History of Rose O’Neill created by Vernon Jordan from original notes jotted down by Vance Randolph
In the early 1940’s while at Bonniebrook, Vance Randolph took time to write down many notes on Rose O’Neill. Those notes provide us with a unique perspective and insight into Rose O’Neill. We hope you will agree that they deserve to be shared and this entire tale is based upon those wonderful notes.
Rose O’Neill has told reporters that it was in 1909 when the idea of the Kewpies came to her in a dream. “I just dreamed them, I was in bed. Suddenly they were bouncing about over the cover, chirping the little newborn name. One perched in my hand like a bird. It wasn’t warm like a human baby. It was oddly cool. So I knew they were elves. ‘You say you’re Kewpies? Short for Cupids?’ I asked. And they nodded their little heads.”
The idea of the Kewpie doll came later. “Children began to write me,” said Rose, “asking for a Kewpie that they could hold in their hands.” It seems that people had been cutting the colored pictures out of magazines and pasting them on cardboard, but the children wanted a “round” Kewpie. So Rose made a little plaster model, which was turned out in celluloid, bisque, and rubber by the doll factories. They came in nine sizes, the biggest one selling for five dollars, the smallest one for ten cents.
Later came Kewpies made of wood, fiber, Bakelite, china, and even the so-called “cuddle Kewpies” of soft velvet. Children ate candy Kewpies, and even Kewpies made of pink ice cream. Gingerbread Kewpies were sold everywhere. Kewpies were printed on valentines, Christmas cards, birthday greetings, they even appeared on wedding invitations. The original Kewpies were nude, but soon appeared in all sorts of costumes, with no regard to sex or nationality. They wore the military uniforms of many nations, also red fezzes, corsets, top hats, mortar-boards, chef’s caps, aprons, Red Cross uniforms, spectacles, Judge’s wigs, swords, sombreros, chaps and six-shooters.
The first Kewpie dolls were manufactured in 1912. By the end of 1913, they were known the world over. They were as popular in England, South Africa and Australia as in America. Letters poured in from remote places everywhere, from the hinterland of China to Timbuktu.
The Kewpie craze which followed was unlike anything that was ever known in the doll industry. Even the World War didn’t stop it. Soldiers of all the armies carried tiny Kewpies into battle, as amulets or luck-pieces.
What was home without a Kewpie in the early twenties? Every mantelpiece, every dressing table, every piano had a Kewpie on it. Chorus girls carried Kewpies in the streets, shop-girls showed them in the subways, bathing beauties took them to the beaches, and fine ladies had brass Kewpies on the radiator-caps of their automobiles. Musical comedies were written about the Kewpie, the name went up in electrical lights on Broadway, Kewpie ballets and vaudeville acts were common. People used Kewpies for favors and bridge-prizes, schoolteachers gave them to children as rewards for scholarship, and they were substituted for ribbons and medals at County Fairs. Financiers used little Kewpies for paperweights; business houses used big ones in various advertising schemes. Some people put Kewpies on wedding cakes. Jewelers used them in rings, tie pins, cuff-links, and the like. An eccentric millionaire set up a giant stone Kewpie at the bottom of his garden. An actress attended a masquerade in a Kewpie costume that scandalized Greenwich Village. Children formed Kewpie Klubs everywhere, wore Kewpie badges, and sang a Kewpie Kroon to the air of “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”. The Queen of England bought Kewpies for her grandchildren on their birthdays. Children died and were buried with Kewpies in their arms, and even had Kewpies carved on their tombstones. Serious journals actually published essays on what was called the “Kewpie philosophy”. There was even an article entitled “The Religion of the Kewpies” in the Universalist Review.
This all sounds incredible now, and it was even hard to believe when it was going on before one’s eyes. The Kewpie Kraze has been compared to the tulip mania, which swept Holland in the 17th century, when sober citizens quit their jobs and devoted their whole time to growing tulips and swapping bulbs. Palmer Cox’s little Brownies were forgotten, the once-famous Billiken and the Teddy Bear fell into obscurity. Winnie-the-Pooh was nowhere. Even Disney’s Mickey mouse and Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy seem mighty small potatoes compared to the Kewpies at the height of their vogue. The Kewpies ranked with the Barrymore profile, and Charlie Chaplin’s famous feet.
