"The Rose of Washington Square" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Occasionally I read the work of a writer who deserves a wider audience. Such is the case with Pat Wahler, author of “The Rose of Washington Square.” This volume is the second in a planned series of historical fiction based on the lives of significant but little-known Missouri women.
Rose O'Neill, the center of this story, became the first published female cartoonist in the United States. Before her, women who tried their hand at drawing received little recognition for learning or entering this male-dominated field. Fortunately for Rose, her father was an illustrator. By imitating his drawing style and copying some of his illustrations, she became quite adept and gained valuable experience in the field.
In June of 1893, Rose, age 19, left for New York City determined to become a professional illustrator. She used a combination of flattery, wit, and charm to achieve an audience with Mr. Martin, art editor of a New York magazine. Eventually, after much cajolery on her part, the pair closed a deal. Martin advised, “I like the way you use humor in your sketches tempered with a touch of pity. Keep that angle.” His counsel paid off; she set to work and soon began to send most of her paychecks to her impoverished family back in southern Missouri.
Despite all the roadblocks to her career, Rose eventually climbed the ladder of success in a man’s world. She excelled at her craft, and in 1909 devised a new cartoon character, the Kewpie, so named because the impish figure reminded admirers of Cupid, the Roman god of love. O’Neill described the Kewpie as “a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time.” The Kewpies were immediately popular with both children and adults.
Every major company wanted to put a Kewpie “logo” on their product. Rose traveled both nationally and internationally to sell her illustrations. The popularity of the Kewpie made Rose a very wealthy woman who not only supported her whole family but also became a generous philanthropist. Most notably, Rose lent the Kewpie image to the suffrage movement. The iconic figure soon became a humorous goodwill representative of the campaign.
But all was not easy for Rose. Her father suffered from a mental illness and lived as a recluse in the Arkansas Ozarks. Rose often took the train back to Missouri to visit with the family and on to Arkansas to see her dad. She made it possible for him to receive what treatment was available. She also had two marriages that ended in divorce. In 1944, due to the Great Depression, the decline of the Kewpie’s popularity, and her failing health, she died destitute.
“The Rose of Washington Square” is extensively researched. Wahler put as many facts into the story as her team of researchers could find. She spent many hours talking with historians and docents at the estate she had built for her family--Bonniebrook, in Walnut Shade, Missouri. The beautiful Bonniebrook mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a museum open to the public for tours.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in women's suffrage, women illustrators, and Kewpie dolls, as well as to anyone interested in reading about people who become successful after overcoming many obstacles.
About the Author: Pat Wahler is a winner of Western Fictioneer's Best First Novel of 2018, and the winner of the Author Circle Awards 2019 Novel of Excellence in Historical Fiction for her first book in this series, “I Am Mrs. Jesse James.” She is a frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Pat makes her home in St. Charles, County.