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‘Brenda Starr’ creator dies at 98

Dale Messick was a woman in a man’s industry
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dale Messick, whose long-running comic strip “Brenda Starr, Reporter” gave her entry into the male world of the funny pages, has died at age 98.

Messick, whose strip ran in 250 newspapers at its peak in the 1950s, died Tuesday, said her daughter, Starr Rohrman, who had been caring for her mother in Sonoma County.

Messick — who jettisoned her given name Dalia to further her career — once said Brenda had “everything I didn’t have.” But she charmed acquaintances with spunk and style worthy of her redheaded creation.

Mixing hot copy with high fashion, Brenda plunged from one thrilling adventure to another, sassing her tough-talking editor, Mr. Livwright, and sometimes filing 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.

“Most comics, the main characters are heroes, guys, and they don’t write for women,” Messick told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. “I was a woman so I was writing for women and I think that’s what put her over.”

Brenda would later come under fire for being too preoccupied with her looks and her men, and too far removed from the routine of real newspaperwomen: 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 told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986. “I told them that if I made Brenda’s life like theirs, nobody would read it.”

Young women looked at Brenda and dreamed of adventure. Young men liked the strip, too, and quite a few, thinking they were dealing with one of the boys, asked “Dale” 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?”

Inspired by Rita HayworthBorn in South Bend, Ind., on April 11, 1906, Messick studied art and got a job at one greeting card company and then another, working on her strips at night.

Her break came when her work came to the attention of publisher Joseph M. Patterson. Patterson, reputed to be no fan of women cartoonists, wouldn’t take the slot for daily publication but it began running in the Sunday comics in 1940.

The name came from a ’30s debutante; she borrowed the figure and flowing red hair from film star Rita Hayworth.

The love of Brenda’s life was the mysterious Basil St. John, a man with an eyepatch 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,” she said. But the real-life artist couldn’t letter and was fired.

Basil courted Brenda for three decades. When they finally married in the 1970s, President Ford sent congratulations.

Messick retired from the strip in 1985. It is still running, now written by Mary Schmich and drawn by June Brigman.

Messick thought the modern Brenda had lost some of her oomph. And she had nothing good to say about the various movie versions of Brenda, particularly the 1986 bomb with Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton.

Messick received the National Cartoonist Society’s Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. In old age, Messick moved to Northern California to be near her daughter and two grandchildren, Curt and Laura. She joked about writing her autobiography, “Still Stripping at 80” — never completed but retitled a decade later to “Still Stripping at 90.” She did write a single-panel strip “Granny Glamour” until age 92.

Messick had a stroke in 1998, her daughter said. “She just went into a decline after that. She couldn’t draw anymore,” Rohrman said.