Rohnert Park, Calif. — Sixty-two summers ago, Brenda Starr bounced into the newsroom of The Flash, redheaded, brainy and bold.
Girl reporters world famous or otherwise were a rare commodity back then. Even rarer was Starr's creator, cartoonist Dale Messick, who ditched her given name of Dalia to storm the male bastion of the funny pages.
"Most comics, the main characters are heroes guys and they don't write for women," says Messick, who at 96 appears frail, but still formidable. "I was a woman so I was writing for women and I think that's what put her over."
Born in 1906 in Indiana, Messick showed her artistic bent early, covering her schoolbooks with sketches and enlivening classes with her serial storytelling skill.
"Sometimes the teacher would have a cold or was sick or something so she'd say, 'Well, we'll ask Dalia to come and tell us a story,' and I'd make it up as I went along," Messick recalled in a recent interview at the Northern California home where she moved some years ago to be near her daughter.
In high school, Messick began drawing little strips with titles like "The Life of a Freshie" that she called "Hobart High Minute Novels."
After graduation, she studied at an art school in Chicago and then went to work for a greeting card company. She quit in a huff the day her boss dropped her pay to make a new hire.
"I was just mad," she said. "I didn't realize what I had done because it was right in the heart of the Depression and I wouldn't be able to get another job. When I got down on the street and was on the way home I just started to cry.
"When I got home I was crying. I said, 'I quit my job today,' and my dad said, 'You WHAT?' and my mother said, 'Now, Dalia has a very good idea she can tell you."'
The good idea turned out to be a move to New York City.
Taking on adventure
Soon, Messick had a job at another greeting card company for the princely salary of $50 a week. At night, she worked on her comic strips.
Selling the strips was tough Messick got more proposals for dates than for publication.
But things looked up when her work came to the attention of Mollie Slott, who worked for Joseph M. Patterson, publisher of the New York Daily News and head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate.
Patterson, who was reputed to be no fan of women cartoonists, "wasn't fond of me, I know," Messick recalls. He didn't accept Messick's work for daily publication, but it did start running in the Sunday comics in June 1940.
Messick had tried a number of strip ideas by then. But she eventually decided on a newswoman with the hair and figure of film goddess Rita Hayworth. The last name would be Starr, as in star reporter. The first name she borrowed from a popular debutante of the 1930s Brenda.
From the start, Brenda mixed high style and hot copy as she plunged from one thrilling adventure to another. She sassed her tough-talking editor, who rejoiced in the name of Mr. Livwright "Sarcasm," explains Messick with a grin and sometimes filed her copy with the only person left in the newsroom, the cleaning woman.
As World War II raged, Brenda did her part, parachuting into action every red hair in place. Brenda did everything the cartoonist didn't but wanted to do.
"She jumped out of a plane and I would have liked to jump out of a plane. But I didn't," Messick says wistfully.
In more modern times, Brenda came under fire for being too preoccupied with her looks and her men and too far removed from the routine of real newspaperwomen: covering city council meetings and supermarket openings.
"I used to get letters from girl reporters saying that their lives were nowhere near as exciting as Brenda's," Messick said in a 1986 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "I told them that if I made Brenda's life like theirs, nobody would read it."
Still, Messick championed the rights of women. "Women have to be twice as good as a man to get half as far," she said in a 1995 speech to the Petaluma Women's Power Circle.
Unlike real life
Most readers liked Brenda just the way she was. At its peak in the 1950s, "Brenda Starr, Reporter" ran in 250 newspapers.
Girls faced with the career trinity of teacher, nurse or secretary looked at Brenda and dreamed of chasing down the news in jazzy pumps.
Guys liked the strip, too, with many mistaking "Dale" for one of the boys. Quite a few wrote asking for private sketches of Brenda in sexier poses than a family newspaper could bear. Messick obliged once by sending back a saucy picture of Brenda in a barrel going over Niagara Falls. Attached was a note: "Is this daring enough?"
The love of Brenda's life was the mysterious Basil St. John, a man with an eye patch and a mysterious illness that could be cured only with a serum taken from black orchids growing in the Amazon jungle.
The orchids were fantasy, but Basil was based on a real-life assistant artist Messick hired to help do lettering. "I was intrigued with him. He was so handsome."
The real-life artist didn't last long. "He was handsome, but he couldn't letter."
The comic strip character did; he and Brenda courted for three decades. When they finally married in the 1970s, President Ford sent congratulations.
Shortly after that, Messick retired from the strip, which is now drawn by June Brigman and Mary Schmich and still appears in many papers.
Messick thinks the modern Brenda has lost some of her oomph. And she's got nothing good to say about the various movie versions of Brenda that came out, particularly the 1986 bomb starring Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton.
She jokes that if she could go back to the 1930s and start over again, she'd move to California and buy property. "I would be rich today," she says with laugh.
Money's not everything, she's reminded.
"It's most everything," she replies tartly.
Brenda Starr was a world famous reporter. Messick lived mostly out of the limelight.
She was honored by her peers in 1997, receiving the National Cartoonist Society's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award.
And she married twice, once to a man in the art supply business, Everett George, with whom she had daughter Starr, and later to attorney Oscar Strom. Neither marriage lasted.
A pragmatic foil to the flamboyant Messick, Starr, who has two grown children, sometimes wished for a more conventional mother. But she remembers, too, the nights when Messick "would get in bed with me and tell wonderful stories, a chapter a night"
These days, memories of the past are fleeting.
However, Messick vividly remembers the first car she bought after success set in, a Studebaker Golden Hawk.
"It was all gold outside, inside, even the wire wheels were gold. Every time I stopped for gas, people stopped and asked me about my car. It was quite spectacular. I never got too much attention because I wasn't a tall, beautiful reporter like Brenda but (in the car) I got the attention I wanted."
In old age, Messick joked about writing her autobiography, "Still Stripping at 80," never completed but retitled a decade later to "Still Stripping at 90," and wrote a single-panel strip "Granny Glamour" until age 92.