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Lily Renée Print
Written by Trina Robbins   
Wednesday, 29 November 2006

During World War II, the young men in the American comics industry, as in all other industries, were either drafted or enlisted in the military, and as in all other industries, women stepped up to take their place. As a result, during the 1940s more women cartoonists were working on comic books than ever before. (Newspapers were a different story; women had been drawing newspaper strips since the 1900s.) Of all the comic-book publishers, the one that hired the most women was Fiction House, known for its pulpy action stories featuring strong, beautiful women. And of the women who drew for Fiction House — Lily Renée, Marcia Snyder, Ruth Atkinson and Fran Hopper — the star cartoonist was unquestionably Lily Renée, the only woman who drew covers for the company. During the 1940s, she was the regular artist for the post-apocalyptic science-fiction series, The Lost World; the supernatural series, Werewolf Hunters, and — the series that best used her elegant sense of design — Senorita Rio. Rio, a 1940s precursor to Alias, was a beautiful counterspy masquerading as a Brazilian nightclub entertainer.

Character sketches for Senorita Rio
Character sketches for Senorita Rio

For years, I had hoped to find Lily Renée, and I had despaired of finding her alive, when I received an e-mail that began, "I am Lily Renée's daughter." Thanks to her daughter, Nina Phillips, I learned that Lily Renée Phillips is alive and well, an elegant and gracious woman living in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and I visited her in May, 2006. Not being the world's greatest planner, I neglected to bring a tape recorder with me, and so madly scribbled down her tales of escaping from the Nazis at the age of 14. Young Lily Wilhelm had already survived a harrowing year and a half under the Nazis, when her British pen pal's mother offered to take her in and Lily joined a trainload of refugee kids traveling from Vienna to London.

She soon discovered that her pen pal's mother had expected a pathetic, ragged war orphan whom she could turn into a servant, rather than a chic teenager from an upper-middle-class family who had no idea how to do housework, because that had been taken care of by servants. She retaliated by starving Lily. She would send Lily out on errands and eat while she was gone. For two months, Lily lived on high tea.

Finally, Lily left her pen pal's house and immediately found work as a mother's helper and later at a hospital in Leeds, outside London. At this point, she was visited by inspectors from Scotland Yard, who declared her an enemy alien and confiscated her Brownie camera.

This was where I left the amazing adventures of Lily Renée. Upon my return home, I did what I should have done all along, and taped a phone interview with her. The interview picks up where I left her, finally safe in America:

Trina Robbins: When I saw you in New York, I was madly scribbling down this whole story about your hapless adventures as a teenager, escaping from the Nazis to England.

Lily Renée: Right. How far did I get?

Robbins: You got all the way to America. But I'm wondering how your parents got to America.

Renée: They got an affidavit. At that time, somebody had to guarantee that the state would never have to pay for you, so you had to have somebody who guaranteed that they would take care of you if you didn't have any money.

Robbins: So when did they get there?

Renée: A year after I left.

Robbins: OK, so did you know that they were there?

Renée: No, I didn't know where they were. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know if they were alive or not.

Robbins: Oh my God. OK, so when you were going through all those problems, you didn't even know that they were in America.

Renée: Yes, but they applied to the Jewish Refugee Agency in Bloomsbury House in London and asked that I should be sent to America on the next children's transport, because there were also children's transports from England going to America. Shall I go into detail?

Robbins: Please.

Renée: Well, it's kind of an adventurous story. I told you that I was an enemy alien, which was the worst category, so I was not supposed to move. And I was working in this maternity hospital as a candy-striper. And I was rushing around and carrying babies down during the air raids and all of that. And then I got a notice from Bloomsburry House that my parents had applied and that they had scheduled me for a transport, which was leaving in two days. And I was afraid they wouldn't let me leave. So I didn't go to the police station, which I had to report to every week. And I called a cab in the middle of the night and didn't tell anybody and packed and went to the [train] station and went to London. And my cousin was supposed to meet me. I came there [to London] and there was a school which had been evacuated, and a teacher who worked there, who helped me. And this young man from Scotland Yard then got me on the ship. And then the ship couldn't leave because the sailor who was supposed to pull up the anchor fell overboard.

