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In memory of Lily Renée (1921–2022)

Aug 30, 2022 | JMW News

More than 101 years ago, Lily Renée, later celebrated as a pioneer of female comics artists, was born as Lily Renée Willheim in Vienna. In 2019, the Jewish Museum Vienna dedicated the exhibition The Three with the Pen to her and two other artists. She passed away in New York on August 24 of this year.

Lily Reneé drew and created worlds as an escape strategy very early on: She broke out from the boredom of growing up as an only child in a middle-class Viennese Jewish family by designing fantasies, which she immediately committed to paper. This was to serve her well later on. Having managed to escape from Vienna after the “Anschluss” on a Kindertransport, she spent several months in Great Britain before reaching the USA, where her parents had already fled. In New York, the family initially got by with all kinds of work and Lily Renée took on various painting and modeling jobs. The breakthrough came when she was hired by the then-thriving comics publisher Fiction House following a short trial period. Although she had just turned 21, actually had no idea about comics, and was the only woman among the many employed artists, she soon embarked on an incredible career. Gradually, she took over more and more comics and brought them great popularity. Her biggest success was Señorita Rio, a secret agent who – disguised as a Hollywood starlet and dancer – fought the Nazis. Nobody suspected that the designs came from a woman, which is why she often received fan letters with the salutation “Dear Mr. Renée.”

Comics, however, did not remain the core of Lily Renée’s work and ambitions, and after a good decade she left the scene. She married Randolph Phillips, with whom she had two children. Continuing to draw, Lily Reneé illustrated and authored a children’s book that was not published in the US because – according to the publisher – it was “too European.” She did not visit her home country for a long time. In an interview, she once explained the meaning of her original surname: “Willheim means I want to go home.”

We had the honor of meeting Lily Renée during the preparations for the exhibition The Three with the Pen, in which she was one of the protagonists. Reneé, who was 97 years old at the time, came to Vienna in person for the opening and, to her great delight, saw her children’s book Red Is the Heart in printed form for the first time, published on the occasion of the exhibition by the Jewish Museum Vienna. We were able to celebrate her birthday shortly after the opening night, and she was particularly happy about something she hadn’t drunk since she was a child: a glass of raspberry soda.