Our book today is an effervescent and best-selling little gem from 1941, My Best Girls by Helen Hokinson. It’s a slim collection of the highlights from Hokinson’s career to that point as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and the title refers to her signature and immortal creation, her gallery of well-fed and oblivious New York City matrons. These ladies sport eye glasses and oversized coats and miraculous hats, and they are portrayed in two settings: happily burbling among their own kind, or, more often, coming into hapless contact with the rest of the world.
I should confess: I’ve been in love with Hokinson’s best girls for longer than most of you have been alive, and I love everything about them. I love their inquisitiveness; I love their naivete; I love their addled ideas of propriety; I love the mingled confusion and exasperation they evoke in other people; I love how vocal they are about their problems. Most of all, I love the sheer zest with which they live their lives. The New Yorker made its trademark with knowing, jaded cartoons, but right from the beginning, in every issue, there was Hokinson parading the most wonderful specimens of pure innocence this side of Gracie Allen.
Many of those wonderful specimens are included in this volume, and re-acquainting myself with them made for one joyous afternoon. Hokinson’s artwork has a winsomely incomplete feel to it, a sketched-in feel reminiscent of the advertising world of the time, where the artist got her formal training – there’s none of the incredible, unfolding precision of a Gluyas Williams, nor any of the manic energy of a George Price; instead, gentle spring afternoons are most often suggested … one suspects these ladies are strangers to inclement weather. For the most part, they’re also strangers to men – occasionally, there are rather hen-pecked husbands in the background, poor, harried souls whose main purpose in life is to fix the mishaps these ladies cause (one pities, for instance, the “Albert” on the receiving end of the phone call in Hokinson’s most-beloved cartoon, “Albert, I did something wrong on the Washington Bridge”) – but in the majority of cases, these ladies are out in the world on their own, amply endowed with furs, feathers, flesh, and funds.
And also friends. One of the sweetest sub-notes of these cartoons is the unerring, unquestioning way Hokinson’s girls stick together. There’s none of the wry, repressed antagonism that finds its way into so many New Yorker cartoons. Instead, there are cheerful greetings, boundless enthusiasm, and a refreshing sense of grand adventures being shared. In a very fluted, ornamental way, these ladies are birds of a feather, and they know it. True, there are some delicious fish-out-of-water solo moments, but over and over, we’ll see them in pairs, snooping around the world, asking their exuberant, slightly off-key questions (as when a train passenger asks her conductor if her ticket entitles her to “a hangover in Philadelphia”). Or else we’ll see them en masse at their ladies’ meetings or amateur theatricals, and it’s all such a treat.
Indeed, the only drawback to a volume like this is that it isn’t complete – it stops in 1941, and Hokinson kept drawing at a robust pace until her tragic death in a famous airplane collision in 1949. For those later drawings, there are later collections – that’s where you’ll find my two personal favorites, one involving a clueless gardener:
All these collections are well worth finding, if you’re the type of person who can be reached by this brand of gentle, high-society humor. I’m not sure Hokinson’s girls exist anymore in the world – the Internet Age has been particularly hard on the simple joys of obliviousness. But these ladies in their ruffled sleeves and sensible heels and charming simplicity are otherwise immortal, thanks to their Heaven-sent portrait artist.