Video narrator: Saturday Evening Post archivist Jeff Nilsson
Of all the fascinating characters who created art for The Saturday Evening Post, none was more colorful or interesting than Neysa McMein (1888-1949).
A rare female illustrator in a male-dominated profession, she led a life of adventure and invention. She was an actress, a prominent suffragette, a portrait painter of presidents, an industrial designer of cars, a commercial artist, a political activist, and a public speaker. McMein was friends with everyone from Harpo Marx to George Bernard Shaw. She composed an opera. She rode a camel a hundred miles through the Sahara Desert, where she turned down a proposal from an Arab sheik. When she set up an art studio on West 57th Street in New York, it became a bustling salon for celebrities. Although she was married, McMein was an advocate of free love and open marriage. She had affairs with Charlie Chaplin, Broadway director George Abbott, and author Robert Benchley.
Oh yes, and she was also an honorary sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Born Marjorie McMein, she reportedly changed her name on the recommendation of her numerologist, taking the name “Neysa” from a racehorse she admired.
Her first jobs were as a millinery designer and an actress. After training at The Art Institute of Chicago, McMein sold her first drawing in 1914. She advanced quickly and within a year, she sold an illustration for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post — the first of nearly sixty Post covers featuring her art between 1916 and 1939.
McMein specialized in pictures of “All-American Girls,” which were very popular with audiences in those days. She was not as versatile as some of the other illustrators at the Post; she largely painted pretty faces against a blank background. However, her images found favor with the public, and McMein’s success expanded into assignments from other magazines such as Puck, Collier’s, McClure’s and McCall’s.
When World War I began, McMein turned her talents to making posters for the French and U.S. governments and the American Red Cross. In 1918 McMein and her good friend, the famous author Dorothy Parker, entertained the troops in France. McMein made portraits of the soldiers, drew cartoons for them, and painted insignia on the side of the airplanes of the 93rd Bomb Squadron — quite different from the “pretty girl” pictures she had created for the Post. She went through harrowing experiences on the front, writing, “Since I have lived through air bombing I never will be frightened by anything on earth.” Back in the U.S. McMein became a major attraction as a speaker at fund-raising drives for the war.
After the war she returned to her career as an artist. McMein was commissioned to create the first portrait of the legendary housewife “Betty Crocker.” In the 1930s, as magazines began turning to photography as a substitute for illustration, she transitioned from an illustrator to a portrait painter.
In addition to painting presidents Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding, McMein painted famous figures such as Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Helen Hayes and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
McMein continued to live her life in a social whirl. She was welcomed into the ranks of the group of famous writers and artists known as the Algonquin Round Table. In his autobiography Harpo Marx described that connection:
The biggest love affair in New York City was between me — along with two dozen other guys — and Neysa McMein. Like me, Neysa was an unliterary, semi-illiterate gate-crasher at the Algonquin. But unlike me, she was beautiful and bursting with talk and talent. A lot of us agreed she was the sexiest gal in town. Everybody agreed she was the best portrait and cover artist of the times.
An animated and gregarious hostess, McMein continued to live a fun and lively life, from playing the piano at parties to riding on an elephant in a parade. She entertained friends such as Bing Crosby, Robert Young, and Bennett Cerf, inventing clever word games to amuse her guests.
One of the advantages of a career as an illustrator during McMein’s day was that illustrators worked behind the scenes, with little or no direct contact with a magazine’s readers. Women, African Americans or other groups that might have been denied jobs with a lot of public contact were sometimes able to find gainful employment as long as they could produce good pictures. A person with McMein’s aggressive political and strong feminist views might not have been able to find work in a retail sales position. But McMein was able to lead a boisterous, bohemian, and socially controversial life as readers of the Post admired her “all American girls” on the cover.
Today, few people remember McMein for her lifestyle. She was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame in 1984, and is remembered today as a pillar of the illustration establishment.
Featured image: Detail of Saturday Evening Post cover by Neysa McMein (©SEPS)
Born in Illinois as Marjorie McMein, this cover artist left the Midwest, changed her name to Neysa, and turned herself into the quintessential New York woman. McMein was modern and independent; she fought for women’s right to vote and worked overseas during World War I creating posters for the U.S. and French government. Back in New York, she lived above Carnegie Hall where she held parties for her friends, many of whom were famous, including Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Parker, and Richard Rodgers.
McMein was most famous for her portraits, and painted presidents Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. Her portrait illustrations were drawn for magazines and advertising; McMein even drew the first Betty Crocker illustration for General Mills in 1936, launching the brand. Her work for magazine covers, including McCall’s, Collier’s, and 60 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, portrayed young women of the 1920s as we picture them today, stylish and full of life.
Known for her portraits, McMein stuck with what she knew for her Post covers.
Before you think this is a portrait of Amelia Earhart, know that she didn’t get her pilot’s license until 1923. McMein’s young aviator captured the possibilities for women pilots, who only just began flying in 1910.
While the model looks forlorn, her dress is amazing. The details McMein drew include sheer sleeves with rosettes on the end and a flowing skirt. You can almost see each individual layer of fabric.
The U.S. ratified the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote. McMein, a long-standing suffragist, helped the Post be ahead of history when this cover published March 6, 1920.
This young woman perfectly captures the Bohemian look of artists in the 1920s.
The pillbox hats this duo is sporting were brand new in the 1930s. Since then, celebrities Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Middleton have brought the look back in fashion time and again. In this particular style showdown, who wore it best?
