Elmer Simms Campbell was not only one of the first African American male cartoonists to be published in nationally syndicated magazines, but also created the popular Esquire magazine mascot, “Esky”, their cartoony moustachioed man of refinement. He maintained a steady high-standing among magazines like Esquire, Life, Judge and Playboy from 1933 all the way through his death in 1971, a rare thing for any cartoonist, and nearly unheard of in the 30s-50s for an African American. Campbell’s talent is undeniable and a clear indicator of his success, though taking a look at the themes of his most popular work is telling of why else this may have been possible.
Up until the Civil Rights Movement, Campbell’s work was entirely absent of African American characters. Instead, his cartooning style was largely dedicated to the salable trend of Good Girl Art, depictions of attractive and whimsical white women. Furthermore, he stuck to illustrating the lives of the white upper-class in general, completely concealing his own identity and economic standing.
Cuties was Campbell’s most popular feature, which we have a number of originals from at the Cartoon Library, many of which are gorgeous fully colored works like those seen below.
These originals, as well as a number of others at the Cartoon Library, are part of our International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection. However, it’s a number of items in the manuscript materials collection of cartoonist McGowan Miller (“Mac”) regarding E. Simms Campbell that delight us just as much. Miller and Campbell came to be great friends through their membership in the National Cartoonist Society (Campbell was one of very few African Americans in the NCS as well) and while working for the popular magazines at the time. In the late 1950s, Campbell and his wife went abroad to live in Switzerland for a stint, but the two friends kept up correspondence regularly.
McGowan Miller kept these letters from his old friend–many of which are humorously illustrated in the margins–and they now reside here at the Cartoon Library. Below are a few excerpts from one of our favorites from E. Simms Campbell in 1958, capturing the heart of the lifestyle he and his wife Vivian were leading during this thriving age of magazine cartooning. He writes of exploits with Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie and others, partying late into the night and more. Other letters reveal his concerns over his daughters marriage to American photographer Gordon Parks, who was twice her age. Generally, they are full of soul and spirit, and embody the loving friendship between two men of different races, bound by comics and cartoons. The pages can be clicked to enlarge for reading.
Elmer Simms Campbell was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2002, and you can read more about his life in a piece by our founding curator Lucy Shelton Caswell here.