She was commonly referred to as America’s most highly paid artist and the “the only woman to invade man’s domain – automobile production.”
Meet Helen Dryden, a prolific illustrator, costume designer and industrial designer whose talent and intellectual genius turned expectations for women working in the art world upside down.
It’s no wonder bestselling fiction writer Fiona Davis latched on to Helen’s riveting story. Fiona recrafted Helen’s story and much of her historical backdrop, making this character one of the two main protagonist roles in Fiona’s latest novel, The Masterpiece.
In what is sure to be another bestselling book, Fiona presents Helen’s fascinating history. Fiona does this like she does in all of her stories, weaving together powerful threads from women in history. These female characters are beautiful jewels languishing in some New York City landmark building, where they’ve gathered dust like precious buried treasure.
Clara Darden is the quasi-fictionalized character behind the real-life Helen Dryden, except for several differences.
Essentially, Clara’s character, like Helen’s, struggles to become a successful illustrator while fighting against gender bias. Both will do anything to showcase their talent while teaching at an art school inside of Grand Central Terminal in the late 1920’s.
What’s interesting about Fiona’s writing and her stories is how they tap into Helen’s success in the twenties and thirties. Both recognize the growing number of female consumers that want to see their desires and experiences reflected in real life, whether it be artful products and design or dreamy fantasies about what life could be.
In fact, Fiona’s “craftwomanship” extrapolates key truths from Helen’s real history and connects us to the secondary protagonist in The Masterpiece, Virginia Clay.
Virginia and Clara’s stories eventually converge in the 1970’s, bringing the past and present together. They also reveal the powerful effect that women have on each other.
Not wanting to spoil the story arc for newly converted fans planning to read the book, I don’t want to reveal too much about the story plot. But it’s fun and interesting to know more about Helen’s real life circumstances. Helen was a fashion illustrator who showed her designs to Vogue, but the magazine initially declined them in 1909. Vogue was critical of Helen’s style, which was a huge departure from traditional illustrations.
But a month after this rejection, Conde Nast purchased Vogue and also Helen’s drawings after discovering her stored submissions. Helen was immediately hired as a creative artist to produce over 100 fantastical cover designs. Her covers were such a hit that she became the voice of fashion until 1923.
To Helen’s credit, she didn’t stagnate and continued to challenge herself. She realized the fashion industry was changing with an increasing emphasis on photographic art. This spurred her to start a second career designing costumes on Broadway. Her works were a roaring success, particularly the highly acclaimed costume for Ethel Barrymore who starred in Clare de Lune, and a special Russian Ballet design for the White Peacock.
But Helen did not rest here, recognizing new opportunities in industrial design. Keeping her Art Deco and Art Nouveau style, Helen designed housewares such as tableware and lamps for the Revere Company in 1925. She became a household name and an industry influencer, trailblazing a path for modern-day designers like clothier and home goods designer Kate Spade and Martha Stewart, and decorative home products designers Ann Sacks and Tory Burch.
Because Helen was a recognizable brand when the market crashed in 1929, industrial arts became a more lucrative place to be in. Studebaker hired her in 1934 to create the interior styling of two cars: the Dictator and the President. Studebaker used her name in marketing pitches and advertisements to sell their cars, moving Helen into yet another design area – advertising arts.
This was extremely unusual for a woman to be designing cars let alone advertising them. But it worked. To New Yorkers, Helen was an affluent and accomplished artist with impeccable taste.
Considered one of the top industrial designers and stylists of the twentieth century, Helen seemed to have it all.
But this was not to be. Helen’s life had come full circle. Born in 1883 to wealthy Baltimore parents whose fortune came from the sugar refining business, her privileged life evaporated. Her father tried to swindle investors and the family name and social status were wiped out.
While Helen had earned a society status on her own merits by the late 1930’s, her story took a strange turn by 1940. She suddenly disappeared from the public, only to be found living in a cheap $10 a week hotel room paid for by New York’s Welfare Department.
There isn’t any information to explain her retreat from the world of art and design, and she died in 1972. Many of her accomplishments appear to be largely forgotten.
This ending seems terribly tragic, but I am bolstered knowing her legacy lives on in Fiona Davis’ book.
To this point, Helen Dryden’s history recorded on WomanScape reaffirms the beauty and pursuit of her art. Helen broke through many barriers as a woman working at the turn of the 20th century. She exemplifies the creative genius and influence that women can have when given the opportunity.
WomanScape (WS) readers wanting to learn more about Fiona and her book can read a wonderful interview by Yara Zgheib, Meet Fiona Davis, or join us Wednesday for a book synopsis and a surprise video speech in Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar by Jackie Kennedy.