No other McMein cover includes the bright purple and teal seen in this dress thanks to changes in printing. The Post began issuing four-color covers in 1926, giving artists more color options to use in their paintings.
One of McMein’s last covers for the Post features many aspects from her previous work. It is a woman’s portrait with a scene around her and detailed clothes. If you look closely, you’ll see the coat is made entirely of fur.
Let’s face it: The venerable old Saturday Evening Post was never in the forefront of the fight for female equality. Yet, as far back as 1904, some of our finest cover artists were women. This week we share the art of three of these fine illustrators.
Swing Up High
May 20, 1911
From 1904 to 1921, Sarah Stilwell-Webber (1878-1939) created 60 Saturday Evening Post covers, mostly of women and children. Her paintings of lavishly attired women tended toward the exotic and imaginative, like the lady with the leopard below. Her depictions of children, such as this 1911 cover, delightfully conveyed what fun it is to be a child. These depictions are perhaps why she was also a well-known children’s book illustrator.
Stilwell-Weber studied under the preeminent art instructor of the period, Howard Pyle. In addition to the Post, she illustrated for Country Gentleman, Collier’s, and Harper’s Bazaar. Stilwell-Weber remains a prominent name from the Golden Age of American illustration (1880s-1920s), when American periodicals were rich in artwork that could be mass-produced for the first time.
Katharine Richardson Wireman
Katharine R. Wireman
June 28, 1924
Lighting a party lantern for the 1924 Fourth of July celebration provides artist Katharine R. Wireman (1878-1966) an opportunity to work with soft light and shadows. Stilwell-Weber’s contemporary, Wireman created the first of her four Post covers in 1906. (Wiremen also painted 22 covers for sister publication, Country Gentleman.) Her works (below) emphasized carefree moments, and she often depicted her characters with rosy cheeks and joyful dispositions.
Wireman studied at the Drexel Institute under Howard Pyle in 1899. She then moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where she and a group of close-knit female artists, including Stilwell-Weber, began their illustration careers.
May 21, 1938
By the Roaring ’20s, artist Neysa McMein (1890-1949) was very much a celebrity, mentioned or quoted in magazine articles, fiction, and in advertisements with some regularity. (A 1928 Post article on renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz tells how the musician and his entourage, stuck in a town where nothing for evening entertainment was open, made their way to Heifetz’s room, where he cleared the bed for a dice game and a cheerful shout came from Neysa McMein “whom one does meet in the oddest places,” according to the story.)
McMein was known to entertain other celebrities of the time, such as Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Dorothy Parker, note Walt and Roger Reed in The Illustrator in America 1880-1980. She lived in an apartment atop Carnegie Hall, writes drama critic David Finkle in an intriguing 2009 Huffington Post article, and she “was known for throwing open her digs to the rich or not-that-rich and famous.
“Furthermore, McMein had a reputation for being a libertine—or, at the very least, a very liberated lady,” writes Finkle. “…There’s an inherent irony here, too. In contrast with her free-spirit life, McMein’s women were the embodiment of innocence [as we see below in a few of her 62 Post covers]. … McMein was defining the American woman for McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and other publications at the same time as chipping away at the image in her daily affairs.”
“Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.” – William Cullen Bryant. These Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman covers evoke the first coolness of autumn.
Fall in the Park by Neysa McMein
You can feel that nip in the air with this cover by artist Neysa McMein (1888-1949) from 1938. McMein created almost 60 Saturday Evening Post covers between 1916 and 1939, all of fashionable women. She is probably best known for creating the image of Betty Crocker for General Mills.
Geese Flying South by William Meade Prince
We love the colors in this William Meade Prince (1893-1962) cover for The Country Gentleman magazine (a sister publication of the Post). There are many charming or humorous CG covers by Prince, nearly 50 in fact. You can see more of Prince’s work here.
Hunter and Spaniel by J.F. Kernan
Many J.F. Kernan (1878-1958) covers depicted a delightful older gent, and this is one of the most beautiful. From 1928, the hunter and his beloved spaniel are framed by the cool beauty of autumn. You may recall the “What Happens Next?” piece a couple of weeks ago that featured Kernan’s Country Gentleman covers of a man making fun of his wife’s choice of political candidate. Kernan illustrated over 50 covers for CG and the Post.
A Walk in the Woods by John Newton Howitt
Gazing on this lovely country scene, it is difficult indeed to believe that artist John Newton Howitt (1885-1958) became known as the “Dean of the Weird Menace Cover” for his dime pulp and horror magazine art! We’re delighted to show this side of the fine artist/illustrator.
Pointing to the Pheasant by Paul Bransom
Paul Bransom (1885-1979) was a young comic-strip artist, but ended up spending most of his time at the Bronx Zoo, sketching the animals. The zookeeper noticed Bransom and allowed him to set up his own private studio in the lion house. Filled with confidence, he met with the editor of The Saturday Evening Post who immediately purchased four covers and several other illustrations. Quite the coup for a young man in his early 20s. This autumn hunting scene is from 1937.
Pumpkin Patch by Sarah Stilwell-Weber
How soon that nip turns to a chill when the wind is blowing. Sarah Stilwell-Weber (1878-1939) depicted many a charming child for The Saturday Evening Post. Picking out just the right pumpkin is a rite of fall, but we think this little lass is going to need assistance here, as it appears her choice weighs more than she does.