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Hokinson, Helen E. (Helen Elna), 1893-1949

 Person

Dates

  • Existence: 1893-06-29 - 1949-11-01

Helen Elna Hokinson was born on June 29, 1893, in Mendota, Illinois, the daughter of Mary Wilcox Hokinson and Adolph Hokinson, a farm machinery salesman. After graduating from Mendota High School in 1913, she attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, and drew fashion illustrations for local department stores. Moving to New York in 1920, she studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (later the Parsons School of Design) and worked as an illustrator for several of the city's fine department stores including Lord & Taylor and B. Altman and Company. Equally interested in cartooning, Hokinson submitted a drawing to The New Yorker within months of the magazine's founding in 1925, and was hired to make sketches at cultural events in the city such as art exhibitions or dance and music recitals. Thereafter the magazine published nearly 1,800 of her cartoons and vignettes within its covers, and sixty-eight of her watercolor drawings on its covers, until just after her death in 1949.

Helen Hokinson became one of the best-known of The New Yorker cartoonists, in company with Charles Addams, Peter Arno, Whitney Darrow Jr, George Price, and James Thurber. Working from her apartment in New York's Gramercy Park neighborhood or her cottage in Silvermine, Connecticut, she created her own genre of civic-minded “Hokinson women,” described by Richard Merkin in a short profile of the artist published in The New Yorker in 1994: “Her dowagers and clubwomen were generally edging up on their fifties, were overweight (but intent on doing something about it), and were addicted to chapeaus that somehow always looked both chic and wrong. They were women of cheerful mien, earnest in their cultural and horticultural pursuits, and inclined toward the ingenuous. It was easy to laugh at them, but something about them—perhaps their energy, perhaps their tiny feet—made you laugh gently and with affection.” Hokinson set her subjects in women’s club meetings, community theatricals, country fairs, and flower and pet shows as well as at the opera, art museums, and, naturally, a wide variety of retail shops. Many of her early cartoons were published without captions, but eventually she, and most of the magazine’s other cartoonists, began to use captions assigned by editors or staff writers, some of whom would first suggest captions for which Hokinson would then fashion an image.

In 1931 James Reid Parker, who wrote humorous pieces and light sketches for The New Yorker, met Helen Hokinson and the two became a professional team with Parker supplying captions for Hokinson’s drawings. They met once a week, on Fridays, to exchange and develop ideas, and communicated daily by postcard if either was traveling. Their arrangement continued until Hokinson’s death in an airplane crash on November 1, 1949; Parker served as the executor of her estate.

The editors wrote an appreciative farewell to Helen Hokinson in their November 12, 1949, issue: “Miss Hokinson’s first drawing appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1925. The magazine was less than five months old then, and it was singularly fortunate in finding, at its difficult beginning, an artist of such rare and gentle distinction. In the years since then, her pictures have appeared in these pages almost every week, and the ladies she drew have become perhaps the most widely known and certainly the most affectionately cherished of any characters we have introduced to our readers. If satire is defined as an exposure of anyone’s weakness, she was not a satirist at all, or even a humorist, if there is any implication of harshness in that. Her work was the product of loving observation and a boundless delight in all absurdity, none more than that she found in herself, and the pleasure she gave other people was really a reflection of her own.”

Helen Hokinson’s cartoons were published in three collections during her lifetime, So You're Going to Buy a Book! (Minton, Balch & Co., 1931), My Best Girls (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1941), and When Were You Built? (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1948), and three after her death: The Ladies, God Bless 'em (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1950), There are Ladies Present (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1952), and The Hokinson Festival (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1956).

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Helen E. Hokinson Cartoons for The New Yorker

 Collection
Call Number: YCAL MSS 1084
Overview: The collection consists of more than 340 cartoons, cover drawings, and concept sketches in ink, pencil, watercolor, crayon, and charcoal on paper that were created for The New Yorker magazine by Helen E. Hokinson.
Dates: 1926-1949

James Reid Parker papers

 Collection
Call Number: YCAL MSS 371
Overview: The collection documents the career of twentieth-century American writer James Reid Parker, including his collaboration with cartoonist Helen E. Hokinson and his trusteeship of her estate. It includes drafts and printed versions of Parker's writings for The New Yorker and Woman's Day, as well as correspondence documenting his professional work, and personal correspondence and papers documenting his family relationships, family history, and military service with the Publications Branch of the...
Dates: 1879-1991, bulk 1930-1984