by Joshua Heston
Enigmatic, eccentric and deeply talented, the artist Rose O’Neill was a captivating socialite and glittering celebrity. Named one of the most beautiful women in the world, she was also one of the richest women of her era.
Who then would suspect that O’Neill would die — impoverished and nearly forgotten — in Springfield, Missouri, in 1944?
O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her second generation Irish father, William Patrick O’Neill, was a bookseller, art gallery owner and Civil War naval veteran.
Rose’s young life was spent in considerable luxury — the O’Neill’s lived in a bountiful home poetically named the “Emerald Cottage.”
This luxury was cut short when William O’Neill sold his business, relocating the family to the untamed wilds of Nebraska’s Great Plains.
The move was hardly an economic one.
The O’Neills had read Thoreau’s recently published Walden, which espoused a return to a simpler time.
“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” wrote Thoreau.
The O’Neills took him at his word.
Simpler did not necessarily mean sensible, though, and the family’s westward trek included velvet drapes, Persian rugs and stacks of books.
The supplies did not, however, include cooking utensils: Alice Asenath Cecilia Smith O’Neill — Rose’s mother — did not know how to cook.
The family found life in Nebraska to be far harsher than Thoreau’s idealized Walden Pond.
Patrick and Alice (called “Meemie”) would move nearly 20 times during Rose’s childhood. Patrick O’Neill began traveling as far as Denver and Chicago to sell books.
It was during this time that Rose’s drawing abilities became evident. She was only 13 years old when she won an art competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald.
The piece, titled Temptation, was portentous of Rose’s talent.
Drawing heavily from the woodprints of Gustave Dorè, Temptation won first place — and a five dollar gold piece.
William Patrick O’Neill sensed his daughter — whom he had hoped would become a famous stage actress — was just the ticket to fortune.
They created a portfolio, which William began carrying to distant cities in order to sell her illustrations.
By the age of 19, Rose O’Neill was in New York City, sheltered by a convent, escorted by protective nuns as she went to prospective job interviews.
In time, she walked into the Manhattan headquarters of Puck magazine. Puck was the top men’s magazine of the late-19th century, entertaining its readers with considerable satire and political commentary.
Rose walked out as Puck’s first female illustrator.
In the meantime, William Patrick O’Neill moved his family once again; this time to a simple, dogtrot cabin in the wilds of Taney County, Missouri — beneath the shadow of Bear Mountain.
Puck paid its illustrators well, however, and Rose’s talents were exceptional (Plate 5). Her paycheck would soon pay for a lavish mansion in the old Ozark hills, poetically named Bonniebrook (Plate 6).
It was not long before Rose would visit Taney County, falling in love with the wild “tangle” of the hills. Growing up immersed in the romantic Greek mythologies and her father’s Irish folklore, the young artist would see fairies and fauns, gods and goddesses, in the dark cedar glades and rolling hills of her new home (Plates 4, 7).
In time, this inspiration would find form in her “Kewpies” (which launched a national merchandising phenomenon eclipsed only by Mickey Mouse) and in Rose’s “Sweet Monsters,” works espoused by none other than Auguste Rodìn and heralded in two international exhibitions (Paris, 1921; New York City, 1922).
No one said no to Rose O’Neill, lovely, talented and rich.
She divided her time between her Bonniebrook; a Manhattan apartment; a Connecticut estate titled Castle Carabas; and a villa on the Isle of Capri, the Villa Narcissus.
Two marriages came and went, each lasting only five years.
The first was to a young Virginian playboy — Gray Latham — who spent her money faster than she could make it. and the second to Harry Leon Wilson, a playwrite and novelist described as “moody” and “sullen” following their wedding.
Rose would never marry again.
By this time, however, Rose O’Neill was a world renowned personality, busily overseeing a Kewpie licensing empire with the help of younger sister Callista, and supporting her family’s growing — if eccentric — needs.
Brother Clarence Gerald O’Neill, born in 1889, was remembered as a brilliant savant, incapable of caring for himself, with a penchant for wandering into guests’ room in the middle of the night as well as arbitrarily frightening the house staff.
William Patrick O’Neill was scarcely less eccentric. Fondly remembering his days in the Union navy, “Papa” O’Neill often retired to sleep in a hammock — hung in a second-floor broom closet.
As more celebrities began visiting Bonniebrook, Papa O‘Neill finally retired, this time to a cave in Hemmed-In-Hollow near Harrison, Arkansas. The family would occasionally visit Hemmed-In-Hollow to deliver food and new stacks of books.
Rose’s retirement would prove unkind.
Photographers replaced illustrators during the 1930s. The Kewpie phenomenon waned, rapidly becoming passè, and Rose’s lavish lifestyle simply could not keep up.
