Harold Lincoln Gray was born near Kankakee, Illinois, on January 20, 1894, to Ira Lincoln Gray, a farmer, and Estella M. Rosencrans. As a child, his family moved to a farm near West Lafayette, Indiana. Gray graduated from West Lafayette High School in 1912. After graduation he entered Purdue University. Due to losing both parents before he graduated high school, Gray had to serve as a construction worker to pay his college tuition. During college he also worked for the Lafayette Morning Journal creating cartoons and selling advertising.
Gray was assistant art editor for the Debris yearbook for three years and art editor during his senior year. He drew political cartoons for the yearbook and also for the Exponent student newspaper. He served briefly as a reporter for the Exponent as well. Gray graduated from Purdue in 1917 with a Bachelor of Science degree. As was customary in yearbooks of the era, his name was listed along with nicknames such as “Grace” and “Cart.” Below his entry in the yearbook is the phrase “Oh! what a noble mind.”
Gray’s early student artwork published in the 1916 and 1917 Debris yearbooks speaks to Purdue life from the student perspective, and provides a glimpse of the artistic style for which he would later become known. It has been said that his artwork “cast a spell that enhanced his story. Filling his drawings with solid blacks, heavy shadows, and darkly shaded nooks and crannies.” (Harvey, 2013)
A week after graduating from Purdue, Gray accepted a job as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, at a salary of $15 a week. He soon transitioned to the art department. Gray left the Tribune to enlist in the Army during World War I. He became a bayonet instructor, and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. After a short period in the Army he returned to the Chicago Tribune where he began a 5-year apprenticeship as an assistant to Sidney Smith on the comic “The Gumps.” Gray appreciated the training he received from Smith and began to develop some of his own ideas. At first he created a prototype boy hero and named him “Little Orphan Otto.” At the suggestion of an influential friend from his days at the Tribune, Joseph Medill Patterson, Gray drew a dress on the figure and renamed the character “Annie.” Part of this was because there were 50 boy comic strips at this time and only 3 girl comics. Both the Tribune and the New York Daily News launched “Little Orphan Annie,” on August 5, 1924. The main characters, “Annie,” her dog “Sandy,” and her billionaire foster father, “Daddy Warbucks,” soon took a growing number of readers on adventures, many with a slant toward social commentary.
Gray did not forget his Indiana and Purdue roots. Some of the strips from 1927-1929 featured adventures in Lafayette, Indiana and the vicinity, including Purdue University. Since Gray enjoyed exploring Happy Hollow Park as a boy, his comic strip often mentioned a fictional Happy Hollow Seminary.
In the comic below, Little Orphan Annie prepares to go to Purdue.
In the following cartoons from 1928 and 1929, Annie again interacts with Purdue. Note the Purdue pennant in the first frame, and mention of “Happy Hollow” in the 3rd. Please click on the comic strips to get a better view.
In these comics, Annie studies hard, while Gray reflects on his college days.
Annie has a touch of spring fever, is happy Purdue beat its rival Indiana University, and learns about some famous Purdue alumni. Note the Purdue pillow that is prominently displayed.
Bob Kriebel, a columnist for the Lafayette Journal and Courier newspaper wrote that Gray’s character, Annie, in many ways “reflected Gray’s personal convictions that all Americans should act with honor, independence of thought and industry; mind their own business and remain true to the traditional pioneering virtues.” (Kriebel, June 3, 2016)
The “Annie” cartoon took on a more political color in the 1930s. Eventually, the comic strip incorporated subtle commentary from Gray on income tax, organized labor, communism, left-wingers, food and fueling rationing, and public welfare. In regard to the latter, he named one of his characters Mrs. Bleeding Heart.
By the late 1930s, hundreds of U.S. newspapers presented “Annie” to tens of millions of readers. Gray was sometimes criticized for his use of the comic strip to voice his conservative Republican political and social views. When he died of lymphatic cancer on May 9, 1968, in La Jolla, California, Gray was a millionaire, owing much of his wealth to his creation of “Annie.” Other artists later tried to draw “Annie,” but not with the same success. In the fall of 1979, Leonard Starr began writing and drawing new adventures under the title “Annie.”
In October 1995, the U.S. Postal Service chose “Little Orphan Annie” as one of 20 “Comic Strip Classics” in a series of commemorative stamps. Gray was also part of a select group of artists inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
Article by Mary A. Sego, Purdue Archives Processing Assistant.
MSA 255, Collection on Harold Gray, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries
Harvey, R.C. (2013, May 13). “The Orphan’s Epic.” The Comics Journal. Retrieved from http://www.tcj.com/the-orphans-epic/
Kriebel, Bob. (2016, June 3). ‘Annie’ cartoonist got his start in Lafayette. Journal & Courier. Retrieved from http://www.jconline.com/story/news/2016/06/03/annie-cartoonist-got-his-start-lafayette/84825770/
Thomis, Wayne. (1968, May 10), “Harold Gray, Orphan Annie’s Creator, Dies in West at 74.” Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1968/05/10/page/3/article/harold-gray-orphan-annies-creator-dies-in-west-at-74