Robbins: Oh my God.

Renée: And so we missed going with the convoy because other ships were going together for security, you see. There were like seven ships. So the other ships left and we were alone. So through the whole journey, we went like zigzag, because of the mines and the U-boats, and everybody was seasick. But one little boy and I appeared for every meal, and it was so stormy that the table and the chairs were chained down. But we were having such a good time, we were eating and we were very relieved that we were going to a country where there was no war. All the children from the transport had a very good time on the ship, even though we were in cabins for four children with upper booths and lower booths and way down, the cheapest. It's called steerage. And when we came here, nobody knew where my parents were. Did I tell you that?

Robbins: Yes, you sat on the dock for three hours.

Photo provided by Lily Renée
Photo provided by Lily Renée

Renée: Right, and then they came, and I didn't recognize them at first because I thought they were so much older. But they had gone through a lot. But anyway, they were in their 40s, so they were not all that old. My mother had been kicked in the abdomen, and she had to be operated on and she was afraid she was going to die, that she had cancer. So she was waiting for me to come before she was operated on.

Robbins: Your mother was kicked in the stomach? How did that happen?

Renée: She was waiting in line. We always had to wait in line for getting this and that, you know, and she was waiting there and this Nazi, she was standing a little to the side or something, so he kicked her in the stomach with his boot.

Robbins: That's so horrible. I'm so glad that all of you escaped.

Renée: So two days after I arrived, she went into the hospital. And they lived in a rooming house on 72nd Street on the West Side. Other refugees were living there too. We were right under the roof. It was so hot. And I would spend the night sitting on the fire escape. I would sit out there because I was just too hot and it was too humid. It was horrible. I think it was roasting all of us. So anyway, my mother had a hysterectomy and everything was OK. And then we were all trying to make a living.

So my father had a one-day job as an elevator man. He had been the manager for the Holland-American line, so it wasn't exactly what he'd been used to, but anyway, he took this job and he hurt his hand on the first day so he lost the job. Eventually, he did quite well. He became a CPA and managed. But my mother was taking in alterations and later she was making these crocheted dresses on 57th Street. She got a job with other ladies, also from Europe, who were making crocheted suits and dresses, and it was OK.

At that time, I was painting Tyrolean designs on wooden boxes, and then I got a job on the 46th floor of Rockefeller Center at Reiss advertising agency. They paid me 50 cents an hour to draw catalogs for Woolworth's. And so I was making some money too and I was going to night school, and then I think I told you that my mother saw an ad in the paper for comic artists? I went to Fiction House and I was hired on a trial basis, and they kept me. And then after a year and a half, I was doing covers and I got a big Christmas bonus and I got some nice clothes because, you know, I didn't have any clothes that were current in America at all. So I was in Fiction House, and it was difficult because they were only men and they were always making these sexual innuendoes and so forth.

Robbins: Oh they were?

Renée: It was awful. I cried myself to sleep every night.

Robbins: Oh God. That's so sad. When did Fran Hopper show up?

Renée: Oh, it was a year and a half, something like that, later. Or maybe a year, but the first year she wasn't there at all.

Robbins: So you were on your own the first year?

Renée: I was on my own. And then there was one other woman who was there for a short time. I don't remember her name. She was very mannish.

Robbins: Could that have been Marcia Schneider?

Renée: Did she live in the Village?

Robbins: I don't know where she lived, but she drew Camilla, the jungle girl.

Renée: Yeah, but I mean, Fran did that later.

Robbins: Yes, Fran did it later, but Marcia did it first.

Renée: Uh huh. I don't remember the name. But anyway, she was very nice. An intelligent woman and a good artist.

Photo provided by Lily Renée
Photo provided by Lily Renée

Robbins: Did you ever go to art school, by the way?

Renée: I went to the Art Student's League, and then to the School of Visual Arts, where I had a very good teacher named Potter. He was an illustrator. And it was a large class, and sometimes people from the Bowery were the models, and he would inspire us. He was very tough, and he looked like Yul Brynner. But he was a well-known illustrator. He was very good.

Robbins: Do you remember any of the writers at Fiction House?

