Charles Dean Cornwell was born March 5, 1892 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Charles Louis Cornwell, was born in 1854 in Salem, Ohio. His mother, Margaret "Maggie" Wickliffe Dean, was born in 1866 in the farm community of Glen Dean, KY, which is eighty miles southwest of Louisville. The Deans were the most prominent family of Glen Dean, KY.
The father was a civil engineer and expert draftsman. He was a specialist in the designing of pneumatic caissons. His professional career was most impressive. He first moved to Louisville in 1875 to work as an engineer on the important canal that allowed river traffic to bypass the Ohio River Falls between Louisville and Portland City, KY. He lived with his widowed mother, Sophia Wreisner Cornwell, who was a music teacher, born in 1816 in Württemburg, Germany. He next assisted in building the Henderson Railroad Line in Kentucky. After that he went out West to Texas and Oklahoma to construct railroad bridges over rivers and canyons for the Santa Fe Railroad. He next entered the service of the Government to construct locks on the Tennessee River in Alabama.
In 1889 he built the viaducts on Breckinridge Street and Kentucky Street for the Louisville & Nashville Rail Road. He was the engineer in charge of the construction of the Fordsville Branch of the Louisville, Henderson & St Louis Rail Road.
In 1890 Charles Louis Cornwell was assigned to build a railroad bridge in Glen Dean, KY, where he met his future wife. They married in Glen Dean on April 10, 1891. They had two children, Charles Dean Cornwell (b.1892) and Mary Randolph Cornwell (b.June 28, 1894). The Cornwell family moved in Louisville and lived with the paternal grandmother, Sophia Wreisner Cornwell, at 3516 High Avenue.
The father's business was suite #312 of the Columbia Building, on Fourth and Main Streets in downtown Louisville.
By 1900 the Cornwell family lived at 2410 Portland Avenue in Louisville.
Both of the Cornwell children had a natural talent for drawing. They both enjoyed a special children's section of the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, which invited young readers to contribute poems, drawings, and puzzles for publication.
On April 17, 1904, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported "Charles D. Cornwell Won Honorable Mention in the Best Painted Picture Contest." He and his sister continued to contribute drawings, paintings and puzzles to that section of the newspaper.
On January 15, 1905 The Courier-Journal published a new children's page heading "drawn and designed by Charles D. Cornwell." One week later his painting "The Snow Fort" was awarded First Prize. It was published along with a formal photograph of the young artist. He was also a talented musician, and played trumpet in the school band.
On February 8, 1905, only two weeks after this proud accomplishment, the same newspaper reported his father, age fifty, had been hit by a street car. He received serious injuries. His right ear was cut from the head. He remained unconscious for nearly half an hour. His ear was reattached by surgeons, and doctors expected him to recover.
Two months later, on April 16, 1905, a drawing of "Santa's Workshop by Charles Dean Cornwell" was published in The Courier-Journal. This was followed by a drawing of "The Chicken Thief by Charles D. Cornwell" featured on the children's page of May 14, 1905.
According the local newspaper, after the father's accident "he suffered from all kinds of hallucinations. It was the opinion of the family doctor that he had a softening of the brain. He remained in critical condition for several months. Before the accident he was a man of powerful physique. After his condition became such that he could get out upon the street, those who saw him marveled at the change, for he was almost a weakling."
On October 5, 1906 the father, Charles Louis Cornwell, was deemed insane as a result of head injuries from the street car accident. He was deprived of civil rights and committed to Central Insane Asylum at Lakeland, KY.
Seven months later, in May of 1907, he was declared cured and discharged from the asylum. His civil rights were restored by a jury in Judge Gordon's court on August 8, 1907. According to the local newspaper, "Little was known of his movements after his return to Louisville, because he did not go home to live with his wife and children, as he labored under some peculiar hallucination." The family did not hear from him for six months, until February 20, 1908, when The Courier-Journal reported "Charles L. Cornwell's Skull Crushed. Probably Dying At City Hospital. Found Bleeding On Street By Detective Denning. Former Civil Engineer Crazed By Injury To Head. Has Been Missing Months.- Considerable mystery surrounds the case of Charles L. Cornwell, a civil engineer, who is in a dangerous condition at the city hospital, suffering from an attack by an unknown assailant, who gave him several blows on the head and a wound over the left eye which caused a fracture of the skull. Erysipelas has developed and doctors hold out little hope of recovery."
Miraculously, the father did recover from this mysterious attack, but his dementia returned, and he was again committed to the Central Insane Asylum of Lakeland.
These tragic developments brought severe emotional and financial hardships to the Cornwell family.
In 1908, at the age of sixteen, Charles Dean Cornwell completed his sophomore year at DuPont Manual Training High School For Boys, located at the corner of Brook and Oak Streets in Louisville. He then quit school to enter the workforce. Although he continued to contribute drawings to local newspapers. He supported the family by working as a trumpet player and drummer in a jazz band on a riverboat on the Ohio River in Louisville.
