Mark Twain Wasn’t the Only Famous Person from Hannibal, MO, Pt. 2: Lester Gaba and the “Gaba Girls”
As I mentioned in my last blog post, a small local history museum in Hannibal, Missouri, introduced me to Hannibal-born celebrities who weren’t Mark Twain. One I knew. Two were totally new to me.
Next up, Lester Gaba, who parlayed a talent for carving soap into an unlikely career, and stumbled into celebrity in the process.
Lester Gaba was born in Hannibal in 1907. He was an artistic child and when he was ten he entered a soap carving contest sponsored by Proctor & Gamble.* He didn’t win, but he continued to carve soap.
After graduating from art school in Chicago, he went into the advertising business. His soap carvings began to appear on magazine covers and in ads. He wrote books on the subject. Soon he was making a living carving soap.
In 1932, Gaba took soap carving one-step further. He carved a lifelike, full-sized mannequin he named Cynthia for use in a Saks Fifth Avenue window displays. Based on New York socialite Cynthia Wells, she was the first of a series of mannequins known as “Gaba Girls,” each of which was modeled on a real life New York society woman. It was a game-changer for window displays. Mannequins had previous been made of wax—both creepy and prone to melting in the windows in the summer.
Gaba decided to use Cynthia as marketing scheme for the line of mannequins and his own career. He took her as his date to events. Visitors to his apartment would encounter her “hanging out” with a book or a cup of coffee. (Or a cigarette. Cynthia was definitely a smoker.) She began to show up in the society pages.
Cynthia took on a life of her own after Gaba posed with her (it?) in a humorous Life Magazine photo shoot with Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1937. Suddenly she was a celebrity, and just like modern influencers, swag began to roll in Tiffany and Cartier sent her jewelry. Lilly Daché designed hats for her.** Courtiers sent her their latest designs and furriers sent her minks. Cynthia had a credit card from Saks, season tickets to a box seat at the Metropolitan Opera, a newspaper column and a radio show. (I assume Gaba did all the talking, but I don’t really know.) She appeared in a movie with Jack Benny in 1938
The joke ended in 1942, when Gaba was conscripted into the army. He shipped Cynthia home to his mother in Hannibal, with instructions that she continue to be treated like a “real girl”*** One day Cynthia accompanied Mrs. Gaba to the beauty salon, where she fell off a chair and shattered into a million pieces, give or take a thousand. The press reported that Gaba was distraught at her death. Gaba rebuilt her after the war, but the magic was over.
Gaba continued to be force in what the trade called visual merchandising.
*There is a certain brilliance to this as a merchandising campaign: Proctor and Gamble got “feel good” publicity and sold kids lots of soap.
**I must admit I had to look up Lilly Daché. Turns out she was a big deal in the fashion world of the 1930s and 1940s.
***Pinocchio reference, in honor of Ukulele Ike.
It is so nice to read about Lester Gaba from other folks who’ve taken the time to look into him. We live in Hannibal, MO and own a huge collection of Gaba’s original press photos, soap merchandise that he designed, his paintings and many other of his belongings, including a scrapbook that his mother Mamie created (containing clippings and photos of her son Lester). If you are ever in Hannibal, Look us up and we would be happy to show you the collection.
I may take you up on that! I was fascinated by the story.