WHO WAS FAY KING
November 8, 2008
Fay King was not a strange person to be lumped in with the reporters and reviewers of the New York stage during the heady days of the roaming 20s. Her contemporaries described her as a petite pretty little woman with big eyes, bobbed hair and a notepad. Her caricatures of celebrities were turned out rather fast for the likes of The Daily Mirror and The New York American. Cartooning was and for that, matter is now, a world of men. Fay King stood apart and yet was one of the group. Two other women had parallel careers, Ethel Hays and the great and fabulous Nell Brinkley.
In 1997, in an article by William Grimes written for “On Stage and Off” it was reported that 50 of her cartoons had come to light and were being auctioned by Sacks Fine Art in Manhattan. The material, which had been thought lost included drawing of George Abbott, Lionel Barrymore, a young Humphrey Bogard with Shirley Booth, Cole Porter, Lupe Velez, and many others, sadly not Mabel Normand or the drawing she did of Roscoe Arbuckle in San Francisco, March 1918.
Trina Robbins has done a rather lengthily exploration of the women cartoonists in her McFarland book “Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century.” In it, Susan Faludi argues that the accomplishments of women as cartoonists have been overlooked and even deliberately ignored, perhaps but in my way of thinking, even men during this period are not well known. Trina Robbins’ book “A Century of Women Cartoonists” is still available and is worth reading if this is a subject of interest to you.
Fay employed a mixture of illustration and commentary similar to the drawings of Nell Brinkley the “Jazz Age” cartoonist creating the glamorous narcissistic, idle beauties that populated the imagination of the new women. Fay King was always in the shadow of Nell Brinkley.
It was Nell Brinkley that was assigned to cover Evelyn Nesbit-Thaw during the murder trial of Harry Thaw of Stanford White. Nell was also a reviewer of Broadway shows. As an illustrator, Nell’s The Brinkley Girls replaced the more formal Gibson Girls. Nell refused to do a cartoon-strip that was what Fay King did. Much of Nell’s writing promoted the working women of the time, and encouraged the expansion of women's rights. Her “Brinkley Girl was generally a young working woman who was often seen wearing lacy dresses and wearing her hair in curls, engaged in activities that were more independent than the general female standard. Her work was often considered to have a feminist slant.”
The iconic Flapper Fanny was created by Ethel Hays in the 1920s, her worked also influenced the way women saw themselves. Ethel Hays was raised in Billings, Montana, and attended the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and also the Art Students League in New York. When the editor of the Cleveland Press saw her work, she was hired as a staff illustrator. Ethel’s Flapper Fanny were one-panel cartoons, which were very much social commentaries with a bite of satire. Her flappers were women that partied a lot, dressed extravagantly were very carefree and reflected the cultural spirit of the American woman during this period.
Fay King was one of the pioneers in the autobiographical type of comics adding herself as a character in her own comic strip. Her strip in many ways also tells a history of the new and emerging women of her era, it was full of flappers and the “Olive Oyl” styled little figure making comments on the amusing situation found in her world.
In another book by Trina Robbins, which she wrote with Max Allan Collins called “Tender Murderers” there are two drawings of Ruth Snyder, one by Fay King beside one done by Nell Brinkley. The differences in style are apparent and yet they both show the woman that was the template for the Sophie Tradwell’s killer in the play, “Machinal”; James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity”, which was turned into the Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler film; a picture taken of Ruth done at Sing Sing by Tom Howard inspired the incident in the 1933 movie “Picture Snatcher”, starring James Cagney. Ruth was indeed, as Damon Runyon described her, “A chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble ‘you-bet-you-will chins.” Fay King and Nell Brinkley took turns covering the trial.
It was in 1913, Fay King married world lightweight champion Oscar Matthew "Battling" Nelson, which drew a lot of public attention, as did their divorce in 1916. Battling Nelson was a bit of an odd duck, his father said that his son “Bat is crazy as a bat.”
By the summer of 1918, Fay King had moved on with her life and was a special writer and cartoonist on the Hearst’s San Francisco paper.
Fay’s attitude towards marriage is pretty clear in a commentary in the 1921 article titled, “Judge Men by Their Past Wives Fay King Advises Flappers” “Girls who marry guys twice their age would do well to consult other women they wooed won and then cast off.”
Fay took her commentaries and reviews seriously; in August 1924, she wrote a rather savage review and was told in a dismissive response … “Honey, review ‘em don’t reform ‘em.” After all “criticism is easy, but art is difficult.” It was also in August of 1924 that Fay King appeared as herself in “The Great White Way” the Goldwyn film. In 1930, Fay continued to advise and draw; she was a well-known as a columnist and would give out fashion tips now and then. “It seems to me about time that stick pins for ties should come into style again.”
New York became her home, she wrote of the party girls but was said to be a strictly no-party girl, herself. She lived in a sedate hotel was an indefatigable walker a frequent loiterer in the city galleries a bit of a recluse although vivacious and sparking, not at all part of the whirligig of literary folk, she was devoted to her canary. This is not at all to say she didn’t feel deeply about her friends, she just respected the value of true friends.
By 1935, photography began to replace pen-and-ink illustrations in newspapers and magazines.
When her friend and mentor passed away, January 8, 1937, she wrote kindly about Arthur Brisbane and in her words we see a little of Fay Kings’ heart.
“The recent death of Arthur Brisbane will be regretted sincerely by all cartoonists. From the beginning to the end of his long, able career as an editor, he had a deep understanding and appreciation for their work.
His office desks were usually piled high with cartoons and comic strips and he followed closely the work of all cartoonists here and abroad.
He engaged great cartoonists to illustrate his fine editorials and frequently paid tribute to their ‘genius’ in his accompanying text.
His admiration and affection for ‘TAD’, Winsor McCay, T.E. Powers and many others was enthusiastic. It was an inspiration to any cartoonist to hear him speak of them and their fine work in which he took great pride. Arthur Brisbane always believed in cartoons.”
Battling Nelson died February 7, 1954 at the age of 71 in the Chicago State Hospital where the rugged old battler was committed; his death was attributed to senility. Fay King preformed a very gentle and gracious act when she hears of his death. Fay was truly a kind person. She defrayed the funeral expenses so he could be buried in Chicago next to his second wife, “whom he loved so much,” who had died just 2 months before, December 26, 1953.
Fay had been married to Bat over 40 years before his death and yet, when she was told her response was. “He was such a noble, honest man he did not deserve such a tragic end.” Fay had not seen him since 1919.