When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, he stated the United States was joining the fight to bring world peace, and declared: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Congress acted on April 6, 1917.
A week after entering the Great War, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (C.P.I.). Their job was to rally Americans behind the war, which turned into the greatest public relations effort in history. The C.P.I. focused on mobilizing American emotions by stressing our positive values while encouraging patriotism. To accomplish this, the committee brought together the nation’s leading communicators from the fields of art, entertainment, advertising, education, journalism, and religion.
The C.P.I. rallied American public opinion into support and justification for the war. Call it marketing, salesmanship, or propaganda—the committee’s head said it was the “world’s greatest adventure in advertising,” and he was right. The C.P.I. “sold the Great War to America and America to the world.”
One of the C.P.I.s most notable sections was the Division of Pictorial Publicity. Staffed by the country’s leading artists and illustrators, the division created paintings, posters, cartoons, and magazine covers that portrayed patriotism and nationalism.
The power of mass persuasion soon engulfed the country. In newspapers, magazines, store windows, libraries, post offices, movie theaters could be found artwork promoting both recruitment and civilian sacrifice.
A former Quincyan and budding commercial artist and illustrator, Marjorie McMein now known as Neysa McMein, eagerly became part of the war effort. The April 5, 1918 Quincy Daily Herald reported that the government had selected eight artists including Miss McMein to go to France and “paint patriotic pictures. . . .”
The fact that neither the War Department nor the C.P.I. was aware that Neysa McMein was a woman created a problem. The seven others were men. The Herald felt that “the wisest heads in Washington” will somehow solve the dilemma. But the eager, adventurous, and not to be deterred, McMein resolved the issue by volunteering as a Y.M.C.A. troop entertainer.
Back in Quincy visiting her parents before leaving for France, McMein took time to speak at Quincy High School. Neysa told the students that she had been chosen to produce paintings and posters for the war effort, but being a woman, she was not allowed to go to France. McMein informed the students that in three weeks she would sail for France as an artist correspondent for two national magazines, McClure’s and the Saturday Evening Post, and she would also serve as a Y.M.C.A. volunteer.
Eleven years had passed since Marjorie McMein left Quincy to attend the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. On completing her studies she moved to New York, seeking opportunity and financial independence. Primarily focusing on commercial art, success did not come right away. Shortly after changing her given name to Neysa, her fortunes changed when she sold a cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post in 1915. Overnight McMein’s work was in demand, giving her financial security.
When McMein boarded a ship for France in June 1918, she was recognized as one of America’s up and coming artists and illustrators. On her return in November 1918, she was a national celebrity.
Arriving in Paris, she found an artist who would share a studio and explained to her parents: “I am only going to spend one week in four in Paris and it wouldn’t be worthwhile for me to rent one.” McMein continued: “Down at the Y.M.C.A. I’m going to work with the entertainment and publicity and I don’t know whether I told you or not but we are part of the A.E.F. and when we are in uniform the foreign officers salute us. . . .”
By June’s end McMein and her two colleagues, were entertaining the Doughboys, performing before a few hundred to thousands of men. The Daily Herald received a Stars and Stripes clipping which said McMein had “a temperament that makes her the vamp in every production.” The reporter pointed out that she was “a magazine-cover illustrator from the states” and had “come to France to put on a new kind of show on the Y circuit.” The writer said: “Neysa McMein does all those fancy magazine pictures, and gets more money in a year than two colonels.”
McMein wrote a friend: “I have been working quite hard on art for the Y, and have done posters for every organization on the continent—but I am so happy—so crazy about the work. We spend one week in Paris and the rest of the time at the front . . . .” As for the Y show she said: “I sing, dance, draw, run a movie, act a movie [skit] with the boys out of the audience, play the piano and mandolin, and will probably be doing a couple of handsprings before long.”
Neysa McMein saw the war up close. She wrote that “I can put on a gas mask now in seven seconds.” Getting to the front, meant the entertainers at times came under machine gun and artillery fire. Back in Quincy, McMein told a Herald reporter, “Since I have lived through air bombing I never will be frightened by anything on earth. The terror of air raids cannot be imagined.” In her four-and-a-half months overseas, McMein was called on to aid nurses and doctors. This was revealed in her art.
Since her posters and magazine art were a hit, Neysa McMein was well known back in the States, but the attractive entertainer was just as popular with the soldiers in France. One jotted these Kipplingesque lines:
“Have you heard of the show at the Y tonight?”
Said Sergeant O’Grady to me.
“Why no” sez I, “an’ whats at the Y?”
“Sure it’s Neysa McMein” sez he.
“Neysa McMein, do you not know the name?”
Said Sergeant O’Grady to me.
“Not Neysa McMein, that lady of fame,
She has broken the hearts of a million lovers
Who fell in love with the girls on the covers
Of the magazines way back home” sez he.
“She’s a lady of fame, this Neysa McMein,
And she numbers her friends by the host;
She’s the party that places
Those wonderful faces
On the Saturday Evening Post.”
Gallagher, Brian. Anything Goes: The Jaz Age Adventures of Neysa McMein and Her Extravagant Circle of Friends. Crown Publishers, 1987.
Lubin, David M. Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Platnick, Norman I. The Lady Seldom Smiles: A Collector’s Guide To Neysa McMein. Enchantment, Inc., 2008.
The Quincy Daily Herald, April 5, 1918; June 24, 1918; August 30, 1918; October 1 and 7, 1918; November 14, 1918.
The Quincy Herald-Whig, May 13, 1949; June 10, 1970; January 10, 1988; April 7, 1996.
The Quincy Daily Journal, May 9, 1918; May 13, 1918; June 24, 1918; August 19, 1918; September 13, 1918; October 16, 1918; November 5 and 7, 1918.
The Quincy Daily Whig, June 25, 1918; August 18, 1918; October 8, 1918; November 8 and 10, 1918.