Oxford AASC: Campbell, Elmer Simms

Campbell, Elmer Simms

By: Pamela Lee Gray
 African American National Biography What is This?

Campbell, Elmer Simms

(2 Jan. 1906–27 Jan. 1971),

cartoonist, author, artist, and graphic illustrator, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Elmer Cary Campbell, a high school administrator, and Elizabeth Simms, a painter and homemaker. Campbell moved to Chicago to live with an aunt and to take advanced art classes at Elmwood High School. In 1923, while a student there, he won a national contest for an editorial cartoon about Armistice Day. After graduation, Campbell attended the Lewis Institute and the University of Chicago, where he worked at The Phoenix, a humor magazine. He also worked as a post office messenger and railroad car waiter. Campbell was accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and completed three years of study there before returning to St. Louis to work briefly at Triad Studios, a commercial art studio. He then moved to Harlem to live with an aunt and attend the Art Students League, where he studied printmaking with George Grosz. He took classes at the Academy of Design, did freelance gag writing in which he scripted punch lines for cartoons, and sold his own cartoons to make a modest living.

Campbell's work on The Phoenix led to interviews with editors associated with his Chicago coworker Ed Graham, who had since become a well-known cartoonist. E. Simms Campbell, as he was then known, entered the commercial art world in his twenties as a cartoonist and artist for The New Yorker and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine The Crisis. He later sold cover art to Life and Judge magazines and wrote gag strips for the Saturday Evening Post.

Campbell rented an apartment at the prestigious Dunbar Building on Seventh Avenue in New York, where bandleader Cab Calloway and musician Duke Ellington were among his fellow lodgers. Campbell and Calloway frequented the Cotton Club, one of the hot spots in Harlem, and became fast friends. Campbell's frequent socializing did not affect his work life: he worked hard, turning out three hundred to five hundred pieces of art each year at the height of his career. His watercolor illustrations of jazz musicians and nightlife, including a cultural map of Harlem, were inspired by his late nights out on the town.

Campbell authored art manuals in the 1930s and illustrated a children's book, Popo and Fifina, in 1932, featuring text by Langston Hughes. He illustrated a book of Haitian poetry by Binga Dismond titled We Who Die & Other Poems (1943). Campbell was married in 1936 to Constance; when she died in 1940, he married her younger sister Vivian. Vivian and Elmer's child, Elizabeth Ann, married noted photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks.

The artist Russell Patterson introduced Campbell to Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire magazine from 1933 to 1946. Patterson encouraged Campbell to incorporate women into his cartoons, and Campbell's Cuties cartoon for Esquire became his best-known work and the first syndicated feature drawn by a black artist. His work for Esquire also made him the first African American artist hired by a national magazine. The harem girl drawings in Cuties first appeared in autumn 1933 in the premiere issue of Esquire. Gingrich credited Campbell with the success of the publication, since each issue featured as least one piece by Campbell. When he was not submitting full-page original work, Campbell roughed out illustrations for other staff artists and submitted punch lines, or “gag lines,” for cartoons for other members of the staff. The scantily clad Cuties were so popular that Avon books published the collected cartoons in paperbacks for sale to military troops abroad during World War II. The twenty-five-cent Cuties volumes featured the women making comments about men, life, fashion, and clothing. King Features Syndicate represented the Cuties cartoons until the late 1960s. Campbell was also credited with the creation of the Esquire mascot. Sculptor Sam Berman was given a Campbell sketch of Esky, a pop-eyed, mustachioed character, and Berman constructed a three-dimensional ceramic Esky figure that would be used on every cover of the magazine.

When Esquire moved from watercolor illustrations to photography around 1957, Campbell was hired to create original art for the new magazine Playboy. Phantom Island, a Campbell-drawn cartoon, had a long run for King Features. Campbell's commercial artwork was used in advertisements for Springmaid, Hart Schaffner and Marx, and Barbasol. His distinctive signature appeared in the lower portion of each piece of commercial art.

The irony of Campbell making a successful living drawing white women in lingerie at a time when southern state laws mandated jail terms for blacks whistling at white women was not lost on Campbell. He wrote articles about racism (and also music) for Esquire.

Cartoons from the turn of the century through the 1920s typically showed black figures in what was termed “cue ball” style, because the human figures lacked shadowing or detail work. Human heads were drawn as solid-colored circles with the eyes, ears, and lips attached. This unnatural characterization was transformed by the group of cartoonists that included Campbell. Black cartoon characters depicted in illustrations were shown with shading and highlighting that depicted more natural looking facial colorings and features.

Campbell worked for more than forty years as one of the most successful illustrators and cartoonists in the industry. After returning to the United States from Switzerland following an absence of nearly 14 years, he died of cancer in 1971 (his wife, Vivian, had also died of cancer the previous year). Campbell's funeral was held in the White Plains Community Unitarian Church, in the same community where in 1938 he had lost a legal challenge to purchase a home because of segregationist legal restrictions. By 2000, more than one hundred black cartoonists worked in editorial and panel cartooning as a result of the pioneer work of artists such as E. Simms Campbell.


    Further Reading

    • Calloway, Cab, with Bryant Rollins. Of Minnie the Moocher & Me (1976).
    • Driskell, David. Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976)
    • Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue (1982).
    • Stromberg, Fredrik. Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History (2003)
    • Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art (1969).
    • Powell, Richard J.. Impressions/Expression: Black American Graphics (1980)
    • “Country Gentleman,” Ebony (Aug. 1947).



    • New York Times, 29 Jan. 1971.
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