The Secret Life of Kewpies' Kreator

The best-selling doll came to illustrator Rose O'Neill in a dream.

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A big part of my childhood involved following my mother to flea markets and tag sales so that she could locate and purchase the toys that served as props in her photographic artwork. I would get down on the ground and rummage through cardboard boxes of other children's outgrown effects, looking for something that might strike my mother's fancy. I had a fairly good sense of her taste: whimsical but a little off, strange but not broken. Not creepy dolls in the Victorian sense, but weirdos, with oversize features or too-small feet.

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We were thrilled when we found an authentic set of Whimsys (Sally and Tinny Tears, as named by the American Character Doll Company) a grinning, cartoonish doll that was popular in the 1960s before people learned not to give children playthings apt to cause fun-house nightmares. Another favorite was a doll we called "Baby Tired," a cloth-bodied infant with a pug nose and tears creeping toward its contorted open mouth. We knew that revealing my mother's plans for the toys would only jack up the price, so I happily acted like I needed nothing more than a whole bunch of tiny wooden dishwashers. My mother would sometimes surprise me, like when she decided to buy a large box of dirty Princess of Power action figures with matted, Technicolor hair. But I was also surprised by what she rejected, like the time I presented her with a pristine set of Kewpie Dolls. "Oh, no," she said. "Those are kind of overdone."

You know what a Kewpie is, even if you think you don't. They're small, impish babies with single tufts of curled hair, potbellies, exposed butts, and tiny wings. They have been drawn on greeting cards, made into plastic bath toys, and even graced the bottle of their titular mayonnaise (big in Japan). Cute rockabilly girls get them tattooed on their arms beside horseshoes and broken hearts. At this point, the Kewpie is an icon of adorability, even inspiring the psychological concept of "The Kewpie Doll Effect": the stressful idea that mothers will take the best care of infants whose features are exaggerated for maximum adorability, much like a Kewpie, and that these infants will fare better than their less-blessed crib mates.

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But behind the Kewpie, a symbol of good old-fashioned American charm, is a woman who defies the suburban normalcy that her creation projects. The Kewpies were created by an iconoclastic illustrator named Rose O'Neill who, through the success of her baby-creatures, became the highest-paid female illustrator of her time, gaining a fortune that allowed her to amass real estate, support her giant Midwestern family, and contribute to the women's-suffrage movement. (She would often use her Kewpies below slogans like VOTES FOR WOMEN, a diapered Kewpie plaintively asking "Do I Get Your Vote?" Talk about subversion tactics.)

Rose Cecil O'Neill was born in 1874 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the second of seven children. She was raised in rural Nebraska, where, at age thirteen, she won the Omaha Herald's children's drawing competition. By age fifteen, she was the breadwinner in her family, supporting them via professional commissions like a man twice her age might. When she was nineteen, her father, sensing he had a star on his hands, escorted her to New York City, where he thought she'd have even greater success. He left his prodigal daughter in the care of the Sisters of Saint Regis.

The nuns would often accompany a naïve O'Neill to visit editors and art directors. Her popularity rose as a magazine illustrator (the primary visual media of the time); she was famed for her delicate drawings and playful, knowing captions. This success allowed her to help purchase a homestead for her family in the Ozarks, which they would call Bonniebrook. On a visit to Nebraska, O'Neill met her first husband, Gray Latham, a charming layabout whose excessive spending led to the loss of Rose's fortune. By the time she was 27, they were divorced, and she had returned to Bonniebrook, the fourteen-room mansion her generosity had built.

O'Neill's second husband entered stage left soon after, wooing her with anonymous letters and gifts until revealing his identity as Harry Leon Wilson, an assistant editor at Puck Magazine, where Rose had been on staff. After she accepted his coy advances, the pair moved to Bonniebrook, but by 1907, their relationship was over. Thirty-three and twice divorced, having already gained and lost a fortune, O'Neill had still not summoned the creation that would cement her legacy.

The Kewpies came to Rose in a dream. She could see them, dozens of flying baby cupids, mussed and smiling, swarming around her in her bed. She later described the characters thusly: "A sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time." Their name was derived from the word cupid, only if your cupid got you into trouble, the Kewpies were meant to bail you out.

The images were an instant sensation, and between cartoons, dolls, paper dolls (Kewpie Kutouts), and various licensing partnerships for housewares, snacks, and baby toys, O'Neill remade her fortune in spades, earning $1.4 million dollars (roughly the equivalent of $15 million in 2017 money. She was legitimately rich). Rose, considered arrestingly beautiful and often called "the Queen of the Bohemian Scene," split her time between Bonniebrook and a social hub of an apartment on Washington Square Park that inspired the hit Broadway song "Rose of Washington Square": "They call me Rose of Washington Square / I'm withering there, in basement air I'm fading."

But the grandeur came to an end as Rose fell victim to a problem familiar to modern stars (mo money, mo problems is right). She supported her family as well as a large creative entourage, and she believed her own hype, spending like the money would never stop. First came the Great Depression, then the introduction of photography to magazines and ad campaigns. O'Neill tried to re-create her original success with a Buddha-esque baby doll she dubbed Little Ho Ho, but the original Kewpie effect could not be replicated, and she moved back to Bonniebrook, where she was a notable and glamorous — if bedraggled — celebrity in her Missouri town.

In 1944, at age 69, Rose died. She was destitute, living with a nephew, though she had continued to encourage arts education and push for women's equality until the end of her life. The Broadway song about her puts it best: "Foes, I've plenty of those / With secondhand clothes, and nice long hair! / I've got those Broadway vampires last to the mast / I've got no future, but oh! What a past. I'm Rose of Washington Square."

Lena Dunham is a Krazy Kewpie Kollector.

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