Hokinson, Helen E. (1893–1949)

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Hokinson, Helen E. (1893–1949)

American artist known for her cartoons for The New Yorker during the 1920s and 1930s . Born Helen Elna Hokinson on June 29, 1893, in Mendota, Illinois; died on November 1, 1949, in a plane crash near Washington, D.C.; only child of Adolph Hokinson (a salesman) and Mary (Wilcox) Hokinson; graduated from Mendota High School, 1913; attended Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, 1913–18; never married; no children.

An only child, cartoonist Helen Hokinson was born in 1893 in Mendota, Illinois, then lived in Moline and Des Moines, Iowa, before the family resettled in Mendota in 1905, where her father sold farm machinery. Hokinson's art talent emerged in high school, where she created caricatures of classmates and teachers for the school yearbook. After graduating in 1913, she talked her reluctant parents into sending her to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. She studied cartooning and illustrating for five years, living at the Three Arts Club with fellow designer and cartoonist Alice Harvey (later Alice Harvey Ramsey) and supplementing her funds by sketching for Chicago's major department stores. In 1920, the two women went to New York to launch their careers.

In Manhattan, Hokinson continued to do freelance fashion work for B. Altman and Lord & Taylor, and also created a short-lived comic strip for the New York Daily Mirror. She pursued her art studies at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art under Howard Giles, who introduced her to the principle of "dynamic symmetry," which she later called fundamental to her work. Her interest in fashion slowly waned, and she began to sketch the working people of the city: garbage collectors, snow shovelers, and the like. She also spent several summers in the Adirondacks, painting landscapes.

In 1925, Hokinson sent some of her sketches to Harold Ross, who had just published the first edition of The New Yorker magazine. Ross was impressed and printed her first cartoon in the November issue. It showed a bemused clerk translating for a costumer at a perfume counter, "It's N'Aimez Que Moi, madam—don't love nobody but me." Soon, her buxom, upper-middle-class women, somewhat out of touch and perpetually bewildered by life's trials, became a regular feature of the magazine. The captions were supplied by the editors of the magazine until 1931, when Hokinson began her collaboration with James Reid Parker, who also became her good friend. Although the cartoons sometimes bordered on cruelty (particularly in the biting satire of Parker's captions), Hokinson's meticulous drawings, with their touchingly out of place wisps of hair and sagging hemlines, imbued the work with such pathos that her caricatures became likeably human.

Described as shy and aloof, Hokinson never became part of the exclusive literary coterie at The New Yorker, preferring to spend her time reading English novels, painting watercolors, and producing ceramics. She socialized with a small and select group of friends, often escorted by Parker. Her salary from The New Yorker, and occasional work with the Ladies' Home Journal, reached $40,000 yearly, almost five times that of the average family income, and allowed Hokinson to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, including an apartment in New York, summers in Connecticut, and some travel.

In 1931, she published her collected cartoons in So You're Going to Buy a Book! A second collection, My Best Girls, appeared in 1941, and a third, When Were You Built?, in 1948. In her later years, she was also writing a play. Hokinson was en route to speak at the opening of the Community Chest fund drive in Washington, when her plane collided with another over Washington's National Airport. All on board were killed. Hokinson was buried in the Restland Cemetery in her girlhood hometown of Mendota. Three additional collections of her work appeared posthumously.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Sochen, June, ed. Women's Comic Visions. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts.