Dale Messick spent some time this morning gazing at the Tribune Tower and the flag waving on top from her hotel room window a few blocks away. She was thinking about the beautiful golden red sunsets that are only possible in Chicago--and only at certain times of the year. "I was here in January and it was zero. Now it's 95," she says.
It was the Chicago Tribune that gave Messick, the 85-year-old creator of Brenda Starr, her start back in 1940. "Even though Colonel McCormick was a man, he liked Brenda, and put her in his paper," she reminisces. Messick lived in New York City at the time, but "Captain Patterson at the New York Daily News didn't like her. He liked Dick Tracy. But he finally put her in his paper in 1945 because his daughter liked Brenda." Eight hundred papers followed the example of the Tribune and the Daily News and gave Brenda some space--and those papers ended up influencing the lives of more girls and women than Dale Messick knows.
Messick is in Chicago with her real-life daughter, Starr Rhorman, to promote the Chicago premier of Funny Ladies, partially funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, a documentary that chronicles and salutes Messick's accomplishments along with those of cartoonists Lynda Barry, Nicole Hollander, and Cathy Guisewite.
"I think my greatest contribution was entertainment," says Messick.
"No, mother," pipes up Starr, who was born in 1942, "you were an inspiration to women. You inspired women to achieve."
"Maybe so, but no woman reporter's life was ever like Brenda's," Messick says. "They wrote and told me that."
In 1940, Brenda Starr, Reporter was Brenda, Star Reporter (named after debutante Brenda Frasier). She was drawn to look like Rita Hayworth but gradually took on the characteristics of other beauties--Lana Turner, Kim Novak. Her body changed to reflect evolving styles, as the artist who drew her and brought her to life unconsciously kept her up-to-date. Her flaming red hair always made a statement.
In 1947 Brenda met her mystery man, Basil St. John--who was debonair and exciting and wore a black patch over one eye and was dependent on black orchids to ward off insanity--and that's when Messick started drawing big stars in Brenda's eyes. "When you find your man, you get a glow on, and it puts stars in your eyes," says Messick.
Starr adds, "Yeah, but the guy dumped her six times. Feminists don't like that too much."
Today, eight years after Messick gave Brenda up (and 14 years after Brenda married Basil), Brenda is still a hotshot reporter with stars in her eyes, divorced from Basil and bereft over the loss of her little daughter, Starr Twinkle. She is taking care of Basil's black Central American girlfriend who is ill and pregnant with Basil's child, and Basil, in a delirium, has been whisked away by a physician who, like Brenda, found him irresistible.
"Today she looks more like a dizzy blond," says Messick. "She's modern and up-to-date and soap operaish. But I always felt Brenda was soap operaish. The black orchid stuff...isn't that what people like? She used to be more intelligent, though. And she had humor. You can never be satisfied when someone takes over your character."
Messick was asked to retire in 1983 and now gets a pension. "I never owned Brenda," she says. "I signed her away. I had a contract where I got 52 percent of whatever she brought in. That was it. When the movie comes out"--it's due to open in August, starring Brooke Shields--"even if it's a big success, I don't get anything, except publicity."
But Messick doesn't want people to think she's rich anyway. She lives in a nice retirement community in Santa Rosa, California, near Charles Schulz. "Everyone knows how much money he has and he's not safe. He has to have bodyguards. They tried to kidnap his wife. I'm relaxed. I feel safe."
So relaxed that she admits she is easily conned. She winces when she talks about Brenda's "wedding pictures" from 1977. "I drew them on special paper," she explains, so they would be easier to preserve. "Someone called me up and said they'd like to include them in a big exhibit. They came by and got them and left me their address and telephone number and when weeks went by and I didn't hear anything, I called the number and it was phony. I was too trusting."
Messick is proud that in 43 years--through two marriages, two divorces, the birth of her daughter, boyfriends, a bad car accident, a six-week trip to Europe, other travels around the country, and several moves (including a long stint in Chicago in the late 60s and the 70s), she never missed a deadline. She was always six weeks ahead. Her first husband outfitted a trailer with a septic system so she could work in transit. Her living room floor used to be covered with strips.
"My marriages weren't too successful," because she devoted too much time to Brenda Starr, she says. "And I couldn't play with Starr and do things with her because I spent so much time at the drawing board."
"She wasn't a bad mother," says Starr, who lives 35 minutes away from her mother and has two grown children of her own. Her father, who was Messick's business manager, also did Messick's layout and lettering when they were married (hired assistants took over later) because Messick says she could never spell.
"I never used to read Brenda Starr," says Starr, who says she heard Chester Gould's daughter never read Dick Tracy but kept up with Brenda religiously. But Messick says she still takes out the strips (she drew 13,000) and reads them; she claims she doesn't remember what happens.
Messick is working on a new strip called Granny Glamour Says for senior citizen publications, in which the lead character looks surprisingly like an older, wiser Brenda. And she's working on her autobiography; she plans to draw cartoons to illustrate the stories of her life.
Dale Messick says she inherited her artistic talent from her father, an art teacher and sign painter in South Bend, where Messick was born, and Hobart, where she grew up. And from her mother, a milliner, who didn't take up painting until the age of 78 but ended up making 1,500 paintings and selling at a gallery across the street from the Art Institute. "I told her, 'Ma, be a primitive.' But she was an impressionist."
The other thing Messick inherited from her mother was her love of fashion, which is what determined that Brenda would be a reporter rather than a girl bandit, dressed in a bandanna and ragged clothes, as she was in her first incarnation. "Molly Slott--she was the 'head man' at the syndicate--and I decided a girl reporter could really have the clothes."
To make sure she got a fair shake at breaking into cartooning, Messick changed her name from Dalia to the more unisex Dale. Today a lot of people still think she's a man. "I'm a half-assed celebrity," she says of her ambiguous identity. "Even Steve Allen [whom she met recently] told me he always thought I was a man."
But she hasn't tried to keep her gender secret for a long time. All her life she's done what she calls "chalk talks"--speaking to small groups at women's clubs, at Rotary clubs, on cruises, and such, drawing pictures at an easel at the same time to illustrate in person her life's work and passion.
"Once I overheard a woman at a group where I was speaking say I looked mousy because of my brown hair," she says. "So I started dying my hair red--like Brenda's--and kept it red until just a couple of years ago when my doctor told me I became allergic to the hair dye. Once the IRS wanted to know why a cartoonist was deducting so much money for red hair dye. So I explained it to them."
"And you drove them nuts," says Starr, who suddenly wants to get her mother over to the hotel lounge for a martini so she can relax and get ready for the reception the Illinois Humanities Council is giving for the documentary later.
"Starr only lets me have one martini," Messick says. "On rare occasions, two. But she never lets me have three. She says I get too friendly with men and start touching. I tell her, 'At my age, it takes three to have one good date.'"