And here on a sunny Chicago morning, is the story of how an Englewood High School grad became the first black syndicated cartoonist in America.
Born in St. Louis, E. Simms Campbell got his start in Chicago as an editorial cartoonist for Englewood High School’s student newspaper. He attended the University of Chicago at age 14, later studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.
After the Art Institute, he headed back to St. Louis looking for work.
“The next thing I knew I was waiting table on a dining car. It was a let-down, of course, but it was the making of me in this field,” he said. “Up to then my work had been shallow, but I learned from my fellow waiters how close man can be to his fellow men. After this discovery my character began to develop and I began to paint and draw people as they really looked. Oh, I could always draw, but I was a failure as an artist till I became a successful dining-car waiter.”
He started getting work at St. Louis ad agencies before heading to New York to try his hand at magazine illustration.
While some biographers recount Campbell having trouble as a black man getting his work past magazines’ receptionists, Campbell recalls that some timely introductions by working commercial artists he knew soon gave him regular, if low-paying, work.
But this isn’t a story about “Hey, a black guy did this too.” Black or white, Elmer Simms Campbell was, simply put, the best.
Take it from the words of Esquire founder Arnold Gingrich upon first seeing Campbell’s work at the latter’s Harlem apartment. Gingrich had been sent there by a white artist he had pursued, but couldn’t afford.
“I wanted to yell Eureka, because I saw at a glance that my troubles were over,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich was fond of saying that for the magazine’s first few decades, every issue contained a Campbell cartoon. Not true, but close. Campbell was selling work to magazines across the nation, but had particular sway in molding Esquire’s cartoon style.
His was the work Esquire showed applicants. His were the gags he sold to other cartoonists when he didn’t have time to draw up something funny he thought up. He even created the magazine mascot, Esky.
Back in Chicago, he was a regular illustrator for the jazz-age magazine The Chicagoan. It was a 1920s stab at the popularity and format of The New Yorker. It lasted from 1926 to 1935, still offering ads and articles aimed at the fur-and-fashion brigade even during the heights of the Depression.
The site of The Chicagoan’s original office is now a TGIFriday’s.
Campbell’s work for The Chicagoan was mostly full-page gag cartoons featuring The Chicagoan’s wealthy white target audience. He did occasionally delve into more challenging terrain, such as penning and illustrating an article on New York’s Harlem nightlife and Deco-influenced artwork celebrating Chicago’s less-fashionable neighborhoods.
Campbell was part of the Harlem Renaissance crowd, illustrating a book of Sterling Brown’s poetry and a children’s book written by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.
His biggest commercial success though was a syndicated comic called Cuties, which featured buxom white women in mildly tawdry situations. Cuties started in Esquire in 1933, but hit its stride during the 1940s, with the titular cuties dealing with servicemen boyfriends, rationing kisses and typical WWII-era man-catching gags. It was syndicated by King Features into the 1960s.
Although this makes Campbell, not Morrie Turner as I previously thought, the first black syndicated cartoonist*, a black man drawing half-nude white women was a queasy topic in mid-century America. His photo appeared in Blatz beer ads and he wrote openly about being black in America, so Campbell’s race wasn’t hidden. It wasn’t advertised either.
“[M]agazines weren’t wired for sound, so drawings would not carry any trace of any kind of accent,” Esquire’s Gingrich said of Campbell’s hiring in the ’30s.
Campbell’s work could be blatant or subtle, a slap-in-the-face gag with a half-naked harem girl in Playboy or a gut-punch Rockwell-esque look at a black woman at a salon picking from a book of blonde styles.
When Esquire switched over to photography in the ‘60s, Campbell hopped over to Playboy. By this time, he was living in Switzerland, telling Ebony in 1966 that he had the quiet life of “a little old winemaker.” (This claim is undercut a bit by parties with Cab Calloway and Dizzie Gillespie, but we’ll let Elmer have his rest.)
He moved back to the States after his wife died. He died in White Plains, New York, in 1971.
So that’s E. Simms Campbell, the Harlem Renaissance illustrator who made his fortune drawing gags about rich white people. The man who called Cab and Langston his friends and Esky and Cuties his creations.
“I’m a cat who came out of St. Louis, like to drink whisky, like to see my friends, and don’t like no stiff-ass people,” Campbell told the Ebony reporter visiting his Swiss home in 1966. “But since you’re an O.K. cat and I like you, go ahead and ask me anything you want to know.”
* I should say “openly black syndicated cartoonist.” George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat in 1913, hid his multi-racial heritage.