Fontaine Fox (1884-1964) was the most important newspaper cartoonist at The Louisville Herald. He was born in Louisville, where he invented his famous "Toonerville Trolley," which was loosely based on the run down street cars of Louisville. He also drew a children's page for The Louisville Herald, which rivaled the children's page at The Courier-Journal. Fontaine Fox appreciated the talent of young Charles Dean Cornwell, and was aware of his tragic family struggles. In 1908 Fontaine Fox left Louisville and moved to Chicago to work as a syndicated cartoonist at The Chicago Evening Post. However, he was kind enough to remain in touch with his favorite young protege back home in Louisville.
On April 20, 1910 U.S.Census Records documented Charles Louis Cornwell as a patient at Central Insane Asylum of Lakeland, KY, while the mother and her two kids lived alone at 1500 First Street in Louisville. Their only income was earned by the eighteen-year-old musician, Charles Dean Cornwell. He played in the band at the local motion picture theater.
On May 19, 1911 The Courier-Journal reported an amateur theatrical performance at the Manual Boy's High School included, "C. Dean Cornwell will be second on the programme with a quick-cartooning stunt. Cornwell is a well-known local artist, having turned out some fine work for the Crimson, the school paper at Manual." The following day the newspaper reported, "Hit Is Made By Cartoonist - Charles Dean Cornwell proved to be the real hit of the performance with his funny cartoons and interesting line of conversation which he carried on with the audience as he drew his pictures. For the finale he sketched a pastel in colors upon a gray mat which was really a small work of art and done with no little deftness and certainly with a great deal of rapidity."
One month later, on June 20, 1911, his sister, Mary Randolph Cornwell, graduated from Louisville Girls High School. She was awarded a "$25 prize for the best work in drawing in the senior class."
In 1913 the father was again released from the Insane Asylum. He returned to Louisville and opened a civil engineering office at 302 South Sixth Street in Louisville. His wife and two children lived separately at 1500 South First Street.
In September of 1914 the mother and her two grown children left Louisville and moved to Chicago. Thanks to a recommendation from Fontaine Fox, Charles Dean Cornwell went to work on the art staff of The Chicago Tribune, for which he wrote and drew two comic strips, "Freddy Frappe" and "Stone Age Stuff." He also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where another young art student, Henry C. Kiefer, became his friend.
On November 8, 1914 his paternal grandmother, Sophia Wreisner Cornwell died at the age of ninety-eight in a boarding house in Lousiville, KY.
In 1915 Charles Dean Cornwell illustrated stories for the pulp magazine The Green Book, which was published in Chicago by The Story Press Corporation. The same company also produced The Red Book and The Blue Book. All three periodicals were edited by Ray Long (1878-1935), who appreciated Cornwell's talent. He was soon a regular illustrator for The Green Book, The Red Book and The Blue Book.
In 1915 he moved to New York City to study advanced training with Harvey Dunn (1884-1952), and to seek his fortune in freelance magazine illustration. Harvey Dunn has just opened his art school in Leonia, New Jersey, so Charles Dean Cornwell, his mother and younger sister moved to Leonia, where they lived at 105 Leonia Avenue. His sister studied in NYC with Frank Alvah Parsons (1868-1930) at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts.
Cornwell later said,"I look back fondly on the days when I was privileged to sit at the feet of Harvey Dunn."
On November 29, 1916 Cornwell traveled to Cuba, Panama, and Costa Rica.
On June 15, 1917, during the Great War, Charles Dean Cornwell registered with his draft board. He was recorded at the time to be twenty-five, six-feet tall, slender, with brown eyes and brown hair. He listed his employment as "Illustrator" at the "Saturday Evening Post." He requested an exemption from military service on the grounds he was "Sole support of father. Father solely dependent. Mother and sister partially."
The November 1917 issue of The Art World Magazine listed Mary R. Cornwell of 105 Leonia Avenue in Leonia , NJ, as the winner of the $100 prize in a Poster Contest. Eight months later, on July 8, 1918, she won first prize in a nationwide car design contest for the Willys-Overland Car Company.
On September 4, 1918 Charles Dean Cornwell married Mildred Montrose Kirkham in Evanston, Illinois. She was born in 1894 in Illinois. She was also an artist and had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After the marriage, his mother and sister left his home in Leonia and moved to New York City, where they lived at 156 East 37th Street.
In 1919 Dean Cornwell painted the cover of the March 18th issue of the pulp magazine Adventure.
In May of 1920 he moved to the Hotel Majestic in NYC. On 67th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Other famous artists with studios in the same building included, James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), Robert Ripley (1890-1949), Austin Briggs, Frank Godwin (1889-1959).
