Bessie Mae Kelley was born Elizabeth Mae Kelley. The date of her birth is unclear: November 1889 in the 1900 United States Census; November 10, 1890, Minnesota Death Index; November 10, 1897, Social Security Death Index. Kelley’s birthplace was Port Allegany, Pennsylvania on her marriage license (at Ancestry.com), and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in Descendants of Benjamin Fiddler and Maria Fosbrook Fiddler: Family History and Genealogy, 1838–1987 (1989).
According to the 1900 United States Census, Kelley and her sister were born in Pennsylvania. Kelley’s father was Canadian and her mother English. They were residents of Caribou, Maine where her father was manager of the Caribou Town Farm.
In the 1910 census, Kelley and her parents continued to live in Caribou. She was a self-employed artist and her father a farmer. They lived on Riverside Street.
Sometime after the census, Kelley studied at the Walker Institute of Art and Pratt Institute.
The New York Times, December 15, 2022, published an article about animation scholar Mindy Johnson and her research on Kelley. Johnson said Kelley’s career started in 1917. At the time New York was the center of American animation. Kelley worked for Bray Productions, Paul Terry (“Aesop’s Fables”) and Max Fleischer (“Out of the Inkwell”).
Kelley has not yet been found in the 1920 census.
In December 1920, production of the “Gasoline Alley” animated cartoons was reported in the Exhibitors Herald and Motion Picture News. Bray Pictures Corporation was hired to handle the animation and Kelley directed some of the cartoons.
Around 1924, Kelley left the animation industry and toured as chalk talk artist.
Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachusetts), October 31, 1925, page 1 column 5:
Ladies’ Night Is Observed by Mt. Wollaston Chapter... Another entertainment was Miss Bessie May [sic] Kelley, crayon artist. She drew landscape scenes and gave an illustration of how animated pictures are drawn from which films are made. ...
Patriot Ledger, December 3, 1925
Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachusetts), December 5, 1925, page 5 column 3:
Secrets of Animated Movies Is Revealed in TalkDespite the heavy downpour of rain last evening a good-sized audience attended the entertainment given under the auspices of the Wollaston Parent-Teacher Association in the Wollaston school hall, the proceeds of which are to be used as a fund for the school playground. The Quincy high school band rendered selections under the direction of Miss Maude Howes and Miss Bessie Mae Kelly [sic], animated cartoonist, revealed the secret of how animated cartoons for the movies, such as “Aesop’s Fables,” are made. She drew with colored chalk cartoons of a mother spanking a boy. Although she used only two movements in her drawings, she explained that it would be necessary to make about 16 cartoons for that part of a moving picture. Repeating Joyce Kilmer’s poem “The House with Nobody in It,” she next drew an expressive picture of an abandoned farm-house. Then with a few deft touches on a fresh sheet of paper she sketched a knocker and making a remark that this was an article one never has when one wants it, but that she was now going to draw one that was always around when it wasn’t wanted, she proceeded to change it into a woman whose very face spelt trouble. Much amusement was finished by the cartoons Miss Kelly depicted of the characters in an entertaining little poem, “Lost Lovers.” …… Miss Kelly made her last appearance with a beautiful sketch, “Sunset,” while Mrs. Clark played “The End of a Perfect Day,” on her lyre, accompanied at the piano by Miss Soule. …
Boston Herald, November 28, 1926
Kelley was represented by the
H.B. Williams Musical Agency.
Entertainment and column three under Outline Program Sixth Weekday
Evening Leader (Corning, New York), July 27, 1927, page 5 column 4:
N.Y. Comedy Success Chautauqua Feature... Miss Bessie Mae Kelley, who will entertain the young folks of all ages at the Chautauqua tent Thursday afternoon possesses the unique distinction of being the only woman animated cartoonist in the motion picture profession, and has had thorough grounding and training in her art.She has been associated for seven years with the Bray Productions of New York and Chicago; has also assisted Max Fliescher [sic] on his famous cartoon stories, “Out of the Inkwell,” and Paul Terry in animating “Aesop’s Fables.” She has, personally, directed the series of animated cartoons “Gasoline Alley.” ...
Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachusetts), December 17, 1927, page 7 column 5:
Tehye Hsieh Speaker at Wollaston... Miss Bessie May Kelley, cartoonist of the Bray Animated Motion pictures, whose clever drawings and amusing recitations kept the audience highly entertained. The artist explained the process required in the making of such cartoons as the “Aesop Fables” which she “animated.” It takes the artists about 900 hours to perfect one of these films which we may see on any screen in less than eight minutes. One background is drawn and then each movement of each little character is drawn and placed over the background, many sheets of paper being used to make a character make one step. The slower they move in the movies the more pictures have to be drawn. When the artist has finished, they pictures are traced on celluloid 5-1000 of an inch thick and then handed to the color man who colors the figures on the back to blot out the background.Miss Kelley demonstrated her wonderful skill, in line and color, in her picture of “The House with Nobody in It,” accompanied by her recitation; caused a great deal of mirth with her “Moo, Cow, Moo,” and character sketches of suitors for her hand, and bought [sic] down the house with her life portraits of Dr. Sneath and Chester I. Campbell, who obligingly posed for her. Mr. Campbell then introduced Dr. Tehye Hsieh, director of the Chinese Trade Bureau, who spoke on the “Real Trouble in China.”
Boston Herald (Massachusetts), July 5, 1929, page 2 column 6:
20,000 Persons Enjoy Presentation of Holiday Pantomime on CommonThe eighth annual community pageant “Beauty and the Beast,” a colorful pantomime, was presented yesterday on the Common before 20,000 persons.Depending largely on colorful costumes and settings for the success of the pageant, Mrs. Aline Meginot, who designed the costumes Harold F. Lindergreen, designer, and Bessie May [sic] Kelley, painter of the settings, deserve praise. ...
The 1930 census recorded Kelley in Boston, Massachusetts at 35 Audubon Road. She shared an apartment with New Hampshire native Frances M. Pattee, a nurse, who, in the 1920 census, was involved with music.
The 1930 and 1931 Boston, Massachusetts city directories listed Kelley as an artist at 16 Blossom Court.
Greenfield Recorder (Massachusetts), October 29, 1930, page 5 column 3:
Turners Falls Rotary Club Holds Annual Ladies’ NightTurners Falls Inn Is Scene of Hallowe’en Event—Entertainment Is PleasingTurners Falls, Oct. 29.—The Turners Falls Rotary club held their annual ladles’ night last evening at the Turners Fall Inn. Being so close to Halloween, the event took the form of a Hallowe’en party. The rooms of the Inn were decorated, the orange and black color scheme being carried out A turkey supper was served the members and their guests, and between courses the popular songs of the day were sung by the entire gathering. ...... Following the contests the entertainment committee presented Miss Adele Neff of Boston, and a Novelette Trio, who presented an interesting entertainment. The trio gave some very pleasing numbers of vocal solos and instrumental selections. Miss Bessie Mae Kelley, cartoonist, showed wonderful skill with her crayons, and the work of Charles Budden as pianist and William Blackley as a tenor soloist was enjoyed. Miss Neff presented a fine program of character sketches and readings. ...
In November 1930, Kelley spoke at the University of Pennsylvania.
Winchester Star (Massachusetts), January 1, 1932, page 1 column 5:
Fortnightly NotesThe children’s party on Monday afternoon, Dec. 28, was a great success. The grace and beauty of the dance numbers presented by Grace De Carlton, director of the Dance Department of the National Associated Studios of Music, and her pupils delighted both children and adults. The program by Bessie Mae Kelley, the only woman in the United States who draws animated cartoons for the motion pictures, was clever and unusual, and provided excellent entertainment for the youngsters. Miss Kelley explained the process of making the cartoons and illustrated with sketches of the little animals who appear in Aesop’s Fables cartoons. While making her other sketches, she recited humorous stories and poems which pleased the children immensely. She made cartoons of two of the small boys in the audience to the great delight of the other children. ...
On July 15, 1932, “Elizabeth M. Kelley” and William A. Hirschy married in Nashua, New Hampshire, according to the New Hampshire Marriage Record Index at Ancestry.com. (Descendants of Benjamin Fiddler and Maria Fosbrook Fiddler misspelled Hirschy as Hirshy.) Her occupation was artist and his machinist.
Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), September 11, 1932, page 5 column 3:
Clambake to Be Held... Following the clambake, there will be ... entertainment consisting of ... Bessie Mae Kelley of the Bray Productions of New York and Chicago, who has made several cartoons for moving pictures. ...
