Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif
LP: Did you ever hear of another female illustrator in New York named Barbara Bradley?
(below; sample illustration by Barbara Bradley, c. 1960)
LP: She was at the Cooper Studio.
MC: [Long pause] Yeah. My husband was a rep at the Cooper Studio. No, I didn't know her but I know a lot of the big guys were at the Cooper Studio.
LP: The reason I ask is because Barbara told me how, the day she went there with her portfolio hoping to get a job, Charles Cooper just took one look at her and said, "Oh, I don't need any more women illustrators." It wasn't even about the work - just that she was a woman.
MC: Oh. Oohhhh. No, [art rep] Joe Mendola grabbed me. Boy, Joe just snapped me up. I never in my life - that's very sad to hear, that Cooper would say that to her.
LP: Yeah, well he actually did hire her that same day, but that was his initial reaction.
MC: Never, in my entire career of illustration, did a man - the only person who ever gave me trouble was a woman - a woman - at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago.
MC: It was time to go home to my kids and she made me truck up to her office on Michigan Avenue for some silly little correction. See, in that time they were just beginning to feel very important, like they could lord it over somebody. "I want to see you now."
MC: But I never, ever had a man do anything like that to me - or put me down. Never.
LP: Well that's really good to hear.
MC: Well I was a pro, honey, and I always made sure when I did a job I did it right and I did it well - and that's the stress of the competition in that business.
LP: I have to tell you, Marilyn, you sound like you're still a real firecracker. [she laughs] You sound like you take no crap.
MC: No, I don't.[chuckling] But I never did. That's why I listen to these women and their 'glass ceiling' and I guess they do have that in lots of businesses... but I never ran into that.
MC: I had a darling, lovely relationship with the guys I worked with. They were very respectful of me. Because if you do your job beautifully, they'll respect you.
MC: I mean I got into every studio I tried to get into. Kling studios, Beilefeld before that (although that was spot illustrations and so on and you were treated like you were part of the herd).
LP: Now, can you tell me just one more thing? Why did you decide to go to New York? Why didn't you just stick to Chicago?
MC: First we moved to Boston and I... my husband was making a mess of his illustrations. I was always doing them over. We were living in a darling little house in Rockport at the time and I was doing all his work for this Boston studio and I said, "Hendrick, go to New York and get an art representative job." I wanted to be where the best was being done.
MC: Why rot in some little town when you're thirty-something and if I could do it well and it was being accepted then let's move there and I'll get a New York rep. And the first guy I got was Joe Mendola.