In 1920 his son, Kirkham Cornwell, was born. His first name was his mother's maiden name.
On December 9, 1920 The Courier-Journal of Louisville, KY, ran the headline story, "Engineer, Paper Picker, Is Killed. Ex-Bridge Designer, 65, Who Salvaged Scraps For Living, Hit By Street Car. - C. L. Cornwell, 65 years old, was once a civil engineer and a designer of bridges. But in recent years he had been a familiar figure on the street, picking up pieces of paper to sell for food and clothing. He was crossing Fourth Street, south of the Federal Building, at 9:15 o'clock last night, with a bundle of paper under his arm. He stepped from behind a parked automobile into the path of a street car. He died two and a half hours later at the City Hospital. He has no known relatives." This final point was revised the following day, December 10, 1920, with the headline in the same newspaper, "Wanderer's Body Is Claimed By Artist. Aphasia Victim, Killed By Street Car, Father of New York Illustrator, Dean Cornwell. - For more than a year C. L. Cornwell, 65 years old, occupied a room at Sixth and Jefferson Streets. Once he was a bridge builder and designer, but mental ailments incapacitated him for work."
Two weeks later, on December 23, 1920, The Courier-Journal reported a compromise settlement of $600 paid by the Louisville Railway Company to the family of Charles L. Cornwell.
In the 1920s he sold slick magazine illustrations to American Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar, Life, Redbook, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was nicknamed,"The Dean of Illustrators." He dropped his first name "Charles" and signed his work with his middle name "Dean," which was his mother's maiden name. He taught commercial illustration to several future pulp artists at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, including H. Winfield Scott, Walter Baumhofer, and A. Leslie Ross.
During the 1920s his sister became a specialist in the rendering of furniture and interiors. She was a leader in the field and drew furniture for newspaper advertisements of several department stores. She also did furniture illustrations for advertising agencies which appeared in national magazines. She was hired to teach commercial art at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts.
In 1923 his daughter, Patricia Cornwell, was born, after which the family moved to Mamaroneck, NY.
On April 25, 1923 Mary R. Cornwell and her mother traveled to Europe on the Steam Ship Paris to visit art museums in France, England and Italy. The Mother and unmarried daughter enjoyed several vacation voyages to Europe, South America and Hawaii.
In 1924 Dean Cornwell was elected President of the Society of Illustrators in NY. He spoke at 4:35 on May 24th on WEAF club radio program, "The Mystery of Illustrating For Magazines." He was soon a frequent guest speaker on radio programs.
On April 28, 1926 The New York Times reported from London that the Royal Academy had accepted a watercolor by Dean Cornwell for inclusion in their annual exhibit. News of this unique honor was carried nationwide in most American newspapers.
In 1927 Dean Cornwell began a five-year mural project for the Los Angeles Public Library. He also painted murals for Rockefeller Center, the 1939 World's Fair in NYC, and he continued to accept mural commissions off and on for the rest of his life.
In 1928 he spent a year in England working on the murals for Los Angeles. He worked with the prominent artist, illustrator, designer, and muralist, Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956).
In 1932 he installed the finished murals in the Los Angeles Public Library.
In 1932 his mother and sister lived together in an apartment at 7 Park Avenue at 34th Street in NYC.
In 1933, during the Great Depression, he returned to illustrating the pulp magazine Blue Book.
In 1942 he painted murals for the lobby of the new Tennessee State Office Building in Nashville.
On April 27, 1942 he registered with the selective service. he was recorded at the time to be fifty, six-feet tall, 165 pounds, with brown eyes and blond hair. he lived at 222 Central Park South. He lived alone from his wife and two children. He named his nearest relative as his mother, Mrs. Margaret Dean Cornwell at 55 Park Avenues, NYC.
Although he was too old to serve in WWII, he created many patriotic posters and advertisements at the time.
On August 21, 1942 Dean Cornwell replaced the famous newspaper columnist, Walter Winchell, while on summer vacation.
After the war he painted advertisements for General Motors, Seagram's, Coca Cola, and Goodyear.
In 1946 he painted a mural for Rockefeller Center in NYC.
His daughter, Patricia Cornwell, became editor of the magazine Harper's Bazaar.
On July 22, 1948 his sister, Mary Randolph Cornwell, died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, while a guest at a vacation resort in Sun Valley, Idaho.
In 1955 he painted a monumental mural for the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to James Montgomery Flagg, "Cornwell is the illustrator par excellence. His work is approached by few and over-topped by none. He is a born artist."
From 1954 onward, he lived in a studio apartment on West 67th Street, where he was cared for by his model, Bill Magner, who had posed for several pulp artists, most notably as both The Shadow and The Spider.
Dean Cornwell died of heart disease at age sixty-eight at Roosevelt Hospital in NYC on December 4, 1960.
© David Saunders 2015