buell made the following from Lulu royalties:

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