Women's History Month: Lily Renee Wilhelm - From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer

March 8, 2012

March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. We can think of no better way to commemorate both than with Linda Levi's profile of an international woman who succeeded in a field dominated by men: Lily Renee Wilhelm.

Comic books are often overlooked as both an art genre and a form of communications.  But in reality for many, and young readers in particular, comic books are the first type of consistent reading.  Frequently it’s a genre readers fall in love with, creating life-long reading habits. One lesser known, but groundbreaking comic book creator and artist is Lily Renee Wilhelm.

Lily was born in 1925 in Vienna, Austria, into a well-off Jewish family.  She grew up surrounded by art and culture and even had her own art exhibited at age six in the first grade.  A real beauty, her photo won Lily a film contract, but her father forbid pursuing show business.

In 1937, when Lily was 13, Austria was occupied by the Nazis. Like other Jews, Lily could no longer attend school and life grew increasingly harsh for Austrian and German Jews.  Lily’s parents began what turned out to be a two-year effort for their family to flee Austria. Luckily Lily, who had been studying English, had a British pen pal, Molly Kealy, from whom she was able to secure a visitors permit.  She then secured a coveted spot on a kindertransport in late 1939, eventually landing in Leeds, England, and settling in nearby Horseforth. Sadly, however, the Kealys took advantage of Lily, treating her like an unpaid servant.  Terribly unhappy, Lily applied for work through an unemployment agency, quickly landing a mother’s helper position. She also found work as a caretaker, hospital candy striper and even took care of newborns in shelters during Blitz bombing episodes.

Eighteen months after Lily left Austria, her parents made their way to the U.S., settling in NYC. Lily eventually reunited with her parents in New York after a few false attempts to exit England. Still, they were lucky — two uncles and an aunt were killed by the Nazis. Not unlike other WWII German refugees, Lily and her family settled on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and lived together in one room, working whatever jobs they could find. For Lily that meant painting boxes with Tyrolean designs, posing as a fashion model for fashion illustrator Jane Turner and illustrating Woolworth’s catalogs for 50 cents an hour. She also took night classes at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts. One day her mother showed Lily an ad looking for comic artists. Lily scoffed at first but got the job.

Her first assignment at Fiction House Publishers was erasing the pencil lines of male artists. She hated the job and often cried herself to sleep, but her desire to improve herself and the good pay ($18 a week) trumped her urge to quit. Soon she started penciling her own work. Her first charter was Jane Martin, a female pilot working in the all-male aviation industry. Later she was assigned “The Werewolf Hunter,” a strip no one else wanted. Lily infused it with great story ideas and German expressionistic and Viennese art nouveau imagery.

Later she took over “Senorita Rio” and became the artist most identified with that character. In fact, she received lots of fan mail from soldiers overseas addressed to “Mr. Renee.” But so appreciative of the soldiers’ efforts to fight the Nazis, Lily often wrote back and sent sketches she drew.

In 1947, Lily married Eric Peters, a fellow Viennese refugee 22 years her senior who had been a political cartoonist who fled Austria on skis over the Alps. He and Lily worked for St. John Publications after Fiction House relocated out of NY, working on Abbott & Costello comics and romance stories. That marriage ended quickly however, and in 1949 Lily married American Randolph Phillips, with whom she had two children.

Lily left comics for nearly 50 years until she was recently rediscovered by cartoonist/historian Trina Robbins. Even Lily’s children and grandchildren didn’t know about her career history, which also included writing two children’s books — Red is the Heart and Magic Next Door — as well as illustrating Battle of the Bees. Lily’s husband died in 1982, and it was then that she began taking college classes in philosophy and English literature at Hunter College. She next undertook playwriting, completing five plays, one of which was produced and performed at Hunter.

Lily once said she was embarrassed to be working in comics, but so many admire her work as well as her leadership in a field dominated by men. She appeared at Comic Con International in 2007 and today is in the Friends of Lulu Hall of Fame.

To learn more about Lily Renee Wilhelm, read Lily Renee: Escape Artist.

Linda Levi writes:

Lily’s story really resonated with this reporter. My mother, Greta, was born in 1924 to wealthy Jews in Frankfurt, Germany. While my grandfather, Leo, was a highly decorated WWI German war hero, he was still a Jew and had to hide out in Switzerland in the late 1930s to escape being arrested or worse. The night SS troops did come to their apartment, his wife, also named Lily, pretended she was already a widow. Lily continued to petition for exit papers, which after numerous bribes she thankfully secured. The three landed in NY’s harbor on St. Patrick’s Day, 1939. Sadly, several older relatives who chose to stay behind died in Auschwitz. While my mom spoke several languages, she only finished high school once in the U.S., leaving her few career options. But like Lily Renee, she too modeled — in Klein’s Department Store in Union Square — before marrying another German refugee 10 years her senior in 1946. And where was the wedding? In Washington Heights, of course — home to many WWII German refugees including Dr. Ruth and Henry Kissinger, among others. 



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