Buell, Marjorie Lyman Henderson (“Marge”)
Buell, Marjorie Lyman Henderson (“Marge”)
(b. 11 December 1904 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 30 May 1993 in Elyria, Ohio), self-taught artist and cartoonist noted for her creation of Little Lulu.
Buell, or “Marge” as she came to be known worldwide, was the oldest of three daughters of Horace Lyman Henderson, a Princeton University graduate who practiced law in Philadelphia and the Chester County seat, and Bertha Brown, a homemaker. Buell and her two younger sisters were raised in an idyllic country setting where they were given ample opportunities to develop their natural talents. The girls all demonstrated an early flair for art, and they often staged amateur theatricals for family members and friends. Buell herself was an eager reader of wide range, especially of fiction classics and current biographies. The three sisters were also serious horsewomen in their younger years, and one of Buell’s sisters owned an equestrian academy as an adult.
Buell’s early precociousness in art led to a brief stay at a formal art school (possibly the Philadelphia Art Institute), but she apparently was not happy in this environment. After Buell graduated from Villa Maria Academy in Malvern, Pennsylvania, in 1921, she began experimenting with cartoon drawings in her “studio,” a converted chicken coop on her father’s gentleman’s farm in Malvern. Through her father’s contact with the Philadelphia Ledger, Buell published her first cartoon panel in 1921 when she was only sixteen. Ruth Plumley Thompson, who wrote most of the Oz books after L. Frank Baum died in 1912, was an early mentor and Buell later illustrated King Kojo, one of Thompson’s books. This relationship and Buell’s growing body of published work in the Ledger led to further sales of her cartoons to Life, Judge, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. “Dashing Dot,” a curled and bobbed “sweet young thing” whose boyfriend Dick wears oversized raccoon coats and zoot suits, was one of Buell’s early characters. In addition to being a wry and compassionate observer of human nature, Buell also possessed a terrific sense of humor.
In 1935 Buell created “Little Lulu Moppet” at the behest of the Post when it lost its popular “Henry” cartoon to the King Features syndication. Although Little Lulu sported corkscrew curls and displayed a more spirited mien, she nonetheless possessed the same air of childhood innocence as Henry. Like “Dashing Dot,” Lulu also had a boyfriend, who went by the alliterative name of “Tubby Tom Tompkins.” By 1938 the Rand McNally Company had published the first Little Lulu book, an anthology of Post cartoons. Five additional anthologies were published by the David McKay Company from 1939 to 1944. In 1943 Lulu talked for the first time when Paramount Pictures released the first of eight animated cartoons, all of which were produced under Buell’s supervision. Paramount eventually produced a total of twenty-six Little Lulu films from 1943 to 1947 and two more were released in 1961 and 1962.
Marge married Clarence Addison Buell on 30 January 1936, and the young couple moved to the old family place, Hershey Mill Road, in Malvern. Their union produced two sons. Buell always possessed an affinity for nature, and her sons were the beneficiaries of her love of natural history; indeed, she always encouraged them to study and collect shells, butterflies, and minerals. When the boys were nearly grown, an aunt, Alice Thomas, and her husband, both the epitome of amateur Victorian scholars, bequeathed the Buell family an extensive mineral collection, which the family later expanded together and donated to a local museum. Yearly vacations were usually spent at various resorts in southern New Jersey because Buell was very fond of the seashore.
By 1944 Buell had moved Little Lulu and her friends into the comic book format as well as into advertisements for Kleenex tissues; indeed, this early commercial venture contributed to Buell’s “amicable” separation from the Post. During the next three decades Buell’s venue became so varied that she became more a manager of the Little Lulu empire than its actual creator, although she did retain final say over all newspaper cartoons and comic book stories. Little Lulu collectibles consist of coloring, painting, and activity books; dolls in different dress styles and sizes; animated cartoons and films; phonograph records; games and puzzles; sewing cards, bean bags, balloons, and other toys; greeting cards; children’s apparel and accessories; candy and confections; cosmetics and toiletries; towels and drapery fabrics featuring Little Lulu and her friends; and outdoor toys such as swimming rings, beach balls, and wading pools. A number of these items were manufactured in Canada and Brazil; thus, her simple little cartoon characters had a worldwide reach. The Lulu comic books were distributed internationally and in many foreign languages, from Japanese to Turkish. In 1971, Western Publishing Company, which continued to publish Little Lulu material as of the beginning of the twenty-first century, purchased Buell’s rights to the Little Lulu trademark, and she retired.
The truth of Buell’s life narrative was that she never set out to be an entrepreneur; however, she found herself overtaken by the rapid rate of her success. Her response was to limit the scope of the characters she invented. She made a deliberate decision to channel her creative energy into the design of games for children and into encouraging the development of her own children as well as several nieces. After her husband’s retirement, the couple moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, where they could be closer to their elder son and his family. Even in retirement, however, Buell remained active, joining Sorosis, for example, one of the oldest women’s book clubs in the United States.
Throughout the Malvern years, Buell was a pillar of the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Paoli, Pennsylvania, serving not only as a Sunday school leader but also as a founding member of a boutique that crystallized out of the crafts fairs that the church periodically held to raise money for local charities. Buell was always a very private person, and she frequently refused to grant interviews to journalists and scholars alike. Despite the fact that she was the first successful female cartoonist in the United States, perhaps in the world, she remained uncomfortable with hearing her work interpreted as socially laden with issues. Buell died of lymphoma at the age of eighty-eight on 30 May 1993; she is interred at Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin, Ohio.
Trina Robbins mentions Buell several times in her retrospective, A Century of Women Cartoonists (1993); a “Dashing Dot” cartoon as well as two Little Lulu samples (a 1946 Kleenex advertisement and a puzzle page from Dell’s Little Lulu and Tubby in Alaska ), are included. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (2 June 1993), New York Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch (both 3 June 1993), Los Angeles Times (4 June 1993), Daily Telegraph (12 June 1993), Newsweek (14 June 1993), Guardian (18 June 1993), and People (21 June 1993).
Eva M. Maddox