Dale Messick, 98; Her ‘Brenda Starr’ Reporter Provided a Role Model

Times Staff Writer

Dale Messick, a comic book artist who created the glamorous, red-haired Brenda Starr, has died. She was 98.

Messick, whose “Brenda Starr, Star Reporter” strip ran in 250 newspapers at its peak in the 1950s, died Tuesday, said her daughter, Starr Rohrman, who had been caring for her mother in Sonoma County. Messick suffered a stroke in 1998.

Brenda had everything: brains, beauty and brashness. She was pursued by droves of millionaires, from Cash Wallstreet to the mysterious Basil St. John. She got the best stories at the Globe (later the Flash) newspaper.


She wore the most fabulous clothes, often with hats and matching open-toe shoes. And she didn’t put up with anybody’s nonsense, even her managing editor’s.

The strip, which began its run in 1940, was one of the first created by a woman. Its feisty leading lady provided a role model for ambitious women years before the women’s movement was a glint in Gloria Steinem’s eye.

Brenda was a hero especially for female journalists, such as CNN’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who once said that as a teenager she had wanted nothing more than for her life to have the “mystery and romance” she associated with Brenda’s big-time, big-city journalism.

Brenda’s creator was born April 11, 1906, the oldest of five children and the only daughter of a teacher/sign painter and a milliner in South Bend, Ind. Her parents named her Dalia.

Because of her mother’s occupation, “we always had great gobs of hats and hatboxes around the house,” Messick once said. “Together, we used to design and wear hats.”

The sickly child, bored with school as well, was held back twice and did not graduated from high school until age 21. But she always had a fanciful imagination and was good at drawing -- a combination of talents that led to her career.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Messick began her professional life as a greeting-card designer. In 1933, she quit when her employer lowered her salary.

“I just got mad,” she said later. “I didn’t realize what I had done, because it was right in the heart of the Depression.”

She freelanced card designs for a while, and that led to a job in New York City. Showing Brenda-like adventurism, Messick refused to take a train to New York, insisting on flying in a single-engine plane. It was a bumpy eight-hour trip she called thrilling.

New York was where Messick became intent on creating a comic strip, at first around the idea of a pirate girl.

Seeing that there was no welcome mat out for female comic-strippers, she altered her first name and sent her work out under the more gender-ambiguous Dale Messick.

Joseph M. Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News and head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, knew Messick was a woman and refused to consider her work.

But Patterson’s assistant, Mollie Slott, thought Messick had talent and encouraged her to try again, this time focusing her strip on a female reporter. For the artist, the idea was a natural -- a woman could wear prettier clothes.

Patterson still wasn’t interested, however. He had already given a chance to one female cartoonist and wasn’t inclined to try another.

Finally, he agreed to let other papers sign up for “Brenda Starr,” and it soon caught on. At its peak, it reached a reported 60 million readers and, after Patterson’s death, finally made its debut in the New York Daily News.

Messick stopped drawing Brenda in 1980, though she wrote the story line for three more years.

The strip -- now drawn by June Brigman, with stories by Mary Schmich -- appears in about 20 newspapers.

Schmich said Thursday that she inherited a character probably “girlier and weepier than ... I would have created.”

“But also she was a really independent working woman at a time when little girls didn’t see that on the comic pages,” Schmich said. “It was exciting to flip the pages open and see a woman who was leading a really exciting life.”

Messick modeled the original Brenda on the unapologetically sexy Hollywood star Rita Hayworth (long red hair, sultry eyes, revealing clothes) and named her after the reigning New York debutante of the day, the gorgeous Brenda Frazier.

As for Starr’s skills as a reporter, Messick relied on her own imagination.

“Authenticity is something I always try to avoid,” she said whenever reporters complained that the strip was too fanciful.

From the start, Brenda had spunk, refusing to be relegated to such “women’s news” as weddings.

She talked herself into the most exotic assignments and, when ready to write, would pound out her story on a typewriter in the wee hours, leaving it in the hands of the scrubwoman. (The Saturday Evening Post, writing about Starr in 1960, speculated that the cleaning woman “presumably conveyed it directly to the front page, without intervention of editors or other middlemen.”)

Brenda’s world was populated with colorful characters, from Atwell Livwright, the Flash’s cigar-chomping managing editor, to her best pal, crusty female city editor Hank O’Hair.

Five years into the strip, Messick introduced St. John, the dashing millionaire with an eye patch who would court Brenda for 30 years.

This being a comic strip, of course, Brenda remained young and beautiful and Basil just as handsome as the day he entered her life in typically heroic fashion: He rescued her from a fire at a fashion show.

When the on-again, off-again couple finally married in 1976 to great fanfare, then-President and Mrs. Ford sent greetings. Advice columnist Ann Landers commented that Brenda had been “23 years old for 36 years now, and she’s still a virgin -- that’s pretty nigh impossible.”

The couple had a child, appropriately named Starr, just like Messick’s daughter.

But being a stay-at-home wife wasn’t Brenda’s style.

When Basil got in the way of the plot, he was written out, while Brenda kept right on jumping out of airplanes and taking trips to Tahiti.

When Messick was 75, her syndicate “retired me,” she said. Because she didn’t own the rights to Brenda, she lived a modest retirement in Sonoma County.

Well into what for others would be their dotage, however, Messick presented a fashionable profile, wearing well-tailored suits and lots of bangles, her hair still perfectly coiffed and dyed red to match Brenda’s (at least until an allergy to the dye forced Messick to go natural).

“I don’t let any other old bag out-prop me,” Messick said at 80. “It’s all props, you know. Washed down to the quick, I’d scare babies.”

At the time, the twice-married, twice-divorced Messick was juggling several suitors -- “all three wouldn’t make one good man, but at my age, you can’t be too choosy” -- and enjoyed living near her daughter, who survives her, as do grandchildren Curt and Laura.

Messick said for years that she wanted to write her autobiography and call it “Still Stripping at 80.”

As the years went by, she changed the title to “Still Stripping at 90.”

Messick was included in Pamela Beere Briggs’ 1991 film “Funny Ladies,” about comic strips by women.

In 1995, Messick was the only woman among 20 comic-strip creators chosen to appear on U.S. postage stamps honoring the 100th anniversary of the form.

She also lived to see her creation on the big screen, in the 1992 flop “Brenda Starr.” (“Don’t go see it,” Messick said. “It’s awful.”)

She was asked in 1998 whether, if she could live her life over, she would go to New York to be a cartoonist. She said no, she would move to California and invest in real estate.

But, on the same occasion, as Messick received a lifetime achievement award from her peers in the National Cartoonists Society, she said, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”

No services are planned, her daughter said.