At the beginning of the Kewpie madness, Rose O’Neill was simply a well-paid illustrator, with an earning power of perhaps $20,000 a year. The Kewpie dolls made her rich almost over night. O. O. Mc Intyre, a famous columnist, placed the amount of her royalties at nearly two million dollars. Rose has intimated that this was “a slight exaggeration”. But she certainly made a lot of money.
When this sudden golden flood descended upon her, Rose O’Neill left the Ozarks. She went first to New York, and lived in Greenwich Village for several years. She purchased a great country house in Connecticut, threw fabulous parties that were the talk of the whole county, and entertained artists, writers, musicians, and theatrical folk from all parts of the world. She wrote articles against war, made speeches in favor of woman suffrage and dress reform, and other matters that interested her at the moment.
She gave away huge sums of money, bought $1000 violins for needy musicians, helped boys and girls through college, pensioned old servants and the like. She spent years in London, Paris, Vienna, and Rome. She painted great pictures of symbolic monsters. These pictures were never offered for sale, although exhibited at the Paris Salon and highly praise by European critics. She modeled similar monsters in plaster, later reproduced in large bronze and granite statues. She was elected to the Societe des beaux Arts in Paris. The French government bought her painting “Man in the Hand of Nature” which was hung in the Luxembourg gallery. Another entitled “Death Triumphant” was purchased by the city of Paris and was hung in the Petiti Palais. She bought a 300-year old monastery on the Isle of Capri, turned it into a dwelling, and named it the Villa Narcissus.
Then Rose O’Neill came back to Bonniebrook, the old home on Bear Creek in the Ozarks. Tired of the world, she said, and weary of its ways. She had seen enough of London, enough of Paris, enough of Vienna, enough of Rome, enough of New York as well. She gave up the apartment in Washington Square, sold her big country house in Connecticut, and leased the Villa Narcissus in Capri.
After Twenty years in the great capitals of the world, twenty years of mingling with the rich and great, Rose O’Neill was coming home at last. “I love Bonniebrook better than any other spot on earth,” she said. “Here I have done my best work. Here in the shadow of the Ozark hills I want to live and die.” Rose felt that she had lived a full life, an active and eventful life. She had worked hard, and now the time had come for her to rest a bit. “No more drawing, no more sculpture. No more verses, no more dolls. I shall do nothing at all now but enjoy Bonniebrook, and perhaps I shall write my memoirs.”
But then, Rose O’Neill dreamed another dream. In the same house, in the same room where she brought forth the famous Kewpies almost thirty years before, there suddenly came another. This time it was a little laughing Buddha-like figure called Ho-Ho. He sits in an Oriental attitude of meditation, with little plump hands spread out on little plump knees, but his head is thrown back in a hearty laugh. Just as the Kewpie smile was a little different from any other smile, the Ho-Ho laugh is not quite like any other laughter. There is something odd about that laugh. It is funny, contagious, and winsome, but the wisdom of the ages is in it too.
Rose O’Neill says she had carried the idea of that laugh about for years,meaning to materialize it for the world. “Year by year, as the world grew less and less funny, the laugh got clearer in my mind. It is the sort of laugh that makes a laugh in the beholder, as kindness makes the warmth of returning kindness.
Ho-Ho is a sort of little clown-Buddha, all his stored-up wisdom finding its last word in the supreme wisdom of laughter. This kind of laughter is man’s final defense against despair.”
Ho-Ho is on the market now, manufactured by the same company that made the first Kewpie so many years ago. He seems to be going very well, too, and will make a great deal of money but not a fortune as the Kewpies produced, but quite enough to make the manufacturers, the agents, and the advertising men happy.
Rose says that she has really retired this time and doesn’t intend to do a blessed thing but sit on the porch and watch the spring come to Bonniebrook. Probably she’s old enough to retire, if she feels like it. There’s a little gray in the golden hair now, and she doesn’t ride wild horses round the mountain any more. But she’s still Rose O’Neill, as incredible and unpredictable as ever. Fools like me make newspaper stories, but only God can tell what Rose O’Neill is going to do. Perhaps she’ll have another dream….