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PROFILE: Dale Messick and her "Brenda Starr, Reporter"
cartoon strip

Starr Power

Dale Messick's glamorous comics character inspired girls of earlier generations to dream of career and adventure. She was a woman ahead of her time.

April 26, 1999|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in the '40s, at my folks' candy store, I read "Brenda Starr, Reporter" right off the newspaper delivery trucks. She was glamorous, sure, but it was her job that put stars in my eyes. Working-class women of my generation became teachers or nurses, period--and that's if they managed to get into City University of New York at a time when women needed a higher GPA.

Become a journalist? Never.

So meeting Dale Messick, the woman who created Brenda Starr, was a kick.

Here she was, 92 years old, looking great and talking like a character out of Mickey Spillane--just two months after a stroke temporarily left her unable to write her name.

And there I was, the kid who lived behind the candy store in New York, thanking Messick for creating a fantasy for girls that suggested there was life after Levittown.

Long before Mary Richards set foot in a television newsroom or Murphy Brown became part of the political debate, Brenda Starr kept a generation of young girls dreaming of possibilities. "Brenda Starr, Reporter" was Dale Messick's fantasy life. Messick created, wrote and drew the first cartoon strip syndicated by a woman. And along the way, she fulfilled her love of beauty, romance and, most of all, adventure.

Brenda was born June 30, 1940--23 years old on arrival--on the funny pages of the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune, impressed with the rise of the comic book, had expanded its funny pages and needed new material.

The times were serious yet Disneyesque. Folks were reading Richard Wright's "Native Son" and humming "When You Wish Upon a Star." While other female comic-strip characters looked like Olive Oyl and Blondie, Brenda was modeled after movie star Rita Hayworth and named for the 1940s' top debutante, Brenda Frazier.

If Brenda seemed unique for the comics, her creator, Messick, is unique in real time. She, too, was different from the beginning.

"I fell out of a train window waving to my daddy when I was around 2, and I just loved all of the attention I got, so I knew I was going to do something spectacular and never be part of the mob," she says today.

Dalia Messick, born in 1906, left her Indiana home for New York City in her 20s armed with a powerful ambition, an unbridled imagination and the discipline of a Marine. She began her career as a greeting-card artist, but in her spare time she showed her comic strip around town. She also changed her name to Dale.

"If editors thought I was a man," Messick remembers, "my stuff was looked at. Otherwise, they'd say, 'How about a date?' " (She interrupts her story with a laugh: "I wish that would happen now.")

Messick, who describes herself as "short and dumpy with no curves," made sure that Brenda was more than just another pretty-face reporter. She was as competent as any man on the "Flash" newspaper staff. Brenda traveled the world on one exciting assignment after another, torn between her career and her 31-year love affair with Basil St. John, the Mystery Man, a reclusive millionaire with a black patch over one eye, who suffered from a strange disease that only the serum from the black orchid could cure.

In its heyday 1950s, the strip was published in 250 newspapers (and dropped as being too risque in Boston once because Brenda--a woman!--was smoking a polka-dot cigar).

"Whenever I heard from real reporters," Messick remembers, "they would all say their lives weren't as interesting as Brenda's either. Who would have read Brenda if it was real life?"

Messick married Brenda off to Basil in 1976 after three decades of reunions and separations. President Ford sent congratulations. Four years later, Messick retired, but because she never owned the copyright, two new artists took it over. Brenda Starr still appears in 100 markets.

"The syndicate pushed me out in 1980, or otherwise I would have continued on," she said. (The Los Angeles Times carried the Sunday Brenda Starr strip until 1970.)Today, Messick lives an hour north of San Francisco in an active-senior residence wallpapered in Laura Ashley prints. She doesn't make small talk, just says what's on her mind, even offers unsolicited information. "I was married twice, divorced twice, had a bad car accident and a baby and never missed a deadline in 43 years. I mailed Brenda in before I saw the baby. I was a terrible mother."

"Not true," says Starr Rohrman, born one year after her namesake's debut. "She was a fine mother, though my life certainly wasn't ordinary. I attended seven different schools before the fifth grade because we traveled in the Brenda Starr rolling studio--a silver streamer RV outfitted with its own water supply."

"Mother was a vagabond who worked seven days a week," adds Rohrman. "She and my father both loved to travel, and she just had to have adventures. She eventually would use the adventures in the strip.

"My father, Everett George, was her business manager and the draftsman who did the lettering for the strip."

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