Why I Admire Rose O’Neill: A Mini-Memoir

By Susan Scott


Susan Scott in the
Rose O'Neill Museum
In the summer of 1994, my mother and I had a Girls Day Out in Branson. At an antiques store, I asked the owner if there was something special for us to do, something different. She asked whether we had been to Bonniebrook, home of the world-famous artist Rose O'Neill. I had never heard of her.

We followed the owner’s directions to about nine miles north of Branson and toured the Rose O'Neill Museum. That visit changed my life forever. At the time, my husband and I had a small cabin on Table Rock Lake. We retired in 1997 and moved to the lake area. I volunteered with the Bonniebrook Historical Society and
joined the board of directors in 2000.

More than Kewpie Creator
What shocked me when I first learned of Rose was she was way ahead of her time. In the 1890s, she worked in publishing houses where she was the only woman employee, when women were supposed to be home crocheting. That struck me because I was the only woman manager in the financial division of Yellow Freight in Kansas City, Missouri when my mother and I visited Bonniebrook.

While she is recognized as creator of the Kewpie cartoon character and doll, she was well respected as an illustrator and writer. She wrote several novels and books of poetry and was active in women's suffrage. More than fifty magazines purchased her illustrations. Her first illustration and short story appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1898. She was still illustrating for Cosmopolitan in the 1930s. She was known for her ability to adapt her artwork to the needs of publishers. She went to the New York City Public Library and studied what the big-name magazines were buying and the styles they were looking for. She said, "I never had a doubt, because I was prepared." Rose became the highest-paid female illustrator in the United States.

She was born in Pennsylvania. At the age of three, she and her family moved to the Omaha, Nebraska area to homestead land. The family was poor and the children made fun of in their hand-me-down clothes. They moved every six months or so to get away from creditors. Her mother gave private music lessons, taught school, and did housework for people. Her father was a bookseller, but he didn't do well; he was more interested in collecting books, and he was a dreamer. He told his children, "Don't go to school today. Today we're going to stay home and act out Shakespeare.” The children were able to receive some Catholic schooling free because they were poor. We estimate Rose quit going to school at the age of twelve. She did, however, go the Omaha Public Library almost every day and study art and history books. Staff gave her paper and pencils to practice drawing.

Award Winner at Age Thirteen
Her art career started when she entered an art contest for children fifteen years and younger. She was thirteen. Her piece was called "Temptation leading down into an abyss." The judges thought she had cheated by tracing because the subject matter was so deep and her work so professional looking. They called her in and told her to bring her parents. The judges were going to teach her a lesson. She drew something in front of the judges and was awarded the contest's first prize for her original entry—a five-dollar gold piece. Judges hooked her up with a new publication looking for fresh talent, Chaperone out of St. Louis. At the age of seventeen, she had thirteen illustrations in one issue of Chaperone.

Still fending off creditors, her father learned of forty acres near Branson available for homesteading. It had two run-down cabins and a natural spring. the same year the family moved onto the land, 1893, Rose went to New York City because that's where all the national publishing companies were. She stayed at a convent that took in boarders who were single women. The nuns chaperoned her to the publishers. Rose was nineteen, and it wouldn't have been proper for her to go alone. She sold her art and sent money home.

The next year was the first time Rose came to the homestead. She took a train from New York to Springfield, about forty-five miles north of the homestead. Her father and sisters took a wagon to meet her, a two-day's ride. They had to spend an overnight each way.

The Irish in Her
Rose named the homestead Bonniebrook. Her paternal grandfather was born in Ireland. Bonnie is an Irish word for pretty or attractive. She built a 14-room house that came to be known as Bonniebrook Mansion. The mansion was the first in this area to have running water. Unfortunately, hers was a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. She lost most of her fortune during the Great Depression.

Rose died in 1944 at her nephew's Springfield house after being treated at a Springfield hospital for a stroke. The house is on the campus of Drury University and is used for exhibits and lectures. Rose and her family are buried at the O'Neill Cemetery at Bonniebrook.

The Bonniebrook Historical Society organized as a nonprofit in 1975. It restored the mansion and built a research library and museum that people from all over the world visit.

Rose’s skills, courage, perseverance and success in a man’s world will be on my heart forever.

Susan Scott is president of the Bonniebrook Historical Society. 

Photo courtesy Susan Scott.

2 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post about someone in our art history I've never heard about. It sounds like your time visiting Branson and Bonniebrook was well spent. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. I was so honored by Wayne Groner to share my memoirs. With Appreciation for your kind posting, Susan.

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