By Sharon Rosen Leib
At age 17, Lily Renée Wilheim Phillips boarded a train with other Eastern European Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. Her Austrian parents sent her on this Kindertransport rescue mission in 1939, hoping to save their precious only child by arranging for her to live with strangers in England.
Like the real-life action heroines she later inked as a comic book artist, Lily used her wits and determination to survive as a refugee. She gave her all to British efforts to defeat Germany while she tried, to no avail, to get her mother and father out of Austria. After England formally declared war on Germany, her parents’ letters ceased. She feared the worst -- the Nazis had murdered them.
Unbeknownst to Lily, her parents managed to escape and make their way to New York. After they tracked Lily down in England, she sailed across the Atlantic on one of the last refugee boats out in 1941—and met her parents at New York harbor.
Lily and her parents had lived a charmed life in Vienna as part of the highly cultured city's Jewish aristocracy. Lily's father Rudolph earned a handsome salary as an executive at the Holland America Line, one of Europe's finest shipping companies. "My mother was a homemaker who always dressed beautifully and took exquisite care of me," Lily recalled. As a young girl, Lily benefitted from the best education money could buy — including art and ballet classes and trips to the famed opera house and esteemed art museums.
Their New York lifestyle was nothing like Vienna. The family lived on a tight budget in their cramped one-room apartment. When Lily's mother spotted an opening for a relatively well-paying job as a comic book illustrator, she encouraged her to apply. “But comic books?” Lily wondered. She had never read one. Her mother bought a couple of the stapled newsprint books for 10 cents a piece. After perusing them, Lily drew some samples.
Her mother’s modest investment paid off. The editor at comic books' publisher Fiction House liked what he saw - both Lily's striking physical beauty (she worked as a part-time fashion model) and her detailed drawings. At age 19, Lily became Fiction House's first female employee. She blazed a trail in a frat house-like young men's world.
Lily drew on her reserve of will and strength to survive her co-workers' leering stares, vulgar remarks and crude drawings of naked women in the margins of their comic galleys. "I felt like they were undressing me with their eyes. I came home and cried most nights," she said. But she persisted and became one of Fiction House's most popular artists, drawing under the pseudonym L. Renée. "I got fan mail from readers who assumed I was a man," she said.
Lily “penciled and inked" strong, Nazi-busting women who became her alter-egos. She breathed vivid life into Jane Martin, a raven-haired female pilot who carpet-bombed Nazis in her khaki combat jumpsuit by day and entertained comrades wearing her couture floor-length evening gowns by night. Lily’s most famous heroine, Señorita Rio, used a Brazilian nightclub singer gig to cover her role as a counterspy fighting Nazis in South America. Lily drew the Señorita like a stylized self-portrait. Her wavy dark hair, blue eyes and high cheekbones bear a striking resemblance to Lily in her youth. The glamorous Señorita donned a leopard-skin coat, stiletto heels and drop-pearl earrings to outsmart her targets. “I always dressed my heroines better than the men did,” Lily said.
Now the 96-year-old matriarch of a prosperous American family living in New York and Southern California, Lily exudes the quiet strength, wily sophistication and dignity befitting a true action heroine. Her immense, bright blue eyes sparkle with ironic wit when discussing her late-in-life fame as a woman pioneer of comics' Golden Age. She continues to appreciate the au courant fashion and elegant decor that made her a sought-after comic book artist.
Long after she shelved her comic book pencils and inking pens in 1949 to raise her family and pursue other creative projects, fans still consider Lily one of the best in the business. The once-privileged Viennese Jewish girl put her childhood art lessons to practical use in a challenging new world by wielding her pens to make good money. In the process, she drew powerful women with high-European style and thus elevated an American pop-culture art form. Wow! Pow! While Lily’s fictional creations busted the Nazis, she established a hard-hitting legacy of her own as a true comic book heroine.