Best known for his drawings of sumptuous women, Elmer Simms Campbell enjoyed success in both magazine illustration and newspaper cartooning. One of the first African American artists to have a long-term contract with a national magazine, he was hired by Esquire in 1933, and he created its mascot, Esky, from 1939 until his death in 1971, Campbell also had a syndicated cartoon panel for King Features titled “Cuties,” an apt summary of its theme.
Elmer Simms Campbell was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 2, 1906. When he was four his father, a teacher and school administrator, died and the boy was sent to Chicago to live with an aunt. He completed high school in Chicago and attended the University of Chicago before transferring to study briefly at the Chicago Art Institute. He returned to St. Louis and, despite being advised against pursuing an art career because of his race, he freelanced for several publications and supported himself by working as a waiter on a dining car. He worked for Triad Studios, a large commercial art firm, for 18 months before moving to New York City in 1929.
Famously hard working, Campbell drew advertisements, caricatures, cartoons, and sold gags to other artists. He enrolled at the Academy of Design and studied at the Art Students League, where he met other artists and became part of the New York art world as he began to make the round of magazine editors. The young artist moved to Harlem, and met singer Cab Calloway, who became a good friend. Campbell created a popular “Night-Club Map of Harlem” which showed the locales of area hot spots. He was a handsome man who enjoyed partying until the wee hours, but he prided himself on never missing a deadline.
In 1932 Campbell illustrated a book of poetry by Sterling Brown titled Southern Road. The next year, he illustrated Popo and Fina, a gentle story set in Haiti written by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. The beautifully crafted woodcut style of these book illustrations is an interesting departure from the fine brushwork of Campbell’s cartoons and magazine illustrations.
Cartoonist Russell Patterson is said to have advised the young man to “specialize” in drawing beautiful women, with the comment that “you can always sell a pretty girl.” Campbell took his advice and spent most of his career lampooning the world of upper-class white society with his art. Soon his work appeared in Life, Judge, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Collier’s and later on, Playboy. His syndicated feature, which appeared nationally in 145 newspapers, was collected into two books, Cuties (1942) and Cuties in Arms (1943).
E. Simms Campbell worked at the time racial segregation was the norm in the United States. Because his work was primarily about the life of wealth and pleasure enjoyed by white people, and it appeared in mainstream publications, most of his admirers were unaware that Campbell was African American. Economic reality was the most likely motivation for the absence of African Americans in his art, until after the Civil Rights Movement, most American publications were not willing to feature non-stereotypical minority characters regularly.
Campbell’s magazine and newspaper work has a fluid, painterly style. He was an expert in black and white, and his watercolor drawings have a spontaneity that sets them apart. Though his gags are humorous and entertaining, Campbell’s watercolors fully engage and please the eye.
After Esquire redesigned its format in 1957, Campbell and his family moved to Switzerland where he lived and worked until 1970. Shortly after his return to the United States, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he died after a brief illness.
E. Simms Campbell received honorary degrees from Lincoln and Wilberforce universities. Regrettably, no public collections of his work are well known.
Lucy Sheldon Caswell
Professor and Curator
The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library