Renée: I remember them but not by name. There was one room for the artists and another room for the writers.

Robbins: Everyone worked in the office?

Renée: And the artists used to call the writers animals. [Robbins laughs.] And they were. They were really outrageous sometimes.

Robbins: What was the first comic they gave you to draw?

Renée: The first comic was Jane Martin. I couldn't draw, but I mean, I drew her.

Robbins: But then you got better very quickly.

Renée: Well I learned, yeah. And you know, I used to draw from the time I was 3. I was always drawing. But I wanted to go in a different direction. It wasn't comic strips.

Robbins: I know that by 1946, you were doing Senorita Rio and Werewolf Hunter and The Lost World.

Renée: Yes, the Werewolf Hunter came first. And I sort of saved that strip because that also was a strip nobody wanted. That's why they gave it to me.

Robbins: But you did a gorgeous job. And there was always some really wonderful strange exotic woman in them.

Renée: OK. [Laughs.] All right. And then Senorita Rio. And I just wanted to say with all these comic strips and also this name Senorita Rio, it's sort of like a fantasy. Senorita Rio got clothes that I couldn't have, you know, she had a leopard coat and she wore these high-end shoes and all of this and had adventures and was very daring and beautiful and sexy and glamorous and all of that.

Robbins: Yes it is. It's a perfect fantasy. But you were also very beautiful and glamorous. You looked like her.

Renée: I had a big bust and I would hide it and I was sort of embarrassed about all of this. And then I kept marrying and my first marriage — it didn't count. It was annulled.

Robbins: That was Eric Peters?

Renée: No, no. I was involved with somebody who was a physicist, who had worked with Einstein actually. And also in that room at Columbia, you know, where they developed the atom bomb. He was a very neurotic, very brilliant young man. And he wanted to marry me, and I felt I couldn't marry him. And then he was pursuing me, and I wanted to get away from him. The only way I could get away was to marry somebody else. And that's what I did, and this was somebody who was safe. But after a very, very short time, I knew this was meaningless, really. Then I met Eric Peters, a friend of mine. He was from Vienna. He had the same birthday [as Renée], but I was half his age. And anyway, I got an annulment, and he [the first husband] was very nasty. Because I had hurt him, you know. And then I married Eric Peters, who was well known as a cartoonist. He worked for Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post.

Robbins: And then you also did comics together.

Renée: That was much later. It was after Fiction House had moved out of New York.

Robbins: And you worked for Saint John, right?

Renée: Yes, I worked with Saint John, but not with Eric. That was these romances that I showed you. And the comic strip about Abbot and Costello. And after that, we also did comic books for Borden's, Elsie the Cow.

Robbins: Yes, you told me. I'm curious. Did you ever read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

Renée: Of course I did. I mean, of course. [Laughs.]

Robbins: Because there're such similarities, you know? The teenager who escapes from the Nazis and —

Renée: Yeah, right, right.

Robbins: So you noticed the similarities, huh?

Renée: Of course.

Robbins: You liked it?

Renée: Yes, it was so well-written.

Robbins: When you stopped doing comics, you continued as an artist?

Renée: Well, I did some children's books and I also wrote some plays. I think I mentioned that to you. I also did textile designs for Lanz of California, and designed jewelry for Willy Woo.

Robbins: Yes. And the plays were performed?

Renée: In the little theater of Hunter College. One was called Superman in Sleep's Embrace, and it was about Hitler having a nightmare. It was bad comedy. You know, black comedy. I'm really more proud about my plays and other things than the comics [Robbins laughs] but I shouldn't say that. One more thing: My only real marriage was to Randolph Phillips, and I had a daughter, Nina, and a son, Rick, with him. And I have four lovely grandchildren named Chloe, Nicholas, Andrew and Jason, who all like the fact that their grandmother was a comic-book artist.

Writer and retired cartoonist Trina Robbins calls herself a feminist pop-culture herstorian. She has produced a dozen books in as many years on various aspects of women's history, writing about dark goddesses, Irish women, women who kill and women who create comics. She is the writer of GoGirl!, the girls' graphic novel series she produces with Anne Timmons.

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