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Overlooked No More: Barbara Shermund, Flapper-Era Cartoonist

Overlooked No More: Barbara Shermund, Flapper-Era Cartoonist

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In the mid-1920s, Harold Ross, the founder of a new magazine called The New Yorker, was looking for cartoonists who could create sardonic, highbrow illustrations accompanied by witty captions that would function as social critiques.

He found that talent in Barbara Shermund.

For about two decades, until the 1940s, Shermund helped Ross and his first art editor, Rea Irvin, realize their vision by contributing almost 600 cartoons and sassy captions with a fresh, feminist voice.

Her cartoons commented on life with wit, intelligence and irony, using female characters who critiqued the patriarchy and celebrated speakeasies, cafes, spunky women and leisure. They spoke directly to flapper women of the era who defied convention with a new sense of political, social and economic independence.

“Shermund’s women spoke their minds about sex, marriage and society; smoked cigarettes and drank; and poked fun at everything in an era when it was not common to see young women doing so,Caitlin A. McGurk wrote in 2020 for the Art Students League.

In one Shermund cartoon, published in The New Yorker in 1928, two forlorn women sit and chat on couches. “Yeah,” one says, “I guess the best thing to do is to just get married and forget about love.”

“While for many, the idea of a New Yorker cartoon conjures a highbrow, dry non sequitur — often more alienating than familiar — Shermund’s cartoons are the antithesis,” wrote McGurk, who is an associate curator and assistant professor at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. “They are about human nature, relationships, youth and age.” (McGurk is writing a book about Shermund.)

And yet by the 1940s and ’50s, as America’s postwar focus shifted to domestic life, Shermund’s feminist voice and cool critique of society fell out of vogue. Her last cartoon appeared in The New Yorker in 1944, and much of her life and career after that remains unclear. No major newspaper wrote about her death in 1978 — The New York Times was on strike then, along with The Daily News and The New York Post — and her ashes sat in a New Jersey funeral home for nearly 35 years until they were claimed by a descendant in search of information about her.

Barbara Shermund was born on June 26, 1899, in San Francisco. Her father, Henry Shermund, was an architect; her mother, Fredda Cool, a sculptor. Barbara displayed a knack for illustrating at a young age, and her parents encouraged her to explore her passion. She published her first cartoon when she was 8, in the children’s section of The San Francisco Chronicle.

​​Shermund’s mother died in 1918 in the Spanish flu pandemic. Some years later, her father married a woman 31 years his junior and eight years younger than Barbara. As her father and his new wife went on to build their own family, Barbara became estranged from them.

She attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) to study printmaking and painting and regularly won awards.

She moved to New York City in her mid-20s to seek an independent life while pursuing her artistic ambitions, finding work creating cover art, cartoons and illustrations for magazines like Esquire, Life and Collier’s.

She is believed to have met Harold Ross and Rea Irvin through mutual connections from her studies and in the magazine industry. Her contributions to The New Yorker included about nine cover illustrations as well as spot illustrations and section mastheads that helped set the magazine’s visual tone.

Her perspective was influenced by her intersection with profound historical moments: In addition to surviving the Spanish flu pandemic, Shermund lived through World War I and the suffrage movement.

One of her cartoons from the 1920s, after women won the right to vote, depicted two men in tuxedos smoking by a grand fireplace, with one saying in the caption, “Well, I guess women are just human beings, after all.”

In 1943, Esquire magazine sent Shermund to the Hollywood set of the musical comedy “Du Barry Was a Lady” to sketch actresses performing in an “I Love an Esquire Girl” sequence. She created as well a promotional poster for the film, starring Red Skeleton and Lucille Ball.

She also took on advertising commissions at a time when women were rare in that industry, illustrating ads for companies like Pepsi-Cola, Ponds, Philips 66 and Frigidaire.

From 1944 until about 1957, she produced “Shermund’s Sallies,” a syndicated cartoon panel for Pictorial Review, the arts and entertainment section of Hearst’s many Sunday newspapers.

Shermund lived out her last years drawing at her home in Sea Bright, N.J., and swimming at a beach nearby. She died on Sept. 9, 1978, at a nursing home in Middletown, N.J.

In 2011, a niece, Amanda Gormley, decided to research her family’s history and was surprised to find that Shermund’s ashes had been left unclaimed in a New Jersey funeral home since 1978.

In May 2019, Gormley raised money through a GoFundMe campaign and, with the contributions of many artists and cartoonists, saw to it that Shermund’s ashes were buried alongside her mother’s grave in San Francisco.

“The women she drew and the captions she wrote showed us women who were not afraid of making fun of men, and showed us what it was really like to be a woman,” Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist and writer at The New Yorker, said in an interview. “Shermund’s women had humor and guts, just like what I imagine the artist had herself.”

Perhaps one of Shermund’s most striking pieces is indicative of her irreverent and fearless spirit in life: A young girl sits on the lap of a paternal figure and says, “Please, tell me a story where the bad girl wins!”


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