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My Pal Brenda

Brenda Starr gave me life. It seems odd to say that a comic strip character inspired my career, but she was my role model growing up. The culture limited women’s choices, in those bad old days. The red-headed “girl reporter” in the funny pages encouraged me to dream. Brenda was gorgeous, sparkle-eyed, adverturous, independent and smart. She wore fabulous clothes, had love affairs and smoked cigars. While Blondie cleaned up after Dagwood and Superman flew to rescue the hapless Lois Lane, Brenda showed young girls a different way of being alive. She fought for better reporting assignments, sassed her bosses and traveled the world. She performed death-defying stunts to bring home the Big Story or to save the life of her intermittent love interest, an eye-patched mystery man named Basil St. John (the “the fly-to-the-rescue” bit in reverse). She also worked harder than anyone else in the newsroom to show her hard-bitten editor that she was as good as the guys who slouched at the other desks. Her world said, “wow.” It was years before I learned that a woman created the strip – a Chicagoan, Dahlia Messick, who changed her name to the androgynous Dale to duck the sexism of the day. Her work was easier to sell if it could appear to have been written and illustrated by a man (male readers loved Brenda, too). Messick retired in 1980, passing the strip to the first of several female illustrators. When she died in 2005, one of my friends wrote me a condolence note. Brenda herself died three weeks ago, on January 2, when the Tribune Media Syndicate stopped distributing the strip. I read its obituaries and flashed back to the girl, sprawled over the comics on the living room rug, always reading Brenda first. I can’t remember when it sprang into my head that I wanted to be a reporter when I grew up, but it had to have happened on a day when Brenda hopped a plane to fly out ordinary life. She will always be Close to My Heart. Emmy-award winner Jane Bryant Quinn is Editorial Director of Main Street Connect, which publishes this site. This story is featured as a part of our Close To My Heart promotion. You can enter your own story here for a chance to win $5,000 for yourself and $5,000 for your favorite local organization.

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