For More Details
Bonniebrook is located nine miles north of Branson off Highway 65 and one mile east on Rose O’Neill Road. A museum, gift shop, research library and scenic trails are part of the site. Bonniebrook is closed from December through March, reopening on April 1. For information, call (417) 561-1509.

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Kewpie’s creator
This Rose bloomed in adversity

By Lenora Hobbs
Published: Jan/Feb 2001



“ . . .there is no denying I’m madly in love with the little elf–and with the world I’m sending him to.”
Rose O’Neill

No words better describe Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpie doll, than those written to her Missouri family from Germany in 1913 after she masterminded her Kewpies’ transformation from pen and ink drawings into chubby, pink dolls sporting top-knots and wings.

Said to be one of the most beautiful women of her generation and twice married, O’Neill was nearly 40 when Kewpie dolls were first manufactured. An author, a poet and the country’s highest-paid female illustrator, her journey from Nebraska’s prairies and Missouri’s Ozarks to New York City continues to fascinate. It reveals a complex woman whose art reflects a thoughtful nature, and contradicts the conventional portrait of her as sentimental.

Cecilia Rose O’Neill, born in 1874 in Pennsylvania, had no illusions about life. She recognized the darkness in human existence. Her life experiences engendered an overwhelming compassion for her fellow human beings–especially children. Her Kewpies were her gift of love and laughter to them.

The early deaths of two brothers, one an infant, possibly informed O’Neill’s sense of life’s fragility. A few years later, her brother, Jamie, died. Devastated, O’Neill compared her family to a necklace with the string broken–another bead might fall at any time.

At 19, she traveled to New York City to inaugurate a career in commercial art. While she was away, her father acquired some rugged land south of Springfield in the Missouri Ozarks, and moved his family there. They called the property Bonnie-brook, for the small stream on it.

O’Neill’s mystical experience of the Ozarks translated into an abiding love. On her first visit home, she beheld silent mountains, clothed in primeval forest, stretching to the purple horizon. In twilight, stone outcroppings and tree roots molded themselves into primitive human figures. She envisioned, at some trance-like level, a gigantic female form with humanity at its breast. This image, many years later, inspired the drawings she called “my sweet monsters.” These drawings expressed O’Neill’s identification with humanity’s struggle to transcend suffering. She exhibited the sweet monster works in Paris.

The re-created family home at Bonniebrook and one of Rose O’Neill’s sculptures she called “sweet monsters.”/ Dennis R. Heinze photo
O’Neill thrust herself into her career as an illustrator for such publications as “Harper’s Bazaar,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Good Housekeeping.” An opportunity that furthered her career led to the Kewpies’ birth.

When “Ladies Home Journal” asked her to draw a series of Cupids, she created the Kewpie, who taught children to be good and happy. More Kewpies followed; Rose wrote stories in verse to accompany them. Children loved the illustrated stories that were published first in magazines and then in books. Soon, children wanted a Kewpie to hold in their hands.
In response, O’Neill traveled to Germany and superintended the production of the first Kewpie dolls. An instant hit, Kewpie dolls made Rose a millionaire and enabled her to complete her house at Bonniebrook.

Upon their return to New York, she and her sister, Callista, settled into a Greenwich Village apartment where they held court for the city’s poets, authors and artists, including Kahlil Gibran, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lillian Fiske, Edward Arlington Robinson, William Marion Reedy and Amy Lowell. In her prime, O’Neill was a vibrant magnet and drew others into her orbit. She wrote four novels, several short stories and a book of poetry. The Kewpies financed the purchase of several houses, one an Italian villa.

But the Depression changed her life. She sold her houses and returned to Bonnie-brook where she wrote her memoirs. A recent visitor to Bonniebrook, now a National Historic Site, was taken aback at the hulking sweet monsters. “She certainly had a dark side,” the visitor said. “I like the light side much better.”

Collectors who pay thousands for certain Kewpies share that view. The impish Kewpies are from the part of O’Neill that relied on love and laughter to soften life’s blows. The Sweet Monsters reflect the part that recognized human weakness in an indifferent universe–and the need for love and laughter.

In her memoirs she quoted Emerson. “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. In spite of all the selfishness . . . the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like fine ether.” Nearly 70 years old and having lived through two wars, she added, “I believe it to be the truth of truths . . .”

Lenora Hobbs is a new contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

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