About a decade after Kelley’s withdrawal from animation, another woman advanced to the rank of animator. The Times-Herald (Olean, New York), November 7, 1934, published the following article by Leo Baron, a United Press staff correspondent.
For twenty-five years the cartoon department of the film business, a veritable industry in itself, has hired only men animators. Women artists have been unable to crash the field. Of the hundreds who made the attempt none seemed able to stand the strain of drawing the same caricature over and over, thousands of times, in a room filled with men.But now the old order has changed. A young woman, only twenty-two and it takes at least five years to make the average cartoon animator—has proven that she can draw Betty Boop and Popeye as well, and as consistently, as any of the better masculine artists.Max Fleischer, father of screen cartoons, who has given an army of women artists an opportunity to pull themselves up to $250 a week, which is the better animator’s salary, found it difficult to believe that this conservative girl, who had never joined even in office conversation during the three years she has been on his lesser personnel payroll, had actually made the grade.She is Miss Lillian Friedman of New York, and she now has a long term contract with full screen credit.
Ancestry.com has a number of Minneapolis, Minnesota city directories. The years for 1934 and 1935 are incomplete. The 1936 directory listed “Bessie M Hirschy” and her husband at 5510 27th Avenue South. She was “Elizabeth M Hirschy” in the 1937 directory.
Kelley and her husband were at the same address in the 1940 census. She had four years of college and no income in 1939.
Her husband signed his World War II draft card on October 16, 1940.
The 1950 census recorded Kelley on Wilmatt Hill in Minnetonka, Minnesota. She was a housewife.
A photograph of Kelley and her husband was published in the 1955 book, Twenty Five Years in the Wide, Wide World! Quarter Century Report of the Class of 1930 of Dartmouth College. The profile said
Bill married Elizabeth Mae Kelley (Walker Institute of Art and Pratt Institute) in 1931.
They married in 1932.
Kelley’s parents and sister were laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery. Kelley’s husband passed away on March 17, 1980. Kelley passed away on October 21, 1981, in Wabasha, Minnesota. She was laid to rest at Lakewood Cemetery.
SIDEBAR: Women in Animation, 1920
Searching the 1920 United States Census revealed six women in animation. They were found using the keyword cartoonist. Going through the list of cartoonists I looked at the column for industry and saw moving picture, motion picture and film company. It’s not clear if anyone was an animator.
Josephine Kelly born around 1894 in Missouri; Manhattan resident
Helen Kroll born around 1900 in New York; Manhattan resident; in 1921 she married Walter Goldwyn a dentist
Eva Malloy born around 1903 in New York; Bronx resident
Alice Morgan born around 1895 in New Hampshire; Manhattan resident; in 1930 she was cartoon instructor at a studio; in 1940 she was a Fleischer Studios artist
Dorothy Morgan (Alice’s sister) born around 1901 in New Hampshire; Manhattan resident; in 1924 she married Milton Ulmer a cigar manufacturer
Helen Stehlik born around 1901 in Bohemia; Manhattan resident
It’s not clear if any of the following women worked in animation. They were artists in the moving/motion picture and film industry.
Dora M. Adams born around 1875 in New York; Brooklyn resident; in 1925 she was a housewife
Augusta Anderson born around 1888 in the District of Columbia; Manhattan resident
Jennie Ball born around 1880 in New York; Brooklyn resident
Clara Coors born around 1889 in Minnesota; Brooklyn resident; in 1930 she was a hospital nurse
Marie Hennings born around 1903 in New York; Brooklyn resident; in 1930 she was an office clerk, photograph office
Lucille Klebold born around 1904 in Georgia; Manhattan resident
May Knauff born around 1897 in New York; Bronx resident
Etheyle Parry born around 1897 in New York; Manhattan resident
Josephine L. Scaiano born around 1904 in New York; Staten Island resident
Margaret Schecker born around 1903 in New York; West Hoboken, New Jersey resident; in 1930 she was a stenographer at a plumbing company
Anna Stanley born around 1892 in New York; Manhattan resident
Elizabeth K. Thomson born around 1884 in Scotland; Queens resident
Hazel Williams born around 1898 in New York; Bronx resident; in 1940 she was a telephone operator
Related Animation Post
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Women in Comics Posts
Claire Szep (Updated April 17, 2023)
(Next post on Sunday: Christmas, 1902)