Hilda Terry, 1914-2006

Pioneer cartoonist Hilda Terry died at her computer on Friday the 13th of October, 2006. She was 92 years old. Terry was given to darkly connected dates. Born Hyuda Tryna Fellman on the day of the “Great Salem Fire,” when half of Salem, Massachusetts burned down, Terry believed that in a former life she had been Dorcas Good, a child imprisoned along with her mother on charges of witchcraft, in 17th century Salem. Was the Salem conflagration some ghostly revenge on the part of the reincarnated Dorcas?

Teenage Terry ran away from home to become an artist in New York. She found waitress work at Schrafft’s restaurant for three dollars a week, and shared a room and bed with a young African-American woman in a Harlem boarding house. She attended the Art Students’ League, where she met teacher and cartoonist Gregory D’Alessio, marrying him, as she put it, “for his mother’s cooking.” The couple’s Manhattan home became a salon, where they welcomed the likes of Andres Segovia and Carl Sandburg, and where they drew cartoons; he for the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, she for American Magazine.

William Randolph Hearst saw her American Magazine cartoon, Carrots O’Hara, and telegrammed his newspaper syndicate-. “Get Hilda Terry.” “Teena,” the strip that Terry drew for Hearst’s syndicate, debuted on another dark day: December 7, 1941. The skinny, long-legged teenage heroine of the strip survived the war and charmed American newspaper readers until 1964.

When Teena ended, Terry, 50 years old and unemployed, picked herself up, dusted herself off, and became another pioneer, this time in computer animation. She traveled with baseball teams and animated their electronic scoreboards all over the country. In 1979, Terry’s computer animation work won her the Animator of the Year award from the National Cartoonists Society. Ironic, as the prestigious cartoonists organization had rejected Terry’s bid for membership back in 1949, when the)’ were an all-male group. Signing herself “Temporary Chairwoman” of “The Committee for Women Cartoonists,” Terry sent them a letter saying, in part: 

“… While we would …like to continue…the indulgence of your masculine whim, we find that the cost of your stag privileges is stagnation for us, professionally…. Therefore… we most humbly request that you either alter your title to the National Men Cartoonist Society…or discontinue… whatever rule…you have which bars otherwise qualified women cartoonists to membership for purely sexual reasons.”

While there were indeed some clowns in the NCS who suggested they let the women in “for purely sexual reasons,” the end result was that Terry’ was accepted into the organization and immediately nominated her women cartoonist friends for membership, thus breaking the gender barrier.