Papa O’Neill passed away in ’36. Meemie would die a year later. Her mother’s death hit Rose hard, as did the failure of her final endeavors — publication of her memoirs, a reboot of the Kewpie doll phenomenon (the Ho-Ho), and an attempt to regain her position as illustrator by submitting work to the only publications not using photography — pin-up magazines.
Pin-up magazine publishers — and possibly the reading public — simply weren’t ready for the now-elderly “Mother of the Kewpie” drawing scantily clad women for a new generation of young men.
The Ho-Ho, or “Little Laughing Buddha,” was introduced in 1940, shortly prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Rose’s memoirs languished, unpublished, the erratic memories of an increasingly forgotten celebrity. A life-long chain smoker, O‘Neill suffered the last of a series of strokes, passing away in Springfield on April 6, 1944.
Local funeral goers — many of the Bear Creek community — were appalled to attend an unceremonial interment service, devoid of Christian tradition.
Soon, crape myrtle (planted earlier by Callista) swallowed the small family cemetery just south of the now-delapidated Bonniebrook mansion.
Only Clarence remained and in 1947, the old mansion burned to the ground.
Bonniebrook was abandoned, nearly forgotten.
In 1967, the Rose O’Neill Club was formed to remember the artist. A year later, Branson hosted its first festival dedicated to the Kewpie. Called Kewpiesta, the yearly event continues to this day.
The Rose O‘Neill Club became the International Rose O’Neill Club Foundation. Later, the Bonniebrook Historical Society, organized in 1975, rebuilt the mansion (Plates 3, 6).
A museum now stands alongside.
And slowly, a new generation of artists are introduced to O‘Neill’s unique art, inspired by a unique fusion of Celtic folklore, Greek mythology, and these old dark hills of the Ozarks.
Rose O‘Neill. Artist, sculptor, writer — a rose amidst thorns if there ever was.
Plate 1. Rose at 33 years of age (1907).
Plate 2. A restored Bonniebrook.
Plate 3. Embrace of the Tree.
Plate 4. Puck illustration.
Plate 5. Bonniebrook.
Plate 6. The Faunnesse.
Plate 7. The Attic Studio.
An Irish soul...
The serious artwork of Rose O’Neill is best appreciated alongside her written work. But did you ever wonder what the Irish soul looks like? It is playful, contemplative, melancholy. Deeply thoughtful, almost driven to seeing the perspective of other, it can be summed up thus: Laugh today as it’s better than to cry.
I Left My Pipes details the misplaced effort of battle — and the horror of result. O’Neill was a gifted word-smith. Her verse is simple. Consequently, it is powerful.
I Left My Pipes
- “And I will slay, and I’ll be slain, If needs must be to keep The happy woods for dreamers fain Where fauns and dryads sleep.”
- I left my pipes and pipers fair, Farewelled each leafy wight; And fierce upon the foemen there, I drove into the fight
- I thrust one through his spreading breast, I broke one at the knee, I clove another’s curling crest And throat of ivory.
- One died in weeping, like a child, One like a stag that cries, And one with looks so brightly wild, Was like a god that dies
- Mine was the battle, and by me Were saved my grove and plain: I turned me once about to see The faces of the slain.
- Oh, golden fall that flowered the lawns! Oh, honied mouths that bled! They were the faces of my fauns, And dryads, that were dead.
— Rose O’Neill
What was it like to be a celebrated woman in a male-dominated world, surviving by sheer talent and near-Elizabethan wit?
In The Woman of Property, a classic piece of Irish soul, you can almost hear her laughing as she cries:
The Woman of Property
- Do you think at this day you can call me and keep me
- You that was good to me once and no more?
- And you that was bad to me, now you can weep me,
- Weep as you laughed with your laughing before.
- I am the wind-flower, long winds they sweep me—
- I am the corn, and the reaper can reap me,
- I am the clay, with the young roots to lover me,
- I’ve got me own grass, and plenty to cover me.
— Rose O’Neill
Written for O’Neill’s brother, Jamie: The Ballad of a Dead Boy is a chronicle of incomprehension in the face of great loss — and contemplation of the perceived consciousness of the dead:
- And that was he that died last night! Did no one hear a sound? The dead they die so stealthily
- When you have turned around
- They wait until you have forgot, Until the moon is drowned
- To die it is a secret thing— The closing of a book— The furtive dead they are ashamed, The dead that are forsook;
- So death it is a secret thing, And never man must look. Perhaps, they know what we will do,
- And why we dig the snow
- They’d rather be in their own beds, Than to be used so.
- And thus they die so carefully, And hope we shall not know....
— Rose O’Neill
Plate 1, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Plate 2, 3, 6 and 7, Bonniebrook photos by J. Heston. Plate 4, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Plate 5, courtesy of the Bonniebrook Museum.
Photos by J. Heston. StateoftheOzarks Media Inc. photos collected July 9, 2009. Many thanks to the Bonniebrook Historical Society.