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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 402


This is the grave of Neysa McMein.

Born in 1889 in Quincy, Illinois to a middle-class family but one with an alcoholic and difficult father, Marjorie McMein attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago after high school. She graduated, worked as an illustrator for a bit in Chicago, then moved to New York, where she became an important figure in the city’s art and socialite scene. She acted for a little bit but soon realized her ticket was commercial art. She changed her name to Neysa after consulting a numerologist and also believed it was a better name for someone in the art world to be remembered by, which is probably true.

Anyway, she was a great illustrator and began selling her work to leading magazines in 1914, including landing covers for Puck and the Saturday Evening Post and was especially known for drawing women. The government tapped her talents in World War I and she made a bunch of propaganda posters, including for the Red Cross. She was particularly known for drawing women and helped to create the 1920s vision of the modern woman that decidedly rejected the values and fashions of the Victorian Era. She was also a charismatic speaker and for all her work in raising funds for the war became one of only three women ever to be named an honorary non-commissioned officer by the Marines.

After the war, McMein went right back to work and became one of the two or three leading illustrators of the era. She was the sole cover artist for McCall’s between 1923 and 1937, while also producing work for magazines ranging from National Geographic to Collier’s. Her specialty was the New Woman, the confident independent woman of the 1920s who might well be a wife and mother but was not strictly defined by that, or might choose to not be married at all. She also drew a ton of advertisements for a wide variety of publications. She also became very wealthy through this. She could pull in thousands of dollars for a single cover. She was on the contest team that discovered Clara Bow in 1921. She became a designer of silks and also a judge for beauty pageants. She also created the iconic Betty Crocker image that was used for decades, although finally replaced in 1955. In 1938, McCall’s got rid of her because they didn’t need illustrators anymore as the technology had advanced that publishing color photos was cheap. McMein adjusted fine, going into portrait painting. She was already doing this anyway and since she knew everyone, over her life she painted everyone from Warren Harding to Charlie Chaplin and from Charles Evans Hughes to Dorothy Parker. She also wrote operas.

McMein also committed herself deeply to women’s suffrage and women’s rights generally. She was well known enough to be the leader in suffrage parades holding the American flag. She was a founding member of the Lucy Stone League to fight for women keeping their own last names in marriage, which she did herself. She was also a leader in sexual rights, believing strongly in women’s sexual independence, which she herself engaged in. She thought virginity and chastity were terrible oppressive ideals forced upon women.

McMein lived the glamorous life and didn’t hide that. She was friends with Dorothy Parker and Irving Berlin and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. She gave legendary parties that received journalistic coverage of their own, including a Life article from 1946 on the party games she had invented. She traveled extensively, including a camel trip across the Sahara. She also had an open marriage to a mining engineer. Unlike everyone I have personally known who has tried this, it seems to have been happy and not led to any serious jealousy or eventual divorce, although there were the usual difficulties of odd social situations and things coming out publicly that one side or the other wished hadn’t. After her death, her husband said they were very happy. She had affairs with Chaplin, among other stars. Unfortunately, her late life had some health problems. She had a sleepwalking problem and broke her spine in 1942 when she fell down some stairs during one of those episodes. That required surgeries and no doubt a lot of pain. She also contracted cancer and that killed her in 1949.

Let’s take a look at some of her work:

Here’s a good link with examples of a lot of her work.

Neysa McMein is buried in Rhinebeck Cemetery, Rhinebeck, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Algonquin Round Table set, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Benchley, who McMein also an affair with, is on Nantucket and Tallulah Bankhead is in Chestertown, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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