In January 1934, Esquire magazine introduced a mascot cartoon named Esky. Esky was a bug-eyed white man, with an up-turned mustache and slicked back hair, designed by a black man named Elmer Simms Campbell. Campbell was the first African American cartoonist to write for a national magazine and the first black syndicated cartoonist. His cartoon character became known as the spirit of Esquire and appeared on over 500 covers of Esquire magazine.
The St. Louis native’s cartoon work flourished in high school during the 1920’s when he won a nationwide contest for an Armistice Day cartoon. The scene showed the debt of the nation to those who died in World War I.
After getting his bachelor’s degree, E. Simms Campbell sought education at the Art Institute of Chicago. Little did Campbell know that when he took a summer job as a waiter in a railroad dining car, that his life would be changed forever as a cartoonist. Campbell had run into lots of discrimination while trying to sell his work in the Midwest. But his big break came one day when he was drawing his usual caricatures of the passengers on the train. One day, a passenger, the manager of Triad Studios named J. P. Sauerwein, was so impressed with his work, he offered Campbell a lucrative job at his St. Louis art studio.
This job gave Campbell the courage to move to New York where he became a success by selling his work to Life magazine, Judge, and College Humor. He was a master with the use of watercolors. E. Simms Campbell became close friends with musician Cab Calloway who once said “He was also, like me, a hard worker, a hard drinker, and a high liver. I used to think that I worked hard…. But Campbell outdid me.”
In October 1933, Esquire magazine came looking for E. Simms Campbell. He had creative freedom as long as there were beautiful girls in his drawings. He became the highest paid commercial artist in his field. He later freelanced for top publications, including Playboy, with a career spanning over 30 years.
The legacy of Esky’s character lived well into the millineum, with the creation of the Esky Music Awards, honoring impressionable music artists of the times.
E. Simms Campbell died in 1971.
See examples of Campbell’s art in the photo gallery below.