Helen Hokinson’s Silent Partner: James Reid Parker; Attempted Bloggery: Peter Arno Uncovered

While reading James Reid Parker’s brief New York Times obit, (published January 31, 1984) I was anticipating at least a mention of his work with one of The New Yorker‘s earliest superstars, Helen Hokinson. In the magazine’s first decades, according to an in-house memo, Ms. Hokinson, along with Peter Arno, was in a special category above all other contributing artists. As you can see for yourself below, the Times obit does mention Mr. Parker’s “humorous pieces and light sketches” he contributed to the magazine, but not a word about his eighteen year sideline as a writer for Ms. Hokinson.  And that’s a shame. 

There’s not a mountain of material to sift through regarding the Hokinson-Reid working relationship, but what we do have allows us a feel for how their collaboration worked.  The best reading is found in Reid’s “memoir” included in the Hokinson collection, The Ladies God Bless ’em! published a year after Hokinson was killed in a spectacular plane crash over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. 

Mr. Parker fills us in on how he met Hokinson, and how it came to be that he became her main supplier of ideas (The New Yorker sometimes passed along an idea they felt was right for her — a practice begun in 1925, the year she joined the magazine’s brand new stable).  A mutual friend made the introduction; it was during that first meeting that ordinary conversation occasioned a spark.  Here’s Parker talking about the moment:

I happened to mention that in a story on which I was working there were two suburban matrons who talked, it seemed to me, the way some of her women might. Miss Hokinson asked what sort of things I was having them say, and I quoted a few lines of dialogue. She stopped twisting her handkerchief.  With a sigh she remarked that one of the lines in particular would have made a good caption for a drawing and that the situation was exactly the kind of thing she liked to do. I told her to go right ahead because my women could just as easily be saying something else.

About a week later, The New Yorker bought the Hokinson drawing using Parker’s idea. In a year’s time they had officially set aside all of every Friday to look at each other’s work with an eye to finding “acceptable” material.  An interesting revelation by Parker is that in 1933 he “devised” Hokinson’s women’s lunch club scenario. 

Below: a Hokinson women’s lunch club New Yorker drawing, published April 24, 1948

When the relationship between cartoonist and idea person works well, the seams don’t show — the reader believes they’re visiting a singular world (ala Jack Ziegler or Steinberg — neither of whom used outside ideas). The seams never showed in Hokinson’s drawings; looking through her work you won’t see an awkward fit. Some of the best New Yorker artists have done wonders with some outside help (Addams, Hoff, George Price, to name a few) but the Hokinson/Parker relationship was different in that she was fully dependent on provided ideas (George Price is the only other New Yorker artist known to completely rely on provided ideas).*  More than that, Parker was much involved in Hokinson’s world. In their first year of collaborating they went to dinner and then the theater once or twice a week (in his memoir he describes how much fun it was being with her on outings in Manhattan, watching her draw, sharing  her joy in discovering wondrous New York City things). When Hokinson moved up to Connecticut, Parker eventually rented a place close by her home. 

Parker on the scene there:

Thereafter Helen’s guests and mine mingled amicably, often joining forces for picnic lunches, and whenever it was necessary Helen and I could confer about a drawing on very short notice.

It’s not clear how many of Ms. Hokinson’s roughly 1,800 New Yorker drawings were the product of working with Parker, but no matter. We have a great body of work they had a grand time finding acceptable — maybe that’s plenty enough.

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*Ms. Hokinson’s  New Yorker cover ideas were her own. George Price had one New Yorker cover — it was his own idea.  

For further reading on Ms. Hokinson the place to go is Liza Donnelly’s Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoons and Their Cartoons (Prometheus, 2005)

You’ll have to find a copy of Hokinson’s Ladies God Bless ’em! for James Reid Parker’s nine page Hokinson “memoir” (It can be had for a buck on AbeBooks.com). You can also find it at the end of  The Hokinson Festival  (Dutton, 1956). The bonus in that anthology: some of Hokinson’s New Yorker covers are reproduced in color. 

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Attempted Bloggery: Peter Arno Uncovered

Attempted Bloggery discusses the 1931 Arno collection, covered and not.  Read here!

Above left: an early version (or “rough”) of a New Yorker drawing in the book. “I want you to meet my bosom friend”  appeared in The New Yorker issue of October 10, 1931.

 

 

 

 

 

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