Biography of Fritz Willis
When, in the summer of 1946, Esquire announced an important new feature entitled the Esquire Gallery of Glamour, the magazine selected Fritz Willis to supply the inaugural illustration. It was his first published pin-up, and it launched a spectacular thirty-year career.
A multifaceted talent, Willis once even acted with Katherine Hepburn, in Alice Adams. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he worked for Warner Brothers as a production-design and publicity artist. At the studio, he developed a friendship with Joe De Mers, who joined him in creating pin-ups for the Esquire Gallery.
The year 1950 was a banner one for Willis. Not only did he begin to supply illustrations to the nation's major magazines, he was also inundated with advertising commissions from companies like Max Factor, Sunkist, and Pepsi Cola. Willis painted program covers for the Shipsteads and Johnson ice Follies from 1952 to 1969 and once accepted a commission for a billboard for the Stardust Hotel and Casino Lounge in Las Vegas. He wrote four classic art-instruction books for the Waiter Foster Company which have remained in print for more than forty years.
In 1961, Willis received another important commission: Brown and Bigelow asked him to revamp their best-selling Artist's Sketch Pad calendar. He devised a fresh format and design for the calendar and, in the process, created the last of the great pin-up girls. The Willis Girl, though born in an age of rebellion, had the sophisticated air of the classic pin-up.
Willis' work was usually executed in oils on a canvas placed over illustration board; some of his magazine illustrations and pin-ups of the late 1940s were painted in gouache on board. Most images were about 18 x 24 inches (45.7 x 6 i cm), but the major pieces could be larger.
Upon his retirement, Willis and his wife Pat, who was his model as well as his best friend, moved to San Clemente, California. He later developed Parkinson's Disease and died on January 13, 1979.